Books: Penance

31423183Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel
Published April 11, 2017
star-3-half
In a rural Japanese town, five elementary school students play in a nearby park, unaware that only a few hours later one of them will be dead. When a strange man asks for help from one of the girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuko each compete to be the one chosen, but it’s their newer friend Emily who he leads away. A few hours later Emily is found murdered, and none of the girls can remember what the man looked like. Emily’s mother, Asako, curses the surviving girls and makes them promise that they will either find the man responsible or do penance in some other way.

Shortly before the fifteen-year statute of limitations on murder runs out, each of the girls and Emily’s mother reflect on the events of that fateful day, the aftermath of the murder, and its impact on them.

Penance is a quick-paced, engaging read that you’ll undoubtedly finish in a few hours. Each of the five chapters is set more than a decade after the murder takes place and is told from a different character’s point of view as author Kanae Minato slowly reveals how the events of that day have shaped each girl differently based on their personalities and the role they were asked to play (staying with the body, fetching the police, finding a teacher, or informing Emily’s mother). The characters are clearly differentiated from one another and exhibit believable and unique responses to the trauma they have undergone, but the real draw here is the book’s thorough examination of themes of blame, responsibility, and guilt.

Unfortunately, while I found the characters and their voices completely believable, the unrealistic twists and turns took me out of the story and kept me from being wholeheartedly absorbed in Penance. I don’t always mind when coincidence is used with a heavy hand by an author or when the book requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief (as evidenced by the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Little Life are two of my favourite books of all time), but here it struck me as disingenuous for some reason.

Penance was so squarely a three-and-a-half star book for me that I agonized over whether to round up or down on goodreads. Ultimately I rounded up because, despite its faults, Penance is a gripping, well-paced read that never drags. I don’t think it’s a book that will stay with me, but I certainly enjoyed the journey.

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Not Good Enough Tag

I wasn’t officially tagged, but Steph of Lost Purple Quill recently did this tag and where the book blogging squad goes, I follow (also it looked like a lot of fun)!

HOW IT WORKS:

  1. You write down the names of 30 fictional characters on pieces of paper.
  2. You pick two names at a time and answer each of the 15 questions. For each question one of the two characters will be the one you believe fits best and the other is “not good enough”.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MORE SPOT ON YOUR SPELLING BEE TEAM, WHO WOULD YOU PICK TO COMPLETE YOUR TEAM?

Vasya (The Bear & The Nightingale) VS. Gert Yorkes (Runaways)

Gert! Despite being only fifteen(ish?) she’s super bright and bookish, plus Vasya is from medieval Russia so I think a lot of contemporary English words would completely escape her.

BOTH CHARACTERS WANT TO KILL YOU, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU KILL FIRST SO YOU HAVE A BETTER CHANCE OF SURVIVING?

Shara (The Divine Cities) VS. Damen (Captive Prince)

Oh man, I am going down! Damen poses more of a threat in hand-to-hand combat with his skills and size, but I hate the idea of giving Shara, an intelligent spy, more time to plan! I’d try and take out Damen first, but I don’t think I stand a chance here.

YOU’RE ON THE BACHELOR/BACHELORETTE AN YOU’RE DOWN TO THESE TWO CHARACTERS, WHICH ONE ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE YOUR ROSE TOO?

Ingray Aughskold (Provenance) VS. Iyone Safin (The Magpie Ballads)

I feel like Ingray would be the safer choice since she’s a little more transparent, but I have a pretty big girl crush on Iyone. She’s manipulative and ambitious, but so damn intelligent, and I’d like to hang out with her friend group (Savonn and Hiraen) and get into trouble with them, plus canonically she does get wooed by her girlfriend with a rose, SO I’m going with Iyone.

YOU’VE BEEN CHOSEN FOR THE HUNGER GAMES, WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY VOLUNTEER IN YOUR PLACE?

Eliza (Eliza and Her Monsters) VS. Sansa Stark (ASoIaF)

This is so cruel, I just want them both to be happy! Eliza’s anxiety would definitely prevent her from volunteering or standing much of a chance though. I think Sansa would step up, and she’s survived this long in Westeros, I’m pretty sure she stands a shot in The Hunger Games!

YOU’RE STRANDED ON AN ISLAND. WHICH CHARACTER WOULD YOU SACRIFICE TO ENGAGE IN CANNIBALISM?

Savonn Silvertongue (The Magpie Ballads) VS. Laurent (Captive Prince)

Oh My God, they’re so similar though! I feel like I’d probably be the sacrifice since I couldn’t take either one of them (and then they’d probably get together). Savonn is built more in the Lymond mold of self-sacrifice though, so I could see him giving up his life, and Laurent is more likely to find a way off the island.

YOU’RE THE NEXT DC/MARVEL SUPERHERO (WITH YOUR OWN TV SHOW OF COURSE), WHO IS YOUR SIDEKICK?

Lada (And I Darken/Now I Rise) VS. Lila Bard (Shades of Magic)

I’m 100% sure I’m the tag-along sidekick in both scenarios! Neither woman takes instruction well or is likely to play second fiddle to anyone, but they might let me tag along… if I prove to be useful. Lila is slightly less likely to kill me. Slightly. I’d be her sidekick.

YOU’RE A MANAGER OF AN AVOCADO ADMIRING COMPANY, WHO WOULD YOU FIRE FOR LACK OF COMMUNICATION SKILLS?

Philippa Somerville (Lymond Chronicles) VS. Miles Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga)

I feel like Miles would just constantly get himself into trouble. I mean, he’d get himself out of it again too, probably by talking, but Philippa would be a more consistent employee, so I’d fire Miles.

YOU’VE JUST FINISHED A BOOK IN WHICH YOUR FAVOURITE CHARACTER DIES, WHICH CHARACTER IS MOST LIKELY TO COMFORT YOU?

Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows) VS. Eowyn (Lord of the Rings)

WELL, obviously it’s not going to be Kaz, so Eowyn it is!!

UGH, IT’S HIGH SCHOOL. WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE PART OF THE POPULAR CLIQUE?

Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows) VS. Mildmay (Doctrine of Labyrinths)

Neither is really popular kid material, but Mildmay, with his scar, glower, and lack of self-confidence is most likely to be the outsider here. Inej could be a popular kid if she wanted to, maybe if Nina was by her side, but mostly people are probably a little intimidated by her.

THE DAY HAS ARRIVED; YOU’RE FINALLY A YEAR OLDER! WHO WOULD HAVE THE NERVE TO FORGET YOUR BIRTHDAY?

Turyin Mulaghesh (Divine Cities) VS. Breq (Imperial Radch)

Breq has probably remembered but she won’t let on or acknowledge my birthday except in some roundabout way that makes it look like she doesn’t actually care, while secretly being a softie. Turyin forgets and swears a lot about it, but she has a damn good excuse for forgetting.

YOU’VE JUST FOUND AN UPCOMING BOOKTUBE STAR? WHO WOULD MOST LIKELY BE?

Francis Crawford (Lymond Chronicles) VS. Kell (Shades of Magic)

It’s totally Francis. His obscure references and throwaway quotes in other languages mean that you only ever understand a quarter of what he’s saying, but he’s so handsome and charismatic, and what you do understand of his reviews is so engaging that you’re addicted anyway. Kell’s more of an oddity. I think people would watch him more in hopes that he’d perform a magic trick than for his reviews or thoughts on books.

SLEEPOVER TIME! UNFORTUNATELY YOU CAN ONLY INVITE ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?

Alec Campion (Swordspoint) VS. Jonathan Strange (Jonathan Strange & Norrell)

Alec would definitely be more fun, but then again it’s also entirely likely that he starts some kind of a fight and causes mayhem. Strange is far too distracted for a slumber party though. He would spend the entire time somehow engaged in magic and books and not paying any attention at all, so Alec it is! At least Alec’s sharp tongue would amuse.

BAM, YOU’RE PREGNANT. WHO’S THE FATHER/MOTHER?

Ronan Lynch (The Raven Cycle) VS. Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter)

I mean… biologically neither of these scenarios would ever happen. I’d like to co-parent with Luna though. She’d be a little spacey, but kind and creative and I think we’d get on. I’ll leave Ronan to Adam and Opal and his farm.

YOU’VE JUST WRITTEN A SUPER IMPORTANT TEXT. WHO WOULD ‘SEE’ IT, BUT NOT REPLY?

Cyril Avery (The Heart’s Invisible Furies) VS. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)

I feel like running away is kind of Cyril’s M.O., so I could definitely see him doing this. If Valjean doesn’t respond it’s more likely to be because he doesn’t know what to say or he’s unfamiliar with texting.

YOU’VE JUST WOKEN UP AND IT’S TIME FOR BREAKFAST. YOUR MUM’S BEEN REPLACED BY WHO?!

Maia (The Goblin Emperor) VS. Adam Parrish (The Raven Cycle)

Oooh, I think Adam would be a more practical and effective parent but Maia is such a cinnamon roll that he would always have my best intentions at heart. I have to go with Adam though.

This was a tremendously fun tag! I wasn’t tagged by anyone, so I won’t tag anyone in return, but if you feel like doing this, definitely pingback here because I’d love to read your answers!

Books: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone

30339479You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Published January 2, 2018
star-3-half
I was wrong about You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Somewhat. I tried to keep an open mind, but the first fifty pages were distinctly underwhelming. Dual first person POV? Check. Male romantic interests revealed in the first few pages? Check. Tell, don’t show info-dump approach to the characters? Check. I expected to write this off as just another young side of YA, romance-centric novel. Instead I found a darker and more adult story, populated with flawed, realistically teenage characters.

The plot revolves around twins Adina and Tovah Siegel, who have grown apart over the years and have little in common. Viola prodigy Adina longs to pursue music professionally, while studious Tovah is awaiting her acceptance to Johns Hopkins to pursue a career in medicine. One thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, the disease that is slowly destroying their mother. When the test results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, but the other tests positive.

I didn’t always like the twin narrators, but I did find them consistently interesting. It was easier for me, a shy, bookish person, to relate to academically-inclined Tovah, but as someone who majored in the humanities during my undergrad, I found Adina’s jealousy and bitterness over society and family valuing her sister’s STEM aspirations over her gift for music very relatable as well. Both sisters are well-developed characters. Adina is confident in her sexuality, but her whole-hearted devotion to music has left her with few friendships. I found her prickly, and often infuriating, yet I continued to root for her. Tovah’s innocence when it comes to boys is endearing, but she’s insecure, jealous, and throws tantrums when life deviates from her carefully thought out plans.

The focus here is on Huntington’s, an incurable genetic disease that slowly kills the brain’s neurons. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone deals with the disease on two fronts. Ima, Adina and Tovah’s mother, was diagnosed four years earlier and exhibits symptoms including clumsiness, forgetting conversations, and jerky uncontrollable movements. Both teens are still coming to terms with the fact that Huntington’s is fatal and will slowly rob them of the mother they know. For one of the sisters, there is the additional weight of knowing that she will succumb to the same fate one day. The honest and raw exploration of guilt, responsibility, and confronting your own mortality is what makes You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone worth reading.

I also loved the way that the book incorporates religion. The Siegel family at the heart of the book includes practicing Jewish characters, who keep kosher and observe Shabbat. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary novels with practicing Jewish characters, and this representation is important.

The prose isn’t really anything special; It’s clipped, with characters commonly speaking in short, clear sentences. You get the impression that it would be really easy to skim. While I would have preferred a more lyrical approach, Solomon’s writing style is generally fine, if unremarkable. There are some occasional cringe worthy turns of phrase though. Exhibit A:

“I force a smile, turning my lips into a sideways bass clef.” (pg. 106)

I found it difficult to believe that even someone whose whole life is music would think like this. A sideways bass clef, really?!

Additionally, be warned that although the novel is not erotica, it is more graphically sexual than I expected from a YA book, and the novel involves instances of cutting and suicidal thoughts.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is an honest and, at times, dark account of genetic illness and how it shapes a family. It’s not perfect; The prose is clipped and occasionally tries too hard. However, the way the characters wrestle with relationships (platonic, familial, and romantic) is engaging, and the novel is ultimately a bittersweet, yet hopeful story about flawed, interesting characters.

First Impresions

As you’ve probably noticed from the lack of reviews or other posts recently, January is a rough month for me. You see, Daylight saving time ushers in the long, dark winter days that kick start my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I can usually make it through December out of sheer love for the fairy-light filled Christmas season, but after the ball has dropped and we’ve ushered in a new year, my spirits drop. Every year I struggle with January (and to a slightly lesser degree, February and March). The work day seems to zap me of whatever limited energy reserves I have and I wind up eating instant meals and feeling guilty about the housework I’m not doing and the reviews I’m not writing.

My reading (largely done on my commute to work) continues, but some of my bookish habits have altered. I’m a heavy library user who usually carefully manages her 40+ holds to ensure that I never have more checked out at one time than I can read. This month I got careless. I wound up with five books checked out and only a limited desire to read any of them, so I wondered, what if I read the first 50-ish pages of each book to see what grabbed me and then blogged about my first thoughts?

All of these book selections are by authors I’ve never read before, and were chosen at a whim, without reading a formal review or a friend recommendation.

 

THE BOOKS 

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
378 pgs. YA Contemporary

30339479Summary: Twins Adina and Tovah have grown apart over the years and have little in common. Viola prodigy Adina longs to pursue music professionally, while studious Tovah is awaiting her acceptance to Johns Hopkins to pursue a career in medicine. One thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, the disease that is slowly destroying their mother. When the test results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, but the other tests positive.

Thoughts: It takes an exceptional YA Contemporary read to really grab me, and I suspect that’s not You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things here. As someone who majored in the humanities during my undergrad, I found Adina’s jealousy and bitterness over society and family valuing her sister’s STEM aspirations over her gift for music very relatable. Genetic disease is a topic I haven’t seen explored before in YA and I think it’s done here, at least in the brief section I read, with sensitivity and honesty. I’m also intrigued by the debt that’s subtly alluded to in the story; Why does Adina owe Tovah? However, the writing style reads on the young side of YA, a personal pet peeve of mine, and the prose is not particularly well-written, employing a tell don’t show method that grates. I’m also a little put off by the fact that it’s already so crush/romance-centric.

Verdict: Ultimately it’s a quick enough read that I plan to continue, but I’ll be surprised if this is above a 3.5 star book for me.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
419 pgs. YA Historical

33876596Summary: Through rallies and marches, in polite drawing rooms and freezing prison cells and the poverty-stricken slums of the East End, three courageous young women join the fight for the vote. Lesbian suffragettes in 1914! Do I really need to say more?

Thoughts: Full disclosure, by the time this posts I will have finished this book, which gives you a pretty good idea of how much I enjoyed the first fifty pages! Things a Bright Girl Can Do is engaging from the first chapter, where it depicts a pivotal moment in the life of one of its heroines, Evelyn. I loved that all three protagonists, Evelyn, May, and Nell, are from different backgrounds and social upbringings. Nell is a poor East End factory worker who wants equal wages for women, May comes from a Quaker family and is a pacifist seeking a peaceful way forward, while Evelyn is an upper-class girl who wants to attend university like her brother and beau – yet they all share a common goal of equality. It’s a theme that resonates in this day and age when feminism continues to strive for equality. It’s also notable in that the book is YA historical fiction with LGBT rep, in Nell and May.

Verdict: Charming, yet unafraid of depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, Things a Bright Girl Can Do is definitely worth reading.

The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo
222 pgs. YA Historical Fantasy

33099589Summary: The Five Daughters of the Moon is the first part of a fantasy duology inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the last months of the Romanov family. As the Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, sisters Alina, Merile, Sibilia, Elise, and Celestia, are the ones who will determine its future.

Thoughts: I have the vague feeling that this will be one of those books where the concept is better than the execution. At just 222 pages, it’s an incredibly short read – I’m already almost a quarter of the way through! – so I feel like I have a pretty fair impression of the book. The Five Daughters of the Moon is certainly original, combining elements of technology with magic through the fictional counterpart of Rasputin. There are also some inventive  ideas here, including the fact that the titular five daughters each have a different biological father (“seed”) sometimes chosen for political reasons, and the idea that naming something  or someone can anchor the soul to its body. I was less impressed by the writing. The first narrative voice is supposed to be that of a six-year-old child, but it doesn’t feel authentic. The language is too mature and the child seems to understand everything that an adult would.

Verdict: It’s so short that I may end up finishing it anyway, but I suspect I’ll be more in awe of the gorgeous cover and the intriguing concept than the book itself.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
323 pgs. Dystopia

31451186Summary: Rachel is a scavenger in a near-future ruined city that is littered with discarded experiments from The Company, a former biotech firm, and hosts a dangerous and unpredictable massive bear. On one of her missions, Rachel brings home something unusual, which she names Borne. Initially resembling a sea anemone, she comes to realize that Borne is not a plant, or even an animal, but an intelligent, and ever-changing life-form.

Thoughts: Borne is one of the most unique novels I’ve encountered, demonstrating that new and interesting things are in fact still possible within the well-worn dystopia genre. The world building is thorough, and yet seamless, so it never feels like an info dump. The writing style and plot are engaging and invite curiosity about will happen next and how the creature named Borne will change. My one caveat is that already the main female character has been brutally beaten (though fortunately not raped). I hope that this is either an isolated incident of violence, or that the violence will be more evenly distributed throughout the rest of the book.

Verdict: Borne is the most promising of the five books on this list and one that I look forward to continuing.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
415 pgs. YA Historical Fantasy

34213608Summary: Makepeace is an illegitimate daughter of the aristocratic Fellmotte family and shares their supernatural hereditary gift: the capacity to be possessed by ghosts. Unbeknown to them, the wild, brutish spirit of a bear already resides in Makepeace, and may be her only defence against the Fellmottes’ terrible plans for her.

Thoughts: 50 pages in and I still can’t decide how I feel about this book! I love the idea of the English Civil War setting, a period not often used in fiction, although the first fifty pages don’t feature a lot of world building. I’m also intrigued by the introduction, in the last chapter I read, of Makepeace’s ominous grandfather, Obadiah Fellmotte. Unfortunately I still don’t feel connected to any of the characters. I’m starting to come around to Makepeace (mostly because she defended a mistreated dancing bear and attacked the men who were responsible), but at fifty pages I should care about what happens to an orphaned teenage girl more than I do. I suspect that this may just be a book that is not for me. The writing is certainly atmospheric, giving off a dark horror vibe in the descriptions of spirits that I think other readers will really enjoy. As someone who won’t touch the horror genre with a ten foot pole though, I’m probably not the intended audience.

Verdict: If I didn’t have so many other books out from the library now I’d probably give it a try, but at the moment A Skinful of Shadows is near the bottom of my pile.


Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you thought of them! How do you choose which books to commit to? Do you ever give them a fifty page test drive? Let me know in the comments.

Books: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

33958230Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Published October 10, 2017
star-3-half
I’m in the minority here but I’ve never been a big fan of fairy stories, so retellings aren’t usually a genre that interests me. Mythology and general trope twisting yes, fairy tales not so much. Perhaps this explains why Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which charmed so many other readers, left me cold. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East-Asian inspired fantasy retelling of The Evil Queen, may not have swept me off my feet, but it’s a very solid debut from author Julie C. Dao. Featuring an unabashedly ruthless anti-heroine, and a richly imagined world that draws inspiration from Chinese mythology, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns subtly sets in place all the building blocks of the Snow White mythos, ensuring readers will eagerly await the second book in this planned trilogy.

Raised in a poor rural village by her abusive Aunt, the witch Guma, eighteen-year-old Xifeng has always known that she was destined for greater things. Xifeng applies herself to studying art, music, and poetry, so that she has the markings of a well-born lady, and dreams of the day when she will be Empress of Feng Lu, as Guma’s cards have foretold. When an opportunity presents itself, she flees Guma’s cruel home with her childhood lover Wei, taking the first steps towards her destiny. But the palace is full of antagonistic eunuchs and conniving concubines and Xifeng will need all her beauty and wits to claw her way to the top.

Xifeng is an intriguing protagonist. Unabashedly ruthless, she’s not a likable character as she plots her way into the palace, reigning Empress Lihua’s good graces, and even into the orbit of the Emperor. Yet she’s striking. Few YA protagonists are anti-heroes in the way that Xifeng is allowed to be here, and even fewer young women. Xifeng’s background of poverty and abuse, and the fact that she has been brought up since birth to believe that she is destined to become Empress of Feng Lu make her climb to power understandable. Even though I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I couldn’t help but admire Xifeng’s determination, her ruthlessness, and her ability.

In fact, I enjoyed most of the characters. Traveling companion Shiro, a dwarf ambassador of Kamatsu, is kind and capable, Empress Lihua is rendered with grace and sympathy, and the Emperor has an intelligent, yet intimidating, presence. I wish that some of the more villainous characters (besides Guma, the parasitic unhealthy relationship between her and Xifeng is a strength of the novel) has been depicted with more depth though, for the eunuchs only ever seem surface deep, and I had the same issue with the cold and vain principal concubine, Lady Sun.

I loved the refreshingly diverse East Asia-inspired setting of the five kingdoms of Feng Lu though. Drawing on Chinese and Japanese influences, the world feels unique, albeit a little claustrophobic (as much of the narrative takes place in just two locations – Xifeng’s peasant village and the palace). Instead of European folklore and gods, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns introduces us to a serpent god, and to the tengaru, demon guardians of the forest.

With a tale as well-known (and Disney-fied) as “Snow White”, I feared that the author would fall into the trap of heavy-handed references, but Dao has an admirably subtle hand. Although she sets in place all the pieces for the sequel, including a kind dwarf character, an exiled princess, and Xifeng’s vanity about her appearance, these references to “Snow White” never impede the book. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns also owes a great deal to the original Brothers Grimm story, as its a deliberately darker, bloodier, and even gory retelling.

For all that I loved about this novel, I did have some issues with it, which account for my 3.5 star rating. First of all, the pacing is off. I suspect the book is such a slow starter because Dao felt she must spend time depicting Xifeng’s background and her awful home life in order to have the reader sympathize with and understand her motivations. It’s an understandable choice, but the result is a novel that drags in the beginning and feels long, despite it’s reasonable under 400 page count.

What really fell flat though was the supposed romance. The relationship between Xifeng and Wei is meant to be unbalanced, but I found it completely one-sided and had trouble believing that Xifeng cared about Wei at all beyond seeing him as a means to an end, a placeholder until greater things came along. It’s an interesting way of depicting a romantic pairing, to have a male character who is more invested in a relationship than the heroine, especially in YA – traditionally a very romance-centric genre of fiction, but the narrative doesn’t fully commit to this point of view. Instead the book appears to emphasize Xifeng sacrificing Wei for power and position, when she never actually seems very conflicted about her decision.

Those who enjoy complicated female characters, unique retellings, and diverse worlds with a dose of darkness will love Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and even those, like me, who aren’t big fans of the Snow White-Evil Queen fairy tale will find this debut compelling. It’s a solid effort and I look forward to seeing where Xifeng’s story goes next.

 

Monthly Wrap-Up: November

I’ve been a negligent blogger this month, so my very late wrap-up of November reads and shows is coming a whole third of the way into December. Oops.

My free time for blogging suffered as I first attended 7 performances of the National Ballet of Canada in November, wrote a combined 3,000+ words on my two favourite ballets (Nijinsky and The Winter’s Tale) for My Entertainment World, battled a touch of sickness that left me drained, and then launched right into preparing for Christmas. About the only thing that didn’t suffer was my reading. That forty minute commute to work by train does wonders for my page count!

In November I FINALLY finished the dreaded War & Peace, and it was like pulling teeth to get to the end, which reads more like the conclusion to a dissertation than any ending to a fictional story. Fortunately, my other reads were much more enjoyable. 4 of the 6 books I read this month received a rating of 4 stars or above from me as I sought to reward myself for finishing War & Peace with some newer releases that had been on my TBR for awhile.


Elegy
(re-read) by Vale Aida  small 4 half stars  +Review
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy  small-2-stars  + Review
That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston  small 3 half stars  + Review
Provenance by Ann Leckie  small 4 half stars  + Review
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng  small 4 stars  + Review
Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo  small 4 stars  + Review

Book of the Month: A tie between Vale Aida’s Elegy and Ann Leckie’s Provenance. Elegy was a re-read for me, which I usually don’t count in my rankings for what I loved each month (or in my best of year-end lists) but since it’s a lesser known title, I’m including it here. I loved the obviously Dunnett-inspired political machinations, prose, and complicated enigmatic protagonist, Savonn Silvertongue. Leckie’s standalone novel Provanance was an absolute delight. I loved the characters, especially resourceful but naive Ingray, the world-building, and the genre-defying plot.

Least Favourite: I am so relieved that I FINALLY finished War & Peace because it was a slog. I spent the last several hundred pages just wanting it to be over. Never have I been more relieved to finish a book!

***

Seen on Stage: In case you’re wondering why I’ve been so scarce on here, the answer is because I’ve been at the ballet!

When the National Ballet of Canada made its season announcement back in February, I very nearly screamed at my computer. I did double-check it multiple times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then walked around all day with a dopey grin on my face because my favourite ballet of all time, Nijinsky, was returning and in the same month as my second favourite ballet, The Winter’s Tale. Nijinsky has an especially personal connection to me, which I may write about later in a companion piece, but suffice it to say that I hadn’t in a million years thought that I would see it again so soon. Naturally, I bought multiple sets of tickets and yes, it’s return was everything I hoped it would be.

I’ve written two (very detailed) multi-cast reviews for My Entertainment World, which I’ve linked to below. Editor, Kelly Bedard, is the only person I’ve met who has the same passion for the National Ballet of Canada and strongly held opinions about the company, so it’s been a great joy to discuss my thoughts with her and have pieces published on her site. I’ve also been extremely flattered to receive some attention for my reviews! A principal dancer with the company, Jurgita Dronina, re-tweeted my review of The Winter’s Tale, calling it truly detailed and tagging the show’s choreographer! My review of Nijinsky was re-tweeted by principal dancer Guillaume Cote, and Skylar Campbell, a favourite of mine in the company and to dance the role, replied to my review, saying it was “thoughtfully written and very in depth!” Needless to say, I am still a little overwhelmed and incredibly flattered by the response!

I also hit a few theatre shows. A smaller independent Irish play, Dublin Carol, I also reviewed for My Entertainment World, and I plan on writing reviews for Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered Concert, and Bat Out of Hell (the Meatloaf musical) later this month, so stay tuned for those.

Bat Out of Hell (musical) Mirvish + RTC
Uncovered: Bob Dylan and Springsteen concert + RTC
The Winter’s Tale (ballet) by The National Ballet of Canada (x3) – Reviewed for My Entertainment World
Dublin Carol (play) by Fly on the Wall – Reviewed for My Entertainment World
Nijinsky (ballet) by The National Ballet of Canada (x4) – Reviewed for My Entertainment World

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Coming up in December: I actually have December pretty mapped out! I’ve finished Anita Amirrezvani’s historical fiction novel The Blood of Flowers, and am currently reading Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. On my list for this month is John Boyne’s The Absolutist since Rachel and Steph have both RAVED about it, and Boyne’s newest novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of the best books I’ve read this year. After two months and multiple customer service emails, the copy of Swansong, the second part in Vale Aida’s Magpie Ballads Duology finally showed up, so I’m really looking forward to finishing that series! Before I lead a buddy read of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, beginning in January with Rachel, Steph, and Hadeer, I’m hoping to get to Dunnett’s standalone King Hereafter, about the historical Macbeth, as well.

Happy holiday season reading everyone!

Books: Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Published September 12, 2017
star-4
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere provides an intimate look at class, motherhood, and family in an elegantly written and well-crafted package. As in her breathtaking debut, Everything I Never Told You, a vague mystery is introduced in the opening pages, but this time around the question is less about whodunnit and more concerned with the motivation behind the crime.

Celeste Ng takes the old adage about writing what you know to heart, setting Little Fires Everywhere in 1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, the neat suburban neighbourhood where she grew up. In some ways Shaker Heights is a progressive town, but over the course of the novel it becomes clear that it is not, in fact, a place where no one sees race, as Lexie Richardson naively professes based on her experience dating a black man. Shaker Heights is rendered with care by Ng as the picture of suburban perfection. Maintained with care so that it will remain a utopia, residents of Shaker Heights are fined if their lawns become unkempt, while garbage disposal is at the back of each house so as not to impact curb appeal.

Into this idyllic bubble come Mia Warren, a free-spirited nomad who goes wherever inspiration for her art strikes her, and her shy, but brilliant, fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl’s existence is unsettled but happy; They have little in the way of material possessions, but are resourceful , able to repurpose thrift store and curbside finds. The Warrens rent a house in Shaker Heights from the wealthy Richardson family, who view renting their property to good people they can do a good turn for as a form of community service.

Pearl is quickly captivated by the easy confidence of the Richardson children, developing a crush on eldest son Trip, and friendships with the middle children, Lexie and Moody. In turn, the Richardson’s rebellious younger daughter Izzie is drawn to Mia and the freedom that she represents. But when Mrs. Richardson and Mia take opposing sides in a custody battle between the impoverished Chinese immigrant biological mother of a one-year-old daughter, and a naïve but well-intentioned white couple looking to adopt the child, it sets them on a collision course.

One signature of a Celeste Ng book is the effortless, flowing prose. Ng always seems to have chosen the best possible word for the idea or mood she’s trying to convey. The teenage characters sound age-appropriate, the prose conveys the 1990s suburban setting, and the omniscient third person point of view allows the authors to dip in and out of the minds of both major and minor characters as required, creating a subtle intimacy. Ng also has a gift for writing characters who are flawed, yet deeply sympathetic. I enjoyed reading about Mia, whose individuality, resourcefulness and artistry, I admired, even while I didn’t always agree with her choices, but I was also interested in Elena Richardson’s life of order and structure that Mia deliberately eschews.

At its heart, Little Fires Everywhere is a novel about motherhood and family, that touches on biology, race, and class. Ng guides us to see both sides of a custody case. Does the poor immigrant who gave her child up in a moment of desperation when she was destitute waive any claim to her child? Should custody be granted to a couple who obviously have the means and love to provide a stable home, but who can never truly comprehend and properly introduce the child to her Chinese heritage? At times the emphasis on biology feels a little heavy-handed, but the complicated dynamics of the custody battle are handled with tact and empathy.

As much as I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, and would recommend it to others, I have to admit that it didn’t leave a strong impression on me the way that the author’s debut did. Weeks after reading Everything I Never Told You I found myself still thinking about it. I remembered the pressures that led to Lydia’s death and how deftly Celeste Ng depicted each family member’s grief. Little Fires Everywhere provoked a more immediate reaction in me. I loved it, I found the ending satisfying and beautiful, but even a week later I had trouble remembering each character’s name. None of the Warrens or Richardsons had the impact on me that Lydia, Nath, Hannah, Marilyn, or James did. I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read Little Fires Everywhere, but that doesn’t make the first read any less enjoyable.

Where do my books come from?

AKA. A Love Letter to My Public Library. I came across this post by way of Rachel @ pace, amore, libri and thought that it was a really interesting way to look at my reads so far. The idea is to go through everything you’ve read this year and make a note about where you got them. Here are my 2017 reads to date from most recent to oldest:

  1. That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston: Library
  2. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Library
  3. Elegy by Vale Aida: Purchased from Book Depository
  4. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo: Library
  5. One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake: Library
  6. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: Library
  7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: Library
  8. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin: Library
  9. Our Dark Duet by V.E. Schwab: Library
  10. American War by Omar El Akkad: Library
  11. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Purchased from BMV (used bookstore)
  12. Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: Borrowed from my mom
  13. Now I Rise by Kiersten White: Library
  14. All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: Library
  15. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee: Library
  16. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: Library
  17. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente: Library
  18. Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee: Library
  19. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: Borrowed from another library
  20. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rios: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  21. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu: Library
  22. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich: Library
  23. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See: Library
  24. Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Library
  25. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli: Library
  26. Giant Days Vol.1 by John Allison: Library
  27. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: Library
  28. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Library
  29. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston: Library
  30. Saga Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  31. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde: Library
  32. City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  33. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Library
  34. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose: Library
  35. Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi: Library
  36. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Library
  37. Villains by V.E Schwab: Library
  38. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Library
  39. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: Library
  40. When The Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen: Library
  41. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: Library
  42. The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak: Library
  43. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera: Library
  44. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  45. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: Library
  46. Everfair by Nisi Shawl: Library
  47. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: Library
  48. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote: Library
  49. The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon: Library
  50. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: Library
  51. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: Library
  52. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera: Library
  53. Fear the Drowning Deep by Sarah Glenn Marsh: Library
  54. Saga Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  55. An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay: Library
  56. Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen: Library
  57. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst: Library
  58. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Library

Of the 58 books I’ve read to date in 2017:

50 – Borrowed from the Toronto Public Library
3 – Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
2 – Borrowed from a co-worker
1 – Borrowed from a neighbouring Public Library System
1 – Purchased from Book Depository
1 – Bought from a used bookstore (BMV)

As expected, I am a heavy library user. A whooping 86% of books I read this year were borrowed from the local library system! There are a few reasons for this:

1. As a Librarian (I work in a corporate library and my job is primarily research-based), I strongly believe in supporting libraries whenever you can. Stats MATTER. Public libraries constantly have to justify their existence, and circulation stats, visits, etc. are all important and concrete ways in which they can demonstrate to politicians, etc. that libraries are useful.

2. I’m fortunate enough to live in the City of Toronto, which has a huge and well-used library system. The City has 102 (I think?) library branches and Toronto Public Library (TPL) ranked first in North America in circulation, visits, and electronic visits per capita among libraries serving populations of two million or more in 2015! I also live within a five minute walk of a library branch, it’s quite literally on my way to and from work, which makes it easy to borrow and return items. I am so privileged to have this fabulous library at my fingertips, and its size means that the library gets almost everything I want to read. The few times that they don’t have something, or its not available in print, it’s frustrating because I’ve become so accustomed to being able to borrow anything I want!

3. I don’t have an e-reader or tablet. Not having an eReader definitely holds me back from being able to receive ARCs from NetGalley and from taking advantage of sales on eBooks. I’d like to take the plunge, but the eBooks provider used by Canadian library systems, OverDrive, isn’t compatible with Kindles in this country, and I’d like the option of borrowing eBooks from the library as well as borrowing/receiving from NetGalley. If anyone has any insight on dedicated eReaders or on tablets, especially Canadians who use their library to borrow, please comment and let me know what you think!

4. Cost/Space. For a Toronto-apartment I have a lot of space. It’s still a city apartment though, so I try to be very careful about what I buy. Generally I buy the latest in a series that I can’t wait to own, or keeper copies of books I’ve read and loved that I know I will want to re-read. Definitely cost is also a factor, especially when it comes to hardcovers, so I tend to borrow from the library and decide whether to buy later.

I’ve also been really bad about buying items and not reading them this year, so I think I’m going to do a few months of reading only what’s on my shelves already at some point in 2018.

If you want to do a post like this, pingback to me here so I can check it out, I’d love to know, where do your books come from?