A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education
Lesson One of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
2020

Naomi Novik is awesome so I always perk up when I hear a new book being promoted and this one is a delight. Although also clearly a two parter and the next part isn’t due out until late June. Hmph!

The Scholomance is a magic school that’s more along the lines of The Magicians than of Harry Potter, but also with a strong influence of Battle Royale/Hunger Games although the students are not pitted against each other exactly. The school itself is deadly and dangerous and the students struggle to maintain alliances that might help them survive both the daily (and nightly) dangers, but also prepare for the horrific battle of graduation. This is not a situation of a malicious authoritarian government, which would be bad enough, but the best answer developed so far to get magically inclined kids to survive the hideously dangerous adolescent years where they are most tasty to the monsters that want to eat them. The school is essentially under siege and subject to constant invasions but at least the students aren’t easy pickings like they would be outside of it. The world-building is amazing and complex with fascinating implications.

The main character, Galadriel, known as El, has the additional problem of having an affinity for devastating magic of mass destruction. Friends aren’t really an option when people assume you’re a serial killer just biding time till you can become a mass murder and harder still to learn practical life skills when the school syllabus assumes you’re more interested in slave armies and supervolcanoes.

It’s like Novik asked: how could an already fraught middle-school/high-school of cliques and miserable adolescence be made even worse and then went with it. And it makes the wins all the more triumphant and the friendships all the more satisfying.

This book was the second half of Junior year and it was amazing. Next up: senior year! (aka, The Last Graduate, Lesson Two of The Scholomance, to be published June 29, 2021, in theory book 2 of 2, but this world is so fascinating that I’m already hoping for a book 3 as well.)

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow
by Natasha Pulley
2020

According to Amazon, this is the second book in the series, but I would have put it as the third book, even if it does continue on directly from the events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street with the same characters. But the author wrote The Bedlam Stacks in between and set it in the same world with references back and forth.

The whole series is really good and this book might even be my favorite but now I need to go back and re-read all of them just to see. One of the things that I really enjoyed even as it ratcheted up the tension so much, was the exploration of the edges of power: how individuals can have immense power, but it is never infinite and there are always going to be points where it ends. In some ways, it also seemed very thematic with the last book I reviewed, Return of the Thief, as there is one protagonist who is doing their best to manipulate events, and you want them to succeed but not only is that not guaranteed, but sometimes you can’t even tell if it’s working or not because some of the long term successes depend on failures. But Pulley make’s this all the more fraught because our primary point of view character, Thaniel, isn’t even sure what Mori’s goal is. I also just love reading the love and devotion that has Thaniel follow along, trying to be supportive even as he’s also struggling to figure out what being supportive would even be. It just gives me so many feels.

Like all the books in the series, there’s a theme of clockwork: of seeing gears interact with on another and only slowly tracing those interactions and putting together all the pieces to figure out what the complete work is intended for. It comes to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion even as the process is fraught and made me realize how much I trusted Pulley as an author to have an excellent plot and how little I trusted her to keep her characters alive and well.

I very much recommend this book, but I’m kind of curious to know if it can be read as a stand-alone. So much of the book is already wading through uncertainty that I’m not sure if not having read the previous two would make it any worse. But in general, I definitely recommend it as a full series.

A Break from Books

I know I am not the only person currently struggling to rip myself away from Twitter and Tiktok, right? I mean, I take a short nap and so many insane things have happened that I can hardly keep up! I have been reading to distract myself from the excessive amount of current events and I have enjoyed a couple of newly released books–Hidden Valley Road is not happy but it is as good as everyone says, and Mexican Gothic was a fun distraction. But I’ve actually been finding a little bit of peace in two other forms of content–a podcast and a video game.

Sentimental Garbage is still reading adjacent, since it’s a podcast about books–specifically about chick lit books. The host Caroline O’Donoghue is a young Irish author with a couple of smart books out already. I really enjoyed her novel Promising Young Women (even if it made me very glad to no longer be in my 20s) and her latest, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, is on my to-read pile, saved for a day when I need cheering up. In the intro to her podcast she says that when her first book came out people asked how she felt about it being considered “chick lit,” and her response was: why would she care! The best people love chick lit! So each episode of the podcast is Caroline and another writer or co-host discussing a book they have loved. I was hooked the minute I realized that the first episode was about The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets–I book I absolutely adore (and even wrote about back in 2011) but that no one ever seems to talk about. The book selection can vary and include slightly more “serious” things (one episode deals with Less, another with Americanah) but they’ve discussed some of my absolute favorite “women’s” books, including Unsticky, more than one Marian Keyes books, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc. I love how their discussions swing back and forth between squeeing at good love stories and analyzing how an author has ended up classified as “chick lit” and how that affects how we read the book. I’ve been listening to these on some long drives I’ve had to do lately, and it’s very cheering to feel like I’ve got friends riding along with me, laughing about books we all love.

The second thing that ha been bringing me a great deal of joy lately is a little video game called Florence. It’s been out a for couple of years, but it’s not a surprise that I hadn’t encountered it until lately because I am extremely not a game person. I play Candy Crush and a Doctor Who version of 2048 and that is basically the only “gaming” you could say that I’ve done in decades. I so wish I could remember where I heard about Florence and what exactly it was that made me spend $3.99 on an app–I’m assuming it was on Twitter, but it is now lost in the vast scroll. Whatever convinced me, I am happy it did. Florence is just a short game, maybe an hour, and there isn’t really any skill involved–what you do as a player doesn’t affect the path of the story. So maybe it’s better described as an online graphic novel? At any rate, Florence is a story about a young girl meeting someone and falling in love for the first time, and it has just the most charming graphics and gorgeous music. There are little activities you complete as the game goes along–you get to paint some little pictures, put puzzle pieces together that represent conversations, move belongings around a charming little apartment, and things like that. It’s very calming and meditative, and I’ve been using it almost as a worry stone on my phone. I am generally so dismissive of video games because they are so Not My Thing, but I am open to any suggestions of more sweet little stories like this!

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Return of the Theif
by Megan Whalen Turner
2020

This is a tricky book to review but first, it is FABULOUS and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!

Second, however, you need to read the entire series first and I don’t want to tell you anything about any of them because the twists and revelations are just that good. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you all of the twists and turns that happen over the course of this series, because nothing is going to spoil these books, and I can and do reread them with pleasure, however it seems criminally negligent to deprive anyone of their first experience with it.

So I’m going to say, go read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and enjoy a wonderful light adventure story in a fantasy version of the ancient Mediterranean peninsula, and then read the sequel where consequences start to get real and then every other book after that. And don’t even read the back blurbs of each book until you’ve read the previous books.

One thing I will say about this particular book is that it is the sixth book in the series and a grand finale. I am incredibly impressed with Turner’s ability to stick the landing, because not many authors of series can do that. There are a number of different threads going through the whole series that she not only kept track of but ensured the reader could keep track of too. And in addition to the main conflict, there was a whole secondary thematic build-up that I never even noticed happening until it came to a head in this book. I enjoyed it in the previous books and had sort of noticed it becoming more intense in each book but hadn’t given it much thought until this one and just, ooooh!

This book is also possibly the twistiest of all the books as new revels keep on happening and every character has their own complexities, and themes from previous books have reprisals, and just, my god, this book was amazing and this series was amazing and this is an amazingly worthy climax. 

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare
by Beth O'Leary
2019

This is sweet and adorable romcom that had me giggling to myself in the living room and then managed to ambush me with some actual serious issues of trauma recovery without ever losing the quirky fun set-up.

The story is about Tiffy, who needs to get a new place to live on very short notice and on a very tight budget, and Leon, who needs to get some extra income and has a one-bedroom flat but works nights at a hospice. The deal is that they will time-share the flat so that Leon sleeps there during the day while Tiffy works, and Tiffy sleeps there during the night while Leon works. Leon has a girlfriend who is more than happy to take up any of his available free time so that Leon and Tiffy never have to meet… That’s the premise.

It reminds me of Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and is very cute and all the characters are quirky and there’s a close friend group on Tiffy’s side and a close family group on Leon’s side, so they each have their own support structures but are also dealing with their own issues outside of their growing relationship with each other. 

It switches perspective between Tiffy and Leon, and then is also divided into month segments from February to October. My one real warning for this book is to make sure you have enough time to read October all in one go. I attempted to put the book down and get a night’s sleep in the middle of October and it was an anxiety-ridden night’s sleep. 

As Anna pointed out when I was telling her about it, this book is the opposite of a tragedy. The best tragedies all have a moment where everything seems to be working out, where everything could go well, and it gets your hopes up, and then it all comes crashing down and the fall is all the worse for the hope. Well, this is the reverse of that: there is a horrifying terrible moment where everything has the chance to fall apart and go horribly wrong. And it doesn’t. It all works out, but that one moment is just terrifying and the release of tension makes the end so much sweeter. 

Saint Young Men

By Hikaru Nakamura

With the premise of Jesus and Buddha taking a “gap year” from their divine existence to share an apartment in modern day Tokyo, I knew I had to check it out!  I was able to get a collected volume of the first 15 chapters at my local library, which has now opened for curbside pickup. According to the forward written by the Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, it has been very popular in Japan for years, but has only been published in English last year. The British Museum was actually instrumental in the translation, and the forward describes the challenge of trying to accurately capture the puns and word plays.

The English edition is bristling with inline notes translating t-shirt slogans and other Japanese text within the illustrations, and post-chapter endnotes giving more extensive context for scenes, often explaining key elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and modern Japanese culture. In the end, it was these ‘translation notes’ that I found the most interesting.

At first description, I had imagined Saint Young Men as a comic book, with a single earthly adventure each issue, but it is more like a collection of comic strips with setups and punch lines every page or two. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the forward was right, that it makes it a lot harder to translate. In addition to the language itself, there are such strong cultural elements to humor that I have to admit that I was often more confused than amused. So, it wasn’t so much the funny pages for me, but really interesting to read a light-hearted take on two religions, one of which I’m a lot more familiar with than the other.

The notes on Christianity tended to be fairly basic elements, almost all of which I already knew (think allusions to ‘loaves and fishes’ and the like), and I have to assume the Buddhist ones are similarly basic, but they were almost entirely new to me (his hair is tightly curled due to his divinity – though some quick research said that at least on some statues, those curls might be snails). About halfway through the book, I wondered if I should be a bit offended that Jesus is a hyperactive, low-attention-span man-child while Buddha is more sober and reflective, but Rebecca proposed that “odd couple” setup might be a manga trope that I’m also just not that familiar with.

All in all, I don’t know that I really ‘got’ the comic the way it is intended, but I did find it a fascinating read, so it is worth it for that, if you are interested in the niche cross-section of religions and manga. When looking for a cover image, I ran across some subtitled animated scenes from the book, which give a pretty good preview of the culture-clash-based humor.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery

By Ovidia Yu

Frangipani_TreeThis was both a charming and disconcerting read after my previous book. It is the first in a series of what the author describes as “a feel good history mystery without blood, sex and gore (enough of that in real life),” but which is also set in Singapore in 1936. The protagonist is a spirited and ambitious Chinese teenager attending the British-run mission school, who wants to get a job outside of her grandmother’s protective house. When the Irish nanny working for the ruling English governor dies in a mysterious fall, Su Lin cheerfully accepts the post and quickly befriends the English Chief Inspector investigating the case.

The governor’s family is precisely as racist as I would imagine a colonialist English family of the time, but Su Lin regards them with curiosity and pity, and with most of her mind focused on her charge, with whom she shares shares mutual affection, and her amateur investigations. The much older Inspector (no romance there, thank god) is clearly more aware of the impending global crises with some passing comments, but they have very little presence in this first book, where Singapore seems more of a hodgepodge of different cultures rubbing along together.

I have every intention of continuing with this series, and the fourth book has just come out, starting what the author is considering a sub-trilogy set during Japanese Occupation. I image that Yu will focus on the decency of her protagonist, her friends and family, and the richness of the Singapore culture in order to maintain a lighter tone during a time of human atrocities. (I hope very much that we see more of her grandmother who apparently runs an only semi-underground empire of illegal commerce.)

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

When_We_Were_OrphansThis was a random pickup for me, and I’m not quite sure what called out to me about it. I’ve never read any other novels by Ishiguro, but I enjoyed (in a sort of depressed way) the movie “Remains of the Day” based on his award-winning novel.

The thing is, I had got the impression that When We Were Orphans was a psychological thriller, based on the unraveling of an unreliable narrator, and it is very much not that. I intended to warn here about the misrepresentation of the publisher’s description, but then I went back and reread it:

In 1930s Shanghai, detective Christopher Banks seeks to solve his parents’ long-ago disappearance — and finds himself trapped in his own past.

While clearly not comprehensive, that is not inaccurate, and it seems I just interpreted it entirely wrong, which is actually embarrassingly on-the-nose for what the book is about. Protagonist Christopher Banks is no more unreliable a narrator than any of us are; instead of a study of one man’s fallibility, it is much more a look at how all of us see our lives through very filtered lenses, and when you have to rely on memories for any sort of objective truth, you are on very shaky ground.

The setting of the international settlement in Shanghai perfectly mirrors the theme of subjective observation as well. I went into this book remarkably blind: about halfway through, I turned to Rebecca and said, “it seems weird that the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, but that China was with the allies during WW2 and Japan was with the axis?” A quick google search returned the answer, “whew boy, you have no idea!” Reading about the Westerners in Shanghai shrug off growing global tensions with an assurance that ‘everything would turn out okay’ and the protagonist’s slow awakening that everything was very much not going to turn out okay felt chillingly pertinent today.

I got kind of deep into themes above, but it is also a very engrossing character study and mystery of sorts. We get extensive flashbacks to Banks’ childhood with his parents in Shanghai, but after their disappearance, he is sent to live with an aunt in England, where he is determined to become a famous detective, a la Sherlock Holmes. It becomes clear that in this fiction, such famous detectives do exist, and Banks succeeds over time in becoming one. This formational part of the book is very odd, with his increasingly renowned cases being referenced without any context. It did a good job of establishing the character, while clueing in the reader that this book would not be about tidy solutions to discrete mysteries.

The tension builds gradually as Banks slowly circles around investigating his parents’ disappearance and the international atmosphere gradually shifts from relief over the end of ‘The Great War’ to amorphous dread that things might not be quite so settled after all. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of ramping up the tension, slowly at first and then exponentially faster to a quite frankly dizzying climactic crescendo. I wondered if perhaps some of the final reveals were a bit too melodramatic, but of course that thought led me right back to the novel’s them of society ignoring extreme violence and corruption as being ‘unrealistic’.

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America

By R. Eric Thomas

Here_For_ItWhew, this book! I’m a big fan of R. Eric Thomas’ weekly e-newsletter,* and figured this would be a similar collection of essays: a combination of very funny personal anecdotes and political/social commentary. And it was, but just…even better: deeper, more complex, shockingly poignant. I was in awe of how he balanced humor and gravity, and how artistically he threaded themes through his personal life into reflections of our country as a whole.

One sentence, I’ll be laughing out loud, and the next will stop me short:

“The fact that I sometimes enjoyed dating a boy was, to say the least, discomfirming information for a Christian, black-esque straight person who spent his free time carefully curating an Audra McDonald fan page on the internet. And it didn’t feel like there were two sides of me fighting for dominance; it felt like I was coming apart at some basic level, like I was becoming diffuse, like water becomes mist.”

… “like water becomes mist.” Whew!

Thomas has had hard times, as he struggled with what it meant to be black, gay, and deeply Christian in America, but he finds such reflective truths and ultimate optimism that it was an ideal read right now. In his introduction, Thomas talks about his childhood love for Sesame Street’s The Monster At the End of This Book. It’s a funny, light-hearted critique of a children’s book through the retrospective adult lens. By the end, he ties this all into how difficult life seems now, but how important it is to forge ahead (as a very skilled professional writer, he of course does this much more meaningfully than I can). The title of his book comes from his conclusion that he is “here for it,” it being his life, with all its ups and downs, and that is how you save your soul in America.

*I have to plug his analysis of Governor Cuomo’s covid-themed poster, which had me howling!

You Can’t Touch My Hair

By Phoebe Robinson

You_Can't_Touch_My_HairI decided to take a break from reading serious intellectual books about race and racism, and instead turn to a funny book about race and racism! And honestly, comedian Phoebe Robinson touches on many of the points from So You Want to Talk About Race and White Fragility through humor, pop culture, and personal anecdotes, so I really recommend this to anyone who wants to laugh while they learn some hard truths. Actually, I just recommend this to anyone, since Robinson is a very smart and funny writer on a whole range of topics:

  • Do you want to know which Hall & Oats lyrics summarize the entirety of human history?
  • Do you want detailed advice on how to correctly google yourself?
  • How to avoid being the Black Friend? (or conversely and more importantly, how to avoid tokenizing a friend as your Black Friend)

She kicks the book off right away with her titular hair: how her hair, society’s reactions to it, and the affect those reactions had on her evolved over her youth and young adulthood, culminating in a history of black hair in media which illustrates the decades it took for natural black hair to be even slightly accepted today.

For me, one of the most striking stories she tells is about a director she worked with, which quite literally runs down all the hallmarks of white fragility like a checklist: denial of racist words, reassurance of being a good person, burdensome guilt-ridden apology and request to ‘talk it out further,’ and the final cherry on top of turning to a different black person for absolution. It should seriously be used as the prime example in DiAngelo’s book!

My favorite part of the book, however, was toward the end where she writes a series of letters of ‘advice’ to her “all-time favorite person: my two-and-a-half-year-old biracial niece, Olivia.” As a professional comedian, of course she’s funny, but she really shines when she’s also sincere: “Seeing how you view the world makes me happy. Ah! A comedian expressing a genuine emotion and not following it with a joke. Full disclosure: That was really, really hard for me to do just then.”

In addition to wanting to make sure Olivia doesn’t miss such pop culture gems as DMX singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she tells her how great it is to be black, to be a woman, and even tags in John Hodgman for the difficult task of talking up being white without sounding racist! (You’re going to want to read the story of John taking his friend Wyatt—who I assume is Wyatt Cenac—to a gourmet mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn.)

And finally, in her advice on being sex-positive, she goes on a lengthy tangent about the problematic 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, which first of all, shocked me about that movie since I’d never seen it, but then made me want to read an entire book of her dissecting what does and does not work in movies and tv shows. This book is so chock full of pop culture references that I finally just had to appreciate the ones that I got and let the rest pass, or I would have been constantly jumping over to google.