A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka

“Extremely funny” says The Times.
“Mad and Hilarious,” Daily Telegraph.
“Uproariously funny” from The Economist

Guys, this was one of the most mean-spirited books I’ve read in a long time. Sisters Vera and Nadia hate each other and seem contemptuous of their elderly widowed father. When he becomes attached to a much younger woman, they try to intervene, seemingly more out of immediate hatred for this new woman than any concern for their father. Their father, in turn, disdains his daughters for a variety of reasons, and fights their intervention, even as the new woman turns out to be despicable and abusive.

The back blurb teased that this struggle uncovers long buried family secrets, which is what hooked me (as well as the unusual title). And the central story is interspersed with background vignettes on the parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Ukraine, though there is no big reveal or epiphany. Instead, by spending just a little more time talking about their different experiences growing up, the two sisters reach a basic level of empathy for each other that they probably should have managed a long time ago. Oh, and there are also passages from a short book the father is writing about tractors. The history of mechanical invention is not really my thing, but I actually welcomed the breaks from the central characters.

I wanted to quit a couple of times, but was too embarrassed after the librarian had looked so intrigued by the title when I was checking it out and made a note to check it out herself. Plus, I feel like I’ve been losing interest in books halfway through lately, and that I should really see one through to the end. That said, the ending was surprisingly satisfactory and even a little touching after all the meanness, so that was kind of nice.

The Woman in the Library

By Sulari Gentill

Whew, this book is a trip! It starts off with a scream of terror in the Boston Public Library. In the fuss and speculation that follows, our narrator, a young woman named Freddie working on a novel, becomes friendly with the three other people at her table, one of whom, the book tells us, is a murderer! I was just settling in for a good locked-room mystery when it unfolds that the scream-in-the-library is the first chapter of a book being written by a successful novelist named Hannah, who is sending her chapters individually to a fellow author Leo for feedback.

So, we get the chapters of the library mystery, interspersed with letters of commentary from the other author (interestingly, we don’t get any personal description or insight into Hannah). I was initially a little disappointed because the meta-framework prevented me from getting as fully invested in the library mystery, but I was eventually pulled in despite myself. And then even more thrilled when Leo’s letters started to hint at its own mystery!

Luckily for my comprehension, we don’t read any of Freddie’s book, though she takes notes of people and events she encounters that will influence her novel, so there’s some blurring of lines there as well. I had to periodically pause to remind myself where any given character existed in the layers of fiction stacked in this novel. Gentill (the real author) does a very good job of creating these overlapping worlds that seem to influence each other across boundaries more permeable than one would expect.

Gentill herself is an acclaimed Australian author of novels across multiple genres; Hannah, the mostly invisible fictional first-level author behind the chapters, is also an acclaimed Australian novelist, writing from Australia about winter in Boston (Leo is her contact in Boston, giving her local flavor in addition to general feedback); and Freddie (protagonist of Hannah’s novel) is an Australian novelist on a writing fellowship in Boston, where she gets tangled in a series of suspicious circumstances stemming from the initial titular scream.

I got a little miffed midway through when Freddie started making some dumb decisions (something I’m getting much less tolerant of in books) when I realized that I might be entering a further level of unreliable narrator, which was very exciting!

In the end, I really enjoyed the layers, and how in addition to double suspense, it allowed the author to write about the process of writing in several different ways without being too heavy handed.

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman

I thought this was a murder mystery with an atypical narrating protagonist, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I loved) and The Maid (which I liked well enough), so I wasn’t really prepared to for this very literary novel about poverty in the UK. It was very good for what it was, but in this third year of the pandemic, I really need to stick to my low-stress cozies. That said, as much as I felt that I really didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for this, I also couldn’t put it down.

12-year-old Harri lives with his family in one of London’s housing projects, and when an older boy he recognizes from school is found dead, he and his friends decide to investigate.  Harri himself is cheerful, enthusiastic, and generally optimistic in a quite grim world, that his narration kept me pulled in, even when his young London slang was almost entirely incomprehensible to me. As a warning,  there are also a number of slurs, insults, and general ignorance, which seems entirely accurate to the protagonists but also got occasionally tiresome.

However, the hardest part of reading this was seeing how poverty grinds up everyone in it, regardless of how they try to escape or even claw out some bits of joy. It is beautifully written, with some surprisingly poetic narration woven in, but very much a gritty study of often-overlooked communities, framed around this one murder, rather than a mystery novel.

Cemetery Boys

By Aiden Thomas

Cemetary Boys is a very seasonal read right now with its cemetery setting, leading up to El Día de los Muertos.  Yadriel was born into a family gifted with divine abilities. All the women of his family serve life, able to heal even mortal injuries, while the men serve death, leading lost spirits to their afterlife. Yadriel is trans, though, and while his family recognizes him, they insist that Lady Death will not, and refuse to let him perform the necessary male ritual that will awaken his powers.

When Yadriel attempts the ritual in secret, with the assistance of a cousin, he accidentally summons the wrong ghost in the process, a fellow classmate from his school. The ghost challenges Yadriel to solve his murder, and in the process, they uncover a slew of disappearances throughout their LA neighborhood. It’s a great premise and well-thought out mystery, but I realized early on that the novel is very much for young adult readers, perhaps even middle school rather than high school. I liked and cared about the characters, but felt more sympathy for the overwhelmed and often clueless parents and grandparents than I did for the teenage protagonists.

It was also quickly clear to me what was going on with the mystery, which I took as another sign that this is truly a book for younger readers, ones who are still being introduced to plot twists and suspense in books. I would have loved this book in my preteens, and I feel a little sad that now I found it at times tiresomely predictable, though I suppose that is an inevitable part of getting older. Happy Day of the Dead, everyone!

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves
Lesson Three of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
September 27, 2022

This book has been out for a week, but I was finally able to check it out from a local library and then read it over the course of maybe 27 hours (in the middle of a work week). And just wow! It’s so good and so satisfying and so tense.

This book starts immediately after the second book ends, and is very much a continuation of everything that has happened before in the previous two books and I probably need to go back and reread both in order to better enjoy some of the clues that had been casually dropped as world building before but abruptly become extremely plot significant here.

Each book centers around a conflict that’s slightly larger impact than the previous book. In the first book, the plot is focused on our protagonist’s personal survival; in the second book, it’s about the school’s survival; and in this the third book, it’s about the community’s survival. This is also the first book where the action is outside of the school and there are adults involved and hoo boy does that make things even more complicated. The kids in the school were just trying to survive: well the adults outside of the school are doing the same but have had even more time to make mistakes and make compromises and make hard decisions that have consequences down the years, decades, and centuries. And our protagonist El has to figure out how to live in the world where it’s the people rather than the mals who are the greatest danger.

This book also reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Anyway the Wind Blows, the third book in her Simon Snow series, in a variety of ways that I can’t write out without spoilers.

Anyway, I adore this book, but it’s definitely not a stand-alone. So if you haven’t already, go read the first one first.

What I Read When I Dropped Off the Face of the Earth

Whew, 2021 and 2022, huh? The last, let’s see, 18 months have been a rollercoaster ride for me and for seemingly everyone else I know. I may not have been posting here, but I have been reading and books have become even more important to me as a comfort and a distraction. So just to catch up a bit before I jump back in to more detailed reviews, here are the highlights of my last 18 months of reading–not necessarily the best books I’ve read, but the ones that most soothed my soul when I needed it.

Fun YA Series

YA is always a solid place to start when you need something engrossing and distracting, but also a bit hopeful. The two series I’ve enojyed most lately have both been discussed on this blog before, but I am still talking about them.

  • Rebecca talked about the first two books in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, but The Golden Enclaves comes out in just a few days! The series has magic, and a boarding school, and some romance, while being completely unlike Harry Potter at all. This world is dark, while also managing, especially in the second book, to show how people, even deeply pessimistic people, can change the world and people around them.
  • I really enjoyed Maureen’s Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy when it was focused on the main characters solving the initial mystery about the founder of their mysterious boarding school (I do like a boarding school story). But I was surprised by how much I like the fourth book in the series, The Box in the Woods, where our heroes branch out and solve a new mystery. In all of these books I’ve been impressed with how complex the mystery stories themselves are–Johnson doesn’t skimp on the twists and turns of the crimes and cover-ups, while also drawing really layered teen characters.

Cozy Gay Period Mysteries

A nice English country house with some gentlemen falling in love? That’s my sweet spot. Magic is nice, but not required.

  • Cat Sebastian’s Hither, Page and The Missing Page are both really sweet romances/mysteries between a country doctor reeling from his experiences in the first World War, and a spy who might be ready to get out of the business and find a more settled life. She’s written loads of books that are all fun, but I think I like the 20th-century setting of these more than all her others.
  • A Marvellous Light, the first in a planned triology, is set Edwardian England–according to the publisher’s website, this makes it a “gaslamp” story–but has similar sort of “odd couple fall in love while solving a mystery” vibes. This one does happen to involve magic, and I do always love it when books have scenes–and this one has many!–where non-magical people suddenly learn that magic exists. It’s like the book version of “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Non-fiction about Archaeology

This is a very specific category of books, but somehow reading about the ancient world is very calming?

  • Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox is actually about 20th-century efforts to decipher an ancient language, with a little everygreen sexism in academia thrown in for good measure. Fascinating for anyone who likes process-y stuff and/or grammar nerds, since it walks through how scholars figure out unknown languages.

  • Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson is technically about the archeologists who do the work, not the history itself, but it was also fascinating and totally made me want to go dig in the dirt.

Actual Literature

I do read literary fiction, although it can be a hard sell when I’m looking for comfort. Of late I’ve felt overwhelmed when I see a big doorstop of a book, but both of these were comparatively short, which made them feel achievable.

  • Matrix, by Lauren Groff, was probably the best thing I’ve read all year. It’s the story of a medieval nun who runs an abbey in France. It mostly focused on her internal life as she travels through a life that may seem very small by modern standards, but is huge in spirit. I feel like every description of this book made me less interested in reading it, but it was very compelling and felt more modern than it had any right to.
  • I remember enjoying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark when it first came out and I also liked the TV adaption of it. But for some reason, her second book Piranesi never caught my attention. I think something about the cover, and maybe the title, made me think it was going to be weird? I don’t generally mind weird, but something turned me off of it. Well, it was kind of weird, but not in a “weird for weird’s sake way.” Instead, it was one of those stories where you have to roll along for the first about 40% not really knowing what’s going on, just having faith that things will become clear. And then suddenly clues start dropping and the rush you get when you start figuring things out is so fun!

Finally, I’ll give a plug to something I was extremely skeptical of for a long time: book podcasts. I love podcasts and listen to many, many hours of true crime and comedy and pop culture discussion every week, but I’ve actively stayed away from reading-related podcasts. I think I was worried that I would feel bad about all the books I hadn’t read and would just end up adding to my already endless To Be Read list? But I’ve found two podcasts that are nicely calibrated to avoid those problems. Currently Reading and Reading Glasses are similar in structure, in that the hosts will talk about the books they are reading or have just finished, but then also address more general topic like remembering what you read, or the best tote bags for books, or how to get into books in translation or in a certain genre. And while I have definitely read things based on their recommendations–I read Piranesi after one of the Currently Reading hosts said it was basically a murder mystery–most of the time they describe books in such clear ways that I often end up deciding that the books they describe are not for me after all. Plus, these shows both manage to release an episode every week, so if you’re looking for book talk more often than the once-a-year schedule I seem to be working on, these could be for you!

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
1946

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Admissions

By Kendra James

I first heard about this book during Kendra James’ very funny guest stint on my favorite podcast “Yo, Is This Racist.” I highly recommend the episode, both because the hosts are always very funny and smart and because the stories James tells from the book got me hooked (granted after a few months). It is a memoir of her experience as the first Black legacy student at Taft, a fancy prep school in Connecticut, and the whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. In the early 2000s with nascent internet and social media, her high school experience was wildly different than mine, and it was often hard to parse whether that was due to the time period, the quality of the school, or race. Regardless, she captures this moment in her life with such detail that I really felt like I was getting a clear look into a life much different than mine.

On the one hand, I never really understood prep schools, feeling that at this point, for better or worse, most high schools sort of vaguely aim their students toward college instead of trade apprenticeships. However, James reveals the extraordinarily high level of guidance students at Taft got when applying for colleges, which really hammered home the extra privilege that makes these students much more likely to go to prestigious colleges and universities. (It also made me mad all over again about the college admissions bribery scandal, since they already had such a leg up!)

On the other hand, she was one of a handful of Black students in an overwhelmingly white school (in an overwhelmingly white state), and of course that came with a fairly constant barrage of aggressions, both micro and not so small. James is so funny overall in her writing that it came as a surprise how difficult some parts are to read. She does an equally skilled job at unpacking the oversized responsibility that is piled on all the students of color, who are also still so young and just coming into awareness of themselves and the world around them.

What struck me hardest from James’ memoir was how acutely James and other students of color could distinguish between individual racism, which was often more blatant, and systemic racism, which though more subtle, could hurt them in much wider ways. This really gets at what many white people, myself included, often don’t see: some rando shouting the n-word is disgusting, but a centuries-old institution requiring the Black, Latinx, and Asian students to continuously prove their worth to both their peers and much of the faculty is much more lastingly harmful. James and her fellow students of color recognized that immediately, and I felt bad that it took me so long into adulthood to begin to see the same thing.

I also have to admit that I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in her ignorant white classmates. My own high school was also very white, and while I did not actively hold racist beliefs, I just went with the cultural flow, and the flow in the Texas public school system was most definitely racist. Admissions gives a clear, fairly universal, real world example why not being racist isn’t enough, and why we need to aim to be anti-racist instead.

I only found out in the acknowledgements (for some reason, I’ve started reading them dedicatedly, and it feels somehow very middle aged of me) that James first began to write about her experiences on our beloved defunct website, The Toast!

Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer

Beware of Chicken (Book 1)
by Casualfarmer
2022

This was a free online story posted serially that built a large enough following to get turned into a book. I actually read this (plus book 2, and several chapters of book 3 as well) on Royal Road earlier in the year before the author took a break to format and edit book one for publication. But since the online serial is still ongoing, this is a review of the ebook which has the distinction of being complete.

This book is absolutely ridiculous and also the quintessential pandemic lockdown book. It’s like The Swiss Family Robinson for anime lovers. Do you dream of leaving all the anxiety and stress of the world behind and go start a small farm that takes a lot of work to create but also is wildly, improbably successful? How about just have everything work out all right and be loved and respected as a powerful person while also being a friendly goof who enjoys life? There is no conflict that isn’t resolved nicely in our main character’s favor, with every protection that an author with world-building abilities can provide. This is the comfort book to end all comfort books.

The basic plot is that our main character, a guy from Canada, wakes up in a Xanxia (fantasy China with magic and demons and swords, etc.) in the body of Jin Rou, a lowly outer disciple of a great cultivation sect. Jin Rou is clearly fated to be the protagonist of an epic story — poor and abused, he will struggle and fight epic battles and rise to greatness, etc. — and our main guy decides to nope his way right out of that. He takes a quick exit from the top of that mountain temple, does his research to find the least dangerous, least magical location in the land and starts a farm. He still has the strength and speed of a disciple of a great cultivation sect, as well as the education of a modern farmer/handyman, so everything goes very well for him. He also has a rooster he calls Big D.

The rooster is the titular chicken of Beware of Chicken. This rooster does understand fantasy Chinese but not modern English, wakes up to being sentient and considers himself to be named Bi Di. It is also absolutely clear to him that he, Bi Di, is the first disciple of Jin Rou, a Hidden Master of great power. Bi Di rises to greatness, the farm is amazing, and absolutely everything is ridiculous. Jin Rou is the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.