illustrated travelogues

These books make me yearn for the open road. I don’t really enjoy hiking and I haven’t traveled much in a while even before the whole world went into various levels of quarantine but having read/looked through these two beautiful books about traveling the countryside by bicycle and by foot, I yearn. The complete impossibility of doing this myself makes the yearning all the stronger, since it doesn’t have to confront the fact that I like my creature comforts a bit too much for camping.

You & A Bike & A Road
by Eleanor Davis
2017

I received this book as a Christmas present in 2020 and read it within days. It’s basically a copy of the author’s sketch-pad/diary that she kept while making a cross-country bicycle trip from Tuscan, Arizona where her parents live to her home with her husband in Athens, Georgia. The pages are little illustrations of her experiences with short descriptions to show her thoughts. She’s struggling with depression and this is a way for her to get out of her head and try something new and difficult. While the main plot, such as it is, is her personal journey – both physical and emotional – it’s also dotted with stories of the people she comes across at the various resting points. As much as the journey works for Davis, it works for the reader too, to vicariously experience the weirdness, exhaustion, and exhilaration of making this attempt, and get out of my own head too.

The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido
by Hiroshige
1833-1834
published by Heibonsha Ltd, 1960

I received this book for Christmas in 2019, and worked though it in its and starts over the course of a year. The 55 illustrations in this series, showing images from Edo to Kyoto with the 53 stages of the Tokaido in between, are enchanting and lure me into thinking it’s a journey I would like to take. The Tokaido is a 320-mile-long road in Japan that the governments have maintained for centuries, connecting two of the country’s major cities. This set of woodblock prints by Hiroshige romanticizes each stage of the trip – the gorgeous vistas, the exciting markets, the specialized restaurants, and even the uncertain weather – and establishes his reputation as an artist at the same time. The scenes are both gorgeous and fascinating and the way they show calm water and raging storms and mountains both near and far just makes something in my mind un-tense for a little bit.

This specific publication of the illustrations also comes with short descriptions of each which were both helpfully informative and occasionally unintentionally funny. These captions vary between describing the locations (how the stages worked and which services and resources were there), describing the subject matter (what type of people were being shown and what interactions were taking place), and describing the artwork itself (letting me know which ones I should appreciate more than others, in case I wasn’t appreciating them correctly). What I considered particularly funny was the contrast between the detailed discussion regarding exactly when a particular image was set based on the presence of famous travelers versus how casually the descriptions discuss the artistic license used with both the events being shown and even the physical geography of other images that rearranged, removed, or created whole mountains for the aesthetic. But regardless of how much or little accuracy they may have, they are all lovely and intriguing.

In a time when it’s been nearly a full year of staying in my house with a single exciting trip to a grocery store every other week, these books were a chance to imagine a freedom of movement that comes with its own pros and cons, but feels so refreshing just to think about.

The Last Ghost Series

By M Dressler

I See You So Close

Book cover for I See You So Close

I read a teaser that this was a small town murder mystery but with a twist: the investigating protagonist is a ghost disguised as a human! I was immediately hooked, wondering how does a ghost disguise themselves as a human?! It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I realized it’s a sequel (I’ve done this before). I decided that it looked like it was enough of a reset in plotting that I could start with it, and the author does a fairly skillful job of getting any new readers up to speed, I thought.

Our protagonist ghost, Emma Rose, is traveling west to outrun ghost hunters, and it quickly established that this is a world in which everyone is aware of the existence of ghosts, but enough of the living find them troubling that ghost hunters are sent to “blast” them much as one would bring in an exterminator. So, I’m sympathetic to our protagonist’s wariness around humans, but her trigger finger to just kill them before they try anything makes me think the ghost hunters are probably all for the best.

Emma Rose ends up in a small town so wholesome and welcoming it immediately sent up a whole bushel of red flags for me, though it takes her a bit longer to realize that there is a dark secret lurking in its gold rush-era history. It is a really interesting look at what life and existence means, whether in current or after-life, and whether a “live and let live” philosophy should be extended to those not actually currently living. For me, the characters seemed a little flat, not stereotypes exactly, more just simplified, and the plot somewhat fussy and over complicated. Additionally, I found the language a bit stilted, and even wondered whether it was the fault of a weak translation, but not only does that not seem to be the case, the various cover blurbs raved about the poetics of the language.

The Last to See Me

HOWEVER, I went back to read the first novel, and it is so much better! It is much more introspective, focusing on the parallel plots of Emma Rose in life leading to her death, and her afterlife as she works through what this existence means, both to her and others. It all takes place in the same small coastal town in which she lived and died, with a much smaller cast of characters, so the book can really delve into the themes of life, freedom, and justice in really powerful ways. Both novels are told in first person by Emma Rose, who is complicated enough to be not necessarily likeable, which gives some really nice philosophical depth to this first book. I think this same narration may have contributed to some of the flatness of the other characters in the sequel, since they are only really seen through Emma Rose’s eyes and thoughts.


Between reading these two books out of order, my twitter feed was full of  SF/F twitter justifiably furious at a reviewer for panning a sequel for not standing alone, leading to this extremely thorough and entertaining takedown. For many reasons, I did not commit nearly her level of insult (I’m writing on my personal blog with a small audience, these are not epic fantasy novels, etc.), but even in this case, it really brought home to me what a disservice I’d done to both books. I think the second book isn’t as good as the first, but now I’ll never have a chance to read that second book fresh but with the knowledge of the first behind it, so I can’t ever be sure. I enjoyed the first book much more than the second, but I think I would have liked it even more without the spoilers I picked up from the second.

Uncommon Echoes by Sharon Shinn

echoinonyxUncommon Echoes
by Sharon Shinn
2019

Echo in Onyx (Book 1)echoinemerald
Echo in Emerald
(Book 2)
Echo in Amethyst (Book 3)

I have a somewhat odd perspective on Sharon Shinn because while I really like some of her books and don’t care for others, I am fully aware that it’s a matter of personal preference because I trust her as an author: echoinamethystI trust that she’s going to write really well and that scenarios and tropes that other authors wouldn’t be able to pull off, she can and does. The quality of her writing is always high, but the tone fluctuates enough that I enjoy some of hers and don’t others. These I really enjoyed.

This particular series is also fascinating because the fantasy element is one I’ve never seen before: that some people have “echoes”, ie physical copies of their bodies that give them an automatic entourage. From a practical standpoint, it’s both impressive and ridiculous unwieldy. Each book is a romance plot set in this relatively generic royal fantasy land during a time of unrest… except that there are added complications of all these extra bodies just hanging around. Each person is their own crowd (at least among the nobility.)

Shinn also does an amazing job of showing how conflicted civil wars are: the current monarchy vs the rebel factions, and there’s significant in-fighting on both sides and sympathetic and idiotic aspects of both sides as well. And I, as the reader, am also conflicted, because both sides are being awful in many ways and both sides of trying to make things better for people in many ways, too.

An amusing aspect is how bad all of the characters are at actual physical fighting. I feel like that’s probably a lot more realistic than a lot of fantasy novels: the high ranked nobles are not used to having to actually defend themselves from physical attack so when it happens, they’re incredibly bad at it.

But as the greater political situation continues to be fraught in a variety of ways, the main characters get their happy endings. And I really needed that.

Note: I read these books about a year ago, and enjoyed them, and was writing this review when the national news broke about another young black man who had been killed by the police. And here I was enjoying fantasy romance about wealthy nobility. And there’s a line between enjoying some escapism versus being disconnected from society, and I felt like I had fallen over that line. Now, a year later, with the constant grinding news cycle, my take away is: enjoy what I can, when I can, but don’t lose track of the work that needs to be done in the real world.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

The House in the Cerulean Sea Cover Image

Just hours after I finished this book and started recommending it to most everyone I know, Alison at Ask a Manager named it her favorite book of the year, so I feel in very good company telling you to read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TK Klune. It is absolutely charming and, look, everyone likes it!

It’s a very simple set-up–Linus Baker is a caseworker who investigates the orphanages that care for, or possibly detain, children with magical abilities. He has a very specific, prescribed job and lives a very specific, prescribed life when he is given a special assignment to check out a house on a small coastal island. And to check out the man who oversees the children there. I would not say that this is a particularly subtle book, but it is done so well you won’t care at all. Even thought I was pretty sure I knew from the beginning where the story was going to go, I still couldn’t put it down. If you’ve ever been on vacation to the beach, you know that feeling when you first get there and you step out of the car and breathe in the wind and salt and see the water stretching out before you? And sort of feel this big exhale of relief and your shoulders drop and you feel a sense of calm settle over you for a minute? That’s how this book made me feel.

And how gorgeous is that title and cover?

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Harry Potter meets . . . Joe vs. the Volcano?

You might also like: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, as well as Sourdough: or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market: A Novel. This book also shares a lot of DNA with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series (I reviewed the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, a few years ago), although I think The House in the Cerulean Sea is a bit sweeter. And I’ll take any opportunity to recommend Jo Walton–in this case, Among Us.

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.