The Goblin Emperor

A friend once told me that he had improved his life by deciding that he would never again read a book that started with a map. I have a similar philosophy about books that start with a list of characters. If there are going to be so many people with such complicated names that I won’t be able to keep up with all them without a family tree, I am not going to have the bandwidth to enjoy the story.

And then there’s the common issue with fantasy books that Justin McElroy so neatly summarized in this tweet:

Exactly! Just tell me who has the sword and get on with it! I will never remember which mountain range the trolls originally came from! By these measures, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison should absolutely not have worked for me. It starts with a glossary and a pronunciation guide and a chapter that reads like a description of elven culture from a Lonely Planet guide. Ten pages in I was deeply skeptical. But once I got swept up into the story I was so invested that I stayed up until 2:00 AM on a Tuesday because I was so desperate to find out what to this teenage half-goblin/half-emperor I had gotten so attached to.

Maia is the youngest son of the emperor of a kingdom of elves, but after his goblin mother dies he is exiled to the far edge of the empire and largely forgotten about. Until his father and older brothers are all killed in a airship crash. Overnight Maia becomes emperor and is thrust into the intrigue of a royal court he had never been allowed to even visit. He must master everything from dinner with his advisors to foreign relations to infrastructure development, all while trying to figure out who he can trust and who might take the opportunity to overthrow a teenage ruler with no allies. But Maia is smart and kind and determined to do things differently than his father. He never really wanted to be emperor, but once he gets there he is determined to do the best job he can, and I found myself very invested in his success and well-being.

If you are reader of a certain age, chances are you grew up spending a lot of time in used bookstores, unearthing weird old dusty paperback fantasy novels that you could buy for 25 cents. The Goblin Emperor reminds me of those books in so many ways–it has the timeless feel of a classic. But it’s also a book written by a woman in the last decade, which gives it a refreshingly modern twist. Maia would never talk about “social justice,” but he is a mixed-race ruler who doesn’t understand why he should be making decisions that benefit rich nobility rather than his poorest subjects. As a modern-day reader, classic sci-fi and fantasy sometimes has to be read through gritted teeth as it casually drops weird racist and sexist ideas. It was a pleasure to read a classic fantasy story that reflected ideas of equality and justice.

The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, but I’m glad I came across it now, because in June a sequel is being released and I will be first on the list for it.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Coming-of-age court intrigue

You might also like: We’ve talked about the Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner so many times that I almost hate to mention it again, but those books are wonderful and feature the same sort of twisty negotiations and constantly shifting alliances. But I would also recommend the television series The Great on Hulu, which tells the story of Catherine the Great’s introduction to the Russian court in a quite darkly comedic way.

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 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!

Reading Through the Pandemic

So, it’s been a while. 2020, huh? I may have aged 20 years since February. Everyone hanging in there?

While I have definitely spent my share of this pandemic doom-scrolling, playing a truly astounding amount of Thirteen, and watching every episode of the Great British Baking Show again, I have actually read a fair amount. My book list from the last five months is an odd mix of romance, non-fiction, and literary best sellers as I keep trying different kind of books, looking for the perfect thing to help me either forget the world or understand what is going on around me. I don’t know that I have yet to find a book that genuinely helped on either front, but I did read some smart, touching, fun things that kept me off Twitter. It’s all I’ve got today, but I’m going to offer it to you: some books that might take you away from the current hellscape for a few minutes.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
A while back I read Reservoir 13, a novel about how the disappearance of a young girl affects the residents of a small town. It got rave reviews, but I found it deeply unsatisfying. This book is everything I had hoped Reservoir 13 would be. I also really enjoyed a peek inside life in a far-flung Russian province, including in its indigenous communities.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
People absolutely adore Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I thought it was just pleasant enough and Anna was even less impressed. But it’s a pandemic, I’ve got nothing but time, so I thought I as might as well tackle her second one. It’s another long, sprawling magical realism story with lots of characters and multiple time frames, but I was much more caught up in the characters and the magical world she created this time around.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
I made so much fun of Anna for reading this at the beach a few years ago, but she was totally right! This is a smart, readable book that provides a sense of hope that there are concrete things we can do to improve the world.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
I know! The Jessica Simpson book! It is actually very good!

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Massey wrote a series of mystery novels about a Japanese-American woman solving crimes in modern-day Tokyo, which I liked a lot, but this book kicked of an even more interesting new series about a female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay. The story was interesting, but I was most impressed with the level of research that Massey must have done, which allowed her to create this world that felt so real, even while being so far from anything I’m familiar with.

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Have you been wanting to read a linguist discuss how people on the Internet communicate? You want to, whether you know it or not. This can get a little dense at times, but McCulloch is funny and the phenomena she describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on line over the last 25 years. Having an expert take a specific Internet language thing (a meme, an acronym, ellipses) and then explain exactly what purpose it serves actually gave me a lot of respect for how we create the forms of communications we need in real time every day.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This last one isn’t cheerful, I’ll warn you, but it was compelling. I think I found this book in a round-up of WWII stories, but it actually has an interesting twist. The story follows two timelines–a female spy in France during the first World War, and then a young American girl in Europe in the years immediately following the end of the second war. Anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction ends up reading a lot of WWII stories, and that’s all fine, but they often focus exclusively on the war years and little before or after. I liked how Quinn’s story showed how close and connected the wars, and individuals’ experiences of them, were and how Europe had begun to rebuild in the late 1940s.

Wrapping Up 2019 Recommendations

As usual, when I look back at the list of things I read this year, many of my favorites are already represented here. Some of them are things I already wrote about (A Sky Painted Gold, The Great Believers), while Rebecca and Anna have covered others (My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks). But before we move on to the shiny new world of the 20s, I wanted to highlight a few more books that never quite made it to the blog this year, but that have stuck with me over the year. So, four quick ones:

1. There There by Tommy Orange. I read this right at the beginning of the year, and in my memory it was a very delicate book, sometimes closer to poetry than prose. It tells a modern-day story of urban Indians–Native Americans who live not on reservations, but in Oakland. Different narrators connect and overlap, representing different tribes and generations, painting a vibrant, layered portrait of this community. Did you know that in the 70s a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for more than a year? It’s embarrassing that I had no idea about this.

2. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. Okay guys, this one is rough. This is a memoir by a woman who lost her whole family–husband, kids, parents–in the 2004 tsunami. Deraniyagala is unflinching in describing her grief and her process of, I wouldn’t say healing, but of survival. Not for the faint of heart, but this book is really something.

3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. Earlier in the year I mentioned how much I adored the show Derry Girls, which is set in Northern Ireland in the early 90s. In fact, I was so charmed by the show I decided I should read a bit more about the Troubles, which is how a took a sharp tonal turn away from the comedy of Derry Girls to this non-fiction book. Say Nothing ended up on all the major Best of 2019 lists and it is deserved. This is a gripping story that covers generations of conflict while reading like a thriller, not a history book. My main take-away? Gerry Adams is probably a sociopath.

4. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Let’s end on something that is not quite such a downer! This is basically a fictional oral history of a band a lot like Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve ever imaged what it might have been like to be a 70s L.A. rocker, this is the book for you. It’s also a super quick read–I read it on one airplane flight and it was perfect for that.

Here’s wishing us all a 2020 of good reading!

The Great Believers

The Great Believers by [Makkai, Rebecca]

I struggle with literary fiction. I read it, but I often feel like there is a disconnect with how the rest of the world, and reviewers in particular, see these novels and how I react to them. Over and over I read a book that the reviews call “funny” or “charming” or “romantic” and come away wondering about their definition of those words, because I found it painfully sad or extremity upsetting. It certainly could be that I am very delicate, or that I have skewed my assessment by reading lots and lots of YA books and romances. It’s not that I require a happy ending and simple black-and-white story in everything I read, but if I dread reading a book because it is making me so unhappy to watch characters suffer, well, it doesn’t matter how well constructed the sentences are. I’m going to stop reading it. I want books to teach me and make me feel things and show me the truth of the human experience! But I also have to get out of bed every day and be a functioning person, and depressing books don’t always help with that. All of this is to say: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is the best book I read this year and I recommend it only with extreme caution.

The story runs in two times and two places in parallel–Chicago in the early 1980s and Paris in the recent past. In Chicago we are following Yale, a gay man trying to tackle a professional challenge and be a supportive partner and friend, all while AIDS has begun crashing through his community like a giant snowball gathering steam and size as it rolls down a hill. Decades later in Paris, Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is trying to track down her estranged daughter, lost for years in a cult. The story moves back and forth between these characters, only slowly revealing all the connections between them and how the trauma of the AIDS epidemic continues to ripple through lives.

The book is gorgeous. Yale and Fiona both leap off the page as real people–complicated, not always great decision-makers, but loving. And in the Chicago chapter especially, the sense of place is so strong that I could almost feel that horrible icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan. But I also struggled to read it sometimes, because a felt such a sense of dread about what was going to happen. I swung between not being able to put it down, and wanting to put the book in the freezer because I was so upset for these characters. And I want anyone reading it to know going in: this is not going to be a book about miraculous survival and reunion. I cried and cried. There are parts I would like to go back and reread because I know I raced through them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. But this wasn’t a story that made me think, “Well, what’s the point of anything then?” Which is sometimes my reaction at the end of a fancy literary novel.

I completely understand if, after looking at the headlines of the day, all you want to do is read something light and fluffy and warm and comforting. I have done more than my share of that lately, and I don’t want to a recommend a book that could upset someone at a time when they can least handle it. Reading isn’t your job, there is no course credit here–read the books you enjoy. But if you are in a place to be challenged and to be sad and to feel, The Great Believers is a wonderful book. For me, this is a literary fiction novel that speaks to the fact that there is a point and that we are all here together to find it.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Heartbreaking but beautiful

You might also like: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is another gorgeous book that moves about in time to tell interwoven stories, although on a big bigger scale, and The Three Junes by Julia Glass is always a favorite of mine. Then there is The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin–I read this earlier in the year and almost reviewed it here, before deciding that the book started much stronger than it ended. It’s the story of four siblings who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the exact date she says they are going to die. Whether they believe it or not, that information affects how each of them move forward, and the book follows each sibling in succession. I adored the first story–the youngest son moves to San Francisco to live as an out gay man–and liked each of the next three less and less. But other people liked this book a lot, and that first story is gorgeous.

Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World

Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.

The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.

Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.

One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.

You might also like:  For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable: A Novel by [Kamal, Soniah]

I think it’s safe to say that we here at Biblio-therapy are connoisseurs of all formats of Jane Austen tributes/adaptions/updates. In the past we’ve raved about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Longbourn, and I quite enjoyed Eligible, the most recent modern-day version of the story I’d read. The latest entry into the Pride and Prejudice but with X catalog is Unmarriagable,  which initially struck me as just a relocation of the classic but ultimately turned out to have a little more going on underneath.

This telling of the story takes place in Pakistan in 2000-2001, and positions the Bennetts as a family that slid from the upper-middle class after some business disasters. They’re now trying to maintain respectability in a small, backwater city. The two oldest girls teach at the English language high school in town, while their mother clings to her old status through the connections of family and friends. The author sticks very, very closely to the original–essentially every character and plot point has a direct translation to the new setting. This made the book feel a bit rote as I read through the very familiar beats: now we’re at the first ball, now it’s the first proposal, now Lizzie (Alys in this version) is traveling with her aunt, etc. But it was fun to see how names and clothes and celebrations were adapted to twentieth-century Pakistan, and I found myself doing a lot of Googling to make sure I could accurately picture the shawl a character was wearing, or the food they were eating.

So it was an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t sure if I initially felt it was adding anything new to the genre (at this point, I think retellings of Jane Austen is its own genre). However, as the book went along, it became clear that the author was using this story and setting as a vehicle to explore colonialism and culture. Alys teaches literature at the English school, which mostly consists of teaching her Pakistani students classics of English literature. But is this their culture? British colonization of India resulted in generations of Pakistanis who speak English and were raised on English classics, so these are their stories as much as anyone else’s. But how can Alys and her students also see themselves and their lives and cultures reflected in the cannon? Unmarriagable doesn’t necessarily have answers to these big questions, but watching Alys try to work them out for herself forces the reader to face them, as well.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Elizabeth Bennett in Pakistan!

You might also like: Other than the many other Pride and Prejudice-adjacent materials I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to recommend two widely different books. First, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon is a charming YA story about teenagers whose parents may have planned for them to marry and how they choose to deal with that in present-day San Francisco. Second, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is literally 1,000 pages long and reading it felt like entering a long-term relationship, but it is a classic story of love and class and gender in 1950s India.