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!

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. 

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.

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

SapphireFlamesSaphire Flames
(4th book in the Hidden Legacy series)
by Ilona Andrews
2019

This series is something of a guilty pleasure for me and this is the fourth book and the first one about Catalina Baylor, sister to the prior main character, Nevada Baylor.

The reason this is a guilty pleasure is the set up, which is an urban magic world where about 150 years ago, there was a serum developed that gave people magical powers. (Or killed them, or turned them into monsters, but the survivors at this point have magical powers.) And this has created something of a three-tiered society, where there are civilians going about their daily lives with no magic, and living their lives much like anyone else in the modern day; there are magic-users who have a little bit of extra magical skill; and then there are the members of the magical Houses, where families have bred themselves into powerhouses and accumulated vast wealth and are essentially above the law and only counterbalance each other in particularly lethal ways. The bad guys are the people who are trying to destabilize this society.

In any reasonable universe, I would be cheering on the rebels trying to take down this insane society. Instead, I am agog to see what these high society magical killers are doing in their love lives.

The (purported) good guys are the super-handsome, super-wealthy, super-powerful, super-psychopathic killer, scions of these Houses who, despite being psychopaths who barely feel compassion for anyone else, are desperately in love with our main protagonists: lovely ladies who had once thought they were in the middle tier of magical civilians, but discovered their ‘hidden legacy’ that means they are actually extremely powerful and have now formed a House of their own.

Don’t judge me. I love these.

Unfortunately, I don’t love this particular book as much as the previous three (I still like it though!), because the narration keeps on trying to convince me that Catalina and Alessandro are desperately in love even as they deny themselves and each other, despite them having met for all of 15 minutes three years ago when she was 18 years old. He’s a high society heart-throb who she was able to cyberstalk on Instagram (while secretly being a James Bond style assassin maybe?), while there’s hints that he might have actually stalked her for a bit (wealth, power, etc, make all things possible), but the narration keeps on denying that it’s a crush, or simply lust, or obsession. It’s love! Which mostly means that there’s no character arc for them to fall in love because it starts out with the premise that they are both in love already, just pining from afar. My suspension of disbelief, which is normally quite strong, hit a snag on that.

But anyway, the world building is still fascinating and the action sequences are ludicrous and amazing and the dialogue is fun.

What I enjoyed even more is the prequel novella:

DiamondFireDiamond Fire
by Ilona Andrews
2018

This is a good segue between books three and four, as it covers the wedding of Nevada Baylor and Mad Rogan, and sets up Catalina Baylor as a main character who is about to have a lot of changes, and thus book four can happen after the three-year training montage implied at the end of this novella. But in the meantime, the novella itself is fun and a detective story because all of Rogan’s kookie/creepy/lethal relatives show up and then the family wedding tiara gets stolen and shenanigans ensue, with Catalina being conscripted as the detective.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

The Short Story Advent Calendar 2019

advent calendarThe Short Story Advent Calendar – 2019
https://www.hingstonandolsen.com/

This was a very cool concept by the publisher and a great present from @bookdom. Thank you, Anna!

25 unlabeled short stories to be read as an advent calendar from December 1st through December 25th. They came in a boxed set with each story is bound and sealed with its own individual cover listing only a number. Sweet! 

2019-advent calendarI love the concept! The implementation, alas, was a bit rough.

Only four of the stories were Christmas-themed, and I only actually enjoyed seven of them. The stories tended to be “literary”, which made me think about what “literary” really means to me. I had started out with the definition of “miserable people living miserable lives”, but then expanded it to, “miserable people living miserable lives written by an author who dislikes the world.” And then expanded that to, “… an author who dislikes the world but is proud of their dislike, because it’s ‘realistic’ rather than ‘niave’.”

One of the commonalities I kept on running across is that the main characters, dealing with a variety of their own issues, would look at someone else walking down the street or sitting on a bus or whatever and say in the narration: that person has dead eyes and no understanding of the world or philosophy or whatever, that person has no interior life.

To which I think: there is no person in the world who doesn’t have their own life, their own story. It’s ignorant and disrespectful to pretend otherwise. That random person may not be pivotal to whatever the current story is, but don’t pretend they don’t have their own story.

But while I only enjoyed seven of the stories (and even those could be a grind near the end, to get over my own expectation of dislike and give each story a fair chance to be appreciated), it was still interesting to see the different ways in which the authors were experimenting with the genre. The ways the stories were similar to one another, was often terrible, but the ways in which they differed had the potential to be fascinating, even, or especially, if sometimes I could tell the author was trying to accomplish something but couldn’t quite figure out what.

Anyway, the stories varied between 7 and 30 pages long, and each day, the website got updated with a short discussion post about the story.

To sum up: I would recommend this as a whole compilation to anyone interested in the craft of writing because it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of short trial runs, and decide which you think work and which you don’t and maybe be inspired to do something similar (but better.) But overall I disliked the stories. In case you were wondering, the stories I thought were actually good were 3, 7, 9, 20, 22, 24, and 25.

Also, I loved the concept and I wonder how hard it would be to put together my own advent calendar of recommended short stories for next year. I might need to make the attempt.

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.