Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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This series is the kind of thing that makes me want to fangirl all over the place. I loved the dreamy/nightmarish Russian-inspired setting, and the way magic works in this fantastic realm. Mal and Alina’s romance in Shadow and Bone was so sweet, and compared to the way they act in this book, innocent. But in a second book of a trilogy, things have to get complicated. Mal and Alina are clearly made to be together, but they’re bad at communicating, and their circumstances pull them apart. There are petty jealousies and new inequalities of rank. It’s sad to see people who love each other hurt each other, not in spite of their love but because of it. Mal acts both idiotically and with stubborn honor; Alina doesn’t work hard enough to keep him close to her, mostly because she doesn’t quite understand that that is where he wants to be. I love that this heroine has considerable lust for power and darkness within her, in addition to her sarcastic, prickly personality and inferiority complex–she’s not sunshine and roses even though her power is literally summoning light. In this book, Alina and Mal spend a lot of time in the royal palace, and a new character is a very romantic figure–a second-born prince, rumored to be a bastard, who has been away from the capital inventing flying machines while disguised as a privateer. I was afraid he would turn the story into a love triangle, but thankfully Alina is never really tempted by his (and his brother’s) pragmatic proposals.  Though the tone is often incredibly dark, there are also many funny moments. Like many #2’s in trilogies, the ending seems like it’s as bad as it can be–an explosion of violence, the heroine willingly handing herself over to the villain to save her friends. But you know it’s only going to get worse. I can’t wait to pick up the finale.

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Meh.

I read a lot of books. I’m never going to have time to review all of them fully. To be honest, I just don’t have much to say about some of them. They weren’t so great I want to tell everyone how awesome they are, and weren’t so terrible I want to spew bile all over them. They were just…meh. Maybe I just don’t get them. I’m fully prepared to own my lack of response as my own deficiency, especially because the list includes a couple “classics.” I want to cross some books off my “to review” list, so here are a few that qualify for this one-word noncommittal description:

The Fountain of St. James Place by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Poison Principle by Gail Bell

Wayward Girls, Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories by Angela Carter

Howard’s End by E.M.Forster

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Still Life by Louise Penny

I could probably add more to this list, but I guess I’m holding out hope that if I think enough about these other books, I’ll be able to come up with more than a shrug. We’ll see.

I’ve posted almost every weekday since my return to the blog, but I know I can’t keep that pace up forever. My goal for now is to post at least weekly. So if there’s nothing new here tomorrow, don’t give up on me! There should be more within a week.

The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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This novel is about four grown siblings who have been expecting to receive and split a large trust fund, but one of them, through addiction and irresponsibility, blows through most of the money his siblings have been planning to use to keep their homes and businesses, and to send their children to college. Narration bounces between the siblings and several other characters, each one interesting and three-dimensional. It’s a large cast, composed of the four siblings, their partners, former partners, children, business associates, and victims.

The characters are all very privileged, and that’s part of the point. They feel entitled to continue lifestyles they can no longer fund independently. The story asks what happens when privileged people are on the brink of losing their advantages. How low will they go to keep what they have? Sweeney examines the corrosive potential of wealth to damage relationships. At the end, the siblings let go of the things they thought they had to cling to, from homes to marriages to their views of each other and themselves, and somehow manage to survive. The book is tragicomic and affirming, a fun read.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

200px-jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverThis doorstopper fantasy is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a while. It tells of two men’s quest to “bring magic back to England” in the early 1800s. Mr. Norrell, a retiring, bookish magician wants to bring the practice of magic to prominence and respectability, but he has to make a bargain with a fairy to cement a relationship with a member of Parliament, securing his influence. The havoc the fairy wreaks in the lives of that MP’s wife and servant, stealing their health and sleep, forms a major subplot. Every time the poor victims try to tell anyone of their plight, they speak nonsense or tell a fairy story.

Jonathan Strange, a very Romantic figure, becomes Norrell’s apprentice. They use magic to help the English generals and admirals in the Napoleonic Wars, conjuring storms, building roads, and even raising the dead. Strange and Norell eventually disagree, causing a rift in the new magical community. Norrell wants to keep all magic under his personal control, especially the books of magic, while Strange wants to explore the dangerous roads into fairyland. Long, impressively detailed footnotes fill in encyclopedic details, making the novel feel like a history book, but it’s a history in which fairy tales are considered primary documents. The creepy fairy world and its history are a huge highlight. Clarke has created an alternative history in which northern England was ruled for centuries by a fairy king named John Uskglass, and in which magic, not Nelson and Wellington, beat Napoleon. The writing approximates English novels of that period, with the wit typical of Austen and Dickens. I thought it was hilarious, fearful, and wondrous.

Southern Festival of Books 2016 Recap

I spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville. I arrived at the downtown library at 9, unloaded the stroller and wheeled the baby to the auditorium for the early book talk. I didn’t know that it was sponsored by the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, an organization I’m glad to have learned about. There were little muffins and coffee cakes on the way in. I parked the stroller in the hall and found a seat in the back, on the aisle, near a door, with the baby on my lap. Curtis Sittenfeld, Adam Haslett, Danielle Dutton, and Yaa Gyasi sat in a row in comfy chairs on the stage, interviewed by a local host. Each read an excerpt from their books. Questions concentrated on their writing processes, which I actually don’t find all that interesting. It’s kind of a repetitive question that comes up at every author talk I ever go to. But it was interesting and heartening to learn that Dutton’s book took her 10 years to write, and Gyasi’s took her 7. I had heard of Dutton, but not of Haslett; now both of their books are added to my long list of books to read. Luckily I’ve become comfortable nursing in public. I fed the baby during the talk, but when he was finished, he thrashed around and hit his head on the arm of my chair, making him cry. I got up and ran out the door quickly–my strategic seating decision minimized disruption. I calmed him and went back inside. He slept through the second half.

When the talk was over, I hustled the stroller up the hill to the Legislative Pavillion where the rest of the festival was. I found the ramp and the big tent from Parnassus Books with all the books from all the authors. I picked three, limited by budget, and knowing I couldn’t count on having time to get more than that many books signed. I got Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and the new books from Lauren Oliver and Beth Revis. Then I had to figure out how to get up to the signing colonnade with the stroller. I had to go into the building on the ground floor, through a hall to an elevator, then up. I met Sittenfeld, and told her I’m from Cincinnati, where her book is set. Then I rushed back inside and down the elevator to the room where Lauren Oliver’s talk would be. It was a very full room. Oliver was presenting with Kendare Blake, a small, funny woman whose YA books seem dark and gory, in a good way. Oliver’s disciplined, prolific writing schedule awes me. She writes as many as 3 books at a time, at least 500 words a day on each. No wonder she has so many novels. I also found out that her first book, Before I Fall, will be a movie in the spring. After I went back to the elevator, up to the colonnade, and got in line with the baby, I saw that Oliver actually had one of the longest signing lines I saw all day. (J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, had perhaps the longest.) The baby smiled at people in line. Oliver actually remembered me from two years ago, or at least she said she did.

I had a break then; Beth Revis’s talk didn’t start for almost 2 hours. I went back down the elevator and outside. I walked to the food trucks and got chicken tacos. That area was really crowded and hard to navigate with the stroller. I realized I couldn’t carry the plate of tacos while wheeling the stroller, so I sat down there on a curb and ate. Then the baby was fussy so I fed him too. He liked playing with my empty water bottle. Then I took my time going back to the door to get to the elevator, glancing at booths, picking up a couple brochures and wishing I could spend lots of money on cute book accessories. When I got back inside, it was still early; another talk was going on in the room, so I went to the bathroom. There was no changing table for the baby, so I changed him in the stroller. I sat in a chair and nursed him again, and he fell right asleep. Someone helped me wheel the stroller to park it in the anteroom. The room was mostly empty and there were 10 minutes to kill. I spotted two girls I’d met before at another book event and talked to them a while, exchanging contact info. Revis’s talk was mostly a prepared speech about the ‘origin story’ for her new book, A World Without You. I think she presented it that way so that she didn’t get too emotional. She said that it was inspired by the life of her brother, who passed away from complications of mental illness and addiction. That’s the kind of connection I like to learn about at a book talk. She also said that her son was born the day after she turned the book in to her publisher (and he’s now a year and a half old). Another elevator to the colonnade, then back down and out, down the hill to the library, and $11 to the parking garage (!).

All that is to say:

1) Book festivals rock. The people I meet there are so friendly and cool and alive with a spark that makes them unique. They are passionately interested in their quirky little niche, proudly letting their freak flag fly, and that is a beautiful thing.

2) Navigating crowds and multi-floor events with a stroller is exhausting. I truly feel for disabled people who have to deal with that every day and don’t ever have the option to leave the baby at home.

3) Tennessee’s state government building is not set up to be very easily accessible for the disabled or for women with children. But they made as many accommodations as they could and were very friendly about opening doors and pushing elevator buttons.

4) People like seeing babies, so even though I felt like I was taking up too much space and potentially disrupting things, I felt very welcome. That was a huge relief, because I was afraid parenthood would stop me from enjoying events like this.

5) I am super lucky to have such a chill baby who is so friendly in crowds and doesn’t throw tantrums when I need him to be quiet.

6) I got introduced to some authors I’m now interested in learning more about, including Haslett and Blake.

7) I have 3 more signed books to read!

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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This novel begins with two sisters in Africa in the late 1700s. One marries a British slave ship captain, and the other is captured and enslaved. Later chapters follow their descendants, traveling from Fanti villages to Ashanti villages to the Gold Coast, from Georgia, to Baltimore, to an Alabama coal mine, to Harlem. Gyasi is deeply concerned with the complicity and cooperation of Africans in selling members of competing tribes into slavery; she treats it like an original sin that reverberates throughout the generations of her characters on that side of the Atlantic. A few images recur and link the families across time and space: fire, water, a necklace, beating, chasing, hiding in trees. The chapters read like linked short stories. While some are heartbreaking, others are hopeful, especially toward the book’s end. I found each character compelling and each story fascinating.

2016 Southern Festival of Books

As in past years, I’m excited to go to the Southern Festival of Books this weekend! I’ll have a baby in tow this time, so I’m not sure how many events we’ll make it to, but these are the authors I’m hoping to see:

Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, to be reviewed here soon

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Eligible, which have been on my “books to read” list for a long time

Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium trilogy, Before I Fall, Panic, Rooms, and Vanishing Girls

Beth Revis, author of the Across the Universe trilogy

Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay and Where She Went

Maggie Stiefvater, author of Lament, Ballad, the Shiver trilogy, Sinner, and The Raven Cycle