Favorite Books Read in 2021

YA and Middle Grade:

Hold Back the Tide- Melinda Salisbury

A tragic, intense horror novel/rural fantasy–in a small Scottish village sometime in the 19th century, monsters attack from the loch. They are legitimately terrifying and vicious, but there are as many monsters in the village as coming from the loch. And they’re not who you might think fromt eh summary. Gripping and terrifying, but also uplifting in a strange way despite its sad ending. I loved Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin-Eater’s Daughter series and this was a worthy and skillful successor.

The Beauty of the Moment- Tanaz Bhathena

Susan, an Indian Christian brought up in Saudi Arabia, moves to Canada, where she tried to adjust and falls for a Parsi boy who was born there. Susan and Malcolm’s relationship is realistically imperfect, but hopeful, and helps them grapple with Susan’s parents’ divorce and Malcolm’s formerly physically abusive, now withdrawn, widowed father. Bhathena wrote A Girl Like That about a half-Parsi girl in Saudi Arabia ostracized by the community she wants so badly to be hers; this book, by contrast, is about finding community.

The Last Hawk- Elizabeth Wein

A young glider pilot in WWII is given the opportunity to help her country–or so she’s told. Living in Nazi Germany, our heroine is afraid her stutter will mark her out as intellectually disabled and thus a target of the regime (this is not made as clear as it could be in the novel, but people back then often connected speech impediments to intellectual disability). Instead, she’s swept up into the glamorous world of an older pro-Nazi female pilot, which gives her safety but also exposes her to the terrible truth about what the Nazis are doing with forced labor and concentration camp prisoners. She must decide what to do with this knowledge. There’s a delicate balance between self-deception and self-preservation in this one–the main character absolutely knows the disabled are being killed from the beginning, but she doesn’t see a way to do anything other than keep her head down and hope it’s not her next. As she grows in power both external and internal, she realizes she does have the opportunity and the duty to fight the regime, and that she can love her country while opposing it in wartime.

Adult:

A Passage to India- E.M. Forster

Let’s be real, I didn’t think a British person writing in the 1910’s and 1920’s could write something this good about India. There are flaws–the self-insert character who’s let off the hook morally for witness tampering in a rape case, the exoticization of Hindu customs–but as the story of good people struggling to connect in a system that not only discourages, but in Forster’s view makes impossible honest friendship across racial lines, it is a powerful indictment of colonialism written before its imminent collapse became obvious. Credit to the author for looking past what his society told him and writing this beautiful, horrifying book.

Poetry:

Deaf Republic- Ilya Kaminsky

When a city is occupied by enemy soldiers who kill a deaf boy, the whole city goes deaf in protest, communicating by sign language as part of their resistance. But will the resistance succeed, and to what extent is the cycle of violence corrupting? And even if resistance is futile…well, is it? Includes the much-quoted poem “We Lived Happily During the War” and a message in a multilingual sign language created for the book.

White Eagles – Elizabeth Wein

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 3.42.48 PMThis is another short novel in the mode of Wein’s earlier Firebird, following an East European female pilot in WWII. In this case, the protagonist is a Polish girl, Kristina, who serves as a liaison pilot in the Polish Air Force and escapes in a small plane when her airstrip is taken over and her brother killed by the German army.

Except there’s a passenger she didn’t expect. Julian, an eleven-year-old Jewish orphan, has snuck onboard her plane and is determined to get to England, sometimes coming into conflict with Kristina, who wants to join the rest of the Polish Air Force in France. Julian is probably the most vivid character in the book, resilient, a bit sneaky, confident, and ultimately very, very young.

With a combination of Julian’s language skills and Kristina’s flying abilities, they cross much of Europe, encountering a variety of people along the way, from Hungarians who help them on the supposition that Julian is an Austrian Boy Scout to an Italian who tries to rape Kristina. Ultimately they make it to France, but will Julian get to England as his murdered father wanted him to?

Compared to Firebird, there was no first-person narration or clever structure, but it was a lot more plausible (no Anastasia myth here!). I liked that Kristina and Julian aren’t instant buddies, but have a hard-earned friendship across cultures and age difference after flying across Europe together. They each have to rely on the other for the skills they don’t have, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

I also liked that this book brought attention to the women who fought for Poland in WWII and the Polish war effort generally. An afterword notes the real-life contributions of Polish exiles in the war effort.

This book was printed specially for dyslexic readers, which involved changing some of the Polish spellings. Lwów becomes Lvov, Krystyna becomes Kristina. This was a little distracting (especially having Polish characters using the Russian name Lvov) but it was probably necessary for the format.

 

 

Firebird – Elizabeth Wein

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 10.15.06 PMThis novella was written specifically for teenage dyslexic readers, so it uses more dyslexic-friendly language, length, and formatting, while diving into some tough subject matter and using sophisticated narrative strategies. The book is framed as the written testimony of Nastia, a Soviet pilot in World War II who is accused of treason. She gives an account of her wartime experiences and the incident that led her to be accused.

A “the lady or the tiger” ending leaves readers uncertain as to Nastia’s eventual fate. Is she shot as a traitor or released? This also subtly gives the readers a clue that life in the USSR is not always as Nastia (the loyal daughter of Communist Party members) makes it out to be.

There’s a lot of information on the female pilots of World War II (Nastia is not a bomber pilot or Night Witch, but rather a fighter pilot). Wein clearly outlines her sources for different parts of the story in an author’s note. She is also about to release a nonfiction book on the pilots called A Thousand Sisters.

Part of the plot goes back to the Russian Civil War (which Nastia’s parents and her mentor the Chief participated in) and the fate of the Romanov sisters. I think the story would have been stronger without the somewhat implausible Romanov link, but I also think a lot of young readers will enjoy that aspect and after all, the book is directed at them.

The Chief and Nastia are great characters–indeed, characterization is a major strong point of the book. The Chief is a tough woman who wears her elaborate makeup as a shield and rebuilds her life over and over again. I read her as asexual or aromantic (or both) because of comments she makes about how loyalty has meant more to her than love in her life.

Nastia is an enthusiastic and idealistic young person. She worries, however, that her courage is not sufficient. She also experiences no romances over the course of the story, but in her case, this is less about fundamental aspects of her character and more about the circumstances she finds herself in. She is unquestioning of the Soviet system (and may even be playing up her loyalty to it, given the circumstances in which she writes her account). She deals with period-typical sexism, from being turned away from a recruiting office in the early days of the war to her otherwise supportive father not wanting her to learn to fly. Ultimately, she faces a dangerous choice–should she return to Soviet territory after ending up behind enemy lines?

The climax of the story was a little bit rushed, after being foreshadowed in the first pages, and I wanted a bit more out of those scenes. There were also a few details I thought were implausible, such as the Romanov link at the end and the letter Nastia’s father is able to send her from besieged Leningrad telling her of the horrors of the blockade–surely a letter from a besieged city to a serving airwoman would have been censored?

However, the novella as a whole is very strong. Wein commits to the quasi-epistolary nature of the novella, showing everything from Nastia’s point of view while leaving room around the edges for the things Nastia wouldn’t say or think. The reader does have to go in with some knowledge of the Soviet Union because of how deeply the novella is in Nastia’s point of view, which might be an issue for younger readers.

The details of wartime are fascinatingly portrayed and the author’s note is highly informative. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novella most for the characters, and found myself hoping that somehow against the odds, Nastia would be acquitted. The fact that we never find out her fate is daring for a YA/MG novel, but the author of Code Name Verity has never shied away from narrative sophistication or tearing up readers’ hearts.

Five October Releases I Can’t Wait For!

Fall is here, bringing with it Halloween, pumpkin spice, and some of this year’s most highly anticipated book releases! From the new Philip Pullman novel in the world of His Dark Materials to the 40th anniversary Star Wars anthology to the latest YA from John Green, October is going to be a busy month for publishing.

This list includes both those eagerly-awaited titles and ones that are less well known, but no less exciting!

51wsvwg-otl-_sx331_bo1204203200_1. A Skinful of Shadows – Frances Hardinge

Having heard great things about The Lie Tree and Fly By Night, I’ve been keeping an eye on Hardinge’s releases, waiting for the one that will really grab me. This English Civil War fantasy, featuring a girl on the run from scheming relatives and ghostly possession across war-torn 17th century England, may just be it!

Out October 17th.

51yjlk890rl-_sx329_bo1204203200_2. Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have OCD. I didn’t know that children’s books megastar John Green, author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, suffered from the same condition. Now he’s drawing on that experience for the story of Aza, who is “living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts”–but it’s also got a reclusive billionaire and Star Wars fanfiction.

Out October 10th.

from-a-certain-point-of-view-cover3. From a Certain Point of View
Elizabeth Wein and many, many others

Speaking of Star Wars fic, this collection of forty stories set during A New Hope–each from a different character’s perspective–celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the classic space adventure. I’m especially looking forward to the short story by Elizabeth Wein (of Code Name Verity fame–I’ve reviewed her The Pearl Thief and The Winter Prince here and here). It looks like will be written from the perspective of one of Leia’s captors, but I don’t know anything more.

Out October 3rd.

51agvobnv1l-_sx328_bo1204203200_4. The Stone in the Skull – Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is another favorite writer of mine, and she returns from a year-long sabbatical with The Stone in the Skull, set in the India analogue of her Eternal Sky universe (I reviewed Shattered Pillars from the previous Eternal Sky trilogy here). In addition to the setting and author, this book also has its characters going for it, particularly the Dead Man, a bodyguard whose charge has died. Here’s an excerpt, in which the Dead Man gives some (possibly hypocritical) advice:
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Out October 10th.

61f7blrxqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_5. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

And finally, the long-awaited “equel” to Pullman’s bestselling trilogy–The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Taking place when protagonist Lyra was only a baby, this start to a new trilogy will deal with the massive flood referenced in the other books. Hopefully the time period means we’ll see more of Lyra’s parents, a magnetic and ruthless couple with a love-hate relationship.

Out October 19th.

The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

This is going to be a weird review because a comprehensive review of The Pearl Thief would involve cultural/subject matter expertise which I don’t have. Specifically, many characters in this book, though not the protagonist Julie, are Scottish Travellers, and the prejudices they face form a large aspect of the plot. So I’m putting it upfront that I’m not going to review the representation of that culture in this book, because I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I will say that Scottish Traveller author Jess Smith is thanked in the acknowledgements for reviewing the manuscript for Traveller cultural elements.

I’d also like to thank Hyperion for sending me an ARC.

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Unlike Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief is not presented as a found manuscript, so it is very much franker about sexuality, for example, than Code Name Verity. Julie has two crushes over the course of the book, one on the contractor who is turning her grandfather’s estate into a school, Frank Dunbar, and a more serious one on Ellen McEwen, a proud and prickly Traveller girl with an interest in archaeology and geology. Ellen and Julie never “get together” in the sense of explicitly forming a relationship, but they do clandestinely kiss once under the guise of showing how a man kisses a woman. Julie is clear that her “passion for Ellen” is equivalent to and even deeper than her passion for Frank.

I enjoyed this book actually even more than Code Name Verity, though I missed the character of Maddie (we see in this book how Julie got the nickname “Queenie”). I thought it was more plausible than Code Name Verity and I liked getting inside Julie’s head a bit more and seeing more of her brother Jamie. However, as is usual with Wein’s books, the very ending is fluffed a bit and spells out the epiphanies too much. And while I enjoyed the exploration of class in the book (Julie is an aristocrat, and coming to terms with the privileges that entails), it struck me as a gap in that theme that the only working-class characters were either Travellers or two prejudiced and unsympathetic servants.

As to the mystery element, I figured out who the villain was immediately upon his introduction, but I didn’t predict some of the twists. I also loved a scene which I will put under a cut for mild spoilers.
Continue reading

Five Most Anticipated Books of 2017

Happy New Year, all! Hope you had a great holiday season.

It’s time to look ahead to all the exciting books coming out this year, and here are five to get you started!

1. Poor Relations by Jo Walton

The acclaimed fantasist, author of Among Others and The Just City, makes her first novel-length foray into science fiction with this tale of an alien invasion of human-colonized Mars, loosely inspired on the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park. (ETA: This may be a 2018 release instead!)

2. Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz

A debut starring the Night Witches of the WWII Soviet air force, as Valentina joins the all-female night bombers and has to use her flying skills to rescue a boy trapped behind enemy lines. That plus the epistolary style makes me think of it as an Soviet-set Code Name Verity.

3. The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Speaking of which, a prequel to Code Name Verity is coming this spring! Julie solves a mystery on her grandparents’ estate in Scotland–a murder for which local Travellers were framed.

4. Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

The second half of the notorious Mycroft Canner’s thrilling story will hopefully resolve the many mysteries of Palmer’s first book, a riff on the Enlightenment set in the far, far future.

5. The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The conclusion to the series that began with The Sin-Eater’s Daughter and continued with The Sleeping Prince. How will the supremely creepy Sleeping Prince be defeated? And who will die in the process?

plus one that I’m hoping for but that doesn’t have a firm release date yet

6. The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Following on from The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Baru is elevated to the high political class of the Falcresti empire. She’ll have to be more cunning than ever to succeed in dismantling the Imperial Republic from the inside.

UK Cover for Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-1-14-26-pmElizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity prequel, The Pearl Thief, has a UK cover! And you can get this edition from The Book Depository with free shipping. It’s a paperback, cheaper than the US edition, but comes out two days later.

I love the elegant Thirties style of the cover, particularly Julie’s hairpiece! Can’t wait to see what the US cover looks like. In the meantime, here’s the UK description:

From the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes a stunning new story of pearls, love and murder – a mystery with all the suspense of an Agatha Christie and the intrigue of Downton Abbey.

Sixteen-year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart is returning to her family’s ancestral home in Perthshire for one last summer. It is not an idyllic return to childhood. Her grandfather’s death has forced the sale of the house and estate and this will be a summer of goodbyes. Not least to the McEwen family – Highland travellers who have been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember – loved by the family, loathed by the authorities. Tensions are already high when a respected London archivist goes missing, presumed murdered. Suspicion quickly falls on the McEwens but Julie knows not one of them would do such a thing and is determined to prove everyone wrong. And then she notices the family’s treasure trove of pearls is missing.

This beautiful and evocative novel is the story of the irrepressible and unforgettable Julie, set in the year before the Second World War and the events of Code Name Verity. It is also a powerful portrayal of a community under pressure and one girl’s determination for justice.

Code Name Verity prequel- description of The Pearl Thief

So you may have heard that Elizabeth Wein is writing a prequel to Code Name Verity. Below is the description I found on her publisher’s website:

Before Verity . . . there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital with a head injury and no memory of the events that landed her there, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family from the opposite side of the banks, she finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body turns up, her new friends are caught in crosshairs of long-held prejudices. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In the prequel to Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this thrilling coming-of-age story returns to a beloved character just before she learned to fly.

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2015

1. Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
This one comes out next week. The way I’ve been selling it to my friends is two words: steampunk lesbians. It’s set in the Wild West, with an Indian love interest (that’s Indian from India, not American Indian) and is in first person with a voice that’s been getting raves in early reviews. Bear’s one of my favorite authors and I’ll be picking this one up as soon as it’s out.

2. The Shadow Cabinet – Maureen Johnson
Book two of The Shades of London ended on a major cliffhanger– how will Johnson resolve it? Though I only skimmed The Madness Underneath, I really liked The Name of the Star and am curious to see where this series goes.

3. Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein
I had some issues with Code Name Verity and skipped Rose Under Fire due to the implausibility of the premise, but Wein did write the absolutely lovely The Winter Prince and I love that her latest is set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, a lesser-known but fascinating and disturbing time period.

4. Until the Beginning – Amy Plum
In this sequel to After the End, the final book in the duology, Juno and Mike find Juno’s people, who have been kidnapped due to their discovery of a drug that prevents aging. Juno is such a great character, naive after being raised isolated in the Alaskan wilderness but fiercely competent as a result of the same circumstances.

5. The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson
Disclaimer: I know the author. But you want to read this book– it’s a heartrending lesbian love story, a brutal exploration of the effects of imperialism, a great secondary-world fantasy, and much more. Much love for the cover art; the crumbling mask refers both to the Empire of Masks which conquers Baru’s home and to the question of Baru’s own identity as she navigates a sea of intrigue.