The Bear and the Nightingale

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden, 2017

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: A minor noble in medieval Russia loves his wife for all her strangeness. Their daughter Vasya will inherit her mother's gifts and defend her home as best she can from the darkness of both men and spirit.

I was very hopeful about this book, the descriptions and tag lines were all very intriguing. In the end, I liked it, but it wasn't as special or unique as I might have wished.

The writing style and use of Russian folklore and culture were well done; I felt that I could see the creatures and the places. However, the plot meanders for a while setting up all the pieces before getting to the meat. All of the setup - Vasya's parents, politics that affect their family, her birth and early childhood - just isn't that compelling to me.

Vasya is a wild child with an affinity for spirits and the land. Her main adversary is the changing culture, as personified by a devout stepmother and a zealous young priest who seeks to dominate her village and exterminate the old customs. While this is easy to sympathize with, and I enjoyed the story, I did feel like I've read and seen very similar dynamics many times.

The sequences in the last third or so I felt were the strongest. Vasya finally comes into her own and the climactic action was fairly satisfying.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Monday, January 23, 2017

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Rebecca Solnit, 2004, 2015

Premise: A case for hope despite adversity, describing several progressive movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

I thought at times while reading it that this was an odd book to read now, even though it was lauded and spread around in the immediate wake of the 2016 election. Somewhat ironically and somewhat logically, I found the chapters about principles and ideas more solid than the chapters which detailed the events that ostensibly supported those principles.

Although additional material was added in 2014 and 2015, the book was originally written during the second Bush administration and is often focused on news that was current at that time. I am either not fully familiar with or not fully convinced by the results of some of the movements and protests that she cites as evidence. This means that her argument -- said movements created more change than is immediately apparent -- doesn't fully land for me.

I don't actually think she's wrong -- I do think that we fail to see the subtle progress and pressure that leads up to victories, I'm just not sold on all her choices for supporting evidence. I might be if I had more background or did more research on some of them, and I do completely understand how it would land for others.

I did really like a lot of the writing, particularly about avoiding a kind of navel-gazing despair that many liberals are prone to. Some of her proposals have satisfying poetry and grace -- combine determination with joy, seek a mindset where you can celebrate and fight at the same time.

3 Stars - A Good Book with Some Awesome Passages

Love Is Love

Monday, January 16, 2017

Love Is Love
Hundreds of creators organized by Marc Andreyko, published by IDW, 2016

Premise: This comic anthology was created in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Proceeds benefit the victims, survivors, and their families.

It's not easy to review any anthology, and this is an extreme example. Every piece is only one or two pages, and they range from straight art pieces, to evocative art and poetry, to stylized or indy comic style pieces, to classic modern superhero mini-stories.

Common themes include resilience, grief, and, of course, love. There are little stories about children coming out to parents, about the place clubs have in LGBT culture, about the shock and anguish as the reports came out, about how hate is passed on and how it is overcome.

Not every piece hit home for me, some were more esoteric or I'm not sure I understood. It is an overall a very emotional book to read, though.

Some of the most powerful pieces (no surprise) were personal perspectives from creators who are themselves LGBT, although there is an enormous variety of fascinating micro-stories here.

I found the ones that used licensed superhero characters (both characters who identify as gay or lesbian and others) to be a mixed bag. Some worked for me, some felt a bit half-hearted or obvious.

Overall this book succeeded before anyone read it: despite landing in stores in the last week of 2016, it was the best-selling graphic novel in December. I had to try a couple stores to find a copy, and as of writing, it's out-of-stock on

I'm thrilled that it's been a best-seller, but the lasting value is the honest grief, love, and hope on every page.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Genevieve Valentine, 2014

Premise: Jo and her eleven sisters lead a quiet, cloistered life in the upper stories of their father’s townhouse. Except that every chance they get, the girls are sneaking out to dance.

This is a fantastic retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in the 1920’s. It makes a lot of sense to set it then: The father is of an older generation, embarrassed by having no sons, and tries to keep the girls hidden to keep them “pure.” The girls are drawn to the combined secrecy and freedom of the underground network of speakeasies and dance halls.

I really appreciated how much effort went into giving each girl agency and at least a little character. Jo, the eldest, is the main character, as she looks out for the others, and is the main interface with their father. And I’ll admit that the author, faced with eleven other young women to sketch out, does end up with two sets of twins that made me think of the way many of the dwarves of The Hobbit are only somewhat distinct.

But in the end, except for two girls whose primary characteristic is that they embrace the idea of being identical twins, each girl has some uniqueness, and I was able to picture the whole sequined mass of them.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and the production was very nice - sneaking in music where appropriate. The reader did a great job distinguishing between the girls as well.

There is a primary romantic plot for Jo (and some romantic subplots for a few of the other older girls), but her focus is always the welfare of her sisters, sometimes to her own detriment. I really liked how, late in the book, Jo has trouble adjusting to being able to want something for herself as the younger girls become more self-sufficient.

The dancing is wonderfully present and vibrantly alive. It’s the most important thing to these girls who have little other joy, and their passion for dancing is wonderfully described.

The girls have much more agency, and the suitors more worth, than the original fairy tale, but that is no surprise. This was a delightful and moving story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Year of DNF... and a New Challenge

Monday, January 2, 2017

Well, it's 2017.

In 2016 I took on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, and I posted 22 reviews out of 24 challenges. The only two I missed were reading a book out loud and a book about religion. There were probably several books I read last year that qualify as being "about" religion, but I didn't finish the one I intended to read for the purpose of the challenge.

That leads me to the trend of this year - Did Not Finish

I gave out a LOT of four- and five-star reviews this year, at least partially because this was the year that I stopped reading a lot of books halfway through. This used to be fairly unusual for me. I used to care a lot more about finishing any book I started. Especially for the purpose of review, I'll sometimes finish a book I don't like so I'll be able to articulate why I don't like it.

But this year, between completing a certificate program in editing, starting a new editing job with a 45-60 minute commute and then BUYING A HOUSE to shorten said commute, I did not have time or energy for books that weren't working for me.

Here are some of the books I didn't finish in 2016, in rough chronological order of when I stopped reading them. Some I might go back to, some I won't.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith
    • Surprisingly dull. This just made me want to read actual Pride and Prejudice.
  • The Sleeping Life, Andrea K. Host
    • I love this author, so I'm sure I'll get back to this, but I had no memory of the previous book in the series and couldn't get any traction.
  • For the King's Favor, Elizabeth Chadwick
    • Wanted to like this, but it was just a series of happenings, not a story. I got over halfway through before finally putting it down.
  • Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas
    • I planned to read this for the religion challenge, but it was dry and incredibly long. I only got a tiny bit into it before moving on.
  • Stealing Buddha's Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen
    • I started this, intending to read it for the food memoir challenge, but the first chapter didn't grab me and before I read more, it had to go back to the library.
  • The Outlander, Gil Adamson
    • I heard good things about this, and parts of the style were neat, but I realized I was making excuses not to read more and gave myself permission to stop.
  • Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday, Gerry Bowler
    • The beginning about early Christmas history was great, but as it moved into more modern history, the dry academic tone started to just sound smug and horrible. Gave up.
  • The Winter Queen, Elizabeth Chadwick
    • I liked the first one in this series, but the second one is meandering.

As for the year ahead, I am not doing the Read Harder Challenge again. It was a good start, but I need a more focused task. As many others have, I've been collecting a list for my own 2017 challenge, inspired by current events.

I plan to read between 12 and 24 books on:

  • Taking action for social justice 
  • Racism (nonfiction, fiction, memoir)
  • Sexism/misogyny (nonfiction, fiction, memoir)
  • Feminist/women's history
  • Fascism and authoritarianism in history and fiction
  • Immigrant perspectives and other marginalized voices
  • Understanding social conservatism (academically, I mean)

I'm calling it - Reading With Purpose. I'm going to read lots of fluff and fun as well to stay sane, but I can't pretend that there isn't a lot to learn.