24 Hours in Ancient Athens

by Philip Matyszak
First sentence: “Welcome to Athens in 416 BC.”
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Content: There’s some frank talk about sex. It would be in the History section (I think) of the bookstore, if we had it.

This little book is a quick, accessible, peek into what life was (probably) like in ancient Athens. Beginning at midnight and going for 24 hours, each chapter (which is an hour on the clock) highlights a different person, from slaves to merchants, soldiers to priestesses, doctors to smugglers. There are “famous” people, like Sophocles and Hippocrates, but most people are invented by Matyszak, based on the research he’s done into Athens.

So, it’s not really history, because most of the people are fictionalized. But it’s also not really fiction, because the information is based in fact. It’s this weird grey area.

It’s also not something I’d usually read, but a friend of mine teaches a class about Ancient Greece and she picked it for our book group. I ended up finding it fascinating though. It’s not one that needs to be read straight through (the stories don’t really build on one another), but can be dipped into on occasion. It’s very readable and accessible, even though there are a lot of names of places and people that I had to let wash over me.

I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to, though. If you have an interest in the daily lives of the people who lived in Athens, then this is the book for you.

Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s some talk of murder, it’s pretty intricate in its writing and there are about a dozen f-bombs at one point. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t going to read this one. I remember reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when it first came out and thought it was a bit overblown. But, I have to admit, my interest was piqued when Maggie Stiefvater said she loved this one. And then M read it and suggested I give it a try (after I picked it up for her to take back with her).

And… the less said about the plot, the better, I think. Know Piranesi is a person who lives in a labyrinth a House full of Statues, and who is mostly alone. There is a mystery of sorts, and perhaps the less you know about that, the better. But know that the mystery really isn’t the point of the book (if you do think it’s the point then you are bound to be disappointed at the Big Reveal like I was). The point, as M pointed out when we were talking about it, is that it’s an homage to curiosity and to resistance. And it’s a meditation on being alone versus being lonely. It’s a charming little book with a completely engaging main character.

It’s probably not going to be my favorite book ever, but I’m not sorry I read it.

Super Fake Love Song

by David Yoon
First sentence: “Every superhero has an origin story.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and in the older brother has a drinking problem. It’s in the YA section (grade 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sunny Dae (yes, that is meant to be punny) is a Nerd. Not only self-declared, but declared by the student body of his super rich California high school. Which is fine with Sunny. He and his friends Jamal and Milo have their own thing: a DIY FX YouTube channel for people who want to make their own cosplay outfits. It’s a perfectly fine existence, and aside from the fact that Sunny’s older brother Gray won’t talk to him and his parents are always working, one that Sunny is happy with.

Then Sunny meets Cirrus Soh, who accidentally thinks that Gray’s old room — full of guitars and “cool” things — is Sunny’s. And Sunny leans into that lie: yes, he plays guitar. Yes, he fronts a band. Yes, he’s “cool”. And all of a sudden, he has to make good on his lie. He ropes his friends into it, and gets the girl. The problem is: he’s kind of liking the “new Sunny” but he’s letting his friends down. Can he find a way to balance everything?

This book was super fun! Okay, so the romance part of this book wasn’t the best; Sunny and Cirrus were a bit forced and their romance never really felt real to me. What I did love, though, was Sunny. I loved his grappling with being nerdy and realizing that not everything or everyone fits neatly into boxes. I loved his family and their relationship to each other. For me, that was where the most interesting drama took place. I adored Milo and Jamal, and thought the three friends were brilliant together. And loved passages like this:

“My two best friends wore what they normally wore, which was to say a combination of low-performance joggers and blank polos that were so normcore, they went though dadcore and into weekend dadcore beyond.”

And this:

“The cynic would say Sunset [Boulevard] was like any other street in the godforsaken post-apocalyptic wonderland. But it wasn’t. It was a twenty-some-odd-mile-long serpent behemoth whose head had no idea what its tail was doing.”

No, it’s not brilliant fiction. But it is a lot of fun! And right now, that’s what really matters.

Audio book: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything

by Raquel Vasquez Gillliland
narrated by Inés del Castillo
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including many f-bombs and description of sexual assault as well as almost-sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s been three years since Sia’s mom disappeared in an ICE raid that sent her back to Mexico, a place where she had never been, having been brought to the US by her mother when she was young. Sia’s mom since disappeared, and was presumed to be dead. By everyone. So, for three years, Sia has been harboring grudge and aching for revenge on the sheriff who turned her mother in.

And… here’s where everything gets a little weird. I was enjoying this book about a girl who was dealing with her mother’s death, with the inherent racism in her town, with trying to keep her best friend together, with liking a new boy who just happens to turn out to be the estranged son of the sheriff. And then the book slants sideways and there are aliens? An Sia’s mom is not dead, but instead has spent the past three years being tested on in a secret government conspiracy? And it took half the book to get there?

I don’t know. I wanted to like this one more than I did. I adored the narrator; I think, in the end, she is what kept me listening (that, and I wanted to see just how far this alien thing would go) because I was annoyed. Annoyed that the jacket blurb gave away the aliens. Annoyed that they didn’t show up until halfway, and yet were so vital to the plot. Annoyed because it was a good book about a girl who was dealing with grief and loss and moving on, and all of a sudden: ALIENS AND YOUR MOM ISN’T DEAD.

I know there are people out there who liked this one. I’m just not one of them.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
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Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.

My Best of 2020

Oh 2020 was a year, wasn’t it? I read less (15 books less than my year with the least since I’ve been keeping track). I read more adult books, and a LOT more YA. I listened to a lot of Audio books because that’s what I could focus on. Even so, I read some pretty good books this year.

By the numbers:

Middle Grade Fiction: 11
YA Fiction: 36
Graphic Novels: 24
Non-Fiction: 26
Adult Fiction: 21

Grand Total: 118

Number of those that were speculative fiction books, not counting graphic novels:  34

Number of those that were by POC: 48 (I was aiming for half, but ended with 41%)
Number of those that were audio books: 22
Number of those that were rereads: 15
Abandoned: 2

And for the bests?

My thee for the bookstore staff best-of:

Best Adult Fiction: Invisible Life of Addie Larue
Best YA book: You Should See Me in a Crown 
Best Middle Grade book: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Best Fantasy: Legendborn
Best Sci-Fi/Distopian: Aurora Rising
Best Graphic Novel: Twins
Best Non-Fiction: Stamped from the Beginning
Best MG/YA Non-fiction: Stamped
Best Romance: Beach Read
Best Audiobook: Such a Fun Age

What were your favorites this year?

Monthly Round-up: December 2020

I knew when I started the month that it was going to be exhausting and that I wouldn’t have time to read. And that turned out to be the case. I went for light and fluffy with a few non-fiction scattered in. I’m just so glad to have the entire month (nay, year) done and over with.

That said, my favorite this month:

I’ll be honest: I put off reading this for months (I had an advance copy) because I wasn’t sure I’d like it. If I didn’t read it, I couldn’t hate it, right? And then it got popular and I’m always suspicious of books that are bought by people who don’t usually read fantasy. But, really? It’s a book about life and living and I loved it.

As for the rest:

YA:

Instant Karma (audiobook)
The Thief
Queen of Attolia
King of Attolia
Conspiracy of Kings
Thick as Thieves
Return of the Thief

Non-Fiction:

White Tears/Brown Scars
So You Want to Talk About Race?
Chesapeake Requiem

What were your favorites this month?

Chesapeake Requiem

by Earl Swift
First sentence: “A day after the storm passed, Carol Pruitt Moore climbed into her skiff and set off for the ruins of Canaan.”
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Content: There is some swearing. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

There is an island on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay called Tangier Island. It has a small population, mostly related (at least distantly), and most of them are crab and oyster fishers. (Is fishers the right word here?) They are extremely religious (there are two churches on the island — a Methodist and an offshoot of that Methodist), and their island is being overrun by water.

Swift has visited the island a couple of times, but in 2016-2017 decided to spend a year there with the people of Tangier Island (who call themselves Tangeirmen. Even the women). The thing is: their livelihood and their island are being compromised by climate change, and yet they have a complicated relationship with the people who want to save the bay, the crabs, and the oysters. Their island is disappearing (they say it’s due to “erosion”) at an ever-faster level, and yet they don’t want to relocate (I get that) and are frustrated the government won’t build them a seawall to help shore up the island.

It’s a fascinating book.

It’s less science and more sociology: Swift takes time to help us get to know the people on the island, their thoughts and beliefs, and helps us understand the conflict they have with the conservationists. It’s easy to say the people of Tangier Island are wrong (and they are), but it’s not simple: crabbing and oystering are their livelihood, and they just want to make ends meet. It’s a fascinating dichotmoy.

It’s not a book I would have picked up without a suggestion from a friend in response to the #ReadICT challenge, but I’m glad I did. It’s fascinating.

Return of the Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “Unlike others who claim to be well-informed, I am an eye-witness to the events I describe, and I write this history so that future scholars will not have to rely, as do so many staring into the past in my day, on secondhand memories passed down over the years, their details worn away by time and retelling.”
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Others in the series: The Thief, Queen of Attolia, King of Attolia, Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves
Content: It’s long, it’s political, and the characters are mostly adults. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore but only because that’s where the others are.

This book is really a book and a half. In the first part, we are introduced to Phares, the grandson of disgraced Baron Erondites (from King of Attolia), who is disfigured and mute, who is sent to live in the palace as the attendant to the King as a joke. Gen, however, sees through this ploy, and keeps Phares on, as he witnesses events that occur in both Conspiracy and Thick as Thieves. In many ways, this first part is to catch us up on what was going on in the palace while those books took place away from Attolia. And while it’s not a bad section, it does lack a plot — aside from the fate of Phares and more insight into Gen’s character — and the pace is slow.

The second part is where the book picks up and everything really begins. Costis (who left with Kamet at the end of Thick as Thieves) comes racing back to the palace with one message: the Medes have invaded over land. It is, in fact, war. And the rest of the book is Gen, Irene, Helen, and Sophos figuring out how to unify their three countries and head to war. Gen is Gen, and there are political maneuverings, and it’s a sweeping book as the countries try to fend off the invaders.

The book — the whole series really — is exploring the ideas of a small nation/state verses a larger one, and the ways politics play into it. It’s perfect for people who are interested in historical fiction, even if the “histories” in these books are not real. But, really: it’s the characters who are the most important part of these books. The way the are loyal to each other, the ways in which they betray and frustrate each other. It’s delightful winding our way through the world and even if her narrative is slow, it’s never uninteresting.

It’s not my favorite of the series, and I think it’s a good ending. She wrapped up most of the threads (to be honest: I was expecting something with the volcano, which never happened) that were hanging around throughout the series. I will miss having new stories in this world, but I am glad for the stories we do have.

The Queen’s Thief Series

I recently reread the series in anticipation of reading the new book (I figured I’d need a refresher). And then I thought I’d update my thoughts on each book. Plus: pretty covers!

The Thief
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”
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Original review (also reread review)
Content: There is some intense moments, and it gets a bit slow for impatient readers (I haven’t been able to convince any of my kids other than M to read these). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Quick thoughts: Ah, Gen. Seriously. I adore this one. And it works as a stand alone. Even if you don’t read the rest of the series. Read. This. One.

The Queen of Attolia
By Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “He was asleep, but woke at the sound of the key turning in the lock.”
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Original review
Content: There is some graphic(ish) violence and trauma. It’s in the YA section (Grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Quick thoughts: I think I liked this better this time around. I didn’t remember hardly anything about it, and the trauma happened much earlier than I thought it did. I don’t know if I buy the love story part, but it’s not gushy. It’s very plain, an aside to the actual story — how Eddis can end the war(s) she didn’t mean to start, and how the countries of Attolia and Eddis (and Sounis) can keep the Medes off their shore. It’s a political book, but one in which people are underestimated and use that to their advantage. That said, I found myself unable to put it down.

The King of Attolia
First sentence: “The queen waited.”
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Original review
Content: There is some violence, and it’s long. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The thing that struck me this time around is that Turner tried to make the reader believe — as the Attolians did — that Gen was a fop and a waste as a king. It really is about Gen coming to accept his role as king — a throwaway line the Eddis ambassador says to the queen: “He didn’t marry you so he could become king. He became king so he could marry you.” While this is Gen’s story, it’s also Costis’s — how his derision of the king (the book opens with Costis punching Gen in the face) turns into loyalty, respect, and love. Turner masterfully gives us just enough information for us to guess at what is going on, without it seeming obvious. It really is a delight rereading these.

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: ““The king of Attolia was passing through his city, on his way to the port to greet ambassadors newly arrived from distant parts of the world.”
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Original review
Content: Like the others, it’s very dense and political. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I knew this was more Sophos’ story than Gen’s, but I had forgotten how much. The thing is: the plot blurb on the back isn’t correct. It’s 1/3 Sophos’ telling the Queen of Eddis the story of his year after being kidnapped (which happened during the King of Attolia, if I remember right; there’s a brief mention of it in passing), a little more than 1/3 of Sophos being re-acclimated to royal life and the compromise swearing loyalty to Gen as Attolis. And then the last bit is Sophos becoming king in his own right. It’s political and twisty, with lots of machinations and back-handed dealing. And it’s brilliant. Really. I love the subtle details: how the book switched from first person to third person and back. And the small things, like the way Turner uses names. And, at the center of it all, sits Gen, who is wonderful and infuriating, and definitely worth swearing fealty to. I liked this one the first go-around, and I still think the first half of this series is stronger, but I found myself enjoying this one all the more for having read the others in quick succession.

Thick as Thieves
by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence:  “It was midday and the passageway quiet and cool.”
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Original review
Content: The main character is an adult, and there is some violence. It’s in the YA section of the bookstore.

This one is the outlier of the series. Gen is really not there for most of it, with the main character being the slave of a former Mede ambassador (back in The Queen of Attolia). He was a minor character there, so it might seem, at first, a bit weird to have a book entirely from his perspective. But. He’s a fascinating character and over the course of the book his relationship with “the Attolian” (from The King of Attolia) grows. It’s an interesting narrative all the way through, but it’s the end that really makes this one worth it.

All this to say, if you haven’t given this series a try, you really should!