Monthly Round-up: September 2019

Thoughts? I read an awful lot of adult fiction this month. A LOT. And I’ve noticed over the months that I’ve read less and less middle grade. I wonder why.

My favorite this month?

She is such a good historical fiction writer.

YA:

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Adult:

The Peacock Emporium
Autopsy of a Boring Wife
The Reckless Oath We Made (audio)
The Testaments
Ninth House

Middle Grade:

Some Places More than Others
Dear Sweet Pea

Non-Fiction:

The Sun is a Compass (audio)

Graphic Novels:

Here There Be Gerblins
Best Friends

What was your favorite this month?

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The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “They stand in line for blood.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, and some talk of sexual assault and affairs. It will probably be in the Teen section (grades 9+) for more “mature” themes than the YA section usually holds.

The one thing that Sepetys does better than any other person writing historical fiction out there is finding the stories underneath the major events, and focusing in on what the decisions of dictators – in this case, General Francisco Franco of Spain — have done to ordinary people. (Well, she did write one book that didn’t head in that direction, but go with me here.) She looks at the lives of the peasants — in this case Ana and her siblings, who were children of people involved in the resistance during the Spanish Civil War — and how the strict rules and the fear effect their daily lives.

It’s 1957, and Ana has gotten a job at the Castellana Hilton, a posh hotel that has opened up in hopes that Americans will go to Madrid on vacation. One such American is Daniel, the son of a Dallas oil tycoon, who would much rather be a photojournalist than go into the oil business. They strike up a friendship (romance?) as David looks into the hidden worlds under then shine that is the Castellana Hilton.

There’s more going on than that in this book: Sepetys touches on the kidnapping of children — the government would take newborns away from parents, and tell them that their children had died soon after birth — and on the general fear that the Guardia Civil inspired in the population. It’s a lot for one book, but Sepetys handles it all without letting it overwhelm the more personal stories of the book.

Very highly recommended, like all of her books.

Ninth House

by Leigh Bardugo
First sentence: “By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her coat, it was too warm to wear it.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 8, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs, some drug use, a couple of rape scenes (not graphic) and it will be in the science fiction and fantasy section of the bookstore.

Alex has had a rough life. She’s seen ghosts ever since she can remember, and that’s gotten her in a LOT of trouble over the years. So much so, that she ran away from home at age 15 and ended up living with (and having sex with) a drug dealer. Then one night, she woke up in a hospital, with no memory of how her friends died, and a recruiter from Yale (yes, the one in New Haven, Connecticut) in her room. He — Dean Sandow — offers Alex a way out: full-ride scholarship to Yale, erasing her past, if she’ll come work for Lethe.

Lethe, in this world, is the “house” that keeps all the other magic houses — ones full of people with Connections and Power, both of the magical and non-magical kind — in check. They study the dead — hence their interest in Alex — and they keep the other eight houses from getting too out of hand, like, say, murdering people on accident. Or letting ghosts — which they call Grays — connect with the living world.

She is training to be the new Dante — which is the person on the ground, I think; it was never spelled out — with Darlington, who has come from a long-line of Connecticut blue bloods and is Lethe’s “golden boy”. However this year, this semester, is not going well. Especially since Darlington has disappeared.

One part murder mystery — a town girl turns up dead, and Alex is convinced it has something to do with the houses — and one part exploration of class, money, power, and place with a bit of feminism thrown in there, this book is a LOT. It took me a while to get into it, mostly because it bounces back and forth through time and it took a while to keep things straight, but once I got into it I could NOT put it down. Bardugo has a way with words, and is an excellent storyteller, but I think I enjoy her characters more. I loved the clashes between the upper class kids that usually go to Yale and Alex, the streetwise former drug dealer.

It is a lot more intense than her YA books, but it holds up. (Which makes me wonder if Six of Crows could have been a lot more graphic than it was.) And I’m excited to see what she does next!

Dear Sweet Pea

by Julie Murphy
First sentence: “I’ve counted my birthday savings three times, and at this rate, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to clone myself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Most of the problems are with parents and friendships, and so while it may not be interesting to the younger end of the middle grade (grades 3-5) it’s not inappropriate.

As she finishes up seventh grade, Sweet Pea is trying to figure things out. Her parents are getting a divorce, which is hard. But she’s fighting with her best friend, Oscar, while making up with her ex-best friend, Kiera. It’s all super confusing. It doesn’t help that Miss Fannie Mae, who writes the local advice column, has asked Sweet Pea to watch her house while she’s gone, but asks her not to tell anyone, which just puts a huge wrench in the whole situation.

I haven’t read any other of Murphy’s work (why not?) but this one truly tickled me. I loved that she got the middle grade voice down: the real problems are friendships and trying to figure out how to navigate those, as well as trying to understand her family’s new dynamic. They stakes aren’t terribly high, but they’re still meaningful. I appreciated that her parents weren’t awful, but honest and open about their differences and reasons they were splitting. And I loved Sweet Pea. She was charmingly not perfect, but she tried her best and that’s really all that counted.

It’s really a delightful middle grade book.

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Handmaid’s Tale
Content: There is an instance of sexual assault, some violence (some of which is pretty graphic), and instances of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to preface this with a couple of caveats: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in about 10 years, though I have kids who have read it more recently and have talked to me about it. I remember basic plot points of the book, but not specifics. And, I have not (yet; I’m kind of curious now that I’ve finished this one) watched the series on Hulu. I think having watched the series and/or having read the book more recently may have an impact on your opinion of this one.

The Testaments follows three women: Aunt Lydia, who was there at the beginning of Gilead, and chose to become part of the founding structure of the regime; Agnes Jemima, who was born in Gilead and was raised to believe in its teachings; and Daisy, who was born in Gilead, but whose mother, a Handmaid, escaped north to Canada and who was raised by a couple there. The narratives intertwine and go back and forth through time; we find out through Aunt Lydia what happened when Giliead was formed, and the choices she made to become in the position of power she is currently in. We find out through Agnes what is being taught to the generation of girls that has since been born. and the challenges they face. And from Daisy, we find out not only what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead, but the future of it.

It’s a fascinating book to read, though I’m not entirely sure it’s 1) coherent with the world Atwood put out in the Handmaid’s Tale (see above caveat) and 2) necessary. It’s really all about the downfall of Gilead, because in Atwood’s view, no matter how “pure” or “righteous” your intent setting out, we are all human and, therefore, corrupt, and any system of government built upon anything but basic human rights for all is bound to fall. I’m not sure how I feel about that — it seems easy to believe that the Commander in charge of Gilead, Commander Judd, was inherently corrupt from the start and just did all this as a power grab and because he’d like any excuse to “marry” and kill off a series of increasingly younger brides. It’s disgusting, but I’m not sure it serves a purpose except to prove that all men who crave power are disgusting and corrupt. (Which may or may not be the case.)

But it’s Atwood, and her writing is engaging, and the storytelling interesting, and while it’s not as harrowing as Handmaid’s Tale was when I first read it, it’s definitely got a bit of a warning: dismiss the power of women at your own peril.

And maybe this is the book we need for this time in history.

Audiobook: The Sun is a Compass

by Caroline Van Hemert
Read by Xe Sands
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some swearing, including several f-bombs. It’s in the creative non-fiction section of the bookstore.

I picked this one out of my audiobook stash primarily because I’m a sucker for travel books, and this one — in which Caroline and her husband Patrick traverse from Bellingham, Washington to the Arctic Circle entirely on foot and boat over the course of six months –seemed to fit the bill.

A biologist by trade, Van Hemert also grew up in Alaska, and has had a need for adventure — or to at least be in the outdoors — her whole life. And she found a kindred spirit in Patrick, who (if I remember right) built his own cabin in Alaska (though he grew up on the East Coast) and lived in it for a year between high school and college. They are the sort of people to decide to spend six months trekking 4000 miles and then write a book about it.

I don’t mean to sound bitter (if I do); they are amazing people. And I’m glad that there are people like them out there. I’m not sure this one worked entirely in audio; while I was transfixed with the story, I was a bit frustrated I didn’t have a map. The places she was talking about (aside from Bellingham; I know where that is) were foreign to me. Sure, I could have stopped the book and Googled it, but I listen while I drive, and it wasn’t practical. That said, I did enjoy her story, the ups and downs of six months of backwoods hiking, and the reminder that the world is a big, wild place that has been here (and will be here) a lot longer than we humans.

Best Friends

by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Real Friends
Content: There’s some uncomfortable parts with anxiety, and a bit of “romance” with boys and girls. It’s in the middle grade graphic graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Picking up where Real Friends left off, with the summer before Shannon’s sixth grade year. She’s convinced that she’s going to have a great year: they’re the oldest kids in school, she’s best friends with the most popular girl in school, and maybe she’s got it all figured out. Except, she doesn’t, not really. Friendship — especially in sixth grade in the 1980s — is a minefield. And being popular has costs.

Much like Real Friends, this one is full of heart and humor and insight. My poor sixth grade self, awkward and not knowing how on earth to fit in, completely empathized with Shannon’s plight. And it was nice that she used excerpts (polished up, of course) from a novel she wrote in sixth grade. It made for a nice balance to the drama of the contemporary story. Pham’s art, of course, was perfect for the story, especially when dealing with Shannon’s anxiety. It’s a perfect compliment for Real Friends, and a wonderful exploration of what real friendship means.