The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
First sentence: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of violence and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is hard to describe: it’s Russia on the cusp of when Christianity is becoming more accepted, but the Old Ways are still in play. There are demons keeping the Big Demon — known as The Bear — at bay, but due to priests, the people are beginning to neglect the Old Ways. Everyone, that is, except for Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a northern lord, she sees and talks to the demons that keep the hearth fires burning, the stable animals quiet, and the lands safe. And when her father remarries a woman who is paranoid about the Old Ways, Vasilisa is the only one who keeps the village and the lands safe.

It’s a slow start, this one, but once it gets going — about halfway through — it really takes off. I mostly liked Vasilisa as a character; she is headstrong and not traditional and doesn’t keep anyone’s advice but her own. I really enjoyed the magic and the contrast between the Old Ways and religion, and how the priests believed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Arden is exploring interesting themes and I’m curious to see where the next one goes, since this one felt like a stand alone.

My Best of 2019

So, I’ve had a blog for 15 years (!) and I’ve been doing best of reports since 2010. Not quite a decade, but I thought it would be interesting to see how I fared in the 2010s.

I read the most books in 2012 with 188 total! My worst year was 2017 with “only” 133. (Still. That’s a 55 book difference between my highest and lowest years!) And because I’m a dork, I made a chart with all my numbers for the past 9 years. Because why not? (I think it’s fascinating.)

A few other things of note:
– I started counting authors of color in 2014 (with 12), and I’ve increased (mostly) every year with 42 in 2018.
– The last time I really had fun with “awards” was in 2015.
– The best award I ever gave (well, the one that made me smile when I was looking through, though I have to admit my various awards for “wink wink, nudge nudge” and “blush” books were pretty great too): Indulging in my desire to carry around a photo of Nathan Fillion (2013).

It’s been fun to look at the past to see how I have (and have not) changed.

At work, they asked for my top three of the decade. After much soul-searching (I’ve read 1665 books over the past 10 years!) I chose these three:

There were many more I could have chosen, but I’m content with these.

And now for 2019!

By the numbers:

Middle Grade Fiction: 33
YA Fiction: 47
Graphic Novels: 18
Non-Fiction: 20
Adult Fiction: 31

Grand Total: 150

Number of those that were speculative fiction books, not counting graphic novels:  50

Number of those that were by authors of color: 43
Number of those that were audio books: 14
Number of those that were rereads: 14
Abandoned: 7

Best Adult Fiction: The Reckless Oath We Made
Best YA book: The Poet X
Best Middle Grade book: The Lost Girl 
Best Fantasy: The Starless Sea
Best Sci-Fi/Distopian: Illuminae
Best Graphic Novel: New Kid
Best Non-Fiction: Running with Sherman
Best MG/YA Non-fiction: Shout
Best Romance: Evvie Drake Starts Over
Best Audiobook: Talking to Strangers

Cover love:

Weird as heck but it worked for me:

LGBT+ FTW: My Life as a Goddess, Gideon the Ninth, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Naturally Tan, Kiss Number 8, Tarnished are the Stars, Sissy, That Inevitable Victorian Thing, Red, White & Royal Blue, The Fifth Season, To Night Owl From Dogfish, The Moon Within

Don’t read these two at the same time:

Favorite re-reads:

Need the next book NOW: The Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Steel Tide

Okay, I should have read this ages ago: Monster, Illuminae, Born a Crime, The Fifth Season

Favorite one of the Terry Pratchett Witch Books:

Witches Abroad

Not Enough Native Representation, but It’s a start: There There, Who Will Tell My Brother, Hearts Unbroken, #Notyourprincess, Indian Shoes

The One I Needed:

The Book of Delights

Immigrant stories: The Sun is Also a Star, The Poet X, Love, Hate & Other Filters, We’re Not From Here, The Moon Within, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Love from A to Z, A Step from Heaven, Other Words for Home, Frankly in Love [how did I never write a review for this one?], The Tequila Worm [or this one?], The Circuit, Where We Came From, Dominicana, Return to Sender

What were your favorites from the year?

Monthly Round-Up: December 2019

I had a less crazy month than I was expecting to, and so got more reading done (but not the insane crazy reading of a Cybils year!)

My favorite?

Gideon the Ninth

It was so weird and wild and wonderful and amazing. I can’t wait for the next in the series!

And the rest:

Young Adult:

The Good Luck Girls
Throw Like a Girl
A Blade So Black
The Children of Virtue and Vengeance
The Afterlife of Holly Chase

Graphic Novels:

To Dance

Non-fiction:

Once More to the Rodeo
Talking to Strangers (audio book)
North Korea Journals (audio book)

Adult fiction:

Lords and Ladies
Domincana
Maskerade

What were your favorites this month?

Audio Book: North Korea Journal

by Michael Palin
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s a journal travelogue, so it’s probably only interesting to people who like Palin or are interested in North Korea. It’s in the Current Events section at the bookstore.

I haven’t seen the BBC special this journal is based on, but I don’t think it’s really necessary. Palin is an incredible diarist, and this is based on his experience gaining access to North Korea to film a travelogue and then his experiences during the two weeks he was in North Korea.

It’s a fascinating story: I don’t know much about the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is its official name) besides what we hear through the media, which (to be honest) isn’t much. Palin didn’t get a whole lot of access to the “common” people and when he tried to strike up political conversations, he was immediately shut down. What he did wasn’t often edited, but sometimes — like in the instance when he wanted to be filmed sending an anti-American postcard to Terry Gilliam — they preempted things from happening. The “minders”, as Palin called them, wanted to show North Korea at its best, so he wasn’t really allowed free access to the country. There’s an interesting postscript on the book written by one of the directors (I think; I can’t quite remember now) about the negotiating that needed to happen before they could even start filming, and how it was difficult to get across that they wanted to see “everyday” life, not just the Best of the Best.

It’s a fascinating book (and a short one!) and Palin’s delightful to listen to.

Highly recommended. (Now, to go see if I can find the show somewhere.)

Maskerade

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The wind howled.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches Abroad, Lords and Ladies
Content: There’s some reference to sex, because that’s just who Nanny Ogg is. And some creative swearing. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

Ah, I have come to adore Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Sure, some of the witches books are better than others (my personal favorite is still Witches Abroad), but I do adore the combination of Granny and Nanny taking on the world.

In this one, they head to Ankh-Morpork to tackle the opera. It seems that one of Lancre’s own, Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita X. Nitt) has moved to the big city to try and make her fortune, and has fallen in with the opera. That has a Ghost who seems to not only be haunting the opera house, but is murdering members of the cast and crew.

So, if this sounds vaguely like Phantom of the Opera, you’re probably right. Except — like a few of the other ones in the witches series — Pratchett takes the familiar bones of the story and overlays a funny and clever and insightful story with Granny and Nanny being their amazing selves. There’s a mystery in this one that they manage to solve (with some hilarious asides about being in the book publishing business), before getting Agnes to come back to Lancre and take up her True Calling as a witch.

Not my favorite of the series, but definitely fun! (I thought this was the last of them, but it turns out that there’s one more to go before I hit the Tiffany Aching series.)

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

by Cynthia Hand
First sentence: “The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It would be in the Christmas section if we carried it, but I’d also shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8).

Holly Chase is dead. She was the recipient of “Project Scrooge” — which is based on A Christmas Carol, going around and finding callous individuals who need redemption — and failed. Miserably. She didn’t believe it was real, she didn’t believe she would die (granted: she wasn’t quite 17), and she ignored all the warnings. And ended up dead.

Now she works for Project Scrooge as The Ghost of Christmas Past. For the past five years, she’s stayed 17, and gone into peoples’ memories, searching for moments of good that could change them. But this year is different. The target is Ethan Worthington III who has a lot of similarities to Holly (and is super attractive too!): they both can pinpoint their increasing materialism and callousness to the point when they lost a parent.

I’m going to leave the rest of the story for you to find out. It was incredibly enjoyable; I liked how Hand echoed the Dickens book without coping it outright. It’s not a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but more a riff on it. Which makes all the difference. I enjoyed Holly as a character, even when she was being a brat, and Hand genuinely surprised me with the direction the story took.

An excellent addition to the world of Christmas books. Maybe not an instant classic, but very, very good.