Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some talk about sex, as well as off-screen sex; domestic abuse, and an attempted rape scene. There is also some mild language. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

My co-workers have been raving about this for months, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. A long drive home from Texas seemed just the time to give it ago.

It’s nominally the story of Kya, a girl who grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother and siblings all abandoned her to her father when she was seven. She basically raised herself, especially after her father left three years later. With some help from the African American community, she basically figured things out on her own. She did have one friend, Tate, who taught her to read and encouraged her in her scientific studies — she was basically self-educated, but also highly observant — of the marshlands. And then Tate left to go to college and didn’t come back.

It’s also a bit of a murder mystery. The bright young star in town, Chase Andrews, is found dead by the fire tower. And all signs point to Kya as the murderer. The question was: did she do it, or was she framed?

It’s a gorgeously written book, full of details about the natural world, and the narrator was marvelous. I was spellbound most of the way through the book. But I think I was more invested in the murder mystery part of that, because it was left without a tidy resolution. (Ah, adult fiction being so true to life.) I liked the characters, but it really was Owens’ storytelling that drew me in (and the narrator’s reading!) and kept me hooked in this book.

A really excellent read.

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The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

by Mackenzi Lee
First sentence: “I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Content: There was some mild swearing and some frank depictions of 18th century medicine. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, because that’s where Gentleman’s Guide is.

First off: you don’t have to read Gentleman’s Guide before reading this one, though it will probably help with some small references, and with knowing who the characters are.

It’s been a while since Felicity has come back from her “tour” with her brother and his now-boyfriend, Percy. She decided that instead of going back to her parents, she would rather try her hand at getting into a medical school in Edinburgh. However, that didn’t go well. At all. For all the reasons you can guess: she’s a woman, women are inferior, why don’t you go play with the midwives, honey? So when this man she has befriended, the Callum of the opening sentence, proposes, Felicity panics and heads back to London. Where, through a series of chance encounters (and some standing up for herself), she ends up on a trip to Stuttgart in the company of a less-than-trustworthy woman, to attend the wedding of her former best friend.

Of course, adventures ensue. Felicity and the other women — Sim, who turns out to be a pirate princess, and Johanna, the daughter of a naturalist — have to fight (both literally and figuratively) for their right to be heard, to be understood, to be listened to. And, along they way they learn a bit about themselves.

I adored this one (as much as Gentleman’s Guide, which means it wasn’t all the narrator with that one). I loved that Lee got in many different kinds of women, and several different feminist points (you can, in fact, loves clothes AND science!). I loved that Felicity was asexual, and was okay with that. She thought maybe she worked differently from other people, but that was okay with her. I loved that the girls all ended up as friends (even though Sim has a bit of a crush on Felicity), and that there wasn’t a romance in the plot. I loved that Lee gave us some feisty and fierce historical girls, who were willing to blaze paths and be unapologetic about making the world a better place.

A very excellent read.

Audio book: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentlemansguide

by Mackenzi Lee
Read by Christian Coulson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing and a lot of drinking and some allusions to sex, including one mostly nude scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The only thing Henry “Monty” Montague wants is to go on his Tour of the continent with his best friend Percy. Sure, there are complications, the big one being is that Monty has a secret crush on Percy. That, and his father has given him an ultimatum: go have a supervised year on the continent and then come back, settle down and run the estate. None of which Monty wants.

However, the year doesn’t go the way that Monty expect. After a disastrous escapade at Versailles, in which Monty steals what he thinks is a simple trinket box, things go away. Monty, his sister Felicity, and Percy find themselves on the run from highway men. And it just goes downhill from there. Full of twists and turns as our fair adventurers try to find out exactly what that box Monty stole was, and then figure out their way home.

Oh, heavens, this is so much fun! Perhaps this was one that I liked because I listened to it, because Coulson was a fabulous narrator. I appreciated that he didn’t make Felicity overly “girly” (because she’s not; let’s hear it for 18th century girls who want to be doctors!) and I adored all the French accents. I loved Monty’s growth arc; he was a douche in the beginning, but as the layers peeled away, I began to understand just why Monty was the way he was. And Percy, even if he was a little overly long-suffering, was sweet and adorable, and I ended up loving him as much as Monty did.

There were some darker parts of it; Lee doesn’t gloss over the racism inherent in 18th century society (Percy’s half black and always mistaken for Monty’s servant/slave) and the prejudice against gay people. It grounds the silliness and over-the-top-ness in the book, giving it a darker edge.

But really, this is just a trip and a half, and definitely worth the read/listen!

Sweep

sweepby Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “There were all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning.”
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Content: There are some scary moments, and some talk of death. Plus the prose just feels “older”. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it could easily go older as well.

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep her whole life. She started out with a man she called Sweep, until one day he just didn’t come back, and so she took up with her current master, Crudd. He, if you can’t tell from his name, isn’t terribly nice.

Then one day, the worst thing that can happen to a sweep happens to Nan: she gets stuck. They try to get her out, but nothing works, and so they try the Final Option: burning her out. She blacks out, and when she wakes up… she’s rescued. And there’s a creature there. She ends up calling him Charlie — he was made from a small piece of char that the Sweep left her — and it turns out he’s a golem.

It has a tough beginning, but after Charlie comes into the story, it settles down into small adventures: Nan tries to keep from getting caught — she is supposed to be dead, after all — and tires to find out more about Charlie and his purpose as Charlie himself learns more about the world. It’s very atmospheric (in all the best ways), as Nan and Charlie end up relying on each other. There is a couple of small sub-plots, dealing with the horrid conditions of chimney sweeps in Victorian England (and they are horrid) and with Crudd’s vengeance for Nan “escaping” her indenture. But, mostly it’s a charming little tale of Nan and Charlie and their friendship.

Auxier, when he was here for school visits, said that he considers himself more of a storyteller than a writer, and that shows: although his writing is elegant, it’s the storytelling that comes through. He knows how to tell a story to keep a reader reading, and to make the characters come to life. It’s a strange, sweet story and I adored every moment of this one (even the ending, which made me cry).

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A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

The Bird and the Blade

by Megan Bannen
First sentence: “I arrived in Sarai on the fifteenth day of the seventh month — Ghost Day — but for the first time I dream of my brother, Weiji, is two months later, on the night I meet Khalaf.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs (I think I didn’t count more than four) and other mild swearing. There is also frank talk about genitals. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think an interested 7th grader could handle it.

They say, “Don’t judge a book by a cover”, but we all do.  And my judgement for this one, when I first saw the cover was “okay, it’s going to be a light fantasy; I hope it’s good.” Well. It’s not a light fantasy (okay, so there’s a small ghost element at the end, but I’m not really counting that). Set in the late 13th century and  loosely based on the opera Turandot, it’s a sweeping story about a captured girl from the Song empire, Jinghua, the slave of the Kipchack Khanate. The il-khan, Timur, and his youngest son, Khalaf, are on the run after an invasion from a neighboring khanate, and through a twist of fate, Jinghua ends up with them as they travel across the Mongol empire. Once Khalaf finds out that the daughter of the Great Khan, Turandokht, is refusing to marry anyone unless they solve three riddles, Kahalf decides that that’s the only way to save his father and his kingdom, so they head there. Khalaf to solve the riddles, Jinghua to stop him.

It’s a difficult one to sum up, this book, because there is so much going on. It’s a forbidden romance — as Jinghua and Khalaf spend time together, they find they have  a mutual respect and admiration that develops into something more, but a son of an il-khan and a servant can never be together in any real way. It’s a road trip — as her characters travel, Bannen takes us through multiple parts of the Mongol Empire, showing just how vast and varied it was. And it’s a work of historical fiction, though it felt like it had a modern sensibility. Khalf stood up for Jinghua in ways that I’m not sure a 13th century man would, but I found I didn’t mind. It’s a unique book, set in a unique place, with some fantastic characters.

Definitely recommended.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1

by M. T. Anderson
First sentence: “I was raised in a gaunt houses with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s violence and talk of human bodily functions. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore if we had it.

Octavian had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the house with a bunch of rational philosophers (in the Novanglina College of Lucidity) where his every move was studied and cataloged. He was dressed in the finest silks, taught to play the violin and speak Greek and Latin and French. And he had no idea he was black and a slave. That is, until the sponsorship for the society lapsed and they found a new person to sponsor them, someone who felt that Africans were truly less than people. From there, Octavian’s life changes, and not for the better. He escapes, and gets involved in the Revolutionary War.

I heard lots of good things about this one when it first came out, and it won the National Book Award and a Printz honor. I wanted to like it, to understand what all the excitement was about it. But. Times have changed in the past 12 years, and I’ve changed a bit with them, and the one thing I couldn’t get past was that this felt like appropriation. I like Anderson as a writer (for the most part), but to write a slave story just felt… wrong. Yeah, he made some of the white people sufficiently awful (well, one of them anyway), but he also has a literal white savior narrative at the end of the book which really sat poorly with me. And to be honest, I lost interest. I kind of skimmed through the last third of the book, just to see what happened, but I wasn’t engaged.

And I have no interest in reading the second part. I wish I had liked this better.