Sing, Unburied, Sing opens on a boy named Jojo’s 13th birthday, which is also the day his mom gets a phone call from his dad to say he’s getting out of Parchman, the penitentiary where he’s been for the past three years. It’s a book about transitions (between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between freedom and incarceration and vice versa) and family and memory and stories and history, and what we can and can’t do to protect people from the world, and it’s really well-written and sad and beautiful and there was a scene near the end that totally had me sitting on my couch in tears. The chapters are all narrated in the first person, mostly by Jojo and Leonie, though there are a few chapters narrated by another character, Richie. (I guess I’ll be vague about Richie and how he fits into the story, though the flap copy of the book isn’t.) The first-person narration really worked for me: I loved Jojo’s character/voice, but also liked that the book included Leonie’s perspective: she’s not a great parent to Jojo and his little sister Kayla, but it’s good to see some of her awareness of that, to see some of how she feels about that. (And it’s not like she’s in the easiest situation: she’s a Black woman in a relationship with a White man whose family won’t acknowledge her or her children; she had an older brother who died violently; she got pregnant young; her partner is/has been incarcerated.) I like how the action of this book takes place over the course of just a few days, even as we get a lot of backstory; I like the way this book combines a really tight focus on a few characters with a much bigger sense of family and history and the passage of time. And I like the lyricism of Ward’s style, like when Jojo describes the landscape he sees from a car window like this: “I like the heat. I like the way the highway cuts through the forests, curves over hills heading north, sure and rolling. I like the trees reaching out on both sides, the pines thicker and taller up here, spared the stormy beating the ones on the coast get that keeps them spindly and delicate” (63).

The ten essays in this book range in subject/tone from funny to serious, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up: I had read one of the funny ones and somehow thought the whole book would be like that, which it isn’t. Not that that’s a bad thing: I like Koul’s style, whether she’s writing about the problem-drinking of a close friend at university or getting stuck in a skirt in a dressing room. A lot of this book has to do with family: Koul’s parents emigrated from India to Canada before she was born, and she writes about their family history and their worries and expectations and quirks, and about the tensions and good parts of her relationship with them. Koul also writes about race and racism and privilege (including her own privilege as a lighter-skinned person of color); the parts of the book where she writes about going to a cousin’s wedding in India were really interesting in the way they melded humor and seriousness, travelogue and social commentary.

After I dislocated my elbow in January, when I read the message from my doctor’s office that said the MRI showed a torn ligament, a torn tendon, and a fracture, my first reaction was a giant mental “ugh,” except with more swear words. My second reaction was to put on the song “Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney, the volume turned up loud. Dig Me Out was the first Sleater-Kinney album I heard (I was in high school when it came out), and that title track is apparently still my first choice for a song to hear when I’m upset, when I want to get lost in something loud. Carrie Brownstein writes about that song in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, how her guitar riff starts off “fast and careening, a skid into a crash,”; how her bandmate Corin Tucker’s vocals are “desperate and angry,” how the melody is “on the brink of oblivion, frenzied yet resolute” (124). Brownstein also writes about her own musical experiences as a fan, about “why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now” (3). I don’t know: some albums I listened to in high school haven’t aged particularly well, and I think there’s more than nostalgia in some of the ones that still sound great, though yes, there’s nostalgia and familiarity too, in the way it feels to hear a song you first heard and loved decades ago. All of which is to say, I really like Sleater-Kinney, and have been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2015, and I’m not sure what took me so long.

There are lots of fun things about this book, which is mostly but not entirely chronological, and largely but not entirely focused on Brownstein’s time with Sleater-Kinney between 1994 and 2006. After an opening section about Brownstein’s youth, where we learn about the challenges of her early family life, her love of performing, and how she started being in bands, we get chapters about each Sleater-Kinney album through The Woods, with bits about writing the songs, making the albums, and touring. I sometimes wanted the structure to be a bit tighter—there’s a chapter about having opening bands/being an opening band that was interesting but didn’t feel like it was integral to the narrative flow—but the overall reading experience was satisfying to me. I liked reading about how Brownstein approaches/feels about music, like when she writes this: “so much of my intention with songs is to voice a continual dissatisfaction, or at least to claw my way out of it” (51). I liked reading about how Brownstein listened to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, how she met Corin Tucker by introducing herself after a Heavens to Betsy show; I liked reading about the music scenes in Seattle and Olympia and Portland. I liked reading about the challenges and rewards of making music, of touring and recording. And I liked reading about specific albums, thinking about specific songs. I also appreciated Brownstein’s self-aware and sometimes lyrical writing style, like in this passage, where she’s talking about home/family:

I realized that after wanting to celebrate Christmas for so long, it wasn’t about having a tree, it was about having a box in the basement or attic or garage, something that we could return to over and over again, something that said, this is us and this is where we were last year, and this is where we’ll stay, and this is where we’ll pile on the memories, over and over again, until there are so many memories that it’s blinding, the brightness of family, the way love and nurturing is like a color you can’t name because it’s so new. (46)

When I picked up Starlings I thought it was a collection of short stories, but it isn’t, not quite. For one thing, it also includes poems and a short play. And as Walton puts it in her introduction, the short fiction here is itself varied: there are short stories but also “extended jokes,” exercises/experiments, first chapters of unwritten books, and “some poems with the line breaks taken out” (20). The pieces vary in length and in style: there are some very short pieces (like those aforementioned extended jokes), and some longer ones; there are pieces with a fantasy/fairy tale feel, and pieces that are set in space, or that are about artificial intelligence. (There’s even a noir/hard-boiled detective story.) While I liked some pieces more than others, I had a whole lot of fun with the book as a whole. I liked the shifts in setting and tone and narrative style, and even though I don’t tend to read very many stories set in space, the ones in this book were pretty enjoyable. My favorite piece in the book, though, was probably the first one, “Three Twilight Tales,” which is gorgeous and full of magic and possibilities, and which is itself very much concerned with the shape of stories and the power of stories. Other highlights for me were “Jane Austen to Cassandra”, which is fun and funny, and The Panda Coin, whose structure I like a lot. And because I’d previously read Walton’s Small Change trilogy, I was glad to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” (though it feels weird to say I was glad to read something so dark).

In Dragon’s Green, the first book in her Worldquake middle-grade fantasy sequence, Scarlett Thomas introduced us to Effie Truelove, a young True Hero just discovering her magical abilities, and to her also-magical friends/classmates (Lexy, Maximilian, Raven, and Wolf), and to the shape of the world in which they live, where a lot of magical power is bound up with books and stories. In The Chosen Ones, the second book of the series, we get to see Effie learn more about herself and magic, and we also get to see her friends getting themselves and each other in and out of peril. There’s a whole lot of plot, but the short version is that evil publisher Skylurian Midzhar is planning to use some bookish magic to give herself and her fellow villains a whole lot of power; it’s up to Effie and her friends to foil that plan.

The Chosen Ones, like Dragon’s Green, is smart and lots of fun: Thomas is an English professor, and it shows: there’s one part where Effie and her friends are given a close-reading assignment as homework, and a great moment where Skylurian explains that she and her colleagues “at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of the Death of the Author” (350). Which isn’t to say that the only delights of The Chosen Ones are the bookish moments: the mix of moments of action and moments of reflection really worked for me, as did the way the story shifts between Effie and others (mostly Maximilian, who goes on a few adventures of his own, and Raven, whose ability to communicate with animals gives her some early knowledge of crucial plot points). I also liked the mix of magic and other things: Effie isn’t just learning about saving the universe, but also about friendship and sadness and how to take care of herself and how to let others help her when she needs it, too.

Border Districts is one of those books that I admire, even though I didn’t love it: it feels well-constructed, and there’s a lot I appreciate about Murnane’s style, even as I feel like I’m maybe not the ideal reader for this book. It’s very much in its narrator’s head—if you’re looking for something plot-driven, look elsewhere—and it’s very concerned with memory and reading and thinking and seeing, with the life of the mind and with the imagined inner lives of others. All of which is pretty appealing to me, but there were times when I felt like this book was a slog, though it’s pretty short, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. It’s narrated by an older man who has moved from an unnamed Australian city to a more remote town; it’s full of recurring images and themes: stained glass, light, color, sight, interiority. The narrator thinks about praying in chapel in his days as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, and how he compared his own known thoughts/experience to the unknown thoughts/experience of his fellow-students: “I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate” (5). He thinks about “the life and death of mental entities” (17): how he remembers some bits of stories he read decades ago, or how he still has certain mental images relating to Catholicism even though he’s no longer a believer, or how other formerly-religious people end up realizing that they “no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so” (18).

Some of the narrative feels very dry and a bit tedious to me (like when the narrator is describing a mental image he had that was prompted by an author photograph on the back of a book), but I found other sections to be a delight, like this:

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine… I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground. (54-55)

Animals Eat Each Other is short and dark and intense, the kind of book it was easy to read in a day, even though being immersed in its narrator’s world made me feel a little queasy. It’s a story about obsession and insecurity and need and emptiness, and if you’re bothered by the idea of reading about people in their late teens/early twenties drinking and doing drugs and getting tattoos and having kinky group sex, this is not the book for you. It’s a story about post-high-school indirection and suburban boredom: our narrator, “Lilith,” whose real name we never learn, works at RadioShack, sneaks pills from her mom’s supply of painkillers, and drinks cough syrup for a good time. She also embarks on a relationship with a male/female couple around her age to whom she’s introduced by a friend, sleeps with her manager at work, and ends up having sex with her closest female friend, too. As the title of one chapter puts it, “the thing about boundary issues is that you end up fucking your friends or maybe everyone you know” (29).

The story is told with the benefit of distance (an older Lilith looking back at her younger self), but you get the sense that she’s self-aware in the midst of it, too. “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personalities, or the things they liked to eat, or what they liked to do when they weren’t texting me or sleeping with me,” she says at one point (22). And then, later: “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk” (61). Even as Lilith is trying and failing to use sex and relationships to feel validated and wanted and needed, she can see how she’s messing things up, and that, rather than the subject matter, was what made me feel queasy: that uncomfortable combination of self-knowledge and self-destructiveness, that sense of compulsion.

This short book (it’s only sixty pages) consists of three biographical essays about writers: there’s one about Thomas De Quincey, one about John Keats, and one about Marcel Schwob. I was somewhat familiar with Keats before reading this, a bit less familiar with De Quincey (or TDQ, as he’s referred to in the book), and not at all familiar with Schwob, and I’m curious as to how these pieces would read to someone more familiar with these figures than I was. These essays trace their subjects’ lives from childhood to literary career to death, and in each piece, there’s a sense of the writer as devoted to literature. Jaeggy describes Schwob, for example, as someone whose “head was stuffed with names, words, and legends” (52). Or there’s this, about Keats when he decided to be a writer instead of practicing medicine: “He devoured books, he copied, translated sections, he became the scribe and secretary to his mind” (31). Jaeggy isn’t only writing about these men, though, but about the times and places in which they lived: I love the start of the Keats essay, which you can read in full on the New York Review of Books website. My favorite piece, though, was the one about De Quincey, maybe for its wintry mood, which made a pleasant contrast to summer in New York. I like atmospheric lines like this: “From the first week in November until the end of January he pleaded with the sky: he wanted more snow, more ice, more storms and frost” (10). Or this: “Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street” (15). Though this book is not a novel, it made me think of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First: I feel like people who enjoyed that book would like this one, and vice versa, because they both explore historical writerly figures in stylistically interesting ways.

I’ve been loving Jeanne Birdsall’s books about the Penderwick siblings since I read the first one back in 2008, and this finale to the series was as delightful as I had hoped it would be. In The Penderwicks at Last, the focus is mainly on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick, who is now eleven: this makes sense, since these are middle-grade novels/it’s appealing to have a protagonist who’s the same age as the target audience. But all the other Penderwicks make appearances, too, as do other beloved (and not-so-beloved) characters from the earlier books.

At the start of the book, Lydia is waiting for her older sister Batty to come home from college, and we learn that the whole family will be going to Arundel, the estate in the Berkshires where the Penderwicks rented a cottage for the summer in the very first book. Arundel now belongs to honorary Penderwick/close family friend Jeffrey Tifton (rather than to his rather prickly mother), and he’s told the oldest Penderwick, Rosalind, that she can have her wedding on the grounds. This is super-exciting for Lydia, who’s been hearing about Arundel for years but has never been herself, so she’s delighted that she and Batty (and the family’s two dogs) will be the first to arrive, with the rest of the siblings and her parents following behind in stages. When they get there, Lydia finds that Arundel is as enchanting as she had hoped—and there turns out to be a girl her age, Alice, who’s the daughter of Cagney (who we met in the first book—he was Arundel’s gardener) and his wife Natalie, who’s an artist. Alice is a bit grumpy because her brother Jack is off having adventures with a cousin in Canada, and Lydia’s not sure they’ll be friends, but after a tentative start to things, of course they are, and it’s sweet to read about the summery fun that Alice and Lydia have together, whether they’re festooning a Great Dane with yarn and ribbons, watching Alice’s family’s chickens, splashing in a stream, or reading Lewis Carroll to a sheep.

Speaking of sheep and chickens and that Great Dane, I love how Birdsall writes about animals, dogs especially. There are so many funny and sweet animal-focused moments in this book: I particularly love the Penderwicks’ younger dog, Feldspar, who is always finding some random object and claiming it as his new favorite thing/carrying it around everywhere. I also like how Lydia is as good with people as Batty is with animals: she’s perceptive and emotionally intelligent, and capable of dealing with/seeing the humanity in just about everyone, even the disagreeable Mrs. Tifton.

I like Diana Wynne Jones a whole lot, in general: I feel like her books are a reliable blend of magic, inventiveness, well-developed characters, humor, heart, and satisfying plots. The Game, alas, feels lacking in terms of characters (and therefore heart), and the plot feels a little formulaic. But even though I feel like this book doesn’t live up to my standards for Diana Wynne Jones books, it was still a fast and fun read.

At the start of the book, we meet Hayley, who normally lives with her grandparents but has just been sent to a castle in Ireland to live with her aunt. The castle is overrun with other members of Hayley’s extended family—it’s normally just one other kid and his mom who live there, but Hayley arrives during the one week a year when almost all the other aunts and cousins come to visit, too. It’s a contrast from Hayley’s usual life as an only child, and Hayley feels “bewildered and in disgrace” at having been sent away from home (7). She reflects on how she ended up being sent to Ireland, which has something to do with her grandmother’s strictness and her grandfather’s job, though she doesn’t really know what he does, “except that it seem[s] to involve keeping up with the whole world” (22). She does know that it’s something to do with the mythosphere, which he explained to her almost by accident one day, and which is represented by the image of the globe encircled by threads that weave together into skeins. Hayley’s grandfather explains that the mythosphere is “made up of all the stories, theories and beliefs, legends, myths and hopes, that are generated here on Earth” and that it’s “constantly growing and moving as people invent new tales to tell or find new things to believe” (30).

After learning about the mythosphere, Hayley is delighted to find that she can actually travel to/through it, which is what ends up getting her sent to Ireland: her grandmother is not pleased, and says her uncle Jolyon won’t be pleased, either. In Ireland, Hayley travels to the mythosphere again, this time with her cousins as part of a game they play every year, and she learns more about what the mythosphere is and how her family is connected to it, though there are a lot of pieces of the story that become clear only gradually. Hayley learns things about her absent parents, though, and her aunts and cousins, and why her uncle has always wanted to keep an eye on her, and there are quests and adventures that first seem just to be for fun but then turn more serious, and there are bits of myth and fairy tale and story. It all feels like it has a ton of potential, but I wanted more from this book.

Partly I wanted there to be more satisfying descriptive passages than there were, though there were some (including a great section about Hayley’s first trip to the mythosphere). I wanted more of the castle in Ireland (though the description of a flood that happens the night Hayley arrives is pretty great), and more of Hayley’s grandparents’ house (which is tantalizingly described as being full of radios and televisions and computers). I also wanted there to be more of a sense of Hayley and her family members and how they relate to one another: there’s a bit of that, when we learn about how Hayley’s grandfather has taught her about stars and planets and atoms, or when Hayley’s cousins teach her about how things ended up the way they are, but I wanted more. I did appreciate Hayley’s delight, when she’s at the castle, at being able to choose her own clothes for a change, and being able to dress in practical/comfortable attire, and the freedom she feels when she realizes no one cares if she looks neat and tidy or not.

Side note: the edition of the book I read has some added bits at the end about mythology and planets and the zodiac, and one of the things it says is that the “most-well known” mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets (Pluto included) is “Mother Very Easily Made Jam Sandwiches Under No Protest.” Wait, what?! Is that a British thing? Because the one I learned was definitely “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets.”