I think Max Gladstone’s Craft books are the only series I’m fully on top of these days, the only series where, when I hear there’s a new book out, I place a hold on it at the library immediately and drop everything when it arrives. I’m currently a few issues behind on the New Yorker, because this book is big, and also I definitely stayed up past my bedtime the night I finished it, but I don’t care: that is the kind of series this is, and this book did not disappoint. This book wears its heart and its politics on its sleeve, and I love it for that: it’s the story of a city governed uneasily by a colonial power (with the help of squid gods, because that’s the kind of world this is) and a push for freedom by some of that city’s residents; it’s about art and story and the power of narrative; it’s about love of various kinds; it’s about a bunch of badass women, queer and otherwise: I think I might be this book’s target audience.

This is the sixth book in the series in both chronological order and publication order, and it was immensely satisfying to read about characters from past books: one of the protagonists this time around is Kai Pohala, from Full Fathom Five; other characters from that book and others make appearances too. Kai is visiting the city of Agdel Lex to look into some investment opportunities, but stays longer than planned when she learns that her sister, Ley, is in some kind of major but mysterious trouble. The book opens with a scene from Kai and Ley’s childhood in which Kai acts as the protective older sister, and it’s a fitting introduction: clearly that family dynamic is still there, even though Kai’s relationship with Ley in adulthood has been distant/strained. It takes a while for the situation Ley’s in to become clear, to both Kai and the reader, and it’s too complicated to explain, but the peculiarities of Agdel Lex are central to both Ley’s situation and the book’s plot. Agdel Lex is the city of the Iskari, that aforementioned colonial power with their squid gods, and it’s a place of order. But it’s built on/coexists with a dead city, ruined in a war that’s still not really over despite having ended a century and a half ago, and also coexists with Alikand, that dead city in a not-dead state, preserved via the memories and family histories of its native inhabitants. The way that Agdel Lex and Alikand and the dead city overlap is really interesting/beautiful/full of plot potential that Gladstone makes great use of, and is a big part of the reason I liked this book so much. And Kai being in a place that’s not home works really well: we get passages like this, when Kai’s en route to her sister’s place:

Observations on her own observation: the unfamiliar drew her eye, so she noticed life-ways she didn’t know, this storyteller, that blue wine, the mask, that unrecognizable card game like a sort of four-way solitaire. She didn’t note samenesses: fathers and children, boys holding hands, a kiss in shadows. (88)

Also: I love the moments of humor in the Craft books, and this one is no exception. I’m a sucker for the way Gladstone draws funny parallels between the world of these books and our world: there’s a passage early in the book where Kai is en route to Agdel Lex and the flight is just one headache after another in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever flown economy in our world, never mind that the vessel Kai’s a passenger of is suspended from a dragon. There’s also a series of funny/awful start-up pitch meetings Kai has to sit through, and a great bit where a neighborhood is described as “the kind of place where twenty-year-old guidebooks would have cautioned visitors against walking alone at night, but which had since embraced a coffee-shop-and performance space-based economy” (172).

One complaint: there are rather a lot of typos in this book, including one spot I noticed where a character’s name is misspelled. But all the good stuff made me not mind that so much. I mean, I’ll forgive a lot of typos for bits like this: “cities are acts of will. Cities are decisions people make, every day. They are artist and audience and art” (411). Did I mention I think I might be this book’s target audience?

I basically devoured The First Rule of Punk over the course of two days, and aw, it’s such a great middle-grade novel. Our narrator Malú is twelve, almost thirteen, and at the start of the book she’s sad about having to move from Gainesville to Chicago for two years because of her mom’s new temporary professorship there. Malú doesn’t have a lot of close friends in Gainesville, but it’s home, and she’s also going to miss her dad: her parents are divorced and her dad owns a record store; she feels culturally closer to him, because of their shared love for punk music, than she does to her Mexican American mom. (Malú’s nickname for her mom is SuperMexican, because Malú feels like she’s intensely into Mexican culture and wants Malú to be equally enthusiastic.) And she’s not exactly looking forward to starting a new school in a new place. But she doesn’t have a choice, and though school gets off to a bit of a rough start, Malú manages to make friends and to learn some things about herself, her family, and Chicanx culture in the process.

One of the most pleasing things about this book, for me, is the fact that Malú (like the author of the book) makes zines, which are incorporated into the book itself. Having read Celia C. Pérez’s zine anthology, Ofrenda, earlier this year, I knew I liked her style, and it was great to see the zines she made in Malú’s style and voice, which are fun and sometimes gorgeous (a page where Malú writes about how she’s going to miss the “Spanish moss hanging from trees like ghosts” in Gainesville has a background of tangled string, and it’s totally lovely) and also feel true to Malú’s character/the kind of zines a smart twelve-year-old would make.

The plot has enough conflict to keep things interesting (Malú decides to start a band; Malú decides to stand up for self-expression in various ways) but it’s balanced by really satisfying descriptions of daily life, like this, about October in Chicago:

I loved the sound of the leaves crunching under my shoes and the smell of wood burning. Mom and I took a trip to a farmers’ market where I discovered that there are so many different types of apples and that my new favorite food was the apple cider doughnut. I wanted to bottle up all the smells and colors and the feeling of fall so they’d always be close. I wished I could iron it all between sheets of wax paper like I’d done with the bright red maple leaf I’d mailed to Dad. And the weird thing was that when I remembered we had another fall in Chicago, I didn’t feel as unhappy as I thought I would. (221)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those very famous kids’ books (it won the Newbery Medal in 1977) that I somehow never read as a child: I’m curious as to how it would have affected me, and I wish I had been exposed to more diverse books when I was younger, but, well, better late than never.

This novel, which is set in Mississippi in the early 1930s, has a whole lot going on in it. It’s narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who’s a pretty great character: she’s smart and no-nonsense, and good at standing up for the people she cares about, and also for herself. (I felt like we got a great introduction to Cassie early in the book, when it’s the first day of school and the teacher wants the class to reply to her in unison, and Cassie doesn’t – “I never did approve of group responses,” Cassie narrates, which cracked me up because I totally relate.) Cassie and her family are something of an oddity in their community because they own their own land, whereas most of the other African-American families in the area are sharecroppers. But money is tight, and the income from the cotton the Logans grow and Cassie’s mom’s job as a teacher isn’t enough: Cassie’s dad has had to take a job on the railroad, which means he’s away from home a lot, leaving Cassie and her three brothers with their mom and grandma. Which is fine, until it’s not: a violent attack on three black men by some white men (because one of the black men has been accused of making a pass at a white woman) makes everyone uneasy, and a big part of the book has to do with how Cassie’s family responds to that violence, and to the threat of more. But that’s not all that Cassie is dealing with: another main thread in the book is the way that Cassie finds herself learning about racism’s daily manifestations, the ways in which she and her family aren’t treated equally or fairly or nicely by their white neighbors: the way her grandmother has to put her wagon at the back of the field when she goes to sell eggs at the market; the way a shopkeeper stops helping her family to help white customers; the way a white girl and her father respond when Cassie accidentally bumps into the girl on the sidewalk. Cassie starts to see the compromises the adults in her life make in the name of safety and survival, and starts to figure out what compromises she will or won’t make for herself.

I feel like historical fiction can be very hard to do well, maybe especially when it’s historical fiction for kids—sometimes the amount of explaining that needs to be done about the circumstances of a different place/time to make events make sense to a modern reader can make things feel a bit slow or didactic, and there were a few moments like that in this book (I’m thinking especially of a passage where a sharecropping neighbor is explaining his specific financial difficulties to Cassie’s mom). Overall, though, I found myself drawn into Cassie’s story/her family’s story as the book progressed; near the end, there was totally a scene that made me teary-eyed on the subway.

I’ve read and quite liked four of Scarlett Thomas’s novels for grown-ups, so when I found out she was writing a middle-grade fantasy novel, I knew I was going to want to read it, and I’m glad I did. Dragon’s Green gets off to something of a slow start (world-building and getting our characters into their various dilemmas) but once it gets going, it’s a fast-paced delight.

I can’t do this book justice with a plot summary, but basically: our protagonist, eleven-year-old Effie Truelove, has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother disappeared. Her mother’s disappearance, five years before the action of the book starts, seems to have had something to do with the worldquake, which was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-minute-long earthquake that shook the entire planet and somehow broke the internet and cell phones, sending the world “back to something like 1992,” technology-wise (8). Effie’s pretty sure her grandfather knows magic: his rooms are full of all sorts of interesting objects, and he has an amazing library that’s been off-limits to Effie—but he won’t do any magic for her or teach her any. Eventually he explains that he promised her father he wouldn’t teach her magic, but he relents a bit: he lets Effie read from his library, and starts teaching her the basics of what he calls “magical thinking.” When he ends up in the hospital, though, it becomes clear that Effie is going to have to figure magic out on her own.

Well: not entirely on her own: it turns out that there are other kids in her year at her school who have magical interests/aptitude, and circumstances bring them together into an unlikely friend-group that nevertheless totally works. And it’s a good thing Effie isn’t entirely on her own, because she has a lot to figure out, like how to navigate between this world and its magical neighbor/counterpart, the Otherworld, and oh, also how to keep an evil mage from destroying the books in her grandfather’s library.

Those books in Effie’s grandfather’s library, by the way, give rise to some of my favorite parts of the book: there’s a great story within a story where it becomes clear that Effie is going to subvert some expectations around princesses and dragons and heroes, and another story within a story where Effie’s friend Maximilian finds himself in a room full of people quoting James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield at each other. A lot of the magic/plot in this book has to do with books (it’s complicated), and that bookishness ends up being a big part of its appeal, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me: my other favorite Scarlett Thomas book is Our Tragic Universe, which has a whole lot in it about narrative/story/the structure of stories, and there’s definitely some of that in this book, too.

More Than Two is, as its subtitle says, “a practical guide”: there’s a lot in this book about navigating particular kinds of relationship circumstances/scenarios/difficulties specific to polyamorous relationships, a lot of which didn’t feel super-applicable to me (like: being polyamorous and having kids, or coming out to your family as non-monogamous when you’ve historically been in a monogamous relationship, or being in a couple in the midst of opening up a formerly monogamous relationship, or being in a relationship where one person self-identifies as monogamous and the other person doesn’t). And Veaux and Rickert seem pretty judgmental about some things in ways that don’t really make sense to me. (The main instance of this: I understand their point that a couple looking for someone to be involved with both of them can end up being coercive, if the price for continued involvement with one of the members of the couple is continued involvement with the other, even when that isn’t what the third person ends up really wanting. But to me that doesn’t translate to it being a bad idea for a couple to look for someone to be involved with both of them, and it seems like for them, it might. I feel like the answer can be “don’t do it badly,” rather than just “don’t do it.”)

But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I appreciated a lot of the main themes of the book, which I think are applicable to building good relationships of any type. The idea, for example, that “happiness is something we re-create every day” seems like a good thing to remember about life in general: you have to show up and you have to keep showing up, and if things aren’t working you have to figure out what changes you can make to bring you towards the kind of life you want. I also liked the themes/values/ideas that Veaux and Rickert list near the start of the book, which, again, seem really broadly applicable/useful things to think about in a whole lot of contexts: trust, courage, abundance (as opposed to scarcity), ethics, and empowerment. Another highlight for me was the reminder of the concept of the “relationship escalator,” i.e. the way that society tends to assume that a successful relationship is a series of increasing predefined commitments – dating, then living together and/or marriage and maybe children – and that it can take work to not buy into this, and to get other people to recognize the worth of relationships that don’t fit this pattern—and also the related idea that there’s a continuum of relationship styles from “solo” to “entwined,” and the reminder that different relationship styles will lead to relationships that may look different, but that may still be serious, committed, etc. Also, the concept of “self-efficacy”—believing you can handle something even if something you’ve never dealt with before—seems like a good thing to think about/strive for in general, as do a lot of the principles/ideas/techniques related to boundaries, communication, and knowing your needs/working with your partner(s) to figure out how those needs can be met.

The Secret Garden is one of those books I definitely read as a child, but that I guess I didn’t love: re-reading it as an adult, I found that I remembered the beginning very vividly, those first two chapters where the reader is introduced to Mary Lennox, an English girl who was born in India and moves to Yorkshire to live with her uncle after her parents both die, but I didn’t remember a lot of detail about the rest of the book, though I remembered the general outline, which is basically this: Mary is a spoiled brat but also quite lonely; her uncle isn’t really around and she wanders around the massive house and its massive grounds in a state of grumpiness, until some things happen to change that. She hears about a garden on the grounds that’s been locked for ten years (her whole lifetime!) and then, excitingly, finds its key, and then its door. She also makes friends with two boys around her own age—Dickon, who’s a little older than her and is the brother of one of the servants at the house and is a kind child who loves animals and nature and knows all about plants, and Colin, who’s the same age as her and is her cousin, whose existence was being kept from her but whose room she discovers one night when she hears him crying. (Colin’s mother died and his father can’t bear seeing him; Colin has basically spent his life confined to his bedroom, and thinks of himself as an invalid, though actually it seems like his illnesses were passing things rather than anything chronic/permanent.) They all spend time in the garden together, and both Mary and Colin find themselves becoming happier and healthier and less horrible (Colin, when we meet him, is as self-centered and spoiled as Mary at the start of the book).

Re-reading this as an adult, I was (negatively) struck by a few things: 1) Mary’s casual racism (the things she says about the household servants in India, ack: I mean, it’s not presented positively and I imagine an English child living in the system of colonialism may have had those thoughts/said those things, but oof) and 2) the emphasis on positivity. I mean, I really like the idea of making space for joy, but negative emotions are a part of life too, and not all problems can be solved by changing how you think about them. So, yeah, I was bothered by bits like this: “To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live” (321). And as this piece by Anna Clark in the Guardian puts it, on one level, it makes sense within the story that Colin can walk by just believing he can/trying to/working at it: his problems are not actually physical. But, to quote Clark, “in the context of a larger literature that has relatively few complex characters with disabilities, the diagnosis of “it’s all in his head” feels disappointing.”

Still, there were things about this book that I liked a whole lot. I like the details of Mary’s arrival in England, the train ride to Yorkshire with the rain streaming down the windows and the lunch basket of cold beef and chicken and hot tea that the housekeeper gets for herself and Mary at a train station. I like the way that we get to see Mary having increasingly positive interactions with an increasing variety of people, and how her feelings about herself and the world change as that happens. I like the way that Mary’s growth and Colin’s growth are set against the springtime garden, everything and everyone opening up together, and that gorgeous spring sense of energy and possibility, and I like seeing Mary and Colin’s friendship growing, too, the way we get to see them laugh together and talk together and explore the house together on a rainy day.

Next time I’m in the mood for some early-20th-century kid-lit, I’d probably reach for some E. Nesbit sooner than I’d reach for Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I’m still glad to have re-read this.

Pétronille, which was originally published in French in 2014, is the second book in a row that I’ve read that features a narrator who is a writer/shares a name with the author, which I hadn’t really thought about it when I picked it up but which was funny once I realized it. According to this PEN Atlas Q&A, the character of Pétronille herself is inspired by an actual person, and some events in the book are true to life: the Vivienne Westwood interview that the Q&A mentions was probably the highlight of the book for me.

But, OK, let me back up: Pétronille starts with the narrator waxing rhapsodic about being champagne-drunk, which “makes one gracious, disinterested, light as air yet profound at the same time”; champagne, she says “exalts love and confers elegance upon the loss of love” (10). But getting champagne-drunk would surely be more fun with a friend, so the narrator decides she needs a drinking companion, though she’s not sure anyone she knows will actually be up to the task: she takes her champagne-drinking seriously. Well: enter Pétronille, who heard the narrator speak on the radio and read her books, then started exchanging letters with her, and eventually comes to a book-signing to meet her. They talk, and Pétronille charms the narrator by getting an annoying photographer to leave the bookshop: she’s all bravery and action, and her boldness is clearly part of her appeal. They arrange to get drinks another day, which they do, though maybe the narrator feels differently about Pétronille’s boldness now: she pisses in the street and accuses the narrator (who’s from a wealthy family) of slumming. A few years later, though, the narrator sees that Pétronille has published a novel: she reads it, and it’s good, which prompts the narrator to write to her. Their friendship picks up again, and though it’s not always smooth, the lovely moments are really great: I love one bit where, after a champagne-tasting full of snobby society ladies looking down their noses at Pétronille (who’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket), the narrator tells Pétronille to take her to someplace she loves. Pétronille takes her to Shakespeare and Company and then to a Roman amphitheatre and we get this:

We gazed respectfully at the arena. A silence of catacombs reigned.
“I feel very Gallo-Roman,” declared Pétronille.
“Tonight, or in general?”
“You are so not normal,” she answered with a laugh.” (43)

The class difference between Pétronille and the narrator does cause tension, as do other things: the largeness of Pétronille’s personality, the way she loses her temper, the way she expects the narrator to be there for her even when she’s kind of a jerk, but the narrator clearly feels tender and protective towards Pétronille, though maybe she shouldn’t. At one point the narrator refers to “that strange sort of love which is so mysterious and so dangerous and where you never quite know what is at stake: friendship” (94). It feels like that’s what’s at the heart of this book, those mysteries and dangers, full of dark humor, lightened with flutes of champagne.

This epistolary novel is made up of sixteen letters from our narrator (Fay—who, yes, apparently shares some similarities with the book’s author) to her niece, Alice, who is eighteen and studying literature and feeling grumpy about having to read Jane Austen. Fay’s letters endeavor to explain why Austen is still relevant, and to give Alice some context about Austen’s life and times, but end up being more wide-ranging than that: they contain a lot of advice about reading and writing (Fay is a novelist, and Alice is working on a novel too), and also bits about Fay’s life and travels and family history. I found it to be smart and funny and fun, and it made me want to read Emma (which I’ve never read) or re-read Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility (all of which I read in school, years and years ago). Fay is rather didactic, but in a way that I think works: I like how she mixes pronouncements on literature in general with details of the plots of Austen’s novels, or details about the circumstances of their writing or publication. I like the funny bits, like when Fay refers at one point to “Shelley and his wife Mary of Frankenstein fame,” then immediately follows it by referencing “Byron and his sister Augusta, of incest fame” (103). Or like this, when she’s slightly-condescendingly talking to Alice about wanting her to enjoy literature:

I know no one’s ever set you a proper example. (Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she’s read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.)(20)

I also like that Fay writes to Alice about things like empathy, and in particular about empathy as something we can cultivate by reading novels; the narrative voice of this book is concerned with the transformative possibilities of fiction/literature, and I find that emphasis pretty pleasing.

This is the seventh of nine books in the Anastasia Krupnik series, and I think I’m going to be a little sad when I’ve read them all: they’re such fun middle-grade/early YA reads, and this one, while not my favorite, was still pleasing. Anastasia is thirteen and is bummed that she doesn’t get to go skiing over winter break: it seems like all of her friends are off on ski trips (well, except for Sonya, who is unfortunately stuck going to some weight loss program and being told to eat half an apple for “dessert” – blergh) while Anastasia’s stuck at home. She has nothing to do over break except a school paper on the topic of her “chosen career,” and she’s not really looking forward to it, until she has a brilliant idea: maybe she can convince her parents to let her go to a week-long modeling course for junior high students. In her head, of course, “model” is her chosen career, but she knows her parents aren’t going to be cool with that, so she tells them she wants to be a bookstore owner: the modeling course is just because anyone being entrepreneurial needs poise and confidence, right?

So her parents agree she can take the course, and her dad also arranges for her to interview a Boston bookstore owner he knows: it may not be skiing, but Anastasia’s excited. The modeling school turns out not to be as glamorous as Anastasia’s visions of it, and she keeps forgetting to actually interview the bookstore owner (though she visits her more than once), and oh, also, the hopelessly uncool boy from her old school who totally used to have a crush on her is signed up for the modeling class, too: augh. But it’s OK because visiting a bookstore owner and her store is interesting, and Anastasia makes a new friend in modeling class: Henry Peabody (“Short for Henrietta. But if you call me that, you die”) who is gorgeous (though she doesn’t initially realize it) and also smart/kind/fun. I like Henry’s no-nonsense feminism (she tells Anastasia that when they grow up, they can get married if they want, but they don’t need husbands), but as always, Anastasia herself is what makes this book as fun as it is. I love the way we get to see her rewrites of her school assignment in progress as the week progresses, and I love her ridiculous overactive imagination: she’s always thinking about something, whether she’s pondering changing her name to “Spike” because she thinks the matching k-sounds in “Spike Krupnik” are cool, or worrying about being late (or, possibly worse, early) to modeling school on the first day, or getting bizarrely nervous about Henry’s dad (who’s a police officer) driving her home after she has dinner with the Peabody family (because he’s driving her home on the way to work, and what if he has to, like, capture a criminal with her in the car?). And, I mean, how could I not love/relate to a character who’s described like this?

Bookstores were among Anastasia’s favorite places; maybe they were even first on her list, or at least tied for first with libraries. She sometimes thought that she would like to live in a library, not even having a kitchen—just going out to eat, and spending all the rest of her life surrounded by books. (67-68)

I originally read this picture book (which was originally published in German in 2007) back in April, when I was visiting a dear friend in New Zealand. I was in the middle of a break-up and was feeling pretty overwhelmingly sad, and she had this book checked out from the library and left it outside the door of the room I was staying in for me to read. I read it, and liked it, enough that I kept thinking about it and eventually checked it out from the library back home in Brooklyn.

The art is really lovely, with cut-out style pencil drawings of our protagonists (Duck and Death) and other collage elements, too. The text is straightforward but graceful and sometimes funny, in a way that works with the story, in which Duck learns of the presence of Death in her life/in life in general, and becomes comfortable with him, despite how fearful she is at first. The whole thing is excellent: I mean, look at this page (and don’t mind my hand; I was precariously balancing the book on the arm of the couch to take this picture):


Duck

You can see more from this book on Brain Pickings, though scrolling through the images on a screen isn’t quite as satisfying (for me, anyway) as turning pages.