The protagonist of Meet Us By the Roaring Sea lives in Queens in the not-too-distant future: far enough from now that a building built in the early 2000s is described as old, but not so far from now as to be unrecognizable. The protagonist works in AI and technology has advanced—people’s consumption patterns are monitored to generate a personal “carbon score” for everyone, and electronic payments happen via iris scans rather than through cell phones—but people are still grappling with the biases and ethics of technology and algorithms and data collection/data use. Meanwhile, the protagonist is translating a manuscript written in Tamil in the late 1990s, a work described as “a collective memoir, not fully fact or fiction, about a group of female medical students.” The narrative jumps between the future and the past, the protagonist and the manuscript. At work, the protagonist is training a new AI that feels different from past projects; at home, she throws herself into the translation because she needs something to do: we learn early in the book of her “mother’s sudden death, two months ago.” The protagonist notices this, about people she talks to at a “protest about data surveillance”: “They all had experienced a loss that they were still trying to shape in to something else.” Of course this applies to her, too, and to her childhood friend Sal, who is back in the neighborhood after a long time away. These plot strands intersect with another about the protagonist’s cousin Ros, who recently moved in with her. Ros is working on a new drug that’s being developed to treat Alzheimer’s, but that might have other uses as well; this plotline also includes a veteran who goes by Cheeze, who ends up living with the protagonist and Ros for a time. In the manuscript, the medical students are treating refugees—there is mention of “the Island” and “civil war” and because the text is in Tamil you know it’s Sri Lanka. The younger students, under the guidance of three older girls, are being tutored in “radical compassion.” The manuscript observes that the girls are “learning two different systems of knowledge, one structured by a clinical understanding of the body and the other ancient, known before knowing.” But it isn’t clear how to achieve radical compassion, or what exactly it might lead to, for the students in the manuscript or for the protagonist.

I like the way Kumarasamy writes, and there were aspects of this book I liked a lot—the protagonist and the manuscript, the protagonist and the AI, the protagonist and Sal. And I see where the pieces of the plot with Ros and Cheeze connect to ideas of memory and trauma and compassion. But I also felt like I wanted the book to have a tighter focus than it did.

Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

September 19th, 2022

I’m glad I read this right after Spellbreaker because, as previously mentioned, I really wanted to know how things would work out … but alas, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked that one. For me, the balance of magic and intrigue and romance in the first one was just right; this one’s a little heavier on the romance for a lot of the book, and I was just not that into the direction it took. (To say it in a non-spoilery way: I liked the sass and flirtation of the first book much more than I liked the questions and doubts that figured more heavily in this one.) Plotwise: this book picks up shortly after the previous one ends, and in the first chapter our heroine Elsie finds herself “under arrest for the practice of unregistered spellbreaking.” As you might guess, she isn’t sentenced to death or life imprisonment, as that wouldn’t leave us with much of a book—but her arrest has major consequences for her relationship with Bacchus, the aspector from Barbados who played such a big role in the last book. Meanwhile, the villain who was revealed at the end of the last book continues to be a threat, and figuring out how to deal with that threat takes up a lot of Elsie and Bacchus’s time. We also get to meet a few new characters, my favorite of whom is the registered spellbreaker who’s sent to train Elsie after she gets out of jail: watching her dynamic with all the other characters is fun, and a magical fight scene near the end of the book is strengthened, I think, by having two spellbreakers and two aspectors (magicians) fighting on the same side.

(That said: I have issues with the way the villainy in this book ends up going, for reasons that people on Goodreads have already articulated better than I could, as in the three following reviews by others: review 1, review 2, review 3)

Spellbreaker was an excellent vacation read for me, and I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel right away: this is definitely NOT a standalone novel and I want to know how everything works out. The book opens in England in 1885 with a workhouse on fire and a young girl, Elsie, having accidentally erased a rune that was keeping the building safe from the flames. A cloaked figure beckons Elsie, who’s eleven years old at this point, to come with them: “I need your help to make the world a better place,” the person says. Elsie realizes that she’s a “spellbreaker, born with one kind of magic instead of taught a hundred.”

Flash forward to London, ten years later: Elsie has been doing the bidding of that cloaked figure and/or whatever group they’re part of for a decade; she also does non-magical work for an artist/stonemason. In this world people who make spells, known as aspectors, specialize in one of the “four alignments”—magic that is “rational”, “spiritual”, “temporal”, or “physical”. (Rational spells can be illusions, or anything else affecting the mind; spiritual magic consists of “blessings and curses”; temporal magic changes “time’s effects”; physical magic, as you might guess, changes the physical properties of objects: Elsie’s artist employer uses it to change white paint into colored paint, for example.) Meanwhile, spellbreakers, like Elsie, can unravel spells. Both aspectors and spellbreakers are meant to be registered with the government, and Elsie isn’t, which means all her spellbreaking work is renegade, and dangerous. She’s proud of what she does, though: all her assignments are described to her as things that right a wrong, or help keep the poor from being oppressed by the rich.

Next plot strand: Bacchus Kelsey, who’s in his late twenties, has just come back to England from his home in Barbados. He’s a physical aspector hoping to take the test to become a master physical aspector—and hoping to be approved to use a particular spell that will “allow him to move an object—any object—without touching it.” As you might guess, Elsie’s path and Bacchus’s path cross, and keep crossing. And in another plot strand, which affects both of them, it seems that someone might be murdering master aspectors and stealing their “opuses”, which is what their bodies turn into when they die—rather than corpses, master aspectors leave behind “spellbooks of all the enchantments they had learned in life,” which let “anyone”, magical or not, cast one of those spells (but only one time per spell).

This book is heavy on plot and well-plotted; I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next—and I find both Elsie and Bacchus to be appealing characters. I also like the world-building and how the magic in this world works/is explained, like in passages like this: “Who had penned the first spell was as shrouded in enigma as who had penned the last. None of the authors were known, and spells across all four disciplines were set. Many had studied the language and style of spellmaking enchantments in an effort to expound upon them, or create one anew, and not one had ever been successful.”

The prologue of this novel sets up what’s to come: it’s 1838 in Gundagai, Australia, and we’re with Wagadhaany, who is four years old, as she listens to her father telling a white settler that he shouldn’t build a house on the land by the river: it’s too flat; there’s a risk of floods. The white settler “mumbles something about Blacks not being smart enough to understand”; Wagadhaany soon thereafter hears her uncle say that the settlers “don’t understand the land, they just keep chopping down trees.” And we see Wagadhaany with her extended family by the river, where they camp and prepare food together: we see how connected Wagadhaany is to her uncles and aunts and cousins, not just to her parents and siblings.

Flash forward to 1852: Wagadhaany is working as a servant for that man from the prologue, who has built his house where he wanted to build it, and the rain comes down hard and harder. The river floods; the Bradley family and Wagadhaany move to the attic and then to the roof. Houses are swept away, leaving people clinging to tree branches, and Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, rescues townspeople with his bark canoe, as do other men from the Wiradyuri camp by the river. The flood changes things for the Bradleys, and for Wagadhaany too. One of the Bradley brothers, James, meets and marries a Quaker woman, Louisa, who lost her husband and her parents in the flood; Louisa wants to befriend Wagadhaany, both because she needs companionship and because of “the desire of the Quaker family to see equality for the Aborigines of Australia.” And when James decides to move himself and his brother David and Louisa to Wagga Wagga, where he thinks the land will be better for cattle, Wagadhaany is taken along too, though she just wants to be with her family at Gundagai.

The book’s narration mostly stays close to Wagadhaany, though there are sections focused on other characters as well. Wagadhaany is smart and full of questions, and through her we see the large and small ways that the Bradleys and other white people mistreat Aboriginal Australians and the land. The Bradleys have always called Wagadhaany “Wilma”; after the flood one of the Bradley brothers starts trying to use her actual name, and Louisa calls her Wagadhaany from the day she meets her, but James keeps calling her Wilma, when he talks to her at all. And even though Louisa talks about equality and wanting to learn from Wagadhaany, her ideals aren’t always reflected in her behavior. At one point she tells Wagadhaany she thinks the town of Wagga Wagga would be better if there were more Quakers there; Wagadhaany wonders silently if things wouldn’t actually be better still if the settlers had the Wiradyuri values of community and respect for the land/living lightly on the land. (Even the children, we learn, know this: we read about them gathering “some small branches of eucalyptus leaves, which they have pulled carefully from low-hanging branches, knowing that they are only ever to take what comes easily to them, what the land wants them to have.”)

This book has a lot of heart and I was totally caught up in the story, with wanting to know how things would turn out for Wagadhaany. And I like how Heiss brings in various aspects of Australian history, and also how she uses words from the Wiradyuri language.

The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken

August 12th, 2022

I went into The Stolen Lake expecting something like Nightbirds on Nantucket: an alternate-history romp with some peril for our heroine Dido Twite, but with humor and an expectation of a happy ending. The Stolen Lake felt much darker, with Dido as resourceful as ever but also sadder and in what felt like greater danger. (I mean: there are some *moments* in Nightbirds on Nantucket, but in that book I never doubted that the villains would see their plot foiled or that everything would be OK for Dido and her companions.)

In this one: Dido’s on her way back to England, finally, but the ship she’s on is diverted to South America, which is Roman America in this world, because in Aiken’s alternate history some of the ancient Britons and Romans migrated there when the Saxons invaded Britain. The captain has received a message by carrier pigeon telling him to go to New Cumbria and assist its monarch. The message is vague but there’s been “some attack, some invasion”: “Something has been taken from the queen.” As you might guess from the title, that something turns out to be a lake, and Dido and her companions are enlisted to get it back. But there are frightening things going on in New Cumbria, and they’re not all related to the country’s dangerous wild animals (though there are things called aurochs, which are described as “huge hairy tusked birds, larger than horses, which can snatch up a grown man in their talons).

After some early humor (the captain says to Dido that she seems “to know nothing about anything except navigation and how to cut up whales”; we learn that the ship’s steward “had attended butlers’ school in London; part of the course consisted of half an hour’s poker-face work every morning) the book turns more serious. It’s not just the lake that has been stolen: a princess from a neighboring kingdom is missing, presumed kidnapped by the queen of New Cumbria. Who, by the way, says she’s waiting for her husband, King Arthur (yes, that one) to return. (Maybe I would have had more fun with this if I were more familiar with/into Arthurian legend.)

While this one isn’t my favorite book in this series, I do look forward to reading the rest, and there were some things I liked about this one—like the descriptions of the landscapes that Dido and her companions travel through, which feature volcanoes and an abandoned city and “fantastic snow-covered peaks, and pinnacles like spectral cities of ice.”

I recently acquired a copy of The Stolen Lake, which is the fourth book in Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles”, and it prompted me to check out this book, which is the third in the series, from the library. Nightbirds on Nantucket is totally bonkers, and totally excellent. It opens on a ship at sea in the Arctic; a girl is asleep on deck and we learn she’s “been asleep for more than ten months”. She wakes, and turns out to be Dido Twite from Blackhearts in Battersea: this ship, a whaling vessel out of Nantucket, picked her up from the water where she’d been clinging to the mast of a wrecked ship and she’s been along for the ride with them ever since. The ship Dido’s on belongs to Captain Casket, a Quaker whaler who is “funny in one way, awful peculiar”: he says he’s seen a pink whale, and, moreover, he “forever had this notion that one day he would see one—on account of summat as happened when he was a boy.”

Dido just wants to go home to London, but that’s not in the cards, at least not immediately: the boat isn’t heading to port anytime soon, and when it does go ashore it’ll be in America, not England. She has a project, at least: she learns that the captain’s wife died on board, and his young daughter, Dutiful Penitence, has shut herself up in her cabin: the captain wonders whether Dido might be able to persuade her to come out. Meanwhile, the first mate seems to be up to something shady, and the ship is still in pursuit of that elusive pink whale.

Dido’s approach to getting Dutiful Penitence (or Pen, as she comes to be known) to emerge from her self-imposed isolation is excellent, and I love the way Dido also tries to teach Pen to be more independent and resourceful and less of a scaredy-cat. (To wit: “By innumerable tales about her own life Dido was managing to suggest that all dogs do not bite, that occupations such as skating and swimming can be enjoyable, that people tend to be friendlier when you talk to them boldly and cheerfully than when you cower away as if you expect them to murder you.”) But plotwise, there’s a whole lot more going on: the world of this book is a world in which the House of Hanover has not taken the British monarchy, though Hanoverians are constantly scheming to overthrow the Stuart king James III. And some of those Hanoverians might have a plan that involves the island of Nantucket. When Dido and Pen are sent ashore to live with Pen’s Aunt Tribulation (whom Pen remembers being terrified of as a a child) they find themselves with more to worry about than the endless list of farm chores and house chores they’re told to do.

Dido is a whole lot of fun and it’s great to watch Pen learn to do things on her own; the supporting characters are also excellent: among other’s there’s a Nantucket boy named Nate (who likes to sing songs of his own devising: “I allus used to make up verses at home, about sheep and funerals, you know, and pickled tamarinds and so forth,” he explains), a bird that spouts pro-Stuart sayings, and a professor working on a project he thinks will produce a “magnifibang.”

This book is definitely an academic text rather than a general history of the subway, and as such I’m not really the intended audience—and the fact that I read this while home sick with covid probably doesn’t help with my retention of the subject matter. But I nevertheless enjoyed this study of “how the daily transit experience” (in New York, after the subway opened in 1904) “was involved in shaping modern urban life and subjectivity.”

I probably liked the straight-up historical aspects of this book the most, like the descriptions of the subway’s opening in 1904, including a passage about the cheering spectators who watched as “the train approached the viaduct over Manhattan Valley between 122nd and 133rd St. and then emerged from the depths.” I liked learning about/thinking about aspects of the subway I hadn’t previously considered, like the fact that when it opened, to get in a passenger bought a paper ticket from one person, then gave it to another person to tear, like a ticket for a play, or the fact that, as Höhne puts it, “There was a conscious decision to leave elements like steel girders, rails, and control units exposed in order to demonstrate the structure’s sturdiness and technical perfection.” It was also interesting to read about the “abundance of visual signals” passengers had to deal with in an era of different subway operators and non-standardized maps and signage. And the chapter about complaint letters (on topics ranging from sanitation issues to violence on trains or in stations to slow/unreliable service) and how the complaints were dealt with provided an interesting way of looking at the subway and its issues in the 1960s.

At one point in this middle-grade novel one of the characters remarks on how it’s weird to be living in a “crazy maybe haunted, maybe spy-filled castle in Scotland,” and yeah, this book is quite the mix of things. It’s 1940 and Kat Bateson and her two siblings are sent to a castle somewhere north of Edinburgh so they won’t be in London in the midst of the Blitz: a relative of her great-aunt’s has a wife who’s started a school in their castle, for evacuee children. But it’s clear to Kat from the start that something is “off” about Lady Eleanor and the rest of the castle’s inhabitants. And it’s not particularly reassuring to be told things upon arrival like “The Lady insists we lock you in at night” and “If you hear any odd noises, it’s nothing. Castles as old as this are filled with odd noises.” The reader, meanwhile, is given the whole backstory, from 1746 onwards, which involves a magical chatelaine and the stealing of children’s souls. Meanwhile, the kids find “a secret hiding place” with “something—or someone—locked inside that makes terrible shrieky noises”: a prisoner? a ghost? or something more rational but maybe more dangerous … like the short-wave radio of a Nazi spy? I like how Kat, who likes to spend “time with facts and figures and puzzles” (and who’s initially convinced there’s a rational explanation for everything) ultimately finds herself having not only to believe in magic, but to use it. I probably would have been freaked out by this book as a kid—I found it pretty creepy even as an adult, while also finding the plot totally engrossing.

My husband and I moved to a new apartment just over two weeks ago and I feel like there is still so much to do, from updating my address in all the places it needs to be updated to unpacking clothes and books (which we can’t actually do until our new bookcases arrive and storage unit arrive, which will be … who knows when, based on my phone call today with IKEA). All of which is to say, I was in the mood for an “easier” read, by which I mean something plot-driven and engaging. I think in other moods I might have been not so into this novel’s prose style (present-tense first-person narration, very straightforward/not a whole lot of descriptive paragraphs) but in my current mood I was happy to just immerse myself in the story, which is a coming-out/figuring-stuff-out story whose protagonist is Amar, who’s 28 and newly-engaged at the start of the book. We learn a little about Amar’s background—how he used to work in advertising but was fired after he couldn’t cope with his grief after his mom’s death, how he met his fiancé, Joshua, at the bookshop where he started working after that—and then we see him coming out to his family (his older sister, his two older brothers, all of their spouses, and his younger sister) via WhatsApp message. Well—the wife of one of his brothers already knows that Amar is gay, but he’s never talked about it with the rest of his siblings and in-laws, who are all “second-generation Bangladeshi Muslims in East London.” They don’t respond particularly well, and Amar wonders if his relationship with Joshua means he’ll be permanently estranged from his family. Meanwhile, Joshua’s mom is getting perhaps too excited about their wedding, and the bookshop where Amar works might have to close, and Amar finds himself having doubts about whether he and Joshua can even make their relationship work, given their cultural differences. Amar has a lot to deal with, and his history of being partly closeted and scared and therefore not super-communicative doesn’t help. Though I tend to like more lyrical narrative voices, I was rooting for Amar as a character and engrossed in the various subplots. And there were moments I was charmed by his narrative voice, like this moment, after Joshua tells him not to worry about people staring when they’re visiting Joshua’s family in Dorset and Amar is the only non-white person in sight: “I am not worried – but, I mean, I’d be a lot more not-worried if I saw more melanin.” Or this, when Amar is explaining what he likes about working at the bookshop: “I love the quiet in the mornings and just listening to the hum of the lights. I love burly men surprising me by buying Margaret Atwood novels. I love that people like Joshua can walk in here and discover a new favourite book.”

Last Night at the Telegraph Club was the 1950s sapphic coming of age story I didn’t know I needed, and was such an engrossing read for me. In the prologue we meet Lily, who’s 13 and with her family at a 4th of July celebration/Miss Chinatown pageant in San Francisco; Lily feels “as if she shouldn’t be caught looking at those girls in their swimsuits,” though she can’t articulate why. The narrative then jumps forward four years to a scene of Lily and her friend Shirley: Shirley is showing Lily an ad for her family’s restaurant in the newspaper, but what catches Lily’s eye is a different ad entirely, for “TOMMY ANDREWS, MALE IMPERSONATOR,” who does shows at a place called the Telegraph Club. Later, at school, Lily is mortified when that ad, which she’d torn out of the paper, falls out of her bookbag in the bathroom. But when another girl, Kath, picks it up, what she says isn’t what Lily expects: she says she’s been to the Telegraph Club, and has seen Tommy Andrews perform there. And so Lily and Kath, who have been in classes together but have never really been friends, start walking home together and talking. They become friends, then more than friends, and their relationship is definitely one of my favorite things about the book, though there is also lots of other good stuff. Lily is Chinese American, and her family is concerned (with good reason) about the Red Scare and the effects it might have on them; we also see the casual racism of various white people Lily interacts with and how that affects her. And we see Lily figuring out her sexuality, and dealing with how to come out or not to her family, and dealing with gender expectations too (her aunt works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so there is some familial acceptance of women in science, but at the same time, when Lily asked for a chemistry set for Christmas when she was a kid, her mom’s reply was “Don’t you want a doll instead?”). There are also flashback scenes that give more background about Lily’s family and their stories, and about their different experiences as Chinese Americans of a previous generation.

I love the San Francisco setting of this novel and the way the city feels like such a perfect backdrop to the story. I like the way Lo uses the city as a way to talk about Lily’s growing awareness of possibilities beyond the world she’s always known, like this, from right after Lily sees the Tommy Andrews ad in the paper: “she stood at the window over the sink, gazing at the city lights, each a glowing ember marking someone else’s life: bedroom and living room windows, headlights crawling up the steep streets.” Or this: “She’d always thought there was something magical about the city, with its steep stairways and sudden glimpses of the bay between tall, narrow buildings. It felt expansive and full of promise, each half-hidden opening a reminder that the city she had been born in still held mysteries to discover.” I love that Kath and Lily go to a gelato and sorbetto place in North Beach at one point, and then have ginger ice cream in Chinatown; I love that Lily’s aunt takes her to Musée Mécanique; I love that Lily and Shirley go to Sutro’s and Ocean Beach.