Library Chicken :: Suzanne and Amy’s Favorite Reads in January
Yeah, yeah, we read all the time, but what did we read this month that was really excellent? We’re so glad you asked!
GROWING UP ETHNIC IN AMERICA: CONTEMPORARY FICTION ABOUT LEARNING TO BE AMERICAN edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan
This excellent anthology collects authors like Sherman Alexie, Amy Tan, and Louise Erdrich in stories ranging from humorous to heart-breaking. It would make a great spine for a homeschool high school lit class, and I liked it so much that I immediately went in search of other anthologies edited by the Gillans.
THE WEIRD: A COMPENDIUM OF STRANGE AND DARK STORIES edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
“Weird” is a difficult genre to describe — it’s something of a cross between horror and sf/fantasy, and it may be my favorite kind of writing just now. A shelf of “Modern Weird” would include books by Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Helen Oyeyemi, and the co-editor of this anthology, Jeff VanderMeer, but this massive (over 1100 pages!) and thoroughly enjoyable collection goes back in time and around the world to collect weird tales from a diverse group of authors. Full of wonderful and disturbing stories, this anthology is more than an introduction to the genre, it’s an education.
A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles
I know y’all have heard of this one because EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU must have been on the hold list ahead of me at my library but oh my gosh was it ever worth the wait! In 1922, 30-year-old Count Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest (for the crime of being an aristocrat) at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, but he’s determined to enjoy life nonetheless. It is SO CHARMING and DELIGHTFUL and we all need more of that right now so run out and read this immediately (or at least put yourself on your library’s hold list and settle in for the wait).
THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS by Jo Walton
This sequel to The Just City, continuing the story of the time-traveler philosophers who attempt to create Plato’s Republic in an experiment set up by the goddess Athena, met my very high expectations set by the first book. As usual, I can never guess where Walton is going, but I always enjoy the ride. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but I will say that we get to meet another one of Athena’s relatives in this one.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
I’d had this fantasy novella (first in the Wayward Children trilogy) about a boarding school for children who had disappeared into magical worlds and had trouble readjusting when they returned to their old lives on my list for a while, but Amy’s positive review pushed it to the top, just in time for the release of the final book in the series. Can’t wait to read the next one!
HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
This was YA author Rosoff’s debut novel and wow, she started off with a bang. (No pun intended.) Rosoff’s narrator, Daisy, is an anorexic American teen who is sent off to England to stay with cousins just before the start of a massive world war that results in England’s occupation. The details of the war are deliberately left vague, leaving the reader to focus on Daisy’s powerful tale of determination and survival. Sometimes very grim, but so good.
VIRGINIA WOOLF: A BIOGRAPHY by Quentin Bell
Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia is the original account of her life, but I didn’t expect to be so charmed by his wry narration. He treats his topic with the casual informality appropriate to a nephew and I only wish he’d written a dozen other Bloomsbury biographies for me to read. This is a great place to start if you’d like a biographical introduction to Woolf and her world.
VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar
This fictionalization of Virginia’s relationship with her sister Vanessa, told in Vanessa’s voice (with occasional letters to and from assorted Bloomsburians) and covering the time period from the beginnings of Bloomsbury up until Virginia’s marriage to Leonard, is another great view into Woolf’s world. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Parmar does a wonderful job with the characters’ voices and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
THE SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho
Okay, Suzanne, you were right and I should have listened to you sooner, and I’m sorry, but also this is how you are going to feel when you finally get around to watching Firefly, I’m just saying.
Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, is not the Sorcerer Royal England expected. (The Society has time-honored standards, you understand, and this whole situation is very … unusual.)
Orphaned witch Prunella is not the proper young lady that Mrs. Daubeney's School for Gentlewitches expected her to become. (Her unladylike knack for magic certainly comes in handy, though.)
Together, they may be England’s only hope to rescue the country’s worryingly dwindling magic supply.
This book has all my favorite things about magic stories (complicated rules! fairies! schools for wizards) and all my favorite things about Jane Austen (complicated rules! biting social satire! non-stop charming-ness!), and reading it was pure escapist delight. Why isn't there a sequel yet? Don’t follow my example and wait more than a year to read this one.
UN LUN DUN by China Miéville
We just finished this as our family readaloud mainly because we all liked it so much that we just raced through it. (I am still hoarse, and no math has been done, but we are all very happy and well-read.) Un Lun Dun follows the classic Wonderland plot line: A girl with a special destiny finds herself in a weird version of the world she knows (Un Lun Dun = UnLondon) and is charged with saving the city from the evil Smog, as the prophecies have declared she will do. Only, the prophecies haven’t taken into account the fact that her best friend tags along for the adventure, or that things might not go exactly as they’re written.
Un Lun Dun is very much in the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (with more whimsy and less blood), and just as in Neverwhere (which is apparently available in a version that's ILLUSTRATED BY CHRIS RIDDELL, which has totally sidetracked me because now I have to go buy this immediately — OK, continuing), the best parts are when the protagonist is making her way through the weird neighborhoods of UnLondon and connecting with the abcity's weird inhabitants. The story itself follows a very predictable hero plot line, with a few cheeky twists to keep you on your readerly toes, and some of the characters seem not quite fully developed, but it's fun and silly and enjoyably epic.
CLOUD AND WALLFISH by Anne Nesbet
My 4th-grader and I read this together, and I swear I learned more about life behind the Iron Curtain from this book than from all my years of education. (In all fairness, history courses have a tendency to peter out after World War II — have you noticed that?) Anyway, I think this would be a great living book for a late 20th century history study.
Noah definitely doesn’t understand what’s happening when his parents pick him from school in Virginia one day in 1989 and move to Berlin, where Noah has to remember a new name, a new family history, and a new set of rules, starting with “They will always be listening.” Noah’s new friend Claudia is dealing with a new life, too, since both her parents have died — and she doesn’t think it was an accident. As their friendship grows, so does Noah’s certainty that something is very wrong in East Berlin.
I couldn’t really get into The Americans (I know! It’s clearly a me-problem!), but the taut is-she-a-spy plot around Noah’s mom is unnerving in a keeps-you-reading kind of way. And Noah and Claudia’s relationship, which becomes real through their connection to imaginary worlds, really reminded me of Jess and Leslie’s friendship in Bridge to Terabithia. Noah’s obviously not a spy, but this book manages to have all the qualities of a great spy novel while still being believably about a middle school boy. My son loved it; so did I.
JANE, UNLIMITED by Kristin Cashore
Jenny at Reading the End (my favorite book blogger who isn't Suzanne) called this “Rebecca as a choose-your-own adventure, by way of Diana Wynne Jones,” so there’s no way I could not read Jane, Unlimited after that, right? I’m so glad I did because Jenny was right, and this book is my new best friend.
Sensible, practical Jane is still mourning the loss of her beloved guardian Aunt Magnolia when she gets invited to a party at a huge and mysterious manor house called Tu Reviens. We all know this story, except that we don’t: For Jane, one decision points her toward five possible futures, each one with its own complicated Gothic house genre: an Agatha Christie-ish mystery, a spooky tale of paranormal horror, a space opera (I know, but it totally works here), a spy thriller, and (my favorite) a portal fantasy.
You can definitely feel the echoes of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Northanger Abbey, and all the other classic Gothic house novels in these pages and several of the alternate futures pay tribute to genre classics, but there’s no mustiness in the decidedly modern storytelling. (Our heroine wanders the mysterious halls in her Tardis pajama pants, thank you very much.) I love that it’s open-ended: There are five stories and five endings, and you really do choose your own adventure — nothing gets tied up into a neat “the end” bow for you, and if that drives you crazy, you should absolutely skip this one. For me, though, the playfulness of the narrative is a big part of the charm.
(Suzanne, did you read this one? You should read this one!)