What I’ve Been Reading During Winter Break

Hello everyone!

I hope you all are staying warm and taking care of yourselves in the midst of the cold and national politics. While I’m currently bracing myself for a return to the Minnesota weather, I’m trying to fit in as much reading before the spring semester as possible, along with trying to keep track of all the great books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks. So, without further ado, here is some of what I’ve been reading since classes ended:

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

This was the first book I dove into after flying home from Minnesota for the holidays, finally done with exams and papers and trying to remember how to read for fun again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a new trilogy from Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James, and even if I hadn’t already wanted to read it after reading the synopsis, the cover would have been enough to draw me in. Set in a masterfully built fantasy world based on Africa and African kingdoms such as Songhai and Kush after the fall of the Roman Empire, the book is told from the point of view of Tracker, a mercenary hired to find a mysterious young boy. However, the reader is informed from the outset that by the end of the years-long search, the child is dead. While it took me a few chapters to orient myself and truly feel that the plot had begun, James’ world building and prose are both fantastic, and I was fascinated by how he constructed the many cities and kingdoms through which Tracker travels. Tracker’s narration, told in his distinctive voice, only makes it harder to put down. While the book has considerably more violence and gore than I usually read (including several scenes that reference sexual assault), I am excited to see what the next book holds. (This interview is a great look at the book’s origins, as well.)

Strong Female Protagonist (Book One & Book Two) by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

I initially began reading Strong Female Protagonist online ages ago, but unfortunately lost track of it, despite how good it is. This means that I was thrilled when a friend lent me the first two physical books over the break and I was able to devour all of it at once. Strong Female Protagonist is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and striking superhero stories I’ve ever read/watched, centering around a young woman–Allison Green–who eventually quit heroing to attend college and learn about different modes of making the world better. What follows is an intriguing look into ethics and philosophies surrounding saving the world, told through a host of engaging characters that I adored. Molly Ostertag’s art is fantastic, as well, and I would honestly die for the power couple that is Feral and Paladin.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith’s second poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead is one of those books that I want to write about but consistently end up staring at the blinking cursor instead. Clocking in at a slim 82 pages, Smith’s poems are the kind that stay in my head long after I’ve closed the covers, their urgency and craft impossible to ignore. Smith writes truthfully and at times defiantly about the dangers faced by Black men, particularly queer Black men, and their bodies. Shifting from police violence to AIDS and back again, here metaphors and allusions to gods and pigs mingle with lines that are as stark as the black words on the page: “i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones.” These poems contain anger and pain, but also tenderness, a love for boys such as those in “summer, somewhere,” where “paradise is a world where everything/is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” Don’t Call Us Dead is the kind of book that often feels beyond review. Instead, it leaves me wanting to simply press it into the hands of everyone I meet.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to finally read her bestselling follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere. Set in the minutely planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the book centers around two very different families who find themselves on opposite sides of a local custody battle, in which a white couple seeks to adopt a Chinese-American baby. However, this book is so much more than its summary–Ng’s methodical development of her characters and the lyrical prose with which she reveals their past and present makes the novel feel almost like an in-depth character study of both the families and their larger community. At times as suspenseful as a thriller, Ng’s writing never rushes, but rather lingers beautifully within each character and moment. Just as the character of Pearl is described as lingering in “the gray spaces,” so too does the book, in a way that made me feel like I had to lay in bed thinking about it for hours after I finished it.

Florida by Lauren Groff

While I’m only about a third of the way through Lauren Groff’s new short story collection, Florida has already reminded me of why I love Groff’s prose so much in the first place. Each story is eerie without being supernatural, embracing the strangeness and uncertainties that emerge in everyday lives with a sort of psychological urgency that leaves me on the edge of my seat. She writes about sisters, a lonely boy, and, often, a troubled mother, among a host of other characters. I am endlessly impressed by the ability of her writing to describe sensations and images in ways that are both surprising and cunningly accurate. The first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is a particular favorite: “Window after window nears, freezes with its blue fog of television light or its couple hunched over a supper of pizza, holds as I pass, then slides into the forgotten. I think of the way water gathers as it slips down an icicle’s length, pauses to build its glossy drop, becomes too fat to hang on, plummets down.”

That’s all for me today–it’s time to fit in some more reading before I have to start packing. Have a great rest of your Sunday, and keep warm!

Nora

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Skim

Hey everyone! Hope you all have had a lovely weekend, full of tea and sunshine and binge-watching clips of The Late Show (or is that just me?). Today’s book is Skim, by the amazing due of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and a wonderful graphic novel at that.

“Skim” is actually Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a young high schooler who goes to an all-girls school in Canada and is a lover of Wicca, tarot cards, and astrology. Skim’s school is all of a sudden thrown into turmoil as news spreads of the suicide of Katie Matthews’s ex-boyfriend, leading to the creation of a “Girls Celebrate Life” club, as Skim herself is falling into a deep depression as she contemplates questions of friendship, love, and sexuality.

As readers, we’re sort of dropped into the middle of Skim’s life–we get to watch as she grows and changes and begins to delve into deeper questions about herself, until the book ends and we step out of that little glimpse. But that glimpse itself is extremely well done–Mariko Tamaki writes from the point of view of Skim writing in her diary, allowing us to see many of her private thoughts, but also leaving many things unsaid. Skim’s voice sounds authentic, and, while not always stating things directly, still conveys what she’s feeling very well, especially as she deals with trying to figure out what love is and how to know when you’re in it. It’s amazing how we can still feel the turmoil and pain going on inside her mind, both the confusion of love and the deepness of depression, and it’s one of the things I most enjoyed while reading.

The other characters–Skim’s friends, her classmates, and even her parents–are portrayed with similar clarity. While we of course don’t get as close a look at their inner thoughts as we do at Skim’s, we still get a sense of how they’re feeling about what’s going on around them, especially through their expressions and body language. It makes them feel more real and human, and only makes it harder to put the book down and leave their world.

Which brings me to one of the things that I most loved about this book–the seamless way in which the words and illustrations work together to tell this small part of Skim’s story. Jillian Tamaki’s drawings are beautiful and striking, black and white and intricately detailed in a way that I kept marveling at as I read. There were so many moments when I just wanted to sit back and look at the pictures, because they’re so well done and they flow with the words in a way that’s almost magical. The placement of the prose and the way the words sit on the page often gives them added weight, pausing at all the right places to give the reader a chance to consider what Skim is saying. It only brought me deeper into Skim’s life, and made me feel as if I could really see her surroundings and what her world was like. It’s one of the things that most made me never want to put the book back down.

Skim only provides us with a small look into one girl’s life, but it’s one that I so enjoyed falling into. Skim, her school, and her world feel so authentic and real that I closed the pages feeling as though they must actually exist, and that somewhere out there Skim was continuing to go about her day, figuring out who she is and reading book after book about Wicca. It’s a great read, and perfect for a rainy afternoon to boot 🙂

Hope you all have a lovely Monday, and stay cool!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “I feel like I have wings but my bones are bricks. Because…because…because…” —Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

10 Books You Should Read

Hi everybody! So a little while ago John Green made a YouTube video in which he recommended 18 books he thought viewers probably hadn’t read. Carrie Hope Fletcher did a similar video on her YouTube channel, too, and it looked like fun, so. . .

(These aren’t necessarily books you probably haven’t read; they’re more books that I think are fun/awesome/really good that more people might want to read.)

1. The Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson

OK, yes, I realize that this is a series, not a single book. But these books, guys. GAH. I’ve talked about The Name of the Star before, but I just recently finished its sequel, The Madness Underneath, and MY FEELINGS. WHY. WHY WITH THAT ENDING. Just. . .just WHY. Anyways, these books are terrific, and ever so slightly addictive, so I highly suggest you read them. Then we can cry together. (It may not be a good idea to read them right before bed, though. At least with The Name of the Star.)

2. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

If this book looks familiar, it’s probably because I’ve reviewed it before. Climbing the Stairs tells the story of Vidya, a fifteen-year-old living in India during WWII. Vidya’s country is going through a period of upheaval–protests are taking place, and people are refusing to accept the racist attitudes of the British that are occupying their country. Vidya herself has her own worries. She wants to go to college, but there’s also the possibility that she will be married off before she gets the chance. And then something terrible happens, and her family has to go live in the traditional home of their relatives, where men and women are separated by a forbidden flight of stairs. Padma Venkatraman’s writing is insanely good, as are her characters and plot. Plus, her new book, A Time to Dance, was just recently released. EXCITEMENT.

3. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Oh, this book. Pranks. A boarding school. Basset hounds. Secret societies. It is SO GOOD.

Frankie Landau-Banks attends Alabaster Preparatory Academy, a boarding school in northern Massachusetts. Her freshman year wasn’t exactly illustrious, but this year is going to be different–especially when Frankie gets involved with the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, an all-male secret society to which she is not allowed to belong. But Frankie is smart (not to mention somewhat cunning), and then. . .stuff happens. It’s cleverly written and imaginative, and have I mentioned that I just CAN’T WAIT for E. Lockhart’s next book, We Were Liars? Yes, I know it comes out May 13th, but patience is NOT MY STRONG SUIT.

4. The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots by Carolyn Meyer

If I had to name my favorite writers of historical fiction, they would probably be Ann Rinaldi and Carolyn Meyer. Carolyn Meyer’s books are most likely what caused me to fall in love with reading about major figures of history, like Elizabeth I and Marie-Antoinette. Her books span years, taking the reader from her subjects’ childhoods to their adult years, encompassing betrayals, romances, and inheritances of various thrones. As you can probably tell, this one centers on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Trust me when I say these books can suck you in. Meyer makes the characters come to life, and writes very, very well. I also love her quartet of books on various women of the Tudor family (starting with Patience, Princess Catherine), Loving Will Shakespeare (about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway), and The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette. I admittedly didn’t really like Victoria Rebels all that much, but those previously mentioned I loved. (Review here.)

5. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

Well, yes, technically this is a series. But STILL. The first book is Dealing with Dragons (earlier review here), in which the reader is introduced to Princess Cimorene, who is pretty sick of this whole roytaly thing. She’s not allowed to fence, she’s not allowed to learn magic, and all in all she finds it extremely dull. So dull, in fact, that she runs away to live with a dragon. The adventures of Cimorene and those she meets continue throughout the series, involving slimy wizards, troublesome knights, and cherries jubilee. Patricia C. Wrede writes cleverly and imaginatively, and I especially love Cimorene’s attitude. These were some of my favorite fantasy books when I was younger, and I very well may reread them someday. I think they’d be enjoyable at any age. (I also really like the book Wrede wrote with Caroline Stevermer, Sorcery and Cecilia. It’s set in Regency England. And there’s magic.)

6. Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes

I’m also thinking about rereading this, seeing as I first read it so long ago, and really, really liked it. Tortilla Sun tells the story of Izzy, who is spending the summer with her grandma in New Mexico while her Mom is doing research in Costa Rica. As Izzy explores the village and makes new friends, she learns more about her culture and her family, also while trying to solve the mystery of her father’s old baseball that reads simply, “Because. . .magic.” Jennifer Cervantes’s writing is truly awesome, and at the time I wondered why more people didn’t know about it. I’ll probably be checking it out again soon. 🙂 (Review here.)

7. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Okay, so I have mentioned this book numerous times. But if you have any interest at all in reading about an eleven-year-old girl living on a somewhat lonely estate in 1950s England, who also has an acute interest in chemistry and gets involved in solving murders quite a bit, then this is probably for you. Flavia de Luce loves chemistry, particularly poisons, and in the sprawling estate of Buckshaw that she shares with the rest of her family, that’s probably what she likes to deal with best. And then a dead man turns up on the doorstep, and things get exciting. Flavia has a great voice, and the plot and the characters are just as awesome. Not to mention the covers, man. Plus, it’s a SERIES.

8. Monster by Walter Dean Myers

If you haven’t read Walter Dean Myers, YOU ARE MISSING OUT. This is the first book I read by him, and it definitely shows why he was the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2012-2013. Monster centers around Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in jail for murder. The story is told through Steve’s journal entries, a script he’s writing for a movie, and the occasional photo, taking the reader through his trial. It’s striking and intelligent and imaginative, and just GO READ IT. AND BE ENLIGHTENED. Carmen is pretty amazing as well.(Review here.)

9. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

So you might have thought the amount of gushing I can do over this book had hit its limit. But apparently, nope! NEVER. Because this is probably one of the best books I have ever read. Told through the lives of a number of gay boys, and narrated from the perspective of the gay generation that came before them, Two Boys Kissing is filled with wonderful use of language and intenseness and beauty and ugly and just freaking read it GOD.

10. March: Book One by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

I can’t believe I haven’t written a review of this yet, and I definitely need to get on that soon. March is a graphic novel about the civil rights movement, shown through the eyes of Congressman John Lewis, one of its foremost leaders. It takes the reader from his childhood to his older years, offering a remarkable and unique perspective on the movement and life during that time. Lewis is a great storyteller, and Nate Powell’s pictures add a whole new element to the book, which is probably one of the most striking ones I’ve ever read. It’s awesome and wonderful and you should READ IT. Now. And when does the next book come out?

So, there you have it. 10 books I think you should read. I suppose that’s it for today. And if you actually made it to the end of this gargantuan post, congratulations! It really just kept getting longer and longer. . .

Anyway, I hope you all have a lovely Friday! The weekend is almost here. Take heart.

Bookish Quotes of the Day: “There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away.” —There is no frigate like a book (1263) by Emily Dickinson

P.S. Also This Star Won’t Go Out. And absolutely any book by Gary D. Schmidt (because he’s amazing).

Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess

Okay…in case I haven’t said this before, I am Greek/Roman mythology-obsessed. Really. As in, any book that has anything to do with it, I’ll probably at least read the summary and the first few pages. And Athena is my all-time favorite goddess. So, after reading another book in this series about the goddess Hera, I went straight to this. Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess is the second in a brand new graphic novel series by George O’Connor called Olympians, but you can actually read them in any order. I may have only read two, but so far this one is my favorite. (Are you surprised?) Throughout the book you are accompanied by the Moirae, otherwise known as the Fates, three ancient women who are in charge of our destinies. They will weave the tapestry that is Athena’s life; her dynamic birth out of her father Zeus’s head, and on through her many adventures. George O’Conner tells the stories well and the illustrations suck you in. Plus, it taught me new things about Athena I had no inkling about before–and I thought I knew it all. It’s a quick read, but that’s no reason to let it alone. It would definitely be a bit too scary for little kids, but I bet some older ones would love it. Give it a try!

Amelia Rules!: The Whole World’s Crazy

Possibly my all-time favorite graphic novel series is Amelia Rules! Really, how can you not love it? It’s about an extremely funny, interesting, and adventurous young girl, who still has her flaws. Amelia Louise McBride is real, and I think that’s a part of why I love her. Amelia has moved from her beloved New York City to a small town she didn’t even knew existed. Even living with her cool Aunt Tanner can’t brighten things up. Things aren’t looking their best, but she has made friends. Reggie, who (let’s be truthful) is rather odd, Pajamaman, who is friendly despite his quiet nature, and Rhonda, who has lumpy hair and a sharp tongue. Let’s just say she and Amelia are still, um…getting used to each other. Jimmy Gownley’s words and drawings go together to make you laugh out loud, and Amelia is a truly unique character. And don’t stop with this book! There are many more. I say this is a book that both kids and adults will enjoy, and I hope they do.

June 20, 2011: 8 posts to go!

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

Yes, I read graphic novels, too. And this is one of the best, by author Barry Deutsch. Mirka does not like bothering with marriage, or sewing, or anything she’s supposed to, for that matter. Unlike her stepmother Fruma. No, what Mirka wants to do is something different, something no eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl has done before: Fight (and hopefully slay) dragons! Now, no one in her family is especially supportive of this. Not her bossy sister, not her nervous brother, and definitely not Fruma. But Mirka is determined to achieve her goals. Still, there is one problem…it’s not really possible to slay a fire-breathing beast without a sword, is it? Before you know it, our heroine is on a quest. So, follow through with the funny illustrations and interesting characters on the quest to Mirka’s sword.