Jenny's Library

cover image for Once A WitchOnce a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough

Tamsin Greene is determined to find her own path in life, one far from the family that seems to pity her.  It’s not easy living in the shadow of a perfect older sister.  It’s even harder when you’re also the odd one out in a very close knit extended family, the only one who can’t do magic.  But when a stranger walks into her grandmother’s bookstore one night while Tamsin is working, she finds herself inexplicably pretending to be her perfect sister.  And promising to help the stranger with the kind of task only someone with Talent could manage.

I really enjoyed this book – up until about the last third of it, when it felt like all of the revelations were just a bit too recycled.  Especially for a young adult fantasy novel published post-Twilight.  The writing was not spectacular, but it was engaging enough.  I’ll likely give the sequel a try, but my expectations won’t be very high.  Perhaps it will surprise me?

cover image for The Lost SteersmanThe Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

Following the devastating and tragic events of The Outskirter’s Secret, Rowan and Bel have temporarily parted ways.  Bel is staying behind with her own people, to do what she can to keep them safe, and to help maintain peace between the Outskirts and the  Inner Lands.  Rowan, after informing the Archives of what she has learned, has settled for a time in Alemeth, hoping to find some clues as to the location and identity of Slado in the disordered records there.  While there she runs into Janus, the lost Steersman, and is faced with the dilemma of wishing she could trade information with him while he remains under the Steerswomen’s ban.  When Outskirter demons begin attacking Alemeth, and it becomes clear that Janus is no stranger to dealing with them, Rowan knows that she must learn his secrets, no matter the cost.

There’s a definite shift in tone in this book, largely due to Bel’s absence.  As much as I missed the banter and teamwork between the two women, this is still an amazing book.  Kirstein’s ability to explain things scientifically and clearly, and with prose that remains imaginative and engaging, is used extensively here.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else writing scenes like the ones in which Rowan investigates the demons, especially while also maintaining such a clear point of view and tight but logical control over how much is being revealed.

cover image for The Language of PowerThe Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein

Rowan continues her quest to track down Slado, and this time her investigation has brought her to the town of Donner.  Bel is with her once again, as is William, the magician’s apprentice the two women met and fought beside in The Steerswoman.  They are hoping that investigating the succession change from the current wizard, Jannik, and the one before him, Kieran – to whom Slado was once an apprentice, may yield some useful clues as to Slado’s identity and location.  But time is quickly running out for the trio, as the threat of the remaining Guidestars’ destructive power grows with every day that passes.

It may seem from the synopsis that Rowan’s search is going painstakingly slowly, but I assure you that’s only because discussing the extent of the progress she’s made would involve revealing major spoilers for all of the books. The overall search does take time, as such investigations almost always do, but that’s largely because each new bit of information Rowan finds prompts even more questions.  Rowan’s real progress is in learning to ask better questions, something that’s especially evident in this, the fourth book.  There’s much that Rowan is able to do and figure out in this book that she wouldn’t have been able to in the first, simply because what she has learned in the meantime about the jewels, the Guidestars, demons, magic, and the differences between the Inner Lands and the Outskirts.  All of her discoveries have fundamentally changed Rowan’s perceptions about the world around her, and her actions, decisions, and inner dialogue in The Language of Power makes that extremely clear.  This entire series is amazing for the ways that it shows how research, science, and logical thinking really work to change how we understand things, which is a big part of why I love it so.

cover image for The Rainbow FishThe Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (board book version)

Rainbow Fish was beautiful, too beautiful to play with the other fish.  Only, now Rainbow fish is lonely. What will he do?

That first sentence up there is almost exactly what the first page says.  Which tells you all you need to know about this book.  I suspect that there’s more text in the picture book version of this story, and perhaps the extra words are an improvement. But yikes! I think the moral of the story was supposed to be about sharing or being considerate, instead the lesson seems to be that you should give away parts of your body so that people will like you.

cover image for SnowSnow by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace

“I have always loved the snow.” Page by page, a young bunny talks about all the things she loves about snow and winter.

I always have such high hopes for Wallace’s books; she’s done so many on the kinds of topics that make for great preschool themes.  And yet…the text is always matter of fact, there’s no rhythm or elegance to it, and the illustrations are readable but lack inspiration or harmony.  They’re always just serviceable enough, but never really well done.

cover image for National Geographic Look and Learn: Opposites!Look and Learn: Opposites by National Geographic

Despite the page layouts being slightly busier than they ought to be for a board book, this is an excellent concept book for little ones.  National Geographic’s stunning photographs are put to good use (badly photoshopped cover notwithstanding), as they always are.  It also goes beyond the typical set up for such books; after each type of opposite is introduced in the traditional way (an image illustrating that particular pair, and the accompanying text) it doesn’t immediately move onto the next pair.  Instead, the following pages then present a similar, but more complicated picture, as well as questions that invite parents and toddlers to have deeper conversations about the concept.  The layouts on these pages could use some cleaning up, but they do an excellent job modeling for parents how to engage their children in dialog about the books they are reading.

cover image for My Lucky Little DragonMy Lucky Little Dragon by Joyce Wan

I adore Joyce Wan’s You are My Cupcake and We Belong Together, so I was very excited to stumble across My Lucky Little Dragon on display at the bookstore.  Just like the other two board books, My Lucky Little Dragon features a different endearment on each spread, this time focusing on the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Wan’s illustrations are just as adorable as always and full of personality.  They also feature a variety of colors that pop! off the page, yet remain soft and almost pastel, rather than being limited to high contrast primary colors.

cover image for Curious Baby Curious George:  My First Words at the FarmCurious Baby George: My First Words at the Farm by Greg Paprocki

Just as the title says, this board book is about farm related words, consisting of illustrations and the names of various nouns included in the pictures.  The illustrations themselves will likely delight it’s target audience, but the choice of font and words are questionable.  It’s not an awful book, but there are much better books out there available for the same price.

cover image for Baby ColorsBaby Colors by Rachel Hale

If you recall, Hale is also the author/illustrator of Baby Giggles, which was cute, adorable, and well put together – but extremely homogenous, in terms of the kinds of babies being photographed.  Baby Colors still treats white as the default, but manages to have closer to a quarter or third of the children pictured be children of color.  The rhyming text works, although the colors being discussed aren’t always as prominent as they could be.  Overall, a good book to have in the collection, despite it’s flaws.

cover image for The Day I Had to Play With My SisterThe Day I Had to Play With My Sister by Crosby Bonsall

A young boy and his even younger sister attempt to play hide and seek, but the younger sister doesn’t quite understand how to play.

For some strange reason I remember liking this book as a kid. Which makes me wonder about the overall quality of easy readers available at the time. To be fair, there is humor here, and it’s the kind of humor that your average seven year old with a younger (or older) sibling can relate to.  The illustrations in particular haven’t aged well though, and it’s a meaner type of humor than, say, what readers find in the Piggie and Elephant books.

My senior year of high school, I spent a good chunk of my spring semester doing what many middle class high school seniors with good grades do: I visited the colleges I’d been accepted into.

There were overnights in dorms and sitting in on classes and campus tours and social events.  The usual.

One such social event involved heading over to a dorm other than the one we were staying in and standing at an upper window while some of the boys at the school serenaded us from the ground below.  This was an annual event of some sort, the point of which I never quite figured out.  It sounded like not my kind of thing, but hardly an awful experience.

Until our host (it was was prospectives week, there were three of us staying with the same hostess that night) warned us that the year before it had turned into the boys shouting obnoxious, insulting, graphic, and profane things at the women they were supposedly meant to be complimenting.  Our hostess seemed cool about this possibility, she just wanted to let us know because it had upset some prospectives last year, so if we’d rather stay behind she’d understand.

I knew that if this happened just like she described, I would be pissed and miserable and either be seething silently the whole time, start crying, or start yelling back.  Or, more likely, start throwing shit down at the obnoxious assholes.  So I claimed I had homework to do and said I would stay behind.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with people that night, so when the rest of the women came back into the room, I feigned being asleep so that I wouldn’t have to answer any annoying questions about my decision.

Instead, it turns out, I got to listen to the other girls gossiping about me.* Not our hostess, I would like to point out. I don’t remember where she was, but she wasn’t part of this conversation, just the other two prospectives.  But it was clear from the conversation that one of the other applicants did not think much of my decision.  A topic that she went on about at length.  And while she has the right to her own decisions and opinions, just like I do, there is a difference between disagreeing and having a hard time accepting that other people make choices different from yours.  Especially when those choices involve them wanting to avoid having insults hurled at them.

Until this point, this school was my top choice.  They had also offered me a scholarship – it didn’t pay for everything, but it was a decent chunk of money.  The problem was that the woman who kept rudely talking about my choices was also talking about how much she really wanted to go there.  And then there was the fact that the incident that our hostess had warned us about had not only happened in the first place, but also hadn’t resulted in any effective discipline or changed peers expectations of each other’s behavior.

So, I suppose you could say that I disagreed with the school’s and student’s decisions, and made my own choices accordingly.

For me, in the end, it worked out all right. Because I fell in love with the school that became my alma mater, and they offered me even more money than the first school did.

But not every situation like this has a happy ending.  So I think it’s important to think about what it means for people “to make [their] own choices accordingly.”  Because I could have easily had to choose between a better school, complete with scholarship, and a school that was more expensive (for me) and not as good, but at least felt safer.

For Elise Mattheson,this kind of decision has meant an almost certain loss to her yearly income.** This is not a unique situation that she finds herself in, either, it just happens to be more well known than most.  (And I appreciate her willingness to talk about it, and Natalie Luhrs for linking to her post and keeping the topic on my radar.)***

For a great many readers and viewers and creators and fans of sff, it means not going to (certain) conventions, losing out on opportunities to grow friendships, network, make sales.

Making my “own choices accordingly” is not a decision without cost.  We need to ask ourselves: “who are we asking to make these kinds of decisions, and what are we really asking them to give up?”

* Yes, I realize that this is what one gets for eavesdropping.  But still, there is a difference between trying to eavesdrop, and these other women not considering that I may not be sleeping all that soundly and TALKING ABOUT ME IN THE SAME ROOM I WAS IN.

**If you would like to help offset this loss, she currently has items up for sale, and they are gorgeous, as always.

***And to Rosefox, for bringing my attention to this latest incident via twitter.

cover image for Does My Head Look Big in This?Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is sixteen and about to start her third term as an eleventh grader at the exclusive and expensive McClean’s Prepatory Academy when she realizes that she’s ready to wear the hijab full time.  But is she ready for the assumptions people will make about her – about her parents and her abilities and her dreams – if she starts wearing the hijab to school? To the mall? To job interviews?  And yet what will it say about her, and her faith, and her country if she lets fear and prejudice keep her from making her own choices.

Despite the rather slow moving plot and lack of action, I found myself liking this book quite a bit.  It’s not just that it offers a very compassionate and balanced view, and presents readers with a perspective that is sadly in short supply in YA.  Abdel-Fattah writes in a very compelling and engaging voice and I look forward to reading more books by her.

cover image for How Beautiful the OrdinaryHow Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Boys who love boys.  Girls who love girls. New loves and old loves.  Teenagers forced to hide their true selves.  How Beautiful the Ordinary collects twelve stories from twelve authors who know what it’s like for their normal selves to treated as different, as outside the norm.

I expect a mixture of quality and taste when it comes to the content of anthologies, but that doesn’t excuse the disrespect for others that I found in a handful of the stories in this particular collection:

William Sleator’s Fingernail has it’s Thai protagonist and narrator telling readers that ” [English] is the most important language in the world” and pointing out that were it not for his abusive, European ex boyfriend, he never would have met his current, loving boyfriend from the West.  It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young man like this to exist, and to have these kinds of thoughts, but that it’s not really appropriate or responsible for an white American to be putting these words into the mouth of a Thai character he created.

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s The Missing Person is in many ways a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a girl who everyone else sees and treats as a boy.  Unfortunately, it also uses the misfortune that befalls a Taiwanese exchange student as a metaphor for the main character’s own struggles, rather than as an experience belonging to the exchange student herself, and as a source of common ground.

The stories are not all disappointing, however.  Jacqueline Woodson’s Trev is elegant and full of sorrow, determination, and hope.  Margo Lanagan’s A Dark Red Love Knot is twisted and cruel and beautiful.  Emma Donoghue’s Dear Lang, a testament to the meaning of family, left me in tears.  And lastly, Gregory Maguire’s The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H. contemplates paths not taken and shows us the costs of hiding in closets.

cover image for Lucy the GiantLucy the Giant by Sherri L. Smith

Fifteen year old Lucy Oswego has always towered over her classmates.  Not that she needs to in order for people to remember her, Sitka is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else – and their business.  Which is how all the bar owners know to call her when her dad gets so drunk he can’t even stumble home on his own.  So it’s no surprise that Lucy wonders what it would be like to blend in, to fit in – to be someone other than Lucy the Giant.  And when a crabbing boat crew mistakes her for an adult, and invites her to sign on, Lucy finds her chance to do just that.

Have I mentioned how much I love Smith’s books? Lucy the Giant is no exception.  Smith has a gift for finding the extraordinary in the everyday, and for centering the kinds of characters that tend to exist on the fringes of most mainstream narratives.  Lucy the Giant is a deceptively simple story; more complicated and subtle than it appears at first, and one that packs a punch despite it’s short length.

cover image for How to Ditch Your FairyHow to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

Like everyone in New Avalon, Charlie has her own personal fairy. Charlie has never seen her fairy, but she knows her fairy is there because of all the little things her fairy does for her. But while most people are happy to have the extra help, Charlie is determined to ditch her fairy any way she can.

Some people (such as Charlie’s best friend Rochelle) get to have shopping fairies, and always find the best clothes. Other people (like Charlie’s nemesis Fiorenze) have fairies that make all the boys fall in love with them. But fourteen year old Charlie has a parking fairy, and what good is a parking fairy if you can’t even drive? All it means is that everyone always wants to drag Charlie along on all kinds of boring errands. So Charlie has spent the last sixty days walking everywhere – no riding in cars, buses, or any other vehicle that needs a parking space – in the hopes that it will convince her fairy to leave. Because there’s nothing Charlie won’t try in order to ditch her fairy and get a new one.

I’ve only read three of Larbalestier’s books, but I can already tell she doesn’t do typical. Which is fine by me.

How to Ditch Your Fairy is not quite the genius novel that Liar is (because what can really compare to Liar?) but it is a wonderful story. It’s not at all what one might expect from an urban fantasy novel, and that is definitely one of its biggest strengths. Not every single part of the novel works as well as it could, but it’s always very fresh and engaging.

I also appreciate how Larbalestier handles Fiorenze’s situation. As one might expect, having a fairy that makes all the boys around you be attracted to you isn’t quite the dream that it might sound like at first. It’s not just that it’s hard for Fiorenze to be sure which boys are sincere, it’s not just that it can be tedious and distracting, and it’s not even just that it creates a lot of jealousy among other girls and makes friendships impossible. Larbalestier makes it clear that the boys don’t really enjoy having their wishes overridden by fairy magic and, most importantly, that having a fairy like this is unsafe for Fiorenze – that it quite often places her in dangerous situations. And Larbalestier shows this by giving Charlie moments of understanding and growth that are logical and realistic and rooted in empathy rather than preachy and dogmatic.

I was very sad when my copy from Better World Books ended up being a library discard, because I really think this is a great addition to any young adult collection.

cover image for Ghost ShipGhost Ship by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Theo Waitley is not who she was raised to believe she was.  Her mother may indeed be Kamale Waitley, a scholar from the Safe World of Delgado, but the father she’s always loved turns out to have a past she never suspected, and comes with a family that’s larger and more complicated than Theo may be ready for.  Pilot Waitley has more to deal with than just family politics, however. She has a friend to rescue, a mysterious sentient ship to find, and she’s still under contract as a courier pilot.

It’s always taken me longer than usual to lose myself in this series, but this particular book was especially hard.  I don’t know if it would have helped to have read the previous Liaden books first, as the first part of Ghost Ship involves characters that were new to me but I think perhaps not the series. (Several books were written in the Liaden universe before this particular series, but Theo Waitley’s story begins with Fledgling and – until now – her series works quite well on it’s own.)  As it was, parts of the book were compelling, while others left me wishing certain characters would talk less and do more.

cover image for Between Mom and JoBetween Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters

Nick’s life has never been perfect, but it has been full of love and laughter and parents who love him.  Coping with their divorce, with not being allowed to choose who he lives with, would be hard on any teenager.   But after their split, Nick isn’t even allowed to see Jo.  Since Jo never adopted Nick, and his mothers’ marriage was never legally recognized, neither he nor Jo have any legal rights to make sure the mother who gave birth to him allows Nick to spend time with the mother who raised him.  Can Nick convince his mother of what Jo means to him? Or will his enforced estrangement from one mother ruin his relationship with the other?

As with so many of Peters’ books, we need more of this kind of story, and I’m glad that we now at least have at least this one.  However, the writing just isn’t very good.  It’s arguably one of her better written novels, and she does some interesting things with telling the story in a not quite linear fashion, but the prose never manages to rise above acceptable.

(Both titles listed below are available separately as ebooks – they were also available at one time as a single volume titled: The Steerswoman’s Road.)


cover image for The SteerswomanThe Steerswoman
by Rosemary Kirstein

Some books are so unique and memorable and unexpected and so good that you wish you could read them again for the first time.

And then there are the stories that you want to reread over and over again like comfort food.   Because they have all the tropes and character types that you always love.  Including the kind that are depressingly hard to find.

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (and sequels) manages to be both of these at the same time, and has therefore ruined me for all other books. Ever.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. Wikipedia says this means that she’s a “traveling scholar” – but that’s not really doing her role in her culture justice. Because scholars, as much as I love them, tend to produce work that’s packaged in a way that’s hard for people outside of academia to access – and accessing academia often costs money.  Steerswomen, on the other hand, usually spend a large portion of their time traveling from town to town, sharing the knowledge they’ve gained, as well as acquiring new information.  One of their most sacred rules is that they have to truthfully  answer any question anyone poses to them.  In return, others must do the same, or be put under a ban and never have any Steerswoman answer any of their questions ever again.  This may seem trivial, but Steerswomen were originally navigators – thus their name – and much of the information they collect is practical.  Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s question could mean they never warn you of the blight that’s spreading, and how to to guard against it.

There are, indeed, academies and halls where all the journals that Steerswomen keep on their journeys eventually go, and where some of the Steerswomen stay and maintain records and work on more theoretical pursuits.  But Steerswomen are like modern public librarians as much as they are like modern scholars – their purpose is to provide access to knowledge as much as it is to collect knowledge.

You can already see a big part of why I like this book, I’m sure.

I love not only that Rowan is a scholar/librarian but also that her role as librarian is more than just a nod and a wink about how awesome books and libraries are; The Steerswoman asks much deeper questions than that.  It repeatedly deals with the ethics of providing information – what it means to do so, or to withhold it – and how Steerwomen navigate issues like privacy, respect, and distrust.

AND – it gets even better.

Rowan isn’t simply wandering aimlessly about.  Like most Steerwomen, she has a particular topic that she’s researching.  In her case, she’s looking for the origins and purpose of some very strange jewels that have come into her possession.  Like any good interdisciplinary scholar, she’s using science – yes, SCIENCE – as well as interviews, research, and deductive reasoning in order to achieve her goal.

Very early on in the book, two things happen.   First, Rowan acquires a companion, the wonderfully competent and clever Bel. Who, unlike Rowan, does not come from the agricultural towns and villages of the Inner Lands, but rather from the harsh landscape of the Outskirts.  Secondly, someone tries to kill Rowan, and she suspects it’s because of the questions she’s been asking about the jewels.

In lesser hands, the mystery of the jewels could have been merely interesting, but what Kirstein does instead is nothing short of amazing.  Rowans’ scholarly search is as fundamental to the worldbuilding of the story as it is to our understanding of her as a character. Rather than just a princess in a tower to help move the plot along, Rowan’s search for answers leads her to bigger mysteries.  Even more than that, the gap between what Rowan doesn’t understand  but we do about science and the world around us means that every new clue that Rowan finds out about the jewels gives us new clues about the world she lives in.  Yet Kirstein does this all without Rowan (or Bel) ever coming across as stupid or incompetent; quite the opposite, in fact, as it’s often very clear just how clever and imaginative both need to be in order to make as much progress as they do.

Also, Bel is awesome and Rowan and Bel’s friendship and working relationship is so wonderful and fun and functional.

And that’s all just within the first few chapters. Did I mention it just gets even better from there?

 

cover image for The Steerswoman's RoadThe Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

Explaining the set up for this novel in detail will reveal too much of the plot of the first book.  WHICH YOU SHOULD READ RIGHT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY.

Suffice to say that Rowan and Bel are still as awesome as ever, and still traveling together.  This time their journey takes them out of the Inner Lands and into Bel’s home: the Outskirts.

“The camp was pitched against the edge of the forest, one side nestled beneath overhanging evergreens, the other open to a green, rolling meadow, where the tent shadows now stretched away from the vanishing sun, long fingers indicating the east.”

Since I can’t say much more than that without everything being full of spoilers, I want to instead talk about Kirstein’s prose.  It’s lovely and expertly done in all four books, but this novel in particular is excellent for highlighting just how talented Kirstein is at her craft.  While there were strange goings on in the first book, much of it still took place in a setting that was familiar to Rowan herself.  It was also a setting with a great many similarities to other fantasy novels, and to certain periods in Western history, so it’s familiar to readers as well, in a way.  But in Outskirter’s Secret, we enter into territory that is entirely new to Rowan, and less familiar to many readers as well, and we encounter creatures quite unlike any other we’ve seen before.

“The greengrass vanished.

It was a subtle process as Bel had first described…: first one noticed occasional patches of redgrass, then more, and eventually one realized that for indeterminate length of time no greengrass had been seen at all.”

All of this is told in Rowan’s scientific yet poetic voice, through which Kirstein is able to paint us pictures of the this new world that Rowan finds herself in – images that are as clear, accurate, and detailed as photographs but as lyrical and wistful as watercolors.

“The breeze was in her face, speeding wild lines of brown and red directly toward her; it was sinister, threatening. The colors seemed to hover, sourceless, ineffable.

…Rowan wished it would rain; wished the colors to gray, the grass to dampen and silence. She watched the grass tops dizzily and stumbled along behind the Outskirter.”

This series really deserves to be read and talked about and praised, rather than dwelling half-forgotten in obscurity.  So GO. Get yourself a copy and read it.  And tell other people about it.

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