Middlegame Ups the Stakes

Middlegame (Middlegame, #1)Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(4.75/5)

“Her smile is the first brick in what she will one day call the improbable road. Today, now, in this moment, they are beginning their voyage toward the Impossible City… The deed is done. It’s too late to turn back now.”

This is one of those books that redefines what a single book is capable of achieving alone. This book is comprehensive, moving through such a range of concepts, layers upon layers of metaphor, worldbuilding, and timelines that it feels like at least three books in one. I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire: did she outline this book? Did she outline the up-and-under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?

This book is a feat. Every single event in here is the culmination of all previous choices, and this is both explicit and implicit. I truly can’t count how many timelines exist on the page, because for every explicit timeline reset, there were more that happened between the lines of the page. The final series of events is as inevitable as it is improbable.

The writing in here is so strong, even at the sentence-to-sentence level. I love the parenthesis and how McGuire makes her punctuation work for her to tell the story and imply how much information is being consciously acknowledged, what’s actually a secret, and what’s unknown to the characters. This is a technique I see more in fanfiction than published work, and it works super well here.

McGuire has this way of sinking down into her characters’ perspectives until it feels like I, as the reader, am occupying some small corner of the characters’ minds, watching it all play out but unable to change anything. I do think this comes through much more strongly with the twins, their friends, and allies, and less so with Reed and Leigh, but seeing as the book focuses so much more on the twins’ side of the story, that makes sense, even if I wish we’d had a little more “sinking down” into the other characters’ heads.

Every emotion in here is a gut-punch. As the book goes on, we get deeper and deeper into one character’s perspective, and I absolutely didn’t expect them to become my favorite, but god, I adore them. This book obviously does many things very well, but if I had to pick one thing that worked perfectly, it’s the fact that in a book full of horrific tragedies, there’s this one tragedy that stands out. It’s not foregrounded very often, but when it does, the bitter fact is this: if a tragedy were to befall the twins, they’d have each other and all the power in the universe as consolation, but not everyone has something as consolation. Sometimes, everything that ever mattered to you is ripped away, and there’s emptiness in the world, and you’re so tired and just want to rest, but you can’t… and it doesn’t even matter. (I have a lot of feelings about this minor storyline.) (Hands down, my favorite part of this book.) (I would fight a war for this character.)

There’s a fascinating commentary on how intelligence gets gendered. Dodger and Roger both observe how the world just doesn’t know what to do with a mathematics genius who’s a girl, and how she just doesn’t fit the world’s idea of a smart girl. A girl can be book-smart, but math-smart just isn’t normal. This fades as the characters grow up and instead becomes a commentary on strength, on who gets to weak and who have to always, always be strong. Who is allowed to fall down and cry and stay fallen, and who can’t. I’m still thinking my way through the idea of strength, to be honest, because most, if not all, of the characters in here can fit that; there is very little rest in here for anyone.

Having finished the book, I’m especially interested in the parental characters and in the contrasts between their two sets of parents. Also, I feel like one of the parents was characterized a little inconsistently. One of the twins has this fascinating book-long journey about when a lie is permissible, but I thought the implication at first was that this kid needs powerful lies to save them because they’re terrified on their abusive parent. As in, why do you need a life to save your life when you are still a literal child? But it was only there at the beginning, and then they have a normal parent-child relationship for the rest of the book. I just feel like the implication was in there from a previous draft… oooo, or maybe a previous timeline?

There are some things I wish we’d gotten more of or spent more time on, especially toward the end of the book. For as long as it is, some things were barely in the book. The Up-and-Under as a metaphor for alchemy and a parallel for Roger and Dodger was excellent when delivered side-by-side with the main story, but when the main story begins using Up-and-Under terminology literally, the logic of the story falls apart for me. I still enjoy it! But I do think we needed more explanation for what is literally happening. The end feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the book for this reason. I had lingering questions, like what exactly happened between Asphodel and her enemies? Why would manifesting the Impossible City in their world be a controversial idea? Also, what even is the Impossible City? “The whole damn Impossible City is about to fall on your head” sounds super cool, but I still have no idea what that actually would look like, physically, literally, etc.

This is second time I’ve read a Hugo-nominated book and been so blown away that it’s revised my standards, so the lesson I’m taking is this “read all the nominees” challenge I’m doing should be a yearly routine.

View all my reviews

A Book I’ve Been Waiting For

Little & LionLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes a book comes along, and it’s so good it makes you rethink every other book you’ve read that tackled similar subject matter. Little & Lion was that book for me, setting the new standard for books about mental illness, difficult romantic relationships, and fraught families. I’ve seen a little bit on the internet on how there wasn’t much of a plot, and I guess that’s true or false depending on what counts as a plot for you. For me, the driving force of the plot was Suzette’s struggle to accept herself, to feel safe, to protect the people she loves. Above all, she just wanted to feel safe and secure, and for better or worse, every choice she makes is driven by that deep emotional need.

When the book begins, she’s on the tails of a traumatic spring semester and is realizing she’s bisexual, trying to figure out what that means. Her brother is bipolar, and their relationship has fractured as he tries to rewrite his identity to include his mental illness but never, never be defined by it. Suzette’s anxiety and fear for her brother’s safety was so palpable, and I cried so much in this book for her. I really appreciated that there were a variety of opinions on how Lionel’s mental illness should be considered, but that Lionel’s safety was so prioritized.

It meant so much to me that Suzette’s feelings were validated. Throughout the story, she was so anxious, afraid, and confused. People lashed out at her and hurt her, but then they apologized and acknowledged how they hurt her, and Suzette forgave and loved them anyway because she’s an absolute gem who’s too good for this world.

Suzette has this line about how when you mess up, you apologize, and I appreciated how that came due at the end of the book. An apology may not fix the thing you broke or the person you hurt, but it means so much to openly acknowledge that you hurt someone. I didn’t know how much I missed that in other books until I finished this book and clutched it to my chest and was retroactively angry on behalf of other books’ characters who never got their feelings validated at all.

I also love how the romantic storyline concluded. I think it was perfect for Suzette, and I appreciate her growth and ability to prioritize her own needs and desires.
I honestly don’t have the words for what this book meant to me.

Okay I’m gonna say something spoiler-y after all the dashes below, so skip if you don’t want to be spoiled, but I think if anyone gets triggered or upset by unhealthy dynamics the way I do, it would help them to know the spoiler-y thing when they go into the book.












Although there are definitely hints of unhealthy dynamics in this book, especially with how Suzette watches Rafaela enjoy and delight in Lionel’s spontaneous joy while he’s hypomanic, and how it just makes Suzette feel like she’s the crazy one for being so scared for her brother, I appreciate so much that Suzette realized how badly matched she and Rafaela would be romantically, even if they’re super attracted to each other.

I am so happy for her that she recognized, “Huh, Rafeala is amazing, but her behavior caused me stress, so I don’t want to be around it or to date her,” and was able to articulate what she did need from a relationship by the end of the book. As someone who has been in a relationship that constantly kept me in that feeling of stress and fear, I was so relieved that Suzette figured that out and saved herself from further distress.

View all my reviews

Reality Pedagogy for the Modern Teacher

 

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is so helpful, and I’d recommend it to anyone about to start teaching. I was a TA who got thrown into the deep end of teaching last fall, and had I read this book sooner, reality pedagogy would’ve made my class so much better. Some helpful concepts I would’ve loved to incorporate into my classes: cogens, coteaching (especially coteaching!), cosmo duos, a cosmopolitan attitude in the classroom. I loved the chapter towards the end on the importance of dressing yourself well and having an aesthetically pleasing classroom, because that reinforces what I already believed but had never applied to pedagogy. Also, yes, of course, your clothing matters.

Although this book is primarily aimed at white teachers who teach urban youth/neoindigenous kids, the pedagogy it presents could be useful for any teacher teaching to a classroom of students whose background differs from their own. Coteaching, especially, can be adapted for any situation because it allows the students to lead by example and show the teacher how they learn best.

I would love to read further on the subject of teaching kids to codeswitch because although there are great examples to show your students in the “Codeswitching” chapter, I still have questions about how a teacher would present this to their students.

View all my reviews

The Arts Will Save Your Life

A Song for a New DayA Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first, I found the sharp divide between Luce’s Before and Rosemary’s After to be jarring, and I struggled to reconcile that, but the book made a great case for its deuteragonists’ POVs as their timelines synced up. I connected with Luce more immediately, partially because of the first person perspective, but also because her early pages show her reckoning with her new reality in a way that we’ve all now had to do. I cried while reading about the documentaries that book characters were making of their own changed realities, even started my own “Don’t Forget Normal” list.

This book was an open wound until I read this line: “Fear is a virus. Music is a virus and a vaccine and a cure.” I know it’s not totally applicable to our pandemic, but if the previous pages had broken me open, this line put me back together and gave me hope.

I love how Rosemary’s panic attacks and fear were handled. The book hit a good balance of Rosemary’s issues in particular. How her parents raised her in isolation to protect her from a newly dangerous world while also depriving her of some sorely needed human connections. How afraid that made her and how hard it was to unlearn that, how there were panic attacks and triggers, and she didn’t like to be touched. Though the book ultimately argues that people should be allowed to congregate again now that the pox is no longer a threat and attacks have ceased, Rosemary’s experience of entering the wider world is given the respect it deserves.

The way the story takes us from Luce’s young adulthood into her mid-thirties and manages to shift her voice just enough is really impressive. You can literally feel that she’s gotten older after the timejump, and I really adored older, wiser, slightly jaded Luce.

Sometimes dual perspectives take me out of a story, and that did sometimes happen to me in here, but like I said, the book really earned its right to have both POVs. This story can’t exist without the two of them. Rosemary could see the flaws in Luce’s logic, and Luce could spot the dangers that Rosemary’s naivete didn’t let her see. There was a line at one point about weaponizing enthusiastic kids that just cut straight to my heart.

This book feels like a blueprints for survival, or at least something like it. I was jotting down ideas for socially distanced arthaus events that I thought of as I read.

View all my reviews

Everything Magical

Silver in the Wood (The Greenhollow Duology, #1)Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There has never been a more Marisa book in all of existence.

This book is so magical and mystical, and I adore it.

I deeply love how Tobias’s voice is characterized in this. A paragraph may run with a tangent that builds in emotional intensity as he considers how fairies feels emotions vs. how mortals feels emotions, and then all of sudden, the paragraph will just cut off as Tobias realizes why he’s obsessing about this and forces himself to stop being a “fool.”

On that note, too, I quite like how Bramble’s friendship with Tobias is written. She may not be human, but she loves Tobias very much in her own way, and their ride-or-die friendship is great.

Fabian was this scary-slick charming villain who sauntered onto the page, and Tesh did a great job of making me feel just as afraid of him as Tobias was. I was afraid of his possessiveness, especially because Fabian considers so many things to be his — the woods, Tobias, the beautiful young men who walk near his forest. Everything is his to claim, and that is terrifying.

The romance in here is incredibly sweet. Tobias’s longing for Henry Silver hovers between every line, and all his despair at the reasons this fondness is impossible. It heightened the tension when both of them are inevitably put in fairy danger.

Silver’s mother is an absolute gem, and the constellation of relationships between Tobias, Henry, and Mrs. Silver is my favorite aspect of this novella. There’s something so warm and cozy about how they all relate to each other. Everything that was so impossible earlier in the story becomes possible and becomes a family once all three of them have space in the story.

View all my reviews

Thoughtful Meditations

SeveranceSeverance by Ling Ma
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love how the title word Severance is interpreted and re-interpreted throughout this book.

Time slips in interesting ways in this book, from present to past and present again, and I’m tempted to take a second look at this book and track its progression. Something specific I noted about the passage of time is how realistic in felt in the “past” timeline that immediately preceded New York City’s evacuation; it reminds me of the way my own coronavirus journal reads when my situation was at its most urgent.

Similarly, I found the in-universe symbolism of the masks to be fascinating. Although Shen Fever is a fungus-borne illness and not spread by respiratory droplets (unlike COVID-19), the healthy people wear masks to signal to other people that they are still cognizant and unaffected. It is the mark of the un-fevered. It’s hard not to parallel that to our current situation somehow, even I’m currently too braindead to parse out the specific similarities and differences.

I know this book is supposed to be a rallying cry against our current consumer office-drone culture, and I see elements of the capitalism critique, but I think the critique of our working culture is less impactful because of the way Candace is characterized. She’s characterized as a constant loner, someone who holds herself at a distance with most people. “Spend time with your family,” an overseas colleague tells her, but where would Candace even go? Candace always held herself apart from her coworkers; they aren’t her family. The closest thing to family she seems to have is her ex-boyfriend, who breaks up with her and tries to convince her to move away with him, and her old roommate, who she lost years earlier when their lease was up. She’s a loner. So Candace’s dedication to work and to projects plays less as a character flaw and more like a woman who’s solitary and wants to fill her time with something meaningful.

On that note, I wanted something more of the end of the book, but that’s me, always wanting to know everything. Craft-wise, I thought the final chapters were very much aligned with how Candace is characterized throughout the book.

View all my reviews

Fascinating, but I Wanted More

Church of MarvelsChurch of Marvels by Leslie Parry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book started strong with an interesting mystery at the heart of it — well, actually several mysteries that branched from a single incident.

I enjoyed these characters, but the second half fell flat to me as the mysteries started getting answered. The revelation of Alphie’s “big secret”, especially, didn’t sit right with me — it was trope-y and felt like it was there for shock value — and from the minute her secret was revealed, the book began relying heavily on exposition, as though to say, “You see, this is how it happened, and I would’ve told you earlier, but I couldn’t, because story structure.” It made for unsatisfying resolutions. Alphie and Belle’s story is basically left unresolved except for an epilogue infodump which has to work overtime to make up for the pacing/secrecy issues in their earlier chapters.

Odile and Sylvan’s story felt like they had the best pace and a kind of a closure by the end. Still, there were elements that felt like they didn’t get enough buildup to entirely earn the ending. That said, I still like their endings, for its emotional resolution qualities.

Overall, an enjoyable book, but it doesn’t really stand out from the gazillions of good literary fiction books out there.

View all my reviews

“Delightfully Bendy”

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal GirlPaul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully bendy!

EDIT:
This book was delightfully bendy and kept me constantly trying to untangle its interpretation of gender. It seemed to reinforce the gender binary one moment, and then to tear apart the binary a moment later. I’m intrigued that Paul never seemed to entirely identify with either being a boy or a girl; however he transformed his body, it didn’t change who he was inside in the slightest. Sometimes I had surface level knee-jerk reactions — like feeling a little defensive while reading Paul’s assessment of femininity and women — but Paul had such fascinating observations, and there was truth in a lot of what he observed. I loved this little adventure book.

View all my reviews

This Is How You Claim Your Story

The Epic Adventures of Lydia BennetThe Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet by Kate Rorick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prepare for a messy review, because I don’t think I can be articulate when it comes to this book.

The ways this book depicts mental illness, especially deep anxiety and trauma responses, is painfully accurate. To my experience, anyway. One of the themes of the books is failure. How to define failure, how to respond to it, how to learn from it. And moreover, how to not let a past failure define you.

Although I don’t think the word is ever used in reference to what George Wickham did to Lydia Bennet, the word that kept coming to mind as I read through this book was that what he did was “assault.” He took advantage of an insecure young woman, manipulated her into being vulnerable with him, into proving she loved him enough to make a sex tape, and then tried to sell their tape on the internet. Something that hit me so hard in this book is Lydia’s confusion. She talks a lot about the difference between understanding something with your mind vs. understanding it with her heart – Lydia really applies her new psych classes well here — and something she struggles with is understanding how her relationship with George ended. She knows logically that he left her and betrayed her, but she can’t reconcile those actions with the man who made her feel so loved and protected. Her heart can’t understand how it happened and changed so fast. There are a lot of facets of Lydia’s journey and healing in this book, but I’d say the biggest is Lydia reaching an emotional understanding of what happened, knowing this wasn’t her fault, and it was completely George in the wrong. She originally told her story to the LBD fans with careless abandon because it seemed fun, but then George and the internet ripped her agency away from her and tried to write their own ending.

They silenced her.

And in all the months since then, Lydia is trying to find a way to reclaim her agency, her story, and tell it in a way that encompasses who she was and who she now is, so that she can live with it and feel some kind of peace.

The original web series had a lot of compassion for Lydia Bennet and her situation, and that comes through in this novel as well. This novel, which gives closure to her story, is a way of letting Lydia take back her dignity after countless people took it away and stomped all over it. It’s impossible not to read this and extrapolate its messages out to anyone else who has suffered a trauma or been betrayed: Be kinder to yourself. You are trying to heal. And It’s okay not to be “over it.” Be kinder to yourself.

And as someone who needed to hear that message more than a few times in her life, I am so grateful this book exists and that Lydia found her way out of it. Lydia is a kind of blueprint for surviving traumatic relationships.

View all my reviews

Biting Back

Salt SlowSalt Slow by Julia Armfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this entire book in nearly sitting. Literally, I didn’t want to put it down! This book exposes the seams of the world and of daily life.

UPDATE: So I wrote tiny associative reviews for each story.

Mantis — 5/5 stars
Alternative puberty in the grand tradition of girlhood transformations. There is something in here about repressed girls suddenly being able to bite back at the invisible harm that power systems can do to them. (Or maybe I’m projecting my own Catholic baggage onto this story.)

The Great Awake — 5/5
Something beautifully psychological about this. Wistfulness and wishing. A sweet semi-unrequited love story at its core that encapsulated “almost.” Captures something universal living inside an surreal, alien-to-us shell.

The Collectibles — 4.5/5
Captures the way good friends are when living together, the way ideas kinda simultaneously form between 3 heads that all think a little alike but not quite, the kinds of telepathic leaps that get made. Something I noticed in this story is how it (and some other stories) end; some of the endings feel like they stop right at the point of no return, after which nothing will ever be the same, but then the story ends there. Likely just because that’s not what the story was interested in circling around, but as someone interested in consequences, that move stood out to me.

Formerly Feral — 5/5
This story teethers on the edge of absurdity but by surrounding our immediate main characters with a cast of absurdly horrific background characters — the homicidal neighbors — this story manages to lean decisively into the beauty and horror of making a real emotional connection. The unbecoming of girl and walk until they meet in the middle is fascinating to read.

Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax — 5/5
This is our world but tilted on its axis. Horror and realism despite the supernatural bend. Teenage girls and grown women desperate to be heard, understood, to be told its ok to let your fury and hunger spill over into entropy. A seduction of a kind. Glitter and blood and a mythology until itself. My favorite story in the collection.

Granite — 4.75/5
I understood this story more on my second read. The fragility of loving a man. Still undecided on how to fit the pieces of this story together — the neighbor, the boyfriend, the friends’ advice. Beautifully rendered, though, with imagery that took my breath away: “Morning sky. Gasp of purple, like the dark pit at the back of a throat. Day like a wallow. Promise of snow.”

Smack — 4/5
I enjoyed this for the portrait of Nicola and the look backward at her disintegrated marriage. The tone/genre felt different and certainly leaned more realistic. I love the imagery at the end. Think there’s a connection to be drawn between the fragile helplessness of jellyfish and Nicola… fragile with a sting? With some fight still in them both.

Cassandra After — 4.5/5
Structure felt more traditionally braided than the dreamy organic pace of previous stories. I felt conscious of how we moved through time. I do like the rendering of a complex relationship and the musing on being so float-y on the surface on someone’s life that you almost miss their death.

Salt Slow — 5/5
Surreal, horrifying. The most horrifying parts are the body horror but the implications of analogous real-world violence. I don’t know how this couple ever feels normal again, but the end felt like a benediction, an answer to the violence implicit elsewhere in this story.

View all my reviews