The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig

TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. This book The Girl from Everywhere is all about time traveling pirates.

The Girl from Everywhere

The Girl from Everywhere is about TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. Just so you know. At sixteen, Nix has sailed everywhere from the lands of the Arabian Nights to present-day New York to eighteenth-century Calcutta — if her crew can find a map of a place, she and her father can sail them there. But all her father truly wants is to find a map of Hawaii in the year that Nix was born, so that he can prevent her mother from dying in childbirth.

The Girl from Everywhere
possible outcome of this plan

As long ago as Nix can remember, her father has been searching for a map of Hawaii that will let him save her mother. She herself has mixed feelings about it, since it will maybe result in her never having been born — a possibility that her father seems never to have considered. Nor does Nix want to bring it up to him. They don’t have that kind of relationship.

The Girl from Everywhere is Heidi Heilig’s first novel, and I’m excited for whatever she’s going to do next. She evokes the last days of independent Hawai’i in a way that’s utterly lovely and, as I said to GREAT MOCKERY on the podcast, made me want to go to Hawai’i for the first time. Nix’s difficult relationship with her father is the emotional heart of this book, and I love that Slate, whom Heilig has said is bipolar, is neither vilified for his illness nor excused for the ways in which he fails as a parent.

For those of you who always ask when I review YA: Yes, there’s a romance, a small one, very respectful and sweet. Some opium, and lots of maps.

Thanks to Amanda of Gun in Act One for the recommendation!

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater

The first part of this post will not contain spoilers for The Raven King, or indeed for any book in this series. I will clearly mark the end of the non-spoiler-y part of the post, so that you can bail before I start shrieking about specific, spoilery things. I mainly want to tell you what I love so much about this book and this series.

The Raven King

The Raven Cycle is about figuring out how to be a person. Or more specifically, how to be a person when your world as it stands is not — is nowhere near — enough. One of our protagonists, Richard Campbell Gansey III,1 is looking for a Welsh king. Everyone else — Adam Parrish, who’s trying to be someone different; and Ronan Lynch, who’s looking for true things in a world full of liars; and Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a house full of psychics, who desperately wants something more — finds “looking for a Welsh king” to be a viable means of also searching for what they do want, so they are along for the ride. Mostly what they are all looking for is How To Be.

(how to be free, how to be happy, how to be a friend, how to make your life matter)

That they are sometimes phenomenally bad at these things makes it all the more satisfying as, over the course of the series, they get better and better at being who they want to become. Compare, for instance, the chats about relationships Adam and Blue have in The Dream Thieves versus in The Raven King. Compare the way Gansey is with Blue the first time they meet to the way he is with her — well, any time else, really, I just wanted to remind you of that whole President Cell Phone snafu because it remains one of my favorite scenes in the series. The lovely thing is that Adam and Blue and Gansey are fully themselves in all the versions of all these conversations; they are just getting better at it as they go along, in a lovely organic way.

It’s funny that I started with a spoiler warning, because in fact one of my favorite things about these books is how unspoilable they are. Or conversely how eminently disappointing it would be to go into them spoiled. Maggie Stiefvater’s maybe-best trick as a writer is that she always tells you the spoilers herself, probably more than once, but when the big reveal arrives, you’re still surprised, because she told you what was going on, but you were too distracted by something else she was doing at the same time.

(It makes rereading fun! You reread and you’re like “Oh she told me this exact information in Chapter 4.” “Oh, Ronan has been saying this all along and nobody was paying any attention.”)

Also, there’s magic and creepy trees. If magic and creepy trees are things that interest you. Or Latin. Or Tarot cards.

ONWARD TO THE SPOILERS.

Are you ready now? For spoilers?

Okay. Here they come. In no particular order.

NUMBER ONE. I cannot, and it is unfair for you to expect me to, handle a situation in an already emotional book in which a character I love walks into a creepy forest to meet his own death. You know perfectly well that gives me Harry Potter flashbacks. I had to put the book down for a minute because I couldn’t face the possibility of Gansey being alone when he died, even though I knew from previous visions that at least Blue was going to be there with him.

NUMBER TWO. I love it that Glendower was dead, and there was no favor, and the search brought them to a dead (ha ha ha) end. Mostly because I’m nihilistic that way, but also because it wasn’t ever really about Glendower in the first place (see above). It was about these people and their friendship and what they were growing into. Even Ronan knows that Gansey could have found Glendower any time he wanted, if he’d wanted to. It actually was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered.

NUMBER THREE. Everything about everything relating to Blue and Gansey, and Adam and Ronan, was perfect in every way. But my favorite thing, probably, was this:

He said, “I thought this was a night for truth.”

“Ronan kissed me,” Adam said immediately. The words had clearly been queued up. He gazed studiously into the front yard. When Gansey didn’t immediately say anything, Adam added, “I also kissed him.”

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. It’s just such an Adam thing to add, while he is talking to Gansey about, basically, how best to be careful of Ronan and what to do about it all.

Relatedly, I love Adam the best. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which if you take a gander at a few of those “Which Harry Potter/Star Wars/Marvel Universe character are you?” Myers-Briggs charts, you will find is the personality type of mainly fictional psychopaths and life-ruiners. So it was nice to have such an exceptionally INTJ-y INTJ character like Adam to who was neither a psychopath nor a life-ruiner.2

NUMBER FOUR if I may make one tiny criticism. I am not sure we and the other characters had enough time to deal with their losses. Gansey is dead for like two seconds before they bring him back to life, and even though I find the manner in which he is brought back to life quite satisfying, I would have liked that emotional beat to matter a little more and a little longer. Like maybe if Henry Cheng hadn’t been there for it? And if they’d had to take Gansey home and once they got home he said the thing about them being magicians?

Also, and mainly, nobody got a chance to grieve Noah. I guess it’s fine that they never knew he’s the one who saved Gansey — I actually like it when there’s important pieces of the story that important characters never find out — but I’m sad we didn’t see them recognizing that he was gone gone, and having the chance to grieve. And after he was so sweet to Ronan.

NUMBER FIVE, Adam borrows Ronan’s car to go see his family at the end. (I assume his Hondayota finally bit the dust?) That Adam let Ronan lend him a car, and that Ronan let Adam go do this scary feelings thing on his own, says everything about how much these two characters have changed over the course of the books. What a great series.

You may now feel free to squeal at me in the comments about any and all of the books in this series.

  1. I like to call him RG3, even though the overlap between Raven Cycle readers and minor quarterback carers-about is probably not that huge so there are probably very few people who would find this amusing.
  2. My mum doesn’t like Adam. I identify strongly with Adam. Does this mean she doesn’t like me? Who knows.

Game of Queens, India Edghill

Note: I received a review copy of Game of Queens from the publisher for review consideration. This has no bearing upon my super-intense vengeful emotions about Haman and their contribution to my enjoyment of the book; about which, see further remarks below.

In my 2014 book preview, my expressed wish for Game of Queens, a retelling of the story of Esther, was that it not use the word sex as a euphemism for genitalia. And it did not. It also turned out to feature Daniel, of lions-not-eating-him fame, being gay without his close friends fretting too much about it, and it managed the neat trick of vilifying not Esther nor Vashti nor Ahasuerus. Which, if you remember the Book of Esther in any detail, you will notice is really quite some trick.

Haman is vilified, as is right and just. When I was a wee tot, I had this amazing book called Behold Your Queen which was also a retelling of the Esther story (it did vilify poor old Vashti), and so the moment where Haman gets hanged upon his own gallows was one of the formative Revenge moments of my childhood.

Fun fact: Thinking about revenge activates the reward centers in your brain!

Although Game of Queens is subtitled A Novel of Vashti and Esther, it’s really Vashti’s book. In part this is because Esther’s story is already so familiar, and by the nature of her story, she’s a less dynamic character. Vashti’s the one who gets to change and grow, to realize that she can’t be Marie Antoinette all the time, and to learn to become a player in the politics of her country, instead of a pawn. She’s a fun character, and it’s surprisingly rare to have a book in which a ditzy girl gets to get to make shit happen.

Greatest book ever, Pulitzer Prize material? Okay, probably not. But I cherish the story of Esther, and what Edghill has produced here is a monumentally satisfying version of that story. Not only do we get a Vashti who finds a way to control her own destiny even after she’s set aside as Queen of All Persia, but there’s this whole subsidiary plot about getting REVENGE on Haman even before Haman comes up with the idea of killing all the Jews.

Final note: Apparently Martin Luther was ruhlly ruhlly not into the Book of Esther. It was probably too fun for him. He probably wanted to put the Book of Job in there twice, just to make everyone miserable. Cranky old jerk. (I’m glad the Reformation happened. Super important, historically. Major step forward for Europe. I’m just not such a fan of Martin Luther as a person.)

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin Millar

Note: I received a copy of The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, for review consideration.

Martin Millar writes books like classic British sitcoms, where there is a central organizing event (or several) around which the action is oriented, and the characters all have their separate and incompatible visions for what is to happen at this event, and everything goes magnificently to hell, and then in the end it all turns out okay, or doesn’t. Whether or not this works for you as a structure will most likely be the determining factor in whether you enjoy any Martin Millar book, ever — including his most recent novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is set in ancient Athens, about midway through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens and Sparta are holding a peace conference, and the city is preparing for the Dionysian festival at which new plays will be presented to the city. Demigods and immortals descend on the city to watch these events unfold (or sabotage them). Aristophanes struggles to get his pro-peace play Peace sorted out, and common-born Luxos does his best to jump-start his career as a poet.

Describing a Martin Millar novel — and this is a very good one — is tricky because all of the adjectives that come to mind come loaded with unwanted connotations. I always say sweet, or charming, and The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is both sweet and charming, but that undersells its cleverness. Clever implies that there isn’t any heart, and there is because it is impossible not to fall for the sincerity of Millar’s characters (and the super simplicity of their motivations). Sincere misses how funny it is.

I’ll go with funny in the end, and also self-aware: Millar clearly recognizes a level of absurdity in writing a comic novel set in ancient Greece, and his book lets the audience in on the joke without getting too winky. The story has simple stakes, but Millar knows that the historical background was far from simple, and this also shows.

Martin Millar is one of my favorite authors in the sense that you know what one of his books is going to be, and it always is most satisfyingly that. The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is as solid an introduction to his particular brand of madcap scheme-making story as any he’s written in the past.

Really important question tho: Do you like Athens or Sparta better? (The correct answer is “Athens, but”.)

Not a dumb American: Namibia edition

Have I told you about my project to read one good history about every African country? It is a project I have had in mind for a while, and I started it this year with my beloved Namibia. Because here is the thing about Namibia: We have been underappreciating it. Sort of a lot.

Let’s start with the basics real real quick. This is Namibia:

Namibia!

As you can see, it is the country north of South Africa on the west coast of the continent. It was colonized by the Germans, and then after World War I when German colonial holdings were being divvied up, South Africa took over governing it until it gained independence in 1990. It contains fewer people than the city of Houston (because a lot of it is desert). You have not been appreciating it enough, and I will tell you three reasons why you should.

1) Namibia is the first country to do what we are all going to have to do eventually unless we fix global warming much faster than we are currently fixing it, which is to run sewage water through treatments that render it once again potable. You wrinkle your nose because that sounds gross, but you will allllll be sorry you didn’t get used to this idea once it becomes inevitable. Namibia will have been used to it for years. Namibia is a forward-thinking genius pioneer of water reclamation!

2) Namibia has the freest press of any nation in Africa. You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you? You thought it was going to be Ghana or something! Ha, ha, joke’s on you, Ghana, the true truth is that it is NAMIBIA. Every year when Reporters without Borders does that thing where they rank countries based on how free their presses are, Namibia is always in the top twenty percent or so. You know who’s not in the top twenty percent? America, and we’re getting worse year over year, by a lot.

(I don’t know why I trash-talked Ghana just now. That was unnecessary. Sorry, Ghana. I am currently reading a big history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but maybe my next country to read a big history of can be Ghana. To show that I bear it no ill will.)

(It’s just that I feel like sometimes people are all, “Ohhhh, Ghana, you’re the very shiniest African nation, all the other ones are so lame compared to you,” and I get jealous for Namibia, which is just way down in the south there doing its best and recycling water and having a free press and whatnot. Ghana just has more people! They have like ten times as many people, so of course they’re going to produce more writers and artists that get exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s not a referendum on Namibia, you know?)

3) Namibia is a total baller at conservation. See! You didn’t know that either! It is in their constitution. And this is very lucky for the biodiversity of the planet, because Namibia has crazy mammals, many of which are endemic to Namibia, and they work really really hard to preserve them. You know how we are all (when we remember to be) worried about black rhino populations? Well, Namibia has the largest herd of them in the whole world, and that is not by accident, friends! That is a successful plan implemented by Namibia to save the black rhinos.

Moreover (like that’s not enough, right? That’s what I’m saying! Namibia!), conservation efforts in Namibia benefit local populations. There is a nice New York Times article about it that you may read here, if you are curious. Essentially, the power to manage sustainability and ecotourism initiatives at the community level is given to the communities. So instead of the government applying a one-size-fits-all top-down version of conservation, it’s managed at the local level, and the communities derive economic benefits from it, which gives them a stake in continuing this work, rather than it just being “because the government said so.”

NAMIBIA.

The history of Namibia I read (Marion Wallace’s History of Namibia) was super informative, but rather dry. There really aren’t that many comprehensive histories of Namibia out there, and I’m pretty sure it’s because people don’t know what an awesome country it truly is. Please tell your friends. I want to spread the word.

Onward! The next book in my Africa project is David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. I am the queen of this reading project.

Into the Beautiful North, Luís Alberto Urrea

Well this was just a delight. It was such a delight that I was reading it, I wanted to propose it for podcast. We are supposed to propose books for podcast that we haven’t actually read yet, so I was considering perpetrating a teeny, tiny fraud* on Whiskey Jenny. But the book was such a delight, and we were stuck in a car in Agra because some VIP’s visit to the Taj Mahal had shut down the roads our driver needed to use to get us to Jaipur, that I could not resist reporting bits of it to her as I was reading.

Here is the elevator pitch, and I think you will find it hard to resist: After watching the film The Magnificent Seven, nineteen-year-old Nayeli conceives a plan to travel up to the United States with her three friends and bring back some men to protect her home village of Tres Camarones, all but empty of men and left at the mercy of any gangsters who might be passing through.

Already so charming, right? Just the premise? But Into the Beautiful North really won me not with its charming premise, but with its light heart. The experience of reading it reminded me of nothing so much as Where’d You Go, Bernadette, another book throughout which I was braced for flurries of catastrophic unkindnesses that never showed. That isn’t to say that Nayeli and her friends endure no setbacks and no hardships; but hardship is not the story Urrea is telling. The story he’s telling is about friendship and hope.

I’ve made a few forays into the brave new world of the YALSA Alex Awards, having heard about them from the marvelous Margaret H. Willison, and Into the Beautiful North has been the big winner so far. I approached this book with a fearful expectation of having my heart broken on behalf of Nayeli and her friends, and instead it gave me the metaphorical equivalent of a hug and a mug full of hot chocolate.

*Not really. I could not bring myself to perpetrate even the teeniest, tiniest fraud on Whiskey Jenny, who is so radiantly honest herself that the George Washington cherry tree story probably derived from her childhood.

The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black

The last sentence of Holly Black’s newest book sums up everything I loved about it. I can’t quote it here, because it’s got all the spoilers, but if you are the sort of person who reads the end, go check it out yourself. If I were in middle school I would draw hearts around it after writing it in the back of my school notebook. (I mean, I wouldn’t hundred-percent rule that out as a possibility now.)

Hazel and Ben (both named after famous rabbits) live in a town that the humans share with the faeries. For years and years, the two groups have kept an uneasy kind of peace: The humans leave the faerie folk alone, and the faerie folk confine most of their malice to the tourists who come through Fairfold. Except that suddenly, all of this has changed. The horned sleeping boy in his glass coffin has awoken, and the humans of Fairfold are under attack.

If you are one to pick nits, there are nits here to be picked. Not every part of the plot makes flawless sense, and if certain characters had just been more forthright with certain other characters, in areas where they had every reason to be, some things could have been resolved more swiftly and more simply. And if you are reading this book right after the quite tightly plotted and tricksy Curse Workers trilogy, the contrast might be marked.

I luckily did not mind about any of these things, having read the Curse Workers trilogy way back in December and several disappointed reviews of this book recently. Low expectations plus unexpected diversity in the cast of characters equals WIN.

Here’s something I loved: Hazel’s love interest is a faerie boy, once a changeling. His human mother, a Nigerian American woman of exceptional determination, got her original baby back from the faeries and decided to keep the changeling baby as well.

Besides mandatory family games on Sundays, his mother was the kind of parent who packed lunches in stacked bento boxes, who knew exactly how her kids were doing in every subject, who monitored television time to make sure homework got done. As far as she was concerned, Carter and Jack were headed for Ivy League colleges, ideally close enough to Fairfold that she could drive up and do their laundry on weekends. Nothing was supposed to get in the way of that.

I cannot, can never ever, resist the story of a changeling who wants to be good and normal and not wicked. See also Cuckoo Song and The Replacement. My love is predictable that way. Though Jack is not the focus of this story, nor is Hazel’s crush on him, his existence is one of many excellent, unusual ideas by Holly Black that kept Forest feeling fresh and unexpected.

Add to that another of Holly Black’s ferocious, warrior-girl heroines, and you get a book tailor-made to please my fickle heart. And that last sentence. So good.