Book Notes October 2020

Book Notes October 2020

Woman reading (portrait of the artist’s wife) by Ivan Kramskoi

1. Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Latest in the Dresden Files series, Battle Ground didn’t disappoint. The Dresden Files is a rare series that isn’t getting even a little bit tired by book 17. I’m still all-in. There are still surprises, characters whose lives I’m still enjoying unfurl and a bigger, deeper mystery that still awaits. 

What was originally one novel was split into Peace Talks, released this summer, and Battle Ground. The first book is mostly set-up and the second book is pretty much all action. One big battle. Surprisingly although this battle involves most of the major characters in the series… there is still a lot more series still to come. But there were some really good plot payoffs that were a long time coming, as well as some set-up for books that I cannot wait to read. And the Dresden Files continues to be a series where I think the metaphysics is mostly dead-on. Evil is evil and good is good and God is in his heaven and one of his primary concerns is that human beings’ free will not be taken away from them by any supernatural agents.

Snappy one liners, scrappy underdogs, double crosses… yeah, I really love Harry Dresden.

2. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

It’s very rare that I finish a book and then immediately go back to the beginning and read it again straight through. I’m not really a re-reader. But that’s exactly what I did with Deadly Education. I read it twice in less than a week. 

Novik is quickly becoming one of my favorite fantasy novelists. Spinning Silver, her previous novel, was excellent and Deadly Education is a very different kind of story but absolutely fantastic. It’s sort of Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games meets Wicked: a fresh take on the magical school. In this school the students are lucky to escape with their lives. The world building is top notch and the heroine/narrator is such a delight. I mean she’s immediately an unlikeable character, rude, unfriendly, prickly. But as the story unfolds she reveals a depth of character and a backstory that really changed how I saw her. 

The world building is top notch. The Scholomanse is a magical school but with none of the friendly warmth and cheer of Hogwarts. Hogwarts had its dark side, its scary teachers, and horrifying creatures; but the Scholomanse is all dark side. There are no teachers, there are no warm and fuzzy friendships, only strategic alliances. There are monsters everywhere just waiting to kill you as soon as you let your guard down. And your fellow students might do you in as well. And yet, it’s rather refreshing because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s a dog eat dog, survival of the fittest scenario. You have a one in four chance of surviving through graduation. So why does this universe feel more coherent than that of Harry Potter?

As the novel opens our narrator is musing about how much she wants to kill the hero, Orion Lake, because he’s just saved her life for the second time. She doesn’t want allies, she doesn’t want rescuing. She’s trying to make it through to graduation in her own way. We learn about the world outside the school only through fragmentary glimpses. And it’s certain our narrator is not reliable. I cannot wait till the second book comes out next year.

3. The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

Originally in Spanish— sometimes I wondered what nuances might have been lost in translation. This novel is part romance part utopian fantasy part distributist fanfic. It owes a lot to Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. 

Miss Prim arrives in a small town in response to an advertisement asking for a librarian and specifying no qualifications and no graduates. She’s intrigued and she’s unhappy with her life so she decides to see what this is about. When she arrives she finds a house full of children–only some of them live there– engaged in a Latin lesson. She soon learns that all the children of the town are homeschooled with various adults in the community taking turns teaching them. The community was organized by Miss Prim’s employer, who she always calls The Man in the Wingback Chair. We never do learn his real name.

The Man in the Wingback chair is a Catholic convert, a scholar of ancient languages, who attends daily Mass at the nearby Benedictine monastery. He is raising his dead sister’s four children and teaching them Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

It surprises no one when he and Miss Prim fall in love, encounter difficulties of pride and prejudice ala Lizzy Bennett and Mr. Darcy– she is a non-believer– and argue about literature, education, and everything else. The women of the town rally round her and help her to understand that a relationship with him will go nowhere unless she and he can see eye to eye about faith. So then she must do some soul searching of her own.

It’s a quirky little book and it was a soothing read, light satire and romance with some ideas to chew on. I’m not sure how successful it is as a novel, but it beguiled my hours and that was really quite enough.

4. Between Two Worlds by Joan Lingard

The sequel to Tug of War, which I read in September. The novel opens as the refugee Petersons family arrive in Toronto. Lukas, the father collapses on the platform with a heart attack and must be rushed to the hospital. More, the family who sponsored them and who were supposed to give them a home for the first year have received a job offer in another city and are selling their house and moving away from Toronto. They do their best to find the Petersons family an alternate living situation, but where they end up is far from ideal. 

Lukas being now unable to work at the teaching job which originally brought them to Canada and the rest of the family must find jobs to make up the gap, teens Hugo and Astra must temporarily give up going to school and instead get jobs to support the family. Astra is at first dragooned into being an unpaid nanny but eventually stands up for herself. Hugo works construction and enrolls in night school. He becomes involved with a librarian and is torn between his engagement to a girl back in Germany who he has promised to return to after a year— and his increasing rootedness in this new world where his family can’t survive without his contribution.

5.   Strangers in the House by Joan Lingard

This novel didn’t connect with me so much. It follows two teenagers who are very unhappy when their parents marry each other. 14 year old Calum loves living by the sea and is hopeful his divorced parents will reunite, despite his father’s second marriage. But his mother uproots Calum and his six year old sister Betsy to marry a man Calum has met only once. They move in with him and his daughter, Stella, in their very small apartment in Edinburgh. Both Calum and Stella are unhappy, much teen angst and drama ensue. I liked the Scottish setting, but the genre of children of divorce I’ve seen done better elsewhere. The ending with the expected reconciliation between Stella and Calum felt a little pat. 

6. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers

Using his alias of Mr. Death Bredon, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover to work in an advertising agency to solve the mystery of the death of one of the copywriters and to unravel the connection between the agency and a ring of drug smugglers. In addition to being a fun mystery, the novel also tackles the moral ins and outs of advertising and draws some fascinating parallels between the wares peddled legally by the advertisers and the illegal drugs of the drug ring. 

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This is series of vignettes more than a novel. Originally written in Swedish, it describes encounters and adventures experienced by a young girl. Sophia, and her grandmother spending summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The descriptions of life on the island are beautiful with a naturalist’s eye for flora and fauna, weather, and geology.

The grandmother is down to earth and often crochety. Sophia is strong willed and often doesn’t understand the world. Together they seem to live in their own world that is largely separate from that of Sophia’s father— Sophia’s mother is dead, but that fact is mentioned only once and I actually missed it and had to go looking later when I started wondering if Sophia’s mother was ever mentioned. The forward points to the line and that in turn opens up the hidden depths of the novel and makes me want to read it again. Surely it is significant when Sophia wants to call her grandmother Mama and pretend that she is her daughter.

The grandmother is sometimes very wise, sometimes foolish. Often the two of them get into silly spats and the grandmother often deals with Sophia’s wild swings of emotion by spinning fantastic stories.

A lovely book to read as summer wound down, poignant, contemplative, peaceful.

8. The Wizard’s Dilemma by Diane Duane (audiobook)

This is my favorite of the Young Wizards series, mostly because of the final couple of chapters, which get to my heart as few books can and leave me a weepy puddle— but in a Good way.

In the earlier books of the series the struggles are largely external, fighting an enemy they can see and hear. But in this novel the struggle is largely internal. Very very internal. Though the Lone Power does appear in physical form which I think is necessary in a book for young people, mainly Nita’s conflict is a moral one: whether she will take a Faustian bargain in order to save the one she loves. Nita’s mother has a malignant brain tumor and Nita is determined to do everything she can to save her. She immediately turns all her wizardly attention to the problem of how to defeat the cancer that has invaded her mother. But cancer is as hard to defeat by magic as it is by modern medicine. The novel really gets into the inside of the dilemma and Nita’s struggle with her dilemma reminds me very much of the temptation scene in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. 

Now Diane Duane’s novels are definitely not overtly Christian, but I see in them many Christian themes and the underlying worldview feels very Christian to me. Some Christians I know have voiced concerns that they feel very pagan. But, while I understand their concerns, I’m not convinced that the books really are pagan or dangerous. To me the lesser powers feel much like what C.S. Lewis is doing in the Space Trilogy or Tolkien is doing in The Silmarilion, they are angelic powers who have been tasked with co-creation but they are not the makers of the universe and they either serve the One or rebel against him.

The wizards take an oath to serve Life, they fight against the rebel Power that introduced death into the world. They acknowledge that there is One power over all the other Powers that Be and that One is the Creator and their Oath makes them into servants of the light and requires them to fight against darkness and death. Given all that, I’d classify the novels as at the very least Christian-friendly and at best proto-evangelion, carrying the seeds of the Gospel in their DNA even if they avoid being overtly Christian

In this novel Nita even visits her mother’s church and, although she herself doesn’t seem to be a practicing Christian, she acknowledges the presence of the One there. But whatever Nita’s belief is, Nita’s mother is most definitely a Christian and when she joins Nita and Kit in the fight against death and entropy and the Lone Power she fights with words taken from the Bible: The light shone in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not. More, there’s a highly significant apple present during the temptation sequence. The heart of the moral world in the Young Wizards is sound: good is good and evil is evil and power must be used selflessly to heal not hurt and for the sake of Life. 

Concerned parents should know, however, that younger readers should probably be drawn into conversations about these themes, that it might be confusing that the Powers that Be use the name of pagan gods and goddesses (again, I think this is very much in line with what Lewis does in the Space trilogy, but it might bother some people). Concerned parents will invite children to think through what the novels are doing with good and evil and moral questions and how they do or do not square with a Christian worldview. (And there are some references to sex and teen hormones and menstruation and dating, mostly subtle enough to go over the heads of younger readers but tweens and teens might have questions.)

For me, though the moral questions the novels raise tend to lead to affirm my faith. The magic in the novels is really a lovely metaphor for respecting nature and nature’s God, respecting the world as it is, a created thing, and that humans have a role in sub-creation and in stewardship of creation. And they acknowledge that sin and death are not a part of the original intent of creation but are a falling away and that the task of wizards is to address the wounds caused by sin and death, to fight evil and work for good. Above all magic is never self-centered but sacrificial, and requires the wizard to pay a high personal cost in service of Life.

Also, I love the imagery of heaven in this novel: Timeheart, the place where all good things are found and where they will last forever and never pass away. Above all this is a novel that probes the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Nita’s mother goes up there with Charity Carpenter from the Dresden Files series as one of my favorite fictional mothers. 

9. The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

I loved this middle grade novel about a girl in India/Pakistan at the time of partition, loosely based on the experiences of the author’s father and his family.

The story is told in the form of a diary that Nisha addresses to the mother she never knew who died at the time of her birth. Nisha lives with her father, twin brother, grandmother Dadi, and Muslim cook, Dazi in a village in what becomes Pakistan at the time of partition.

Her father is a respected doctor and the family are all Hindu. But Nisha’s mother was a Muslim, her marriage to Nisha’s father had been opposed by both their families. Nisha doesn’t see the people in her world as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, until suddenly she must because partition means the people of her village who have heretofore got along suddenly become enemies.

Nisha and her family must leave their home and trek across the desert to Jodhpur where they can be safe as Hindus. The journey is harrowing. They almost die of dehydration, they witness violence and experience it firsthand. But… it is also a journey in which Nisha learns many lessons of love, meets an uncle she didn’t know she had— her mother’s brother, and loses and finds her voice again.

Often in historical novels for children the characters can feel flat, like they exist for the purpose of illustrating the great historical event. I really liked Nisha and her family and appreciated that the story had many layers that didn’t specifically pertain to partition and prejudice. Nisha has selective mutism and her twin brother Adil is dyslexic. But also he is a skilled artist and she is a skilled cook.

The trek across the desert is a bonding experience for the family and while the tension is high at times and Nisha does encounter violence, the book isn’t graphic and doesn’t dwell on it. Rather, the focus keeps turning to Nisha’s desire to know her mother and the joy she feels at learning about her from her uncle and the love she experiences from her family, including the Muslim cook, Dazi. Despite her shyness and difficulty speaking, she makes friends and cherishes their friendships.

The book is full of descriptions of food that are so very enticing. It would be a fun project to read this book with children and then have fun making and eating some of Nisha’s favorite dishes. 

I also started reading two library books that went back to the library unfinished. They were both interesting but weren’t able to hold my attention long enough to finish them.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

This novella was inspired by a song of the same name from Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping. It imagines that pregnant women thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage somehow gave birth to mermaid children, people with tails who can breath underwater. The novel is from the point of view of Yetu who is the memory-keeper of her people. The people of the sea only remember their past once every few years when the memory keeper tells it to them. The rest of the time they live contentedly in an eternal present while she suffers under the weight of the memory of their collective trauma. It’s a fascinating idea, but I had a hard time making headway in the novel and gave up about halfway through and it had to go back to the library. Maybe I’ll go back and finish it someday.

Last Ones Left Alive by  Sarah Davis-Goff

A post-apocalyptic zombie novel set in Ireland. Orpen, the first person narrator, is as far as she knows, one of the last people alive in Ireland, perhaps in all the world, following some kind of disaster. She has been raised by her mother and a woman named Maeve on an island off the coast of Ireland. From a young age she has been taught how to be a fighter, so that she can battle the skrake, zombie creatures of some kind. Orpen is on a journey across Ireland pushing the half-turned Maeve in a wheel barrow.

This novel was just too bleak and depressing. When Orpen finally does run into other people she is defensive and attacks them. I was very intrigued by the concept of a zombie story set in Ireland, but this was not the year for it. I just needed something more uplifting and that I didn’t have to work so hard for.

What are you reading? Are you also struggling with reading in this strange season?

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