Katherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.
Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.
Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.
When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.
His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.
Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.
The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.
Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.
Warren Ellis has a dark view of the future, and he wants to give you the inside scoop. In his newest book Normal, the prolific author of dozens of graphic novels shares his creepy and worryingly plausible view of the future of surveillance and technology in the world.
The book begins at Normal Head, an isolated facility in the Pacific Northwest. Normal is where futurists, people whose job it is to look forward and prepare for catastrophes, go to recover when the pressures of their jobs drive them to depression, exhaustion and madness. The protagonist is a newly arrived patient who investigates a strange disappearance of another patient at the facility.
While not being an uplifting tale, the book does present an interesting take on where the future of technology may head. Normal is almost more an education on problems humanity may face in the future than a story. It stares unblinkingly at a future that the reader may feel is implausible, but can’t entirely dismiss as impossible. Though it sounds grim, the book is full of memorable and funny — if bizarre — characters, each defined by their quirks and their fears.
Overall the book is a great read, especially for fans of speculative, near-future sci-fi. Not truly dystopian, it shows how we got from present day to a world destroyed. Normal is weird and quirky and dark but ultimately delightful.
Readers who enjoyed this are also likely to enjoy some of Ellis’ other works, such as Trees, a graphic novel set in a near future where our world has been irrevocably changed by massive technological columns (the titular Trees) from space. They might also enjoy Transmetropolitan, another graphic novel by Ellis that is set in the full on dystopian future, though that series is a good deal more crude and adult than this book. For something a little more hopeful, though no less dark, readers could also try Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. This book, also set in the near future, discusses the dangers of government surveillance through the eyes of a teenager living in San Francisco in the wake of a terrorist attack.
I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.
In Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, the first mission to Mars is approaching. Helen, Yoshi and Sergei are a team of astronauts that want to be chosen for the mission. But first, the team must be successful in a 17–month-long simulation on Earth — proving they are the right team that is prepared for any challenges. Though the astronauts believe they are on Earth in an eerily realistic simulation, they begin to question if everything is real or not.
Howrey thoroughly explores the relationships of the astronauts to the people in their lives and to each other. Helen, Yoshi and Sergei demonstrate how the life choice of being an astronaut affects themselves and those around them. Helen feels that she may not have been and continues not to be the mother her daughter, Mireille, needed her to be. Dmitri, Sergei’s son, hides how he truly feels and behaves from his father. Yoshi’s wife, Madoka, believes her husband doesn’t know who she really is and that it would destroy their marriage.
Though this story seems very much like one about the first mission to Mars, it really isn’t at all. This is a story about humanity. It’s about the way the astronauts and the people in their lives are affected by the demanding and adventurous life of an astronaut. It’s about the urge to travel into space and what it is really like once you have been in space. Howrey’s beautiful language and view into the personal thoughts of this group of people make The Wanderers an intriguing and charming read.
If you’re looking for a suspenseful murder mystery full of unexpected twists and turns, check out Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia. An enthralling new novel that cleverly uses the narratives of the victim, the main suspect and the sheriff investigating the crime to reveal whodunit and why, while also exploring how a murder has effected a small, close-knit community.
Hattie Hoffman, an 18-year-old on the verge of graduating high school in the sleepy town of Pine Valley, Minnesota, has been found dead in an abandoned barn. Hattie, an aspiring actress, had plans to leave for New York City after graduating, and to everyone who knew her, she was the perfect daughter, a model student and a loving girlfriend to her football player boyfriend Tommy.
Unsurprisingly, the crime sends shock waves through the community made up of mostly farmers, where the worst crimes to take place are traffic offenses. Sherriff Del Goodman, a friend of Hattie’s family, is tasked with finding out what happened the night Hattie died, and his investigation into the last few months of her life uncovers secrets that have him questioning whether anyone actually knew the real Hattie.
Everything You Want Me to Be is an intricately plotted thriller that gradually unravels the mystery through the three connected narratives. And just when you think you have figured everything out, Mejia throws in a twist to let you know things are not always as they seem, and that innocence and deception sometimes go hand in hand.