Book Review: Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen

Was I just living a depressing vampire life with a really excellent soundtrack?

Vampire weekendVampire Weekend by Mike Chen tells a different kind of vampire tale than I’ve ever read. In the book's world, vampires definitely exist, but not living that sexy, sucking-on-necks kind of lifestyle. Instead they keep their existence secret.

Louise Chao is such a vampire. She lives in San Francisco and works the night shift at a hospital; her role as a janitor gives her easy access to expired blood, which keeps her living. She’s recently started trying to find a new punk rock band she can play guitar in, but it’s not going well. And then a distant relative, Ian, kind of shows up on her doorstep, changing her quiet world. 

This book made me think about why I love the books I love, the reading prejudices I have, and why I stick with a book and finish it rather than just returning it. One of the literary tropes I avoid is what I think of as the romance-novel finish: a complication is set up and then the point of the plot is to turn the complication into a happy ending. The story doesn’t necessarily have to have romance for the trope. It’s just the sense you get as the story moves along: there’s definitely going to be a happy ending.

I avoid those books.

What does it say about me that I don’t want a happy ending? That I am a miserable person who steeps in sorrow, relishes tragedy, savors darkness? Maybe. Or maybe it’s my need to keep my shell up. If you go around hoping for happy endings for your literary characters, the next step is hoping for happy endings for yourself, and. Well. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment.

(Which is ridiculous because my life has plenty of happiness. I just don’t trust that it will stick around.)

Anyway, at first this novel felt like it was a romance-novel-finish vampire tale with some really cool punk rock musical references thrown in. I almost didn’t stick with it. But it ended up being the only book in the car with me one day when I had to wait for an hour with nothing to do. So I bought myself a Crumbl cookie and started reading.

And I kind of fell in love with the story.

To be honest: it kind of really IS a romance-novel-finish vampire tale with some really cool punk rock musical references. But I also just really enjoyed Louise’s journey as she lets herself be more open to happiness, and to exploring the way she really wants to live, and to figure out where she fits in her community.

Plus it made me dig out my Blondie albums, so yes: I had fun reading this book. “Fun” is not something I seek out in my books, but this one hit the right balance between fun and meaningful.

I’m glad I read it.

Book Review: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera

The stories we tell ourselves make us who we are.

Last cuentistaI discovered The Last Cuentista from a patron review I edited on the library blog. It’s a middle grade novel that won the Newbery last year and belongs to the humans-travel-to-a-new-planet genre of science fiction. 

Petra Peña’s family is chosen to take a spaceship to a possibly-habitable planet because of her mother’s botany expertise. Earth is about to be untenably altered by Halley’s Comet, which has been shunted off course by unusual solar winds, setting it on a trajectory to hit earth. There are two groups of people on the ship: the ones who will be put into a sort of cryo sleep until the ship arrives at the new planet in more than 350 years, and the guardians, who will live, raise new generations, and die aboard the planet, taking care of the sleeping population. While they sleep, an implanted device will download skills and knowledge, so that when they wake they will be able to work efficiently, despite their age. 

When Petra wakes up once the ship reaches the new planet, she learns that she is the only human who remembers earth life; the guardians have become a collective, a group of genetically-created humanoids who have an entirely different goal: eliminate conflict by eliminating diversity. She has to try to figure out how to save her knowledge about  humanity (her implanted device taught her botany skills but also the books and stories from most of human history), save the few remaining sleepers, and meet up with the survivors of the ship that left before hers.

I decided to pick this up after reading a review submitted by a patron for our library blog. I liked the mix of concepts the book presents, the contrast between Petra’s desire to continue her grandmother’s storytelling role and the science she learns when she is sleeping. I also enjoyed the way the story is told, moving between some of Petra’s earth memories, her experiences as she wakes on the ship, and some adventures she has on the new planet. I loved the way the stories she tells to the surviving sleepers help them move forward in their new life.

While I read it, though, I felt extremely aware of how I was not the audience for this book, which is a junior novel (so, written for kids about 8-12 years old). The science in this science fiction book felt thin and a little bit vague, which I think is appropriate for the audience. It’s definitely a book I would have loved as a kid, and honestly: it’s a story I would like to read if it was written for an adult audience. 

In fact, it reminded me that middle grade novels are often the hardest ones for me to read, because I struggle to connect with the reader I was as a child who could experience stories without thinking, “yes, but, wait a second…” Which isn’t, of course, a failure of the book but a trait of mine as a reader.

This one is perfect for curious young readers who want a thoughtful, brave main character.

Book Review: Winterland by Rae Meadows

“I have dreams where I am back in the gym,” Elena said. “That feeling of control and mastery. That feeling of having a secret power. Defying the rules of the natural order.”

WinterlandI’ve been excited to read Winterland, by Rae Meadows, since I first heard about it last fall. It tells the story of Anya, who lives in Norilsk, an industrial town in Russia’s far north. Her father works at the copper mine and her mother, who was a ballerina, vanished when she was five. She goes to ballet lessons for a while, but she does not love it. Instead, Anya loves doing cartwheels and somersaults with her friend Sveta, who can also do aerials and back handsprings. When the national sports program tryouts for gymnastics come to her school, both she and Sveta try out, but only Anya makes it. 

In theory, this is a novel about gymnastics. The author is a practicing gymnast and she gets the details of the sport exactly right. The brutality of the sport and its impact on young bodies, mixed with the exhilaration of finally perfecting a new trick or move, of feeling like you are flying, come across well. Anya, as a gymnast training in the Russian of the 1970s and early 80s, goes through the pain of injuries (that the coaches never give enough time to heal), a sexually perverse doctor, and the exhaustion that the sport’s rigor demands. But she also loves her sport more and more, learning new skills, perfecting her triple twist—until, of course, she doesn’t.

(I don’t know if this is the trajectory of all sports, or even all gymnasts within gymnastics. But it is a trajectory I experienced myself, and watched many of my teammates go through. I even remember talking to my best gymnastics friend, Kristi, about how it used to be fun but now was just terrifying. Even Simone Biles got the twisties. And the fact is, it is a sport that leaves life-long scars, both the physical proof of injuries and the emotional impacts that in a sense never leave.)

In actuality, this is a novel about how a large political system impacts individual lives. Anya is one little part of this system; if she wins she brings honor to Russia—as well as proof that communism is the best way to be in this world. Her coach’s work isn’t to make her the gymnast she could be but the athlete the system needs her to be. Her father, a devout member of the communist party, pushed Anya’s mother to move and work in Norilsk (rather than continuing to dance in the Bolshoi ballet) because it was how he thought they could best serve their country, but she struggled to feel the same. Vera, one of Anya’s neighbors, survived the camp that was near Norilsk, but lost everything. And Anya, as she works to become an Olympian, is altered by the damage that work does to her in ways she will never heal from. And Elena, who is based on the real-life gymnast Elena Mukhina, who became a paraplegic after attempting the Thomas salto (a move that is now illegal): she literally sacrificed the normal use of her body in an attempt to win a gold medal for her country.  

It would be easy to say this is a condemnation of Russia or of communism, but it really isn’t. It’s more of an observation about how no one can escape (alive) any political system we humans build. None of them are perfect, however much we need one, and all of them impact us in negative ways.

I did love this book. I felt compelled back into Anya’s story. I had some quibbles with the plot construction; I wanted more character development and the end felt scattered.

But it reminded me all over again of how we only get this one chance to live, and how our lives are formed not only by the choices we make—but by how the systems around us work to influence those choices in ways that aren’t always the best for us as individuals.  

Plus, Anya and her mother are connected by a bracelet. How couldn't I love that story? 

Reread of The Last Four Harry Potter Novels: My Thoughts

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both influencing injury, and remedying it.”

Back in October of last year, I decided to listen to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (my favorite book in the series). I was wanting an October-esque read and it was available to check out on Libby.

Hp collageIt kind of sparked a renewed interest in Harry Potter, so this winter I decided to listen to the rest of the series.

Strangely enough, RIGHT after I started Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, I read a Facebook post by a friend, wherein she expressed her irritation with “lefties” who have cancelled J. K. Rowling. As I’m trying to avoid getting myself into Internet brawls I just scrolled on by, but I did think about that while I listened to the books.

IS it wrong to enjoy the creative efforts of someone whose politics, values, or actions don’t align with your own?

The example I always come back to with this question is Anne Sexton. Some of her poems are touchstones for my entire life. “Her Kind” and “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” and “Truths the Dead Know,” among others, have kept me going in dark times when I didn’t think I could. And yet, after I read her daughter’s memoir, Searching for Mercy Street, I can’t look at her work without the hitch of knowing. Nor have I reread The Mists of Avalon, a book I adore, after learning about how Marion Zimmer Bradley enabled her husband’s abuse of her.

But I do still love the works they created.

And I know enough fellow “lefties” who still read and love and think about Harry Potter to understand that mostly my friend’s post was the result of right-wing media consumption.

The truth is, all art throughout all time has been created by people. Creating something amazing doesn’t absolve you of your faults, but it also doesn’t make you something other than completely human. Where one individual draws the line is that individual’s choice, and wrestling with that line is an interesting part of being involved in literary ideas.

The fact is, regardless of her opinion on trans people, J. K. Rowling’s work has impacted millions of lives. For me, it is deeply entwined with the years that my very littles were beginning to emerge into childhood. I read the first four books out loud to my Bigs, so I have a great sentimental affection for them. And there is also the truth that once a writer releases their book, they no longer get to control the responses readers have—we, as readers, separate our response to a book from the author’s intent because we bring our own interpretations to it. So the opposite can be true, we can acknowledge a writer’s faults and problematic beliefs while still being impacted by their work.

None of which is an actual review of Harry Potter, but it’s what I thought about as I listened.

I also realized something during this reread: Lily Potter is entirely overlooked. Sure, she’s held up as the reason Harry is alive and protected, but I wanted so much more of her story. How did she get past her dislike of James? What did she think of motherhood? What grief did she experience over her ruptured relationship with Petunia?

I know it’s outside of the story, but it’s what I wanted to know.

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

"I think you may be a kindred spirit after all."

When I was a kid, I went through an intense season of Anne of Green Gables fandom. I checked them out so often from the public library that my mom noticed, and at Christmas I received a boxed set. I read and reread those stories, wanting to live in that vibrant world of flowers and imagination and scholarly ambition and friendship.

(Especially friendship, to my shy little self.)

Anne of green gables

I’m not sure the last time I read them—when I was 12 or 13, I suppose. Quite often I’ve thought about rereading them, but frankly I was scared: What if I discovered there was something I didn’t notice as a kid that I can’t abide as an adult (like…maybe they are racist?)

On Christmas Eve (YES! I am SO BEHIND in my book reviews that I’m writing this five months later; I only listened for a couple of hours in December so the majority of this one was read in January and thus I am putting it on my 2023 list) I was scrolling for an audiobook to listen to and noticed that the first book in the series was available…so I just decided to try.

I ended up listening to both Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea in January. Here’s my take after rereading these childhood favorites 35-something years later.

My fears were mostly unfounded. I didn’t finish and think wow, my childhood self was clueless. They aren’t racist—mostly because they are all about white people, even though P. E. Island did have an indigenous population. Some of the writing is dated (“she ejaculated” is written more than once, instead of “she said”).

But mostly I just loved being immersed in Anne’s world again. The struggles are real but there is a gentleness there that comforted me. I found little versions of that young reader I used to be and—well, maybe this sounds wooo-wooo, but it was healing to my inner child, to reread these stories. I could understand my introverted, anxious (except we didn’t call it that in the 70s; I was “nervous”), lonely self better. Do I still love flowers because Anne Shirley loved them, or did I love Anne Shirley because she also loved flowers? I don’t know, but I do know that young person I used to be read these books not just to read something but because I felt accepted there. I’m glad I found them.

One thing that stood out to me is how much this is a women-based story. Aside from Matthew and a bit of Gilbert, Anne’s world is influenced by women: Marilla, Rachel Lynde (why do we always say her last name?), Miss Stacy, Mrs. Allan, Josephine Barry, Lavender Lewis, and of course her friends. She is surrounded by women who share their values with her, encourage her to fulfill her potential, take care of her, and love her because of (not in spite of) who she is. I don’t think as a kid I could have put that into words, but it is another thing that made me love them. Do I love women-based stories because of Green Gables, or did I love Green Gables because it is women-based?

I didn’t feel pulled to keep on with the series, but I’m glad I reread these two books because of the way they reminded me to be more connected to the traits I had as a kid that are still a huge part of who I am.


This morning. Saturday and I don’t have to work this weekend and I woke up thinking: what should I do with my freedom today?

I need to finish planning my upcoming trip.

I need to balance some credit card statements and find that one medical bill I couldn’t find last time I paid medical bills.

I need to get in a run, weather allowing (we had a huge snowstorm yesterday and might get more today).

I need to clean the bathrooms and finally get a grip on my disorganized running clothes and find my other amethyst earring.

But what I do I want to do?

I wandered into my craft room and I remembered that one of my before-my-birthday goals is to finish my birthdays-in-my-40s layouts. I have all the journaling written and just have three years I haven’t put together, mostly because I need to find and print a photo for each of them. This led me to scrolling through scrapbook layouts I’ve made about myself, and then there it was, again, the pain of a lost relationship.

I’ve written about this a little bit on my Instagram but not blogged about it. To sum up: A person I was very close to rejected me. I am hesitant to write about it for many reasons, mostly because it fills me with shame (as well as despair and sorrow and embarrassment and many other difficult feelings I don’t have words for). This was done with a spirit of me being too stupid to understand why, and even though I have read and reread the emails and replayed the conversations in my head, I only have a few scraps of understanding about why this happened. This experience has been so painful. Worse even than the death of my parents in a way, because she isn’t dead. She just didn’t want a life with me in it.

This experience shadowed much of 2022, and this year I am trying to not let it pull me down anymore. I am trying to feel what I feel about it, rather than resisting feeling my feelings out of their sheer awfulness. Flowing through instead of getting snagged—I have a whole image of the landscape of what these feelings look like, and equate finding myself in the emotion of it to being swept down a river, and I am trying to float now instead of being trapped by the current against a sharp boulder. Sometimes I find calm waters, but sometimes something surprises me and I am right back in it, in an uncontrollable flood of emotion (if I could just clearly know what was wrong with me that I earned rejection, if I just knew exactly what it was).

Flipping through layouts this morning was such a surprise.

Because she is in so many of my layouts. Some about our relationship and things we did together. Some about my kids but she’s there in the pictures too.

Seeing all of those images, remembering those experiences we used to have together—seeing myself, really, in how often I wanted to document my relationship with that person and how much I loved her.

I can’t look at those layouts and find happiness there anymore, even though the moments at the time they happened were happy. Not knowing how the relationship ended. I look at her in the pictures and wonder was I already annoying her then? When did it really start? What kind of meaning do I prescribe backwards through time---how can I remember laughing with her now I know that all along there was something wrong with me and how I am?

Looking at layouts this morning reminded me all over again how important she was to me. How much our relationship mattered to me. And forced me to question all over again: was it one sided? If I mattered to her like she mattered to me, how could she reject our relationship? Which makes me think I didn’t matter to her in the same way, and so in a way I have lost everything, the meaning of the past memories as well as future experiences.

But I also felt glad that I made those layouts.

I haven’t documented all of our experiences. In fact, when I closed my album and went into Facebook, thinking it would cheer me up, a memory of her from 2015, when we saw Margaret Atwood together, was the first thing I saw. (I didn’t ever make a layout about that.)

And now I doubt I will ever be able to go back in time to scrapbook any of it.

What would I be able to write about those past experiences? I can’t see them through any other lens than “eventually this person rejects me.” I can’t write “I loved this day” or “I loved this experience” because the reason I loved it was that she was with me. So I can’t, any longer, trust what those past experiences meant to me.

I can’t get it back—how I used to feel within our relationship.

Which just reinforces something for me.

There is often talk in the scrapbooking industry of being “caught up.” A sort of underlying worry that you haven’t told all the stories.

I let go of that expectation a long time ago. I will never be “caught up.” I will never scrap all the stories, and I am OK with it.

But I also, now that this has happened, understand more why people care about it so much.

Because things change. Relationships change in ways you just never expect.

So I’ve added a new goal to my scrapbook-this-soon list. A layout documenting the relationships I have with the people I love right now.

Maybe doing that would help me to be a little bit more trusting. To not, whenever some bit of conflict pops up, start to worry that I’ve irrevocably damaged another important relationship.

To celebrate that right now, we love each other.

And maybe, as I practice flowing more, as I perhaps find more calm waters, I can celebrate that without the caveat

(in case I ruin it in the future.)

Breaking My Silence About the Library, Or: I Will No Longer Be Shushed

One year ago today I was working on a project at work: pulling books and making a sign for a Black History display.  20220202_204354
I wrote an Instagram post about it: why I thought the display was important, how bothered I was that almost every book I wanted to put on the display was checked in, how important I felt it was to have displays like this. How important it is, in a community like the one I live in, where the majority of people are white and the city government is run only by white people. (One of my followers called me racist for calling this out.)

When I wrote that post, and my follow-up blog post, my imaginary audience was any library patron who might have been offended by a tableful of books by and about Black people. I wanted to help that imaginary patron understand that people of all races and identities deserve representation in books in visible ways and that having access to a wide variety of books is important for everyone, even (especially) the majority in power.

“Reading,” I wrote one year ago, “should expose us to the experiences, beliefs, ideas, sufferings, joys, &  lifestyles of people who are not like us.”

I believed that then, I believed it ten and fifteen and twenty years ago. I believe it to the very second I am writing this post.

I never imagined that one year after writing that and after making that display, I would be working for a library that isn’t allowed to put up a Black History month display. (Or women’s history, or Pride, or Hispanic heritage or Native American heritage) but here I am, doing just that.

In November of 2021, the city where I lived elected two new city council members and a new mayor. These three people, combined with a third council member who was elected a few years ago, have formed an alliance. A voting block. They pushed for and managed to achieve getting a ballot initiative to have the schools in our city pull out of the school district, using questionable practices and a feasibility study conducted by a company that was created just weeks before it was chosen (by the same council members) to carry out the study.

Luckily, that initiative was voted down.

But that was not the only issue this city council has undertaken.

Since June, it has carried out a subtle but troubling process of censorship at the library.

This has not been done with transparency, but with behind-the-scenes conversations that I did not witness. I can only write what I have experienced, and that is this:

Despite the fact that every librarian I work with believes in the basic principles of librarianship, which include the freedom to read, access to books on every topic, and diverse displays, programs, and collections, we are working at a library where we are not allowed to carry out those basic principles.

We did not have a Hispanic-American heritage display in September. We did not have a Native American heritage display in November. On February 1, the library will open and there will not be a Black History month display.

I also can write that my experience has been that we have been encouraged to remain silent about these issues. The suggestion was that if we did discuss on our social media platforms the things that are happening at the library, we could be fired.

So why am I writing now?

One of my braver colleagues has inspired me. After she left the position she was excellent at, she spoke. The result has been a series of newspaper articles.  

Newspaper articles that have infuriated me. They are not cutting-edge reporting. They barely expose any of the manipulative tactics that this city council has used to limit access to library materials.

If you’d like to read them, here is the first one and here is the second

In the second article, the interim city manager states that my colleague’s statements are “contrary” to the truth. To which I say: Why, then, have we not had any heritage month displays? He also states that “the complaints from a former library employee have identified a lack of clarity in our library policies.”

The problem is not a lack of clarity in library policies.

The librarians are perfectly clear on the policy the city council is pushing: books about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people are not to be put on display.

That is the policy. We are clear on it.

The problem is not clarity. The problem is the policy itself.

It goes against every component of ethical librarianship ideals I know.

It is censorship.

It is a form of book banning.

This policy has had a damaging impact upon me and upon all of my coworkers.

Likely librarians exist for whom this doesn’t apply, but the vast majority of us are people who are passionate about our work. Librarianship is often wrapped up in “vocational awe”; we see libraries and our work there as a type of sacredness that is inherently valuable to society (which actually leads to a myriad of problems, including accepting pay that is not commensurate to our levels of education and knowledge). We love our work. We love our library patrons. We want to provide them with programs and books that improve their lives.

So to go to work every day with that dedication and knowledge and then to not be allowed to do the work?

It is painful.

And the policy also impacts us in personal ways. Not all of us are cis white males. Not all of us have traditional families. Not all of us are members of the majority religion. We all know someone who is now no longer represented in our library’s displays; some of us are ourselves no longer represented. This policy causes fear, resentment, anxiety, and anger. It does not create a functional working environment where we all feel safe to do our jobs, let alone feel valued by our community or its elected officials.

This morning, when I read the second article, I grew so angry. They had the potential to educate the public as to what is actually happening in the library without fear of career reprisals. They took a soft, unresisting approach. For example, today’s article discusses the fact that Junie B. Jones is the 71st most-banned book series in the United States.

What about the fact that the most-banned book, Gender Queer, is not available on any Utah public library’s shelves?

As I thought about this issue today, as I saw the mayor’s self-congratulatory recorded message being played over and over on the city building’s TV displays, as I did my work under these new restrictions, I came to a conclusion:

I can’t stay silent anymore.

During my almost-15 years of working at the library, I have shared many library stories. I have shared how patrons have made me laugh, frustrated me, insulted me, delighted me. The stories of sharing commonalities despite our differences; the sweet things kids say (“the liberry is my favorite berry”) and the crazy things adults assume (no, it’s no OK to tell me about your husband’s fantasy involving me and my Dr. Martens). Sharing my library experiences has been a fundamental part of my job satisfaction, because I want everyone to know: libraries are necessary places. Libraries are good places. They are full of books but they are really about stories, human stories, living stories. They are—they should be—places where everyone can find knowledge, and it has been a privilege to work here.

I hope I don’t lose my job.

But in a sense, this city council has already taken my job away from me.

Their actions, supported by their voters, have told me that transparency, representation, access, education, literacy, understanding, and empathy are not qualities my community values, and that has broken part of me.

And none of that, none of that matters. My small story is just one part of the library, and the library is the community that uses it.

But by staying silent, I am being complicit.

And as I listen to the news, I cannot do that any longer. It isn’t just about my smalltown library’s problems. It’s a bigger, national issue. It’s the fact that in two counties in Florida, teachers can no longer have books in their classrooms and the governor is proud of this. It’s libraries losing their funding because a few community members don’t think they should have books about queer people on their shelves. It’s about making our society less literate and thus less compassionate.

Censorship is happening right now because the communities using libraries stay silent and thus allow it.

And I cannot abide being silenced any longer.

My Year in Books: the 2022 Edition

I read 37 books in 2022. This is about my average amount of books for the year, somewhere between 30-40. Is that an abnormally low average for a lifelong book nerd who's also a librarian? Probably (when I see people's year-in-review book posts and they've read 149 that year I feel a bit like a failure). But I chalk it up to the fact that I have several hobbies, so when I have time to do something it's not always reading.

Plus there's no shame allowed in reading!

2022 book collage

Some insights I've gotten as I've put together my list:

My blog has mostly become book reviews. I used to blog about all sorts of topics but this year it was almost all books. I'm not sure how I feel about that, as I still have many opinions to share, but I also know that no one reads blogs anymore. Maybe that is the nudge I need to submit more of my work.

I have a hard time writing about poetryI did read some poetry this year. Warsan Shire's Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head is the book I mention most often as my favorite read this year—but I wrote not a single word about it. (Well, that's not entirely true. The book sparked a dream and the dream sparked a half-written poem.) I am going to rectify that this year.

My relationship with YA fiction is changing. Or maybe it's that YA itself is changing, I don't know. I checked out many; I did read the first ten pages or so of The Epic Story of Every Living Thing by Deb Caletti, an author I have loved in the past, but I just couldn't get interested. Ditto A Year to The Day by Robin Benway. I only finished three YA books this year. Instructions for Dancing, which I read last winter, made me furious. The Carnival at Bray, which was a reread, reminded me of what I DO love about YA, which is when it connects to some part or other of my own adolescence.

Maybe it's that so many other hard things have happened during the past three or four years that my adolescent traumas at last feel distant enough that I don't have to keep rubbing my thumb on them via books.

Or that there's a YA trend of books that feel like romance novels, in the sense of you know it's going to turn out happy in the end, and I need a bit more grittiness in my life.

Or maybe I just haven't paid enough attention to find the right ones. 

My favorite reading experience was shared. Because it has apparently been banned throughout the entire state of Utah (not a single public library has this on its shelves, nor is it available in digital format), I bought a copy of Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. I read it and then passed it along to many of my reading friends. (If you're local and want to read it I'll be happy to share it with you too!) This sparked a whole bunch of really interesting conversations. I learned more about trans people and the issues they face, learned more about my friends, and recognized some of my own issues with the construct of gender.

Shame on Utah for being so close-minded and afraid.

My three favorite books this year:

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

And with that, here's my index of the 37 books I read in 2022 (with links to my reviews):

Historical Fiction

Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

Outlawed by Anna North

Still Life by Sarah Winman



Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Braver Than You Think by Maggie Downs

Happening by Annie Ernaux

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert McFarland


Speculative Fiction

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd Jones

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelman

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Spear by Nicola Griffith

A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

When Women were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

World War Z by Max Brooks


General Fiction

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

The Last Confession of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt


Middle Grade & Young Adult

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo


Graphic Novels

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe 



Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems by Joy Harjo

The Hurting Kind: Poems by Ada Limon

How was your year in books?

Book Review: Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

If only one could engrave entire memories in silver, though Robin, to be manifested again and again for years to come—not the cruel distortion of the daguerreotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon; the warmth of un complicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemon on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.

BabelSome books make my thoughts go in strange directions, and Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang is one of those. It opens in Canton with a young, ill boy whose mother has just died from cholera. He is the last person living in his home after this epidemic has swept through it, and he expects his own death will happen very soon. But he is saved by an Englishman, who takes him out of his home, heals him with a bar of magical silver, and asks if he would like to go to England with him.

Thus begin the adventures of Robin Swift—we never learn his Chinese name—as he works to become a Babel translator. Babel is a school in Oxford, where gifted linguists fluent in several languages learn to make the magic that makes the silver bars work. The magic involves the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between the meaning of words in different languages. Along with the industrial revolution, this silver-and-words wrought magic has made England the most powerful nation in the world. But Robin comes to understand that the British people will never be able to see him as something other than a foreigner and that, even with his university stipend and world-class education, he is actually enslaved, eternally in debt to the people who “saved” him and the machinations of colonialism. When a war with China over opium begins to brew, he has to decide if he will uphold the status quo or fight against it.

This is a dense book. It is written as a linguistics sort of text, with explanations of etymology and footnotes scattered throughout. This isn’t a negative for me, but I can see it dissuading many readers; you have to be dedicated to the reading experience to get through this one, and the middle quarter of it felt a bit slow to me. It’s as much about friendship and forming strong relationships as it is about magic systems or linguistics, but at its heart it is a book that explores the real impacts of colonialism. When I finished it, in fact, I just had to put my head down and wonder if white people have ever done anything other than damage, manipulate, and steal from other cultures. It is a story that made me feel despair and the weight of how no one can escape the impacts of powerful government, something that’s just as true now as it was in Victorian England.

It’s not a happy, light, fun read, in other words.

It works both with and against the tropes of “dark academia” novels; there’s a little bit of Harry Potter resonance (which might be inevitable in any book set at an English boarding school I suppose) and some A Secret History but the writing style also lets it stand on its own.

I found it fascinating, enthralling, sad, and a bit frustrating.

And it’s the frustration that makes my brain go in unexpected directions, as this book made me thing about the difference in quality (for lack of a better word) between how a book is and how I want it to be.

I think the middle part felt slow to me because it felt very…distanced, I guess. That old “show, don’t tell” chestnut; I felt very told about Babel Tower and Robin’s experiences in Oxford, rather than being immersed in it. I wanted it to be immersive but because it isn’t does that lessen the book’s literary merit? Or is it just how it is, and it can still be a “good” book in all the senses of that word?

And I had some questions. Mostly, what was the story of Robin’s and Griffin’s mothers? How did the interact with Professor Lowell? Were they fortuitous accidents or were they conceived on purpose and either way, how did it happen? Maybe that seems extraneous to a nearly-600-page novel (with a small font!) but it felt like a gap to me.

So I sat Babel down when I finished it was a sort of literary confusion. It was successful: it made me feel things and it taught me things and it changed my perspective. I loved reading it, loved the characters and the ways they change. I was devasted by the choices they had to make and the reality they finally faced.

But I also left it a bit unsatisfied, even as I know some of the images will stick with me. It didn’t give me what I wanted it to give, which is only a measure of my own needs, not the book itself.

I am glad I read it and for what I learned, even if It also left me frustrated.

Book Review: The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

But then, she thought, looking up at the tiled ceiling to stop herself from crying, wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?

One of my clearest reading memories is the book Tilla by Ilse Koehn. Published in 1981, it’s out of print now (and I just checked: my library also doesn’t have it on the shelf anymore, although they did at some point while I was working there because I checked it out and reread it, maybe in 2010 or 2011); it is a love story about two teenagers in Berlin during the war.

It doesn’t stand out in my memory because of the love story, particularly, or because of the writing. It’s lodged there because it has a sexual scene with an experience I had never imagined happening between two people. But when it happened to me, after I’d read the book, I knew what to expect because I had read that scene. (I’m only not writing the name of the act because I don’t want weirdos landing on my page after googling it, not out of prudishness.)

Carnival at bray
I thought a lot about that reading experience while I reread the book The Carnival at Bray this week. I read this book in 2015 when I spotted it on the Printz Award list, and as I love books set in Ireland and is about how the music of a generation impacts one teenager’s life, I couldn’t not read it then. I enjoyed it and thought about it every once in awhile and put it on my staff recommendation shelf (when I still had one) (and while my library still had a copy).

But I decided I needed to buy a copy and reread it when I realized it’s on a list of banned books. But not just any list, a list of books that Alpine School District has. The books on this list, which you can see here, are not allowed to be in any school library in the district. This is pretty personal to me, not only because I am deeply opposed to book bans. Alpine is the district my kids have attended, the district I fought for during this year’s local election, and the district I worked for.

If you look at the list, you’ll spot many books that are currently being banned in many places. Gender Queer of course. A Court of Thorns and Roses, which does have a lot of sex. Ellen Hopkins’ and Lauren Myracle’s books, which also have sex in them.

But my brain makes that screeching sound of a needle drug across a record when I get to The Carnival at Bray.

I have to add a caveat: I tend to not really pay attention to sex scenes in books. They don’t offend me and I read them, but I don’t pay them any more attention than the rest of the story. Sex is, after all, part of being human. That means that (with exceptions like Tilla) I have gotten myself in trouble sometimes as a librarian in a conservative community, because I will heartily recommend a book and then the patron will be annoyed because it has a sex scene (or swearing) that I didn’t prepare them for.

But The Library at Bray seemed like such a random inclusion for this banned book list. All of the other books are currently being discussed as “bad” for teenagers. And then there’s this book that’s now out of print (I bought a used copy) and was published eight years ago. A book that’s literally had no negative press, until some Utah County mom got ahold of it. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember one bit of sex in the story. It’s about Maggie, whose mom marries a man from Ireland and so they move to the small town of Bray, a suburb of Dublin. She struggles with fitting in and misses her uncle Kevin, a drug-addicted musician who had introduced her to grunge music (and changed her life, as music does in your adolescence). She runs away from Bray to attend the Nirvana concert in Rome with tickets Kevin sent her.

Rome, Ireland, a bit of romance, an adolescent girl struggling to fit in, to not hate her mother, to understand the ways adults can betray you and love you all at once, and a Ferris wheel: those were my memories of this book. (Alas, I did not write a book review about it when I read it in 2014.)

WHY would it be on a banned book list?

After rereading it I know. It’s ridiculous, of course, but someone banned it because sex happens in the story. Nothing is described in detail; one of the scenes is troubling and the other is sweet, but it is more her impression of the experiences rather than a sweat-and-blood description. But yes: Maggie has sex. She has a bunch of experiences that teenagers have: makes a tenuous friendship and then it gets destroyed; argues with her mother; listens to music her family hates; and has sex.

And here’s the thing.

Book banning is always driven by fear. It is driven by the compulsion to hide what is troublesome to some people.

But hiding it doesn’t make it go away.

The truth is, sex scenes in novels don’t cause teenagers to have sex. Teenagers are curious about it and may eventually have sex because they have bodies that are confusing networks of hormones and change and developing brains, because they fall in love or because someone makes them or because they just want to experience it.

Because they are human.

Adolescence is a wild ride. It is so full of everything that’s new and maybe dangerous and brimming with adulthood, right on the edge of it. And sex—wondering about it, flirting on its edge, sometimes actually experiencing it, is one of those experiences. Is it always the right experience at the right time? Of course not. Maybe not ever.

But pretending that teenagers don’t think about it makes it more dangerous.

Reading that scene in Tilla helped me understand. It didn’t make that experience much less weird or uncomfortable or just too vulnerable, but a bit. Enough that I was OK. And that is what books do, sometimes, if we’re lucky. Teach us something we need to know about the world before the world teaches it in harsher ways. I know whatever Mormon mom put The Carnival at Bray on that banned book would disagree with me, but I don’t really care. Her job is to raise her children, and she can do that. But thinking that she can also raise everyone’s children?

That’s not her responsibility.