A few weeks ago, our family flew back east so that we might visit with relatives while I was a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since we were ten years old, and along with her other best friends (one she’s had since infancy and one from college), I was asked to give a joint toast – no small feat with just a few weeks notice and a brain that felt like it was composed of rice pudding.
I said I’d be back on September 17th, and here it is…already September. When did that happen?! I could have sworn it was May a moment ago, and yet here we are rushing headlong into autumn with hardly a pause for the summer season. Last week, we we were sweating to 90+ degree temps, and now we shut the windows at night because it gets too cold for the baby if we don’t. I love this season, I really do, but I didn’t expect to blink and have all of my opportunities to go to the beach and bbq with friends disappear out from under us! Nevertheless, it’s happened, and I have no choice but to accept it.
Of course, it doesn’t help that trying to get back into the swing of working from home with a three month old in tow is not as easy as I thought it would be. Back in April, when I was setting up projects, I was blissfully unaware of how much more difficult it would be to get things done without childcare. I thought my years of teaching the 0-5 set would prepare me, but I failed to factor in the lack of sleep and the emotional bond that would make it nigh on impossible to focus for any significant stretch of time. On top of that, I’ve only managed to open my computer maybe four times since June, so I’ve had to get very good at typing on my phone one handed. (If you see typos here, it’s because I’m typing this entire post using only my right thumb. True fact.) Nevertheless, although my hands have been mostly tied, my brain has bounced back from its pregnancy haze just in time to start working on a few new projects. I’m not sure how or when I’m going to get it all done, but I figure if countless women have done it before me, I’ll eventually figure it out too.
A brief word on becoming a parent before I dive into more detail about what I did on my summer “vacation”: it’s wonderful. We are fortunate to be blessed with…
(I’m not exaggerating when I say our son woke up at exactly that moment and six hours have now passed since I started this post – new parenthood in a nutshell.)
…a sweet and curious child. He keeps us busy in the best possible way, and since he’s arrived, I’ve discovered that I can be wrong about at least one thing on a daily basis. I expect that will continue for a while (maybe forever) but it’s worth it. That being said, it seems like my hands will be full for a while longer and I’ll only be able to post here every other week for a few more months. I hope you’ll bear with me as I tinker with my schedule after this major life change!
Now, onto Patricia Briggs. Her books have been my near constant companions from the last two weeks of my pregnancy through the many long nights of the first three months of our son’s life. Mercy Thompson, one of Briggs’ powerhouse lady protagonists, became my best friend during hours of blearily cuddling a newborn. She’d actually stolen my heart while I was waiting for him to arrive though. I’d found her, and this is no joke, by googling for werewolf books that
would make me laugh. Briggs (and Thompson) didn’t disappoint.
Briggs’ style is sweet, light, and compelling. Her characters value friendship and family as much as they do romantic relationships, and the action is smart and well paced. It would be tough not to love Mercy most of all – she’s a Volkswagon mechanic who also shape shifts into a coyote in a world dominated by werewolves, vampires, fairies, and the ordinary folk just learning about the existence of such supernatural beings. Any parent will understand that it takes a really great book to stay awake after a (beloved but energy-sucking) infant falls asleep…let me tell you that it’s even more dangerous when that book is a series. The only thing that saved me was that there are only eight volumes in this series so far.
Of course, then I found Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series…but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, there’s a basket of board books calling my name.
For more about Patricia Briggs, head over here.
This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.
That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoof, before I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure.
As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine.
I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.
For more about Grant and Goody, head over here.
Although the mother of one of my oldest friend gifted me both The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword for my birthday a few years ago, the books had ended up on my to-read shelf and I’d basically forgotten about them until we hosted our annual pancake party back in February. These books have such unassuming little spines, and although they’re readable in a day (I know, because I read Hero in less), I just hadn’t felt compelled to dive into that kind of fantasy novel until a new friend noticed them and began haranguing me to read them.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I saw her, she brought up the books, asked me if I’d read them yet, and then demanded to know why I hadn’t. Apparently, they were such a huge inspiration to her when she was a child that it was physically painful to think that I owned the books but hadn’t prioritized them. (And trust me, I understand that feeling – when I recommend a book or series to a friend and find out they haven’t started reading immediately, it bothers me because I know – even if they don’t – just how much awesome they’re missing out on!) We talked about how hard it had been for us to find fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, as well as how rare it was to find books with heroines that were also well written and appropriate for a younger audience.
I survived by branching out and borrowing just about anything and everything from my local library that featured women, regardless of genre, but for her, that wasn’t a satisfying solution. Consequently, knowing that these two books existed and could be reread whenever she needed a reminder that women could have agency in YA fantasy was a cornerstone to her identity as a reader.
I’d like to say that these discussions were the only motivation I needed to finally read these novels, but the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling good the other day, and I wanted to lay on the couch and read a paperback. The Hero and the Crown was the right size for the purpose (meaning it wouldn’t hurt my hand to hold it open while I lay on my side trying to will this baby’s feet out of my lungs). I wasn’t particularly in the mood for fantasy, but I figured if I hated it, I could always take a nap instead.
You may have gathered by this point that I expected, if not to hate it, then at least to be underwhelmed by the book. I’m not sure why I felt I would be (especially given that I’ve enjoyed McKinley’s work in the past), but my expectations were sensationally low. It was with great surprise, then, when I realized a few hours later that I had become so engrossed in the story that I had not only neglected to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but also my husband from his train.
It wasn’t that the book was so perfect that I couldn’t pick apart some structural flaws, because I could. Occasionally, I made note to myself of sections where solutions were overly simplified or tasks too easily won; nevertheless, I found myself loving the book. I could completely understand why this story would appeal deeply to a girl on the brink of adolescence. It’s not a love story, although it has some tender moments in it, but is instead a call to arms for a young woman who has felt isolated and estranged from both family and country her entire life.
Aerin’s successes stem from her willingness to understand and unwind tasks that come much more easily to those around her, as well as from her compassion for those whose suffering is much greater than her own. She’s no saint though, and the story is never cloying, even when it tugs at the heart. Her victories also come with a steep price, a truth we often learn more keenly as adults than we do as teens.
What stuck with me most though was how pure the experience of reading this book was. I felt transported, not into Aerin’s world, but back to my own youth, to a time when I could enjoy such a story with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m weeks, or maybe even just days away from transitioning from daughter to mother, and yet I can still open a book like this and return to a simpler time. It’s such a peace-filled gift to have discovered on my very own shelf.
For more about Robin McKinley, head here.
Do you ever buy a book purely for the title? I have to imagine the answer is yes, and the main reason I want to believe this is that I really struggle with titling projects and I want to believe that at the end of the day, all that agony has meant something. I want to know that at least a few people who buy my books are doing so not because they know me or my work or even because they care much for the genre, but purely because it would be too hard to pass up the opportunity to buy something with such a fabulous title! As you can tell, I’ve clearly got my priorities in order.
While I was considering this question, I actually wished I had created an appropriate tag when I started this blog just to mark the books I buy and read for the title. I know I’ve done it more than once, and it seems like it would be fun to go back and compare how those books worked out for me. I feel like if I collected enough empirical evidence on the topic, I might be able to make an educated guess about how reliable it is to judge a book by its cover. (For the record, the cover art for Finn Fancy Necromancy is both amazing and completely nonsensical, and I love it – sheer bonus on top of the title, in my opinion.)
If I had to make a guess without any data (which is, admittedly, how I like to roll), I would say that books I’ve chosen purely for love of the title tend to score a six or a seven out of ten for me, whereas books I pick for the cover art alone tend to score much lower, averaging maybe a four or so. Again, I have no real evidence to back this up other than my memory (which has become, in the last nine months, not so much a sieve as a sucking vacuous black hole). Fortunately, I suspect it would be hard to prove me wrong on this point, and even if it were possible, it would be a tremendously unsatisfying victory. It would take so much work, and for what? To discover that taste is a fleeting concept? That the most enduring stories last regardless of title or cover? That it’s only in this wonderful age of book over-saturation that we even get to contemplate such a curious issue? Our time could be much better spent perusing the library shelves for titles, like this one, that make us giggle. Is Finn Fancy the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it light and fun and perfect for my wandering brain this close to the end of my pregnancy? Yes.
Henderson’s style is familiar and friendly, and his characters are people I can imagine befriending over a coffee even though their circumstances don’t seem to allow for many latte breaks. Every morning at the gym, as I battled exercise-induced heartburn (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, I have it right now), I would read a chapter or two about Finn, returning from exile in a faerie prison world after twenty years, and I would appreciate how challenging it would be to try to pick up life where he left it, as a teenager in the eighties, now far from the cutting edge and pushing forty.
Since he’s returned, he’s not only the target of the mysterious forces that framed him for his original crime, but he’s also been dumped back into the the fray of his family’s drama and his adolescent love interests. He has no personal memories of the last twenty years, has no idea what technological or political advances have been made, and has had no contact with anyone from his old life. What he does have is a healthy sense of humor (very much under appreciated by the people in his life) appropriate for a kid growing up with the Goonies. I couldn’t help but sympathize for the poor guy. No one should have to go to bed seventeen and wake up middle aged – it’s just not fair.
When it comes down to it, the reason a book like this often ends up being a good fit for me, even when I do no research on it whatsoever before reading, is that silly wordplay is something I enjoy. While a beautiful cover might inspire or intrigue me, it often has little bearing to what’s on the page. The title, on the other hand, is an author’s wink at the world, a little peek into the particular twist of psyche that has turned a spark into an adventure.
For more about Randy Henderson, head here.
Last month, I was diligent about my research. I read a lot, but it was almost entirely a fact seeking mission, and quite frankly, it was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong – the books were incredible, and I’m so glad I took the time to read and take notes from them, but I also wish I hadn’t put so much off to the last minute that I was forced into such a rigorous schedule. As it is, we still have plenty to do before this baby arrives, and I don’t have much energy for anything – even reading delicious fiction – but I did find a book (at the beautiful new library that opened a couple of months ago right down the street – am I excited about this? Yes!) that was prefect for all the evenings I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to pick my husband up from the train.
Mallory Ortberg, in case you don’t know, is the co-editor of an amazing website called The Toast. Her book, Texts from Jane Eyre, is ridiculous and honestly way more brilliant than it has any right to be. I felt downright stupid trying to parse some of the texts because I’m clearly not as well read on some of the classics as I should be. She, on the other hand, has the kind of inside scoop on quality literature that will make English majors weep with joy. It’s also the perfect book to keep on hand for those three to five minute intervals of downtime we seem to now use exclusively for checking Instagram, Twitter, email, or, of course, texting our own brilliant thoughts to loved ones and frenemies alike.
I’ve recently reached a saturation point with my phone though. I find that if I check apps too often in a day, I start to feel truly fatigued. Having a book that’s easy to jump into and out of is the best medicine. It gives me a reprieve from whatever stress or boredom I’m trying to combat without raising my blood pressure or making me feel like I’m wasting my life looking at recipes I’m too beat to cook on Pinterest. (For the record, in the past, I have made some of those recipes, and they’ve been delicious, but I’m more in a path of least resistance mood when it comes to food these days, so it just doesn’t make sense to spend time mindlessly clicking.)
While the very best long term solutions would probably involve spending more time in the garden, or somehow discovering a way to collect all those brief breaks and turning them into an hour on the couch with a superb novel, having Ortberg’s wonderful sense of humor to keep me company has been a wonderfully workable option. Her book pinpoints that oft-overlooked intersection between pop culture and literary prowess. I feel, in equal parts, that I would happily watch her do standup as I would be in awe of her lectures in a college classroom. Her intelligence is also intimidating to me in the best kind of way; it makes me want to reach out and learn from her because I trust that her sense of the absurd would make the experience utterly delightful.
This is probably not a book that would strike the same chords for everyone as it does for me. It skews toward a younger audience in its conceit, but an older one in its depth – an interesting combination, and one I hope might encourage interesting conversations about theme and communication between those two groups. Literature is an ever evolving field, and although some elements will always remain at its root, our drive as curious, boundary-challenging humans will also push and stretch it into new shapes in every generation. It’s one of the most beautiful things about books and about studying trends and history of reading habits. We’re always seeking to do what Ortberg has – take the best of the old and transform it into something fresh, fun, and new.
For more about Mallory Ortberg, go here.
This week, I finally settled down and read a book that my husband had found for us. Technically, it’s not about babies. He and I are both terrified of our children’s adolescence (and yes, I recognize we have a few years, but it’s never too soon to start worrying about things over which you have little control, like the passage of time), and although we both spend enough time with teenagers to know we’re comfortable with them, we’re not nearly so comfortable with the value based conversations around finances we want to be able to have with them.
I wasn’t sure it was necessary to start reading up about this topic so early, of course, but as soon as I started Lieber’s book, I was completely engrossed. Here was practical advice about how to approach the topic of money with children as young as three or four years old, as well as how to keep the conversation going until children are out in the world making their own financial decisions. As I was reading though, I had a powerful realization that of all the strengths my parents instilled in me, financial savvy was not one of them. Do I know how to be generous? Yes. Do I understand the basics of budgeting and taxes? Yes, after many years of guidance from friends (and my very patient husband), I have workable knowledge. Do I feel comfortable comparing investments, the stock market, or retirement plans? Not really. More importantly though, having grown up in a family (to be clear – one like almost every other I knew when I was a child) where money was a completely taboo subject, I recognize that my spending priorities are not always what I want them to be, and they certainly aren’t as astute as I hope my own children’s will one day be.
I think it’s possible that by being capable in many other areas of my life from a young age, I tricked my parents into thinking I was also a fiscally responsible person. I didn’t gamble or get into credit card debt when I left home, but that sets the bar lower than I’d prefer. Back then, I knew a few kids who had notebooks with budgets scribbled into them; they would keep track of how they spent birthday money, or, if they got one, an allowance, but even so, I don’t remember any of them having a real understanding of the family’s finances from a practical standpoint or a value-based one. Many of us also had little savings accounts at the local bank, but I didn’t really know what that meant. What was I saving for? And why?
When I was about six, my dad and I were at Osco Drug (he and I would occasionally have a special walk in the evening if he needed to pick something up, and we were both content to browse for an hour or more – something my mother and brother were more than happy to skip). I wanted him to buy me something – a toy, a special pen, or maybe a notebook – and he told me he didn’t have money to get it. I asked why he didn’t just go to one of the machines in the wall that would give him money; my understanding of an ATM was that a code was entered and cash appeared. It was years before I grokked where that money came from.
That story sums up just about every discussion of money I remember having as a kid. Even though we were an average middle class family, I was often told “we can’t afford that” – unless, of course, I was allowed to have it. My parents’ generosity was flexible, and looking back, somewhat baffling from a child’s perspective. I suspect I spent a lot of time whining to get things I didn’t really want or need because I didn’t understand how my parents were making their decisions about what I got and what I didn’t.
We’re aiming to do three things: set some spending guidelines to lean on; model a few sensible tactics for our children; and adopt family rituals that make spending fun— but only on things that have real value and meaning. With this foundation, we’ll give our kids the best shot at thriving no matter how much money they end up having or what is going on with the economy. (p 73)
The truth was, we could afford that pen or a little toy. My parents just recognized that I didn’t need it and made the decision to use a well-worn phrase to turn me down. I witnessed this innumerable times as I was growing up. Every single parent I encountered used “we can’t afford it” as justification at least some of the time. I never thought to question it because I had no idea where to start. The Opposite of Spoiled is the book I wish all those families could have had back then. Lieber understands the myriad challenges and potential shame or awkwardness parents face when it comes to talking to children about finances, and he has a solution for just about every problem. His favorite starting point is this:
In my years of research on the topic, I’ve determined that there is one answer that works best for any and every money question. The response is itself a question: Why do you ask? This response is useful for many reasons. The first is a practical one. By training myself to respond this way, I’ve guaranteed one thing for certain: that I will have at least 10 seconds to think through potential responses, depending on the reason for the question . Yes, it’s a stalling tactic. But be careful. There is a right way and a wrong way to question the question, given how vulnerable kids are to the belief that certain topics are off-limits. So I always try to say “why do you ask?” in the most encouraging tone possible. If your tone sounds suspicious, like an accusation or an expression of disapproval, it may shut down the whole conversation. (p 22)
As he points out, many times, young children especially are asking questions about money (are we poor; is X rich; why does my friend have Y when I don’t) that are fleeting observations about their social situations and may not require much more than a brief, honest response (we have enough money to buy what we need; I don’t know how much X’s family has; we all own different things – isn’t that nice because it means when you play together, you can bring Z while your friend brings Y). He says if children continue to push and question, it’s actually a great opportunity to start exploring the topic, but many won’t. Even with older children and teenagers, questions about money can lead to frank conversations about how much families are paying for housing, food, utilities, etc.
The hidden message of offering the truth to children is that you and your children can work together to manage difficult issues. Children also learn that if they ever need a straight story, they can count on you. (p 20)
Lieber sets out reasonable guidelines for talking to children in age appropriate ways about spending, saving, and giving. He’s upfront about the fact that it’s easier to start this when children are young, but also offers compelling evidence that even with teenagers who haven’t been exposed to discussions about budgeting, it’s possible to set guidelines and have conversations that will improve their perspective on spending and save them debt later on. Personally, I was thrilled that he covered everything from introducing an allowance to helping children budget on vacation to how to set reasonable expectations for expensive gadget purchases – all questions that have been plaguing me for years. I want my children to have what they need, and beyond that, to feel treated to some things they desire, but I also want them to understand boundaries and respect them – not just for my own sanity, but for their future financial independence.
By the end of the book, Lieber had moved into a powerful discussion about making financial choices rooted in the value system of a family. He had many wonderful stories to share from parents of many different backgrounds (part of his work is writing the “Your Money” column for the New York Times, but another significant chunk is traveling to schools to speak with parents about these ideas); his point in sharing these stories was to illustrate how unique each family’s approach to this topic was while still being successful.
You’re telling your children that your values helped you decide some of these big questions, that this is a value you hold dear to your family. What’s potent about that is that it’s part of how a child acquires an identity, which helps dictate behavior. Values should drive behavior. And you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes you whole as a human being. That’s worth teaching. (p 33)
The point he makes throughout the book is that these decisions are not one size fits all, except in the idea that money should be a topic of honesty. His core belief is that by opening up what has long been a taboo topic, we can improve the lives, not only of our own children, but of the larger economy by introducing ever more educated, thoughtful generations into the conversation. I, for one, am with him on this.
For more about Ron Lieber, head over here.