Harriet Spies Again by Helen Ericson

Genre: Middle grade fiction
CW: tricky families
Rep: autism coding

I have divided feelings about this book. At first, I was happy to discover more Harriet the Spy books. Where were these when I was a kid, I wondered. But when I started reading, I discovered two things: First, all the books after the original Harriet the Spy, which was written in the 1960s, were written in 2002 or later, and they were written by a different author. While Helen Ericson holds true to the original story by Louise Fitzhugh, I didn’t think this book was quite as good. I questioned her choice to write out Jainie, one of Harriet’s best friends, and instead add in the strange Annie Smith, a compulsive liar in desperate need of therapy.

I found most of the twists in this book to be a let down, but then again it is intended for a much younger audience. I just felt that they were extremely obvious, and it was a betrayal to Harriet’s observant mind to miss so many obvious clues.

Ericson did, however, do a very good job of blending the new series into the feel of the older one. It wasn’t until I was several chapters in that I realized the author was different, or that this book was much more recent. There’s no mention of cell phones or modern technology, but neither does the story feel old fashioned. It has a “timeless” quality that matches the original, and that I really appreciated.

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

Genre: Mystery
Secondary Genre: Historical
CW: Violence, abuse, sexual assault

This dual-timeline novel was not what I was expecting when I saw the name Simone St. James, but it definitely lives up to her reputation.

The book follows Fiona, a journalist in modern day New England. Years before her sister was murdered on the grounds of an abandoned boarding school. When she finds out the school has a new owner who plans to restore and reopen the property, it sets her on a quest to uncover the history of the place–and she soon discovers one murder isn’t enough for the creepy old place.

The second timeline features five students in the 1950s, just before the first murder occurs. Through research and interviews, the past and present begin to intertwine, and Fiona gets the first lead on her sister’s unsolved murder in 20 years.

This book is dark, visceral, and disturbing. It was very hard to read in places, and delved into some very dark subjects (see content warnings above; I don’t want to give too much away here). The girls at the school are “trouble makers” with no where else to go. Some of them don’t have families; some of them have been cast off by their families due to mental or physical health issues. In most cases, the girls are paying for the crimes of their parents and family members, and the teachers and community make sure they know it.

The Broken Girls is both drastically different from St. James previous books, while still holding true to her brand. If you have the mental fortitude to handle the issues mentioned above, it is well worth a read.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: sex and gender
CW: language, sexual content, female genital mutilation, discussions of rape
Rep: African, Asian, 1st nations, sex workers

I loved this book. Just going to put that right here. Beginning to end, cover to cover, it was perfection.

Lister covered views on sex, sexual health, and gender the world over, discussing everything from how it is celebrated in some cultures to how others have tried to control and destroy it. She looks at how sex is used to empower and liberate, and also to enslave. From toys to treatments, prostitutes to prophylactics, she covers the world over.

Each chapter is packed with images, footnotes, and links to further reading. And on top of having first rate research to back everything up, her writing is just hilarious. Well, it’s hard to take things too seriously when you’re talking about dildos, right?

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about gender sexuality and how it is viewed through history, or anyone who thinks they should be able to tell someone else what to do or not do in their own bedroom.

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Genre: Historical mystery
Secondary genre: paranormal
CW: mental health
Rep: violence against women, mental health

One thing I love about Simone St. James’ work is that all of her book, though stand alone, are set in the same world. There are often references to other books or events.

In this particular volume we follow Joanna, a dejected war widow who has no choice but to work for her husband’s selfish, horrible relatives. Officially she’s Dot’s companion–her husband’s aunt–but later transitions to being more of a secretary. Dot treats everyone like garbage, probably because her husband is a horrible man who hates her and she’s the type of person who takes it out on everyone around her.

Anyway, it’s not until returning to the family home that Joanna learns Dot’s mentally unwell daughter died several years earlier, by “jumping” off the roof (it’s never specified what she suffered from, but it’s implied she was a high-support autistic). In the nearby village, however, rumor fly ranging from murder to an aborted German invasion during the war, to all sorts of paranormal explanations, including a ghostly dog that can be heard howling in the woods at night.

It would seem that her ghost has a message for Jo, and she keeps appearing at the most inopportune times. Already near an emotional breakdown, Jo is half convinced she’s going crazy.

While this wasn’t my favorite Simone St. James novel, I did really enjoy it. I love how atmospheric her books are, but she does definitely have a type when it comes to heroines: poor, lonely, and depressed. But that is one thing I really love about them–they start at rock bottom and always find their strength through the book. It did mean I found this book a bit predictable, but I still enjoyed the reveals.

Competence and Reticence by Gail Carriger

Genre: Steampunk
Secondary genre: Romance
CW: violence
Rep: LGBT+, POC (multiple), autism coding
Series: The Custard Protocol vol. 3 & 4

I love Gail Carriger. I’ve reviewed her books before. That being said, these are probably my two favorites of hers so far, excluding Soulless.

I don’t want to delve too much into the plot of these books, since they are sequels and it would give away the secret sauce. Suffice to say that these two volumes focus on Primrose and her twin brother, Percy, and the specific challenges they face in seeking romance.

Much to my surprise, while Primrose had previously been a character I really liked, I found myself liking her less when the story was told from her brother’s perspective. Either I was mistaken in my judgment of her, or Carriger is just so fantastic at writing from multiple voices that I picked up Percy’s feelings for her instead. I might have to go back and reread the series all in one go at some point to decide.

I love Carriger’s imagined world, and the way technology works within in, particularly her re-imagining of Tokyo. She has such a diverse group of characters, especially in these books, and it’s really a breath of fresh air. She manages to balance cultural sensitivity with the humor that naturally arises from cultural and personality clashes.

I am reasonably sure that Reticence is the last book in this series, and as a finale it’s wonderful, pulling together characters from all of the Parasol-verse series, an wrapping up the dangling threads (tassels, anyone? Inside joke. You’ll get it after you read Competence), but not so tidily as to be dull or predictable.

And my favorite character is and will always be Footnote the cat.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Genre: YA contemporary
Secondary genre: Current affairs, BLM
CW: language, mentions of drug use and gang violence
Rep: Black, poverty, LGBT

While Angie Thomas’s books are not classified as a series, they are all set in the same world. You do not need to have read The Hate You Give to enjoy this book, though there will be some familiar faces and background information that might enrich the reading.

I’m not a fan of rap music, but I knew that was a big part of this book (Angie Thomas was a rapper in a previous life) to the point that it included lyrics, so I made sure to get the audio version of this book, and I highly reccomend it.

The Garden–the fictional neighborhood where Thomas’s books are set–has seen better days. Now it is a poverty-stricken neighborhood where gang violence rules the day, cops shoot first and ask quesetions later, and there are more boarded up shops than open stores–that the ones that are open usually have a shotgun under the till.

Yet this is where Bri calls home. Her mother, a former drug addict, works hard to send Bri to an arts high school in another neighborhood. But when her mother gets laid off, things are more than dire for Bri and her family. With the heat and power shut off and little in the pantry, Bri longs to use her voice to bring her family finacial freedom. Sick of taking handouts, she enters the ring–a weekly rap battle run by a local DJ that has spawned world famous rappers. It even kicked off her dad’s career, before a gang shooting ended it and his life.

But Bri’s words go further than intended and take on meanings she never intended. Now the school is threatening to expel her, the cops thing she’s a danger, and the gang that killed her father has put it’s sights on her. Fame and fortune can’t come fast enough, but even if they do, will they be enough to get her out of the Garden?

While this isn’t the usual type of book for me, I love Angie Thomas’s writing and I found her first book to be incredibly moving. While Bri and I come from vastly different backgrounds, I still found her extremely relatable. She is an absolute Queen, though she learns a lot through the course of the book. I would actually love to see a follow up story about her and the colorful cast of characters from this book.

Miss Violet and the Great War by Leanna Renee Hieber

Genre: historical
Secondary genre: paranormal/war
Format read: audiobook
CW: violence
Rep: mental health

Leanna’s books are so hard for me to review, because I know her personally. We attend the same con, work on the same panels, chat over Twitter, and exchange the occasional letter or email. I love her personality, her vibrancy, and the messages she includes in her work.

That being said, we have vastly different storytelling styles, and while I like the broad strokes she paints, the line-by-line details aren’t really my cup of tea, mostly because I keep thinking about how I would edit the book differently (this is a hazard of being an author; it’s hard to read for pleasure without thinking about how you would change a book).

Set on the eve of the WWI, Violet represents the third generation in the Hieberverse. Her parents fought evil and won. Time for the happily ever after, right?

But since childhood Violet has been plagued by horrible nightmares of men in pits, explosions, and gunfire. It’s not until war breaks out between England and Germany, however, that she realizes these dreams are her calling: to stop the evil her parents defeated from leaking back into the land of the living, she must travel to France and the epicenter of the fighting and attempt to put it to rest once and for all.

Filled with a host of characters readers will recognize from her earlier novels, Miss Violet and the Great War is a part stand alone and part sequel. There’s no need to read the previous books, but you will get more out of this one if you are familiar with the Percy Parker series.

My biggest complaint when reading this was the winding path it took. I’m more action oriented in my books, so I thought, being a war book, this would be a lot punchier from the start. If action isn’t your thing, though, you’ll enjoy the emotional arc of this story as it works through Percy’s childhood, up through the war.

Stockings and Spells by Nancy Warren

Genre: cozy mystery, holiday
Secondary genre: contemporary, paranormal
Format read: ebook
Series: The Vampire Knitting Club vol 5

Okay, yes. I am behind on posting reviews.

This cozy mystery series is far from great literature. It’s predictable, the characters are odd and not always in a charming way, the writing is so-so and non cis-het-white rep is pretty much nonexistant. The main character is neither a vampire, nor a knitter.

But I still love them.

I guess you could call them a guilty pleasure read for me, since there is absolutely nothing challenging about them. I find them relaxing and I usually get through them in a couple of sittings.

But anyway. The book.

This is a Christmas story set against the backdrop of and Oxford, England craft fair. The highlight of this event is a Tolkein-like author, reclusive in the extreme, who has been convinced to speak and sign books at the college attached to the fair. But things quickly go sideways when a vendor is attacked, people start turning up dead, and the author suddenly pulls out of the event. But the busy-body group of vampire knitters are on the case, trying to find out who is behind the violence and what secret the author is trying so hard to protect.

This was my de-stress read during an anxiety-laden trip home for the holidays. I don’t sit down to binge on these books, but when I’m feeling stressed I’ll usually pick one up to give my brain a break, and they usually do the trick. So if you want to wind down before bed, this series is a good pick.

Reading List

As promised yesterday, here is my accountability post for my reading list. If you would like to join me in this reading challenge, more information can be found here.

Below, you can see how I’m color coding, and what sorts of diversity I’m looking at. Under that are books I’ve read so far this year, and how they stack up.

Here are my reading lists. On the left are books just by Black authors. On the right I have a list of books by Black, Hispanic, Native American, Middle Eastern, Indian, and other identities of color.

I’ve already gotten a start on these lists. I was partially inspired by BookRoast’s Welcome to Hogsmead reading challenge on Youtube. She posted on June 1, and the challenge is meant to run the 22nd-28th, but several people in the comments mentioned they wanted to make it a month long readathon. I thought this sounded like a good idea (also, I don’t think I can finish even half the challenges in a week), so I made myself another list:

Items in pencil are titles I am not sure I’ll get to, or haven’t started yet. The little diamond pattern means I’ve already finished that book (I was already reading The Inventor’s Secret and The Diary of Mary Berg when the announcement was made). Out of all the books on this list, only The Inventor’s Secret doesn’t qualify for my color code. Secrets of Learning a Foreign Language technically doesn’t either, but I am still nudging it toward the more diverse books because I believe strongly that everyone should learn a foreign language, as it helps us communicate with those who are different from us, and increases our understanding and empathy for others in the world, but that’s a subject for a different blog.

If you’re joining me on this journey, please feel free to comment below, or tag me on Instagram or Twitter (@Knotmagick both places).

A Challenge

I know, things have been quiet around here lately. Don’t worry, I have a backlog of reviews I’ll be posting next week.

But first, I wanted to invite you to join me in a challenge I set for myself.

I want to do a readalong for white people.

Before you start screaming “racist!”, hear me out:

I am white. I am aware that I have a certain amount of privilege. I am also aware that I am not doing enough to broaden my horizons and learn about the experiences of others. Until I moved to Seattle, I didn’t live in a diverse area. Diversity was a theoretical thing I saw on the internet.

So I want to invite other white people to join me in educating myself about Black and POC experiences, rather than putting the onus on individuals to educate us.

This challenge is meant to introduce baby steps to make me (us) more aware of what and how I (we) read, and to introduce a broader range of voices.

If you would like to join (be you white or otherwise, all are welcome), then here is how:

  1. Start a reading journal. I say journal, because you’re going to need some space for this. It could be digital or on paper. If you already have a reading journal, great! Skip to step 3.
  2. In that journal, write down every book you read or listen to. All book formats count.
  3. Create a color coding system, or other signifiers to show the kinds of diverse books you read. There should at least be notations for #Ownvoices Black and #Ownvoices POC books, but other flavors of diversity you might like to track: positive or #Ownvoices mental health rep, first generation [insert your country of origin here], Native voices (American, 1st Nations, Aboriginal, Ainu, or other), positive or #Ownvoices disability rep, and LGBT+ rep.
  4. Highlight books according to these labels, using up to two colors for each one. A book only counts if the label applies to the author, main character, or the main supporting character (love interest, best friend, sibling, etc).
  5. Create a reading list for yourself through the end of the year. You can read other books, but the challenge here is to try to finish this list or as much of it as possible by the end of the year. It should be challenging, but doable. Don’t make a list so long it’s going to overwhelm you. I recommend between 25-50 books.
    1. At least half this list should be #Ownvoices Black experience. The other half can be any POC representation, but must be #Ownvoices. Try to find as many intersectional represenations as possible (i.e. a disabled Hispanic main character, a trans Asian main character, etc.) *
    2. Include at least three books that are not recent releases, like books from the Harlem Renaissance, older biographies, etc. Adding nonfiction is a definite bonus.**

6. Post pictures of the three lists on social media to help keep yourself accountable (Mine are up on Instagram–@Knotmagick–and I’ll be showing them here in my next post.

I don’t have a catchy hashtag or title for this reading challenge, but feel free to tag me in your posts (same username on Twitter, too).

If you have any questions, please drop them in the comments below and I will answer. My next few posts (after my lists) will be catching up on my backlog of reviews, but I am taking more detailed notes on the books I’ve earmarked for this challenge, and I’ve already started one of them.

I know this is a small effort, and that is intentional. I want us to be more aware of ourselves and the people around us, and that is not something that happens at the drop of a hat. It means re-training your brain and your senses. Just this morning I saw a Twitter thread (by a black woman) about preventing burnout, as most white people are not trained to think about race every second of every day the way people of color are. This of this as a Couch to 5K for increasing your racial awareness. I’m also sure there are or will be similar reading challenges in the near future. If this one doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take part in one of those?

I hope you’ll join me in making small steps for change.

*I have this split into two lists for a few reasons, but I thought I would mention the most practical one up front: a lot of books by Black authors are hard to get a hold of at the moment if you are a person who relies on libraries like me. So feel free to start with other marginalizations and circle back to the Black authors as they become available. I think I went through 15 books on my list before I found one my library had available, and the King County Library System is not small. Readers in more rural areas may have more difficulty and I want this to be as accessible and as educational as possible.

**Try to make these books that you actually want to read, not just stuff you’re forcing yourself to read for the sake of education. I relate most to YA, so I’ve put a lot of that on my list. Don’t know where to start? Here are some lists I pulled from to help me find my titles:
Goodreads: Books by Black Authors
Goodreads: Multicultural Children’s Lit
Goodreads: Black Speculative Fiction
Goodreads: Masterlist of Black YA Writers
Oprah: 43 Books by Black Authors to Read in Your Lifetime
Penguin Random House: 25 Books by Contemporary Black Authors