My Favorite Books of 2019

This list is made up of my favorite books I read in 2019, regardless of publication year.

Nonfiction

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs: I’ve read bits of this before, but not altogether. Extraordinary book, extraordinary woman.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom: Another book by an extraordinary woman, and disturbingly relevant to the 21st century.
American Nightingale: The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy by Bob Welch: I’m sensing a theme of extraordinary women here…
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor: A really great collection of published/unpublished talks and essays about writing, religion, life, and literature.
Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Vikings in England by Eleanor Parker: What it says on the tin.
Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth by John Garth: Possibly my favorite Tolkien biography ever? Although Humphrey Carpenter’s is hard to beat.
Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva Brann: Very nerdy and fun, but I only recommend it if you, you know, enjoy Homer at least a little already.

Adult Novels

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan: The last book in the Lady Trent series, about a Victorian-analogue lady who just wants to study dragons in their natural habitat.
The Chanur Saga 1-3 by CJ Cherryh: I finally read Cherryh this year! She’s incredible! I love these dumb space-lions with all of my cold shriveled heart!
Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear: It took me a bit to get into this one, but I adore Bear space opera SO SO SO MUCH.
The Kindly Ones by Melissa Scott: I read a lot of Melissa Scott’s older stuff this year and this is a work of art. No questions at this time.
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor:
Cyteen by CJ Cherryh: This genius book is really dark and really happy and I don’t know how to move on from it.
Regenesis by CJ Cherryh: A sequel to Cyteen and very different in some ways, but such a soft story about found family and about picking up the pieces after the big status-quo shift.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: I adore every chapter, page, sentence, and word of this.
The Hanged Man by KD Edwards: The only urban fantasy I’ve found so far to fill the Ilona-Andrews-shaped home in my reading life.
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers: The only non-SFF on this list. I’ve been loving all of the Peter Wimsy novels but so far this is my favorite.
Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn: Thrawn was my least favorite part of this book and I like Thrawn quite a bit. I really want more space opera Star Wars like this.
X-Wing: Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston: Somehow this book packed in everything I love about the X-Wing series and non-Jedi Star Wars in general. Fantastic cast of characters, suspenseful story, aLL THE FEELS.

Young Adult Fiction

Slayer by Kiersten White: Set in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, hilarious, scary, and cozy, and by one of my favorite living authors.
Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig: Heists! Drag queens! Revenge!
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by EK Johnston: One of my favorite books of the decade, truly perfect, give respect, etc.
The Story of Owen by EK Johnston: Dragons! Family! Found family! Canada! Jokes!
The Afterward by EK Johnston: The aftermath of the epic quest, and the softest story ever.
The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson: SDH’s books get better and better and better and, respectfully, it’s alarming.
Ziggy, Stardust and Me by James Brandon: Sometimes I get frustrated with YA, and then I come across an amazing piece of writing like this one.
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman: Friendship and podcasts! Podcasts and friendship!
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black: A perfect vampire book, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater: A lot of nightmares packed into one book, but I loved it anyway.
Black Enough: Stories About Being Young and Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi: One of the best short-story anthologies I’ve read. There are many gems in here.

Children’s Novels

Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones: Diana Wynne Jones is a genius.
Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones: Diana Wynne Jones is a gEniUs.
Nate Expectations by Tim Federle: The third in Tim Federle’s hilarious theater kid trilogy and an absolute gem.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez: VERY FUNNY AND WHIMSICAL.
Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi: Part of an epic ongoing series based on Hindu mythology.
Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones: [diana wynne jones is a genius]

Comics/Graphic Novels

The Royal Tutor 1-10 by Higasa Akai: One of the funniest things I read this year, a delight.
Runaways 1-3 by Rainbow Rowell: All-around incredible art, story, and characters.
Silver Spoon 1-10 by Hiromu Arakawa: This rich kid decides to quit fancy prep school and go to ag school instead and I never thought I would care so much about making food.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 9-11 by Ryan North: This series, as the kids say, slaps. I wish more superhero comics were like this one.
Captain America 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates: COATES DOES NOT HOLD BACK, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks: Very cozy love story set at a fall festival. So much autumn joy packed into one book!
Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle: If you haven’t read the webcomic, go ahead and do that now.

Poetry

A Spring Harvest by Geoffrey Bache Smith
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

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Best Books of the Decade: A Super Fake List

Welcome to my 100% certified Subjective list of Best Books of the Decade (2010-2019).

I read a lot of books but I know there are lots of really good books published in the last decade that I haven’t even read! I tried to pick the ones that have stuck with me the most since I read them and that had the greatest craft, story, and characters, rather than my favorite-but-also-way-flawed books.

I also had an especially difficult time narrowing down my YA list, so while I wanted to include 5 books by several authors, I decided to only include 1 book per author in that one.

The titles are in no particular order. The short story collection list is much shorter because I don’t read that many (I’m aiming to change that in 2020).

Short Story Collections

So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories—Merc Rustad
Somewhere Beneath Those Waves—Sarah Monette
Black Enough—edited by Ibi Zoboi
Kaleidoscope—edited by Alisa Krasnostein
My True Love Gave to Me—edited by Stephanie Perkins

Nonfiction

Dragon-Lords—Eleanor Parker
Braving the Wilderness—Brene Brown
Hidden Figures—Margot Lee Shatterly
Between the World and Me—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Do-Over—Jon Acuff
We Should All Be Feminists—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My Life in Middlemarch—Rebecca Mead
I am Malala—Malala Yousafzai
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing—Diana Wynne Jones
Do the Gods Wear Capes? Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes—Ben Saunders

Adult Novels

The Goblin Emperor—Katherine Addison
Books of the Raksura (series)—Martha Wells
Murderbot (series)—Martha Wells
A Closed and Common Orbit—Becky Chambers
A Taste of Honey—Kai Ashante Wilson
Lost Things—Melissa Scott and Jo Graham
Black Tides of Heaven—JY Yang
Attachments—Rainbow Rowell
The Memoirs of Lady Trent (series)—Marie Brennan
Welcome to Night Vale—Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Innkeeper Chronicles (series)—Ilona Andrews

Young Adult Novels

Exit, Pursued by a Bear—EK Johnston
Last Seen Leaving—Caleb Roehrig
The Raven Cycle (series)—Maggie Stiefvater
We Are the Ants—Shaun David Hutchinson
An Inheritance of Ashes—Leah Bobet
In Other Lands—Sarah Rees Brennan
More Than This—Patrick Ness
Fire and Thorns (trilogy) —Rae Carson
A Conspiracy of Kings—Megan Whalen Turner
The Darkest Part of the Forest—Holly Black
The Conqueror’s Saga (trilogy)—Kiersten White

Children’s Novels

Fairyland (series)—Catherynne M. Valente
The Heroes of Olympus (series)—Rick Riordan
Better Nate Than Ever—Tim Federle
Wings of Fire (series)—Tui T. Sutherland
Palace of Stone—Shannon Hale
Ordinary Magic—Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
Seraphina—Rachel Hartman
The Princess Curse—Merrie Haskell
Earwig and the Witch—Diana Wynne Jones
The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart—Stephanie Burgis

 

Comics/Graphic Novels/Manga

Ms. Marvel (series)—G. Willow Wilson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (series)—Ryan North
Runaways (series)—Rainbow Rowell
Fullmetal Alchemist (series)—Hiromu Arakawa
Lumberjanes (series)—Noelle Stevenson (and later Shannon Watters)
Giant Days (series)—John Allison
March (trilogy)—John Robert Lewis
Nimona—Noelle Stevenson
Library Wars (series)—Kiiro Yumi
Silver Spoon (series)—Hiromu Arakawa

Star Wars

Razor’s Edge—Martha Wells
X-Wing: Mercy Kill—Aaron Allston
Thrawn: Treason—Timothy Zahn
Queen’s Shadow—EK Johnston
The Legends of Luke Skywalker—Ken Liu
Guardians of the Whills—Greg Rucka
The Weapon of a Jedi—Jason Fry
Cobalt Squadron—Elizabeth Wein
Ahsoka—EK Johnston
Aftermath—Chuck Wendig

 

Best Reads of 2018

I did the thing! Here are my favorite books that I read during this year (only some actually came out in 2018). I also threw my favorite movies in at the end, because I do what I want and because they are all adapted from books or comics.

Some of my favorite reads were audiobooks, but my top audiobooks below are ones that had great book-content AND great narration/production. I only have two poetry picks because I don’t read much poetry; I’m going to try to read more in 2019. 

Thank you to Snazel, Gingernifty, Em M, and Kemendraugh for some extremely excellent book recommendations this year, several of which show up below. 

Audiobooks

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (multi-cast)

The Queen’s Thief (series) by Megan Whalen Turner (narrated by Steve West)

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies)

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (narrated by Steve West)

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (narrated by Kyle McCarley)

Poetry

How We Became Human by Joy Harjo

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

Nonfiction

The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski

The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown

The Portland Black Panthers by Judson L. Jeffries and Lucas N. N. Burke

Dressing the Galaxy by Trisha Biggar

Bitchfest edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler

Fiction: Series

And I Darken (trilogy) by Kiersten White

Tensorate (series) by J.Y. Yang

The Books of the Raksura (series) by Martha Wells

Murderbot (series) by Martha Wells

Fiction: Stand-alone

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

Witchmark by C.L. Polk

Fiction: Kids

Hamster Princess (series) by Ursula Vernon

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Comics

Ms. Marvel (ongoing) by G. Willow Wilson

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (ongoing) by Ryan North

Lumberjanes (ongoing) by Shannon Watters and Kat Leyh

The Backstagers (ongoing) by James Tynion IV

Library Wars by Hiro Arikawa and Kiiro Yumi

Movies

Black Panther

Annihilation

Crazy Rich Asians

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Bahnreads Overseas: Literary Sights

I recently traveled from the West Coast overseas to London, Dublin, and Italy. I already blogged about my favorite bookshops I found while traveling. I also visited and/or discovered a few literature-related spots, some of them by accident because I am not as good at planning as I like to pretend. Read on for my favorite literary sites that we visited.

The Jane Austen Centre (Bath, England)

Is it touristy? Yes. Is it gimmicky? Yes. Is it a ton of fun? ALSO YES.

What first struck me at the Jane Austen Centre was the sincere enthusiasm of everyone who worked there. The young woman calling herself Louisa Musgrove gave a practiced monologue on Jane Austen’s family, but she made it interesting enough and got some laughs, and she handed us off to Lady Catherine De Burg who told us about the different portraits of Jane Austen and the arguments over their authenticity. Everyone else we interacted with, whether it was the costumed gentlemen at the door or the cashier in the gift shop seemed knowledgeable and honestly glad to be there.

The Centre itself was full of both contemporary Austen artifacts and reproduced versions. Besides the information displays and museum exhibits, there were some interactive areas where you could try on costumes, practice writing with a quill, and play contemporary tabletop games.

Check out my photos below for some examples of the displays and costumes.

 

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The Book of Kells and Long Library Exhibit (Trinity College, Dublin)

On our first full day in Dublin, we took a tram (because Trams Are Best) to the Trinity College campus. First of all, gorgeous campus, what is this, ridiculous, so beautiful. Second of all, they have the Book of Kells at their library so we visited that. Unfortunately, they don’t let you take pictures of the old books in the exhibit. But trust me when I tell you, WOW ILLUMINATED BOOKS, THEY ARE GORGEOUS AND BEST. The level of detail and the bright colors and gold were incredible. The pages we saw were the genealogy of Jesus and a section from the Gospel of John. You can see some official photos here.

We were able to see the Long Room in the same library building. It’s the perfect library aesthetic with a longgggggg room (imagine that) with fabulous-looking arches, as well as a bust or fifty of famous writers. You can check out my photos below.

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Via Dante Alighieri (Florence, Italy)

dante

There are quite a few Dante-related sites in Florence, Italy, which you can read about here on Walkabout. Our time was very limited there, although we did, of course, see the Duomo. I spotted this street named after Dante and snapped a photo. It’s really fun going to cities where these famous writers lived and worked, and imagine them as they were.

 

Jonathan Swift’s tomb (St. Patrick’s Cathedral)

While in Dublin we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I had no idea that Jonathan Swift’s tomb was there! I really need to brush up on my author history because Jonathan Swift was Dean there for 32 years. If you visit the Cathedral, which is beautiful in its own right, you can see artifacts such as Swift’s pulpit. Swift wrote his own epitaph, because of course he did. The epitaph marks Swift’s grave and is in Latin, but the translation is:

Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity and Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart;
Go traveller and imitate if you can, this dedicated and earnest champion of liberty
He died on the 19th October 1745, aged 78 years

Check out my photos below.

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Overall I had an amazing time exploring, especially when we found places and sites we didn’t always know were there.

Bahnreads Overseas: My Favorite Bookshops

It’s good to be blogging again! I returned a few days ago from a long trip overseas, with stops in London, Dublin, Rome, Venice, and Florence (with a tiny stop in Keflavik). While I didn’t do any sort of comprehensive tour of libraries or bookshops, I did my best to visit and explore them when I could. In this post I’m going to share my favorite bookshops I found while traveling. In a later post, I will share about other literature-related places I visited, including a certain fantastic library.

London

IMG_7828Okay, it’s not technically a bookstore, but the Globe Theater gift shop sells a lot of books by William Shakespeare. The theater is a reconstruction of the Globe Theater that Shakespeare worked in and wrote his plays for. We were able to do a tour as well as see a show. I highly recommend the experience! As far as books are concerned, the gift shop sells many different editions of the plays and sonnets, including big fancy folio-like reproductions.

I also managed to visit Forbidden Planet, which has been on my list for a while. If you like science fiction or fantasy, this is a magical place. The ground floor is entirely non-book nerd gear: toys, games, shirts, etc, from alllll the franchises. The Star Wars wall was really delicious. The basement floor is all books! They had many signed editions, along with a fantastic selection. Yay Forbidden Planet!

Dublin

Manor Books Limited in Malahide (just outside Dublin) was a fun little shop. They had a lot of Ireland-related books and books by Irish authors. What I love about independent bookstores is that I discover books I would never otherwise know the existence of. I bought a book here titled How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of The Crossroads (by Daniel Cassidy). I haven’t read it yet, but our tour guide at Malahide Castle mentioned quite a few common expressions that supposedly came from Ireland, so I’m very intrigued!

The Winding Stair Bookshop was one of my favorite finds on the trip. It’s pretty small, but very carefully curated to include both new books and used, with an emphasis on feminist books and Irish authors. I found a tiny little book titled A Little History of Dragons by Joyce Hargreaves, but there were a bunch of other books I wanted to carry off with me.  It’s also right next door to The Winding Stair restaurant.

I went into at least one branch of the Dubray Books chain. Besides being a decent all-around bookstore, they always had sizeable displays on Irish authors and Ireland-related topics, which, as a tourist, I really appreciated.

Rome

So the thing about Italy is that they speak and read Italian there, and I don’t. We went into a couple of little bookshops but the only place I bought books was actually the Colosseum gift shop, where I found a delightful little book called A Journey to Rome that had beautiful watercolor illustrations paired with quotes from famous literary people who visited Rome. Not to worry: I definitely plan to visit Rome again and next time I will plan my bookshop visits a little better.

Venice

Okay, first of all, Venice is surreally beautiful and probably not even a real place. Second, it contains a bookshop called Alta Acqua that is also probably not real. I have photographs of it and I’m still not sure. They keep many of their books in waterproof flotation devices, whether it be a gondola, a bathtub, or a canoe. I didn’t actually buy any books here, although they did both English and Italian. Enjoy the photos, and visit this place if you can.

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Florence

Right outside the Accademia Gallery (which is awesome, you should go there) is a bookshop called Libreria Gozzini. I definitely only saw like four rooms when I was there, so I was surprised to look it up online and be told there are multiple floors and 23 rooms! We really missed out. However, we did find a few shelves of English books and I found a couple of tiny old copies of Shakespeare plays, one of which I took home with me (Romeo and Juliet). Besides beautiful shelves of books, there were many old prints and drawings, which were fun to look through.

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Overall, I really enjoyed my trip. But being in a strange place can be disorienting, and it’s always very comforting to hang out with books in between eating delicious food and seeing the sights. What are your favorite bookshops you’ve found while traveling?

A Book for the Book Nerds

95979.jpgI recently read a fantastic book detailing the technology of books and bookshelves in the western world called The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. I recommend reading it if you’re a bookworm or interested in learning about basic things that we take for granted.

The main questions this book answers are: “How and why did we get books in the form they are today? How and why did we get bookshelves in the form they are today?

The Book on the Bookshelf goes through the history of books in the western world, starting with scrolls, tablets, etc and going all the way through 1999 (when it was published), when e-readers were in development. This book is worth it if only for the (sometimes hilarious) speculation and analysis the potential effects of e-readers and e-books. It also goes into how we came to organize the books the way we do, and goes over the different ways of arranging books, which I found fascinating because I am constantly reorganizing my personal library.

However, whether or not you end up reading it, I’m going to share some (BUT NOT ALL) of my favorite facts that I learned from this book:

  • capsae are adorable-looking hat-boxes that one could use to carry one’s scrolls about with them. I want to get some scrolls and then I want to get a capsae and I want to frolic around and whip out my scrolls whenever I need to look up fun facts.

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    Online Source (this image of a capsae is also shown in The Book on the Bookshelf)
  •  Apparently in the 11th century, English Benedictines had really strict rules on using the limited-and-precious books they had. In some monasteries, the librarian would assign ONE book per brother per year to read. At the end of the year, the librarian would gather all the brothers and read off their names and the book they had been assigned. If the brother had NOT read their assigned book, they had to confess their terrible literary sin on their knees to the librarian. I’m not saying we should bring this one back, but….
  • Books were stored in locked chests, but eventually the chests were turned on one end and left open and shelves put in, leading to the first armarium which turned into bookshelves!
  • Monasteries had the biggest collections of books until the Reformation, when they DESTROYED ALL THE MONASTERIES AND BURNED ALL THE BOOKS because no one has any religious chill. The printing press took a while to replace all of those big collections. Boo!
  • Spines were considered ugly for a VERY LONG TIME, like until the 17th/18th centuries. Books were shelved with their spines facing the back, because no one wants to look at that ugly thing. Sometimes librarians used slips of paper sticking out of the pages to mark what book it was, since titles weren’t on the spines and the spines were facing the back.

 

There’s lots more where those came from! I really enjoyed this book, although I’d love to read something similar that looks at book technology around the world. This one didn’t often specify if/what technology we received from or gave to the middle-east, east, etc.

 

Rec-post: Alexander the Great

I really like history, and I really like ancient history, but Alexander the Great is probably my favorite historical subject. I have a bad habit of finding books about Alexander whenever I wander into a physical or virtual bookstore;  I enjoy reading them even though they’re all hypothetically telling the same story and relaying the same facts. Alexander historians have a LOT OF OPINIONS and they disagree most of the time, which keeps it interesting if I ever get tired of the Siege of Tyre and the invasion of Persia (spoiler: I don’t).

If you are interested in reading a book about Alexander, or you have read some but want more, or you have read a LOT and want to tell me how wrong I am, look no further! Listed below are my favorite books on Alexander the Great, whether they’re novels, biographies, or picture books.

If you have Alexander the Great recommendations for me, please share them in the comments!

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A famous mosaic or whatever 

 

Nonfiction

The Age of Alexander by Plutarch: If you don’t know anything about Alexander the Great, this would be my first nonfiction recommendation. Plutarch was a Roman historian who wrote a few centuries after Alexander, but he was working off of the primary sources (biographies written during or soon after Alexander’s lifetime). That being said, he is an anecdotal writer, so he embellishes where he feels he needs to, and slathers his Roman bias all over everything. Still, it’s a great place to start and pretty entertaining to read. Plutarch knows how to tell a good story. Later biographers tend to use Plutarch and Arrian the most.

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian: Arrian is probably the best, most comprehensive source in existence for Alexander. Like Plutarch, Arrian was a Roman writer using the primary sources to write his own Alexander biography, but Arrian does his best to accurately record Alexander’s military exploits. Arrian has less fun storytelling than Plutarch, but more accuracy (in relative terms) and lots of specifics military details.

Head of

Everyone knows that Alexander the Great didn’t have pupils.

The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus: If you really want to cover all the main secondary sources, you should tackle Rufus as well. He has really strong opinions about Alexander, like the others he slathers his Roman bias all over everything, but he’s a lot closer to the source material than we are. Rufus gets only a half-hearted recommendation from me because he includes a lot of embellished speeches, he is obsessed with Darius (king of Persia) and he kind of hates Alexander.

Note: Other main sources include Diodorus and Justin, but I haven’t read those guys yet.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire (Great Courses) by Kenneth Harl: I listened to these lectures but there are DVDs available as well. This is a fantastic and  comprehensive run-down of Alexander, his historical context, and his legacy. My only complaint is that Harl has a huge crush on Alexander, and tends to rationalize or justify some of Alex’s less awesome choices. If you like audiobooks, this would be my #1 rec.

Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green: This is the best biography; I want to eat it up. This and the Harl lectures are the best of the more modern biographies I’ve come across so far. Peter Green doesn’t hate Alexander, and he doesn’t love him, but he respects Alexander is a megolomaniac genius and admires his skill in manipulating everything and everyone around him. I subscribe to this view also, in part because of this book.

The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault: This is Mary Renault’s nonfiction treatment of Alexander the Great; see below for her fiction treatment. Like Harl, Renault has a huge crush on Alexander and she will stop at nothing to justify any torture, genocide, or palace burnings that her dear Alex gets up to. Like, relax. Sometimes people do bad things but they can’t be boiled down to that one bad thing.

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge: This book is repetitive and boring at times, but Cartledge does a great job of analyzing the sources and rejecting the less plausible versions of Alexander episodes. This book isn’t as readable or engaging as some (see Freeman, below), but it is one of the more accurate biographies, and Cartledge has a dry humor that comes out in places.

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman: If you’re new to Alexander the Great, this is a nice contemporary overview of his life. It’s very readable, but Freeman is not very discriminating with his sources. He’s here for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Fiction

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Alex’s mom Olympias gets a bad rap but at least she got some good coinage out of it.

Stealing Fire by Jo Graham: This book is set after Alexander’s death, but has a lot of flashbacks to various points in his career. It’s told from the perspective of one of Alexander’s officers, who made his way up through the ranks from being a groom. who The plot revolves around the theft of Alexander’s body by one of his generals, and that same general taking over Egypt. You know, the fun stuff. This is a great historical fiction book with some fantasy elements. My main complaint is that Alexander isn’t physically present for most of the events depicted, but his presence is felt throughout by the other characters and in the flashbacks.

Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: These books have a couple of big problems: Mary Renault has a huge crush on Alexander, and the female characters are generally thrown into the whore or witch categories. However,  Renault tries to give an accurate, engaging view of what happened and illustrate what kind of man Alexander was personally. He comes across very positively in these books which is problematic in some cases, but as a work of fiction, it is well-crafted. I haven’t read the third book in the trilogy, The Funeral Games, because it’s post-Alexander and I’m not about that.

Alexander the Great by Demi: If I was going to make a picture book version of Alexander, this is what it would look like. Yes, it’s very idealized. Yes, it mostly draws on Plutarch anecdotes which may or may not be have actually happened. But the storytelling is coherent, and as a broad character study, you get the gist of Alexander’s personality and goals. The art is gorgeous, and the use of gold is absolutely perfect. I want to stare at every page for hours. There’s an epic quality to the illustrations that, yes, romanticized, but go big or go home, unless you’re satirizing the guy. He’s Great, after all.

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These sarissas were 18-feet long so that ancient Macedonians could fit all their enemies on one shish-kabob.

A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott: This is my favorite Alexander novel I have read so far, but it’s an alternate history. This book explores what might have happened if Alexander hadn’t gone to India, had an heir that’s old enough to have a chance once Alexander dies, and various other differences. I don’t recommend reading it if you don’t know much about Alex, because you will be very very confused and probably be convinced that he fought Romans. The book doesn’t make clear if Alex still dies of a fever in Babylon, but it does emphasize that his Empire is stabilized in his lifetime and survives for a long time. It has science fiction undertones, but what I love most about this book is how believable the alternate events are, and how well Scott characterizes everyone believably considering the historical sources. I also love the emphasis on Alexander’s engineers: those guys were smart and crucial to Alexander’s campaigns.

 

Best* Reads of 2017

I tried and failed to narrow this list down to a top ten. The books listed (and vaguely categorized) below are the best books I read this year, but not necessarily published this year. I read 256 books this year so they had to be PRETTY DANG GREAT to make this list.

I tried and failed to pick a grand prize winner. So.

Best Fiction

The Fire’s Stone by Tanya Huff

File under: Found Family; That’s So Wizard; I Had To Many Feelings To Catalog Them Properly;

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

File under: Monster Humans and Human Monsters; Beautiful Prose; Flailing;

Point of Hopes, Point of Dreams, Point of Knives, and Fairs’ Point by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett

File under: Fantasy/Mystery Series of Joy; I Want Ten More Please and Immediately; They’re All Good Boys Brent!;

The Adventures of Charls, the Veretian Cloth Merchant by C.S. Pacat

File under: An Absolute Delight, Hilarity

Thick As Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

File under: Books I Have a Book’s Worth of Thoughts On; F-A-V-O-R-I-T-E; Casual Perfection;

So You Want To Be A Robot and Other Stories by Merc Rustad

File under: Hope; Found Family; I Want To Reread Immediately;

A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott

File under: Alexander; Good AUs; Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me This Book Existed;

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

File under: I Want To Reread Immediately; Found Family; Laugh or Cry or BOTH on every page;

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

File under: Human Monsters and Hero Robots; Smart Protagonists; I Want Ten More and A Movie Please

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

File under: Epic Fantasy But The Good Kind; Protags I Would Die For;

The Innkeeper Chronicles books 1-3 by Ilona Andrews

File under: An Absolute Delight; Space Werewolves;

DSUFRAfVQAE5Ore

Hypothetically for Kids But I am 27** Years Old and I Do What I Want

Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland

File under: Found Family; All The Dragons That Love Can Buy; Protag I Would Die For;

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

File under: Well-Crafted Books; Maybe The Real Princesses Were The Friends We Made Along The Way; We Will Go Together;

Guardians of the Whills by Greg Rucka

File under: Grace Under Pressure, Hope in Dark Times

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

File under: CHOCOLATE; DRAGONS; DRAGONS AND CHOCOLATE; CHOCOLATE AND DRAGONS; FAMILY;

Best Nonfiction

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

File under: Why Didn’t We Know This; Do What Must Be Done; Amazing Women;

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

File under: Making Sense of Nonfiction Via Fiction; Books About Books;

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

File under: Amazing Women; Seriously An Amazing Woman; How Does This Woman Exist;

Best Books With Pictures

Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer

File under: Androids With Feelings; Human Monsters and Hero Robots;

Ms. Marvel: Super Famous, Civil War II, and Damage Per Second by G. Willow Wilson

File under: An Absolute Delight; Heroes; We Will Go Together;

Wonder Woman: The Lies by Greg Rucka

File under: Who Gave DC My Wish List?; Diana Prince, Light of My Life Fire of My Loins;

March: Book One and Two by John Lewis (I haven’t read Book Three yet)

File under: Good Books; Why Didn’t I Know This?;

*”Best” as determined by Science and Reason, and definitely not by my own feelings and personal preferences definitely not

**ish

The Legends of Luke Skywalker and The Myths We Cling To

36295579.jpgI finished reading The Legends of Luke Skywalker by Ken Liu. Firstly, I loved it as a Luke story. It did a great job of presenting Luke from different angles and perspectives, while still keeping him a coherent character. Secondly, I loved it as a collection. The stories ranged from survival tales to tall tales to hero’s journey tales, and all of them were entertaining. Thirdly, that last category, “Hero’s Journey,” made me pause and think about the collection again. It turns out this book, consciously or not (but I’m assuming consciously), systematically goes through some major ways that we approach or study myths. It provides six different stories that each represent one kind of myth structure or category, but inside of the fictional world of Star Wars rather than dealing with our own myths. In so doing, it says a lot about how we tell stories to make sense of our lives and experiences.

Mild spoilers for the book below – I’m going to describe the overall premise of each story, but no details on what happens or how it ends.

Urban Legends

I know I’m not the first to raise questions about this implausible vulnerability, and I’ve heard the theory that maybe it was the result of deliberate sabotage. But if you believe the ragtag Rebel Alliance was capable of infiltrating the highest echelons of the disciplined Imperial military research labs, I’ve got a few choice plots of beachfront property I’d like to sell you on Tatooine.
The first story, called “The Myth Buster,” is set in a bar where the point-of-view character is listening to a bar-fly explain the “true” story of Luke Skywalker. Redy (the bar-fly) explains that what we thought we knew about Luke is nothing but one conspiracy after another, and nothing but propaganda to make the Rebellion look good.
This story reminds me a lot of urban legends, of which conspiracy theories are a sub-genre. Urban legends are those stories that everyone has heard but sometimes don’t know aren’t true. Some are scary, like Bloody Mary or the Killer in The Backseat. Others are Advice Stories like, if you leave a tooth over night in Coca-Cola it will dissolve (it won’t) so don’t drink Coca-Cola. Others are “this happened to a friend of a friend” like the Microwaved Pet story.

In this Luke story, we hear all kinds of twisted versions of Luke’s adventures in the movies, based around the idea that he was actually a guy named Clodplodder and was part of an intergalactic gang. They’re the kind of sensationalist facts and stories that you just know will be repeated by everyone who hears it, because it makes them feel like they know “the truth of the matter.” They won’t be fooled by nonsense legends of a Jedi Knight saving the galaxy.

Personal Mythology

He leapt from rebel star cruiser to rebel star cruiser, his flaming sword at the ready. A Star Destroyer focused all its cannons on him, and carelessly, he deflected the shots with graceful swings. He launched himself from a cruiser, tucked his legs under him, and tumbled through space, shooting bolts of energy from his sword in every direction. Star Destroyer after Star Destroyer disintegrated under this unnatural assault.

The second story is called “The Starship Graveyard” and (is one of my favorites and also) features an unnamed male Imperial officer whose ship goes down during the Battle of Jakku (a battle which occurs in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens). However, the person telling the story, Tyra, accidentally gives enough hints that we realize she is probably giving a cover story for her grandmother, the real protagonist of the story.  The Imperial officer is rescued by a guy who may or may not be Luke but who definitely claims to be Luke by the end but IS HE LYING AND JUST TAKING ADVANTAGE OF LUKE’S FAME, we don’t know????

What I’m calling “Personal Mythology” are those stories that we tell about ourselves, stories of our experiences that were very formative at the time, and that we’ve told so many times that they’ve grown in the telling, and so as we keep telling them their significance to our lives grows.

This story about the point-of-view character’s experience with Luke has grown in his or her mind so much that Luke almost seems like a hallucination or a god. This person that won the Battle of Jakku (according to the narrator), saved them from dying in the desert, and helped the scavengers escape a lake of boiling glass. Luke’s significance to this one character is enormous, and in their mind he’s become a sort of all-powerful legendary figure.

Hero’s Journey

“We take turns to uplift each other.”

The third story is called “Fishing in the Deluge.” It’s set on an oceanic planet and inhabited by people who allow “The Tide” to decide their lives and life around them. It’s told from the perspective of a local girl, Ava, but Luke visits the planet on a quest to find out more about the Jedi and Force-users. In order for him to be taught by them, however, Luke has to pass their coming-of-age test that allows young locals to learn how to feel the Tide (aka the Force).

The characters’s attitude toward the coming-of-age trial is evocative of “The Hero’s Journey.” The Hero’s Journey was codified by Joseph Campbell, and made even more famous by George Lucas who used it as a template for the original Star Wars movie. The Hero’s Journey is a basic structure full of common elements shared among most myths; for example, each hero experiences a “call to adventure” early on. If the hero makes it through their whole journey they become “master of two worlds”: both the one they came from and the one they have mastered during their journey, often divided into a physical and a spiritual world.

If Luke makes it through the quest (or hero’s journey, or coming of age ritual) that the local elder sets him, he will be able to master both the Force and the Tide. However, through the trial, Luke learns it’s not so much about mastering something as yielding to a bigger plan. And Ava, the other protagonist, learns a few things from Luke as well. It’s all about balance between two schools of thought and between two individuals, rather than a character successfully navigating a challenge.

Cultural Myths

There was no fear or terror in his face, only determination. How was that possible? Was he droid or man?

The fourth story in the collection is called “I, Droid,” and features a droid protagonist and many many droid slaves working in a deadly mine. Their experience with Luke Skywalker changes them in their hardware and in their software if you know what I’m saying.

Any myth is cultural, obviously, but what I mean specifically is a myth that defines or influences a culture once it is introduced and learned. It’s implied that Luke has become a legendary figure to any of the droids who met him at this point, and they will tell each other their story about him, and retell it as many times as they have to, until all droids have heard about how great Luke is and what a good droid friend he is. True or not, that’s the story that they’re spreading through their culture.

I’d like to see a follow-up that explores the problematic consequences of this story, where Luke has become a ludicrous figure of myth and any droid who comes across his path treats him like a demigod.

Rationalizing Myths

At least he can follow directions, I thought. Then I realized that this wouldn’t be so bad. I could still make it work. Instead of fighting against his instincts, I had to work with them. If I could manage the vapid Salacious Crumb, surely I could do the same with the overeager Luke.

The fifth story is titled “The Tale of Lugubrious Mote.” Lugubrious Mote is…well, a mote. A tiny space-flea from Kowak, which is the same planet as Jabba’s alien monkey jester in Return of the Jedi, for those following along at home. This story goes in a similar vein as the first story, except instead of Luke being a conman, Mote’s version of him is a little stupid and a lot gullible. Lugubrious Mote explains that the only reason Luke survived Jabba’s palace and barge is because of the tiny flea in his hair. Hm.

Rationalizing myths is a popular trend. We like to investigate myths and explore their origins, and what possible explanations could be behind them, whether the myth is a metaphor for why the sun and moon have the courses they do, whether the myth is a conflated retelling of a much more grounded-in-reality event, etc. Explaining away myths with reason kind of misses the point of myths, which is to put into words something we didn’t have words for before.
This narrator comes across as the most unreliable. Sure, everything Lugubrious says sounds plausible, but Luke’s dialogue, and to a certain extent his actions, don’t make much sense with what we’ve seen of Luke elsewhere. So we have to agree to dismantle Luke’s entire character,  or distrust Lugubrious. If Lugubrious is lying, his intention is most likely to replace Luke’s myth with his own personal myth, the legend of Lugubrious Mote.

History Turning Into Myth

Real magic is always knowledge. The galaxy is knowable, and that’s what makes it wondrous.

The sixth story is called “Big Inside” and features an archaeologist narrator who is hitchhiking her way to her scientific studies. Luke responds to her beacon, and the two of them find something interesting in space and wind up on an asteroid. Bad Things Ensue (it’s hard to talk about this one very much without spoilers).  The scientist is very keen to disregard anything about the Force, whereas Luke believes that science and the Force must go hand-in-hand considering the Force surrounds all living things, etc etc. The contrast was fun to read.

This story illustrates how, if enough time passes after an event, the event and the people living it become a legend. Or, if enough time passes without anyone experiencing a place, the place itself becomes legendary and unreal.

Luke and the archaeologist’s experiences in this story are, to anyone who hasn’t experienced them, completely insane. It’s the kind of thing that myths and hallucinations are made of. At the end of the story, they both admit that no one will ever believe them, but she’s going to have to try if she wants to publish any of her research.  In spite of the clash between her scientific pragmatism and Luke’s idealistic mysticism, the protagonist concludes, “I understood enough.”

A Long Time Ago

There’s a running theme in this collection that everyone wants to be the Luke of their own story, or their own personal myth. As they tell stories, they’re mythologizing him and in a way mythologizing themselves.  The point-of-view characters are making sense of Luke as a legendary figure, in whatever way they need to. They’re also making sense of their own lives, whether they’re an imperial-turned-scavenger, an archaeologist learning new things about how nature works, or a  child learning about how big the galaxy really is. Just like with myths in the real world, the characters in a galaxy far far away need myths to reason their way to the truth.

The Turn of the Screw: Ch. 19-24

Here we are, at the end of our winding way through the maze of The Turn of the Screw. Based on some of your reactions on Twitter, I’m going to start by saying that this book is expertly ambiguous, I warned you at the beginning of the readalong, and I am still puzzling over certain parts of this story (especially the end). If you want simple answers, or even just ANSWERS, you might be out of luck. But let’s work through it and see where we are at.

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Previously on TOTS: at the end of chapter 18, Butch Governess and the Grose Kid realized Flora had escaped the house while Miles was distracting them with his pianist wiles. Chapter 19 stresses me out because it evokes the panicked kind of searching one does when one is searching for a child, when said child has run off in a park or disappeared in a grocery store. TG and Mrs. Grose find Flora, who is incredibly unrepentant, similar to when she sneaked out of bed earlier, and similar to Miles when he sneaked outside the house. Flora is not bothered by everyone else’s panic, instead “smiled as if her performance had now become complete.” which again evokes relief/anger mix when after your panicked search you find the kid harmlessly playing nearby.

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TG’s bias is very strong in this chapter, because we’re swept up in the idea that Miles is off with Quint and Flora is with Jessel, but we don’t see any actual proof of it. For example, she claims, “They say things that, if we heard them, would simply appal us.” HOW DO YOU KNOW, TG? And then when the boat is missing, she says that “Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs”, which really sums up her argument throughout this book. The absence of witnessing something horrible is stronger than actually witnessing it, if you have hints or knowledge of it happening.

Even once Jessel has appeared (in chapter 20), it isn’t clear whether she’s been with Flora or just come onto the scene. TG is elated: “She was there, so I was justified; she was there, so I was neither cruel nor mad.” However, to TG’s disappointment, Mrs. Grose can’t (or won’t?) see Jessel, and Flora can’t (or won’t?) see Jessel. TG is the only one who A. can see Jessell and B. admits to seeing her. Do you think Mrs. Grose can see and is lying, or that she can’t? What bond does TG have that enables her to see the ghosts? Is it because she’s replacing Jessel? Is it because she’s emotionally close to the kids? Or, is TG just crazy and Jessel isn’t even there?

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Personally, I think the book supports the idea that the ghosts are real. But it’s definitely a mess and could go several ways. If Jessel IS there, and Flora CAN see her, Flora’s grouchiness and rejection of TG is especially vicious; TG sees her as “hideously hard” and “common and almost ugly.” If TG is crazy, too many things in this story don’t add up and/or go unexplained. But I would also believe that Flora’s mere disagreement with TG would destroy her angelic beauty in TG’s eyes, because TG’s opinions are rather polarized that way.

Flora is so wound up by her outside adventure, TG’s sighting of Miss Jessel, and TG’s accusations to Flora, that the little girl makes herself sick. But is it from fear of TG’s insanity, or fear that TG will interfere with Jessel and Quint? According to Mrs. Grose, Flora is saying vicious, precocious, adult things about TG, which would support the idea that at the very least Flora was under a real bad influence in the past, and at the worst that Flora is currently under the influence of ghost Jessel and/or Quint.

“It’s beyond everything, for a young lady; and I can’t think where she must have picked up-“

“The appalling language she applies to me. I can, then!”

TG assures Mrs. Grose not to feel bad if she feels deceived by Flora, because “You’ve the cleverest little person to deal with.” The way TG talks about the kids is odd; sometimes she places all of the blame on the ghosts working their will through the kids, but sometimes she talks as if the kids, under the influence of the ghosts, are using their agency to be terrible awful sinners. Maybe she herself is confused on this point. In any case, she’s ludicrously happy that Flora is showing her true colors, so to speak, because “It so justifies me!” TG wants to put a stop to Quint and Jessel, but she also wants to make sure that she stands out as the one who hasn’t done anything wrong. Even though in the previous chapter, she admits to having lost Flora to Jessel, she agrees with Mrs. Grose to send the little girl away, in the hope that the ghosts’ influence will dissipate. I’m really not sure of the effectiveness of this plan.

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As pertains to Miles, Mrs. Grose has identified that Miles must have taken the letter which TG wrote and left on the table to be sent to the employer. After all, noooooooo one else in the house has motivations to keep things from the employer (right? Right??). TG still wants to save Miles, which she can’t do by taking him away from the house because REASONS, I guess? DISCUSS.

 

“If he confesses he’s saved. And if he’s saved-“

“Then you are?”

TG has her own salvation, or perhaps value in the eyes of the world/Mrs. Grose/her employer, wrapped up in what happens to the kids. So at this point in the story, TG feels that she knows everything that is going on with the ghosts, and her main goal is to get Miles to confess or to admit what is going on, and that he isn’t a perfect child but has been operating behind her back. If TG succeeds at this, she will have saved Miles because his facade will have dropped and the ghosts will have nothing to hide behind.

Miles returns from his own adventures in chapter 22, and TG is ready to have it out, but first they have to have a really awkward dinner with lots of vague table talk. TG has decided that her only hope lies in “taking “nature” into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.” In short, what she’s saying is that she can’t react to this whole crazy situation by freaking out, or running away, or treating it like a joke or a trick. She has to react to it like she would any other difficult situation, rationally and with compassion, but realizing that it will test her to the limits.

I think what makes me especially suspicious of Miles at this point is how chill he is about his sister coming down ill and being sent away with no warning. It seems like a normal kid, especially one as close to his sister as he is, would be really worried and ask a lot of questions. But they have a very calm civil dinner, and TG is very proud of herself for acting so normal and saying that Flora’s “journey will dissipate the influence” of her “illness” i.e. the ghosts. I don’t think I agree with her strategy of forcing everything to be normal as much as possible, in the hope of tricking Miles into giving her information. Why isn’t it okay to at least ask straightforward questions???

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Chapter 23 really drives home that TG and Miles are queen and king of the land of vagueness. They talk about how “the others” are here with them, but they could be talking about the servants OR the ghosts. I think Miles especially is enjoying the vagueness and weird undertones. When TG asks Miles if he likes the freedom he has at Bly now that he is ignoring his lessons with her, Miles “stood there smiling; then at last he put into two words–” Do you?”–more discrimination than I had ever heard two words contain.” Pretty cheeky, but also interesting when you think about how free TG is at Bly. She’s one of many children to a country parson, and this is her first time away from home and independently making money. She’s also very free in terms of the kids – they don’t need or want her, and she can do whatever she wants, if she wasn’t so concerned with “saving” them.

All right, chapter 24. So here we are: Flora hates TG but is gone; Mrs. Grose still somehow believes in TG but is gone; TG wants to save Miles; Miles is feeling real chill about everything.

If we look at the “action” only:

  • Peter Quint shows up at the window
  • TG distracts Miles by grabbing him and hugging him
  • Peter Quint disappears from the window
  • Miles looks out of the window, removing himself from TG
  • Quint shows up again
  • TG grabs Miles again
  • Miles struggles to get free and see who is there
  • TG leaps at the window
  • Quint disappears
  • Miles looks out the window but sees nothing
  • Miles dies

Miles is described throughout the chapter as struggling to speak or breath, and as “feverish.” It’s unclear if this is because TG is physically restraining him or because psychologically he is struggling to free himself from TG and/or Quint.

As far as things we learn through the dialogue: Miles admits to stealing the letter to his uncle, ostensibly to find out what TG was saying about him. Miles admits to “saying things” to boys at school he liked; I have no idea what that means but I assume he is a budding sociopath, due to Quint’s influence. Miles asks, “is she here?” and doesn’t disagree with TG when she names “she” as Miss Jessel. You could argue Miles meant Flora; but I’m not sure why he would be so desperate. Once Miles asks, “It’s he?” TG pins him down to admit that Miles means Peter Quint, whom he has not mentioned or named once up to this point.

Miles doesn’t seem to actually see Quint at any point in the scene. TG successfully keeps him from doing so, possibly because Quint is more powerful when Miles knows he’s there. I’m not sure how TG’s physical presence gets Quint to leave, while at the same time Quint’s absence kills Miles.

Of course, there’s the alternate reading, in which TG is completely deranged and kills Miles through a combination of terror and physical assault. I don’t quite buy this, but I really appreciate that the book can simultaneously support two wildly different interpretations.

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What do you think? Which reading do you think is better supported by the story/characters/dialog/action? Or is there a third option that I’m not addressing? If you haven’t read the comments on these posts, I encourage you to read a very interesting theory that Kim commented on an earlier post. I’m sure there are others you might come up with.

Thank you for joining me on this readalong!