Babel: An Arcane History

The book cover shows a tall round tower amid various domes and spires in a cityscape, against the dark background of a night sky; birds follow one another in a crooked line wrapped around the tower from bottom to top.

By Sahana C.

R.F. Kuang wrote her first novel at the age of 19, during a gap year from Georgetown. After graduating, she became a Marshall Scholar, studying at both Cambridge and Oxford University, graduating with a Master’s in Philosophy and a Master’s in Science, respectively. She’s currently in the midst of pursuing her PhD at Yale. R.F. Kuang knows a thing or two about what it means to be entrenched in higher education.  

Babel: An Arcane History is about a love affair with academia, and what that means as a person of color. For POC within institutions like Oxford, ones that have histories and wealth based in colonialism, pursuing higher education can feel like an act of betrayal, where the choice is between building a future and acknowledging the crimes and pain of the past. The novel juxtaposes this internal conflict with a parallel betrayal that ties together the rest of the book: the theory that every act of translation is an act of betrayal.  

It is the 1800s and Robin Swift, our protagonist, is taken from China by a professor, one who works in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, known colloquially as Babel. He’s thrilled to be invited to the Royal Institute, even more excited to be a Babbler, and intensely enamored of his cohort, his classes, and the campus. Despite all of the racism, discrimination, and academic pressure, Robin loves his work. He loves being a translator, and he loves the access to silver-working – where an act of translation inscribed on a silver bar produces magical effect. Robin and his cohort (Ramy, from Calcutta, Victoire, from Haiti but raised in France, and Letty, from England, but a woman in a time where her family could not accept that she wanted to study) work tirelessly to learn and advance in their skills of translation. They learn about the ways that translating fails: ciao means hello, yes, but hello doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning ciao conveys, as it can also be a farewell. There is inherently an incongruence here – either a translator can be faithful to the text or to the intention of the text, but it can scarcely ever do both. Regardless, a choice must be made; regardless, a betrayal occurs. Robin is thrilled to be a part of the Royal Academy, but the idea of this betrayal lingers.  

But throughout his time, Robin has concerns that Babel might not be as utopian as it seems. The Royal Institute’s mission to study foreign languages empowers the British Empire and aids them in their quest to colonize the world. The more Robin and his friends learn, the more they wonder if all this betrayal is worth it, and if they can manage to ignore all the ways their work could be used against people like them, despite the Royal Institute’s claims that Babblers are all that they are.

I was not expecting to fall as madly in love with this book as I did, partially because the novel takes on the physical dimensions of a literal brick, and partially because it was recommended to me on Booktok, and I’ve learned to be wary. But I devoured this book, as complex as it is. The concepts of language, linguistics, and translation are woven so deftly, and the debate on how to push back against colonialism is nuanced and careful. R.F. Kuang never tells her reader what to think; she just introduces critical concepts through the lens of dark academia, and asks the reader to decide: can we disrupt systems of colonialism and colonial thought through work, collective action, and communication, or is violence necessary to dismantle the systems put in place? R.F. Kuang doesn’t claim to know, and she’s firmly entrenched in academia herself. But through Babel, she is asking the questions. Is there ever a “right” thing to betray?

Babel: An Arcane History is available in print, ebook, and eaudiobook.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.

Recipe Exchange: Asian American Chefs and Asian American Cuisine

A colorful main dish is surrounded by smaller metal bowls of whole spices.

by Sahana C.

Come talk food with us!
Wednesday, May 24 at 7 pm | Savage Branch
Register here.

In Asian American households, food is a love language. Sliced fruit, set gently next to a workspace, is an invitation to take a break, or an apology. Homecomings are ushered in by welcome feasts, and almost every restaurant occasion ends with a polite battle over the bill. Food is affection, and especially in immigrant households, it is a connection to family, to a far-away home, and it is a consistent way of showing (but not telling) love.

Growing up with my Bengali mother, rainy days off meant khichdi (a mix of rice, lentils, and vegetables) and aloo bhaja (thinly sliced fried potatoes) for lunch. My brother and I would scrap over the last few aloo bhaja in the bowl, before our mother would smile indulgently and take a few from her plate to split between us. I’d sit in the kitchen as my mother cooked big, elaborate, multi-course meals, watch her season and spice, and wait for the oil to sputter specifically, never once consulting a recipe. She would have one of her aunts on speakerphone, talking about family back home and interjecting with quick questions on what to substitute to make our American ingredients taste as close as possible to the Indian ones.

I grew to appreciate food, to understand cooking, and to have a standard repertoire of recipes after learning from my mother. It was a common language we shared, this mutual culinary interest. And it’s only grown. I cook with and for friends, I follow cooking blogs and sites and social media accounts, I favorite every restaurant I pass by with an interesting-looking menu, and most of all, I like to talk about food with people. On desk at the library, I’ll see someone flipping through a cookbook I’ve read, and I’ll want to stop and talk. I’ll notice someone looking at a book written by one of my favorite food personalities, and I can’t help but smile at it. And most of all, I love when people share their recipes with me, when I can hear about the food, the stories, and the cuisines that influence them.

It’s important, also, to know about innovators. To know about the people who are pushing the cuisine, who are changing it, who are going back to the roots of a tradition or practice to better understand it. There are so many Asian American chefs who are pushing the envelope on what elevated Asian American cuisine looks like, and there are just as many Asian American chefs who are looking to create the most traditional experience they can with their food. All of that is what makes the cuisine not just Asian, but Asian American. It’s the blend of respect for culture and tradition, and the simultaneous push to the modern that makes Asian American food so unique.

To celebrate all of the above, we’re having a Recipe Exchange on Wednesday, May 24, from 7-8 pm at the Savage Branch. It’s themed around Asian American chefs and Asian American cuisine, where we’ll look at a few highlighted chefs and some of their most popular recipes. I’d love for you to join us and bring a recipe of your own to share. We’ll discuss our favorite tips, tricks, and techniques in community, and do it all the way food was meant to be enjoyed – together.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.

Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month

Several children stand around a library instructor, everyone strumming a ukulele.
Ukulele series Play, Practice & Perform, HCLS Savage Branch.

by Sahana C.

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrate the incredible diversity and cultural influence of folks under the AAPI umbrella. AAPI culture has become more prominent recently, though it has long been an integral part of our community and our county. Going from K-Pop to Bollywood, from Vietnamese cuisine, Thai food, and Chinese staples, to things like ukuleles and tattooing that hail from the Pacific Islands, there are traces of and homages to AAPI influence across society. Howard County Library System has a World Language Collection, and while the specific materials may differ between branches, we have DVDs, books, and other materials in a wide variety of languages, including Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese, to name a few.

I grew up listening to Bollywood and watching Bollywood movies that we would bring home from the library. Having the World Language Collection as a staple within the library has always been incredibly significant to me. It’s a tangible connection to my culture. I try always to recommend that folks looking for new and different movies give Bollywood a try, and the expanse of our World Language selection makes that possible.

This spring we have a wealth of classes to highlight AAPI authors, traditions, art, food, and culture. We’ll jam out at Savage Branch using ukuleles (that can be requested and borrowed!) with Savage Ukes. We’ll create origami flowers and learn about the history of kusudama, participate in Anime Clubs at Savage and Miller branches to talk about our favorite anime and manga, and read books like Interior Chinatown together (with the Reading Human Rights book discussion group) so that we can discuss in community.

We would love to see you at the branches, attending any of our events. Discover more on our classes and events calendar.

Asian Cuisine Made Easy!
For adults. Register here.
Thu Huynh, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Health Living Team at Giant Food, presents seven top tips on how to incorporate Asian cuisine and lifestyle into your life.
Wed, May 3 | 7 – 8 pm

Nonfiction Addiction
For adults. Register here for the in-person session and here for the online/hybrid session.
Explore the genre of nonfiction.
In May: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui.
Thu, May 18 | 7 – 8 pm
East Columbia Branch

Glenwood Goes to Hawaii
Ages 0-5. Ticketed; free tickets available 15 mins before class starts.
Shake off winter blues and go Hawaiian as we catch a wave. Enjoy tropical music, games, and stories under palm trees on beach blankets. Tropical attire encouraged.
Fri, May 19 | 10:30 – 11:15 am   
Glenwood Branch

High Tide in Hawaii: A Magic Tree House Special
Ages 6-10. Ticketed; free tickets available 15 mins before class starts.
Join Jack & Annie in the Magic Tree House as they escape high tide in Hawaii. Enjoy games, music, and a craft under palm trees and sunny skies. Tropical attire encouraged. Catch a wave!
Fri, May 19 | 2 – 3 pm     
Glenwood Branch

National Museum of Asian Art
All ages.
Investigate scenes and objects of daily life in works of art across Asia to discover what people in the past valued and how they celebrated through food and rituals. Through the objects you examine, compare daily life in the past to today.
Fri, May 19 | 2 – 3 pm
Elkridge Branch

Global Neighbors – Republic of Korea
All ages.
Experience the culture and contributions of one of the largest demographics in our community. Enjoy a presentation and celebration showcasing traditional Korean music, Taekwondo, Korean Fan Dance, K-Pop dance demonstration, and Korean origami and calligraphy. Celebrate the diversity of our community!
Sun, May 21 | 2 – 4 pm
Miller Branch

Craft Pop-up Shop: AAPI Heritage Month Edition
Ages 4 and up. Allow 15 minutes. Drop in.
Pop in and make a craft inspired by AAPI Heritage Month.
Tue, May 23 | 5:30 – 7 pm
Miller Branch

Recipe Exchange: Asians Chefs and Asian American Cuisine
For adults.
Learn about Asian chefs and the history of Asian American cuisine. Meet other foodies to learn new recipes or share some your favorites.
Wed, May 24 | 7 – 8 pm
Savage Branch

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.

Byte-Sized Intelligence: A Crash Course on AI

The image shows a robot seated at table, reading written materials placed in front of it. A chair is off to the side of the table and a smaller table with a lamp is in the background.

by Sahana C.

Thursday, April 20 at 7 pm
In person; Savage Branch

Libraries have come a long way – from a time when including a table of contents was the most innovative, revolutionary advancement in conducting research to the advent of search engines. How we interact with information, how we keep ourselves informed, and how we use the tools at our disposal have all evolved.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next wave of that evolution. Though it’s the subject of many science fiction novels, its real-world applications are wildly interesting. Artificial Intelligence refers to the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence. These tasks may include speech recognition, image analysis, and decision-making. AI is already being used in a variety of fields, from healthcare to transportation, and its potential applications are only growing. 

Savage Branch is having a crash course and conversation about the fascinating world of AI on Thursday, April 20. We plan to explore the basics of AI, looking at what it is, how it’s used, and its potential impacts on society. Whether you’re a tech enthusiast or just someone who’s interested in staying up-to-date on the latest technological advancements, there’s something for you! 

In our AI class, you’ll learn about the different types of AI and their real-life examples. For example, machine learning is a type of AI that allows computer systems to learn and improve from experience, without being explicitly programmed. Deep learning is another type of AI that uses neural networks to process and analyze large amounts of data. We’ll also explore natural language processing, which enables computers to understand and interpret human language. 

But it’s not just about the technical aspects of AI. We’ll also delve into the ethical considerations surrounding AI, such as bias and privacy concerns. As AI becomes more integrated into our daily lives, it’s essential to evaluate the potential impact on society and address these issues. 

Our AI class is designed for anyone who wants to learn about this exciting and rapidly evolving field, regardless of technical background or experience. Our experienced instructors guide you through the basics of AI in a clear, structured, and informative manner. Don’t miss this opportunity to explore one of the most transformative technologies of our time. 

The possibilities of Artificial Intelligence appear to be limitless. And what’s more – some of this blog post was generated by AI. I asked it to analyze my other writing to create a blog post on this class in my style, and I think it did a decent job. Did you catch anything that felt off? If you want to learn more, to discuss how this is possible, or just play with the possible applications, join us at Savage on April 20 to learn more. 

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. They enjoy adding books to their “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for them already.

Cooking for the New Year

The cover photograph shows a turquoise pot with a wooden spoon, filled with pasta, basil, and tomatoes in a creamy sauce. The pot sits on a wooden cutting board next to basil leaves and a white dish of red pepper flakes.

by Sahana C.

Try new recipes, new techniques, and new cookbooks in the New Year! 

The New Year brings new resolutions, fresh starts, and the perfect time to try new things. This year, while you are still getting into a brand new routine, here are a few cookbooks to use as inspiration. 

The book cover is a stylized line drawing of a wok in gold, with five red flames underneath and three white lines representing steam rising above it, all against a black background.

Dinner in One: Exceptional & Easy One-Pan Meals, for example, is great for folks who are trying to keep things simple but aren’t willing to sacrifice on flavor. Melissa Clark makes sure most, if not all, are ready within the hour. For those who are into the chemistry of cooking, J. Kenji López-Alt has come out with one of the most comprehensive texts on using woks in your kitchen. The lessons in The Wok: Recipes and Techniques extend beyond just the wok, with tips and tricks for knife skills and how to brighten up any dinner.  

The cover photograph shows an assortment of fresh brown loaves of baked artisan bread atop a counter.

For those who have decided to take up home-made bread-making and baking as their resolution this year, The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: Favorite Recipes from Bread In 5 keeps things both exciting and reasonable in the midst of everyone’s busy lives. This book has been touted as the “only one a baker needs,” and it’s still the best place to start for novices looking to get their foot in the door.

The book cover is a photograph of a charcuterie board, with assorted vegetables including tomatoes, pepper strips, cucumber slices, broccoli florets, and halved radishes. There are also three small white bowls of assorted dips.

While last year was big for board-style meals and decoration (with charcuterie, butter boards, and hummus boards trending on social media), America’s Test Kitchen provided a perfect introduction and inspiration for making boards at home. Boards: Stylish Spreads for Casual Gatherings is incredible inspiration for grazing tables and an easy way to feed guests when hosting, while keeping the actual work of preparing food to a minimum.  

In the spirit of including new recipes in your repertoire, we invite you to join us on February 22 at the Savage Branch for the first of our Recipe Exchanges! We discuss our favorites, learn and borrow from others in the community, and then look specifically at the evolution of African American cuisine and soul food.  

Cookbook Corner
Wed, Jan 18; 7 – 8 pm
HCLS East Columbia Branch 
For adults. Register here.
Explore various culinary cuisines/chefs of the world. A new cuisine/chef every month.

Recipe Exchange: Black Chefs and African American Cuisine
Wed, Feb 22; 7 – 8 pm
HCLS Savage Branch
For adults.
Do you want to learn more about Black chefs and the history of African American cuisine to find out where your favorite soul food dish originated? Indulge your culinary curiosity at the first of our recipe exchanges. See our events calendar for more information.

Celebrate Banned Books Week: September 18 – 24

The banner image depicts a rainbow-colored series of birds launching into flight against a backdrop of open books.

by Sahana C.

Banned Books Week is a party. We celebrate our unfettered access to whichever books we choose.

The national theme of Banned Books Week stands firm in its message against censorship. When it began in 1982, Banned Books Week was not a protest, but a reaction to an increasing number of book challenges. Banned Books Week is a space away from the intensity of media speculation and divisive press coverage.

The picture depicts the places where book challenges take place: school libraries, public libraries, schools, and academic/other. In the upper right hand corner is a graphic of rainbow-colored birds launching into flight, and the entire background is a faint depiction of open books.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked almost 1,600 books that were challenged in 2021 alone, but Banned Books Week is not when those challenges are contested. It is, in the words of the official website, a time for, “shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

The ALA is one of the loudest proponents of this effort as it supports the declaration from libraries to wholly commit to combat disinformation, promote the perspectives of historically excluded groups, and increase access to information. This is the mandate of public libraries, written into the mission statement of Howard County Library System: “We deliver high-quality public education for all.”

It is our responsibility to provide access to materials that encourage conversation and provoke thought; every addition to our collection is a choice, and decisions are never neutral. HCLS continues this practice with its Brave Voices, Brave Choices initiative. We have committed to not hiding hard conversations from our community. Discussions about appropriateness usually center the idea of balance, meaning we amplify the voices of people from historically excluded, marginalized, and unheard communities. Libraries cannot be neutral in this effort toward radical inclusion.

The picture is a rainbow-colored infographic of words and phrases cited in 2021 censorship reports as reasons for book challenges. In the upper right corner is a graphic of rainbow-colored birds launching into flight, and the entire background is a faint depiction of open books.

Kelvin Watson, director of libraries in Broward County, Florida, put it well: “Claiming neutrality endangers us as an institution by resulting in an unconscious adoption of the values of the dominant political model and framework… (w)e cannot be neutral on social and political issues that impact our customers because…these social and political issues impact us as well.” While a policy of neutrality appears to be equal, it is not equitable – it does not allow for different facets of our community to see themselves represented meaningfully, without stereotype, by people who share their life experiences.

We, as a library, stand to protect the brave voices who write, publish, and lead us into a more equitable future. We, in turn, make the brave choice to stand against the idea that we can be neutral in the battle against misinformation. The library is a steward of knowledge, led for and by the community it serves.

So, join the party! Everyone’s invited.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

A black and gold swirl centers on a pinpoint of a star. Two blue bands stripe the book vertically, while the text appears in orange horizontal bars.

By Sahana C.

It’s hard to find a good place to start with this book, so I’ll start at the end, in the year 3012. Society is different, and so are the people as the result of hundreds of years of war and compromise and cultural evolution. As a species, we are a genderless and raceless band of nomads, with a blatant disdain for those who settle down in nuclear family units.  

So yeah, there’s a lot going on. The above phrasing makes it seems starkly unnatural, but somehow, Monica Byrne’s weaving together of three different stories across time makes the future version of us feel tangible. Despite all of the modifications and the general foreignness of the shape of this future society, the basics of humanity remain the same. We are emotional and community oriented, no matter when we are in history. We follow patterns that remain, no matter how far we try to stray outside the bounds of history.  

The ripple effects from past to present to future were incredible. Seeing names and places that were mentioned briefly in the past become more important in the future was almost an exciting reward for paying close attention through the timelines. And this book does reward close attention. It is obvious that Byrne put immense time and research into all aspects of the novel, going from the Maya, to modern Belize, to what made sense for the future based on the results of the events she described in the first two timelines. Most importantly, the story of the Hero Twins, some of the most important figures in the Maya mythos, is described and adapted in such a faithful light that Byrne has room to play with the elements of the mythology.  

The story of the Hero Twins is one that Byrne explains in the novel, but, like the rest of Maya mythology, it is complex and bears repeating. The Hero Twins were the central characters of one of the oldest preserved Maya works, the Maya equivalent of the Epic of Gilgamesh, with just as much adventure. They were often portrayed as complementary forces, the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, the masculine and feminine, life and death. All in all, the Hero Twins were born to represent the two sides of a single entity. The shortest way to explain their greatest triumph is that they defeated the lords of Xibalba, the Maya equivalent of the realm of the dead, in a ball game, essentially representing that together, they had conquered death and diminished the power of all Xibalba. 

In the first of the three timelines in the novel, the year 1012, we are introduced to Ixul and Ajul through the point of view of their little sister, Ket. They are royalty and are said to be the reincarnation of the Hero Twins, with all the strength, power, and greatness that entails. The second timeline in 2012 follows Leah, a nineteen-year-old half Maya girl from Minnesota who goes to Belize to reconnect with her heritage. While she is there, she explores sacred caves and meets Javier and Xander, another set of twins, who work as tour guides. Business is booming, because in 2012, at the end of one Maya calendar, the Western world had decided the world was going to end. And then, in 3012, we follow Niloux, someone who is speaking out about the way society has evolved. She is embroiled in debate about the very nature and purpose of humanity, a thousand years after the change in the Maya cycle.  

Each of these timelines finds the characters on the precipice of a great and life altering change. The story is a blend of mythology, history, and sci-fi, and speaks, ultimately, to the way we use history to justify the present, and the way that our understanding of the past informs our future, no matter what we do.  

The review called the novel, “one of the most effective examples of worldbuilding you’re likely to see on a page this year,” and I have to agree. Despite being longer than 600 pages, it’s somehow still a fast read. It’s a hefty book that tries to cover a lot, and sometimes just doesn’t have the space to explore all of the various threads it brings up, but when Byrne is allowed to go into detail on a subject, she does not miss.   

The Actual Star is available in print.  

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune

The illustrated cover shoes a topsy-turvel house in the clearing of a large wood. The shadow of a large stag appears behind the house.

by Sahana C.

Loss is not an easy subject matter. The nuances of grief and grieving, mixed with the general sense of well-what-comes-next is hard to grapple with. And yet somehow, in Under the Whispering Door, TJ Klune has delivered another gentle reminder to readers that the best way to endure, survive, and eventually thrive through hardship is by finding your people, letting them help you and love you, and helping and loving them in return.  

An illustration shows a raggedy spit of land above a blue sea, with a red house with lots of windows at its very edge. Windswept trees and a blue and pink sunset sky frame the house.

Folks who know the author’s work after reading The House in the Cerulean Sea might be surprised, at first, by the level of angst present at the outset of this book. After all, if Cerulean Sea could tout the Antichrist as one of its main characters and still feel light, fluffy, and comforting, surely this novel about dead people can’t be that deep.  

Apparently, it can though.  

Most of that is due to the fact that Wallace Price, the main character, is simply obnoxious and unpleasant at the beginning. He is so unlikable in the very first chapter, so out of touch, that I wasn’t sure I wanted redemption for him. He got what he deserved, dying at the end of the first chapter. This is not a spoiler, the man is dead throughout the book. The main character is, in fact, a ghost-or-something the whole time. A fun time is had by all, except Wallace, when he dies.  

Seeing the other characters humor him and tease him was a relief because he was just so darn unpleasant that I didn’t much care how he’s feeling about being dead. Until, suddenly, I did. Without my knowledge or consent, I suddenly cared about Wallace, and that is precisely the magic that TJ Klune makes. He sneaks these strange characters on readers, makes it very clear that the characters are mostly a menace to society and not very good at being people, and then gently, steadily, these characters are shown how to be good people, how to care about others, how to crave belonging like they never have before.  

There is a tenderness with which Wallace is treated by Hugo, a man who is very important in Wallace’s undeath. Equally important are Mei, the Reaper who comes to collect Wallace’s soul-or-equivalent, Nelson, Hugo’s boisterous and larger than life grandfather, and Apollo, the dog.  

Difficult scenes force readers to confront loss in a very real way, and they are masterfully interspersed with incredible levity. Things like Wallace suddenly remembering he’s dead and sinking through the floor as the rest of the group does nothing to help but laugh are both incredibly funny and also the moments that Wallace is learning the most. The sad parts are to be expected, but as Wallace himself begins to use as a mantra: the real lesson is in unexpecting

This is a character driven novel, of course, because when considering something as deeply personal as loss, one must return to the people that are experiencing the emotion. The way that Klune uses all of the characters to fill in any gaps in Wallace’s story, but also allows them to have their own back stories, personalities, and flaws without detracting from Wallace’s growth, is a delicate balancing act that Klune has down to a science.  

Ryka Aoki, author of Light from Uncommon Stars , described the book beautifully, saying, “There is so much to enjoy in Under the Whispering Door, but what I cherish the most is its compassion for the little things―a touch, a glance, a precious piece of dialogue―healing me, telling me that for all the strangenesses I hold, I am valued, valid―and maybe even worthy of love.” 

This book is about healing and holding yourself accountable. It’s about always having more to learn, but having to be willing to learn it. It does not force, but gently asks a reader to consider, Am I happy? Am I doing what I want, surrounded by the people I love? What do I have to do to get there?  

And most of all, whatever you expect to happen here, wherever you think the story is going to go, unexpect it. Wallace was right. It’ll get you there faster.  

Under the Whispering Door is available in print, eBook, and eAudiobook.  

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

A young woman with long wavy dark hair, dressed in a denim jacket, looks backward over her shoulder. A bright yellow and orange phoenix is rising behind her against the night sky, and its tail wraps around her.

By Sahana C.

Consider this: every fairy tale you’ve ever heard is at least a little bit true. The Kingdom of Avalon is full of castles and magic, Alice really did travel all through Wonderland, and most of all – magic? Definitely real.  

But at the exact same time, Rin Chupeco manages to surprise readers with twists on each story. Avalon is frozen (literally and metaphorically!) outside of time, Alice was a warrior, and all that magic has rules and regulations in ways that seem to make sense when you look around at the modern world.  

The book opens in the Royal States, a monarchical version of the U.S., where everything is almost exactly the same as reality with the exceptions of a king and quite a bit more magic. The story even involves governmental agencies, with ICE taking on a prominent (and punny!) role throughout the course of the plot. 

The hero here is a young girl named Tala. She comes from an incredibly powerful legacy, with her family hailing from both the Philippines and Avalon. Her entire lineage is made up of magic, despite being convinced that she lives in the most boring town in the entire Royal States, and she’s been told that she’s fairly powerful, too. She’s hesitant to believe it, though, considering her powers are exclusively centered on disrupting magic.  

Her life changes in a big way when her family is called to protect the Crown Prince of Avalon, Alexei, who is the sole survivor of the royal family and has been in hiding for his whole life. Alexei’s dream is to revive his home country and take back his homeland by breaking the curse of the Ice Queen. In the meantime, though, he and Tala become fast friends, and he manages to enjoy a little bit of a normal high school, being sheltered by the Makiling clan, Tala’s super powerful family.  

When the Firebird, the symbol of Avalonian royalty, finally arrives, Tala and Alexei are thrown into a whirlwind adventure, accompanied by the children of Avalon’s best and brightest heroes. All of them have something to prove and they don’t always get along, but they do come together to save a country they’ve all loved and longed for from afar.  

You see, this whole book is a thinly veiled analogy for the immigrant experience and various facets therein. Tala’s whole family is Filipino, and she’s never been to the Philippines but longs to know more about her culture. Alexei had to leave Avalon as a child, forced out by war. The rest of the group that accompanies Tala and Alexei on their adventure also have varying levels of connection to Avalon: some have fond memories of childhood there, others have most of their family members stuck behind the border.  

Chupeco makes it clear, through Tala, that regardless of how connected to country she is, she can still fully claim her heritage. Tala is told by trusted adults time and time again that she belongs, and Chupeco makes it even more explicit when she writes, “Just because you’ve never been to the Philippines doesn’t mean that their rivers don’t course through your blood. It doesn’t mean you don’t have their mountains in your eyes. It’s not where we are, it’s who we are. You’ll always be both a Makiling and a Warnock, and always a Filipina. Never forget that.” 

I will say that some of the worldbuilding was a touch heavy-handed, and I had to go back and forth on the rules of magic and power in this universe Chupeco creates. Those moments could have benefited from a bit less, but they did not take away from the heart present in every chapter. First and foremost, this is a story about family, ones that are forged by blood and those that are found through friendship. For readers who are interested in YA fantasy, with an incredibly diverse and vibrant cast of characters who talk about the immigrant experience and recognize just how important food is as a bonding tool, this is the book for you.  

Wicked As You Wish is available in print and as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

A pale yellow cover features bunnies in many poses and many colors, with the title in a quirky script.

By Sahana C.

This book is cathartic. It feels like therapy, except things get way worse, more cringey, and infinitely harder to handle before the payoff hits, and all of the suffering of the previous two-thirds of the book ease into something manageable and even likable.  

I will not lie – I judged this book by its cover. There was something about the whimsical nature of the rabbits juxtaposed with the bold cursive proclaiming “everyone in this room will someday be dead” that struck me. What room? The very room I was in? I looked around the adult fiction section of the Savage Branch surreptitiously to see who was nearby. I went back up to the front desk, still holding onto the book, and thinking, “Yeah, actually, that’s true.”  

Dear Reader, obviously. This is not a new concept, that everyone, one day, dies. But sometimes, a book like this will bring this into perspective, throw a new light on something you know deep down but don’t consider very often. Emily Austin’s debut novel has moments I’m sure she would categorize as semi-autobiographical (I threw the “semi” in there for her sake, as the main character, Gilda, is truly a disaster), especially since there are moments in the book that I felt were semi-autobiographical and was alarmed at how close Gilda had gotten to my reality.  

Emily Austin was not referring to the Savage Branch when she was referencing her room. She was talking about every room Gilda, a noted hypochondriac, ever walked into. Gilda is a twenty-something lesbian and atheist, well known in the emergency room at her local hospital to the point that the janitorial staff know her by name. When we first meet her, she has just been in a car accident and broken her arm, a more physically obvious issue than the anxiety that normally brought her in for a check-up. In an attempt to get her anxiety under control, Gilda follows a flyer for free therapy to a Catholic church, where she meets Father Jeff and accidentally gets a job instead of therapy.  

From there, Gilda searches for a missing cat, deals with her younger sibling’s deteriorating mental health, tries to keep her old friends, tries to pretend like she’s Catholic, well-meaningly catfishes an old woman, and tries to solve a murder mystery that might not have involved murder, actually, all while trying to stay afloat.  

I read this on a long plane ride, which perhaps compounded the feeling of claustrophobia as Gilda kept tangling herself further and further in her web of lies. It meant that as I was reading an especially cringey section and closed the book for a moment, I couldn’t get up and go for a long walk, like I normally do. I was confined to the middle seat, stuck between two people who were fast asleep and were completely unaware of my distress, and, much like Gilda, all I could do in that moment was keep going. Keep reading and hope that somehow, something was going to get better.

Thank goodness it did, because otherwise, also like Gilda, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. This book is wholly about the existential dread that comes with being an adult and looking around to realize your general existence is not exactly what you thought it’d be, then figuring out how to cope with that anyway. 

I would like to make it very clear that I do, indeed, like this book. I want everyone to read it, despite how difficult it can be. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, describing it as “anxious queer fiction” and asking friends, “Have you ever felt completely directionless and stuck? Well. Gilda will make you feel better. Because she had it worse.” I think if we all take a moment to reflect, the way Gilda does, on the way things are going, we might not always like what we see, but at least we know that we’re not alone in our discontent.

(And if you really want to feel like you’ve got a community, look at the Goodreads reviews for this book here.)

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is available in print and eBook

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.