A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne Brown

A regal young Black woman with long braids stands in front of a patterned wallwith swaths of green fabric swirling around her.

by Eliana, teen volunteer at HCLS Savage Branch

In true Eliana fashion, I started to blitz through this title as an audiobook. I had to ask my librarian friend, Sarah, “Is it just me or are these characters just the most emotionally stunted dolts I have ever not actually come across?” I love them so much, they make me want to tear my hair out.

Along with the engaging characters, Roseanne A. Brown does an excellent job incorporating African culture into this novel, described on the book jacket as, “The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction.” The setting has quiet elements of West African culture, the furnishings, the clothes, the streets, even the characters’ hair.

My favorite part was the hair routine Karina’s maid does with her. Shea butter and the other oils along with twisting are, in fact, accurate to curly hair. It’s part of why I haven’t been braiding my hair so often. My curls look much lovelier when out of their braids. My family is Puerto Rican, and although Puerto Rico takes a fair amount of influence from African cultures, there are also Taino and Spanish influences there as well.

Back to the book: Karina has all the qualities of a good queen, she just needs time to heal and properly grieve her mother (the previous queen). Outside of the eyes of the courtiers, Karina is surrounded by the love of her family and friends, but she’s closed herself off from them. With the way Karina’s trajectory is headed, Karina may completely alienate everyone around her before something happens to shatter her worldview and push her into regaining allies. There is a notable difference between the Karina who does whatever she can to avoid hosting the Solstacia Festival and the Karina who fights tooth and nail to fulfill her duties as a new queen.

Karina is something of a tempest. For much of the novel, she is insecure, grieving, and constantly worried about whether she’s a good enough ruler. She *worries* about her fitness to lead and actively tries to remove the person she deems to be an unfit ruler (herself) from succession. Heck! The whole reason she even gets into reviving her deceased mother is that she believes her kingdom would be better with her mother’s leadership!

Her opposite in the story is Malik, a child who has seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer. His own family and village were horrible to him. The world sees him and his people as awful. And yet he cares. He cares *so much.* He worries about both of his sisters. He pays attention to the servants and even worries for Karina, a person who he is actively trying to kill, when he overhears how the court lambasts her for needing a day to recover from an attempt on her life.

I’m still listening to the book, so I wonder if there is a reason Malik’s people are oppressed like they are. I know that in the real world, oppression often has no tangible reason. In most fantasy media I have interacted with, the oppression is typically caused by some ancient bad-blood event. I appreciate the author’s sensitive and visceral depiction of anxiety and panic attacks, which didn’t trigger one of my own. I like that she included coping strategies. Somewhere out there, a reader will see Malik thinking of his lemon tree and adopt a similar strategy.

One last note to my friend Sarah: I feel like am a parent now. I want to wrap Malik and Karina up in my arms, tell them that everything is okay. I wanna whack them upside the head and ask them, “What were you thinking?!” (affectionately) Are you happy, Sarah? You have ruined me. Everyone should read this book.

Meet the author Roseanne Brown at HCLS Savage Branch (or attend online) on Tuesday, January 25 at 6 pm. Register here. Thirty attendees will be randomly selected to receive a free copy of A Song of Wraiths and Ruins. 

Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa

The book cover shows a young man on the left, holding a soccer ball behind a net and looking at his cell phone, and a young man on the right in a maroon and white hoodie with his hands in his pockets. Between them is an isolated image of two hands clasping. There is a pink and peach-colored bright but cloudy sky in the background, and the title lettering is in teal green.

By Sahana C.

TW: Parental abuse & abandonment, homophobia & homophobic slurs, bullying 

In Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, Julián Luna is determined to make the most of his senior year of high school. He has plans on how he’ll make that happen: spending as much time as possible with his best friends, playing soccer, graduating, getting into UCLA, and, oh – making sure no one finds out that he’s gay. Especially not his father. But despite this secret he’s keeping, he manages to make the most of things, spending time with his tight-knit friend group. Until, of course, one day, just scrolling through Twitter, he sees pictures of a boy. Immediately, there’s a connection, and when they start texting and speaking more, Julián finds himself falling for the boy, Mat. The issue, then? Well, other than the fact that Julián isn’t out, he’s also in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Mat lives in Los Angeles. Despite the distance, the two boys start learning about each other, falling for each other, and hoping for a future together. But time, distance, and unplanned coming-outs get in the way.  

Garza Villa is honest about hardship from the start of the book, even writing in the dedication ““To all the queer brown boys still waiting for their chance to bloom. Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían que éramos semillas.” They want to bury us, but they don’t know that we are seeds. That thread flows through the novel, including candid conversations about machismo in Latinx culture, religion’s intersection with homophobia, and conversations about bullying. And yet, despite the list of trigger warnings at the top of this review, the novel is intentionally not centering trauma in Julián’s life. Every moment of pain is followed by immediate love, support, and care. Garza Villa takes pains to ensure that joy is the central theme around which the rest of the story is built; of course Julián faces hardship, but he is never truly alone in how he responds to those traumatic moments. The idea presented in the dedication, “we are seeds”, is exactly how Julián responds to all the hardships in his life. He was buried deep, and with careful nurture, love, and support from his family and friends, he manages to bloom into something beautiful and loving, breaking the cycle of abuse.  

This book was wonderfully illustrative. I lost myself in Julián’s friend group, found myself falling in love with Mat along with Julián, and waiting with bated breath for college acceptance letters. But most significantly, I was swept up in a celebration of culture, cuisine, friendship, and queer joy. There is real heart here; Garza Villa paints an honest picture of the ways falling in love and doing long distance just as easily as he manages to bring to life all of the different characters that make up Julián’s friend group, who each are so vivacious and full of life without becoming caricatures.  

This book is perfect for any teens looking to find themselves, or adults who know that the blooming never stops. That if we are seeds, we will continue to grow, season after season.

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.

A Conversation & Cooking Demo with Author Laila El-Haddad

The cover of The Gaza Kitchen is a full cover photograph of a wide variety of food, including a whole fish, rice, and hummus.

by Kristen B.

Author and Journalist Laila El-Haddad discusses the history of spices and cuisine from the Middle East and demonstrates some of her recipes in this special virtual event on January 20.

Her book is extraordinary, clearly a labor of love. She talks about living and political conditions in Gaza, while also providing recipes for standard and special dishes of the region. She explains the regional pantry of ingredients and various techniques. I learned that the flavors that separate Gazan cuisine from other Palestinian cooking are hot chilies and dill. I can’t wait to try a couple of recipes (although my family has a notoriously low tolerance for heat), especially for various kebabs.

My favorite parts, though, are the abundance of photography and the personal interviews. This book is simply stuffed full of pictures: food and preparation steps, sure, but also portraits and places. It’s like taking a tour! And El-Haddad included these wonderful side-bar individual interviews, mostly with women and some local farmers. They give such a revealing glimpse into the lives of ordinary Gazan people. My favorite was with one woman, Um Sultan, who was less than happy that her routine, easy kufta recipe was to be included. Who wants to be to be singled out for their good, plain cooking as opposed to something more complicated and impressive? I learned a lot, but mostly was reminded of the power of food to cross barriers and bring people together to enjoy a good meal.

The Fertile Crescent region—the swath of land comprising a vast portion of today’s Middle East—has long been regarded as pivotal to the rise of civilization. Alongside the story of human development, innovation, and progress, there is a culinary tradition of equal richness and importance. The book includes a quote from Anthony Bourdain on the cover:

“An important book on an egregiously underappreciated, under-reported area of gastronomy. This is old school in the best possible meaning of the word.”

Laila El-Haddad is an award-winning Palestinian-American author and journalist.  She frequently speaks on the situation in Gaza, the intersection of food and politics, and contemporary Islam.  She has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the International Herald Tribune and has appeared on many international broadcasting networks, including NPR, CNN, Al Jazeera, and CCTV.

She is the author of Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything In Between and, co-author of the critically acclaimed The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, which was the recipient of the ‘Best Arab Cuisine Book’ award from Gourmand magazine, and a finalist at the 2013 MEMO Palestine Book Awards.  She is also the co-editor of the anthology Gaza Unsilenced and contributor to The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great.  Her forthcoming book, Halal Tayyib: A Muslim American Culinary Journey, explores the history of Islam in America as told through food.  An avid gardener and outdoor enthusiast, she makes her home in Howard County, MD with her husband and their four children.

Thursday, January 20 at 7 pm, online. Please register here.

Sponsored by Muslim Family Center – Howard County, MD and RIVUS Consulting, Howard County, MD

New Year’s Resolutions, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Great Gatsby 

A close up shot of Yoda with his eye closed and one hand out in front of him, all in greens and blues.

By Eric L.

Well, it’s the new year!

The last two years have been a bit of a…(Fill in the blank with whatever you’d like here). Personally, I’ve spent the last two weeks at home since my spouse and kids have all had very mild cases of COVID, thankfully! That said, I like a new beginning, and I’ve always liked the idea of a new year as a new start, even if the calendar year is all a human construct. Over the years around this time, I’ve read the articles about new year’s resolutions. Normally the crux of these pieces is how and why they fail, recipes for how to set “achievable” goals, and the like. Frankly, I find all these articles pessimistic. I won’t allow anyone to convince me it’s not a constructive endeavor to try to improve something about one’s life. Moreover, I’m certainly going to dismiss the platitudes espoused in certain George Lucas films about “do, or do not, there is no try.” (It is good film by the way, and you can borrow it from us. Although I’d argue that the best scenes involve the raw guttural noises and acting of Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca.).

At any rate, trying is really important in my opinion! For example, let’s say you want to exercise more and get in great “shape” (a common new year’s resolution). I think if you start walking around your neighborhood, and don’t end up on the cover of some fitness magazine, that’s an improvement over sitting on your couch streaming the latest TV series for hours, and you’re exercising. A secondary benefit is that you might meet some of your neighbors. It could happen.

Here’s my list of things I’d like to do in 2022:

  • Get back to the gym (it’s been a tough two years for that).
  • Make the time to visit some out-of-state friends.
  • Hike more than my usual trails.
  • Ride my bike more (I feel as though I slacked this year).
  • Drink less wine (we’ll see).
  • Be calmer.
  • Judge less.
  • Read more, and diversify my title selections more.

Some of these are goals that come up year after year. Perhaps I won’t achieve these things, but I’m not about to hear that there is “no try.”

The future and the New Year bring to mind the combination of optimism and pessimism expressed by Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, at the very end. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of conflicted feelings of pity for and admiration of Jay Gatsby’s optimism is poetic, in my opinion:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out further…and one fine morning-” (180).

And although the book ends disastrously, The Great Gatsby‘s commentary on the American dream has always resonated with me. I think it’s the complicated nature of the belief that anything is possible, and America in general. So maybe if you’ve not read The Great Gatsby, or it’s been a bit, try it out, it’s great.

There have been many, but the fairly recent film adaptations are also great. I’m a fan of both the Robert Redford 1974 and the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio adaptations. The latter we own, the former you can request via Interlibrary Loan.

If you’ve read it, or you’re just not into Gatsby, we have some other recommended titles for you this month. Also, please consider the HCLS Winter Reading Challenge, now through February 28 – pick your own books or use our challenges to inspire your Winter Reading!

Lastly, come see us in the branches and speak with us about the books we like in January.

Happy New Year!

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The cover art evokes tiles painted with stylized blue birds, separated by barbed wire.

By Gabriela P.

American Dirt’s story begins with Lydia’s family joyously gathering to celebrate her niece’s quinceanera. The day quickly becomes the beginning of a nightmare when the party is suddenly interrupted by a group of men with no regard for human life launching a violent attack. Lydia and her son, Luca, make it out only through luck. She realizes the attack was planned in vengeance against her journalist husband, who had recently exposed the identity of an infamous drug cartel’s leader. She realizes the leader was a frequent patron of her bookstore, one that she had considered a kindred spirit and even a friend because of his love of books. It is then that Lydia realizes the race is on to save both of their lives. Without time to bury her relatives or even cry, they leave their home in Acapulco. With this begins a story of cat and mouse as Lydia and her son set off on a dangerous mission to find refuge in the United States, following in the footsteps of many Central American immigrants before them.

When mention of American Dirt came up in conversation, several of my colleagues asked me, being Latina, of my opinion of it after it was received with controversial reviews. I was hesitant to pick it up only because of my familiarity with the tragic history of Central American immigrants to the United States, and I knew how emotionally taxing the subject could be. Looking back, I am glad I decided to read it, if only to be able to speak on its shortcomings. I have to say that I feel that, while detailed and evocative, the story came up short in its representations of immigrants and was especially off the mark when it came to cartels. The cartel leader is romanticized, being painted as a man of poetry and philosophy, with a deeply rich life. In reality, cartels are dysfunctional and dehumanizing organizations full of fear. They certainly have no mysterious allure to them.

In regards to our protagonist, Lydia, her background as a highly educated woman of the middle class does not align with the decisions that she made in the story. The danger that she put her and her son in was unnecessary and a poor decision. She leads them along one of the dangerous paths to the United States border, one usually only followed by the most desperate and poor immigrants as a final resort. Unlike so many of the people who would have taken that path, Lydia had options. She was comfortably middle class, with a college education, connections, and resources available to her. As such, I have to say that her story is not very realistic. Instead, I would have liked to read more about her companions on the journey, who truly represent the people who would have had to adopt such dangerous measures. These people holding on to hope, fleeing for the safety of themselves and for the survival of their loved ones, truly represent bravery. The end of Lydia’s story, though conclusive, left me frustrated. Her complacent satisfaction with her new job in the United States left a bitter taste in my mouth, speaking as a Central American immigrant myself. 

If you choose to dive into American Dirt, I would take its legitimacy and credibility with a grain of salt. Let’s not forget it’s fiction. If you are interested in a nonfiction book that explores the topic with more nuance and depth, I highly recommend Enrique’s Journey by journalist Sonia Nazario, her account of a young Honduran boy’s perilous quest to reunite with his mother in the United States. Nazario based the book on her Los Angeles Times series of articles, also called Enrique’s Journey, which won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2003.

American Dirt is also available in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby, and also as an eaudiobook from CloudLibrary. Enrique’s Journey is also available as an eBook from Libby, an eAudiobook in Spanish, also from Libby, and in a young reader’s edition for teens, which was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of four books on their Best Teen Nonfiction Book of the Year list for 2013.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.

Lawrence Lanahan and The Lines Between Us

Stylized black and white drawing of typical Baltimore rowhouses frame the title.

By Holly L.

Journalist Lawrence Lanahan’s 2019 book The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide opens with two epigraphs:

It’s in the way their curtains open and close.

“Respectable Street,” XTC

I don’t even have to do nothing to you.

“Big Brother,” Stevie Wonder

The first line comes from English post-punk band XTC’s 1981 song about what songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge considered “the hypocrisy of living in a so-called respectable neighborhood. It’s all talk behind twitching curtains.” The second lyric is from a track from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book. In the song, Wonder takes the white establishment (Big Brother) to task for only coming to the ghetto “to visit me ‘round election time.” He continues his indictment – “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you” because, from offenses ranging from criminal neglect of its black citizens to having “killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”

It is fitting that Lanahan chose these words and these voices to begin this story, as his narrative weaves together multiple perspectives but most closely follows the criss-crossing threads of two individuals, one black and one white.

Nicole Smith is a young black woman living with her family in a West Baltimore rowhome owned by her mother, Melinda. When we meet Nicole, she is twenty-five and is contemplating the crossing of a line—leaving her neighborhood (and family and community) behind in search of security and opportunity for herself and her six-year-old son, Joe. Though she is enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and is on a waitlist for affordable housing in the city, Nicole seems to be on an existential treadmill, running but getting nowhere fast. She’s heard of a place called Columbia, a planned community in Howard County, with a reputation for good schools, plenty of jobs, and safe streets. Could she make it there?

Mark Lange is a white man raised in the Baltimore suburbs who, after a spiritual reckoning in his late teens, embarks on a path of service informed by the teachings of Mississippi civil rights activist and Christian minister John M. Perkins, who argued that those who wanted to help communities in need must live among them. As Mark’s story begins to be told, he feels a gravitational pull from his comfortable suburban life in Bel Air toward Sandtown, a West Baltimore neighborhood where his best friend Alan Tibbels, a like-minded white Christian with a mission of racial reconciliation, relocated with his family. If he moves, would Mark prove to be just another “white savior” looking to appease his own guilt? Or would be able to form meaningful relationships and help foster change in an impoverished community?

In this meticulously researched book, Lanahan alternates the fascinating tales of Nicole and Joe with the complicated history of Baltimore’s segregation and the resulting devastating impact on its black communities. Having its genesis as a year-long multi-media series on inequality in the Baltimore area broadcast from September 28, 2012 to October 4, 2013 on WYPR, Maryland Public Radio, the depth and breadth of Lanahan’s reporting is detailed to an almost dizzying degree. But just when a reader’s brain might start to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of historical detail (as mine sometimes did), my attention would come swiftly back into focus as the humanity of Nicole and Mark’s stories propelled me through the book. The Lines Between Us should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the institutional forces that shape inequality in our region and for those whose understanding of their neighbor might require them to cross a line. And isn’t that most of us?

Join us: Author Works with Lawrence Lanahan
Wednesday, January 12 from 7 – 8:30 pm
In person, HCLS Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/3pFTq3y

To learn more about the historical policies of redlining, visit the interactive exhibit currently at Central Branch. Undesign the Redline explores the history of structural racism and inequality, how these designs compounded each other from 1938 Redlining maps until today, and the national and local impacts. Join a guided tour on Wednesdays at 11 am and Saturdays at 2 pm.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

The bright blue cover shows the sliced up illustration of white woman with short dark bobbed hair with eyes and mouth wide in suprise. The portrait is only halfway on the right side of the book and the sliced strips are disjointed.

by Kristen B.

Oona Out of Order is a slightly different sort of time travel novel … Oona’s mind jumps randomly from year to year into her chronologically aging body, always on her birthday, which happens to be January 1.

Imagine never being quite sure what year you’re in, although you’re always you. What would your touchstones be? For Oona, it’s her mom and, for later years, her personal assistant.

As the novel begins, Oona enjoys a rocking New Years Eve party with her boyfriend, the band they are in, and most of her friends, and she’s about to turn 19. De rigueur teen drama plays out all around, but there are some real decisions that Oona has to make soon, decisions that set the stage for the rest of the book. She can either skip out on college and go on a European tour with the beloved boyfriend and the band (opening for other, larger acts) or she can do a year abroad in London with her bestie from childhood.

Only when the clock strikes midnight, Oona finds herself completely disoriented at age 51. That turns out to be a quiet year, taking stock and figuring out what’s what. In subsequent years, Oona jumps around from party-hard years in the New York club scene, to a brief foray into married life, to traveling the world.

Montimore was smart about creating the structure of her impressive debut. She never explains or solves the time-traveling issue; it’s just a given. She also sets up Oona as being independently wealthy after some good bets and smart stock trading given her knowledge of future years. Managing her portfolio (literally a set of folders) is her only job, leaving her free to absorb each year as it comes. Being based largely in New York helps a lot, too, as she can always find another facet of life to become immersed in.

There’s also Oona’s mom, who helps her (mostly) to bridge the years and explain what’s going on. In fact, Madeleine may be my favorite character, who is trying her best to live her own life as well as take care of her daughter’s chaos. Not always an easy relationship, it rings true in many ways as it’s the only one that Oona manages to sustain for much of the book. Oona’s love for music provides the other constant in her life, to the point that you might be tempted to listen to some Velvet Underground and Blondie as you read.

Monitmore gives us a fun book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but nonetheless asks questions about what it means to live a good, meaningful life. It does also give some closure to the big questions facing Oona at the beginning of the book – which she gets to answer with a lot more maturity and experience than most 19-year-olds have at their disposal. Don’t you wish you could tell your teenage self a few things?

Oona Out of Order is available as a book, an eBook, and an eAudiobook.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and make soup in the winter.

Thank you for reading in 2021

A blue background with "snow" above a white block at the bottom, on which rests 2022. Happy New Year appears below the year.

Thanks for reading Chapter Chats through another year of pandemic and uncertainty. We now have more than 180 followers, who have viewed posts almost 40,000 times (maybe we’ll be influencers soon?). The library went through some big changes, from contactless pickup to having all six branches fully open again. We talked about all sorts of things on the blog, from democracy to Paddington Bear, from National Library Week to National Geographic. Hopefully, you found something to suit you.

These blog posts were some of the most popular during the past year; make sure you didn’t miss out:

The Other Black Girl reviewed the hit title and invited you to an author event.

Celebrating Women’s History Month with #ELKReads promoted titles for all ages.

Learn about taking free music lessons with ArtistWorks

Pandemic Reads took a look at Station Eleven and The Plague.

Everyone Has a Flavor reviewed the graphic novel series, Space Boy.

All Things LEGO! talked to folks who love to build with blocks.

The Nature Fix reminded us of the importance of being outdoors.

The Daughters of Erietown reviewed Connie Schultz’s novel of small town, blue collar America.

But maybe you missed some of these other excellent reviews:

Mistborn takes a look at best-selling author Brandon Sanderson’s first series.

Definitely Hispanic offers a light-hearted reflection on owning an identity.

Cooking Up Some Comics introduces some manga titles that feature food.

Happy New Year! We hope to see you often in 2022 – on the blog and in person!

Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian

The cover shows a young woman in profile, in a long sweeping green dress with long hair flowing behind her against the backdrop of a full moon. She has a sword raised and resting over her shoulder.

By Sahana C.

Half Sick of Shadows caught me with its premise. Billed as a feminist version of Arthurian legend, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. King Arthur, the Round Table, and all of the many stories of knights and chivalry are…really not known for their peak feminist content. In fact, the two major women within Arthurian legend, Guinevere and Morgana, both end up being villains and betraying Arthur when he needs them most. But Sebastian lets the reader into a world where, it’s true, there are places that Guinevere and Morgana, and even Lancelot, could betray steadfast Arthur, but she makes sure the origins of the myth are clear. To do that, she introduces Elaine, a minor character in Arthurian lore who plays the leading role in one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”  

Tennyson’s Lady and Sebastian’s Elaine couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament, abilities, and importance, but elements of the poem are woven tightly into the narrative; the Lady falls for Lancelot at first sight, she has some sort of prophetic power, and she believes, deeply, that she is cursed. See, the Lady of Shalott can only see the world through the mirror above her as she weaves. Tennyson opens the poem with great detail about the beauty of the world outside only to tell us that the Lady never sees it. She sits with her back to the window, but cannot escape the draw of the world outside, and as it finds its way into her weaving, she glances at the mirror to ensure accuracy. In fact, in one of the most poignant stanzas of the poem,  

“But in her web she still delights 

To weave the mirror’s magic sights, 

For often thro’ the silent nights 

A funeral, with plumes and lights 

       And music, came from Camelot: 

Or when the moon was overhead 

Came two young lovers lately wed; 

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said 

       The Lady of Shalott.” (Tennyson)  

Sebastian’s version of the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, is an oracle haunted by a tower in Camelot, just the same, but this Elaine takes control of her future. She is taught to understand her seeing by the Lady of the Lake, she lives among the Fae, and most importantly, she is the last addition to a group of children who grow up in Avalon, balancing between the Fae and the Human worlds. That group of children? Lancelot, Guinevere, Morgana, and Arthur himself. By setting up these friendships so firmly, Sebastian makes the thought of future betrayal gut-wrenching. Because the reader gets to follow her growth, it makes Elaine’s role as oracle and Arthur’s top advisor even more important. And this is the beauty of Sebastian’s story-crafting: Elaine, the fair damsel with no real grit, becomes Arthur’s top advisor and the most important woman in this world. Guinevere is bold and brash and deeply in love with Arthur, but could never be disloyal. And Morgana is the fiercest protector Arthur has on his side, her magic at his service, no matter the personal cost.  

Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian is well worth a read for those who appreciate historical fantasy, Arthurian myth, and coming-of-age stories, all in one.  It is available in print and eBook format. 

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.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A cover of stripes, from top to bottom: yellow with the eyes and nose of a young girl's face; Light blue with a dive bombing plane reads A Tale; deeper blue with waves reads For The; mint green with a red book read Time Being; yellow with a brown field and pine trees

by Ben H.

“Time itself is being and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” 

Dōgen

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a lovely book. Part meditation on time and presence, part drama, and part mystery, Ozeki balances her story between two narrators connected by a diary written in the shell of a repurposed copy of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. 

Nao is the teenage author of the diary. She now lives near Tokyo with her mom and dad. Nao faces bullying, parental drama, homesickness for California, and severe depression. Ruth, a novelist, now lives with her husband on a remote island in British Columbia. She faces writer’s block and homesickness for Manhattan.

Nao’s diary washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and Ruth becomes fascinated with it. Nao’s diary is witty, emotional, and bracingly frank. Ozeki phenomenally recreates the way a diary juxtaposes the quixotic and the realistic, the banal and the devastating, the humorous and the tragic. Nao is viciously bullied at school. The bullying is brutal, both physically and emotionally. Nao reports it to her diary in a light tone, but it’s heavy stuff. Suicide is also a common topic in the book, as multiple characters plan to kill themselves. Nao finds refuge from the bullies when she is left with her 104-year-old grandma Jiko, a feminist Buddhist nun, in a crumbling monastery in the mountains for the summer (ghostly hijinks ensue).

Ruth (the character not the author) fills her chapters with lovely descriptions of the natural world. In her displacement, Ruth doesn’t face anything as dramatic as Nao does, but Ruth is out of her element. She’s still searching for her identity on her new rural island. One of my favorite parts is when Ruth takes another diary from the Hello Kitty lunchbox (Nao’s great uncle Haruki #1’s secret diary written in French to hide it from his commander in the army) to Benoit to be translated. Benoit manages the dump on the island and has carved out a perfect little niche for himself, complete with a library full of books rescued from the garbage. Managing a dump on a remote island might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds nice to me.

In some structural ways, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me of Don Quixote (Ozeki even makes a Don Quixote reference). There are embedded narratives for everyone. There are hidden diaries and lost books and real texts and fake texts. Nao even reports in her diary on the texts she sends to Jiko while writing her entry. The transference of meaning between all of the texts, the way they bring new elements to the story or change the context, creates a rich background for the main thrust of the narrative. I totally escape reality when I get lost in a story buried in another story. Instead of getting immersed in ONE book, I’m immersed in a letter reported in a diary reported in another diary reported to me through a character in a book. I’m gone.

Ozeki, a Buddhist priest, fills the book with quotations from Buddhist masters. Even Ozeki’s structure, the interlinking stories, illustrates Dōgen’s ideas of the connectedness of the universe. Nao explores time in her diaristic musings, as does Ruth. In Ruth’s case, she finds herself searching for lost time in a way I think we can all relate to. The internet, the great thief of time, is one of the main culprits behind Ruth’s writer’s block. Ozeki wields form, font, and white space to visually represent how It feels to waste time online, as only a person who remembers a time before the internet can.   

Sometimes you read a book and you and the book just click. A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books for me. If none of the things in my review have piqued your interest, A Tale for the Time Being also features at least one ghost, a magical crow, an episode in the multiverse, and a cute cat.

A Tale for the Time Being is available from HCLS in print format, as an audiobook on CD, and as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).