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2023 Brackets: Pre-End of Semester Overwhelm

So...yeah, I apparently finished this bracket's 16 books RIGHT before I became completely incapable of finding a spare minute for...anything. Between illness, holidays, and several barages of grading I just...never wrote up this post. I've completed a whole other bracket in the meantime! Maybe that post will be up by the end of the year? But also, I have COVID right now so probably not?

Anyway, this bracket was pure chaos.

My brain is tired.

But The Davenports is a worthy victor to emerge from all of this chaos! And it feel appropriate because this novel is almost absurdly ambitious, and I could almost not believe that it was going to pull off all of the threads that it wove together. The romances were complicated enough, but each one dovetailed beautifully with the emotional journeys and attempts at self-actualization that drove each of the four narrators. And the complex issues each of those young women faced are also layered and historically relevant in all different directions. The novel does so much and brings it all together so well, and I am in awe.

The pieces of Artificial Intelligence fall similarly, actually. The threads are all over the place and congeal by the end…just not quite with the full resonances of The Davenports. But brava all the same, Martha Wells.

Winner: The Davenports by Krystal Marquis

5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)

I almost didn't give the book full marks but my main complaint that all the male love interests  were also in some way kind of awful (I have no patience for the dude caught between two sisters dithering around, the activist who flirts by negging, the heir apparent who likes the maid better than his semi-arranged marriage partner but also keeps her on the line much too long, and actually Harrison is great just a little into throwing his money around for someone scared of a girl being into him for his money; but the boys are all understandably figuring their own shit out too so actually this is BETTER because it's not just clean and easy fantasy romance but everyone gets to be complicated like I said, objection WITHDRAWN) actually had a great resolution at the end by

having our core trio of siblings end up temporarily alone.

This book set up so many difficult-to-resolve plots layered on and through one another and I started to think it couldn't possibly pull them ALL off satisfactorily, especially when I was 50-20 pages from the ending and just wandering how HOW this was going to...

And it does my favorite thing in the genre which is having the romantic resolution dovetail with the character growth resolution in a very satisfying way...again, for multiple characters in a complicated interdependent web.

This book is doing so much, and it seems at times like it can't possibly pull them all off. 

It can.

Runner Up: Artificial Conditions by Martha Wells

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

Oh sweet Murderbot, you do make the strangest friends!

A.R.T. (Asshole Research Transport) may not be good at processing things on its own or presenting things in the gentle way that Murderbot does not yet realize its humans tend to do...but A.R.T. is fantastic for challenging the assumptions about Murderbot's history and existence that Murderbot itself did not even think to question.

Watching A.R.T. challenge and support Murderbot in equal measure gave me so much love for both of them. It is also nice to see Murderbot shoved into a situation where it is NOT the most rational and intelligent being on board. Of  course, that hasn't always been the case in its life, but Murderbot has usually felt itself to be so.

The lore of the world opening up through Murderbot unpacking its assumptions and tidy stories is such a worthwhile slow rollout, and I am here for this journey wherever it goes.

Hardest Brackets!

I’m not sure this one was truly a contest, but I liked The Hidden Oracle so much more than the first time I read it that I had to sit and have a think about it. And the two audiobooks are both adding a lot of excellent value for...well not money since I get them from the library. But seriously: I was not reading Apollo as sensitively as Robbie Daymond manages to.

But this also gets the Hardest Bracket treatment because these books really feel like the same story through very different lenses.

A person who previously had a great deal of terrifying power but almost no true freedom to use it, tricked or coerced into supporting a horrific disaster and causing multiple deaths, literally claws their way out of that control (or is clawed out, in the case of Apollo) at the cost of becoming more human (which is horrifying) and having to rely on people and beings it can’t and shouldn’t fully trust, in order to reconnect with their true nature and roots, which they do grudgingly as the only means of moving forward. Oh, and all the time they are wrong about everything, focusing on all the wrong things, and surrounded by absolutely lovely people they have to protect.

But um…Murderbot’s precious self-effacement and love of Sanctuary Moon television content is so much more endearing that Apollo’s reflexive self-centeredness and self-elevation. I get it, I see what Uncle Rick is up to. But Murderbot is just SO DEAR and dealing with SO MUCH and also I love A.R.T. beyond all reason. The “Shakespearean” arrow of Dodona cannot compete.

The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan

4.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I remember losing steam with the Riordanverse the first time I read this book. I stumbled hard over the non-sympathetic narrator, and I was not braced for Riordan's sympathetic reading of the more deplorable godly behavior toward their mortal love interests. I get it, these are kids' books and Poseidon is the nicest god in the don't want a chapter with the true story of Medusa in the middle of that.

What I think I missed is that Apollo IS a fascinating character to do a complicated and messy redemption arc with. In many ways, his minor encouragement of Octavian during the near-miss battle between Roman and Greek demigods is the least of the sins he needs to atone for. In fact, Lester is a great answer to the "Why is Apollo the worst in the original series?" questions. The most competent god with more work and expertise than anyone but Hermes comes off as a lame poet who can't even tell he's bad at it...because he needs another stint as a human to restore the soul of his music and strategy and, well, his aim. Metaphorically and literally. Hermes, unlike Apollo, is portrayed in the first five Percy Jackson books as never forgetting the hard work of his skillsets. Apollo has been coasting on talent for, apparently, centuries.

It's a complicated story that leaves room for a lot of fun, correction of other misunderstandings and sour notes in the story, and the chance for some fun adventures and a messy road to redemption. This time, I'm all in.

I just love Helen Yoon, truly I do! When asked to justify my nomination of her Sheepish to a mock Caldecott list, I gave an impassioned impromptu defense of the digital art that catapulted it all the way to the finals!

And I could tell my housemate worried that handing me The Book for People Who Do Too Much had come off a touch passive aggressive, that very wearying Thursday morning. But it felt to me like a life preserver thrown into the water after I jumped too hastily off the boat and decided my only option was to tread water laboriously for the rest of my life.

I promise my metaphors are less unwieldy (more wieldy?) in my professional writing…

The advice in the book is solid, the pictures of animals in various strange positions and situations felt sometimes magically fitting with the simple text, and also just the joy of a picturebook for adults! I can’t resist.

Off-Limits by Helen Yoon

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

One of my favorite things in picturebooks, Yoon's work in particular, is the use of the art to tell significant parts of the story and even to work with the text in an ironic way. The language is simple, spare, and constantly comedically undercut by the ever-expanding, creatively-rendered transformation of the Office space. A deeply charming read and if it takes you back to the fever dream of quarantine...well, brace yourself as you need to, but it's a way of remembering the loveliest parts of that time, I promise.

The Book For People Who Do Too Much by Bradley Trevor Grieve

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

Maybe not everyone needs this book, but the day that my housemate dropped it in my lap, I definitely did.

The advice isn't earth-shattering, but the plain language and simple presentation -- always encouraging and as non-blaming as possible -- helped it break through my walls of "yes yes work life balance is important yada yada." Which are very effective walls, even if the "yada yada" may not sound like it.

The pairing of animal pictures and phrases is always fun and occasionally INSPIRED and perfect.

Speaking of that word, I recommend buying it for the perfectionists in your life...but do choose your moment to drop it in their lap carefully.

I mean, Hope in the Valley is perfect, and it came with the bonus of a book club discussion celebrating its themes, its interconnected pieces, and its empathetic portrayal of an imperfect potential stepmother.

But also MICKEY!!!!!!!!!!!  scream of despair

Okay, right, so Hope in the Valley is perfect. And contains a theatre teacher that I, as a former theatre teacher, for once did not want to shake until the stupid fell out! And Sound of Music (with the exception that YES Elsa DOES sing in two very important-to-the-story scenes) and perfect casting and oh MY it all comes around so perfectly. But my favorite thing: so many things were set-up that could have led to cheesy resolutions, and at every point, this book chose the messier but truer way to resolve or “resolve” the storyline. Brava.

Hope in the Valley by Mitali Perkins

5.0 (see original review on StoryGraph)

There are very few flawless books out there, and most of them are middle grade. This is one such.

I mean there is ONE mistake. Elsa is a singing role in The Sound of Music, at least the stage version, but that is me being a pedantic sourpuss. Forget I brought it up.

But that is just proof how hard it is to please me with the portrayal of the theatrical process and of a youth theatre teacher. Especially with a play I've directed myself! But this book does it. Not only do I like and respect the choices of the theatre camp, but the delicate way that it advances the plot without taking over the larger arcs is stunning.

SO MUCH happens in the story. So many characters advance so far, so many woven threads are intertwined not just through the protagonist but in a complex and beautiful web. So many different pieces end up depending on one another and the result is just...beyond beautiful.

Also, we really haven't learned anything since the 80's, have we?

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

4.5 (see original review on StoryGraph)

So I went into this book deeply disappointed that we weren't going to keep A.R.T. in the series. What I came to love was that the story is approaching human/bot relationships from the opposite direction with Micky...and showing our dear Murderbot another potential future it is determined to reject. Another way of being in relationship to humanity and other constructs and bots. Another way of moving through the world that Murderbot is just as tempted by but just as determined to least for now. Heartbreaking, watching dear Murderbot take such halting steps toward and away from its journey of self-actualization and acceptance.

I was about to write that this one is comparing apples and oranges but…is there a strange way in which Preparing For War is the potential prequel to Exit Strategy?

They share the sense of the system being overwhelmingly powerful and willing to dispense violence against you, alone, only by the most unlikely miracle free from the programming they tried to force on you, trying desperately to just get you and yours out alive and wondering if that’s enough…if there’s any way you could meaningfully fix the world or if it’s just this…getting yourself and your loved ones out alive and/or going down in a blaze of glory when it counts.

I made myself sad. I promise the books are great.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

4.5 (see original on StoryGraph)

I admit that I was afraid the Murderbot Diaries were going to wander the future dystopia with new human and bot characters to interact with our hero every installment. Seeing Murderbot return to the original humans who first came to care about it felt almost as rewarding as the summary of other employment offers from those Murderbot has saved, thinking never to see them again, and being forced to realize that it has made actual friends and allies.

The grand gestures Murderbot has in this book are so satisfying -- both the ones for its favorite human and the pure defiance toward the end. The fact that it is prevented from being stupid about these offers by the skin of its teeth (or rather, the intervention of friend it doesn't realize it has) is even more heartwarming.

The story could have ended here and felt all tied up...but I'm so glad it didn't.

Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next by Brad Onishi

4.25 (see original review on StoryGraph)

This book doesn't have the hook of Jesus & John Wayne or the spiritual cloak of The 7 Deadly Sins of Christian Nationalism, so I suspect it might be less of a seller. However, what it does have is a clear-eyed sense of a movement at war with progress, equity, and even justice.

The fact that this movement has not just hijacked the religion I grew up in but in fact came out of that religion has been the project of years for me to reckon with. There is an unblinking quality to this book that stops just short of a true call to arms to fight against rising fascism (perhaps Onishi figures that that is implied?).

It's just soft enough that I can imagine hearing its message even when I had just started my journey to deconstruct Christianity. At my current place unraveling the programming, I appreciate it's clear-eyed and unambiguous view.

Oh sweet babies caught between who they think they were built to be and who they are, so afraid to ask for help. Sweet children learning to trust, to be humble enough to be vulnerable, to learn something new. To be bad at something as complicated and fraught as baking or selfhood. My darling ones…it’s all right. You can let it go, I promise.

Leila: The Perfect Witch by Flavia Z. Drago

4.5 (see original review on StoryGraph)

I love picturebooks that reward studying the details on each page. References to fairy tale witches are the most common easter eggs (Halloween eggs?) to be found, but each one is a treat. The story itself is sweet and my perfectionist child self could have used it. The community approach is also lovely.



So in the way of the best middle grade fiction, Hope in the Valley is a perfectly constructed masterpiece. All the threads coming together in a perfect tapestry.

Perhaps it should have won, but when The Davenports did the same thing, it surprised me. I expected Hope in the Valley to pull it out, and I couldn’t believe The Davenports would manage to pull all those pieces together.

They both do SO much complicated work. Both works are so impressive. This whole rating system I’ve devised is really weird and subjective and nonsensical and yes it’s December and no I’m not JUST realizing that, shut up.

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