2023 Brackets: What I'm Reading When I'm Not Grading...
This year, I've decided to document my reading by organizing each set of 16 books into a tournament bracket. It's...fun?
I’ve been lowkey dreading this bracket though.
More than any other round (Round Ten!), I kept glancing at the list and thinking…well damn, that’s going to be quite the choice! I had to shake myself a couple of times when I thought something like, “Wait, should I read a so-so book in between these two amazing books?” Which is a bizarre incentive to try books less catered to my usual tastes, I guess.
But also: what? My reading time is precious! Don’t be a goofball, Mulvaney.
How did I end up choosing the two works with characters who use of digital media as way of coping with their lives, both through disassociation from horrible life experiences and as a way of directing personal and moral growth?
With impending loss of memory and autonomy as a constant future worry in the back of our protagonist’s heads, with no real solution or way of working around it in sight?
And a reluctant community forming around a protagonist who was certain that they were doomed to be alone and misunderstood and using copious amounts of media to both process that fear and placate the impulse to try to solve their loneliness in a more meaningful way?
Dang, are these literally the same book?
Well, not in tone. And obviously the beautiful sapphic love story cut with ruthless mockery of rom-com tropes was going to charm me more than a robot trying to shrug off the emotions and guilt he clawed through his own programming to acquire. Even without the audiobook narrator’s assorted Irish and English accents. But still…apparently I have a type when it comes to books.
Winner: The Falling Love Montage by Ciara Smyth
5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)
Ciara Smyth is a master class in the YA romance genre. The romantic progress and the character's (often harrowing) personal journeys dovetail masterfully. She reels you in with charming rom-com premises...that she then treats the storylines with a level of reality that makes them feel more important than the trope her characters (in this case intentionally) imitate.
She weaves real and intense struggles with parents and identity into these charming set-ups in a way that elevates them but also explains the need for them as fantasy. Even the most minor characters are rendered in complex, thoughtful, and subtle ways. The empathy pours off the page not just for her protagonist but for even the smallest characters. The fact that this is all done with boldly sapphic characters winding their way through the world as unapologetic protagonists is extra healing because nothing about Smyth's book feel like a gimmick. They may be sold with charming tropes, but what you're buying is the careful, imperfect negotiation of self and community and partnership by young people who have very much not figured it out yet.
Runner Up: All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells
4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)
Oh Murderbot. I will always be a sucker for narrators who have no idea what their actions and internal motivations look like to the other characters around them. Probably some stuff in my childhood and adolescence about that. But the skill it takes to show that without resorting to cheesy tricks! All of which Wells avoids like a champ! Nothing is easy or easily won in this universe, and there's something so incredibly anti-capitalist about a clone/robot hybrid pouncing on a weakness in its programming to wrench a measure of free will for itself in order to...lie around and watch TV...yes. There are so many times, especially toward the ending, when this book could have fallen victim to easy outs for our dear sweet Murderbot's hard-won journey to true autonomy. It might have been a happier ending, but what we want is more story (as Mosca Mye put it in Fly By Night) and what Murderbot wants is NOT to just find a different purpose in the capitalist machine, even if it's a kinder one. I hope the series is going to smash the whole system, but I don't necessarily need it to. Perhaps blazing a trail for individual rebellion alongside a found family adventure is even more needed. Plenty of books give us the fantasy of wholesale revolution. Perhaps what we need is in fact this glimpse of the fight for actual freedom.
There's a lot this time!
What a pair of stories about paying the cost of choices you couldn’t have fully understood when you made them!
Asking us: Does that absolve you? Would you have made the same decision knowingly?
What a pair of stories about situations that force you to grow up too fast.
Stories that put you in positions where the best decisions you can make feel impossible and not like they are truly yours.
What a pair of stories for putting one foot in front of the other anyway. Even know the cost of opening doors.
What a pair of stories of costs finally paid, justly or otherwise.
What a pair of stories for being pushed to the brink while trying to close a door that never should have been opened.
The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus #4) by Rick Riordan
5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)
Yeah...the Tartarus arc breaks me in half every time. This round, I couldn't stop thinking about Percy Jackson's famous flaw -- refusal to give up on or even willingly put at risk his friends -- and how part of the bargain of Tartarus seems to be (unofficially) facing your great flaw. Annabeth must let go of her need to strategize and control in order to trust Bob (BOB!!) and Damasen (DAMASEN!) and push forward thinking she failed to convince someone to help...and Percy must let two deeply impressive friends save him at the cost of their lives (temporarily?). (spoiler text blacked out, scrollover to read) But the real thing that breaks me about the Tartarus story is Bob and Damasen...two monsters trapped in old stories of who they were and who they have always been, trying to find a way to choose something else...no matter the cost. It's the perfect moment of tragedy -- a moment that is at once the victory of hope (overcoming the cruel fate meant for you) and the inevitability of despair (not surviving past it). I think I didn't appreciate in the first readthrough how important it is that the above ground stories are (however harrowing) inspiring stories of characters growing in leaps and bounds. Leo, Hazel, Frank, and (in a deeply flawed portrayal of coming out of the closet that Riordan has admitted to regretting) Nico are all growing by leaps and bounds. They are shedding who they thought they had to be and catapulting into new stories, new lives, new reasons to hope. Fathoms beneath their feet, Annabeth and Percy are being pushed to their limits, shedding everything that keeps them from surviving. Not just in terms of their weaknesses or "weaknesses" but Percy's restraint and, arguably, Annabeth's moral code (though perhaps it's more fair to say that she grows in the Athena skill of recognizing the need for sacrifices in order to achieve the more important goals...just like with Luke Castellan...forcing her to relive her worst moment metaphorically). We see, then, the two halves of the hero's path playing out: trials that are targeted to push you to grow and become who you were meant to be...and the trials that punish you for still fighting even as they take away your childhood by force.
We see both the rewards and the costs of standing up, again and again, no matter what the world throws at you. Which makes it feel like no accident that Leo Valdez makes his infamous vow never to abandon Calypso, who like Bob and Damasen surrenders to her prison in order to get him back to save the world in time, in the same book where Percy and Annabeth cannot do the same. On a lighter note, there's something so charming about Percy's final narrated chapter where he senses pieces of the stories that the rest of the characters have been living -- he knows "something's up" but he doesn't have the context for what. It highlights just how much has happened in this book (and not JUST to buoy us up as we read the heartwrenching tales of Tartarus and the Giant and Titan whom Annabeth and Percy changed forever while they were there). In a way, this book is not really Percy and Annabeth's story -- and the only other time THAT'S happened was Lost Hero. The balance of hope and despair has never felt so finely calibrated -- nor have I ever really thought that Riordan would force his audience to reckon with truly soul-sickening events. Not just thrills and danger but inescapable choices and hard, impossible things. We really are in YA, not MG now.
Lost in the Moment and Found (The Wayward Children Series #8) by Seanan McGuire
4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)
Rating the pace of this book felt like a cruel irony, for reasons it would be spoilers to explain. This book captures the cruel magic of the Wayward Children series -- a world appearing with echoes of the same trauma that the child is fleeing baked in. Taking its chosen price invisibly and visibly at once, somehow in perfect balance. I appreciated the warnings about the child abuse in the story at the start, including the assurance that the protagonist would flee toward the beginning of abuse cycle. Unfortunately, however, Antsy fled into a different abuse cycle that, while less common and thus triggering, is just as permanently scarring. The fact that the two caretakers are better at putting a genial face on their casual cruelty and exploitation...that they seem to on some level actually believe their bullshit justifications... A horror story with a fairy tale feel, like the best of the Wayward Children series.
Oh this one was HARD. Both even had deeply charming art, though obviously Roll Call has quite a bit more and that art bears a lot more emotional weight and storytelling. That’s not all that put Roll Call ahead, however.
It makes sense as the start of a series, of course, but Roll Call uses the premise of DnD to open up just so many lovely possibilities! It felt like a world just starting to unfold, but all of the pieces of the story still fell as tidily into place as they did for the self-contained and lovely International House of Dereliction.
The plot of TIHoD felt like a charming puzzle slotting into place with as much empathy and kindness as possible. Roll Call did the same magic trick of bringing everything together while balancing a sense of “anything could happen…it’s all possible from here” that gave it an excitement and energy that most starts of a long series would kill for.
Roll Call (Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon Club #1) by Xanthe Bouma, illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag
4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)
I can already tell that I won't be able to get enough of this series! I'm in two DnD groups currently, but that's a very recent development in my life, so I can vouch for this series being very accessible even to those not well-versed in DnD. I'm sure there are jokes you'll miss and more jokes that I am missing, but if you want to know what DnD is like at its best and worst, this is a good place to start. I loved our two main characters so quickly, and the full cast of characters is well worth investing in. So many complicated things are being set up in this first volume, and I can't wait to see them play out. The subtlest hints could reveal huge and important arcs later. That said, the plot is tidy enough that it could almost be a stand-alone. The issues within this volume fall into place perfectly. It's also an excellent example of navigating complicated friend dynamics and doing the emotional work of realizing that you were wrong.
The International House of Dereliction by Jacqueline Davies
4.5 (see original review on Story Graph)
What a charming book! A young home renovator takes on the project of a condemned home that is full of magic and ghosts with unfinished business, which makes for a mix of projects and rapid-fire resolutions that can feel almost dizzying at times. The seemingly disparate stories and lives of the ghosts, the living family, and the assorted faculty and staff dovetail cleanly -- there's not a word wasted in the lovely story.
Okay, so I didn’t go back and forth between these two for long, but I did want to boost this frequently banned book.
My Shadow is Purple is so lovely. It bursts with sweetness and the message not just to be yourself but to be open-hearted toward all those around you. The art is lovely, and the battle between our main character's internal sense of their own truth and external pressure to be someone else plays out in delicate, compassionate rhymes that encourage all children to hold fast to the truths they know about themselves.
The internalized pressures playing out for Ruby and Saoirse alongside the external pressures make it a more complex book (as befits a YA romance), but both are beautiful queer stories of loving yourself…and trusting your people to have your back.
My Shadow is Purple by Scott Stuart
5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)
It really shows the true colors of the people banning this book that they find a child's strong internal sense of themselves threatening rather than beautiful. The art is lovely, the rhymes are charming, and the delicate negotiation of our main character's internal sense of themselves against external pressures to conform is something all kids can relate to, even if they don't have the specific gender dynamics at play.
Two of my favorite authors going head to head! Both firing on all cylinders too. Neither of these books is messing around a single bit!
I could pretend that the scale of Blood of Olympus is what pushed it over the top here, but it was probably the way I fell SO HARD for Reyna’s arc in this second readthrough.
The Coach Hedge/Nico/Reyna team-up felt a little random at the end of House of Hades, I’m going to admit, but this arc was everything I didn’t know I wanted at the end of this series. And the fact that Reyna won Athena’s blessing as a daughter of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war who replaced her? That both goddesses teamed up to help her defeat Orion? With the Hunters and Amazons doing the same? I’m tearing up just REMEMBERING it right now!
I appreciated so much the gradual moving toward one another in Cattywampus both of the two witches on opposite sides of a class blood feud – the automatic distrust and easy justification to screw each other early on, the resentment for having to rely on one another because their parents are letting them down in complicated (and drastically unequal) ways, and the slow winning of trust and cooperation. It did not shortchange the history of the families while still breaking the (literal) generational curse.
As always, all characters have full lives and backstories and act out of slowly-unveiled trauma of their own. It’s not only the protagonists who get to be complex and complicated and flawed but lovable. Although Delpha’s mother…never mind.
But the endless series of complicated choices in Blood of Olympus, each character's journey leading to a series of hard but correct decisions, again and again, is just…well done, Riordan. Talk about a final act of payoff for a book series. Well effing done.
The Blood of Olympus (The Heroes of Olympus #5) by Rick Riordan
5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)
Like all of the books in the Heroes of Olympus quintet, this book is doing a lot, and I'm continually impressed by how well it all works together. The boldest move is probably turning the heroic pair (you can't say trio with Grover deep in the background of the story) from the first quintet, the central relationship and moral core of the Riordan-verse in many ways, PERCABETH THEMSELVES, into a minor plot about their respective and shared PTSD from Tartarus (and...well, everything else).
Letting ANNABETH AND PERCY be openly broken (not completely, never completely) at key moments and have to rely on others felt like a really powerful statement. They were still useful, and they were still wonderful, and they were even moreso heroes. But they felt truly scarred for the first time in ten books, and that felt important. Also, and this may just be me being weird but were Annabeth and Percy actually in The Seven? The words of prophecy mention seven half-bloods answering the call, but mostly Annabeth and Percy were just trying to get back to each other, right? And "To storm or fire the world must fall" is definitely Leo, Piper, and Jason (and their tragically faked-by-Hera friendship being the key to this is just...so tragically lovely), but the last two lines are "an oath to keep with a final breath" (which kinda gets Hazel and Frank as well as Leo depending on how you look at his stick and her resurrection, right?) "and foes bear arms to the Doors of Death" which yes, references Damasen and Bob...but also Annabeth and Percy? Like, they are definitely part of the prophecy, but what if they are only referenced in the last line and it's Reyna and Nico who make up the seven? Don't they better fit definitions of Answering the Call? And they are way more important to the plot in this book but...okay I'm gonna stop being weird now. There were a lot of fight scenes (as usual) and bigger than ever before by the end (in every way), but most of this book actually hung on the complicated emotional work being negotiated by the demigods along the way. Everything was set up for the trap on Gaia (and Octavian), and that was enjoyable to watch, but the difficult sacrifices willingly made are set up over a series of harrowing choices and unlikely bonds between a Greek echo of an old friend and two Very Roman leaders; between a lonely child of Hades and a girl with even more ghosts than he can handle, who managed not only to unite the Amazons and Hunters of Artemis but to earn the blessing at once of Athena and the war goddess Bellona who replaced Athena's warlike aspect in the Roman Pantheon. And then the Hera-inflicted relationship and friendship of Piper, Jason, and Leo proves its mettle under literal fire, forged strong despite their Mist-y origins into a true and unbreakable bond... Well done, Uncle Rick. Again.
Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo
4.0 (see original review on Story Graph)
I appreciate a story about two young people breaking a long family feud that honors the generational curse that such feuds can become. There's no easy "our foremothers' feud is dumb so let's just be friends!" but rather some panicked decisions made because the two children know, deep down, that they cannot trust one another...even if they don't know why. The reluctant pull toward community and teamwork is all the more beautiful for Otterloo's ability to portray realistic setbacks. The family dynamics are as messy as always, but there's a core of love that runs through this book as strong as all of Otterloo's novels. Radical acceptance, after all, is easy when there's enough love.
Okay, so I’m not sure I feel good about this. The House of Hades is Just. So. Good.
The Damasen/Bob arc breaks me in half each time. As does the implication that their mutual sacrifice was Annabeth’s plan at least from the first moment of meeting…which feels like Annabeth’s dark turn to answer Percy’s terrifying Ahklys moment. It gets talked about less in the fandom but I find it even more chilling, especially since Percy seems incapable of recognizing Annabeth’s level of strategy and premeditation. So while she can tell him to stop a rampage, can he be counted on to restrain her more cold-blooded plots? And the fact that they then both are pushed to their limits not just physically but in terms of their restraint and morality is, again…wow. And then two monsters instead transcend their roles and rise to heights of sacrifice and righteousness and love…wow. Such a bold move for fan favorite characters. Do I need to change my ruling?
No, because for all the fine-calibrated seesaw between tragedy and triumph in The House of Hades, Ciara Smyth remains the absolute master of comedy and tragedy woven into an inextricable braid. And doing it with rom-com tropes does, in a way, feel more impressive than with Greek Mythology (which already has tragedy and comedy “handcuffed to the same radiator” as a literary agent I’m querying soon described it). Smyth gets extra credit here for not being able to rely on a built-out world and rich source material cultivated over millennia but still bringing just as much pathos and depth to characters we are just meeting.
The different perspectives that dance across The Falling in Love Montage are all the more moving for the fact that we only have one questionably reliable narrator to deliver them, meaning that we glean in subtle snatches the complex inner worlds of the other characters. But I believe they are there with a fierce trust in Smyth's skill.
Also, well, talk about handcuffing comedy (rom-comedy no less! The “fluffiest” and most problematic of the comedies!) and tragedy (generational trauma, loss with very messy recovery, impending but uncertain future heartbreak) to the same radiator…or, rather, the ferris wheel that stops so you can kiss at the top right when you have to pee.
Of course, I could have said way less and just pointed out it’s a much more positive portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community, but Riordan has done a LOT to make up for the first clumsy attempt here, so I have absolutely zero shade to throw in his direction.
Just endless love for Ciara Smyth.