TEN WAYS TO BE ADORED WHEN LANDING A LORD by Sarah MacLean

Despite writing an entire post about the fact that there should be no shame in enjoying romance novels, I’ve still been hesitant to blog about the books that I’ve been reading the most in the last couple of months (internalized misogyny runs deep, y’all). But I started this blog to share the books I’ve been reading, and if you’ve been experiencing a similar period of significant life changes that’s been making you anxious, maybe these are exactly the kinds of books you need, too. I have been devouring Sarah MacLean’s oeuvre, and I wanted to tell you about my favorite so far.

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The heroine of Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord is Isabel (because the female-protagonists of romance novels are called heroines–isn’t that fantastic?). Her father, a reckless gambler who’s been absent for most of Isabel’s life, has just died, leaving Isabel and her younger brother, a future duke, penniless and even more alone than they were when he was alive. But Isabel has always been resourceful; in fact, her home has become a refuge for many other women, as well. Some of them have escaped abusive marriages, cruel families, or even their own mistakes, and have found community and purpose in Isabel’s manor, dubbed the Minerva House. But with Isabel’s sudden impoverishment, she’s not sure if she can take care of everyone anymore–until Nicholas, a London aristocrat known for his knowledge of antiquities, comes into town. Isabel’s most precious possessions are her collection of marbles, but the residents of the Minerva House are more important to her, and she enlists Nicholas’s help in appraising the last things of value she owns in order to sell them. What she doesn’t expect is that Nicholas has come to her town for another purpose, one that might jeopardize Minerva House–and what Nicholas doesn’t expect is, well, Isabel.

I think what makes this book my favorite of MacLean’s novels is Isabel. She is headstrong, stubborn, and proud of her ability to solve her own problems. But she is also constantly afraid of disappointing those around her, taking on the burden of caring for everyone until it becomes her own hamartia. Her character feels real and familiar to me, making it all the more rewarding to watch her overcome her obstacles. This book also has an interesting reversal of a common trope. Usually in mainstream romantic stories, it is the man who is scared of vulnerability, too guarded to express his feelings and ask for what he wants. In this book, the reverse is true. Nicholas is a really sweet hero, and a nice change of pace from the kind of tortured anti-hero we’ve come to expect in our dramas. He’s open about his feelings, and trusting with his heart–it’s Isabel who is stubbornly resistant to what’s in front of her. In a genre of satisfying happily-ever-afters, this one had me cheering on the most.

Luckily for me, Sarah MacLean just released a new book, but once I’m finished with that, I will have read all of her romance novels. But here’s the best thing about discovering a genre: I have so much catching up to do, so many characters, settings, sub-genres, and happy endings left to explore. Expect to see romance reviews become a regular part of this blog; I’m excited to find (and share with you) more of the smart, feminist, charming, fun books this genre has to offer.

BAD GIRLS THROUGHOUT HISTORY by Ann Shen

If I imagine my book tastes as a pie chart, “badass historical women” would be a pretty big slice (a fact that probably won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers). From the time I was a child devouring the Royal Diaries series to the undergraduate thesis I wrote on Joan of Arc, I have always been captivated by the women who have made their mark on our cultural landscape, often by defying norms and expectations placed upon them. So when I heard about this book, I knew it would be something I would like, and I was right. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen provides great introductions to some of history’s most notable rule-breakers, but of course, the fantastic illustrations that accompany the essays make the book a complete delight to look at, and the combination of these elements made for a perfect way to pass an afternoon on a porch.

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Bad Girls Throughout History takes the reader, well, throughout history, spanning centuries and cultures to highlight 100 women who, in myriad ways, left an impact on their society that resounds into our own. Shen is upfront in her introduction to the book that her list is certainly not exhaustive, but I found it to be an interesting variety. Some of the women were pioneers of science and exploration; others were groundbreaking artists. Still others were fearsome pirates and ruthless outlaws. Shen has not created a list of perfect role models, and the women found within these pages would not fit seamlessly into a Disney Princess lineup. I liked that the book included figures a little too intense for me to have learned about in school; I even read about some women that I had never heard about before. The list sometimes skews a little heavily towards entertainers, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The choices were always interesting and surprising with each turn of the page, and I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the lives of women that I’m now excited to learn even more about (luckily, Shen included a detailed bibliography in the back of the book to encourage exactly that).

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing that grabbed my attention about this book was the beautiful illustrations, and they are definitely as much of a draw as the essays. Shen’s art style is distinctive and pleasing, and this is a perfect book to flip through and linger over. It’s both comforting and a little sobering to thumb through the pages, to see how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It didn’t make me want to become a pirate, but it did make me want to work to defy expectations in my own life.

Off-Syllabus Is Back! (Hopefully!)

Hello! If you are still reading this, THANK YOU for your endless patience. Life has been a whirlwind in the last few months. I’ve had a lot of changes in my career, some exciting and time-consuming projects, and a big move (well, a not-so-big move, but moving always feels so laborious). As such, my dearth of free reading time was devoted to the romance novels that were keeping the anxiety at bay–and I had already posted about that.

I have been thinking, also, about what this blog means to me now. When I first started it, it was a way to cope with post-college life. That may sound silly to any reader who didn’t enjoy having to spend their time annotating medieval texts and writing papers (understandable), but I had a really hard time adjusting to life outside of the classroom. I started this blog as a way to encourage myself to find the joy in being free from assignments and expectations, and in the two-ish years that I’ve been posting here, I’ve certainly done that. I’ve read genres that I had never taken seriously enough before. I’ve troubled my own understanding of the way books are categorized, and the value of those categories. I’ve rediscovered the compulsion to hide a book under the covers and keep turning the pages long into the night. And the best part is, in all of this time, I was still learning. I’ve been learning so much. I see it in the way I’m thinking about books–I even see it in my own creative writing. Don’t get me wrong: I still think there is so much value in the English classroom, and I still miss it, all the time. The wisdom from my professors and fellow classmates was invaluable. But the act of reading to learn can take so many different shapes, and will hopefully be a lifelong pursuit for me. And, I imagine if you’ve been enjoying these (admittedly, sometimes sporadic) posts, that’s true for you too.

So, I’m keeping the name Adventures Off-Syllabus, but it isn’t just about getting away from the prescribed texts of the classroom. Rather, it’s about bringing the classroom into my–and your–daily life, and shaping it to match what we need and what we can give. I would love for this blog space to become its own kind of community, and I encourage you to post comments or recommendations. I think Adventures Off-Syllabus has always really been about building my own syllabus, and I’m sure your reading life offers just as much. I certainly believe that reading diligently, thoughtfully, and with eyes focused both into the self and out towards the world, is as important now as it has ever been. So, this is all to say thank you for reading this post, and this blog. I hope it has brought meaningful books into your life, and I aim to keep doing that. Let’s keep learning and growing, and raising our hands when we have questions, and debating when we disagree. Let’s always be students and teachers. Let’s allow books to give us everything they can, and then, let’s bring what they teach us into the world. Thanks for being on this adventure with me.

(Sorry for getting super cheese-y at the end there.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

People of all parties, ages, races, and backgrounds are scared and upset. I know because I’ve been to meetings with them. This not a matter of differing parties or losing teams. People who are not usually on my political team–like the Columbus Dispatch and Governor John Kasich–also recognized the clear danger of a Trump presidency. I don’t know what to do, and I spent a lot of today desperately trying to think of tangible things we can do. This is what I’ve got so far; I welcome any and all ideas.

1. Make your voice heard

Donate to or volunteer for organizations that are going to be doing the essential work in the coming four years. Speak up and intervene if you see someone being harassed. Attend rallies and protests. Stand up against racism. Volunteer in your community. Make sure everyone you know is registered and ready to vote in the midterms (if Congress is going to help Trump enact policies that are a threat to fellow Americans, we can take Congress away from him in two years), and canvas/phone bank when that time comes. In the meantime, be an active presence in your representatives’ inboxes.

2. Be ethical consumers

It will be so important to do everything we can to bolster diversity. Search for directories of black-owned or immigrant-owned businesses in your city to support, or patronize restaurants and bars that are specifically LGBT-friendly. Buy new books by writers of color. Buy movie tickets for films with diverse casts (Moana is still coming out this month). Buy official merchandise from the feminist, LGBT-positive kid’s show you love. I know not everyone will be able to do these things all the time, but every little bit will help.

5. Save the Earth

Try to donate to organizations that are going to keep fighting (you can find some in the link from the first bullet point), but also keep doing the little things. Cut down on your beef intake as much as you can–it’s a simple thing that will make a big impact. Keep recycling and turning off lights behind you. Read the books.

6. Keep making art

Now more than ever, stories matter. Truth matters. Community matters.

QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by Erika Johansen

“Fantasy” was one of my earliest favorite genres–as a kid, I devoured books by writers like Tamora Pierce, Gail Carson Levine, and Cornelia Funke. As my reading life progressed, though, I fell away a bit from the genre. When I first read this interview between one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay, and Erika Johansen about Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, I figured I had found the series that could bring me back to the fantasy heroines of my youth while also creating a story that was as dark and complex as my adult reading habits have grown to gravitate towards. Queen of the Tearling certainly has a sharper edge than the young adult fantasy I used to (and still) adore, but it still reminded me of the feeling of staying up too late, furiously flipping pages under the covers, and it was so good to slip back into this genre.

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Queen of the Tearling opens on the day that Kelsea, the heir to the Tear throne, has come of age and is awaiting her new Queen’s Guard to escort her from the comfort of the country home she’s been hiding in to the dangers of her new life as Queen. Kelsea already has a lot of enemies; her uncle has been sitting on the throne since her mother died, and he won’t be eager to give up his power so easily. And of course, there is the uneasy peace between the Tear region and the neighboring kingdom of Mortesme, which invaded and devastated the Tear until Kelsea’s mother brokered peace years ago. Kelsea has been educated and trained for this moment her whole life, but she still worries that she won’t be able to live up to her mother’s legacy…or even stay alive long enough to make a difference. As her journey commences, though, she discovers that the kingdom she now rules over is still struggling more than she could have imagined, and it becomes clear to Kelsea that she has hard decisions to make. The changes ahead involve enormous risk, and Kelsea must decide what kind of Queen she’s going to be–and figure out how to keep herself and her people safe from the dangerous consequences they must endure.

Like most fantasy books, a big part of the appeal of The Queen of the Tearling is the richly imagined setting. Even though an emphasis on world-building is something Johansen has in common with other writers in the genre, she has created a fantasy universe that’s unlike any I’ve ever encountered. There are no dragons or trolls, but magic does seem to play an important role in the universe, tying itself strongly not only to the emotions of the characters, but to their ethical code, as well. The setting also has some clear analogs to our own history, and this is partly because of the most interesting element of it–Johansen implies that even though this world is restricted to the sorts of technology, clothing, and gender norms we often find in typical fantasy books (which exist in a generic, Medieval-inspired “long ago”), the universe of her story actually takes place many years after the collapse of our own society. References to “ancient” stories, countries, and governments that are taken from our own modern world provide a really textured version of a fantasy setting, giving this universe an undercurrent of mystery and foreboding. It’s such an interesting idea, and one that I hope is further developed as the trilogy continues.

Even without this aspect of the setting, The Queen of the Tearling uses the fantasy genre to ask some intense questions. Kelsea’s choices strike at an ongoing moral dilemma, as relevant to us as it is to her. I don’t want to give too much away, but the more Kelsea learns about what is expected of her as a ruler, the more she sees the give-and-take of the choices her mother made–and that now, she must make–to maintain peace and order. What kinds of freedom are we willing to give up for security? What (or whom) will we sacrifice for peace? Is it better to risk the devastation of war than to allow evil to happen in our home, under our watch? These are difficult questions, and Johansen maneuvers them with unflinching intelligence. In Kelsea, she has created an endlessly compelling protagonist, one who is forced to trust her instincts, follow her own moral code, and then to deal with the devastating, dangerous consequences that come with her actions. It seems a much more realistic portrait of what it would really mean to be a ruler, a job that (let’s all remind ourselves) requires so much thoughtfulness, instinct, compromise, and, yes, risk of complete, abject failure. I would certainly want someone like Kelsea–intelligent, curious, moral, willing to learn as much as she can and make difficult choices–at the helm with so much at stake.

The Queen of the Tearling is the first book in a series, and I haven’t invested in a series in a long time. I was relieved that this book ended with enough closure to feel complete, but left plenty of mysteries and questions yet to be answered. It has certainly hooked me–I plan on picking up the second book immediately. If you, like me, haven’t read much “grown up” fantasy yet, this novel has the perfect balance of imagination and gravitas that I was hoping for, and I can’t wait to continue with Kelsea on the long, hard road ahead.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

A bit of late-breaking news, but thanks to a surprise gift from my lovely partner, I now have a Kindle! There will probably be a post about my experience with it in the future, but first I have to tell you about this book. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson came highly recommended to me by some trusted sources, including Jaime Green, the host of my former favorite (currently on hiatus) bookish podcast The Catapult. I went into Seveneves knowing almost nothing about it other than it was a dense and lengthy science fiction novel. I figured that not having to carry around a thick book was a large part of the appeal of my new Kindle, so my reason for picking out Seveneves was mostly convenience. All of which is to say, I had no idea how much this book would astonish, captivate, and utterly destroy me.

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Seveneves opens as an unknown force collides with the moon, breaking it into seven pieces. Initially, life on Earth remains largely the same, but as scientist Dubois Harris observes two of the pieces colliding and breaking into three, a terrible reality becomes clear to him. He and other scientists calculate that these pieces will continue to collide and break off exponentially, eventually resulting in what was once the moon turning into Saturn-like rings of debris around Earth–after a period of thousands of years of rocks raining down upon the Earth’s surface, rendering it an unlivable, fiery wasteland. The novel also follows a crew of astronauts aboard a space station that has been mining an asteroid. The crew learns that they will never be returning home; instead, they must help scientists and researchers on the ground ready the space station to become bigger and better able to accommodate a small population of experts, humanity’s last hope of survival.

I don’t want to give too much else away about the plot. This book carried me through so many unexpected twists. Just when I thought I felt comfortable with what was happening, it changed. I spent a lot of time reading this book next to my partner, and he slowly became accustomed to my gasping, groaning, and biting my knuckles as I read. “Still on that end-of-the-world space book?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d answer, “and MORE bad things are happening!” To be certain, this book is completely devastating, in part because it is so thoroughly imagined. The world ends, and it ends in a way that feels completely tactile and inevitable to the reader. At the moment the Hard Rain (the term for the onslaught of moon debris) begins, a member of the newly formed space station community–all that’s left of humanity–looks down and reflects, “He wanted to know how big it looked to them; he wanted to know how it felt […] to know how it was to stand there on terra firma and to see it and to know it was death coming.” The enormity of this book is impossible to escape.

So, yes: this is a book in which nearly everyone on Earth dies. There were moments that actually made me sob as I was reading. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through this book if it were only a downer, and instead I was turning the pages (metaphorically, because Kindle) feverishly. Stephenson keeps the book from wallowing in melancholy, and I think it’s because the book is interested in so many big questions. For one thing, Stephenson clearly did a lot of homework. This is one of my first forays into what’s called “hard science fiction,” meaning science fiction that lives up to the name by focusing on technological accuracy. This book really gets into the tactile and pragmatic solutions humanity would need to carry on after a disaster of this magnitude. Stephenson presents his characters with a plethora of problems, but instead of pitying them, he puts them to work fixing those problems.

These imaginative technological questions are not the only thing Seveneves tackles, though. The book really grapples with how we understand our own humanity, interrogating concepts like race, mythology, religion, and purpose. Even as the book revels in these larger abstracts, its strongest point might be the way it treats personal relationships. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear how seemingly simple connections between people come to have huge consequences–and without giving too much away, I don’t mean this just in a metaphorical sense. Even though I anticipated a couple of the twists as they were unfolding, I hadn’t ever considered them when their initial framework was built, and that’s because that framework–the simple ways we reach out to each other, the simple ways we impact each other–seemed so small in the face of the end of the world. In his unique storytelling, Stephenson gives so much gravity to these personal connections, and this pattern nulls the bleakness of the book’s premise, enabling it instead to thrum with a sense of meaning and purpose not in abstractions, but in tangible reality.

I have a feeling some of my friends are going to give me strange looks when I start telling them, “You NEED to read this book. It’s about the moon breaking into pieces and killing us all. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.” But I’m begging you to trust me. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with compelling characters, masterful plotting, some of the smartest problem-solving I’ve ever read, and a renewed sense of value in the conversations you have every day with the people you love.

CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman

In college, I ended up taking a class on Medieval women’s literature by accident. The class was simply called something like “special topics in women’s literature,” and I signed up because it was taught by a professor I loved. I’m not sure what I would have expected from the class if I had known what the “special topic” would be, but I loved it so much that I ended up writing a thesis about Joan of Arc and gender (with the same professor!). I’ve become completely fascinated by the lives and writing of Medieval women, who (to condense a thesis-worth of thoughts) were much more transgressive of gender boundaries than our Renaissance-fair stereotypes would lead us to believe. Pop culture contains myriad representations of this subject, and my professor recommended the children’s book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman as an interesting, nuanced example. I’m so glad I finally took her up on it.

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Catherine, Called Birdy is a children’s novel written as a fictional diary of the titular character, a young noble girl living in England in 1290. The story progresses mostly as an account of her day-to-day life, but the closest thing to a central conflict is Catherine’s resistance towards her expectations as a proper lady, including an impending marriage over which she has little control. It’s pretty surprising that I hadn’t already read this book as a kid. As a subgenre, “fictional diaries of children in different historical periods” was right in my wheelhouse (I consumed The Royal Diaries series voraciously), and I was (no shock) particularly interested in heroines who fought against their gender expectations. I feel pretty confident that child Haley would have adored this book; modern-day Haley certainly enjoyed it a lot.

My favorite part of this book is how fully-formed the character of Catherine is. In so many of the girl-power stories of my childhood, the protagonists were a bit one-dimensional. Catherine, instead, is a constant paradox. She resents the pressures and responsibilities put on her, but she is also not a cardboard-cutout tomboy character. She is wild and ill-tempered, but she is also incredibly compassionate towards animals. She has no desire to be married, but she does have crushes on some of the boys in her life. She wants adventure, but she changes her mind about exactly which adventure daily. She likes stories about saints and plays about terrifying demons. She is complex, and therefore, felt much more alive. As Catherine herself writes of her behavior in front of a potential suitor: “I had no forewarning of danger so I acted like myself, some good and some bad, like always.”

Catherine, Called Birdy would do interesting work in teaching kids more about the Middle Ages. The cast of characters in Catherine’s life represent a variety of lifestyles and professions, including for women. These characters are made real by Catherine’s unfiltered opinions of them, which shift and evolve realistically. Often, Catherine laments her restrictions as a noble woman compared to the women of the village, especially in choosing who they wanted to marry. Catherine sees the good and bad in all of her options though, ultimately deciding to live in the role she was given as authentically as she can. This book doesn’t end quite like an adventure story might, but the quiet observations feel real to life.

Catherine’s voice is also so funny and smart. It doesn’t surprise me that Lena Dunham plans to make a movie around this lively character. Even though the book is now over 20 years old, it seems to move towards a female protagonist we still don’t see enough of, one who is messy and layered and genuine. I really enjoyed this book, and I wish I had read it a long time ago.