In a recent article, Elizabeth Wein, the author of Code Name Verity (right now, my favourite read of 201...moreReview originally posted on The Book Smugglers
In a recent article, Elizabeth Wein, the author of Code Name Verity (right now, my favourite read of 2012) listed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as one of her literary influences. Coincidentally, I had a copy of the book sitting on my nightstand, lent to me by a colleague whose love for books equals (if not surpasses) my own and who had raved about it. Based on the strength of these two recommendations, I read the book and ended up loving it with a passion. It reminded me of some of my favourite books: Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (for its fascinating and selfless characters) and Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (for its narrative format and main character’s voice).
It’s 1946 and author Julie Asthon doesn’t know what to write next. Her Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War column in the Spectator was very popular during the War but now she wants to put it behind her and work on something new. That’s when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands), a pig farmer who acquired a book by Charles Lamb that had once belonged to Juliet (it has her name on it) and whose love for the book prompted him to contact her to ask for further recommendations of other works by Charles Lamb. They begin a correspondence and Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the name itself is enough to make Juliet extremely curious – what in the world is a Potato Peel Pie? – and when she learns that the society came about because of a roast pig party and the need to keep it a secret in the German-occupied island, she decides she needs to hear more about it.
Juliet then starts to research everything she can about Guernsey under the German Occupation: Guernsey children were evacuated to England just as the island was invaded by a huge contingent of Germans and the island was completely isolated from the mainland and some of its inhabitants were sent away to concentration camps. In fact, a concentration camp was built on the island itself (the only ever on British soil) to host slave labourers. But those are merely hard-boiled facts. It is not until Juliet starts receiving letters from other members of the Literary Society that she is able to see a human portrait of the island and its inhabitants under German Occupation.
The book is written exclusively in letter format (oh, epistolary novels, you are my kryptonite) and it follows Juliet’s correspondence with not only her new friends in Guernsey but also with her editor (and friend) Sidney and others friends. The core of the story belongs perhaps to two people: Juliet and Elizabeth McKenna. Juliet’s growing love for Guernsey, its people and its stories as well as her focus on her own growth as a person and as a writer is one of the main threads. But as the letters keep coming, it is easy to see the importance of Elizabeth for this story: she is the one who in the spur of the moment, created the Society. Her actions are extremely brave and heroic and although we never hear directly from her (the reason, too spoilery to mention here) but her life touched the lives of all the members of the Society. I can’t express how much I loved that a book that refers to events during Second World War has a female character as the most heroic, courageous, selfless character of them all. I can’t count the many stories have I read (or watched) that featured male heroes doing tremendous acts of courage and being hailed for them – so I will take this story and embrace it, thank you very much.
That said, even though the core of the story might be Juliet and Elizabeth’s lives, its essence is about much more than just the one person. It celebrates life, love, endurance in the face of adversity and above all the love for reading and writing. Each member recounts how reading and attending the meetings of the society helped them get through the hard times and I loved how each person approached reading in different ways (there is one guy who read only one book throughout and managed to get new things out of it every time).
This is without a doubt a very uplifting, delightful story with a lot of light and funny moments and quirky characters. But it never denies or hides the horrors of the Second World War either. It depicts the German occupation with a degree of shared difficulties that I truly valued. There are people going hungry on both sides. There are vicious, coward, stupid, good, brave, well-natured people on both sides. It doesn’t shy away from the truths about death, torture and survival. One of the most poignant moments comes from concentration camp survivors who find it hard to share their stories with those that did not experience it because how can they possibly understand the horror? It is a very human, nuanced story and I appreciated it all the more for it.
As I was thinking about how to review the book, I thought about this recent video by Ron Charles in which he makes fun of stereotypical, formulaic words and phrases reviewers use in their reviews. But do you know…sometimes, these things ARE true and they WORK. So here it goes:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at once delightfully funny AND sadly poignant, uncompromisingly romantic and ultimately unforgettable: a tour de force!(less)
Princess Rhis of the small, craggy, but bountifully rich kingdom of Nym lives a charmed but rather boring life.
Though she’s intelligent, Rhis is not the heir to the throne and thus has little interest in learning all the subjects that make a queen (especially not when her stuffy elder sister-by-marriage insists on nitpicking the flaws in Rhis’s attention span and work ethic). Instead, the plain young princess is far more interested in the things that make her happy – music, dancing, and composing ballads (to varying degrees of success). Instead of studying politics or treatises, Rhis spends her time escaping from her daily chores and sneaking away to her private tower, spying the comings and goings of the kingdom with just her music and thoughts to keep her company.
When an invitation arrives from Crown Prince Lios of Vesarja to attend the celebration of his return from adventures abroad, Rhis can barely contain her excitement. All of the eligible young princes and princesses from neighboring kingdoms will be in attendance, and rumor has it that the young Crown Prince will be looking for a future bride. When Rhis arrives at the palace, she expects a whirlwind mix of dancing, music and frivolity – she doesn’t expect the friends she will make, the sides she will choose, the incredible adventure quest she’ll find herself spearheading, or falling in love.
Dudes. DUDES. I loved this delightful throwback to old school YA fantasy, coming of age novel. I’m happy to report that my memories of Crown Duel and Court Duel did not steer me wrong, because A Posse of Princesses is everything I was hoping for and then some. Resourceful heroine with agency? Check. Believable teenage characters? Yep. Fantastically varied (ethnically and culturally!) fantasy world? You got it. A dash of compelling, non-cheesy romance? Oh hell yes. I went into A Posse of Princesses expecting a diverting fantastical romp with a dash of romance, and Sherwood Smith delivered in spades.
First and foremost, I adored the heroine of this adventure, young, sixteen year old princess Rhis of Nym. Rhis is not your typical heroine – she’s neither beautiful (she’s rather plain with her stick skinny frame and mouse brown hair and eyes), nor is she remarkably intelligent (not that she’s lacking brains, but rather lacking direction and drive to apply herself to those subjects that don’t interest her). She is what one might expect of a sixteen year old princess from a sheltered kingdom; a dreamer, naive, a little dramatic and self-absorbed (but really, when you’re sixteen, who isn’t a little dramatic and self-absorbed?!), but her heart is in the right place. Instead of being particularly brave, or a warrior princess, or with a biting, unparalleled wit, Rhis is a heroine with an incredible sense of empathy. She cares for others and puts aside social expectation as she tries to see others in new and open-minded ways – and that is an incredibly cool quality in a YA heroine. Though Rhis might not start off as a heroine or with an aptitude for studying or adventure, she grows so much over the course of the book as her experiences and interactions with others shape her character. This is similarly awesome, and I loved her character arc from sheltered, slightly-superficial princess to a possible queen with adventure and a rescue mission under her belt.
Similarly, the supporting cast of royals in this book are wonderfully drawn. I loved the passionate, fickle nature of Princess Shera, the powerful warrior-minded Princess Taniva of the plains, and the foreign Princess Yuzhyu who tries so hard to master the language and fit in with a court that is largely happy to ignore her. Of course, what would the story be without Prince Lios and his trusty, sly scribe Dandiar? I won’t say much for that way lies spoilers – but I loved, loved the romance (even if it’s a bit predictable, so what! It’s done well. Sans super cheese. YES.). Heck, I even loved the ‘perfect princess’ Iardith – the epitome of beauty in this world with her dark skin and long dark hair, but a cruel streak as broad as her ego. I love that each of these characters, Iardith included, are humanized and we see through Rhis’s eyes why they might act the way they do.
From a plotting perspective, there is a degree of familiarity to the story – secret identities, courtly intrigue, romantic misunderstanding, and a daring rescue mission all factor prominently in the book. While some of the bigger twists lean towards the predictable, the writing is done so well and the characters so engaging that it hardly matters. From a worldbuilding point of view, I loved the setting and its varied cultures, from the mountainous (and resource rich) Nym, to the wild High Plains, to the warish kingdom of Damatras, to the distant shores of Ndai (look, there’s a map too!). There are many different realms here, each with their own variations and entanglements, and as A Posse of Princesses is just one standalone novel in a universe with other books and characters, I’ll be sure to revisit it soon.
Finally, can I just say how much I *loved* that Sherwood Smith takes a more cautious look at LOVE FOREVER at sixteen years old? Instead of ending with a teenage marriage and happily ever after immediately, there is a period of wait and angst, with both Rhis and her prince exploring what they want for themselves, apart from each other, before making any lifelong decisions. This is, in a word, awesome.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. A whole lot. I’ll need to find and dust off my copy of Coronets and Steel very soon (and also search out the vast, sprawling waste of my TBR for a copy of Inda. I know it’s in there. Somewhere.). Absolutely recommended. Please, for the love of all that is good, do NOT judge this book by its cover.(less)
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didn...moreA THOUSAND STARS!
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didn’t know the odds this would be good but this book? It blew my mind away. In its epilogue, Terry Pratchett says:
Thinking. This book contains some.
And that’s true: this is one of the most think-y books I have ever read. I loved it with every fibre of my being.
Nation is a book of ideas. Its main theme, that of construction and creation: the construction of a home, of a family, of rules, tradition and religion. It is about those building blocks of civilisation itself and of individuals, in a way that is both extremely rational and enormously emotional. Writing that line just now makes me realise how weird that might sound to those who haven’t read the book. Above all it makes me think about how hard it is to pull something like this off and to keep a balance between what drives a story and the story itself without making a book about ideas, a book that is solely about ideas. If that makes any sense at all – I am finding it extremely hard to write this review because how do you describe perfection? Especially when it’s so affecting?
Nation is a book about creation.
It starts with the destruction of everything one of its main characters knows.
There is a small island in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean in a world very much like ours (but not quite) where young boys go through a ceremony where they shed their boy-souls to gain their man-souls. Mau is on the Boy’s Island and is about to cross over to the main island to become a man when the big wave comes. He survives it but when he goes ashore to his home, to the Nation, he discovers everything he knows and everyone he loves has been washed away. His first action is to build a spear: “Without fire and a spear, you could never hope to be a man, wasn’t that right?”. But soulless Mau is all alone and nobody answers him.
All alone that is, but for Daphne, a young girl who was aboard the Sweet Judy ship, whose wrecked remains are now part of the Nation. They are different because their background, their language, their traditions are dissimilar. They are equals because they share this tragedy and because they are both thinkers. Together, they work to survive and to create a home for those who slowly start to come to the Nation in search of a haven after unspeakable tragedy.
First comes an old man, a priest who wants things to be kept as they always were and whose unquestioned belief in their Gods remains unshaken. With him, a young sickly woman with a newborn baby who is barely moving and can hardly feed. Everybody’s immediate response is to fall back into the roles they have always known: if the mother cannot feed her baby, the only one who can help is of course, the other female, Daphne. Except Daphne – a young girl raised by a grandmother who believes young ladies should be Proper – doesn’t even know how babies are made. Mau does what must be done in order to keep the baby alive. Hilarity ensues when he milks a wild pig but also: enlightenment for both Daphne and Mau. Women are not born knowing how to care for babies. Things that appear deep seated gender-led knowledge are not. A man’s soul is not created magically because one crosses from one island to another.
So, first comes destruction. Then, deconstruction: little by little, both characters observe this new world and question the old one in search of answers. It is a kind of stripping down to one’s very core in order to understand. But it is a stripping down without letting go of the past completely because the rules are there. So Mau is walking around the island and he hears the Grandfathers’ voices telling him what to do, to follow their traditions, not question their religion, otherwise there is no order. As much as Daphne abhors her grandmother’s voice inside her head telling her to be Quiet and Proper, she keeps listening to it non-stop. Motivation counts too and Mau is angry. He is angry at the Gods and that leads him to question their very existence. Daphne is not moved by religion at all but by Science. There is sympathy and compassion toward other characters and those find their own balance and their own way of surviving.
In a way, a wave came but they are not completely marooned because they have Tradition. But does Tradition serve them at this time of need or is that now an impediment? How important is it to keep going as it “has always been”? Or is this yet another misconception about the world? Slowly: the understanding that those are internalised voices and that questioning is good. To understand the HOW is all the more important: history becomes religion becomes tradition becomes internal rules living inside one’s head.
Then, forging and building. Mau and Daphne build themselves up and their thoughts are the roots on which they build a new Nation. And they do that by means of Scientific Method.
And that is accomplished in a story that is moving, sad, hopeful and funny. Mau and Daphne have hilarious misunderstandings before they lean to communicate. Their community is built and deep connections are formed between people. A new Nation is born out of the old and people still have parties, drink beer, laugh, love, pray and look at the sky.
Also: parallel universes.
I don’t know how my reading of this particular book has been affected by the fact that I am new to Terry Pratchett’s main oeuvre but this to me, was simply wonderful. Interestingly enough, limited as my Terry Pratchett experience might be, I found Nation to be slightly different in tone (not as funny) to the other books I have read from the author but exactly the same in how smart it is.
Nation is a rich and intricate novel. Yes ,it does have an obvious message about the power and importance of thinking, but this never overwhelms the characters or the story. I understood this very well when I started crying when the book was over. Plus, the epilogue is a wonderful gift from an author who truly understands his readers.
This book spoke to me in a deeply personal level and I can’t recommend it enough.(less)
“Your Highness,” she said. “I’ve already explained that no matter how much you might give me, it’s no good to me if I’m dead. Forgive my rudeness, but I must speak plainly. You have dealt me an unfair and cowardly blow.” The queen went pale and began to tremble violently. “What do you mean?” “I saved the prince’s life, yet you reward me by taking my life. What would you call that but unfair and cowardly?”
On the prosperous, island kingdom of Yogo, the divine king Mikado rules absolute, his veins carrying the precious blood of the god Ten no kami. When the Mikado’s son, the Second Prince Chagnum, is thrown from his carriage in a freak accident, he’s nearly killed; luckily for Chagnum, a traveling warrior named Balsa is in the right place at the right time and saves him from certain death.
A bodyguard-for-hire renowned for her fierceness with a spear, Balsa is rewarded for her good deed by being invited by the Second Queen to the palace—where she is promptly ambushed and implored by the desperate queen to protect her son. The carriage incident was no accident, and the Second Queen is convinced that the Mikado and his Star Reader priests are trying to kill her son for the good of the kingdom, as they believe Chagnum is possessed by a water demon that will cause a catastrophic drought. As fierce as Balsa may be, she cannot leave the innocent Chagnum to such a horrible fate, and accepts the role as his bodyguard. Little does Balsa know that Chagnum’s survival will determine the destiny of the kingdom, and the secret of the young prince’s “possession” will unlock the forgotten truth behind Yogo’s layered and rewritten past.
This review can be summed up in a single word: wow.
After reading and striking out with so many new superhero books (not to mention culturally appropriative “Japanese-inspired” fantasy novels), it was with a wary eye that I picked this book as the subject for my Kirkus contribution this week.* Thankfully, Guardian of the Spirit was a soothing balm for my frayed patience. A beloved best-seller in its native country of publication, Japan, the Moribito books have since been adapted into a manga series, an anime series and a radio drama, and finally made their way to the United States in 2008. It’s easy to see why Balsa and her cohorts have found such a strong following across languages and formats—suffice it to say, dear readers, this book completely rocks.
You may be wondering where superheroes fit in, as by all counts Guardian of the Spirit appears to be a feudal Japanese-type fantasy novel (right?). In my opinion, Balsa is—without a doubt—a superhero and on a hero’s journey. Though she has no superpowers per se, Balsa is an incredibly skilled warrior (though not infallible and clearly mortal) and, most importantly, she fights to protect those who have no protectors. She’s female, she’s 30 years old (another point in the awesome column), and she’s a bonafide badass with a chip on her shoulder.**
What’s so intriguing about Balsa as a character, however, is her surprising empathy; she’s not just a badass killing machine with no heart, nor is she reduced to a matronly figure (as, unfortunately, older female superheroes often seem to be labeled). No, Balsa is strong without being abrasive, and she’s emotionally genuine without being pigeonholed as a motherly role model. Nor is Balsa objectified or sexualized—she’s underestimated by other warriors (who see her as an easy target, alone on the road as she is), but I love that she’s appreciated and valued for her bravery, her heart and her skill.
The same appraising awesomeness can be said for the other main female character in the text (a surprise assumption that I don’t want to ruin). Furthermore, author Nahoko Uehashi (a professor of ethnology at the Kawamura Gakuen Women’s University in Japan) pays careful attention to Balsa’s Japanese-inspired world and the different ethnicities and beliefs of the people in that world. Religious tolerance, displaced indigenous people, traditions and histories rewritten by the victors are all major themes in Guardian of the Spirit, and each executed to perfection.
This all sounds rather introspective and clinical, doesn’t it? Allow me to fix that, because really, Guardian of the Spirit is an action book. Uehashi has an unparalleled talent for explosive action sequences (it’s easy to see how this book lends itself to an anime series!) to compliment her fast-moving, high-stakes plot, and paints vivid images of Balsa throwing her shuriken and whipping her spear around in a brilliant flash of silver and blood as she battles iron-clad men and tentacled monsters alike.***
And the best part? The best part is that there is a second book, a translated manga series, and a dubbed and subtitled anime series waiting for any new fans just discovering the magic of Moribito. I, for one, cannot wait for more of Balsa and her friends.
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what i...moreSo, this book.
My last Frances Hardinge (woe).
Kind of blew my mind away.
But at first, it totally threw me. I started reading it and was all like what is this? Because this is the only Hardinge that is not set in a secondary world. It is the only Hardinge set in our own contemporary world. It is the only Hardinge that has a boy protagonist. It is the only Hardinge that is more Horror than Fantasy:
Three friends Ryan, Chelle and Josh find themselves without their bus fare home and daredevil Josh climbs down the local Wishing Well to collect some of its coins to pay for their journey. Then weird things start to happen. Ryan gets warts on his hands – warts that turn out to be eyes that give him second sight. Chelle starts to broadcast other people’s thoughts, uncontrollably babbling out loud what they are thinking. Josh affects the magnetic fields around him giving him power over metal and electronics. In the meantime, Ryan also starts dreaming about a terrifying figure and that’s when it hits them that what they stole were wishes and now the spirit of the well expects them to grant those, aided by their new powers.
At first, things seem easy enough. A guy wants a Harley Davidson, let’s get him one. A girl wants to hook up with the person she is in love with, let’s get them together.
But soon the kids realise that wishes are not as straightforward as that because sure, the guy might wish for a Harley Davidson, but what he really wants is to be cool. And how can they possibly ascertain those different layers? And what happens when someone wishes for something negative to happen to their enemies?
Just then, things get really out of hand when Josh starts to enjoy his powers a bit too much.
Verdigris Deep might sound like the Odd One Out among Hardinge’s bibliography but it’s not really. There is the awesome concept, just like her other books. There is the cleverness of the plot, the creativity of the story and the refusal to pander to children. The love for language shines through and oh my God, how could I not be completely head over heels in love with how language finds new highs in her books:
Some ten yards away, Ryan stood there stupidly holding a carrier bag full of canned sweetcorn while he watched the continents of his world collide and the stars fall out of the sky. Almost involuntarily he started counting through the Fibonacci sequence in his head to keep himself sane. One, two, three, five, eight…Today the numbers failed him. The way they built up only seemed an echo of what was happening before him, where every bitter sentence added to the last to make something bigger and worse.
Although in a way this does feel like more of an internalised story. Her other books deal with characters growing up in the middle of revolutions or in grandiose, extravagant settings and as such, internal and external conflicts develop side by side.
In Verdigris Deep , the story is informed by the three characters and the powers they gain are granted according to their personalities.
Popular, energetic but unloved Josh gets the most flashy of the powers, the one that allows him to ascertain more control over those around him. Both Ryan and Chelle worship Josh to the point of blindness even as he is cruel and unsympathetic.
Chelle is insecure and shy and kind of the outsider in the group, always babbling away even though the others never pay attention to what she says. At one point, Josh cruelly refers to her as the coleslaw of the group – a side dish that you eat up but don’t really care for.
Ryan is the focal character and he is quiet and lonely, never saying what he really wants or means. His narrative starts off as unsympathetic, detached and even a little bit callous when describing the people around him.
The story progresses as the powers they have gained help Ryan developing a great degree of self-awareness. The realisation about the hero-worship behind his relationship with Josh as well as his own capacity for cruelty (after all, doesn’t he also think of Chelle as the coleslaw?) are only part of how the relationships and the characters are deconstructed, pulled apart and then built up again with sympathy and compassion.
In spite of all of the hijinks, the fear and the creepy factor of the novel as the kids get more and more involved with the Spirit of the Well, this is much more of an understated, quiet novel. Because this is a book that is much more about the microcosm than the macro, it doesn’t end in Revolution or Change with capital letters in quite the same way that Hardinge’s other books do. But it is still in many ways, a book about revolution and change just as much because in the end, the kids’ lives have been altered, bettered and they have grown up. It is a very emotional, touching and humane story.
So basically, what I am saying is: Frances Hardinge is right now, my favourite writer. Let her career be a long and prosperous one. (less)
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, th...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, the-best-book-of-2012 Code Name Verity. I will come back to this later.
The plot summary of Rose Under Fire is rather straightforward: a young and naïve American girl named Rose Justice joins the allied forces in England flying planes for the War Effort. While on a short mission to Paris, she is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, she forms strong, deep connections to a group of young political Polish prisoners known as the Rabbits. The Rabbits were the victims of horrifying medical experiments and were protected by the rest of the Camp because of their attempt to bear witness to these atrocities by telling the world.
I don’t know how to write this review. It’s hard to concentrate on what happens in the book not only because it is a difficult topic (I’ve had nightmares two nights in a row now after reading it) but also because I think that I’d rather talk about the themes that arise from it. There are so many.
Just like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an epistolary novel. Rose keeps a notebook before going to Ravensbrück where she writes about her experiences as a pilot until she is taken. The narrative resumes after Ravensbrück when Rose decides to write down her experiences – at least what she can remember of the six months she spent there. The final two “books” are written about one year later at the time the war trials begin.
It’s interesting: throughout the book there are four different Roses. But it’s always, always the same person. Because her voice is the same but the level of maturity is not – there is a question of superb writing skills here. Rose’s naivety and eagerness to start with are so painful because you just know they will not survive the war.
And I loved this because in these stories the Young and Naïve and Eager soldier is almost invariably a man. This is a book that is about a very specific group of women and how they experienced the war and those are varied even within the limited scope of this novel which concentrates in the Polish/French group of prisoners, especially on the small group formed by the Rabbits. I say “varied” because this is truly I think the core of the novel.
Because even within a similar group there are different experiences of this War and above all, different ways of coping. There are those that don’t, there are those who defy, there are those who cave, there are those who betray, there are those who subvert, those who fight, those who cry, those who laugh, those who do nothing at all, those who do all of this and more.
Actually, one of the things I think the most when reading stories like this is the topic of “defiance”. Ravensbrück was a camp that held political prisoners and some of them were resistance fighters. And as much as I admire resistance fighters, I am always more interested in the small, quiet, daily defiance which is so important too. The defiance that is quiet, incisive, patient, that whispers, that shares a piece of bread, that subverts orders the best way possible.
But there are those who, just like with coping, don’t fight at all. And who can begrudge or judge? No one and especially not this book. There is absolutely no sense of value or judgement in the different ways that each person deals with these atrocities, no right or wrong way. This is all the more important when it comes to the final part of the novel when it comes to the time of bearing witness at the trials. There are those who want to and can talk about their experiences. There are those who simply can’t: who can’t talk about it, who can’t bear to think of standing in front of people and talk about the unspeakable things that happened to them.
There is a huge focus on this because Rose Under Fire is a survivor story. This is important because there were so many that didn’t survive – there are so many that went into the fold nameless and voiceless. To the survivors then there is an extra layer of guilt, of why me and I don’t even dare to imagine what it must feel like. And all of that without being exploitative or simplifying everything by the false dichotomy of good vs evil although the Rose pre-Ravensbrück does think it is as simple as that which makes her friendship with a German guard all the more impacting.
And it is also “varied” because even though Rose is the main character and narrator, I don’t think she is the heroine. Her personal story is important but Ravensbrück’s is more, the Rabbit’s is more. Rose is almost unimportant. Because she is witness.
I think this is where novel completely diverges from Code Name Verity. Because that first book felt like a deeply personal story of two friends whereas this one is more about the whole. So, going back to Code Name Verity: if you have read it, you are probably thinking: is Rose Under Fire as good? I know because I wondered the same thing.
I have been deeply affected by both books in different ways. Because they are different books even if they have the same setting, and the same themes of loyalty and friendship between ladies. But Code Name Verity as heart-wrenching as it was, also had room for fun gotchas and twists because that was a spy book. The narrative here is drier and more straightforward – as it should be. They are both good books. ____
And then in the middle of it all, the details.
The fact that before the war ended and the Concentration Camps were liberated, the majority of the world thought that the news of what was really happening in those camps that were slowly slipping to the world sounded like anti-Nazi propaganda because who WHO could believe such things?
The shared horror of a forced haircut or ripped nylon tights as a naïve prelude to worse to come; saying grace before eating meagre meals; hysterical laughter; faux school exams; propping up the dead and hiding under planks; Vive La France!; flying around the Eiffel Tower; picnics and stitched gifts; red toenails and whispered poems. Maddie (Maddie!) and any mentions of Julie that brought it all back.
And all the heartache in the world.
The simplest way to finish this review is to go back and to say: MY EMOTIONS.
Let me preface this review by getting the big points out of the way: I loved this book. I loved it deeply. For its characters, its message, its grim and terrible beauty, I loved it.
And, I’ll preface this review by saying that it is a very different book than Code Name Verity – epistolary style aside – but for those differences, it’s actually a more powerful, and more important, book.
I have to echo two sentiments that Ana puts forward: first, I think Ana hits on a very important part of the success of this Rose Under Fire – there is no (or ok, there’s some, but it’s not much) passing of judgement. I recently read a nonfictional account of the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in The Nazi Hunters, which emphatically, repeatedly uses the labels of GOOD and EVIL; of absolute moral right, and absolute moral depravity. I appreciate the layers in Rose Under Fire; there are terrible, unspeakable things that happen and are inflicted by terrible people, but how there are others that are neither good, nor evil, but somewhere in between (prison guard Anna, for example).
Second, as Ana has pointed out in her part of the review, the theme of defiance and its many faces throughout the book is truly remarkable. I loved the heartbreaking depiction of the different levels of resistance and strength, from taking too long to do different tasks, to chasing after and nudging pilotless planes to their demise, to turning out the lights in a concentration camp and throwing handfuls of dirt while screaming to cause chaos. My goodness, how brave and strong and amazing these people all are and were.
These things said, I think what I appreciated the most about this book are the underlying themes of truth, and truth in storytelling. The truth will be heard. This is the single sentiment that we see Rose and her fellow prisoners in Ravensbrück fight for and rally behind, over and over again. Because the truth is what matters; the reality of the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück and the medical experiments they endured, the cold and starvation and hard labor they faced before being murdered. The truth.
It is perhaps unfair to compare this book to Code Name Verity, which is, as Ana says, an internal novel about two best friends, spies, and brilliant, unexpected lies. Rose Under Fire is a very different creature, without the huge walloping twists of the former novel, and more of a straightforward retrospective record of Rose’s life before and after Ravensbrück. It’s an important story, and one that is written with Elizabeth Wein’s beautifully skilled hand – I have to agree with Ana, the iterations of Rose before she tips that doodlebug and is captured by the Nazis is an entirely different Rose that is imprisoned and beaten in Ravensbrück. And that Rose is a different one than the terrified survivor, who fears her newfound space and freedom (to the point where any loud noises, like a telephone ringing, terrify her). The Rose that ends the book – the one that is reunited with her fellow friends and survivors, who goes to medical school following the war and after she has survived surviving – this is the strongest, most powerful Rose of them all. And I deeply appreciated and loved this character, so very much – moreso, I think, than the heroines of Code Name Verity.
Praises all said, the one key area where I felt that Rose Under Fire faltered, however, is in its epistolary narrative. (This perhaps is my own stylistic preference and nitpick, more than anything else.) Rose narrates the story through her journal before Ravensbrück as a daily diary, but after she escapes and survives the concentration camp, the narrative switches to a long, very detailed account of daily life and her encounters over that missing year. To me, this feels more than a little contrived (to be fair, I had the same issue with Code Name Verity and the plausibility gap of a hardened Gestapo officer allowing a young captured spy to write so much in a journal day after day of being imprisoned and divulging nothing of importance). I also was not a huge fan of Rose’s poetry, although I appreciate the importance of lyricism and poetry to the character. Personally, it wasn’t to my taste, but this is completely a matter of personal taste and not a failing of the writing at all.
The only other thing I will say about this book actually has very little to do with the book – and perhaps this is more of a personal reflection, or fodder for a ponderings post, than it is a fair commentary on the actual story itself. (This is code for me saying, please feel free to tune out now!) Still, I feel very strongly that something must be said: Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also the story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally falls into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this and draw awareness to the titles that do exist in these more contemporary, non-WWII centric eras. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from viewpoints other than that of the white, the privileged, and the western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah – if anyone has any other suggestions, please, please let me know.) And that is all. (less)
On a Red Station, Drifting is a science fiction novella by Aliette de Bodard, and its recent nomination...moreOriginal review posted over at the Kirkus blog
On a Red Station, Drifting is a science fiction novella by Aliette de Bodard, and its recent nomination for Best Novella in the 2012 Nebula Awards put it on my radar. I'm glad, since this proved to be a remarkable read.
At first glance, one can see familiar science fiction trappings in its setting and basic premise: At some point in the future, Prosper Space Station is at a crossroads point of its long existence. Its resources are depleted as one of the consequences of an ongoing war, its greatest minds called away to join the fight for the Dai Viet Empire. Worst of all, its artificial intelligence, the Honoured Ancestress, once the mind that connected everyone and offered guidance and protection, is now faltering, ailing and wilting away to unpredictable results.
This familiar setting is just a departure point from which to deeply explore aspects of this imagined future in meaningful ways that combine the private and the public. The excellence here comes from the realm this novella chooses to concern itself with, as well its narrative focus. The former relates to family, tradition and ancestry and how they affect people's lives. Everyone in Prosper Station is related and interconnected both by blood and by the AI’s always present company. To some, this is a positive aspect that offers comfort. To others, it’s a prison that is worth questioning. Ancestry is so important as to be literal, real: To those who are worthy, there are mem-implants of their Ancestors offering guidance and counsel. The more mem-implants one has, the greater the individual.
Of course, the question of what exactly makes one worthy is central to this story. In this version of the future, people are tested for their abilities; those who fail these tests are forever branded as lesser beings, unable to have mem-implants of their Ancestors, often saddled in marriages against their will to greater partners and discriminated against what is perceived as lack of achievement. Interestingly, gender plays no role in this: Lesser and greater partners can be either male or female and a great number of lesser people left behind on Prosper Station are actually male (their greater wives off to war).
These social, cultural, historical strands are examined closer—privately, personally—in the lives of two women, the two main characters that share the narrative focus: Station Mistress Quyen and her distant cousin, a visiting Magistrate named Linh. Linh is an educated official, used to exert power, who shares her mind with several mem-implants of her Ancestors. Her arrival at Prosper Station is what sets things in motion—the reasons for her coming there are a matter of life and death. Quyen effectively runs the Station but, as a lesser individual, she is burdened by her own sense of inferiority which shapes her interactions with most people. Quyen is the only one who truly understands what the Honoured Ancestress’ ailment really means to Prosper.
These two characters are believable, incredibly strong female characters whose strengths lie in how their characterisation allows them to be complex, flawed individuals. Their interactions are fraught with tension and miscommunication stemming from their different sense of self-worth. And each woman’s arc eventually leads her to make choices, those choices a balance of questioning and acceptance.
This is an extremely political story in every sense of the word: on a macro scale of fighting for one’s beliefs in impossible situations and within the microcosm of the domestic, the individual—this dichotomy not really a dichotomy at all, as the micro and macro often intertwine in an inextricable tangle.
This is a beautifully realized story and the characters, plot, theme and writing are expertly crafted. My one regret is that I did not read it before we sent out our Hugo Award Nominations.
…And then, one day in the not so distant future, once On a Red Station, Drifting inevitably becomes the SciFi classic it’s meant to be, we can all look back and remember this horrendous cover with fondness. Maybe.
Ana: I will try my best to be coherent about this book and not to break out the caps lock too much but it will be hard because OH MY GOD. This is the book that rescued me from a horrible reading slump; it is the book that made me realise that Cat Valente is an AWESOME writer (which I already suspected but this settled the matter); it is a book that is so beautifully written and full of incredible imaginative twists and ideas that I constantly had a sense of wonderment reading it; but above all, this is a book I will treasure forever and keep close and go back to, many times in the future. I just know it.
Thea: I have been an unabashed Cat Valente fan ever since I picked up The Orphan’s Tales (thanks to the glowing reviews from trusted bloggers), and I have seriously loved her adult fiction. When Ana sent me an excitable email (replete with many exclamation points and capslocking) that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland was available for free download, I joined in the jubilation and immediately scurried my way to Ms. Valente’s website. And then I read the book, and then I fell in love. This is the first book from Ms. Valente that I’ve read that doesn’t employ the nested story-within-a-story, alternating chapters, narrators, and storylines – and even without that particular flavor, Ms. Valente’s writing shines. I, like Ana, loved this book, and I, like Ana, plan on rereading and treasuring this gem of a novel countless times over.
On the Plot:
Ana: It opens one fine day, with (The Somewhat Heartless) Twelve-year-old September being invited to visit Fairyland by the Green Wind. She says yes (and how could she not, being a fierce and adventurous girl?) and travels forthwith by means of Leopard (which is obviously, the best way to travel, if you ask me). In Fairyland, she will have many adventures and meet new friends including a half-library Wyvern (who most certainly is NOT a dragon) and a blue boy named Saturday. But also: this is where she might lose many things (including her shadow) and meet the all-powerful Marquess who sends her on a quest to retrieve a mysterious casket and what lies inside may well change Fairyland forever.
I am in AWE, folks, in AWE at Cat Valente’s creativity. This book is so full of wonderfulness that it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with the narrative itself, with an omnipotent narrator who sometimes interrupts the story to speak directly to the reader. It is so easy to get this wrong, to have these interruptions jarring and disrupting the narrative but not here: here it works well, and it adds to the story rather than disturbing it.
Then there is the creativity, the imagination: like for example, a creature that believes himself to be the son of a library and another one that is a soap golem; there is a herd of wild bicycles as well as flying leopards.
But this is only SURFACE, because underneath each creature has an underlying idea or concept or issue that is addressed with subtly and beauty: from a search for self-identity (if Wyvern is not the son of a library, then who is he?) to the horrible truths of slavery; from selfless devotion to political unrest. This is a book that celebrates fairytales without ever being derivative and never forgetting that they can be dark and gruesome. It sort of reminds me of Peter Pan and Neverland and how every child wants to visit Neverland and its wonders but let’s not forget: it is indeed a dangerous place inhabited by bloodthirsty people including young boys who are there because their mothers and nannies lost them.
Because in the end, I think that the most important thing to say about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is: you cannot have adventures without grief. And there is no shying away from it. But despite the grief and darker undertones, there is a lot of love and friendship here enough to – I can’t resist any longer, allow me to break out the caps lock- FILL MY HEART WITH JOY.
And then, to make things even BETTER, this book has the most amazing illustrations!
I mean, seriously. How can anyone resist?
Thea: Yes, yes, yes. What Ana said. The Girl (I am truncating this title because it is cumbersome to type, and much like September, who loves “A through L” as her friend Wyvern’s name, it is far too many syllables) is a gorgeous, imaginative novel that celebrates the daring-do of youth, the magic of the unknown, and the pitfalls and horrors of power. Also, this is decidedly unlike any other novels I’ve read by Ms. Valente, not only because the narrative style is more traditional, but also because the prose is ever-so-slightly screwball (I mean that in the best way). I completely agree with Ana that the omniscient narrator is a fantastic touch and sets the overall tone for the novel – doing the whimsical, breaking-the-fourth-wall type of narration can easily go so wrong – providing levity and whimsy, but tempered with actual thematic depth (the aforementioned examinations of slavery, of polity, and so on and so forth). This is a tall order, and to accomplish all of that in a children’s book, without ever becoming preachy or ham-handed, or completely frivolous is flabbergasting. I am honestly in awe of how Ms. Valente managed to weave together some of the most absurd story elements (migrating bicycles, hello!) into a cogent, poignant story.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is an amalgam of some of my most treasured stories, conjuring comparisons to The Neverending Story, Peter Pan, but most of all, it feels to me like a modern, more-fun version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – and if anyone is worthy to earn comparison to these classic works of children’s fantasy literature (even surpassing them), it is Catherynne Valente.
On the Characters:
Ana: There is a whole plethora of wonderful characters in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and I fell in love with every single one of them. I felt so bad for the lonely Soap Golem who was still waiting for the return of her Queen; I felt tremendously sorry for Saturday and how terrible it was that his entire life was about granting wishes and the horrendous way he was made to grant those wishes. Hey, I even sympathise with the villain, the Marquess, once her full story is disclosed – scrap that: I completely related to the Marquess and her motivations and maybe even rooted a little for her. But just a little.
Then of course, there is September, our main character, who is so fierce and a bit heartless that she leaves her house and her family behind without even thinking twice – but that decision is brought back and thought about throughout the entire book. She is dedicated, extremely loyal, compassionate, creative and just such a cool young heroine.
Thea: Yep, this is another one of those reviews where I am sitting in the back nodding my head emphatically, playing hype-man to Ana’s lead. What she said. I loved the lovely Soap Golem, and I loved SATURDAY, and I loved the Marquess (because, having been something of a heartless child myself, I have a soft spot for characters like this), and I loved A-through-L (or “Ell”) and the Green Wind and the leopard, and of course, more than anything, I loved September. September is not particularly pretty or smart or brilliant, but she is September – a normal, if slightly heartless, little girl from the decidedly unromantic land of Omaha, who is swept up by the Green Wind and embarks on an Adventure (with a capital “A”).
What is not to love about this book, I ask you? Nothing. It is perfect.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is a small beautifully packaged bundle of perfect JOY. It is as awesome as a quest-coming of age story can be and I highly recommend it to everybody who loves fairytales, awesome heroines and beautiful writing. This goes straight into my top 10 of 2011.
Thea: I completely and wholeheartedly agree with Ana. It is a fantastical sort of bildungsroman (I have always wanted to use that word and something about Catherynne Valente encourages one to stretch and use vocabulary outside of one’s daily vernacular), a descriptive fairytale, and an imaginative feast of the bizarre and wonderful. I adored this book, and it too has a locked position as one of my top 10 books of 2011 (even if that is technically cheating since it was published prior to this year).(less)
And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.
Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.
WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.
The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.
September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.
We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:
“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”
We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names. The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier. Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”
We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:
“We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an ‘opinion’ “.
We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.
And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.
A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.
In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.
My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.
Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”
So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.
BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.
So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.
But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.
There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:
“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”
The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:
“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy – which vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair – but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next – ta-da! – a man, as if someone would even notice the difference.”
So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.
He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.
Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:
“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”
And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.
The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.
It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.
Twilight Robbery/Fly Trap , the sequel to the excellent Fly By Night is a Shiny Beacon of Hope in the middle of a rather dreary week here at The Book...moreTwilight Robbery/Fly Trap , the sequel to the excellent Fly By Night is a Shiny Beacon of Hope in the middle of a rather dreary week here at The Book Smugglers’ HQ.
A few months after leaving Mandelion, Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent (as well as the murderous Goose Saracen) are on the run again. Unfortunately for the three amigos, Clent’s past shenanigans (lies!cons!theft!) prevent them from going anywhere near any of the towns nearby. Their chosen destination for the time being is a place called Toll – not only because this is a place strategically situated this side of a river they need to cross but also because they come by a Dastardly Plot that might involve some of its most Prominent Citizens. And where Prominent Citizens are involved, a Reward must surely follow.
Visitors may neither enter nor leave Toll without paying a price and whilst Mosca and Clent manage to get money for their entry toll, they still need to find a way to pay for their way out. Unfortunately for them, Toll has many rules and they are given only three days to hustle the money – if they can’t find money to leave at the end of those three days, Mosca will be sent to the mysteriously dangerous Toll-by-Night.
Because you see, Toll is a town divided. By day, the city is a paradise of well-behaved citizens who cease to exist at dusk, when the villainous citizens of Toll-by-Night start their existence. The citizens of Toll do not cease to exist at dusk or dawn. Not at all. They are in fact hiding in abject fear behind locked doors – they do exist but they are not allowed to. Just how this has reached this point in Toll is one of the main storylines and Mosca is at the centre of it all.
More than that, in Frances Hardinge’s world, words are dangerous and names have power. And this is all the more true in Toll: what separate its citizens are their names. This world’s main religious system is constructed around the worshipping of the Beloveds (kinda like Saints), each Beloved is known for its attributes and is allocated a certain number of hours each day. If you are born under a certain Beloved’s hours, you are named after that Beloved. In this world, your name is what defines you and even shapes your life. You can never lie about your name because that’s who you are. Mosca was born under Palpitattle, “He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns” and according to Toll’s Books of the Hours, children born under this Beloved are “judged to be villainous, verminous, and everywhere that they’re not wanted”. This is why Mosca will be sent to Toll-By-Night after her three days are up: because that’s where she is meant to be. This is obviously nothing but simplistic arbitrary profiling and Mosca’s arc is to think about what this means, if this is true or not and if not, how does one fight to subvert these ideas.
“‘Just between you and me,’ Mosca whispered, ‘radicalism is all about walkin’ on the grass.’”
Because subversion is what Mosca does best (within the story but also in term of subtext). I absolutely LOVE Mosca. This is a complex female character that is allowed to be a budding atheist, a growing radical revolutionary, someone who will do absolutely everything to survive, and who often feels envy and anger but also compassion and empathy.
"“Revenge is a luxury reserved for the powerful, rich or unusually vicious.” He broke into her thoughts. “We cannot afford it, Mosca, be grateful that you have escaped this adventure with your skin.”
But I don’t want to be grateful, I’m tired of being kicked about like a pebble, and told that I have to be happy that it’s no worse. I’ve had enough. It’s time the pebble kicked back."
Just like in Fly By Night, the writing of Twilight Robbery/Fly Trap is extraordinary. Frances Harding has a way with words that for me, is at present, unparalleled:
"Revenge is a dish best served unexpectedly and from a distance – like a thrown trifle."
"Desperation is a millstone…It wears away at the very soul, grinding away pity, kindness, humanity and courage. But sometimes it whets the mind to a sharpened point and creates moments of true brilliance."
Beyond all that, there are many different subplots, including one involving Toll’s Luck (the one thing that makes Toll such a wonderful – that was irony by the way – place to live) which was SUPERBLY constructed. Sure, it does require a certain suspension of disbelief that the divide within Toll would be upheld for so long and basically all it took was a little girl with a plan to question it. On the other hand, one can certainly argue that fear is a powerful motivation – which is one of the points made in the story.
TO CONCLUDE: Twilight Robbery/Fly Trap is amazing. Brilliant. Funny. Fun. Poignant. Just like its predecessor, it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
It has also sent me into a state of CREATIVE PANIC (TM Mosca Mye): I am bolting at high speed to buy ALL THE BOOKS by Frances Harding and proceeding with great alacrity to read them AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. (less)
Kathy H. is a thirty-year old carer and a graduate from a secluded, elite academy called Hailsham. In an alternate 1990s Englan...moreFull review online HERE
Kathy H. is a thirty-year old carer and a graduate from a secluded, elite academy called Hailsham. In an alternate 1990s England, Kathy prepares herself for the next stage of her life as a donor and reminisces about her past as a student and her childhood friends Ruth and Tommy. Written in a deceptively direct and uncomplicated narrative, Mr. Ishiguro writes a haunting, elegiac tale about the meaning and mystery of life. The subject matter of the novel and plot is straightforward, as bluntly simply as Kathy’s narration: three young friends grow up in an idyllic school in the English countryside, where they are encouraged to create works of art while they learn about the world and their place in it. The book is split into three different parts, each representing a stage in Kathy’s life. Part one begins with her time as a student at Hailsham, where she befriends Ruth and Tommy, and part two follows these three friends as they graduate and move to The Cottages to live with other alumni from similar academies across the country. In part three, Kathy has become a carer, and she, Ruth and Tommy cross paths once more. All this reminiscing leads up to an ultimate, haunting fourth act (Kathy’s transition from a carer to a donor), but it is one that we do not read on the page. As Kathy’s memories and the truth about her childhood coalesce into a larger, sharper picture, Never Let Me Go becomes a heartbreaking fictional memoir that asks resounding questions about the nature of humanity, and the depths of the human soul.
The only other book I have read by Mr. Ishiguro is his Booker Prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, in which a butler named Stevens blindly and proudly absorbs himself in his profession, to the extent that he alienates the woman he loves, his father, and is blind even to the tendencies of his Nazi sympathizing employer. In Mr. Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, he explores similar territory with his characters that are so consumed by the subtext and minutia of their cliques and daily lives that they never notice the larger picture – but the readers do. And what an ominous picture it is.
Never Let Me Go is a book about characters, but it also treads into the realm of dystopian speculative/science fiction. I won’t spoil exactly HOW this novel falls under the SFF umbrella (even though it becomes suspect from even a few chapters in); suffice to say that it does, and Never Let Me Go does it in the tradition of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy – but sans any literary pretentiousness. And, like the best works of the dystopian cannon, the strength of the novel lies not just in some catchy premise or flashy plot techniques, but rather in the strength of its characters. This isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, where the impact of the story relies on one huge twist; rather, the beauty of Mr. Ishiguro’s work is in quiet revelation and thought-provoking subtext.
As such, Never Let Me Go is a character driven novel. Built entirely on the first person narrated memories of Kathy, this is a book that is breathtaking in its subtlety. Each of the three friends are gorgeously drawn in Kathy’s memories and Mr. Ishiguro’s direct prose. Ruth, the forceful, outgoing ringleader of the girls at Hailsham becomes Kathy’s best friend, and their relationship is stretched and tested as they grow up. Tommy is an outsider at the academy with his fiery temper and unpredictable tantrums, but he too becomes Kathy’s good friend and confidante, as she reaches out to him. Kathy herself is revealed to be the quiet member of the group, not as strangely angry as Tommy nor a leader like Ruth, but keenly observant. Kathy’s entire narrative is constantly preoccupied with the small subtleties of her friendship with the domineering Ruth, her social standing at Hailsham, and her initial worry for Tommy. At first, it seems that this novel is much ado about nothing, taking place entirely in Kathy’s mind with her myriad perceptions of the nuanced power politics of female cliques. But as Kathy’s narrative progresses and the characters gain more color and the backdrop of Kathy’s world comes into focus, significant, impossible to ignore questions about the nature of the human soul are raised. Are Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy’s interactions “normal”? Why wouldn’t anyone in their situation simply try to run away – or is it simply human nature to accept what limitations and rules you are taught from birth? There are many interpretations possible with this novel, which is part of its beauty. Add to this the sparse, forthright and unconsciously gorgeous writing of Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s easy to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Never Let Me Go is easily one of the finest novels I’ve read this year, of any genre. Even better, in my opinion, than The Remains of the Day. This is what reading is all about.
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a r...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a retelling of the Orpheus myth (but not like you know it).
All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.
So, unnamed narrator narrates: about her life and the life of her best-friend-almost-sister Aurora; and the way that she is always taking care of beautiful, volatile Aurora. There’s always been the two of them and their love and dedication and loyalty to each other. And there is a passion for music here that seeps from the narrative and that passion becomes almost tangible when they meet a musician named Jack. His gift is amazing and when he plays, everybody listens. And our unnamed narrator falls in lust and in love with Jack almost immediately (and definitely completely).
And even though the world we all inhabit is very much one of real things as it just so happens – as our narrator finds out – it is also one where things are real. So…when we say that everybody listens to Jack and that everybody pays attention to Aurora, we mean that literally. There is myth come to life here (and why the Pacific Northwest? Because “they” are everywhere) and the unnamed narrator – who is not beautiful or talented – sits in the margins, looking from the outside, unable to follow where they eventually go.
And the narrative is kind of dream-like and there are parts where there is a bit of stream of consciousness (kinda like this review) and as the story progress it becomes both more focused and more meandering if that makes any sense at all. What strikes me the most about the story is how even though the plot deals with life and death and danger and terror, the narrative is still extremely insulated because as worldly as the narrator seems to be with the parties and the sex and the drugs and the freedom, she is still a 17-year-old girl who makes snap judgements about people and whose narrow view of those she loves and about herself is still informed by her inexperience.
And I love her for all of that. I love that the narrator and the story is about complex relationships with close family, close friends, and sisterhood. Also with lovers and how love shapes her view of the world. So inasmuch as the narrator falls irrevocably in love with Jack, she is still involved in other stuff and with other people – I loved her relationship with her mother and with her friend Raoul. Plus there is a lot of negotiating that happens between how freely she has given her body and her heart and the fact that sometimes this is not enough to the other person. So this is definitely Coming-of-Age as much as it is Quest (when are those not the same?) . And central to this is also this self-awareness and this slow learning curve about what it means to be talented and beautiful which includes astute observations about our world and how we choose to look at people and allocate them “worth”. Because this is also a mythology retelling it all comes together:
"Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone."
Which just goes to show how these mythological beings (also EVERYBODY on the planet) are complete assholes who randomly and arbitrarily assign value to people.
Because here is the thing: as much as the narrator constantly tells us that she is unworthy because she is not typically beautiful or talented like her friends the fact remains that she is equally AWESOME. Even though she is flawed (who isn’t?), there is loyalty, and dedication, and determination and talent here in spades. Probably my favourite quote:
"I will not let the terror of the dark get hold of me. If this is a test, I will fucking pass it. I will pass any test this creepy skeleton in a crappy suit can give me. Let them turn me into stone or water or flowers. I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here."
Dear narrator, you are so awesome and I don’t even know your name.
To sum up: great book. Really reminded me of Imaginary Girls and September Girls in terms of tone, narrative and themes.
All Our Pretty Songs can be read as a self-contained, standalone book but I understand it is the beginning of a series. I don’t know where this is going but I will follow and I will not even look back. (less)
Princess Lissla Lissar is the daughter of a heroic and handsome king, who won the hand of the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms. Every night, Lissar listens to her nursemaid spin the same tale - the story of her father, winning her mother's hand over the other six Kings by completing an impossible, superhuman task. Every day and every night, Lissar hears the story of her mother's incredible beauty and her father's heroic deeds, and how much everyone in the kingdom loves their royal leaders. On the rare occasions that Lissar gets to see her parents, or even interact with other children, she is always in the background, neglected and forgotten in the face of the stunning beauty and splendor of her parents.
But one day, the beautiful queen is not quite as beautiful as she once was, and loses her will to live. Before she dies, she commissions a great and terrible painting of her unparalleled beauty, and with her dying breath she makes her husband promise that he will only marry again if his bride is as beautiful as she. Racked by his grief, the King agrees, driven mad by his grief. As the kingdom mourns, Princess Lissar withdraws further away from the prying eyes and games of the court - her only true friend is her beloved hound, Ash, and together she and Ash spend the next quiet years in a secluded part of the castle, away from the eyes of Lissar's father.
When Lissar turns seventeen, however, everything changes as her father's feverish gaze seizes on Lissar's blooming beauty and her resemblance to her mother. Following a nightmarish birthday ball, the King declares that he will marry Princess Lissla Lissar in three days. Horrified and alone, Lissar tries to lock herself away from her father, but to no avail - he breaks down her doors, beats and rapes his daughter in the night. Battered, terrified, but with a stubborn will to live, Lissar stumbles away from the palace with only the company of her loyal dog Ash, and makes her way through the cold, cruel woods.
After a long, cold winter, Lissar is able to heal, though she blocks out all memory of her past. When the weather warms, she leaves her isolated home in the woods for a new kingdom and earns a job in the palace kennels. Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself - but she will be forced to confront her past once and for all, with a future of hope and happiness waiting for her.
Deerskin is not an easy book to read. Incredibly disturbing, painful, and triggering, this is NOT a book for everyone. That said, as horrific and raw as this book is, Deerskin is also a resonant, powerful, and empowering read.
From a writing perspective, Robin McKinley tends towards the verbose and the ornate - sometimes this works for her books, and sometimes (in my opinion) it does not. I am happy to say that Deerskin is one of the successful endeavors, with its beautiful, languid prose, vivid images and descriptions. McKinley is retelling a fairy tale, after all, and Deerskin is a decidedly dreamlike book with heavy folklore overtones. As Philip Pullman discusses in his version of the story "Thousandfurs" (and in general for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm), the magic of a fable lies in its telling, and Deerskin excels in this regard with its lush turns of phrase. Even when describing something as simple as cleaning a hut in the middle of winter, or the techniques to feed ailing puppies (both events that occur in this text, mind you), McKinley makes the story effortlessly interesting and surprisingly ethereal.
But beyond the setting, the telling, and the world, Deerskin is really a book that comes down to a horrific story, and a young woman's stubborn will to live. Heroine Lissar, who becomes Deerskin and Moonwoman, is the sole figure at the heart of this book, and on whose shoulders the tale's success or failure rests. And let me say this once with feeling: Lissar is an amazing, gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring heroine. I loved her character, I cried for her character, I rooted wholeheartedly for her character. Lissar's growing dread defines the first part of this book, as she looks into her father's eyes for the first time and sees something she cannot name, but something that frightens her deeply. Like a nightmare, the next years of her young life unfold with her always pulling away from her father's notice, until it comes to a crashing, horrific climax following her seventeenth birthday. This, for me, was an incredibly challenging read - I had to keep putting the book down because it was so disturbing - but Robin McKinley does a phenomenal job of building this terror and claustrophobia, and then segueing the book from one of fear to one of hope. Because as dark and horrific as the first part of the story is, as Lissar flees her old life and begins to heal and gradually comes to confront her past, it's an amazing and empowering arc. And, it has a happy ending - one where Lissar is able to confront and defeat the monster of her past, and have a future of happiness and life.
I could wax on about Lissar and Ash (the most touching, wonderful relationship between a woman and her closest animal companion that I have read probably...ever), about the folkloric elements with the Moonwoman that helps Lissar find her way, about the slow simmering relationship between Lissar and Prince Ossin...but perhaps those are all things that are best discovered by the reader. Suffice it to say, I loved all of these different threads and Robin McKinley's skill at weaving them together into a complete story.
I don't know if I'll read Deerskin again in the near future - most likely not. But I feel stronger and smarter and alive for reading it, and I absolutely recommend it. (less)
Warning: this review contains necessary spoilers for book 1 as well some minor spoilers for book 2. If you...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Warning: this review contains necessary spoilers for book 1 as well some minor spoilers for book 2. If you read book 1, you should be ok.
The day I started reading The Broken Kingdoms was the day I did not go to bed at all. I’ve been really busy lately with Work and Real Life and my reading time has unfortunately suffered as a consequence: I always used to read till about midnight every day but these days this is a rare occurrence as I tend to kaput way before that. Enter The Broken Kingdoms, the sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (one of my top 10 reads of 2010), A.K.A the book that has kept me awake until I was done reading it. Because it is FABULOUS and I loved it as much as I loved its predecessor and that is no mean feat given how that book blew my mind away.
It’s been ten years since the events at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The world and its people are still in the process of understanding what exactly happened that day when a God fell, another was freed and a Goddess was reborn. How exactly those events affect the political system that kept the Thousand Kingdoms under the rule of the Arameri (the Human family that held the power of Gods) and the religious system that sustained everything is still left to be seen. Because the cohesiveness of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is effectively broken: the Arameri have lost most of their power and Kingdoms are regaining their freedom and starting to stand on their own feet; the one Order that worshiped Bright Itempas, the One God that ruled them all, started to lose its importance just as other Gods – major and minor – have come back and entered the worshipping roster.
In a smaller scale, people are minding their own business around the city. Oree, the narrator of this book, is a blind artist (she can’t see with her eyes, but she can see with her magic) trying to make her living but having a hard time staying away from Gods and Godlings’s business – she is, as per her own words, a woman plagued by Gods. The former lover of Madding, a minor Godling whom she still has strong (reciprocated) feelings for and friends with a strange figure that turned up at a rubbish bin near her house and who she ended up inviting to stay over. This bloke whom she calls Shiny for his ability to shine when the sun is rising, speaks very little and dies a lot only to resuscitate almost immediately. If you read the previous book, you will know who that is – and why he is the way he is. Oree doesn’t – at least not to start with – and part of the fun of this book is to see how long it will take her to figure out who he really is. Speaking of fun, please allow me an aside: oh, the cameos. I loved them.
The real plot kicks-in when Oree comes across a dead Godling, something that should have been an impossibility as only other Gods could ever have the power to do something like this. This whodunit is part of a larger plot that has to do with religious fanatics and political factions which in turn has to do with the even larger question of identity, of the relationship between Gods and Humans and ultimately the power balance between the three major Gods of this pantheon.
And it is in this combination of the small scale and the big picture that lays the excellence of this series. Oree is the main protagonist of this novel and the murder-mystery the moving force of the plot but they are not the centre of this universe – no, the central aspect of these novels are the three gods and their relationship with each other and with the universe at large. How they balance each other (or not), how their presence and/or absence influence the universe and how their relationship with puny humans have consequences.
This is fascinating because it is so well played out by the author. She somehow manages to make Oree important even as it is more than clear that her importance is a fleeting thing. She is after all, mortal, nothing but a blink in time in contrast to Gods and forces that are basically…eternal. She is important because she matters to the people who know her- like any other person in the world (ok, so perhaps she matters just a little bit more in the end given her heritage but still). Her narrative is awesome. Granted: it is not as spectacular as the one in the previous book but I have yet to find a narrative that engaged me so much as Yeine’s – all the backs and forths were exactly what I loved the most about that book. Yeine’s narrative was spectacular because it was grand, tense and urgent. Oree’s is less so, it is more friendly, focused and intimate – almost like a conversation. In fact, yes, it feels as though Oree is conversing with the reader (the truth is something else entirely but not that far from this. How is that for cryptic?). Because of this sense of intimacy, I felt her fear, her love, her chagrin, her grief, her isolation and loneliness as well as her fierceness and I loved her.
One of my favourite scenes is when Shiny tells his side of his story and although I felt for him a (small. Very, very small) degree of sympathy, I was more interested in hearing how Oree was relaying his story, how she felt about it and how she reacted to it. There is a great examination of how meaningful regret – even true, heartfelt regret – is in face of terrible acts. And how cool was it to see her, as a blind painter, understanding and examining the nature of Light?
Although there are themes such as identity, freedom, humans x Gods (not to mention, of course the overarching story of the three Gods) that connect The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, the two books are very different. I would say that The Broken Kingdoms is less dramatic and is more thoughtful and quiet than its predecessor. It is SO sad and has an extremely bittersweet (emphasis on the bitter) yet fitting and therefore, perfect ending. It would have made my top 10 last year had I read it in time and I have been beating myself up for waiting this long to read it. I will not make the same mistake with the last book, The Kingdom of Gods. It is on my nightstand staring at me – I predict another sleepless night. And I welcome it. (less)