This was yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, and I didn’t get it together to post then. So, here’s a late version!
It’s December. I woke up this morning and felt like I could breathe for the first time in a month. November is always a difficult time for me personally, because of the time change, the change of seasons, the anniversary of my dad’s death at the end of the month. This year, in addition to all of those things, there’s been the heartbreak and sorrow and anger of the election. Of trying to figure out what to do and where we go from here. Of sitting with friends and their pain as they face an unknown and terrifying future.
Oh, and in addition to all of the above–more than enough as it is!–I managed to render my car undriveable and had to spend the last two weeks looking for a new one. Thankfully, that search is now done, and I have a new (to me!) car.
With all that being said, there were also moments of great beauty in the midst of it all–a wonderful visit, a friend stopping by to give me a hug, lots of time on the couch with Wimsey sitting on me. I’m so thankful for all the people who have comforted and reached out to me.
I haven’t managed to write a review since November 9th. I was in the middle of writing about Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, but when I came back to finish the post everything I had written felt so naive and trite that I couldn’t find a way forward. But I have been and am thinking of a passage I had quoted, from a letter Alli wrote:
Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too. There is no way I can be peacefully happy in this society and in this skin. I am committed to Uneasy Street. I like it; it is my idea that this street leads to the future, and that I am being true to a way of life which is not here yet, but is more real than what is here.
I have a sense that what I write here and how I engage with books, reviewing, etc may be undergoing some deep shift, which is related to the wider political landscape but isn’t entirely because of it. We’ll see. I’m going to try to pull together some thoughts about a few books I’ve read recently. We can’t–and I don’t want to–go back to “normal” while at the same time I do feel that continuing to read, write, think about, and talk about books and stories is vitally important.
I’m going to close with a few links to things that I’ve found helpful recently. Feel free to share your own!
Raise Your Hand If You’re Gonna Fight: a daily newsletter with 1-2 action items–helpful for deciding what to do to fight today
“Holding it together” at Things Mean A Lot: Ana is always thoughtful and this post was especially helpful for me last week
Likewise, Theodora Goss’s post “How We Live Now” has some good thoughts about principles rather than actions as such
Jenny at Reading the End has an amazing round up of election-related links, which I have only dipped into because of emotional and mental energy, but which contain a wide variety of voices
Lory at Emerald City Book Review always runs a fantastic event called Witch Week, after the book by Diana Wynne Jones. This year, she asked if I’d be willing to do an interview with Kat Howard to talk about her first novel, Roses and Rot. I was pleased and honored to do so! You can read the full interview here, but here’s a snippet.
Fairy tales are so often about girls in a magical and dangerous landscape–I’m interested in how that’s reflected in Roses and Rot. Were there any particular things you wanted to show in your landscapes and in Imogen’s reaction to them?
I think if you read fairy tales, you know that once the character heads into the woods, that’s when the story really starts happening. It’s where things are allowed to get a little bit strange, a little bit dangerous. I mean, Stephen Sondheim has an entire musical about this! Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream — all the parts with the fairies in happen once the human characters are in the woods. And so really, the landscape choice was just a way of working with this idea.
Thank you, Lory, for thinking of me, and thank you to Kat Howard for her thoughtful answers!
Spoilers for The Fifth Season below!
I wanted to take a look at two books which fall on the literary end of speculative fiction, but which are also very aware of the genre’s conventions and influences. Which is to say, that they are both complex and sophisticated, while remaining very much a part of SF. Also, I am still thinking about them two months after first reading them.
To begin with, I have now read two books by Helen Oyeyemi, and both were bewildering and beautiful. I started with White is For Witching and then read Mr. Fox, and let me say that I have no idea what is happening in Mr. Fox and I love it.
Except that this isn’t quite true. I do know what is happening, but Oyeyemi is writing in a non-linear way, trusting the reader to make connections between disparate times and places and characters. So the text feels both impenetrable and exactly right. I understand it in the way I understand difficult poetry: I can’t say what it means, but I know what it means. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, to steal a line from Yeats.
In this case, Oyeyemi is circling around several related ideas. Mr. Fox is about stories: the stories we tell, the stories we’re a part of, the stories we consume. And it’s about fairy tales, which of course are stories with extra power. It’s about patterns: who gets to tell the stories, who is featured in them, and how they are portrayed. At the center, the tangled heart of this book, is the relationship between the male novelist and his muse. The book uses this relationship to talk about male consumption of women, in the sense of fictional portrayals but also emotional labor. And it talks about women and their relationship to each other, their resistance and/or non-resistance to what men ask of them.
In short, this is a book that demands attention and energy to give up its meaning. It is coherent, but it doesn’t boil down to a simple argument or theory. It takes delight in taking you by surprise, especially in the moments when you think you finally have a grasp on what’s going on.
The second book I wanted to talk about is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Many people have already talked about this book’s strengths, so on a certain level I feel like anything I say is just a matter of “me too!” However, I’ve been reading Jemisin’s books for a few years now, and I remain fascinated by how deftly she plays with big concepts and assumptions about story.
In The Fifth Season one of the big twists is the revelation that the three main characters–Essen, Syen, and the “you” of the second person narration–are all the same person at different times in her life. There’s a convention in epic fantasy that the story feature lots of different characters and viewpoints. Here, Jemisin trades on that convention brilliantly, as the reader slowly realizes the truth. The question of how these three parts of the same person fit together propelled me through the second half of the book.
But on a larger scale, Jemisin starts off with the end of the world, the act that causes this world to fall apart. I keep thinking about the end of the prologue:
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.
Not only does it set the stakes for the rest of the story, but it’s a brilliant almost-echo of Eliot. And indeed, part of what’s agonizingly effective in this book is the extent to which it’s all a whimper. The revelations of the last chapter or so change that to a certain extent, but most of the story is fueled by this tension between knowledge and ignorance. Who knows that something bad is coming, and who believes this is just another Season. Jemisin shows us her hand and then unfolds all the decisions, all the little moment which lead up to the cataclysm.
It would be easy for all these different parts–the narrators, the structure of the narrative itself, the looming apocalyptic threat–to end up feeling like tricks. But they don’t. Instead, they deepen and enrich the story, so that when you reach the end, it feels real and raw and devastating.
In fact, this is a large part of what I admire about both Mr. Fox and The Fifth Season is the way in which the authorial choices are made in service to the story that’s being told. Neither books are easy; both books ask something of the reader; attention, sympathy for difficult people, patience to unravel the pattern. But on the other hand, neither book has style with no purpose. It’s the marriage of story and style that I’ve found myself returning to since I finished reading, because it’s somewhat rare but also so lovely when it’s pulled off.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis: I was so excited for this book–a new Connie Willis! And then, although I read the whole thing in one gulping evening, I ended up sadly disappointed. It had all the elements of her beloved books but it wasn’t cohesive. And most of all, I was bothered by the implications of the story. The romance; the pseudo-Irishness that didn’t succeed in it satire; the weird element of ethnic purity; the tired idea that we are all too connected. Ana’s review at The Book Smugglers sums up my feelings well.
Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: Talked about this one here!
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: I appreciate what this book is doing a lot–the sweeping, epic feel, the star-crossed romance across time and space, the lush and gorgeous prose. Chokshi engages with mythology and stories on several levels and in really interesting ways. I’m just not personally as drawn to the kind of romance and epic story that this is (which is true for several other well-loved books in a similar vein). This isn’t a book that is for me as a reader, but it is definitely one for lots of other readers out there.
Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff: review coming soon!
Flawed by Cecelia Ahern: I was curious about Ahern’s first YA book–I know she’s a respected adult author–and how it would read. I think she managed the transition to a different audience well. Her teenagers do read as teenagers and her take on dystopia is really strong and doesn’t pull punches. The last part of the book didn’t work quite as well for me, but overall I think this is one with a lot to chew on.
Something New by Lucy Knisley: Lovely story about Knisley’s romance and wedding. She weaves in a number of thoughts about marriage and dating and what that means in this day and age. While I differ on approach and belief in a number of areas, a lot of what she said also rang true to me. A great mix of charming and thoughtful.
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake: So strong on plotting and premise–three queens are always born as triplets, each with their own deadly gifts, but only one can rule–and yet oddly flat for me on characterization. The ending also felt less like an ending and more like a hook for the next book. However, that twist is interesting enough that I’ll probably try to read the next one when it comes out!
As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds: I feel like this is just stating the obvious, but Reynolds is so, so good at voice. Everyone in this book feels like a real, distinct character, even though we get them all filtered through Gene’s perspective. And there’s also a great sense of what a kid would be concerned with, that neither talks down to the audience nor turns Gene into some ultra-wise prodigy. Thoughtful and nuanced, this is definitely one I’ll recommend.
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab: I hate to admit it, but this one didn’t work nearly as well as I wanted it to. Mainly, it felt long. Once I reached a certain point, I felt much more interested and invested in the main characters. But I think if I hadn’t been reading for the Cybils, I likely would have put it down before I got there.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: This is now one of those books that I’m always re-reading in bits and pieces here and there. I noticed this time through how much of Maia’s journey is learning to live with the wounds of his past without acting in bitterness or letting them define him.
Goldenhand by Garth Nix: So, I love Sabriel and enjoyed the other earlier books about the Old Kingdom that I’ve read. I was intrigued by this one, especially since it sounded like it would tie together some of the strands from the other books. Which it did! And the story here is engaging enough. But I found my enjoyment hampered by two facts: I expected a depth and richness that I didn’t find here, and I think this book could have used another round of copy-editing. A small thing, and not Nix’s fault as such, but also jarring enough to bump me out of the story a couple of times.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Eagar’s prose is really sharp and the interplay of the family history and Carol’s slow growth worked nicely. However, I think this one is on the long side. I don’t know if this is quite fair to the book, but I wanted a little more engagement with cultural and social issues as well–which I say mostly because I felt like they were almost present, or there in a kind of ghostly way, but not fully fleshed out.
The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters: review coming soon!
A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee: I absolutely loved 95% of this book–the characters! the historical details! the sense of landscape and setting! all the bits about learning to be who you really are! It’s thoughtful and sharp and lovely. However, I also have some questions about the way Kitty was portrayed, which seemed to use the Victorian trope of the pure, wild orphan child without pushing back much at the social problems that create that condition.
I didn’t intend to take a break at all, and definitely not a 2 week break! But there’s been a lot going on in my non-book life recently–some really good things and some more challenging things–and something had to go. However, I really miss blogging and will definitely be back asap. Hopefully next week! In the meantime I will leave you with a happy cat sitting on his person and getting some good pets.