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.
I read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.
For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.
There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.
Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.
I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.
The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.
This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Candlewick; YA historical fiction
After writing my post for yesterday, I started to think about other books that I love that feature sisters centrally. Sisterhood can be a really powerful theme in books, partially because that relationship can be fraught and complex and intense. (For the record, my own sister is one of my favorite people in the world.) But it’s also a way to look at women in relation with each other in a way that is really special.
These are far from the only books I could have chosen! In fact, narrowing it down to 10 was really tough. (I took out Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Of Mice and Magic, because I suspect you can guess my feelings on those two already.)
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
Chime by Franny Billingsley
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet
PS I Still Love You by Jenny Han
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
Rot and Ruin by Kat Howard
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
The Gaither Sisters trilogy by Rita Williams-Garcia
I have said quite a bit about how much I loved Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine when I first read it. I am happy to say that rereading it only added more depth and appreciation for what Valentine is doing here. Jo is one of the most wonderful, heartbreaking characters I can think of, and I’m still amazed by how well the other characters are done, even the most minor ones.
Thanks to a comment from Kate in librarian book club, I really noticed the fairy-tale-ness this time through. Even though Valentine is playing fast and loose with the specifics, she also hearkens back to fairy tales in some really interesting ways. Sometimes this happens in the choice of language, which is deceptively simple and detached while actually full of emotional punches. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”)
There’s also their father’s detachment and unkindness, which is present in the original fairy tale (you cannot convince me that king was a good parent). It transplants surprisingly well to this setting, because Valentine is partly making a point about rich men who view their daughters as objects that they own. Another one of those devastating sentences: “He was always most terrible when he was trying to seem kind.”
One of the things you notice in fairy tales are the rules that the hero or heroine has to follow to survive. Sometimes these seem arbitrary, but they actually aren’t. In this book, Jo’s the one that sets the rules (which, interestingly, are given their own section as if to highlight their importance):
Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.
The fact that it’s Jo setting the rules is important, I think, because Jo isn’t the usual fairy tale heroine. She’s sharp and angry and distrustful. Unlike her sisters, she’s not quite a Princess; she’s a General. I noticed this partly in a pivotal moment, when Jo is speaking to her father. Valentine’s choice of language underscores both the fairy tale echo and Jo’s liminal place in it: “Then it was silent, and when Jo spoke it gave her words the gravity of a curse. ‘They’re gone,’ she said, ‘and you’ll never see them again.'”
Because the other strand in this book is learning how to be free when you haven’t been, when your soul has grown around something dark and twisted. “I’m my father’s daughter,” Jo thinks at one point, and it’s true–but it’s not all of her. She has to relearn “how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone.” She has to learn how to be a sister, and not a General. This strand hits me right in every single one of my feels. Her fears and struggles and desires are achingly familiar to me.
What’s interesting is how much of these same themes and feelings are present in Of Mice and Magic. Unlike GATKC, where we’re immersed in Jo’s point of view, OMM is told from an outsider’s perspective. Harriet, a hamster princess and adventurer, is the one who rescues the mouse princesses from their father. But like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters love to dance “more than anything in the world.” And like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters stand together against their father’s rage (“but still none of them said a word”).
I’m fascinated by the fact that Vernon manages to tell a pretty complex story about abusive parents and winning your freedom which is also totally appropriate for its audience, which neither talks down to children nor gives them more than they can handle. The mouse king’s selfishness and anger is shown clearly, but the emphasis is on the bonds between the sisters and Harriet’s resourcefulness in setting them free.
It all pays off when the mouse king is left in the ruins of his castle and the sisters escape to the world and freedom. The scene ends with, “and not a single one of the princesses looked back.” It’s a line that would be equally at home in GATKC, and that also resonates deeply.
I appreciated the way Vernon also shows Harriet, another princess, who rescues them and that the story gives us many different ways to be a princess. It’s not that Harriet’s way is the only right one. The mice will have to learn their own paths. To point out the obvious subtext, we’re not being told that there is one right way to be a girl. We all have to find our ways.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and I’m really pleased to have both of these lovely retellings to recommend. Although they’re certainly different in terms of setting and tone, their strengths and similarities in terms of theme make both books powerful separately and together.
I was going to write an actual review of a book for the first time in a month, but Greenwillow had been releasing the new covers of the Queen’s Thief books this week. (I have feelings about them.) AND THEN YESTERDAY, at 5:30 pm, which why? THEY ANNOUNCED BOOK FIVE!
My friend Ally texted me to tell me, and I was SITTING IN A CULVER’S AND COULDN’T SCREAM. It was terrible and wonderful.
So, in case you have not already heard, and/or seen me yelling about this in basically every corner of my virtual life, here’s what we know.
Title: THICK AS THIEVES
Release date (obvs subject to change): MAY 16, 2017!! (My sister’s birthday!)
SUMMARY (from Amazon):
Kamet, a secretary and slave to his Mede master, has the ambition and the means to become one of the most powerful people in the Empire. But with a whispered warning the future he envisioned is wrenched away, and he is forced onto a very different path. Set in the world of the Queen’s Thief, this epic adventure sees an ordinary hero take on an extraordinary mission.
AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH. There will be extras, including A MAP.
I am having some FEELINGS (because of course I am; this is me, after all) not just about THE NEW BOOK FINALLY AT LAST, but about the role this fandom has played in my online life. So many of my oldest & best book people friends are from the LJ community, and so many of the people I’ve connected with later also love these books. It’s a kind of bittersweet feeling, because things have changed so much over the past six years, but we’re also finally, finally getting the reward for all our patient & loyal waiting.
“It was dusk–winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”
So begins The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first book in the Willoughby Chase series. I love this opening–there’s a kind of delicious thrill about it and the way it starts off quiet and calm and then turns into something very different. And it serves as a good summary of the world of the books, which looks a great deal like our Georgian/Regency England…except not quite. There are those wolves at the end of the paragraph, wolves that run freely through the countryside.
In fact, Aiken has created a wild alternate history, where Hanoverians in support of Bonnie Prince George are trying to overthrow the Stuart King James III. We see very little of the political aspect in this book, but it becomes a major theme and plot point in the rest of the series. In this first book, what we mostly get is a world that seems so much like our own, but a little bit slantwise.
Oddly enough, my personal history with these books doesn’t start here at all. My grandparents gave me a copy of Nightbirds on Nantucket when I was about 12, and I read that one first (and fell in love) and then went back and read the earlier books. And I do love the first two books! But at the same time my experience is very much filtered through the fact that my experience of these stories began with Dido Twite, who doesn’t appear here at all.
Instead, this is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, the cousins who get thrown together when Bonnie’s parents invite Sylvia to live with them at Willoughby Chase and then depart for a long ocean-voyage, leaving them in the care of a distant relative none of them have ever seen before.
SHOCKINGLY, this does not go well.
Bonnie and Sylvia are both almost impossibly sweet characters. Bonnie is a little less so, but she’s also a privileged and slightly spoiled child, who is less saintly because she can get away with it. Sylvia seems too good to be true–quite literally. The other main character is a gooseherd name Simon who is an orphan and escaped from a cruel farmer. The Simon of later books is a kind-hearted and relatively fleshed-out character; here he’s more idealized. (We don’t see Bonnie or Sylvia again, as far as I remember.)
As is generally the case in Aiken’s books, the adults here are mostly either evil or naive and helpless. The sole exceptions are James the footman and Pattern, Bonnie’s maid, who try to look after the girls and later save them from the orphanage and Miss Slighcarp. But even in their cases, there’s an odd element of ineffectualness.
And then there are the Slighcarps and Miss Brisket, who represent the other kind of Aiken adults–the scheming ones, who try to take advantage of the well-meaning naive adults. These are the adversaries the children have to overcome, by sticking together and finding a way out of the mess. (Usually this means finding the one adult who will listen to them.) Miss Slighcarp especially is genuinely awful, as is Mr. Slighcarp/Grimshaw–in a less overt but even more realistic way.
What’s interesting to me about this book in particular is that, in a certain light, it looks like a familiar kind of morality tale. Bonnie and Sylvia are well-born, true-hearted, brave, and kind. Therefore, as is right, they eventually triumph. And yet, all through the book there’s also an ever-present sense of real danger. The triumphant ending is not assured. So although the story has the outward trappings of an uncomplicated “good children get their reward” trope, there’s a kind of subversiveness that’s lying just behind it. Aiken keeps reminding us about the howling wolves, and the dangers of the Slighcarps and Briskets of the world, and in doing so she makes it very easy to imagine the ways the story could go wrong.
On the other hand, the subversiveness only goes so far–I found myself frustrated at several points, with the assumption of Sir Willoughby as a good landowner who all the servants are happy to work for. There’s a lot of “dear Miss Bonnie” from the staff, who seem uncommonly attached to her. And finally, there’s an uncomfortable romantic view of Simon’s situation and life, which does express his general goodnatured optimism, but which also has a ring of “he’s happy with nothing, why aren’t you?”
It’s not that I expect some sort of political tract. I’m not even sure I think Aiken believed what she was writing, exactly. (The later books move away from this to a large degree.) Rather, I think that because she’s still writing within a certain type of story, and because she doesn’t quite have the experience or vision to reach beyond it yet, she’s still caught in this slightly antiquated sense of class and roles.
I do also have to say that on this reading I found the resolution oddly unexciting, especially considering the fact that there are literal wolves involved. It’s all a bit handwavey. Aiken is fond of ending books with a sudden surprise (in this case the reappearance of Bonnie’s parents), but in this case I didn’t feel there was much tension to begin with.
However, it is very satisfying to see Miss Slighcarp get her comeuppance.
All in all, I can’t quite say that this is my favorite book of the series–it’s clearly a first book, and Bonnie and Sylvia have nothing on Dido, or even Sophie. But it is certainly a memorable beginning.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1962, Jonathan Cape
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds: I’m trying to catch up with the Reynolds books I haven’t read yet which is hard because he has several being published a year at the moment. This one is middle grade and a family story. I’m definitely hooked and am curious to see how the relationships and secrets play out.
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones: I started this after finishing the Tiptree biography, thinking that there would be fewer emotions about English history. And then Eleanor of Aquitaine showed up on page 40, so now I’m just resigned to having my heart mangled all the time. Jones is a good historian and manages (at least so far) to give a sense of the people involved which is hard in such a broad overview.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: This one was nominated for the Cybils, and I’ve heard great things about it, and I actually had it checked out already, so here we are! I’m on about page five, so I can’t say much about it yet.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Still reading this one, more because I’ve prioritized other books than because it’s actually taking me long when I sit down with it. I’ll be interested to see how this one resolves; at the moment I’m a little concerned about a couple of things, but I’m willing to see if that changes.
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal: WWI, but with ghosts, which is an interesting concept. I have been really excited for this one, but so far I’m feeling that it fizzed out a bit. Liz Bourke mentioned in her review that this is more Rupert Brooke than Wilfred Owen, and I think that’s a fair point. Anyway, we’ll see.