Category Archives: bookish posts

Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

Mup has always taken her Aunty’s rules for granted (don’t go into the forest, don’t talk about your grandmother). After all, she lives a safe, comfortable life with her parents and little brother Tipper. But then her Aunty passes away and the raggedy witches appear and Mup’s dad disappears. Suddenly nothing is safe or comfortable, and Mup and her family must be courageous and strong if they’re going to get their dad back.

Begone the Raggedy Witches (Candlewick, 2018) is written by Celine Kiernan, an Irish author. Although it’s not mentioned specifically, I believe the story is mostly set in Ireland. As far as I know, the story is not based on a specific folktale, but it does feel infused with deep folk beliefs and images (a bit like Tiffany Aching). Likewise, Kiernan trusts her readers to follow her into another world without specifically calling it fairyland. I liked this approach a lot; it allows the story to stand independently while also giving the imagery a feeling of depth and meaning. I also found it kind of a fresh take on a portal fantasy.

Mostly, I really loved Mup and her determination. When she knows she’s going into the realm of the raggedy witches, she dresses in her brightest, shiniest clothes in a little bit of defiance. And this moment is a nice example of the courage she shows throughout the story. But she also cares deeply about her family and the people she meets, especially those who have no one else to care about them. I got the sense that she really wants to understand people and why they approach the world the way they do. The character-building here is fantastic and since I am almost always a character-driven reader, I really appreciated this.

There is a lot of complexity in Begone the Raggedy Witches, between the fraught history between Mup’s mother and her Aunty and the political and social tensions in Witches’ Borough. And Kiernan doesn’t water this down for kids at all. There’s a lot of thought about what it means to be complicit in someone else’s horrible actions and what it happens when you take away someone else’s choices even out of good intentions. But it’s also a hopeful book, with an emphasis on renewal and regeneration. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there are some lovely scenes about the return of magic that worked really well for me.

Scary books seem to be popular with kids right now, and this one would be great to recommend to a kid who doesn’t truly want to be scared but doesn’t mind something a little bit creepy. The raggedy witches are pretty terrifying at first, and the evil Queen of Witches’ Borough (who also happens to be Mup’s grandmother) is spine-chilling. The consequences are pretty real and not everything is happily resolved by the end. But it would be perfect for the reader who’s comfortable with a mature look at power in a fantasy world, with some funny moments and an overall empowering feel.

Finally, I really loved Kiernan’s prose in this book. There’s a crisp vividness to the descriptions and everything stays grounded in Mup’s perspective which helps the reader discover the world as she does. It’s poetic in maybe my favorite sense: not necessarily flowery but with a turn of phrase that illuminates and makes everything strange and beautiful. This was just a lovely read, from the gorgeous cover through to the ending.

Other reviews:
Charlotte (who, unsurprisingly, also liked it)
Kate Forsyth
Celine Kiernan answers some questions
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Thief (2012)
Bujold Week: Brothers in Arms (2014)
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (2015)
Booklist: Books that have been helping me lately (2017)

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

Claudia McCarthy wants to be a historian and she isn’t interested in politics. Really. But when betrayal and intrigue at her upper-class private school leave a power vacuum in the student government, someone has to step in. What happens next is really not her fault, right? I, Claudia (Carolrhoda Lab, 2018) is a loose retelling of Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius, transplanted to high school.

It’s been a bit since I’ve read I, Claudius but I remember enjoying the gently snarky tone and the vivid descriptions of Roman politics and society. I was very curious about how this would play out in the context of high school.

I do have to say that the cover is not doing the book any favors. It doesn’t fit the tone and it has negative teen appeal. Not sure what’s up with that, Carolrhoda!

However, I did end up really liking the way McCoy approached the story. Claudia is a defensive character in a lot of ways, holding her cards close to her chest. And ultimately her responsibility and role in what happens is left very ambiguous. Are you at fault when you’re swept up in events you didn’t start? Do your good intentions matter when the result of your actions is harm to others? There are no final answers here, but lots of complicated characters.

The main bulk of the narration is Claudia’s telling the story of what happened, how she ended up here. But we’re also given other voices, especially at the end of the book. Claudia is not an entirely reliable narrator, and I liked the ways we see glimpses of how other characters view her. These aren’t always positive, but it’s a chance to keep the story from being too weighed down by one perspective.

Overall, this is probably not a book that will be for every reader, but I think for the right person it could be really magical. There’s a keen sense of observation and intelligence, matched with a complex take on morality and what we both owe and are owed in our relationships with others. Above all, Claudia’s voice is pretty fantastic. I wasn’t sure what I would think of this as a retelling, but I ended up enjoying it very much on its own merits.

Favorite quote: “You know how, when somebody likes you for exactly the reason you most want to be liked, it makes you like them even more? If they’d written I was nice or funny or smart, it wouldn’t have hit me so hard, and all of the feelings I usually kept shoved down wouldn’t have threatened to come leaking out right there in Art History class.”

Related links:
Mary McCoy on her favorite unreliable narrators
The Literary Invertebrate
Post-It Note Review at Teen Librarian Toolbox

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Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Queen’s Thief Week Myths part 1 (2012)
Bujold Week: Cordelia’s Honor, part 2 (2014)
True Pretenses by Rose Lerner (2015)
Making Without Context (2016)
Favorite children’s & YA books (2017)

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Weekly reading review: 1/6-1/12

 

Books I finished 

Nate Expectations by Tim Federle: I really enjoyed the first two books in this trilogy when they came out, so I picked up the third one on the strength of that. I’m not sure if this is a less-polished book, or if I would feel differently about the earlier books if I reread them now. Regardless, the ending especially felt very sentimental and forced to me. (I also don’t know what to do with Federle, who was one of the names listed in the comment section of the SLJ harassers in kidlit article. So that could be clouding my perception here as well.)

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy: review coming tomorrow!

Frederica by Georgette Heyer: A reread–one of the more dashing and funny Heyers. It’s interesting to note how little Frederica and Alverstoke actually talk about themselves.

Currently reading

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss: I’ve been trying to read a chapter or two a day but this book is just long! It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, because I am, but it’s taking me a bit to get through.

What I’m reading next

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Weekly reading review: 1/1-1/5

Books I finished

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar [review] (A reread of one of my favorite books from 2017; it holds up marvellously and I loved it so much.)

Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand [review]

The Prince & the Dressmaker by Jen Wang: A cute mgish graphic novel! I liked the overall story and representation. But sheesh, I really am a pedant, because I could not get over the fact that this is supposed to be Paris and Brussels in the  19th century and the visuals of the fashions were a weird amalgamation and the history doesn’t line up. I guess you could make an argument that this is the Disney treatment? It’s “Paris” the way Belle lives in “France”? But it really bumped me out of the story because I kept trying to make sense of the choices instead of just reading.

Currently reading

I, Claudia by Mary McCarthy: A loose retelling of I, Claudius. The premise and voice are both pretty great, but I’m curious about how well it would hold up as an independent story if you haven’t already read Graves’ book.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss: I really like the Athena Club books! They’re long, but they’re zippy reads. As someone who has enjoyed Goss’s short fiction for ages, it’s fun to see her working with a larger canvas.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer: A reread, from when I was craving some comfort books last month.

What I’m reading next

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

The Spy with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

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Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

cover of Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Rock is an island and a world unto itself, but it’s also a place where girls keep disappearing. Marion, Valerie, and Zoey meet on the Rock, each containing her own secrets and desires. But an ancient evil is stalking the girls and they must face the price that stopping it will demand.

I haven’t read all of Claire Legrand’s books by any means, but I find her an interesting author and this title was getting some praise from people I trust, so I decided to give it a try.

Sawkill Girls is an interesting beast of a book. (I mean that fairly literally, as it’s almost 500 pages long.) It clearly has a lot to Say, about the violence and horrors that teenage girls face, the expectations and the boxes they are made to fit themselves into. At the same time, I felt that the book faltered a bit under the weight of that message. Like Legrand’s other 2018 release, Furyborn, it seems like this is trying to be a fiercely feminist book, and there are ways it hits that goal and ways that, at least for me, it falls somewhat short.

Part of it is the question I find myself asking a lot recently: who is this book for? Is it an empowering story for teenage girls? Or is it for adult women who want to read an empowering story about teenage girls? Who would find it resonant and who would find themselves left out? I don’t have clear answers to these questions, partly because neither group is a monolith, but I kept thinking about the ways that many teens are constantly aware of the world they face. Would this story give them strength, or would it point out what they already know?

Sawkill Girls is about three girls: Marion, Zoey, and Val. They are summed up as “the new girl,” “the pariah,” and “the queen bee.” Over the course of the book, we learn their many secrets and these roles become more complicated and fraught. But I struggled with this a bit because I didn’t see them ever become fully fleshed out people. The characterization just felt a bit thin, and although the way the girls inhabit those initial roles is called into question, I still felt that they were limited by them.

I do appreciate that although the Collector is the main antagonist, the Hand of Light–a group of men who uses up girls to fight monsters–also becomes a clear villain. It reminded us that sometimes the greatest danger is from ordinary people who seemingly have good intentions. But I wished that on the converse, we saw the strength of ordinary girls, not simply extraordinary ones.

I also appreciated that we see ways that women participate in harming other women and in some ways this is the most subtle part of the story. I was less entirely convinced by the turnaround we see with one of the characters, and the way the other characters accept her change of heart, but it’s still interesting to see this strand teased out across different characters and generations.

This is certainly a powerful story–it is genuinely creepy and terrifying and I am still thinking about it and arguing with it several days after finishing it. But I can’t help feeling that something about the literal en-monstering of dark violence against girls and the way the characters don’t ever quite shed the types they’ve been cast as doesn’t quite sit well with me.

This may be a result of the expectations the aim of the book sets up, and I may be unfair here. After all, there’s not only one right way to write a feminist story and what doesn’t resonate with me might easily be really important to another reader. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the empowerment shown here is just a little too easy and surface-level. So, I don’t know. Ultimately, I’m very torn on this one!

 

Other reviews of Sawkill Girls:

Ana Grilo at Tor.com

Mavesh Murad also at Tor.com

Faerie on the shelf

 

My previous reviews of Claire Legrand:

Some Kind of Happiness (2016)

Furyborn (2018)

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Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor (2012)

Bujold Week: Cordelia’s Honor (2014)

Reading Notes: Ivory by Doris Egan (2015)

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston (2016)

Favorite adult books of 2016 (2017)

Recovery Reading: Sarah Caudwell (2018)

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December 2018 reading

I was in the middle of a reading slump for most of December, so I really didn’t get as many books finished as I wanted. But I did go out with some pretty strong titles!

Also, some of you know that I had surgery last December–I finally wrote up everything that happened and shared it. If you’d like to learn more, that document is here.

Mistletoe and Murder Robin Stevens 12.27 175

Arabella Georgette Heyer 12.25 174

For a Muse of Fire Heidi Heilig 12.24 173

The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller 12.22 172

Cousin Kate Georgette Heyer 12.18 171

The Word for World is Forest Ursula K Le Guin 12.18 170

Keeper of the Isis Light Monica Hughes 12.12 169

The House on Chicken Legs Sophie Anderson 12.11 168

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead 12.7 167

Lumberjanes v. 7 12.6  164-166

Lumberjanes v. 8

Lumberjanes v. 9

 

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 3 (When You Reach Me; Cousin Kate; Arabella)

Favorites:

  • For a Muse of Fire
  • The Song of Achilles

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Favorite books of 2018

Like last year, I’m not going to try to say exactly what I loved about each of these books, although I’ll link to reviews when I wrote them. If I had to pick one favorite out of the whole year, it would be Tess of the Road, without a doubt.

Middle Grade

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

The War I Finally Won by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi 

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

 

Young Adult

Spinning by Tillie Walden

Shadowhouse Fall by DJ Older

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson

The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

 

Adult

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Murderbot: Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Bo Bolander

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

 

Non-fiction

Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy

Border by Kapka Kassabova

 

Bonus Category: Did I Like This Book? I Still Don’t Know!

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

Sick by Porochista Kakhpour

The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Sadie by Courtney Summers

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