Category Archives: reviews

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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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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The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson and Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I’m still in the middle of a reading slump, but I wanted to write quick reviews for a couple of books that I did manage to finish recently. Neither were quite to my taste, just fyi!

Also, I wrote a newsletter recently about some 2018 favorites, not including books. If that’s of interest to you, check it out!

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

Marinka has grown up as a Yaga, traveling around the world with her Baba in their house with chicken legs. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about becoming the next Guardian and guiding the souls of the dead. When she makes some rebellious choices and things don’t pan out the way she hoped, Marinka is left to figure what her place in the world can be.

I have a longstanding affection for the Baba Yaga stories, and therefore any take on that folktale has some interest for me. Also, I think some people I follow on Twitter liked this one, though now that I’m saying it, I don’t remember who they were.

Anyway, The House With Chicken Legs has an interesting premise and take on the folktale, with the Yagas becoming a loosely connected group who guide the souls of the recently dead to the next world. Within that premise, though, I struggled with a couple of aspects. First, if the Yagas truly travel through the whole world, I wasn’t sure why they would all have Eastern European names and apparent backgrounds. For myself, I really wanted some more depth and consideration when it came to the worldbuilding. Second, I found the general emotional tone and arc of this story to be fairly muddled. It wasn’t always clear to me why Marinka responded to events the way she did, and a lot of times she seemed to be rebelling against something without it being clear what that was. Because of this, the emotional payoff just wasn’t there for me, unfortunately.

If the premise sounds interesting, I’d still recommend giving this one a try. It’s entirely possible that it caught me on a grumpy day, or just wasn’t the book for me.

Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

Olwen lives on the planet Isis with her Guardian, the only two people in the whole world. The landscape is dangerous, but she follows her Guardian’s rules and plays with her pet, Hobbit. Then a ship full of new humans arrives to settle the planet, just as Olwen leaves childhood behind. Suddenly everything she thought she knew about her world, the Guardian, and herself are called into question.

I’ve been trying to read some of the older books on my TBR list, and I knew this one was considered somewhat of a classic.

As it turns out, I’ve got a bunch of problems with this one! It’s startling to me to realize that it was only published in 1980, as it feels much more old-fashioned–and not in a remotely good way. There’s literally a magical negro child (aka the only one who understands Olwen) who is also described in fairly racialized language, Olwen herself is sexualized in a way that reads as really, really creepy in this year of 2018. And of course Olwen’s awakening to the differences between her and the other humans happens in large part because she falls in love with one of the teenage boys who’s part of the settlement.

All in all, while there a few interesting ideas in the mix, this book mostly just felt regressive and frustrating to me. On the other hand, I revisited The Book Smugglers’ review and Thea had a much different perspective than I did, so if you’d like to check out a positive take on this title, read what she has to say.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (2015)
The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier (2016)

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Zuri Benitez and her sisters have always lived in the same house in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. But now their oldest sister Janae is back from college for the summer and the rich Darcy family is moving into the renovated mansion across the street. And thanks to gentrification, their neighborhood is becoming almost unrecognizable. Zuri must find a way to be sure of her own heart even through everything is shifting around her.

I’ve loved Pride and Prejudice since I was about 12. I’ve seen a lot of adaptations, read a lot of retellings, joined Austen message boards, and even written part of a senior thesis on the book in college. So I was really intrigued by the idea of this story especially since Zoboi’s first book, American Street, got a lot of praise.

I’m so glad I did pick this one up, because I really loved it. A lot of Austen retellings, especially for the YA audience, focus on the romance of the stories and skim over the fact that Austen was a keen observer of power structures and class and how that influences the decisions and worldviews of her characters. But Zoboi pulls on that strand and highlights it, updating the social and economic status of both Darcy and the Bennets in ways that made a lot of sense for her present-day Brooklyn version.

Overall, I just thought that Zoboi made a lot of really smart choices in deciding which parts of the original story to include and which parts to change or ditch. For instance, the Benitez parents are much more loving than the Bennets, but Zuri’s father is still bookish and quiet and her mother is still shamelessly trying to get her daughters together with any rich guy around. I also loved the way Zuri’s neighborhood echos Elizabeth Bennet’s: it’s an insular and small circle of people who all know each other and know their history, until the Darcys arrive.

The language was also delight–Zoboi is really good at writing zingy dialogue and she pays a lot of attention to the way people speak and the front they’re presenting to the world. But she also excels at quietly lovely moments where Zuri’s observation and depth shine through. I loved Zuri herself, who is so stubborn and passionate, but who also knows her own worth and refuses to let herself be made less than she is. 

This book just felt very thoughtful, like Zoboi really reached deep into the heart of Pride and Prejudice and looked at the layers that run underneath the main relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. And then in writing Darius and Zuri’s story, she chose places to echo the heart and beat of the original and places to make their story a new one. I really loved it and appreciated the respect and depth Zoboi brought to Pride.

Other reviews:
YA Book Central
Publisher’s Weekly feature on Pride
Book Page
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan (2012)
E. Wein Special Ops: Being Brave (at Chachic’s Book Nook)

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November 2018 books

The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware 11.29

This was on the NPR Book Concierge and it sounded like the kind of mystery I’d like. It was! I’m always a sucker for the “assuming someone’s identity” trope, and Ware plays nicely with that here. I also liked Harriet a lot. It feels very old-fashioned on several levels, I think intentionally, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that aspect.

Pride Ibi Zoboi 11.29  (review tomorrow)

Girl at the Grave Teri Bailey Black 11.25 [review]

Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram 11.17  [review]

The Language of Power Rosemary Kirstein 11.16  [review]

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road Sheba Karim 11.14  [review]

Making Friends Kristen Gudsnuk 11. 9  

The Witch Boy Molly Knox Ostertag 11.8 

The Proposal Jasmine Guillory 11.9  [review]

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Deborah Hopkinson 11.7  [review]

 

Total books read: 10

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Pride
  • Witch Boy

Weekly reading roundups:

I kind of stopped doing the weekly roundups towards the end of this month, but I could be persuaded to try them again if anyone is interested!

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Girl at the Grave by Teri Bailey Black

After her mother was hanged for murder years ago, Valentine has grown up largely an outcast in her small Connecticut town. But after she learns that there may be more to the story than she knows, she vows to uncover the truth even if it means uncovering all the secrets the townspeople have been keeping. Meanwhile, her heart is torn between the childhood friend she’s always known and the son of the man her mother killed. If only she can clear her mother’s name and get the happy ending she’s never thought she could have.

To be honest, Girl at the Grave (Tor Teen, 2018)  wasn’t my favorite. I read it because historical mysteries are often fun, and this one sounded intriguing. But I didn’t expect how much of the story would focus on which boy Valentine should choose. In and of itself, this isn’t the end of the world, but there was also a lot of the old “not like the other girls” trope. The combination of two boys mysteriously being head over heels for Valentine while she despises the more accepted and traditionally feminine girls in the town didn’t sit that well with me.

It also just dragged a lot in places, which sometimes does happen with mysteries–that point where the information is still necessary to set up the end but where there hasn’t been a big revelation yet is a real thing. But in this case, the ending just came rather abruptly and with a sudden reversal of Valentine’s point of view on one character that didn’t feel adequately explored.

Nor did the setting work that well for me–this is supposed to be Connecticut in the mid-1800s, but nothing about the descriptions truly evoked either time or place. There’s so much that could be explored in historical fiction, really painting a picture of another time. And yet there simply wasn’t much there aside from some surface level details of everyday life. It’s an oddly limited story in that sense, and I wished that the past had been engaged with more deeply.

I supposed the other major part I struggled with was just not liking Valentine that much. And I know that unlikeable female characters are fine, and yet! In this case I didn’t feel that it was an intentional thing, but simply so-so writing. The story leans heavily on Valentine being an outsider who has been ostracised by the great and good and yet multiple characters throughout the book try to protect her. Rowan, who is basically a cardboard cutout of a character, falls in love with her and is willing to give up his entire future for basically unexplained reasons.

This is pretty harsh as I’m writing it, and I did finish the book after all. There’s just enough spark in the characters and premise that I kept reading, hoping that it would surprise me after all. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite ever get there for me.

Other historical mystery books I recommend:
      The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni
      The Agency series by Y.S. Lee
      Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

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