Ten favorite books about sisters

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

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Dancing, Princesses, and Magic: Vernon and Valentine

girls at the kingfisherof-mice-and-magic

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.

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So, so, so [QUEEN’S THIEF BOOK FIVE!]

thick-as-thieves-ahhhhhhhhhhI 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.

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Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

This month, I’ll be going back to look at Joan Aiken’s Willoughby Chase series. Spoilers abound, as usual!wolves-of-willoughby-chase

“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

 

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Currently reading: 10-5

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.

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September round up & October releases

I’ve been sick for the past week & it’s been majorly upsetting all my plans & routines so here we are! I’m combining two posts into one and calling it good.

Cybils nominations are now open–you have until October 15th to nominate your favorite kidlit books published between 10/16/15 and 10/15/16.

This month’s Reading Notes series is on Joan Aiken’s Willoughby Chase books, and then I’ll be pausing on that feature until January to focus on the Cybils. I’m tweaking things here a bit.

Finally, I am on Litsy now, as it’s finally available for Android! Feel free to follow me–meichner87–for small updates as I read.

Mary Stewart Reading Notes

Nine Coaches Waiting

The Ivy Tree

Stormy Petrel

Thornyhold

Other posts

Icon by Genevieve Valentine

Three low-stress game apps

When twists work & when they don’t (and do check out the really thoughtful comments!)

Currently reading: 9-7

Currently reading: 9-21

Links: 9-28

Favorite TV shows based on books

Not the Chosen One

Favorite books featuring food

Books read

Perfect Liars – Kimberly Reid: Teen heist book, featuring a really diverse cast & lots of secrets and twists. I did feel like the middle section went a bit long and was a different tone than the beginning–but I’m also not sure the degree to which it’s just my expectations being off. Regardless, if the concept piqued your interest, I’d definitely check it out!

Ancillary Justice – Ann LeckieReread–I noticed this time through how much of this book is about surviving after trauma. “Choose my aim, take one step and then the next. It had never been anything else.” And obviously Breq’s particular trauma is VERY particular, but, yeah. (We also see it in Sevendai, in Skaaiat, even in the altar server. Different reactions, different lives, different roads.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken Reading Notes

Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi: Talked about this one here

Burn, Baby, Burn – Meg Medina: Reviewed here

Monstress – Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda: The art is so good! Lush and complicated and shadowy without being like furiously grim. The story is pretty grim, though–or at least more violent than my usual comics. I like the choice of having a cast that’s 95% women, which lets Liu do some interesting things with the characters & gives them a chance to be morally complicated in a way that wouldn’t work with mostly men and just one or two women.

Squirrel, You Know It’s True [Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, vol. 2] – Ryan North, Erica Henderson: EAT NUTS KICK BUTTS. Also: NANCY!!!! *heart eyes emoji* (These are my notes for this one verbatim, because I really don’t have anything else to say except that Squirrel Girl continues to be a delight, but also surprisingly complex and thoughtful for a comic series about a girl who’s also a squirrel.)

Lumberjanes: Out of Time – Stevenson, Waters, et al: This series has always been about lady friends (I mean: FRIENSHIP TO THE MAX) but in this volume it goes even deeper into relationships between the various characters. There’s complicated backstory about ladies and friendship and dark secrets and it’s great. Also, I love Jen. Also Jo. Also all of them, because they are ALL DELIGHTFUL.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin: Talked about this one here!

Of Mice and Magic – Ursula Vernon: Dancing, Princesses, and Magic

The 4:50 from Paddington – Agatha Christie, read by Emilia Fox: Audiobook! Emilia Fox did a nice job of reading it, I thought.This isn’t necessarily my favorite story–I feel like Agatha Christie muffed the ending a bit, especially with regard to Lucy. But it’s still enjoyable, and I do love Miss Marple forever and always. 

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth – Jason FryI am of two minds on this book. First: Fry does a nice job of delving into the politics and set up of the world he’s built over the last two books, including the tensions between the Hashoone siblings current and past. BUT THEN he basically ruined it all by shoehorning in a 1) totally unnecessary and 2) completely unconvincing romance. The girl has no real character development & she and Tycho go from 0-120 in 2.5 seconds. It just doesn’t work for me, and so it ruined the emotional payoff of the last part of the book. 

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips: Review coming later!

Black Hearts in Battersea – Joan Aiken [reading notes]

The Mystic Marriage – Heather Rose Jones: This is one of those books that makes a really good case for small press/independent/self-publishing. The pacing is quiet and slow, which is right for the story it’s telling. I love the worldbuilding and the characters; this wasn’t a super emotional read, but it was a very satisfying one. The conflict at the end seems a bit rushed, but I like Antuniet a lot & resonate with her journey. And I really liked that we still get Margerit and Barbara’s points-of-view

Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson: A slight, spare book, which has the compression and space of poetry. (I think I would think this even if I didn’t know that Woodson is a poet.) It’s about girls growing up, doomed and beautiful and alive. I did wish for a little more resolution, but that’s just my desire as a reader–Woodson is obviously making very deliberate choices about giving us these particular moments in time and no more.

Nightbirds on Nantucket – Joan Aiken [reading notes]

October books I’m looking forward to:

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley

Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith

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Mary Stewart Reading Notes: Thornyhold

In September I’ll be going back to some of Mary Stewart’s books, finishing up with Thornyhold. Spoilers will be everywhere! Consider yourself warned.

thornyholdThornyhold is one of Stewart’s late books, published in 1988. Interestingly, she sets it earlier, with Gilly writing down the story of her youth as a grandmother. I think this is a wise choice, as it lets her write the kind of old fashioned story she seems more comfortable with. I’m quite fond of this book–it’s actually the only Stewart I own, though that’s mostly by accident. It’s not exactly memorable in the sense of Things Happening. It’s a quiet, gentle story about a young girl and her cousin and their possibly magical house.

Actually, as I was reading this, I said on Twitter that this was a strong case of “do I like this book, or do I just want to live in this house.” I do like the book, quite genuinely, but I DEFINITELY want to live in that house. I am convinced that if I lived in Thornyhold I would do the dishes every single day and never leave all my stuff everywhere and magically do all the preserving I dream about and in short how do I make this happen?

I should also mention right away that as with Nine Coaches Waiting, this book is VERY BAD as far as disability representation goes. Really, truly bad. 0/10, Mary Stewart! I am able to enjoy the book regardless, but I completely understand if others aren’t able to.

The main character of Thornyhold is a young woman named Gilly Ramsey, whose major love in early life is her cousin Geillis. Her mother is disappointed in life and fairly cruel, Gilly herself is shy and wants more than anything to have animals and a place of her own. Neither of these seem at all possible until Cousin Geillis dies and leaves Gilly her house, Thornyhold. It’s with the entrance of Thornyhold that the plot, such as it is, kicks in, but I do like the beginning and its sense of wonder and childhood.

I’m aware that Mary Stewart wrote some fantasy books as well as romantic suspense, and I may have even tried one of them. But I haven’t searched them out because I suspect they wouldn’t be at all my cup of tea. Rather than straight fantasy, here there’s a quiet story with a little bit of magic underlying everything. (The first line, after all, is “I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had wanted to.”) It’s the small magic of hearth and home, beautifully depicted.

Here there’s also a lovely sense of continuity and the past history of the house. In my opinion, Stewart is more successful here at weaving in the past than in Touch Not the Cat. I love the idea of the continuity of women who are the guardians of this domain, and I also love the sense of warmth and the (odd but real) relationship that Gilly has with them. The house and land are imbued with a sense of quiet history. Thornyhold is small, but it’s not unimportant; in its own way, it’s a kind of torch against the dark.

I wish, really, that Stewart had felt able to just leave a romance out of the story altogether. While Christopher John is nowhere near as annoying as Raoul (or even Adam), he also just doesn’t add much. I do like William (his son) but the whole falling into each other’s arms thing just seems forced here. I do think Stewart was trying to write a romance that fits Gilly, that’s about someone quiet, someone who’s a “late bloomer” (blech). But I also don’t think it’s really quite successful, although I appreciate that we see Cousin Geillis live a happy and full life without any need for romance at all.

In the end, this isn’t one of Stewart’s most memorable books, but it is perhaps her most comforting. And in its own quiet way, it’s trying to show–however flawed–a different kind of strength.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1988, adult fantasy/romance

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