Interview with Kat Howard

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!

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Complex and haunting adult SFF: Oyeyemi and Jemisin

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.

Other reviews:

 

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Links 11-3-2016

Look, it’s almost the election and I wish I could say that these links are full of happy things. There are some, but first:

Awful things

The upcoming book The Continent, which has apparently been getting a lot of buzz, is also apparently full of really awful stereotyping and racism. I won’t be reading or recommending this one in any way.

In other terrible news, Johnny Depp has been cast in Fantastic Beasts 2. So. Yeah. That’s happening, and I’m furious and sad and tired about it.

Twitter friend Amy Diegelman wrote a fiery essay in response to harassment in the comics world. Required reading if you care about comics and/or women’s experiences online. Also see this thread from Noelle Stevenson, which made me actually cry.

Non-awful things

My dear friend Ally shared some valuable tips for helping someone struggling with a mental health crisis. It’s aimed at teens and librarians, but is worth reading no matter what.

The World Fantasy Awards were announced and they look pretty great! I will say I’m somewhat baffled by the choice for Novel. And I’m not giving the WFC a pass on this year, considering the lead up to the Convention.

If you are also a fan of Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace, you’ll be happy to know that THERE’S A NEW COMIC!! If you’re not a fan, please go read it so that we can discuss the joys of mathematics and the iniquities of street organs.

Finally, I saw a link to this 2012 Zen Cho short story recently and it is incredibly comforting and lovely and perfect.

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October 2016 round up

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 ValentineTalked 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 KnisleyLovely 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 SchwabI 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.

Other posts

Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

10 favorite books about sisters

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Reading Notes

Currently reading: 10-5

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Just a quick note

golden-wood

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.

happy-cat

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Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

burn_baby_burn_coverI 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

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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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