bookish posts reviews

What I read: week 1

I don’t know that I’m back, exactly, but I miss talking about books in longer form than Twitter really allows. So, for now I’m going to aim for a once-a-week rundown of what I’ve been reading recently, and we’ll go from there. 

Goblin Mirror by C.J. Cherryh is not exactly my favorite Cherryh, but it does demonstrate her ability to deliver a claustrophobic atmosphere that’s really, really effective. I did like some of the twists and turns in the storyline, but I still haven’t read any Cherryh that tops the Foreigner series for me. (Speaking of which, maybe I just need to reread all of them!) [read for the first time, 6/30]

Tiffany Jackson has been quietly delivering some knock-out gut-punch books for the past few years–I am still upset about Monday’s Not Coming. But Let Me Hear a Rhyme, while intricately plotted and full of secrets is a little less reliant on a surprise twist. It’s a love letter to 1990s Brooklyn and rap, but it’s also about finding hope and connection in the midst of grief. Great book, and I can’t wait to see what Jackson writes next. [read for the first time, 7/1]

My book club decided to read some E.L. Konigsburg together and it’s been super great. First: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler which is a practically perfect gem of a middle grade book and one which holds up really quite well. I had read it several times in the past, but not in the last few years and I loved revisiting it. Claudia in particular is just a (relatable) delight. [reread, 7/5] Then, I gulped down Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, which I think I had only read once in 5th grade. It’s an extremely slim book, but it’s full of accurately fifth grade observations about the world. Elizabeth is such a pill, and I loved her for it. Not quite the heights of Mixed-Up Files, but still pretty delightful. [reread, 7/6]

At this point in time, quite a few people know about the Soviet airwomen known as the Night Witches. But did you know they were only one of three regiments formed by famed pilot Marina Raskova? Elizabeth Wein’s A Thousand Sisters lays out the history of the Raskova regiments and their joys/challenges/fates. It’s a thick book, but a relatively quick read–however, be warned that it’s a bit like the Last Jedi, with loss after loss after loss. The bravery and camaraderie of these (mostly) long-gone women shines off the page, and I downright cried after one death in particular. I wasn’t quite sure what the intended age of the audience was at times, but overall I’d recommend it for mature middle school readers through adults. [read for the first time, 7/6]

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Code Name Verity revisited

It has been seven years to the day since I first posted about Code Name Verity here.

There are a few stories in the world that bleed backward and forward from their point of origin in your life, so that it almost seems like they have been there forever.

There are a few stories that reach out and grab you from the very first page and keep you in their power well after the cover has been closed.

There are a very few stories that seem so tangible and real that it is still hard to believe that the characters didn’t actually exist, that Maddie never flew a Lysander and Julie never bluffed her way desparately through an impossible situation.

(Fly the plane, Maddie.)

It’s probably obvious that, for me, Code Name Verity is all of those. I’m not a reader who collects second copies of books, but at one point I had three copies of this one, and two of its companion book, Rose Under Fire. It is so intensely personally important that at any given moment I just find myself thinking of a moment, a quote, a character. Still, even after seven years. It happened to me last night when I was driving home in fog.

But it’s not just me. I don’t have any empirical data, but I’ve seen it cited over and over as an influence on other YA writers and readers. It was a book centered on two girls and their friendship at a time when that largely felt rare and impossible. Right now in this year of 2019 we’re having a mini explosion of YA that’s at least billed as feminist, but in 2012, the attention was largely on male authors who perhaps wrote a female main character on their third or fourth book. (But she didn’t have any female friends, of course.)

I am not trying to make a sweeping argument that there were no feminist YA books before CNV, because almost every time we make that kind of “first of its kind” argument, we erase some bit of our history. However, it does feel true to me that in the moment it was published, a book that was so intensely focused on female friendship felt a bit like a thunderbolt and a wake-up call combined.

(We make a sensational team.)

And because it was set in the middle of WWII, a realm that has often been centered on male stories and experiences, CNV was also a way to remind us that women had a place in the middle of the war. As pilots, as spies, as wireless operators, as code-breakers. As Polish Girl Scouts and Russian Night Witches and Jewish resistance fighters. And also as German drivers and camp guards and filmmakers. It doesn’t attempt to tell all those stories, but it resists that idea of the lone woman in a male world that sometimes crops up in historical fiction. It gives a sense that women were everywhere and that all their stories are important, even the ones that aren’t as thrilling.

But most of all, Code Name Verity gave us Maddie and Julie. And I don’t know exactly what to say here except that I love them both so fiercely that there aren’t exactly words for it. Maddie-and-Julie, Julie-and-Maddie. The sensational team. The story is supposed to be about the planes, but it’s always about them. Every twist and every allusion. Flying in silver moonlight, in a plane that can’t be landed. This is a story they’re writing to each other and also creating between themselves; at the same time, it is somehow a story they are creating with us reading. A part of me will always be unflyable, stuck in the climb.

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“It is all of ours and they are part of me”: The Pearl Thief, growing up, and loss

I’ve been wanting to write about Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief for months now; I read it early and it blew me away. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my deep love for all of Wein’s books, but the particular ways I loved it did surprise me. In fact, it’s a book that meant so much to me that I can’t quite write a proper review of it.

However, I do want to talk about one of the strands that’s really struck with me since I first read The Pearl Thief: the sense of loss and transience that weaves through the emotional heart of the plot. The plot is set in motion after the death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn. The estate at Strathfearn, which is almost as much home as Craig Castle, is going to become a school, due to the debts her grandfather left behind. But Julie and her mother and grandmother will have one last summer at Strathfearn, preparing to leave it.

The awareness of change and all the ambivalence Julie feels about it pervades so much of the story. This Julie is not yet the Julie of Code Name Verity, though she is recognizably herself (marvelous and heartbreaking). She’s younger and less assured in many ways, clinging to the past and memories of childhood, while also longing so badly to be grown up.

And yet even this isn’t entirely accurate. She misses the past, she mourns her grandfather and the loss of Strathfearn. But she’s also furious with him for the loss of it. She wants to be seen as grown up (see her meeting with Francis Dunbar, amongst other things). But she also isn’t entirely sure what kind of grown up she wants to be. Both the past and the future feel treacherous.

Summer stories, by their very definition, are almost always about brief moments. Bound on either side by the school year, their end is always implied even at the start. As Julie herself says, “I didn’t want the summer to begin. I didn’t want it to end.” But because they’re less structured, less formally bound, they’re also a chance for surprising things to happen. They can be a time of emotional intensity. (Another great example of this is Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s award-winning graphic novel, This One Summer.)

In this case, the feeling of both beginning and ending is tied to the fact that this is the last summer. I was reminded in some ways of I Capture the Castle while reading The Pearl Thief, because of the shared deep ambivalence about growing up, but also because of the loss or threatened loss of the beloved place.

On the one hand, it’s easy to look at the Murray-Beaufort-Stuart family, or indeed the Mortmains, and wonder why we should care about privileged people losing part of their privilege. On the other hand, that sense of exile, of losing the place that has shaped you just when you need it the most, is something I certainly recognize from my own life. It’s a theme that can resonate deeply with teen readers as they grapple with their own identity.

And indeed, it’s partly through this loss that Julie, the young granddaughter of the Earl of Strathfearn becomes Julie, becomes Queenie. As we see Julie come to terms with her losses, her past, and her future, we see her truly growing up. We see her learn that everything and everyone that’s been part of us is with us always.

(Please note that I took all quotes from an early copy and they may not match the final version exactly!)




bookish posts reading notes reviews

Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Empty Kingdom

In June, I’ve been looking at Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum series. This is the last published book in the series, which continues from The Lion Hunter and concludes that arc.

The Empty Kingdom opens with Telemakos still in disgrace, and yet–because he’s Telemakos–trying to get a message to his aunt and father about Abreha’s betrayal. It’s an amazing scene, that shows both Abreha and Telemakos in a complicated light. As a reader, I can see Abreha’s desire to both honor Telemakos and make him his own. Telemakos, I think, can sense this without quite seeing it.

I mentioned the Scions in my last post, and in this second book we see the payoff of their companionship with Telemakos. This book is full of quietly heartbreaking scenes, but the two when the Scions, at some personal risk, declare themselves are among the most powerful. There’s an understated bravery here when Inas tells him, “We are with you. We are all with you,” which in turn gives Telemakos hope and courage.

There’s a running theme of Telemakos being compared to his uncle, Lleu, the lost Prince of Britain. And it happens again here, almost immediately. A visiting Roman (Byzantine) legate tells him, “You put me in mind of Lleu…[who] had a backbone of steel beneath his winning charm.” This is one of the clearest and most personal comparisons, and it’s very true, both of Lleu and Telemakos.

One of the other major themes throughout the series is the question of trust. And in this book that really comes to the fore. The conflict between Abreha and Telemakos is really one of trust. Does Abreha trust Telemakos to be loyal to Himyar? Does Telemakos trust Abreha to have his best interests at heart? Unlike the past books, Telemakos faces an antagonist who isn’t truly an antagonist, who wants Telemakos to like and respect him. You could write a mirror image of this book from Abreha’s point of view and it would be almost as true.

Because, of course, they’re both manipulative and conniving, and fairly ruthless. Telemakos is at this point a practiced spy and is so used to being secretive that at one point he thinks, “It was wonderful to be damned. You did not have to guard yourself at all.” If that isn’t a revealing statement, I don’t know what is. And Goewin warned Telemakos of Abreha’s cool ruthlessness like a book and a half ago; we see him again be both kindly and cruel. He takes everything away from Telemakos, and then holds him during a nightmare, ” clasping him firmly hand in hand and stroking his hair.” (HANDS AGAIN.)

But there are two other characters who in their own way are also part of this dance. Medraut, who shows up in a scene that’s heartbreaking but also the moment I like him most in the later books because he is finally present, using his strengths in defense of his children and not lost in regretting the past. And Athena. It’s so easy to see her as only little and to forget whose child she is, to forget that Telemakos himself was sneaking through the palace just a few years older than she is here. The moment when she shows herself is so viscerally heartbreaking. It reminded me not just of her relationship to Telemakos and Medraut, but Goewin too.

Underlying the outward political issues, there’s also the recurrence of Telemakos’s fear and the anger and hatred he feels stemming from it. It’s a weakness that Abreha both uses and tries to train out of him, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Anako at the end of the book that he’s truly freed. There’s an arc from fear and hatred to pity and mercy which is shown almost as miraculous: Telemakos thinks, “In the end all my fear is gone. How can it have happened? but there’s only pity left.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this moment that Telemakos begins to act, rather than react. We see him take authority over himself, rather than being a tool in the hand of powerful adults (he’s always been an uneasy tool, but still). We see him find himself again, when he’s been everything but just Telemakos Meder and has been so far from home. (I love the moment when Priamos greets him: “Peace to you, Telemakos Meder. You’ve been lost.” That greeting has been used to great effect throughout the series, but nowhere is it more emotionally resonant than here.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this that he and Abreha finally coming to a wary understanding with each other, that we discover Abreha’s threats were hollow all along and Telemakos is heir to three kingdoms. Both have misjudged and mistrusted the other; both have been strict where they could have been kind. And yet in the end they manage to reach a kind of stalemate, but also a new appreciation of each other.

All of this finally leads up to the ending, which I love dearly. It leads to Telemakos going home, to Athena calling him by name. It’s all hopes fulfilled, when they were lost. “She did not walk. She ran.”

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2008, Viking; YA

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Lion Hunter

lion hunterThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I’ve already talked about A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird. This post discusses The Lion Hunter, which is the first of a two-part sequence within the series. Please note that there are spoilers!

This book opens with the birth of Telemakos’s baby sister, and a catastrophic attack by the lion he loves. These two interwoven events set up a kind of cascading effect that ties together many of the plot threads and themes from the previous books, and sets up new complications.

So it’s only right that siblings are one of the things that run through the book. Medraut and Goewin; Goewin and Medraut and Lleu; Telemakos and Athena; Abreha and Priamos (and their dead and absent brothers). And, although it’s not stated in this book, nor does Telemakos know this is the case: Gwalchmai and Medraut (which becomes significant later). While Athena and Telemakos are the most obvious sibling pair, the relationship between the other siblings I mentioned all have their own complexity and place in the story.

It’s also right that much of the book deals with what are called at one point, “wounds to the soul.” Turunesh, Medraut, and Telemakos all suffer in their different ways with what we might call post-partum depression and/or PTSD today. This was generally treated with sympathy and depth throughout the story, and I appreciated that a lot. I also liked the “wounds to the soul” phrase as something that both fit the characters’ understanding of the world and was not horribly ableist.

But what this book sets up and builds toward is really Telemakos’s leaving of childhood. In the past two books, he has been extremely competent, resourceful, and wise, but he has still been a child. Now he is growing up, which I think is symbolized by the loss of the lions he captured when he was younger.

This means that Telemakos is so much in a transitional stage–at one point, Abreha says, “I expect he does not yet have the measure of his dominion” and this is true on several levels. There’s a running theme throughout this book and The Empty Kingdom of Telemakos being almost literally unable to see himself as others see him. For instance, he seems to truly believe that people call him Morningstar to laugh at his fair hair, whereas a reader might see the real affection and respect that others feel for him. I suppose this belief does keep him from being insufferably arrogant, however.

It’s also quite interesting to note what other people name Telemakos. Telemakos Morningstar, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Meder, Beloved, Bright One, Sunbird, Boy. The different names and titles have varying resonances throughout the book, but it’s interesting to note how many of them are how others see Telemakos. None of them, even Athena’s Boy, are necessarily how he thinks of himself, although to me Morningstar felt the most accurate. (As is the case throughout the series, there are some comparisons to Lleu, specifically via the title of Bright One.)

Both Morningstar and Bright One are nicknames given to Telemakos after he and Athena arrive in the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar, which is ruled over by Abreha Anbessa, who is himself Aksumite and the brother of Priamos. Abreha is a fascinating character to me; Goewin calls him a “manipulative political serpent” and he is. But Telemakos also sees his kindness, before he learns to see what Goewin does. Abreha is really, I think, quite a bit like Telemakos: clever and kind, but also utterly ruthless in defense of what he loves.

One of the things that Himyar gives Telemakos is a sense of companionship. He is used to being set apart from other children, but this changes from his first meeting with Iskinder to his later dealings with the Scions. “Never in his life had Telemakos felt so loved, and so at ease, with others more or less his own age.” And this companionship pays off later.

The last major thread that I noticed is of maps, tracking, navigation. He’s given Ginevra’s cross-staff, he has his father’s skill in tracking, and he is sent to be an apprentice to Abreha’s Star-Master. The maps that he copies are a plot point, but they also have a deeper resonance. So much of this story is about Telemakos learning to find his way, both literally, and symbolically.

However, this book is not the entire story. The ending shifts from the sense of warmth and companionship that has typified Abreha’s court, into a sudden reversal of betrayal (arguably on both sides) and distrust. It’s not quite as bad as the ending of The Two Towers, but not by all that much. I’ve never successfully managed to read it and not begin The Empty Kingdom as soon as possible. So I don’t quite have a conclusion, because there isn’t quite a conclusion; there’s an ending, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not until the second book that the build up begins to pay off and Telemakos comes into his own. Also, spoiler: I cry many tears. Next week I’ll talk about why.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2007, Viking/Firebird; YA

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Sunbird

the sunbirdThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I started with A Coalition of Lions, which is technically the second book but I do what I want. This post focuses on the next book, The Sunbird. Please note that there are spoilers!

The Sunbird marks a shift in the series–up until now, the books have been first person from Medraut’s perspective (The Winter Prince) and first person from Goewin’s perspective (A Coalition of Lions). Now, and for the rest of the series, we switch to third person limited perspective, seeing the world from Telemakos’s point of view. I don’t have any grand theory about the effect of this switch, except that third person seems to fit Telemakos in a way that first doesn’t.

This may have something to do with age. Goewin is, I think, about nineteen in A Coalition of Lions, and here Telemakos is about 10 or 11 (I’m a bit confused about the chronology of these books but have not yet resorted to making a timeline). Nonetheless, he’s quite young and yet about to become one of the most important people in the kingdom.

That all sounds so coherent and English-essay-ish, and really I just want to say, UGH THIS BOOK. I love Goewin and A Coalition of Lions so much (and I think it’s a huge mistake to overlook its importance in the series) but I also love Telemakos. And this is the first of his books, and in some ways the most intense. It’s so much about being a child and being so clever and so quick and so brave–and yet still so powerless against the physical strength of adults.

(I hate Anako. I hate him a lot.)

Although I didn’t reread The Winter Prince this time through, I kept thinking about Lleu, drugged and helpless against Medraut and Morgause, and yet never truly without strength. I don’t think this is a coincidence; Lleu haunts this book as he haunts all of them in this series and Telemakos is compared to him several times. Telemakos has that same mixture of physical helplessness and great inner strength at several points in this story.

And I think Lleu and Telemakos would have similar reactions to Medraut’s self-absorbtion. Telemakos, maybe more clearly than anyone can see how Medraut’s refusal to speak and engage with those around him is selfish and destructive. He challenges Medraut to move beyond his own self-recriminations several times in the series, which is an interesting dynamic.

As a total side-note, Kidane, Telemakos’s grandfather, has ivory chessmen! I feel suspiciously sure that this is a quiet Sayers reference, if only because I know Wein is a fan.

We see a kind of mirror image to Telemakos in Candake’s daughters, Sofya and Esato. They have a different kind of powerlessness, and I like that we see the ways in which Telemakos is more free than they are, because he is a boy, and the ways in which they are more free than he is, because they are really royal. Sofya, who is actually one of my favorite characters in the series, is especially interesting here because she is as clever and determined as Telemakos, and yet she is less rewarded, which I don’t think is an accident.

(One of the things that pops up several times is who notices Telemakos and his ability. Goewin is the main one; she has been able to see what he can become since A Coalition of Lions, but Sofya notices him as well. I noticed on this read through how Sofya and Goewin seem to be quietly compared at several points.)

I know I keep harping on connection, but it is also a major theme that runs through this whole series. And it’s so present here: horrible things happen, but also quiet kindness. About halfway through the book, Goewin tells Telemakos the story of Lazarus and says a phrase that echoes both forward and backward through the story: “That is the moment when his friend saves his life.” We see it in Yesaka crying for Telemakos in the salt mines, in Sofya and Goewin scheming and using their shreds of power to save him. It would be easy to see Telemakos as a hyper-competent, heroic figure, but in fact we’re told explicitly that it’s those around him who allow him to succeed.

Also, I have to mention that I cried at least several pints of tears over Yesaka’s statement at the end of the book: “If I kept silent, it meant I was an agent for the emperor as well. We were comrades, even if you did not know it. If I held silent, I was your conspirator, and neither one of us was alone.” On top of being in several senses the emotional fulfillment of this book, it reminded me so much of the epigraph of Code Name Verity, “Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs.”

There’s an interesting image running through this book in particular of tombs, being buried, but also of resurrection. Anako (who I hate) calls himself Lazarus, but he does so falsely. The importance of the Lazarus story, as shown here, is that your friends save you, and that it’s a moment of great, unlooked for joy and wonder. There are moments in this book when it seems impossible that the story could end happily; that it does, with that same sense of unexpected joy, works because we have seen throughout that interweaving of terrible things, and beautiful things.

It works because of Telemakos’s refusal to let anything alone: his father, the emperor’s challenge, the job that he knows he has to do. His stubborn integrity is in many ways more like Goewin’s than Medraut’s, and it’s a large part of what makes him so appealing, what keeps him from simply being an appalling prodigy. He undertakes tremendous tasks, at great risk (and the consequences aren’t shied away from) but he also refuses to take the easy road, and in so doing makes possible the reward at the end.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2004, Firebird; YA


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Elizabeth Wein reading notes: A Coalition of Lions

My next reading notes series is going to look at four books by Elizabeth Wein. Wein is probably known best for Code Name Verity, which was awarded a Printz Honor and is one of my favorite books ever. However, my first taste of Wein’s writing was her debut, The Winter Prince, and I’m going to be looking at the sequels to that book, which comprise the Aksum series. Please note that there are spoilers for this book in the rest of this post!

The Winter Prince is an Arthurian retelling, narrated by Medraut, Arthur/Artos’s illegitimate son by his sister Morgause. It’s a book I’ve described as a piece of really dark chocolate: intense, something you savor and save for the right mood. In this read-through, I’ve decided to skip it (at least for now) and begin with the second book, the first which actually takes place in the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.*

A Coalition of Lions is narrated by Goewin, Artos’s daughter. As the story opens, she is fleeing to Aksum with her father’s ambassador following a disastrous battle and its aftermath. Her father and mother are dead, her twin brother Lleu has died**, and Medraut himself is feared dead. Goewin, threatened by the Saxons on one hand and her aunt Morgause on the other, hopes to cement an alliance with Constantine, named her father’s heir after Lleu.

So, necessarily, this book deals with grief. I don’t know how it would read if you haven’t read The Winter Prince. If you have (and loved it as I did), it’s a heartbreaking beginning and the loss of her whole family and her world echoes throughout the story. Goewin rarely acknowledges her own grief: it’s filtered through other peoples’ reactions and only flashes out in a few moments (when she loses Telemakos in the tunnels, for instance). And yet, I felt it really deeply–it’s maybe the center the book is written around.

It’s also about family: because Goewin finds when she reaches Aksum that Medraut–the previous ambassador–had a son he never knew. Part of the book is Goewin finding her own place in this new land, part of it is learning to love the family she has gained in Telemakos and his mother Turunesh. (Who, let me just say, is quietly awesome and the best.) In another sense, it’s about Goewein’s complex relationship to Morgause, who she hates and yet understands as Medraut never could. Goewin does not want to be like her, and yet she finds herself using Telemakos despite her genuine love for him.

In large part this comes about because of another thread that runs through the book: the ways women are shut out of power and the ways they do and don’t find around that. I love Goewin partly because she allows herself to be angry that Constantine, her father’s heir, doesn’t recognize her own authority. There’s one line late in the book that sums it up: “Would I were a man. Here was I to bestow on him a kingdom, and still he addressed my companion as though I were not there.” But it’s not only Goewin–we also see Candake, the Aksumite emperor’s sister, who carves out her own kind of power, and Turunesh who has a quiet confidence that informs her decisions. I love that although Goewin has very significant relationships with men, she also forms relationships with other women.***

(I am writing this after almost a week of simmering feminist rage, and I just want to say: MEN. Notably CONSTANTINE, who persists in underestimating Goewin and also seeing her as his personal property at the same time. But also Medraut, who–SPOILER–is not dead, and who I find I have much less patience for than I used to. Yes, he has reason for his pain, but SO DOES GOEWIN and yet she keeps going and doesn’t hide in a hermitage/refuse to speak to anyone.)

However, what I ended up thinking about the most as I reread this book was connection. Goewin has a stubborn integrity and care for her far-away home which keeps motivating her to reach out, to Constantine, Caleb, Candake, anyone she can think of. In the end, it’s this stubbornness which provides the resolution and its lovely sense of things being mended. They’re forever a little crooked, but they’re also whole in a way which doesn’t seem possible at the beginning. (The last section of the book is titled “Forgiveness” and I liked that it’s a theme which runs between many different characters.) Without diminishing Goewin’s clear-sighted anger, she also comes to see Constantine’s virtues. This is a tricky balance, and it’s done well here.

I have previously mentioned that there’s a theme of hands that runs throughout Wein’s books, and it’s all over this one. Goewin and Telemakos in the tunnels, Priamos and Goewin’s clasped hands, Medraut holding Telemakos’s “small fingers,” and then Goewin’s. This ties in with the theme of connection that I mentioned above: there’s a literal reaching out.  Here it also occurs in the final, pivotal moment between Priamos and Constantine, who have been at each other’s throats for the whole book:

He offered Constantine his open hand, as though holding something precious and invisible in its cup. His pale palm was still faintly striped with the marks of the beating he had taken in the season just past…He raised Priamos to his feet. They stood firm in their shared grip, gazing down at their clasped hands, pale and dark.

I love the turns and choices this story makes, the characters it gives us, and the assurance of the narrative voice. But most of all, if I’m honest, I love Goewin with all her flaws and grief and anger and love. She’s a wonderful, complex character and I always forget until I reread this book just how much she means to me.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2003, Viking; YA

* I want to acknowledge, as I did in my review of Black Dove, White Raven, that both Wein and I are white, and that I have complicated feelings about this; at the same time I love this book and as far as I can judge trust Wein’s depiction
** If you can get your hands on the short story about Lleu called “Fire,” I highly recommend it.
*** I’m not sure how I ultimately feel about Candake’s protrayal, but I am certainly fascinated by her

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Witch Week: A new take on old stories

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors hosted at Emerald City Book Review. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Folktales and fairy tales are an enormous part of my internal landscape–it’s almost impossible to overstate how important they’ve been to me since childhood. My mom had a huge Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I read all of it at least twice. Later, I grew to love modern retellings, starting with Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

Most often, I tend to like the retellings that thoughtfully examine the original story rather than reversing it completely. But I’ve also found some retellings that come at the story slantwise. These don’t so much destroy the original as remake it. I’m going to talk a bit today about three novels and one short story that I think do this and that I love.

winter princegirls at the kingfisherbone gap

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: This is Wein’s debut book, and it’s a retelling of the Arthurian legend from Mordred/Medraut’s point of view. But it has more in common with Rosemary Sutcliff than with Merlin; it’s dark and twisty and shows a world that’s full of texture and vibrant personalities. For me, it both humanizes Medraut and also still gives us the kingly Arthur of the myths. I am slightly overcome by how much I love this book just thinking about it now. Also, it gives us Goewin, and I LOVE Goewin.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales ever of all time ever. It’s set in the 1920s and it includes no magic whatsoever, but it keeps the structure and heart of the story, while at the same time using it as a way to talk about family and fathers and abuse and love. I’ve been going on about this one since I read it and I want everyone in the world to try it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: This is a 2015 YA which has been getting a lot of attention and rightly so–it’s a stunning, complex look at the dark side of the Persephone/Beauty and the Beast story. I truly love both the myth and fairy tale, and many of the newer stories that have echoed them. But I also truly loved this story, which reminds us of the possible darkness inherent within those stories. Roza, the heroine of this story, is a wonderful character in her own right as well.

The Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan: I’m a big fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s work in general, but this short story is one of my all time favorite things she’s written. One of the things I love most about it is that, as a friend pointed out, Mede is a name that has echoes in Greek mythology. But is it Andromeda or Medea? We never know; we never quite find out. While SRB doesn’t directly quote any one myth, the whole story feels like it has echoes and beats that evoke them.

bookish posts reviews

The Reluctant Listener: Rose Under Fire

reluctantlistenerrufusWhen I listened to the audiobook of Code Name Verity, one of the things I noticed was the sense of performance. This makes a lot of sense given the themes of the book, and who the narrator is, and the games she’s playing.

I listened to the audiobook of Rose Under Fire recently, and it’s a little different, which also makes sense. There’s one narrator, apart from a few letters in the middle of the text. Whereas with CNV, I noticed how well the narrators did the accents, in this case, I forgot I was listening to a performance. It was like Rose was speaking to me. Although she does accents, of course, Roza and Irina and Lisette, what I primarily felt was a sense of naturalism.

Perhaps a bit more eerily, occasionally Rose sounds like very, very much like my Nana, who is also from Pennsylvania and who was born about five years before Rose’s (fictional) birth. I noted in my original review of RUF that “Rose is a bookish American who loves England, with German heritage, from the Midwest”–that I felt a kind of distant kinship with her. The audiobook reinforced this; these moments when her voice sounded so distinctly like someone I know.

One of the marvelous things about Sasha Pick’s narration is how well she voices the delineation between pre-Ravensbrück and post-Ravensbrück Rose. In the beginning, she is effervescent, earnest, and naive. She is touched by things, but she hasn’t really lived through them, as she herself knows. After Ravensbrück, she is still Rose, but she has a gravity, a weight to her narration that signals how much has changed.

(She is also excellent at reading poetry, just at the perfect balance of emotion without dramatics, which matters so much for this character. Hearing this Rose recite Millay, recite her own poems, is intensely beautiful.)

As I’ve said before, for me the narrator can really make or break an audiobook. In this case, the result is a wonderful, heartfelt rendition, giving life not only to Rose, but to all of her family from Block 32. It feels personal rather than performative, filled with Rose’s experiences and words, her attempts to tell the world.

bookish posts reviews

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

black dove white ravenAs I’ve been thinking about this book, I’ve been very aware of the fact that I am white and American, and that Elizabeth Wein is white and American-born, and that this book is set in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and the lead-up to the Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-6. I am far more aware of these facts than I was five years ago when I read and reviewed Wein’s earlier books set in the earlier Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. I don’t know how modern Ethiopians would read and react to this book, nor can I claim to say how well the history has been shown here.

And yet, I know that Wein does her research and has a deep love and respect for Ethiopia and its history and culture. So I suppose all of this examination is really a declaration of biases. I am bringing my own history of being a long-term Elizabeth Wein fan, my own slight knowledge of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture, my own fears about appropriation and representation. And as with the Aksumite books, I loved this story.

Black Dove, White Raven is the story of Emilia and Teo, siblings of the heart if not blood. Teo’s mother Delia and Emilia’s mother Rhoda were the original Black Dove and White Raven, daredevil pilots who flew together all over the US. But the US is not always friendly to two women, one white and one black, raising children on their own. And so Delia dreamed of moving to Ethiopia, where Teo’s father was from. Then she is killed in a freak accident and Rhoda, Emilia, and Teo are left to find their own way to fulfill Delia’s dream.

The story itself is told in various bits Teo and Emilia have written, framed by the letter Emilia encloses when she sends all of it to the Emperor. We don’t know at the beginning of the book exactly what has happened to Teo or Rhoda, only that the Emperor is Teo’s only hope. It’s this anxiety that drives a lot of the book, as the story gradually unfolds. We see Emilia and Teo’s school assignments which reveal their pasts as well as their lives in Ethiopia, in the community at Tazma Meda. We see their imagined quests as the superheroes Black Dove and White Raven, always saving each other.

It’s Emilia-and-Teo that are really at the heart of this book. Another sensational team, although family this time. I loved them together, their shared stories and their hands making wings to greet each other.* And yet, we also see their differences. Emilia is practical, determined; she doesn’t love flying and is ashamed of that, since Rhoda and Teo love it so much. Teo is thoughtful, quick, sensitive. And he’s totally my favorite. I loved him; I loved his love for flying; I loved how he loves the Ethiopian church and how part of him comes home.

But Delia and Rhoda are also, if not at the heart, then in the bones. I found myself fascinated by the depiction of their relationship. They have led an unconventional life. Rhoda is still married to Signor Menotti, but they haven’t lived together in years. For Rhoda, Delia is her soulmate, the other half of her life. I’m not entirely sure if I read this as friendship or romantic love, but regardless, the depth of feeling is astounding. When Delia dies, Rhoda is lost too, and she has to find her way back.

One of the things I loved about this book was the feeling of the physical landscape. The mountains where the family moves are evoked with such haunting loveliness. As Emilia and Teo learn to fly, they see the country laid out beneath them. It reminded me, of course, of the descriptions of England in Code Name Verity. But the landscape also echoes through the book in a more personal way. The high plateau where Teo and Emilia land, the church near Tazma Meda shape the story. For Teo, Ethiopia is a complex place, both home and not. He is half-Ethiopian, and yet he is also American and the questions of identity that this brings up really define his journey.

And all of this is set against the backdrop of the rich history and culture of Ethiopia, proud Ethiopia who was never been colonized, a country that is modernizing rapidly and at the same time hold its ancient customs close. Ezra and Sinidu, the doctor and his wife who live at Tazma Meda, the priest of the church there, the prince who changes Teo’s future–they all are real, complicated, human people. I felt the complexities of this struggle, the contradictions that build into a moment where everything twists and nothing is ever the same.

Because war is coming. Italy under Mussolini wants to hold Ethiopia, and is prepared to do anything to conquer it. Wein brings this little-known part of history to life, in the way she does so well. When I finished this book, I was absolutely FURIOUS with Italy. The story that is told is so heartbreaking, all the more so because it actually happened. I wanted to tell the world, and I think that’s partly what this story does.

Most of all, though, it’s the story of a brother and sister, who love each other so much that they rescue each other over and over again, who find courage in each other and strength to deal with whatever life brings them.

“Are you scared?” “I am not scared.”

Book source: eARC from NetGalley, also bought
Book information: 2015, Disney Hyperion; YA historical fiction

My favorite author page for Elizabeth Wein

* YOU GUYS. I’ve been saying for awhile now that hands are possibly the most important image throughout Elizabeth Wein’s books, and I’m so right.