Tag Archives: ursula vernon

Favorite books from the beginning of 2017

I’ve been reading a lot more than I’ve been writing here, so I thought I’d do a round up of my favorite books from the first quarter of 2017. These are just books I read in January-March.

middle grade

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon: Harriet Hamsterbone continues to basically be the best. Mother Goethel here was genuinely creepy (something I feel Rapunzel retellings often fail to pull off). This series really manages to tackle some big, complicated issues in thoughtful and kid-appropriate ways. So good!

Lumberjanes vol. 5: Band Together: FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX! (someday I will start a Lumberjanes review with something else) (jk, that will never happen) Look, this volume has mermaids, and also lots of confusion about how an underwater mermaid rock band is even possible, and it contains the immortal line, “I don’t want to die confused” so yes.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis: This book is just so comforting (much like a cup of chocolate). While this might sound like faint praise, it’s really not–comforting things are really necessary, and books that lie at the crossroads of smart and comforting are harder to pull off than they look. It’s a unique take on dragons, and I loved Aventurine and her determination.

YA

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour: Okay, I will say upfront that the premise of this book is a bit implausible, BUT please accept it and move on because it is full of LaCour’s most mature, rich writing to date and so many feelings. There’s this feeling that’s common to many young adults of being out of place, of not knowing who you are or how exactly to find out. This book is quiet and specific in its characters and setting and it feels so textured and beautiful.

The Hate U Give by A.C. Thomas: Any praise I have here will be slightly superfluous, but oh this book. I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished. It is so amazing on so many levels, but Starr herself really stood out for me. This is a book about her finding her voice, but at the same time, even on the first page she shines.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: To be honest, I delayed reading this one at first because even though I trust Bow, I wasn’t sure how anything could follow The Scorpion Rules. But this one did. It starts small and quiet, but the tension and the implications build until it becomes an incredibly heartbreaking exploration of identity and love and what it means to be a person. I love sequels that dig deeper into the world of the first book, and that’s just what this one does.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: I reread this one at the beginning of the year, and it was just what I needed. Learning to tread new brain paths, learning to love and be loved. Living in the tension between the old and the new. This book is just a LOT in all the best possible ways.

Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung: I realized as I was typing this up that Lucy & Linh (aka Laurinda in its native Australia) has a lot in common thematically with We Are Okay: growing up and moving to a new place, complicated friendships, feeling unsure of yourself and who you are. But Lucy also deals with class and privilege and race, which tie back into the theme of identity and friendship in really interesting ways.

adult

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: I’ve discovered that I love good biographies of complex, difficult women, and this one is a great example. “Christine Granville” and her life make for an incredible, infuriating, and achingly sad story.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: While I basically just love all of Laura Florand’s books, this one really hit me in a personal place. It’s a quieter story, more intimate, full of the weight of the past–both family history and historical events. It’s about learning to acknowledge that weight without letting it bind you. And, on a lighter note, I really enjoy the setting and descriptions of the countryside as well.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: I talked about this one quite a lot already, but I’ve found myself thinking about it regularly ever since I read it. The approach to the story is so inventive and thought-provoking, and the sense of what-might-have-been is both inspiring and heartwrenching.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: Math and magic IN SPACE, and family, and culture, and diplomacy, and explosions, all in one short novella that doesn’t have that frustrating too-short-and-too-long feeling that some novellas do. It just makes me happy whenever I think about it, and I can’t wait to read Home.

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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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Not the Chosen One

I’m always interested in tropes and the way authors play with them. At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself. Sometimes an author will choose to engage with it, but in a way that’s a little bit different. Maybe the story is narrated by someone close to the Chosen One, maybe the person who thought they were chosen isn’t. Because I don’t want to spoil the books below, I’m not saying exactly how they reflect this, but they do in some form. And I’d love to hear if you have a favorite I’ve missed!

White Cat by Holly Black
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
The Story of Owen/Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
UnLunDun by China Mieville
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

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