Jul 21, 2014

Reading Notes: White is for Witching, Thorn, A Tale for the Time Being

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: Finally, my first Helen Oyeyemi! White is for Witching is an ambiguous and deeply unsettling haunted house story that has always been recommended to me in an “if you like Shirley Jackson, please try this” sort of way. The comparison is very much apt, though there’s also plenty to Oyeyemi that’s uniquely her own.

White is For Witching is narrated by four different characters, including the haunted house in Dover at the centre of the story. It took me a while to really grasp what this novel’s title meant, and I think the moment I did was the moment when it all fell into place for me. Oyeyemi slowly unveils a layered story about racism, the legacy of historical wrongs, and the way these shape the lives of the past- and present-day characters. There are also plenty of complex relationships along the way, including Miranda’s romance with Ore, a girl she meets when they’re both students at Cambridge. Think The Little Stranger with postcolonial undertones in addition to Shirley Jackson and you’ll have a good idea of what this novel is like. I’m really looking forward to reading more of Oyeyemi’s work.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani
“Your Highness, you have seen enough of the world to know that there is never only one truth, one side of a story. Perhaps your sources are true; I do not doubt they faithfully reported what they understood. But perhaps I am also telling you some part of the truth. To say that your sources lied, or that I do now, is to claim knowledge of the unknown.”
Thorn by Intisar Khanani: This retelling of “The Goose Girl” gave my beloved Shannon Hale’s novel of the same title a run for its money as my favourite version of this tale. The main reason why I was so impressed with Thorn is that it’s a novel that is deeply concerned with justice and power. In Khanani’s retelling, the princess’s time as a goose girl means she becomes engaged with her fellow workers’ political concerns — namely the stark inequalities in access to justice between the rich and the poor. Not only that, but the power differential between disenfranchised goose girl Alyrra and the prince she was meant to marry is not only explored, but kind of a major plot point.

As if this wasn’t enough, Thorn features an antagonist who is “not just a sorceress following a bloody oath”, but a character with complicated motivations of her own. I’ll leave you with a strong recommendation that you read Aarti’s excellent review of this book, and also with a parting quote that made my heart sing. I love how lately I’ve been coming across a lot of examples of complex romance that’s built around negotiation and the slow developing of trust.
I take a step forward, so that I am barely a handspan away from him, and rest my other hand on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. “I have no doubt of it,” I say, because I cannot yet tell him I love him, because we need more time without games and deceit between us to find such love.

A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: Memory is entirely to blame for this one, and as usual she was right. I loved this book like whoa. It is, as Memory put it, “a gorgeously written, meticulously constructed piece of fiction about how we tell and react to stories, about recollection, and about the self.” It’s about history too, and taking a stance, and how feeling like you haven’t done enough can slowly poison you, and perhaps even about learning to be kind to yourself.

The most impressive thing of all is how Ozeki explores these themes through a cast of characters whose lives couldn’t be more different. There’s Nao, the Japanese teenager whose diary is at the heart of this story; there’s Ruth, a middle-aged writer who finds Nao’s diary on the small Canadian island where she lives; there’s old Jiko, Nao’s 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother. They’re separated by time and circumstances, but linked by emotional ties and by their common humanity.

There’s plenty here about time and memory and storytelling and impermanence that hit me right in the heart. A Tale for the Time Being hit a lot of my buttons and tackled many of my current concerns, so it was absolutely the right book at the right time for me.

Now go read Memory’s review.

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Jul 20, 2014

Sunday Links: mostly political stuff, but also books and bikes

As always, links are a good excuse to tell you what I’ve been thinking about. Here are today’s:
  • Sarah McCarry writes about Dirty Wings for Scalzi’s Big Idea series. She’s the best and I cannot wait to read this book. Quote:
    But really what [Dirty Wings] is about—what it’s about for me, anyway—is being that girl with her eye on the edge of the world, that girl who says yes to all the wild things, that girl teaching herself how to run for the sake of running, choosing the uncertain, writing her own rules. Telling her own story, drawing her own maps. That girl who decided not to wait around for dragons. I wanted a story about girls who made their own trouble, and so I wrote it. Here’s hoping you like trouble, too.
    Also, did you read Courtney Summers’ interview with her?

  • This has been on my mind: “How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it”.

  • As has this: “Perceptions of Migrants: The Individual and the Group” — especially the bit where they say “...it seems that positive personal experiences alone are not enough to change an individual’s hostile views towards a group”. I don’t have any solutions, but I suppose that less media scaremongering and better representation would be a start.
  • The F Word on why Immigration is a feminist issue.

  • The other day I joined the first strike of my adult working life (though I’d joined student ones before). This post articulates many of the reasons why I felt it was important to take part.

  • “Let Us Consider the Mountain Goats” by Emma Stanford:
    At this point I’d like to lay down a grand theory about what makes Mountain Goats songs such good survival tools, but the truth is I don’t know. It’s easy to see why a balls-out anthem like “Heretic Pride” or “This Year” would be effective, but that doesn’t explain why so many people—myself among them—develop emotional dependencies on all the ugly little songs about dogs and owls and alcoholic Floridians. Their brevity helps, I suppose; JD doesn’t dick around building harmonies while you’re waiting to get healed.
    Why don’t I read this kind of smart and personal writing about music more often? Where is it hiding?

  • I want to read Friendship because NPR called it a book “about the real, unglamorous daily battle that is not being a jerk”, and the last time I read a book about that (The Crane Wife) it kind of floored me.

  • Jessica’s recent post about blogger burnout was timely and very helpful for me. There’s good advice there for anyone who devotes a lot of time and energy to demanding long-term projects whose benefits are not always immediately visible or easy to quantify.

  • I’ve had two posts go up at Lady Business recently: a discussion of the second season of The Legend of Korra and a joint Half Year in Media post.

  • Aarti has written a “save the date” post about A More Diverse Universe, which is expanding beyond speculative fiction this year. I love what she says here:
    You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation. You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits.

    Let me explain. Have a thirst for epic fantasy? There's a growing number of books available to you. Science fiction? A small but strong contingent. Non-Fiction? For sure. Memoirs? Definitely. Graphic novels? Absolutely. Travel writing? Got you covered. Romance? Yup. Women's fiction? Mystery? Thrillers? Historical fiction? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Whatever genre you enjoy, you can read diversely within that genre.
  • Finally, not a link but a life update: I’ve finally gathered the courage to start cycling to work, and there have been no casualties so far. It’s hard to explain how accomplished this makes me feel: to give you an idea, until a year and a half ago my ready-made answer to “tell us a weird fact about yourself” was “I never learned how to ride a bike”. Here are some pictures from the long weekend ride that gave me the confidence I needed:

    I didn’t crash into these poor unsuspecting cows!

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Jul 17, 2014

Reading Notes: Everything Leads To You, The Duchess War, West of the Moon

Reading Notes: Everything Leads To You, The Duchess War, West of the Moon

The following will be very brief because my writing-about-books muscles are pretty rusty. These novels were all lovely, though, and I thought I might as well share a few lines on why.

Everything Leads To You by Nina LaCour
Everything Leads To You by Nina LaCour: D’awww. Adorable romance between girls is adorable. This is a contemporary story set in LA, about high school senior Emi. She spends the summer after her graduation looking after her older brother’s flat, spending time with her best friend Charlotte, working on a movie, and trying to unveil a mystery that eventually leads her to a person: red-haired Ava, the long-lost granddaughter of a classic movie star.

First of all, I loved the details about filmmaking in this book. Emi is a set designer, and her passion for what she does (as well as for the movies in general) is at the heart of the novel. Seeing the world of cinema through her eyes allowed me to pay attention to little design details I never really noticed before, and to think about what they add to a movie’s emotional tone.

I loved Everything Leads To You because it satisfied my eternal craving for stories where girls get to be the subject of a type of desire and infatuation I usually only see in male protagonists. As I’ve discussed at length before, I’m very interested in both the very human process of idealising someone and having them open up previously unexplored possibilities in your life and in the dark underbelly of this kind of idealisation.

This story is all the more satisfying because it goes far beyond that initial infatuation. Ava begins as a mystery but quickly becomes a person, with all the complications that involves, and Emi realises “she was never something to be solved. All she is—all she’s ever been—is a person trying to live a life.”

Another great bit:
We love films because they make us feel something. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. They feel us with longing.
But also.
They tell us to remember; they remind us of life. Remember, they say, how much it hurts to have your heart broken. Remember about death and suffering and the complexities of living. Remember what it is like to love someone. Remember how it is to be loved. Remember what you felt in this moment. Remember this. Remember this.
The writing is lovely too, as you might have gathered from the above. Definitely recommended.

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
The Duchess War by Courtney Milan: Courtney Milan! She’s just the best. This is the first book in the Brothers Sinisters series, whose prequel novella I read and loved a few months ago, and it’s yet another thoughtful and very satisfying romance.

As Jenny once said, Milan is great at writing characters who are aware of their own privilege and willing to engage with what this really means. In The Duchess War, we have an adorable girl meets boy story; plus smart commentary on women’s limited choices and precarious position in Victorian society, on worker’s rights, and on class issues; plus a Duke with a social conscience.

Courtney Milan also continues to write the best sex scenes. The Duchess War has warmth, humour, silliness, trust, communication, and two partners willing to learn together so they can both have a good time. Also, these are sex scenes with female pleasure at their centre, which is always wonderful to see.

As I said, she’s just the best. I want some more.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus
West of the Moon by Margi Preus:
In the story of the girl and her prince, after the girl had gained entry into the castle, and the prince had finally overcome the sleeping potion that had been given him, and after the troll had tried and failed to wash the tallow out of his shirt and had flown into such a rage that she burst, the prince and the girl (now his bride) took as much gold as they could carry and moved far away from the castle that lay east of the sun and west of the moon. And that was the end of their story.
My story has not come to an end at all, but a sort of beginning. This is my story now, to make with it what I will.
This one was made irresistible to me by its pretty cover and a title that references my favourite fairy tale. Preus’ tale is not, however, a retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, but rather a historical novel with some magical elements that references and plays with several Norwegian folk and fairy tales.

Things to love: sisters! Historical detail! Three-dimensional antagonists! A wonderful voice! A story about stories (my favourite)! And did I mention sisters looking out for each other and surviving and making it to the other side of some terrible stuff together? On a shallower note, this book, with cover art and illustrations by Lilli Carré, is a thing of absolutely beauty.

The only thing is that, as I explained recently, I have some seriously unrealistic expectations when it comes to retellings of, or stories that play with, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. One day I’ll find my dream novel; in the meantime, this is a perfectly fine one. For a proper review, I shall refer you to Bookshelves of Doom, where there’s a great one that persuaded me to buy this book.

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Jul 14, 2014

London YA Lit Con (YALC)

London YA Lit Con (YALC)

Panel area at London YA Lit Con (YALC)
This past Saturday I went to the first day of London’s Young Adult Literature Convention (part of the London Film and Comic Con and curated by Malorie Blackman, who did a stellar job). It was absolutely amazing and exciting, and a lovely reminder that enthusiasm for books is alive and well, thank you very much. It was also very crowded, a bit overwhelming, and part of a chaotic major event that didn’t seem fully equipped to deal with enormous crowds. By the end of the first day I was exhausted enough that I couldn’t face going back on Sunday, even though it meant missing Meg Rosoff and Holly Black (I am, however, still the proud owner of a signed copy of Doll Bones, because awesome friends are awesome).

Cosplayers at London YA Lit Con (YALC) and London Film and Comic Con
A veeeery long queue of cosplayers.
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Jul 10, 2014


my cat

My cat Pedrês, who I’d had for just about half my life, passed away this afternoon. Unless you’re very new to this blog, you’ll have seen him many times — he was, even with my having moved away a few years back, a very big presence in my life. Between his illness and some other less public forum appropriate stuff, I’ve been really out of sorts these past few weeks.

His death was not unexpected, and the truth is that I’ve been sort of writing these words in my head for some time now. Putting things into sentences, articulating them to myself, has always been how I cope. And yet the knowledge that this loss was coming coexisted with a fierce hope that wasn’t so much optimistic as it was a survival tool. I said goodbye to him on Sunday, having managed to fly home for one last long weekend with him, but I did not dare to call it that. What I saw during this last visit wasn’t pretty — between my trip home in late May and now, he had lost 800g, which is a lot for a small and elderly cat. It broke my heart to see him trying to climb onto my bed as he’d always done and failing. He wasn’t in physical pain, and recovery wasn’t beyond the realm of the possible, but he was frail enough that it was unlikely. Whatever slim hope I could muster and grab onto furiously was what allowed me to walk out the door and make my way to the airport on Sunday evening.

My cat liked yoghurt and cantaloupe. He was afraid of strangers but he never, ever scratched. He hated the song “This is the Dream of Win and Regine”. He was born in a house with five children and spent his early months there; he was always a people’s cat. He used to sulk and snub me for up to a week when I came back to him after being away, but as I reached adulthood and my absences became longer and more frequent, he decided we’d make the most of whatever time we could have together instead. From then on it was wild purring and lap-climbing from the moment I walked through the door. I try to follow his lead in many things in life.

I’m trying to resist the urge to list more details that might make him come alive for you; that could conjure this particular cat in the minds of whoever reads these words. In the end there’s probably little point in trying to convey what made my cat special or this loss so hard: he was special to me, of course, but this is “as unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life.” Some of you, I suspect, will know what I mean straight away. If not, all you have are my words trying to do justice to this small tragedy and all the reasons why his death is a devastating loss for me. Words are all I have, but words are imperfect.

Me and my cat

All I can say is this: my cat and I had a strong, close tie. I’ve loved (and mourned) many animals in my life, and I’m sure I will again. But I’ll consider myself exceedingly lucky if I ever forge another bond quite like this. I’m trying to take comfort in stories that remind me that we continue to have a relationship with whomever and whatever we lose; that absence changes but doesn’t erase these ties’ significance or their roles in our lives. I’ll know and love other animals, but I’ll spend the rest of my life loving around this particular cat-shaped hole in my heart. In the end this is the hardest thing of all: the fact that there’s now a lot less love in my life. I feel diminished. I could do with any human kindness you could spare.

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