Jul 28, 2014

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve ValentineThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a loose retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in Prohibition era New York. Jo Hamilton is the oldest of the twelve daughters of Joseph Hamilton, the head of a family “who passed ‘wealthy’ and fell short of ‘storied’”. Mr Hamilton wanted a son; when one failed to materialise, he felt that “it would be an embarrassment to keep dragging [his daughters] out into society like a magician with scarves”. So the Hamilton sisters were kept at home, in the upper floors of their father’s town house, to grow up in isolation and with nothing and no one but each other.

Until, that is, Jo started taking them out to dance at the speakeasies. Jo’s precise control of their nightly escapes earned her the nickname “The General” among her eleven sisters. The girls live for their nights of dancing and for their momentary respite from their father’s control. But one day, Joseph Hamilton announces his plans to marry them all off, and Jo knows it will be up to her to lead her sisters to safety.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was perfect, and I don’t even know how to begin to tell you why. What I liked best was probably the fact that this is a very personal story that also explores the systemic roots of gender inequality with subtlety and precision. The Hamilton sisters are prisoners in their own home because they live in a system that makes them dependent on male kindness, and they have the misfortune of having an unkind father. But even if they’d had better luck, their circumstances would still be untenable because the power imbalance would be there nonetheless. This is what Jo realises when she considers the prospect of being married off:
The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.
Jo knew that much.
Hoping for kindness and mercy from someone with the power to make your existence miserable should they decide not to grant it is no way to live. And so what remains is escape, and a desperate attempt to make a life in their own terms in a world where the odds are against them.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a novel in the tradition of Consequences, Thank Heaven Fasting or Alas, Poor Lady: all early twentieth century stories that deal with women’s limited choices and the dire consequences of their lack of recourse. Each of these novels made me think about how sometimes I actually need unrelenting tragedy — I need stories that humanise the ones who didn’t get away and don’t for a moment slip into finger-pointing. I need stories that recognise that not overcoming an overwhelmingly unfair social system is not an individual failing.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a little different, in the sense that the Hamilton sisters are lucky enough to escape in the end (but oh, at such a cost — at a cost high enough that it feels wrong to use the word “luck”, even if I mostly mean it in the sense of chance). This is a story of resistance, and I need those too because they remind me that it’s possible to make it in a world that’s far from a level playing field. They provide a sort of hope that’s absolutely essential to me. At the same time, sometimes I worry that a hyperfocus on stories of individual triumph against (or, more accurately, escape from) unfair social systems encourages us to forget that, as Kameron Hurley so well puts it, “we cannot effect true change alone”. All this to say that when we do tell these stories, I want them to be written as sensitively and intelligently as this.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club works so well largely because it’s too smart to ever be smug. Jo and her sisters are remarkable characters in the sense that they’re complicated and well-written women, but there’s no inherent quality to them that helps them escape when women like E.M. Delafield’s Alexandra Clare didn’t. There’s a lot of luck inside the enormous bad luck of being a woman in a world where women are treated like chattel. Their escape is therefore terrifyingly precarious — the result of blind chance as much as anything else — because it happens within a social system where other women remain disempowered and trapped. The narrative acknowledges this, and it presents them (and us) with a tentative and fragile happiness that they nevertheless cling to desperately because what else do they have? It’s such an enormous relief to see these girls and women on their way to a sort of happiness that it feels like the only ending I could have accepted. But that feeling is all the stronger due to the knowledge that it might not have been so, through no fault of their own.

The other thing I was drawn to was the fact that The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a study of what it’s like to love in extremis. Jo, the Hamilton sister we get to know best, is hardened by despair and fear and so much love. She’s so used to being a General when her sisters need her to be one that it becomes impossible to ease into being a person. But we’re never allowed to forget the humanity under her battle scarred surface, and her relationship with her sister Lou is portrayed with such depth and emotional exactitude that it kind of broke my heart.

Perhaps you need context to fully understand why the following quotes moved me so much, but I thought I’d share them anyway:
She and Araminta each held out one foot, but Jo had the satisfaction of seeing her sisters in dancing shoes that fit. Araminta’s were apple green, and Rebecca’s were red, and somehow Jo couldn’t stop smiling.
(They were such a little thing, but they weren’t — they were the freedom that came after the prison.)

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

They had been factory girls after all, at least for a while, and from the looks of things it had been rough going.
She didn’t want to push them. General Jo would have, but some things were too fragile; reunions were one of them.

But those days were gone, and she sat in her little studio and sighed, and only hoped that none of them would choose something that would make them unhappy later.
There was nothing else she could do for them now, except give them a place to dance.
It was an alien feeling to watch them making choices on their own, choices that might be wrong (were wrong—he didn’t deserve one damn daughter wishing him a fond farewell), but she was trying hard to be a sister now, and not a General.
Some things you never stopped missing.
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore


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Jul 24, 2014

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin BowSorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Otter, the protagonist of Sorrow’s Knot, is a binder. Like her mother Willow, Otter has the power to cast the magical knots that repel the restless dead and keep her community — Westmost, where the Shadowed People live — relatively safe. In a world where every shadow might hide something dark and ravenous, binders are invaluable. However, their power is far from simple. When Willow begins to be consumed by her binding, Otter realises she’s about to be put in a position she doesn’t feel ready for. Not only that, but she begins to suspect that there might be something wrong with the stories that shape and govern the relationship between the living and the dead. Along with her best friends Kestrel and Cricket, Otter has no choice but to delve deep into the myths of the Shadowed People, all in the hopes of finding out what the tales got wrong.

I’ve been really grateful for my reading lately, and Sorrow’s Knot — along with books like Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club or We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — is a huge part of the reason why. I want to take everything I said about Plain Kate a few months ago and multiply it by a thousand, because that’s what reading Sorrow’s Knot was like.

Like Bow’s earlier novel, Sorrow’s Knot is so completely my sort of thing that I can’t believe I wasn’t all over it the second it came out. It’s gorgeously written, devastating, hopeful, and basically everything I hope to find when I pick up a book. Additionally (and much like in Plain Kate), there’s something dark and ponderous about the writing that grabbed me straight away — it never feels cumbersome, but the novel’s voice is exactly what it needs to be to give it the emotional weight it requires to carry the story, and the final result is incredibly thoughtful and moving.

The myths and customs Sorrow’s Knot draws from are Native American in origin, and Otter and her people are not white. One of the many things reading criticism online has taught me (and which I’m deeply grateful for) is not to make careless claims of authenticity about works based on cultures I know next to nothing about. What looks like careful research and accomplished representation to me could be full of holes for someone with more knowledge, and I don’t want to make people cringe in the same way I cringe when I see Speaker for the Dead or The Summer Prince pass for accurate and culturally sensitive works. So I won’t: instead I’ll freely acknowledge that I’m not ideally positioned to assed Bow’s use of Native American elements in Sorrow’s Knot, but doing a bit of investigating online led me to her post at Diversity in YA about writing with respect and avoiding stereotypes. I especially like this bit:
Other people have thoughtfully articulated the reasons why “default to white” is bad – there are several. From a writer’s perspective, what I rarely hear discussed is the loss. The world is full of great traditions. That we limit ourselves – unconsciously, mostly – to those that are already so well-trodden is sad. Our literature could be so much richer. There are so many other rivers from which we could draw.
Sorrow’s Knot is thematically very rich, but there were two elements that particularly stood out for me: first, how this is a novel about stories and how they shape the world; secondly, how it deals so sensitively with loss and grief and letting go. The two themes are connected, because the stories the Shadowed People tell about the dead give form to their relationship with those they lose and to how they experience grief. I can’t quite do justice to Erin Bow’s sensitivity and nuance when writing about this; suffice to say that I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel whose treatment of grief touched me quite this much. I was reminded of the powerful impact the Lyra in the underworld scenes in The Amber Spyglass had on me so many years ago, and if you know me you’ll know that’s saying a lot.

Spoilers for this paragraph: a quick perusal of GoodReads revealed that some readers were disappointed with the ending of Sorrow’s Knot because they felt that Otter had been saved by Orca in the end, and that this played into troubling narrative tropes that undermine female heroines by placing them at the mercy of men. I understand the context for these concerns, of course, but my own reading of Otter and Orca’s kiss was so different. I didn’t see it as a rescue, but rather as a reminder that love binds us to the realm of the living. Our ties to one another, and to the things and places that we love, are often what keeps us going in the face of unbearable loss. This doesn’t have to be romantic love, and although I didn’t mind that it was in this case I’m happy that there are other stories out there where it’s not.

The romance also worked for me because it was framed as a beginning: we watch two people fall in love and invest in what they’re starting to build together, and then the narrative leaves enough space for the reader to imagine what might come next. Otter and Orca are young and have been through enough that they know there are no guarantees in this life, but their willingness to risk it with each other after everything they’ve lost is a moving and beautiful thing.

In sum: Sorrow’s Knot was ominous, dark and heartbreaking in the best possible way. I absolutely can’t wait for whatever Erin Bow publishes next.

Favourite bits (contain spoilers):
Cricket. They laughed over his memory, they cried over it. They were warm and fed, and nothing came at them in the darkness. They thought themselves as safe as they had ever been. They forgot, almost, what they had come to do: That they had come to find something, to find Eyrie, to find the living root of the stories about the dead. They did not notice that, apart from the holdfast itself, they had found nothing human at all. In that warm, sunlit place, the perfect place for humans to live — nothing human at all.

It was Otter’s first kiss, and Orca was no craftsman. There were things they didn’t know, such as what to do with noses. And yet they kissed each other, both of them frightened and broken — but they brokenness seemed to fit together to make a whole. Their noses found their tilt. The soft brush of lips just missing lips became something dead centre, something sure and hungry. Otter felt it rise from the deep places of her body, like the binding power finding the perfect balance in a knot. Orca made a grief noise in his throat and knotted his fingers in her hair. His thumb went under her cheekbone, pressed as hard as if he were sculpting her. She felt the t ears pool against his thumb joint. She was crying. They were both crying.
Reviewed at: Charlotte’s Library, By Singing Light, The Book Smugglers


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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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