Tag Archives: fantasy

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Life and Death

Before the Midnight Sun announcement and release earlier this year, I had not read, watched, or really thought about Stephenie Meyer or Twilight in years. Much to my surprise, I did still find Midnight Sun (Twilight retold from Edward’s POV) pretty enjoyable when I picked it up a few months ago, despite changes in my reading taste, despite the flaws of the Twilight saga being much more apparent to me now than they were originally. It was an amusing throwback for me. And so I decided to keep the entertainment going by picking up another Twilight redo: the 2015 10th anniversary edition, Life and Death, in which Stephenie Meyer gender-swaps the entire Twilight cast and tells the familiar story yet again. Unfortunately, this attempt did not hit the mark. At all.

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined (The Twilight Saga)

In the novel, Beau Swan has just moved into Forks, Washington to live with his dad the police chief. He’s a good (if clumsy) seventeen year-old kid who wants to give his mom a chance to travel with her new husband, even though he hates the cold, wet weather of Washington. But you know who doesn’t hate the lack of sun? The Cullens. Most of the local kids are used to the weather, but for the Cullens it’s more than that. They stand out, and Beau can’t help but notice. There’s one in particular, a girl named Edythe, who sits next to him in biology. At first she looks like she wants to murder him, followed by a pointed absence from school, then she ignores him completely, and finally the two strike up a friendship and Beau begins to get some answers- namely, that Edythe is a vampire. But it’s too late to be horrified; Beau’s already in love.

Sound familiar? If you’ve heard anything about Twilight in the last fifteen years, it probably does- this is the same story as Twilight, complete with similar (in some cases exactly the same) dialogue, plot, and commentary from the main character. The only difference is that everyone’s genders have been switched, with the exception of Charlie and Renee, Beau’s parents. The obvious parallels are not what bothered me here. For someone who hates predictability in books, I am surprisingly okay with literary echoes and experiments of perspective- Midnight Sun also repeats the same plot and dialogue as Twilight to a large extent, and I had no problem with that either. As long as it’s clear up front (which this book is, both in the jacket copy and the book’s introduction), I really see no reason to mind the repetition. Any reader who doesn’t want to read something so similar has the perfectly acceptable option of not picking it up.

And actually, the plot of Life and Death is not *exactly* the same as Twilight– there’s a big plot twist at the end that’ll intrigue long-time Twilight fans! This complete divergence from Twilight canon was one of the few things I actually enjoyed about Life and Death.

But that’s the only praise you’re going to hear from me here today.

My main complaint with this book is related to its core premise. Meyer herself notes in the book’s forward that the whole point of this gender-swapped retelling is to prove to criticizing readers that the weird, uneven dynamic between Edward and Bella has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the hunter/prey vampire/human relationship. Meyer sets out to demonstrate that Edward’s controlling, stalker-y behavior is not a result of his maleness but of his species; she is determined to make this point by giving Edythe and Beau the same story and dynamic, thus proving that Edythe/Edward’s power and disregard for rules and morality are related to their vampirism, and Beau/Bella’s vulnerability and infatuation comes down to humanity only. The problem? Meyer actually does change a lot more than character pronouns, altering many small details with the result of failing to land her argument convincingly but also, frustratingly, completely reinforcing the gender stereotypes she claims to be challenging.

“Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”

For example, in a Twilight scene where Edward carries Bella’s backpack at school, in Life and Death human Beau takes vampire Edythe’s heavy backpack instead- implying that this move is actually about male chivalry, not vampire strength. Similarly, in a scene where Edward helps Bella step up into a tall Jeep, instead Beau opens Edythe’s door for her and then struggles up into his own seat by himself. In a scene where Bella is reading Jane Austen, Beau is reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In a scene where Edward tells some classmates that he’s taking Bella to dinner, Edythe tells the classmates that she’s making Beau take her to dinner. There are a lot of “one-armed bro hugs” with Beau where Bella would’ve simply hugged someone. In a scene where Edward lends Bella a jacket, Edythe lends Beau… her brother’s scarf. This one really baffles me. Loaning a possession that does not even belong to you is just… not the same gesture. Not to mention, jackets for women are not always tight, form-fitted, pink affairs! I (a woman) have personally at least once lent a jacket to a guy, who wore it comfortably in public without getting any funny looks and it fit him fine. Even though Meyer is aparently more concerned about gender appearances than she’ll admit, loaning a jacket can be pretty neutral if one doesn’t overthink it.

But it’s not only the small details. Everything about Beau and Edythe’s chemistry is just completely different to Bella and Edward’s. Even some things that are written the same just read differently because the social expectations have been carried over and transposed rather than dodged. It feels backwards to Beau when Edythe (or his human girl friends at school) ask him to a dance (even though it’s girls’ choice!) or on a date. It’s not written explicitly, but Beau’s discomfort shows that his masculinity is at stake in these situations. And Beau thinking Edythe is too gorgeous to ever feel dangerous reads like an insult that it wouldn’t have with Bella thinking the same about Edward, especially when Beau expresses greater fear around the male vampires than the beautiful women. Edythe and Beau are just as much a product of the patriarchy as Edward and Bella.

“I felt a strange sense of pride, being able to claim her this way. Kind of Neanderthal of me, but there it was. ‘Yeah, she’s my girlfriend.’ “

And none of this addresses the fact that stalking, breaking into someone’s house, and threatening force to get your way are simply wrong behaviors, no matter who is doing them. Life and Death is, in the end, just as toxic as Twilight, if not moreso for being a second take pushing for the same bad things in the wake of a lot of valid criticism. It’s obvious by this book’s very existence that Meyer is bothered by the criticism leveled against her for Twilight‘s flaws, but instead of acknowledging that there might be any merit to the complaints, she digs in deeper. She is going to die on this hill, and it’s never been an ideal vantage point. Come on, having Beau think of himself as a stalker when he watches Edythe move around the school does not erase the fact that one of these characters (not Beau/Bella, in case that wasn’t clear) is entering the other’s house uninvited while the other is asleep to stare at them for hours and eavesdrop on their sleep-talking. Meyer also doesn’t miss the chance to fit in that one comment from the vampire (Edythe, in this case) about the human (Beau here) seeming like a child to them, making the age gap as uncomfortable as possible, just like always.

” ‘Be careful though, the child has no idea.’ / ‘Child? You know, Jules is not that much younger than I am.’ / She looked at me then, her anger gone. She grinned. ‘Oh, I know.’

I think a gender-swapped Twilight *might,* if done right, have gone some way toward making Meyer’s point about the vampire/human relationship vs the male/female one. If Beau and his friends had been trying on dresses in Port Angeles as Bella and her friends did. If Edythe had taken Beau’s backpack, helped him into the Jeep, and lent him her jacket. If Beau had been reading Jane Austen. If Renee had been the police chief and Charlie traveling around with his new wife, the athlete. All of these would have been acceptable choices and made a stronger statement than the limp attempt that is Life and Death. (And there’s a whole other conversation to be had about how ‘gender-swapping’ in this way leaves no room for anyone who doesn’t fit a gender binary, which is of course harmful in itself.)

The only really good thing that comes out of the gender switches, in my opinion, is Carine. I’ve always liked Carlisle, but seeing a woman doctor as the head of this vampire coven is powerful in its own exciting way. Especially considering that Carine, like Carlisle, is over 300 years old, and thus would have learned her medical skills in an era where a woman getting an education in pretty much any subject, much less medicine, would’ve gone against the grain. That’s the kind of “gender shouldn’t matter” commentary I was looking for here, and in no other way received. And Meyer doesn’t even address how difficult it would’ve been for Carine to become a doctor when she did- only the reader looking between the lines will see the implication at all.

To top it all off, the butchering of the gender discussion isn’t even the book’s only flaw, though it is the most damaging. But in addition, it’s just all too hasty. I mean, no, I didn’t want to spend any more time with this book. But on the other hand, I might not have disliked it so strongly if it hadn’t felt so lazy. Meyer is clearly banking on the fact that only Twilight fans who are already intimately aware of Edward and Bella’s story are going to be reading Edythe and Beau’s- it’s a shorter book, even though the plot twist means there’s a fair amount of extra work that’s needed at the end to make the story land. I’m not sure whether Meyer was bored herself with this project, or just rushed, but she’s absolutely flying through the plot and rationalizations here without taking the time to make the story feel lived-in. It’s hard to keep track of the huge cast of characters who pop in and out with little to no personality attributed to them, it’s hard to suspend disbelief for the fantasy element which is treated like a forgone conclusion practically before it’s even introduced, and it ultimately feels like even the central characters are failing to take this fiction seriously. In order to appreciate anything that’s going on, one has to keep Twilight superimposed over Life and Death in one’s mind to make sense of who is supposed to mean what to whom and why. Everything feels condensed, which is…not conducive to the romance, literally the only thing this series has ever had going for it.

There’s no compellingly readable heart to this version of the story. It’s flat and lifeless (pun not intended). If Twilight had begun this way, with Beau and Edythe and this completely bizarre and unexplored relationship, I would not have been interested in reading sequels, and I doubt many other readers would have been, either. 10+ years later, fully cognizant of Twilight‘s issues, that book still has the power to suck me in and keep me reading, even if I am laughing under my breath at it nowadays instead of wholeheartedly loving it. It still has the power to keep me picking up sequels and spin-offs that’ll give me a few hours of amusement. But Life and Death utterly lacks that ability to captivate.

It fails on every level.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Would not recommend, even to serious Twilight fans. Any modicum of enjoyment I got out of this comes primarily from the rants I’ve gotten out of the experience.

What’s a book that’s burned you recently?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Fire Starters and Call Down the Hawk

I’m approaching the end of the Women’s Prize Squad longlist! I have one title left to read, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. I am finally next up in the library queue but it is unclear whether my turn will come up before the end of the year, so I’ll likely be wrapping up this longlist in 2021. But in the meantime, I do have some thoughts on two more titles I read recently from our alternate prize list: Jan Carson’s modern Troubles novel, The Fire Starters, and Maggie Stiefvater’s YA dream-quest Call Down the Hawk. Both involve their own brand of magic.

In The Fire Starters, Belfast is burning. A dangerous tradition of cathartic but destructive fires in July have been legally banned- or, at least, shrunk to an infuriatingly reasonable size. Citizens rebel, under the instruction of the anonymous Fire Starter, who fans the flames of simmering anger and unrest by goading them into a summer-long fire fest. One man sweats over the likelihood that his secretive adult son is the mastermind behind the Tall Fires. Another man fears the day his infant daughter will begin to speak, believing her mother to have been an actual siren. To the backdrop of a parched, smoke-filled, and still traumatized post-Troubles Belfast, these two men grapple with parental love against the safeguarding of their homes and city.

“No one wants to be the first stone-caster. No one wants to be last. The trick is to raise your voice at exactly the same moment as everyone else. In this, and other matters, the politicians are not unlike teenage children.”

This is a stunning novel merging magic, fatherhood, and the long shadow of trauma upon a community. It’s comical and sharp, reflecting on the ways that the violence and subversiveness of the Troubles have, instead of fading away, melded into everyday life. Belfast presents as a character in its own right- the tension ruling its streets irresistibly palpable. Carson’s political and emotional commentary is astute and memorable, but the magical element turns what could be a dauntingly heavy read into something playful, evocative, and immediately gripping. I found it impossible to put down.

“In the city centre the pavements are the same gunmetal grey as the sky, as the shop windows, as the lake quickly forming outside the markets. Everywhere is grey and sliding. People are pale pink thumbprints smudging behind the rain. Most stay indoors, only leaving the house when strictly necessary: work, groceries, elderly relatives, who may require anchoring down.

I think it’s best to discover these fraught characters and their blazing summer for oneself, but rest assured that the two alternating perspectives and Belfast’s fate dovetail quite nicely. The magical element serves to further the themes of violence and its consequences, the way monumental events are, in time, absorbed into the minutiae of regular city life. And for those who like their literary fiction more on the realistic side, never fear- while the magic is unavoidable in this story, it’s also cloaked in an uncertainty that ties back to the book’s themes: is the infant really a dangerous siren? Or is her father’s fear the result of ingrained paranoia and mistrust? Only the reader can decide.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I adored this book. I found it immensely readable, but also full of staying power; the best combination. I think it’ll appeal most to those already interested in Troubles books- fans of Anna Burns’s Milkman might fare particularly well here, though the styles are very different. This book really should have the wider reach of the two, being far less difficult overall, but it seems woefully unread… If you need further convincing, let me direct you to Rachel’s stellar review, which was all it took for me!

In Call Down the Hawk, Ronan Lynch is adrift. His boyfriend is hours away, where Ronan can’t go. His brothers have their own lives, and Ronan can’t stay with them for long either- it’s not safe for him to dream away from his secluded childhood home; when he dreams, Ronan tends to bring things back to the waking world with him; sometimes he brings back things that he doesn’t want to. Now that Ronan is eighteen and alone, he needs a project to occupy his time and utilize his unique skill. Luckily, he finds it, in the mysterious voice of a faceless but powerful stranger and a quest to save a notorious art forger. Meanwhile, an army of visionaries decides to rid the world of dreamers in the name of saving the world.

First off, be warned: though Call Down the Hawk is the first book in a trilogy, it’s a spinoff following Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books. I do think you can start with this volume if you want to, though most of these characters and the magical dreams will have more context for those who’ve started at the very beginning. The plot is entirely new here, but Call Down the Hawk builds off of previous characterization and world-building.

I did read and enjoy all four books of the Raven Cycle a few years ago, but was not sure these books would still align with my reading taste (and also was not particularly interested in the dreaming aspect of that original series) and so I wasn’t initially planning to pick up this trilogy. In the end, I’m glad I did. Stiefvater’s writing just works for me. She’s great with details, and with making unexpected connections and comparisons. Every now and then there’s a line that doesn’t quite land for me, but on the whole I’m always entertained and surprised by her writing at the sentence level, something I appreciate, especially in YA. (Though it is worth noting that Call Down the Hawk lands at the upper edge of YA, with most of its characters 18 or slightly above.)

Speaking of characters: these are great. It’s a delight to follow Ronan and Adam’s relationship (though unfortunately they’re not together much on-page), to see the three wildly different Lynch brothers interact, to discover the quirks and mysteries of the dreamers. The art forger is a kickass woman with dark skin and six identical copies of herself also walking the world and turning forgery into an art of self-expression. There’s something in each to relate to, and some great commentary throughout the book on individuality, self-identity, and strength.

“He would not let this world kill him slowly.

He deserved a place here, too.

He woke.”

The plot is what didn’t quite work for me. In theory, a magical mystery that walks the line between reality and imagination, especially once you involve sightings of dead persons, paintings of dubious legality, a team of self-appointed assassins, and seven people who all look exactly the same, should’ve been a win. But there are two things that turned me off here. One, as I feared, was the dream element. I’m picky about how magic operates in fiction, and the dreams here are enough of an obstacle to these characters that it almost fell into place, but there are a few places in the story where the dream magic feels like a narrative crutch, a get-out-of-jail free card where it’s not quite earned. But I expected that going in, so it didn’t bother me too much. What did was the deliberate withholding of information for the sake of ~mystery.~ There are at least three characters here who refuse to tell each other (or the reader) what they know, in order to advance the plot when Stiefvater is ready for it. The book limps along as these characters in the know drop crumbs to those who need them- it feels artificial and frustrating to be fed a story in pieces when the characters clearly know more than they’re letting on. Telling the reader that they’re secretive or powerful people is not sufficient excuse, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, I love all of these people (except Bryde, but we’ll table that for now) and their slow-burn relationships, their loyalty. I love the unique and interesting skill sets, the constant threat of danger, the magical black market, the art, the themes. I wished the presentation had been a little less forced, but I was hooked regardless.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I suspect that if more information had been provided up front instead of making the reader wait for it, a single novel might have been enough space for the story this trilogy is telling, and that length might have made it a tighter tale all around. But there is plenty to like here and I’m invested now, so I will be continuing the series, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to Raven Cycle fans.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight Sun

If you’re actively opposed to all things Twilight, feel free to skip this post; I’m going to be talking about Stephenie Meyer’s new Twilight Saga release here, the long-awaited Midnight Sun.

To start off, I’d like to point out that I was intending to read one chapter of this book per day over about a month (there are 29 chapters), and finish with a post titled ‘A Case Against Wish Fulfillment Books.’ This plan was derailed two weeks in when I finished reading the chapters that leaked a decade ago in the Midnight Sun manuscript; I ended up binging and quite enjoying the rest of the book. In place of that more critical post, I’m simply going to cover all of the discussion points I think other Midnight Sun readers will potentially be interested in; sorry to everyone who doesn’t fit in that category, but also… not sorry. My 2020 needed this diversion.

Midnight Sun is the same exact YA fantasy romance delivered in Twilight: a love story between a 109 year-old vampire in a 17 year-old’s body (Edward) and a human teenage girl (Bella), with a simple narrator POV swap. As with Twilight, the story starts with Bella’s first day at school in Forks and continues up to the couple’s evening at prom a couple of months later. The first twelve chapters are VERY similar to the corresponding chapters of the partial Midnight Sun manuscript circa 2008. If you’ve already got those firm in your mind (I suspect the audience for this book will largely overlap with the audience who read that leaked draft), you could skip right to chapter 13 if you felt so inclined.

I fully expected to enjoy this in a cringe-y, nostalgic, guilty pleasure sort of way, but am instead here to confirm that Midnight Sun is just as addictive as any of the Twilight novels ever have been, for better or for worse.

Having read both perspectives now, it seems shocking that one version of this romance could ever have existed without the other, that the two were not written simultaneously, so tidily do they complement each other. There are a few awkward moments in Midnight Sun where the established dialogue doesn’t quite match Edward’s newly revealed thought process and he has to wonder ‘why did I say that?’ or note that his behavior isn’t following his conscious intentions; the symbolism of the title and cover is also hit harder than necessary. But these clumsy maneuvers are few and far between, and on the whole I think Midnight Sun does an excellent job of connecting previously invisible dots; every time Edward speaks or gestures too fast for Bella to catch is now captured on paper. And these two spend so much time wondering what the other is thinking that having access to both of their thoughts suits the story. As far as I can tell the details track- I took a cursory look through the meadow scene from both books to compare, and found only minor differences between how actions are meant vs perceived, and which details are made note of or ignored by each character; these small differences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they improve this project, exploring the idea that no two people experience the same thing in the exact same way.

I thought Twilight coming from Bella’s perspective was the perfect choice at the time- as the reader’s first foray into this world, of course it makes sense to introduce fantasy elements from the point of view of someone who is also newly discovering them. But in the same vein, Edward’s perspective is the right choice for a new Twilight novel today, when even those who haven’t read the books or watched the films likely have some knowledge of the story. Edward is all extremes, so the series might have died here if it had started this way originally, though he is by far the more interesting of the two, and the only character capable of breathing some life back into this overblown piece of pulp fiction. Seeing his point of view at this point allows Meyer to add depth to the now-familiar story that no other angle could provide. So much of this book is exactly the same and yet it also manages to be new and different, thanks to this one vital shift.

There’s no point in denying that this book is entirely gratuitous and unnecessary- yes, it’s a bit ironic to call any of these books necessary, but the rest of them do at least advance the scant plot; Midnight Sun adds virtually nothing new beyond Edward’s voice, and even this is not a surprise, as his position has been made clear from his dialogue in the rest of the series. This is, plain and simple, a wish fulfillment book for long-time Twilight fans, which is apparent even in the book’s dedication. I was prepared to hate it for not bringing anything new to a table that’s already stacked with a lot of issues, and indeed: the vast majority of the content here is comprised of the exact same plot, scenes, dialogue, and backstory that are already familiar from Twilight. The two books correlate practically chapter for chapter- about half even share the same titles. The two books are warped mirror images of each other. There are four extra chapters in Midnight Sun, and almost 200 more pages than Twilight contained, but that’s easily explained by Edward’s obsessive over-analyzing of every. thing.

“Not for the first time in my life, I wished that I could make my brain slow down. Force it to move at human speed, if only just for a day, an hour, so that I wouldn’t have time to obsess over and over again about the same solutionless problems.”

Some patience is clearly required, but I think those who are still interested after the twelve year hiatus from this series won’t mind that the final product comes with plenty of padding.

I do want to acknowledge before going further that the same flaws plaguing the earlier books of the Twilight Saga still exist here in Midnight Sun, though it’s clear Meyer is more aware of those criticisms by now. Unfortunately I think she spends more effort tying up little plot holes (admittedly a gratifying element) than addressing the more serious characterization problems, and some of those she acknowledges without cleaning up which actually makes them seem worse (Edward’s stalking and spying tendencies, for one, are fully acknowledged and dismissed). But to be fair I think it would be pretty hard to change the canon believably at this point, within the strict constraints imposed upon this novel. So, enter at your own risk- Edward is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend no one should aspire to have, Bella is gilded a bit when seen through Edward’s eyes but still a single-minded idiot no one should aspire to be, the Quileutes are still presented unfairly as an antagonistic enemy, and the age gap in the romance is still uncomfortable (Edward thinks of the high schoolers as children). Additionally, Edward’s thought-reading reveals a lot of unpleasantness in the personalities of many formerly benign side characters, including Rosalie, most of Bella’s human friends, and even Bella’s mother.

On the plus side, there’s a lot more time spent on the uber-supportive Cullen family dynamic and on teasing out individual quirks for each of the vampires. Emmett shines as the best friend Edward ever could’ve asked for, Alice has some real prowess with the future visions (and I found her all-but-silent conversations with Edward incredibly amusing; Alice has always been my favorite Cullen), Jasper’s mood controlling makes sense and is put to fantastic use at last, and Carlisle and Esme’s kindness radiates off the page (though Esme is still the flattest of them all, sadly). There’s even a bit of silent observation from Edward’s side that endeavors to prove he loves Bella for more than the smell of her blood, which is a nice addition.

It’s still a romance, of course. But where Bella’s POV makes Twilight revolve entirely around the love story and the discovery of magic hiding in her ordinary world, Edward’s POV brings us less of a love story and more of a war with his own self-worth and self-control. The falling in love part happens early and easily, immediately apparent in the angst and (melo)drama if not in Edward’s conscious awareness. What drives this version of the story instead is his internal grappling; he loves her, but he wants to kill her. The thing he wants most is the thing he poses the most danger to. He can have momentary happiness, or he can endure intense momentary discomfort for long-term happiness. His long-term happiness on the other hand would require certain sacrifices from the object of his affections, and can he ask that of her? Her happiness is a double-edged sword that incites both pain and pleasure- which is stronger, and what will that mean for her future? For his?

Edward loathes himself for bringing someone he loves and believes innocent into his world of vampirism; he considers himself the monster, the nightmare, full stop. It’s a dark and anxious book, and the fraught self-hatred and denial is the main draw. It’s a book full of pain and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The gloomy psychological battle won’t be for everyone of course, but if you’ve ever been Team Edward this is likely what you’ve been craving all along- Edward’s uncomfortable predicament has been clear through all of these books, though it’s never been this potent.

“As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was so soft, so vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.”

Because the reader already knows what is happening and how this world is built, and because Edward is the mythical creature rather than the painfully ordinary human, Midnight Sun is able to start in the thick of things even as it goes back to the very beginning, and it’s able to take the otherworldly aspects farther than Bella’s perspective allowed. Meyer knows the reader is already familiar with her brand of vampirism, and in any case by the time this story starts Edward has already been a vampire for close to a century, so he doesn’t get caught up in world-building minutiae the way Bella does.

There’s a bit more magical behind-the-scenes action going on here too, and a deeper dive into Edward’s backstory and his behavior unbeknownst to Bella. None of this changes canon content, and the extra details aren’t anything that couldn’t be guessed at based on remarks from the other books, but it’s still amusing to see in print. To be honest, I think being willing to laugh at these books has always been a prerequisite for enjoying them, and that’s no different here.

“For half a second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss Bella. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.”

I mean, it’s so bad it comes all the way around the spectrum to good again. Like 90s horror flicks. I think this is why I can read Midnight Sun in 2020 and not something like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; the Twilight Saga all but begs not to be taken seriously, and thus is easier to pick back up even when reading tastes have changed.

Honestly I think the only thing here that will disappoint readers who’ve been more or less enjoying the series up to now is that as Midnight Sun nears its climax, as Bella breaks away from the Cullens to run toward her own demise, Edward is able to block out most of his worry about her safety when it should be at its most heady. Luckily the plot picks up with some grand theft auto and vampire magic to help redirect attention, but this doesn’t quite replace the glut of emotion I think most readers will expect in that scene. Ah, well. I suppose even vampires must have a breaking point.

In the end, I would argue that Midnight Sun is better than Twilight, although I think both objectively leave a lot to be desired, just as both have served their purpose and proved wildly entertaining in their own time and place. I don’t expect that Midnight Sun is going to win this series many new readers, however. Even though it is just another iteration of the first book, and would probably work as an entrance to the series, it doesn’t seem intended for that purpose. This is an expansion of known story, not an organic introduction to this world. Furthermore, I suspect this will be the end of the Edward-perspective books, which means anyone looking to jump into this saga is going to have to face Bella’s POV sooner rather than later if they plan to continue reading.

Enough of Edward’s thoughts and motivations are clear here that it’s easy to imagine how and why the rest of the series’ plot unfolds the way it does, and drawing out Edward’s perspective further would feel incredibly repetitive and even more superfluous than it does in Midnight Sun. He’s already (unknowingly) contemplating a lot of the issues that will come up for him in the future: how and why he might leave Bella, what that would feel like, how and why he might come back. Why a physical relationship between them would be dangerous. What he thinks about her potentially becoming a vampire vs staying human. His jealousy. His stance on letting her go or even encouraging a more normal life for her, separate from him. His anxiety when she’s out of sight. His fear of her inevitable death looming above everything else. It’s all here, and I think Meyer provides it with the understanding that it’s all the reader is getting. Midnight Sun adds an indulgent layer, but further books would probably become too cloying. Especially given that the second installment would just be a massive tome of severe depression, given the plot of New Moon.

And yet, despite the doom and gloom and obvious predictability, it is still fun. I suppose this is why wish fulfillment books exist.

“Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay.”

I enjoyed this read far more than I expected based on my present reading taste; I don’t regret picking it up, I’m excited to talk about it with anyone who’s read it or is planning to read it, and I could even envision doing a reread someday- I’d be curious to try Midnight Sun and Twilight side by side, scene by scene, eventually. But there’s only so much sparkly vampire romance I can take in one dose these days and I’ve hit my limit for now, so I’ll be taking a break.

Have you read or are you planning to read Midnight Sun? Hit me with all your Twilight Saga thoughts down below, I’m in some kind of teenage angst mood.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Black Girl Unlimited

One of my summer book purchases that I read immediately upon arrival was Echo Brown’s Black Girl Unlimited, a YA memoir/fantasy about a Black girl (also named Echo Brown) trying to beat the odds in Cleveland.

blackgirlunlimitedIn the novel, six year-old Echo starts the narrative with a scene of fire in her family’s apartment; her mom is passed out in the bathroom and Echo’s younger brothers wail in their cribs- Echo doesn’t know what to do or how to get help as their home fills with smoke. But her mother is a wizard and Echo will soon discover that she is one, too. Wizards can perform miracles to turn bad situations into good ones- or at least, into survival. From here we follow Echo through the end of her high school graduation as she learns what it means to be a Wizard, and how she can use her power to outlast the shitty circumstances America throws at Black people.

“I’m realizing that one of the most difficult things about life is figuring out what you are really made of, rather than living down to the negative expectations of others.”

In the first couple of chapters, even before Echo learns that she is a wizard, it’s clear that to some extent “wizardry” here means survival skills in a hostile environment. Echo describes her mother’s ability to create and wear a shell, which many readers will recognize as a self-defense mechanism involving retreating into oneself to block out pieces of the world that would be emotionally harmful to absorb. Next, we see Echo’s mother “make something out of nothing;” when the family is low on cash and the kids are hungry, their mom will go out and come back looking rumpled and defeated but bearing food (the implication being she’s doing other “favors” to pay for the food when she doesn’t have the cash).

But there is a fantasy element as well. Some of the miracles involve stopping time, visiting a higher plane, seeing and lifting literal shrouds of despair from those who’ve lost hope. The wizardry may work as a metaphor, but Brown has fun with it and gives her characters real power to show the real difference people can make, in a way that’s palatable for a young audience. Each chapter is titled after a particular miracle that Echo is learning about or experiencing as she progresses through childhood and adolescence, each with its own positive message about rising above even when it seems impossible.

“Many people have called my mother strong- relatives, neighbors, friends, teachers. Those same people have called me strong, too. They have said wizards are unbreakable, but I’m not sure anymore. They call us warriors because we survive it and they call us strong because it doesn’t topple us. They call us magic because we manage to make miracles out of it. ‘Wow! Look at her take it all! She’s so strong!’ But for us, it’s not a victory. It’s a bloodbath.”

I also enjoyed the format of the book. Many chapters, especially those featuring heavier magic, jump back and forth between scenes, mid-sentence. In this way the reader gets a layered view of how Echo’s past experiences mesh with her present, or how conversations and actions in the higher plane correspond with events happening in the real world. A line between one scene and the next indicates the jump and prevents confusion, but as the start of one sentence in one setting flows seamlessly into the end of a sentence in another scene, there’s no real pause as the narrative shifts. Brown does a fantastic job of juggling these parallels in a way that’s easy to follow and brings deeper meaning to separate events.

As for content and tone, Black Girl Unlimited is both a difficult and inspiring read. (CWs ahead!) Echo’s parents are caught in a cycle of substance abuse. Her brothers are discouraged at school when they struggle with any subject and choose instead to drop out to sell on the streets. There are rapes, on page. There’s death, severe injury, grief. Depression weighs heavily on several characters in this tale. Brown digs into the negative consequences of poverty, racism, and sexism. Echo has a friend who’s always spouting about the injustice of the system that holds the Black man down, who doesn’t always listen to Echo when she argues that Black women have their own particular injustices to face, some at the hands of Black men. For Brown to make her points about the miracles of wizardry, she describes quite a lot of painful challenges these characters face. And yet through it all, there’s Echo wanting to make things better any way she can. When Echo loses her optimism, there are people at her side to encourage her to keep going. She wants to be a source of good in the world, and to help people like her who have been broken. Characters do break, in this story. But Echo is here to piece things back together.

“We were free. We were unlimited. We didn’t yet know or understand race and class and all the intersections between them, so we were not yet black, at least not on the inside. Our psyches were still free from the troubles of the world.”

The only downside to this read for me is that it feels very tailored to a YA audience, which isn’t quite my range these days. I think it’s great that young readers have access to the hard truths and encouragements found within these pages, and ten years ago this book might have been a personal favorite for me. But I don’t think it has quite as much adult appeal; the writing and the messages of the book are laid out very simply, and while the story itself may be unique many of the themes here will likely feel familiar to those who’ve previously read about racism and intersectional feminism. As a teen, I think I would’ve learned a lot from this book, and I hope others will today, but as an adult Black Girl Unlimited offered me an interesting afternoon and little new information to ponder. It was simply a case of coming to a great book at the wrong point in my life. I’d highly recommend this title to any young readers who need a dose of social issues in their reading- some may relate to aspects of Echo’s story and feel less alone in their struggle, and others will see an experience they haven’t lived firsthand but should be made aware of. It’s a smart book that should be on the shelf in every US high school library.

“Jamericka and I avoid each other, as do all the black kids at the school. We all know instinctively that if we stick together, the white kids will be threatened by our attempt to bond over skin color, like they do. We remain separate and isolated even though we desperately need each other. We pass like strangers in the hallway, but I feel the pulse of their longing and I know they feel mine.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m sad this book didn’t exist at a time when it would’ve made a greater impression on me, but I am very happy that it exists now. Brown seems like an incredible woman, and I’d be interested to see if she’ll publish anything for an adult audience in the future. Even if she doesn’t, I’ll be glad to have Black Girl Unlimited on hand to lend to young readers in my life.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was one of my most productive reads so far this year: it was a 20 in ’20 title, a follow-up to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House which I read earlier this year, a June TBR book that I didn’t get around to on time, an own-unread book on my shelf for over a year, and I got to cross it off all of these (arbitrary) lists by doing a buddy read with Donna @ Donna’s Reading Chair! The stories in this collection are so bizarre that we had plenty to talk about. We’ve decided to wrap this up book club style with some questions we picked up from this very helpful post, which I’ll answer after saying a little about the book.

herbodyandotherpartiesIn Her Body and Other Parties, eight collected stories feature LGBTQ+ characters, psychological horrors, sci-fi/fantasy/fabulist elements, and female traumas of a wide variety. The stories are visceral, provocative, imaginative, and eerie. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I want to briefly touch on each of the stories, and for fun I’ll rank them in order of my personal favoritism:

“Especially Heinous” –  this story lays out every episode of Law and Order: SVU, using a sequential episodic format to highlight different points and implications from the popular TV series while also telling a wider story of the effects of the investigations on the main characters’ lives. I haven’t ever watched L&O:SVU so I can’t speak about any creative liberties taken, but I can say you don’t need to know the show to enjoy the story.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), two years before this book was published I took a class at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where Machado did her MFA, in which I was assigned to write a story that used and/or was inspired by a list from pop culture; I used Grey’s Anatomy episode titles. The assignment came from a TA who was a grad student in the writing program. I’m not positive Machado was there yet at the time, but it’s interesting (to me at least) that we might have received similar assignments, or at least spoken to the same person about this idea, wherever it originally came from. It’s a small world after all.

“Inventory” – this is a list of the protagonist’s lovers, which takes a sinister turn as illness sweeps the nation, affecting her every encounter. I was not prepared for the timeliness of this story, but loved it. (Has everyone been writing about pandemics all along??) This one is tricky, in that I can see it a new way every time it crosses my mind; the meaning of the story could be that human existence is lesser without human contact, or that contact is inextricable from danger, or perhaps there’s even a deeper metaphor in which the illness is a stand-in for something else about these sexual encounters that is driving the protagonist slowly but steadily out of society- promiscuity as alienation? Lots to ponder, and I don’t think I’ve uncovered it all yet.

“The Husband Stitch” – the main relationship here feels more realistic than it does healthy so it took me a while to get into this one, but I was constantly wondering about the mysterious green ribbon the protagonist wears and the reveal did not disappoint! This story depicts ways in which women are threatened by those who want to or feel entitled to own them, and the dangers that come from policing women’s rights and autonomy.

“The Resident” – a writer secures a spot on a secluded retreat to work on her novel, but doesn’t get along well with the other artists. Not much goes on here, but I loved the atmosphere and generally enjoy stories about writing, so I had a good time with it.

“Eight Bites” – a woman who loves food but is taught to hate her food-loving body undergoes a surgery that makes it impossible for her to eat more than eight bites at a time. To gain the image she wants, she must lose part of herself. The themes are straightforward here, but I loved the fabulist element; it’s a little creepy, but also made me laugh out loud.

“Real Women Have Bodies” – in this story, women literally cease to exist when their bodies stop matching societal norms. They vanish and are gone. I think there’s more to unpick about female desires and expectations that I haven’t fully unraveled yet with this one.

“Difficult at Parties” – a man and woman with a strained relationship are working through something that they won’t talk about. I had a lot of unanswered questions with this one, but Donna and I assumed that the man has abused the woman in some physical way and this story is the aftermath, as they attempt to reconcile. I may have struggled here mostly out of a desire to not see them reconcile.

“Mothers” – two women have a biological child just as their romance fails, largely due to abuse within the relationship. The concepts were more exciting for me than the execution with this one.

 

On to the questions!

1) The synopsis of the book describes it as a collection of “startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” Such violence can be intentional, self-inflicted, unrealized, or without any identifiable culprit. Which of these types of violence do you personally find more frightening?

I think each type is disturbing in its own way, but for me unrealized violence and violence without an identifiable culprit is most frightening because in those cases it’s unknown/unexplained while it’s happening. Intentional and self-inflicted violence feels more tragic and sometimes infuriating to me (as with intentional violence) rather than scary.

2) Would you be more likely to recommend this book to a certain gender? Why?

No. I’d recommend it to different genders for different reasons though- I think women are more likely to find details to relate to personally in these pages, but anyone else would be able to use these horrors as a way to learn about experiences they may not be living themselves; being able to understand each other’s perspectives is important!

3) Were there any specific times you personally felt unsettled, creeped out, or genuinely frightened?

Genuinely frightened, no. I did feel unsettled by some of these stories, mostly as a result of the concepts and their real-world applications rather than by the otherworldly aspects themselves; Machado’s themes and ideas are grounded in real traumas and concerns that women face, so while her sci-fi elements didn’t terrify me directly I think they do help give a face/name to real concerns, and bring those to life in the process.

4) Do you think the final order of the published stories is a strong one, or would you have rearranged them? How would changing the order of the stories have changed your reading experience of the collection?

Donna and I actually talked about this one a bit already, and we both would’ve liked the first and last stories to be switched! Personally I really like a strong ending because that can make the reader (read: me) forget about (or at least be more willing to overlook) earlier complaints, whereas a weak ending can emphasize them, no matter how strong the start. The first story as is (“The Husband Stitch”) really ends with a bang and I think it would’ve made a great final piece; perhaps I wouldn’t have been hooked on the collection quite as quickly with a more nebulous story (“Difficult at Parties”) to start it out, but I’m more open to having a lot of unanswered questions in the beginning than the end. Otherwise the stories feel disconnected enough that I don’t think meaning would change much for me with any shuffling; my favorites and least favorites were well mixed so that I was excited to start each new piece and didn’t have any large chunks of the book that didn’t work for me at all.

5) The main characters of these stories trend toward passivity- strange things happen to them, outside of their control, while the few choices they do make are either glossed over or portrayed with a weighted inevitability which suggests there was no real choice to begin with. Do you think this style was effective?

Yes, for the points this book had to make, I think the passivity fits. Generally I do want  to read characters who have and exercise agency, but here I think Machado serves her stories well by conveying that trauma makes its visits unprovoked; to exist in this world as a woman is to be constantly wary of what will happen to you, with the sense that there’s little that can be done to stop it from happening. The passivity of these characters lends them a sort of innocence that makes the horrors they face that much more frustrating. The inevitability of suffering is one of the greatest frights on display here, I think. Furthermore, the lack of agency means that most of these characters don’t have a lot of personality, which makes them easier to project oneself upon and to see as the everywoman rather than a specific, fictional person to be read and then forgotten.

6) Did you ever find yourself irritated or bored, and if so, why?

There was one story that bored me: “Mothers.” This story had a couple of great ideas at its core: the possibility of two women having a biological child of their own, and the exploration of abuse in a same-sex relationship. The latter I found interesting because I had already read Machado’s In the Dream House and so could see how some of her own experience was manifesting in this fiction. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m just not very interested in reading about motherhood, and so little happens in this story that I was not hooked on the plot the way I was by the premise. But this was one of the shortest stories of the set, so the boredom was short lived. The two longest pieces, “Especially Heinous” and “The Resident,” were actually among my favorites, so most of the book really did seem to fly by for me.

7) What is your opinion on the author’s depiction of sex throughout the collection?

To be honest I was a bit taken aback at first by how frequently sex comes into these stories; there are a lot of lovers, and Her Body and Other Parties is a book that embraces physical details. Once I knew what to expect though I liked that Machado was so open about it. Many women are shamed for their bodies and what they do with them, so it’s a relief to see celebrations of the physical in fiction. Here’s one ironic (and nsfw) quote I really liked from “Inventory:”

“She wanted cock and I obliged. Afterward, she traced the indents in my skin from the harness, and confessed to me that no one was having any luck developing a vaccine. ‘But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,’ she said. ‘If people would just stay apart-‘ She grew silent.”

Gender =/= sex, but I do want to add that I liked that Machado didn’t set this book up with a simple “women are victims, men are villains” dichotomy. I thought her representations of men and women were very human and appropriately flawed all around, which is remarkable considering how large a role gender plays in highlighting “the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” The problem lies primarily in power imbalances, not a war between genders. It can seem that way because it is often men who hold disproportionate power, but this is not always the case (as in abusive same-sex relationships, for example). Machado digs into the nuances.

8) In “Especially Heinous” the doppelgänger Henson tells the following story to the DA: “The sixty-fifth story is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.” Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is such a popular show, given that it concerns itself specifically with “sexually based offenses” which “are considered especially heinous?”

I have a few thoughts about this. The first is simply that humans are fascinated by what humans do. It isn’t only sexually based offenses that grab the attention- we like true crime, murder mysteries, sensational headlines. Anything gruesome. Maybe “like” is the wrong word, but there seems to be a morbid draw to understanding the extremes of humanity. Perhaps as a way to feel relief for those of us who don’t experience it, and perhaps as a way to feel less alone for those of us who do. That’s the optimistic answer. The pessimistic answer (these are not mutually exclusive) is that women are often objectified by society and art- I think there’s a disgusting interest in female pain, or the pain of any vulnerable person, for the enjoyment of those who don’t have similar trauma to compare it to. This, I wish we could put a stop to.

9) Did you like this book? Did you find it beautiful? Is there a difference between your answers?

Yes, yes, and apparently not. I can see how someone might find it beautiful while not enjoying it, because there are some painful topics here. Personally I appreciate books that leave me a little broken. Maybe I shouldn’t “like” that, but I won’t apologize for it either. Machado’s a strong writer and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next!

“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right… It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.”

If you’ve read this book or have any thoughts on the discussion points raised through the questions here, feel free to weigh in below, and be sure to check out Donna’s review and answers as well, which I’ll link again here in case you missed it at the top! We had some different opinions on this one. If you’re into thrillers, romance, and/or adult contemporary she reads a lot from those genres and is fun to follow! 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection was nominated for so very many literary prizes, and I will absolutely be reading Machado’s next publication, whatever it may be. I’ll enjoy a reread of these stories at some point for sure as well!

As a final note, I’d also highly recommend Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen to anyone who particularly enjoys Her Body and Other Parties; Fen is also a somewhat magical and horrifying account of female experiences that I think will appeal to much the same audience. If you’re getting impatient waiting for Machado’s next book, give Johnson’s a go!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ninth House

Today’s review is a catch-up post featuring a book I started reading back in May: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House.

ninthhouseIn the novel, Alex is found as the sole survivor on the scene of a homicide, and from there is plucked from her seedy life and given a full ride scholarship to Yale based on her ability to see ghosts. In exchange for her Ivy league education, she must work as an important member in the network of Yale’s secret societies: she’ll be the leader of the house that monitors the uses of magic performed by the eight magical societies. She is supposed to have a mentor for the first year while she learns the ins and outs of the magic and her responsibilities, but something goes awry and Darlington goes missing. Soon after, a girl is killed. When Alex digs for the truth, she finds herself up against some powerful enemies and a whole lot of corruption.

“You should never look into the face of the uncanny, but had he ever been able to turn away? No, he’d courted it, begged for it. He had to know. He wanted to know everything.”

I was immediately drawn in by this book’s main characters: Alex is a kickass take-no-shit heroine whose time among addicts and abusers and whose ability to see the world of the dead alongside the world of the living colors her experience with elite academics. Then there’s Darlington, her Lethe House mentor, whose longing to learn anything and everything (especially when it comes to magic) is both his salvation and his downfall. But the trio wouldn’t be complete without wise Dawes, runner of Lethe headquarters, keeper of knowledge, assistant in all sorts of scenarios Alex would never have dreamed she’d find herself in. The three make an incredible team; they all work together well enough, but each have their own one-on-one relationships which ultimately make them stronger as a set. The only downside is that Darlington is physically absent for the duration of the novel; we see him only in memories and glimpses into the past.

Also notable is Ninth House‘s thorough world-building. We see Yale, down to the architectural styles of its buildings and the names of the streets dissecting campus. We see the town beyond, both its legacy and its layout. We’re given eight secret societies in addition to Lethe House which oversees them all; each society has a name, a location for meetings and magic, its own rituals and rules of operation, and important members. There’s also insider slang, to further complicate the terminology.

Though I loved the attention to detail, the book loses a lot of momentum in laying this all out. The plot becomes tangled up in explanations of the magic system governing it. There’s a sense of waiting for the pieces to come together, for Alex to be able to move freely and confidently through this magical world, and ultimately that doesn’t quite happen in a satisfactory way before the end of the novel. But the groundwork is now laid, and I think it’s entirely possible- even likely- that in the sequel we’ll see this magic realized in a more appreciable way. Perhaps whatever Bardugo is planning to do with all of this detail will play into an exciting plot that’s free of heavy worldbuilding minutiae in the second book. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, I’ll have to reevaluate my stance, and I know that not every reader will be interested in sticking with a series that’s more concerned with a longer narrative than individual installments, which is totally fair as well. But as I’m optimistic that the ground is being laid for a complex sequel that piggybacks directly off of Ninth House, I think Bardugo does the best one can with such an excess of info; between the back-and-forth format of the fall and spring semesters and the way that Alex’s investigations provide a reason for her (and the reader) to seek intel on each of the societies, Bardugo largely manages to avoid clunky exposition. With the exception of the villain’s dramatic monologue on their evil deeds.

While the pace is slow and the doling of info ponderous at times, there are other reasons to enjoy the read even if you’re not sold on continuing the series. The plot may require some work from the reader, but it does play into interesting deeper themes. Alex is an observant and critical protagonist who uses the scenes she witnesses to comment on the self-serving actions of the rich, the nepotism and favoritism involved, the ease with which abuse of power can be concealed by… further abuse of power. Yale is presented as a dark, exclusionary place, and the societies present as a sort of (fantastical) microcosm of the wider Ivy institution. Alex notes that the only thing that sets the secret society students apart is that someone let them into the club, often based on family or other close connections. The magic here is available only to a few, though essentially anyone could do it- the magic is ritual-based and learned rather than innate. Of course the adults who return to benefit from the magical rituals are the previous members of the societies as well- the rich helping the rich get richer. It’s a closed circle, for no reason other than that those who found power closed the door to it, and granted access only to those who would keep the secrets among themselves and use them primarily to members’ advantage. Because long-standing traditions are involved, there are other prejudices at play in the system as well, including misogyny.

“Did she seem depressed? She was distant. She didn’t make many friends. She was struggling in her classes. All true. But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.”

Last but not least, I can’t end without mentioning the graphic content in these pages. There are a couple of rape scenes, including rape of a child, and uses of magic as a means to manipulate people (mostly women) into doing things they wouldn’t consent to, including sex. There are also murders, drug and alcohol use, and poor parenting, including abandoning a child. It seemed to me that the intent of these scenes and details was primarily for characterization and furthering the commentary, and in several cases the perpetrator is repaid for their actions. There is no explicit or implied message that abuse is acceptable in any circumstance, though Bardugo perhaps misjudges in places how much of a scene the reader needs to see to get the gist. Is it all necessary? Maybe not, but it’s not handled lightly either. It’s worth remembering that while Bardugo has written primarily for YA audiences in the past, this is an adult fantasy, and there is some disturbing content. If you have any further questions about triggering content that I’ve mentioned here or want to be sure a trigger I’ve failed to mention isn’t actually here, please talk to me in the comments!

“She was relieved when she realized he was dead. A dead man in the girls’ bathroom was a lot less scary than a living one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think the next book in the series will see a higher rating from me, because most of my complaints with this one are things that will likely be resolved naturally with the simple progression of the overall plot as the series continues. I also think my rating might have been a little higher for this one if not for Six of Crows… it seems unfair to judge one of the author’s works against another, but that book was such a favorite for me that I can’t forget what heights Bardugo is capable of taking me to, and Ninth House just wasn’t on that level. I did enjoy this read though, and am eagerly awaiting the next installment!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Pet

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, a prize-nominated MG/YA future-set fantasy book.

petIn the novel, Jam lives in a futuristic city called Lucille. Following a major revolution, it is now a peaceful place where everyone is treated equally, safety is a certainty, and monsters no longer exist. Or so Jam has been taught. But when a frightening creature comes to life from one of her mother’s paintings, it tells Jam that it has come to hunt a monster; after doing some research Jam learns that monsters can look like any one of us and hide in plain sight. The truth is, there aren’t any known monsters in Lucille, but Jam and Pet (the painting creature) set out to unearth an unknown monster and bring him to justice.

“The creature sighed and rustled its fur a little. If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen.”

Let’s start with age range. I had a tough time placing this one between Middle Grade and Young Adult; Jam, the MC, is sixteen in this novel, and most of the other characters are around her age or older. This typically indicates to me that a YA audience is the target, and based on the way monsters and angels and major government reform are explained, it seems potentially beyond the grasp of 8-12 year olds who might be reading without adult guidance for real world application. That said, the themes (that humans can do monstrous things unnoticed by society, that bad behavior deserves punishment in a way that is beneficial to society rather than cruel to the individual, that instead of a world full of good vs bad people we live in a world full of regular people who do both good and bad things) seem a bit simpler than the 13-18 year old crowd would be looking for. I’d probably recommend this most to 10-14 year-olds, with an adult to read along and discuss if possible. And ultimately, I think there are beneficial messages in Pet for readers of all ages; this is the sort of YA content that would probably also do well among adults who like teen stories.

Now let’s look more closely at content. I can’t give an own voices opinion, but I really admired the representation in Pet. In the first twenty pages, we have a trans girl with fully supportive parents, friends, and community who don’t question or ridicule her identity and help her get access to the resources she needs to be able to live in her body in a way that suits her. She also uses sign language by choice- she is physically capable of audible speech, but often prefers talking with her hands, which is completely accepted and supported by those around her. Jam is friendly with the local librarian, who uses a wheelchair. Later on, we meet Jam’s best friend’s family, in which there are three parents of equal authority, including a person who uses they/them pronouns that are always used respectfully in dialogue and the narration. There are characters with dark skin who, in this utopian setting, are not marginalized because of it. There is just no prejudice whatsoever, against any character, no matter how they present themselves to the world around them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Another positive is how close the peaceful city of Lucille feels at present- the oft-referenced revolution of Pet in many ways resembles what is happening in the US (and beyond) right now:

“The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. The angels believed and the people agreed that there was a good amount of proper and deserved shame in history and some things were just never going to be things to be proud of.”

The best part, I think, is that while the text supports holding people accountable for bad actions, it also suggests that no people are inherently bad. Being labelled a “monster” is a result of hurtful behavior, not a name given lightly to an entire group of enemy people. The “angels” are ordinary people making hard choices that come with their own costs, not perfect choices that please everyone immediately. Despite the apparent symbolic simplicity, there is deeper commentary on how we perceive and respond to criminality, with an end goal of peace among all people.

“Angels aren’t pretty pictures in old holy books, just like monsters aren’t ugly pictures. It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

But there is conflict, and a plot. The introduction of Pet and the possibility of a monster in Lucille is challenging for Jam, who has been told all her life that monsters no longer exist. Her parents encourage her to send Pet away, arguing that Pet must be wrong. When she goes to her friend’s house where this monster is supposedly hiding, she sees only happy people full of love for each other and she doubts. In order to find the monster, she must admit that there are still flaws in her society and among her family and friends. She must choose how much to tell her friend, and decide what to do with the monster. It’s a story of bravery and fighting for what’s right even (especially) when it’s not the easy route, and when it goes against everything that you’ve held as the truth.

For all its positivity, there is indeed a monster in this story. There is an adult who hurts a child, and while details are not given on page it is a difficult topic and astute readers will know what has happened. There’s also a gruesome consequence for the monster that might make an impression on younger readers, as well as occasional mentions of police brutality and untimely deaths when the importance of the revolution is being explained. There are some difficult topics at play here, but I think Emezi lays them out patiently and considerately, using them mainly for educational purposes, and I think that makes this an ideal book for young readers looking to learn about empathy between humans and fairness in society. And it’s a call to action for adults too, to stay vigilant, to believe victims, to look deeper than the surface to spot what is lurking beneath. For a short book aimed primarily at a young audience, Pet accomplishes quite a lot, and I wouldn’t wish to change a single detail about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Emezi is fast becoming a favorite author for me- if you haven’t read Freshwater yet, what are you waiting for?! The only reason Pet wasn’t quite a 5 for me is that I just don’t jive with books written for a younger age level as much as I used to. Even so, I found this a worthwhile foray outside of my comfort zone, and highly recommend it to basically everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Fantasy

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Fantasy means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Fantasy?

For me, fantasy is any fiction that includes magic. Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, sometimes it’s implied, but it is essentially that which can’t be explained by the rules of reality.

There are, I think, quite a lot of fantasy subgenres, and I can’t pretend to be well-versed enough to talk in depth about the nuances between them all. Typically when I talk about fantasy I’m referring to high fantasy, which takes place in an invented world with its own contained magical system and rules of operation. But I also read some urban/low fantasy, in which a sort of magical pocket universe is hidden and largely unknown by society within the bounds of our real world. Magical realism / fabulism falls under the fantasy umbrella for me, though often these contain just one magical element in an otherwise realistic world. Fairy tales and folklore containing magic are also fantasy in my book.

Additionally, fantasy is closely related to science fiction for me (and many others, I believe); while I think there is a definite difference between the two (mainly that science fiction at least attempts to explain how and why its details are possible using known and speculated facts based on our real world and knowledge base whereas magic deals directly with inexplicable otherworldly elements at face value) I also think that both exist on the same spectrum and that some books fall in the middle or contain significant elements from both genres. Typically superhero, paranormal, and dystopian stories fall under science fiction in my mind because they often offer some explanation as to how their otherworldly elements could be compatible with the real world, but depending on how these things are handled in text these will sometimes also fall into the fantasy genre for me. Just as I mentioned some fantasy-leaning sci-fi in my spotlight post for that genre, there will be some sci-fi content included in this post as well, with the understanding that these titles fit under both categories for me, rather than exclusively into one.

 

My History with Fantasy

Where I felt my last couple of spotlight posts might have suffered for the fact that I’ve come to enjoy those genres only more recently, this one I’m afraid will suffer a bit for the fact that I haven’t been reading as much of it in the last few years, even though fantasy was one of my first favorite genres. I won’t be able to recommend a lot of new releases on the strength of personal experience, though I still have plenty of titles to talk about!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)It’s hard to pinpoint my earliest experiences with this genre, because I was reading about magic long before I kept a reading log or had a grasp on genre differentiations. There was a particular picture book with faerie queens with wands in a forest that I remember loving, though it’s so far back that I can’t seem to track it down even on the internet and am not entirely sure I’d recognize the cover if I did. But I do remember some other fantasy books I started reading in elementary school once I was reading proper chapters- C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (of course), The Spiderwick Chronicles by Toni DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was an early standalone fantasy favorite.

It was the magic itself I was interested in at the beginning- I really fell into those imaginative worlds with their own peculiar rules and creatures. I sped through Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (translated from the German by Anthea Bell), Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries. There was a definite trend toward fantasy romance when I hit middle school, and that was the point at which I came to two of the most formative books of my life: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’s Hawksong and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Hawksong (The Kiesha'ra, #1)To be clear, when I say “formative” I don’t necessarily mean I’m holding these up as lasting favorites, though Hawksong is one of those as well. It’s a bit basic compared to today’s YA fantasies, but it makes some great social points in convincing ways. But when I say Twilight was formative I mean that it was something that I loved at the time, the first series with which I was part of a fandom, and the first book/series that I reread later with an entirely changed perspective. It taught me a lot about what makes a book “work” or not, and what kind of reader I have been at different points in my life, which hasn’t happened as clearly for me with any other genre.

After high school, I became interested in fantasy not so much for the details of those other worlds as for the parallels that could be drawn between the worldly and otherworldly. I’ve come to value complex characterization and politics and social commentary above the magic itself. This is actually part of the reason I’ve read less fantasy in recent years- I’m in the middle of a slow trek through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and while it’s not a flawless set it is a good fit for my current magical taste. The problem is that I don’t reach for long books as easily as I used to, so I’m hesitant to continue while also hesitant to start other fantasies lest I forget the details of this one. The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)I’m also mentally juggling Pierce Brown’s extended Red Rising trilogy and S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, both of which are ongoing. It’s a lot of pages to reread if I can’t keep fantasies straight.

 

Fantasy Classics and Staples

Usually I focus specifically on classics for this section of the post, but I think the only book I’ve read that properly fits the category is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I’d be surprised if you haven’t already heard of; but I do feel that I’ve read a fair number of popular fantasy staples over the years, particularly series. I can’t say these are the most original selections from the genre, although if you’re fairly new to fantasy I think any of them would be an okay place to start to get a feel for what sort of magic you’re interested in- popular must be popular for a reason. I’ll organize these by age range, MG -> YA -> NA -> Adult.

The Giver by Lois Lowry features a utopian/dystopian society in which the twelve year-old protagonist learns the shocking truth behind how his community keeps the peace.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is the first book in his Percy Jackson series, in which a young boy (Percy) attends a summer camp for demi-gods, where he learns how the Greek gods and all of their power fit into the modern era.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, #1)Eragon by Christopher Paolini is a dragon-focused fantasy; a farm boy stumbles upon a strange stone that hatches into a dragon, forever altering destiny for both the boy and the empire.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs features a group of unusual children hiding from their monstrous enemies in a loop of time at the end of WWII.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a paranormal story in which a group of private school boys and a girl named Blue search for a legendary, ancient Welsh king.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo follows a girl with long-hidden magic who becomes caught in a battle for power led by the Darkling; set in the same world, the Six of Crows duology features a band of skilled outcasts, for whom an elaborate heist turns into a quest for survival and revenge.

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is an urban fantasy in which a New York teen learns that there’s more to her home city- and her family legacy- than she ever knew. Spin-off books set in the same shadowhunter world include Clockwork Priness, Lady Midnightand Chain of Gold.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a romance-focused fae fantasy (modelled on Beauty and the Beast) in which a mortal girl must break a fifty-year curse and stop a war for the High Lord(s) she loves.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is an interplanetary dystopian set far into the future in which a lowly boy from the mines of Mars rebels against the color Caste system by infiltrating an elite and brutal Institute.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman includes a magical college where the protagonist learns that the magical setting of his favorite childhood books is a real place, and darker than he ever could have imagined.

Saga, Vol. 1A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a low fantasy romance in which shared enemies bring together unusual alliances as one witch with suppressed powers learns she may hold the key to uniting the four races (humans, vampires, witches, and daemons) before centuries of separation drive them extinct.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is a comic series following an interracial family whose warring planets try to exterminate them in order to perpetuate their own power struggle and the myth that their peoples are incompatible with peace.

 

Further Fantasy Recommendations

I’ve enjoyed all of the series above in their own ways, in their own times, but there’s plenty more to the genre than commercially successful series. Here are some others that are maybe a bit lesser known or a bit controversial to fit into the fantasy bracket and/or just fantasy books that I’d love to see more people read:

Follow Me to GroundIf you want magical realism / fabulism: Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, Lanny by Max Porter, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

If you want magical horror: Bird Box by Josh Malerman, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

If you want literary fantasy: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

If you want low/urban fantasy:  The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Philosopher's Flight (The Philosophers Series, #1)

If you want gods: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Stand by Stephen King

If you want high fantasy: Stardust by Neil Gaiman, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

If you want a sci-fi/fantasy blend: The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

 

Fantasy on my TBR:

There’s actually quite a long list, despite (or perhaps because) I haven’t been reading as much fantasy lately- I’m hoping to finish what’s published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series this summer (I have two books left) and move on from GRRM… I might do some sort of “try a chapter” posts in upcoming months to help me prioritize what to start next when the time comes. Some of the fantasy titles on my list that you may be familiar with are: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer (I know, but I can’t not), The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson,The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. I’m actually currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House as well and in a serious mood to reread her Six of Crows; I need to get fantasy back into my regular reading, so please, drop all the recommendations in the comments!

 

Why Read Fantasy?

First, because it’s fun! This is perhaps the most creative and inventive of all genres, in that literally anything goes. Second, because as far-fetched as some of the content may be, this is a genre that tends toward celebration of and commentary on the real world. Many fantasies are based in real cultural practices and lore, and/or use plot and characterization to comment on the possibilities and limitations of government, the power of the individual, the flaws of society, etc. The most outlandish setups are often thinly-veiled disguises for real issues- it may be a wild genre, but it’s certainly not frivolous. The magic is often a way of emphasizing a point or emotion that the reader will be able to identify or sympathize with.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for fantasy, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Reviews: Things in Jars, In the Dream House, and The Mercies

Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):

 

One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.

thingsinjarsIn the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?

“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “

Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.

The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)

Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.

 

Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.

inthedreamhouseIn the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.

“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”

Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.

Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.

“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”

This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting,  which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.

 

Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!

themerciesIn the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.

” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “

Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.

As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.

 

If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?

 

The Literary Elephant