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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

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I have to admit, I was wary of this book. The cover is so stunning that I picked it up almost every time I saw it in a bookstore, but the cover on The Wrath and the Dawn was gorgeous too, and that retelling of Arabian Nights made me more furious than enchanted. Could a retelling of this story exist in YA without romanticising or glossing over the fact that the king murders hundreds of girls? Several people told me yes. You guys recommended it to me again and again, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week. And then read it almost all in one go.

A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. It more than lives up the beauty of its cover. In this retelling of Arabian Nights, Lo-Melkiin has had three hundred wives, and three hundreds wives have died. Laws now state that he must take one wife from every village before he is allowed to return to any one place to choose a second. So when he comes to the village of our story’s protagonist, she makes sure that she wins his attention, in order to save her sister. She expects to die immediately. But night after night, she continues to survive.

This is an absolutely lush novel about the hidden, often unseen power of women. I’m not sure how much I can say without being too spoilery, but a great deal of the plot draws on this idea that woman have a great deal of overlooked power, and that they have power, in part because they’re overlooked. The plot hinges on information gathered while quietly sewing in the corner, on news women spread to one another, on the power of having your facial expressions concealed by a veil. It’s about the songs and stories that the women tell, the protections they grant one another, and the worship that they perform. It’s a story of quiet power, subtle power, in contrast to the foot-stomping masculine strength of Lo-Melkiin and the demon that possesses him and drives him to kill all his wives.

It’s only as I come to write this, by the way, that I’m realising a key detail about the book. It’s written in first person, so I got completely pulled into the protagonist’s perspective, and never realised that we don’t actually learn her name. We don’t learn her sister’s name, or her mother’s name, or her sister’s mother’s name. We don’t learn the name of the king’s mother, or the protagonist’s henna artist. In fact, the only names we learn are Lo-Melkiin’s and the people that he names himself. Everyone else is described in terms of role. This echoes traditions of storytelling, the idea of mixing a forceful character with generalised anonymity, so well that that I didn’t even notice, but it also reflects this idea of unseen power, of the things that Lo-Melkiin  doesn’t notice being the things that will bring him down. The common people in general, yes, but particularly the women, common and uncommon, who he never focusses on long enough to see the risk they may pose.

Thank god, this book isn’t a romance. The relationships at the heart of this book are all women, and how they support each other. Two sisters who adore each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dreams for one another. The women in the palace who help the protagonist — the henna artist, the servants, the spinners — and are willing to risk themselves to protect her because they can sympathise with her and her position. And the stories that the protagonist herself spins about her sister, and the strange power they seem to hold.

This is a quiet book, although an addictively readable one, at least until the conclusion. When things get a bit more action-packed towards the end, I have to admit my interest wavered a little, as the slightly distant myth-spinning storytelling style that worked so well elsewhere drained some of the immediacy and the tension of the action. But overall, A Thousand Nights is an amazing book, with lush prose, enthralling world-building, and a strong feminist bent. If you’re going to pick up a retelling of Arabian Nights, pick this one.

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Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

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Gilmore Girls revival! Gilmore Girls revival!!

There was part of me — a super naive part, I admit — that thought that Gilmore Girls would give me the comforting warm fuzzy feelings I needed this month. A return to Stars Hollow, all that fast talking and cultural references, that general “hug and a hot chocolate” feeling that watching the show always gives me… perfect.

But of course, Gilmore Girls has never actually been sunshine and rainbows, and the revival was no exception. After I finished watching it, I felt raw. I felt like it ripped through me, emotionally. I cried so hard. Super ugly crying. (Thanks, phone call in Fall). If the goal of a story is to make me emotionally connected to the characters, then the revival was a huge success.

It wasn’t perfect. Some episodes felt a little long and lacked a focussed plot, like the entire thing was a sprawling six-hour story rather than four 90 minute episodes. And maybe not every episode needed an off-topic set piece like a Movie By Kirk or a Stars Hollow musical. But as an overall experience, I thought it was excellent.

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Netflixing through the apocalypse

It’s Thanksgiving week! I’m going to take the excuse to finish out my post-election blogging slump with a bit of actual planned time to rest (what? madness!), log off the internet, and probably listen to Sia’s cover of Satisfied on repeat. Also finish writing a book. Also buy all my Christmas presents. Also how come it’s nearly December already?

In the meantime, if anyone else is still in the mood to just curl up with piles of blankets and Netflix and hide from everything, here are a few of my favorite “take a breath and don’t hate the world” recs.

“I need a great comedy to binge on” recs

Crazy Ex- Girlfriend

This is what I just finished marathoning — I’ll post about it more soon. This show is so hilarious, and so feminist. It’s a musical comedy about a high-flying New York lawyer who has a mental breakdown, bumps into her childhood ex-boyfriend on the street, and decides, on a whim, to move to his hometown in California. And I identify with Rebecca way more than is probably healthy.

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Keep Writing

It’s hard to write about fiction, good or bad, when the world is the way it is today. Unchanged from the world it was yesterday, but with a lot of the hope and illusion stripped away. Yesterday, I was crying over stories of women born before they had the right to vote finally able to vote, in their old age, for a female president. Today, I have to wonder why I believed this current world would vote for a highly qualified woman who mismanaged her emails over an openly racist, misogynistic sexual abuser with zero qualifications except that he’s a rich, white man.

And there isn’t a ‘but’. There isn’t a smooth way to transition into not despairing, or to find a silver lining. All I have is this Twitter screencap, which sums up a conversation I had with another author this morning, more pithily than I could say it:

Stories are important. Stories give people hope. Stories tell people that they’re not alone. I know many people who read this blog are creative folk, writers, artists, book lovers. In times like this, it’s easy to despair, because we don’t know what we can possibly do to help against so much hate. It’s easy to feel like creative work has no value when the real world feels so dark and dangerous and hateful. But don’t stop creating. Create for yourself, to help your own feelings, and create for others. To bring a smile to the face of someone struggling. To make people feel connected and validated, like they matter and like they belong. Create because it’s cathartic, because it’s inspiring, and because it can bring about real-world change.

On Twitter, I’ve seen a few authors comment that people who voted for Trump shouldn’t read their books, that their support is unwanted. I know those authors feel angry and betrayed. But I don’t think that is the answer either. Studies have shown, again and again, that representation in popular fiction is one of the best ways of increasing empathy. It puts names and faces and emotions to an “other” that people may avoid or simply rarely encounter in real life. Marginalised people need those stories, but the oppressive majority need those stories too. They’re one of the tools of change.

So write. Write magic. Write romance. Write hope, and fear, and struggles against darkness. Write about people who are made to feel wrong, or unwanted, or less-than. Write about people who don’t get written about. Write those stories because, somewhere in the world, there is somebody who needs it.

And, in the meantime, be kind to yourself, everyone. Remember that you are important and loved, and that no amount of hate in the world will change the fact that you matter.

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Video Game Recommendation: Her Story

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OK, so I’m a little late with this, since the game came out last year, and everyone else was raving about this then. But I got Her Story as part of the narrative Humble Bundle, and a couple of nights ago, I was like, “sure, why not? I’ll try it.”

Cue me staying up until 3am hunting down every last secret in the game.

The game is a bit of a weird one. In fact, it’s not really a game, exactly. It’s more… interactive storytelling. You’re accessing an old police database to try to put together what happened in a murder case from twenty years ago. The database is full of clips of interviews with the victim’s wife, but in order to access any of them, you need to search for keywords in the transcripts. Type in a key word, and it’ll pull up any clip where that word appears, with the caveat that you can only watch the first five clips that it finds. Your first suggested keyword is “murder,” but after that, you can type in anything you want. Which means that everyone is going to experience the game differently. You’ll jump from clip to clip based on weird word similarities, all completely out of order, and attempt to piece the narrative together from that.

There’s very little gameplay, beyond putting on your detective hat and figuring out what words to type in to find new information. Most of the game is spent watching video clips of the interview. But once you start, it’s very hard to stop.

I stumbled across the big, “Wait, what??” moment quite early on, maybe twenty minutes into the game, but it just made me more hungry for answers. And, honestly, one of the most clever thing about the game is that there are no answers. There’s the full story as told by the woman, which you can roughly piece together in your head through the clips. But it’s only the story as she wants to tell it. The truth lies unspoken somewhere inside it, and just as you have to wriggle out clues and bring all the pieces together to find the narrative, you also have to analyse the details and come to your own conclusions about what is really behind what’s being said.

It’s incredibly innovative, and incredibly compelling. It’s a little short for the full £4.99 price on Steam, so it might be one to grab during the next Steam sale, or if it appears in the Humble Bundle again. Both options are basically made for trying out short experimental games like this. But it’s definitely a unique way of presenting a story, and is worth a few dollars’ investment and the two or three hours of your time.

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An Ode to Malta Vestrit

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As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I recently became obsessed with Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series. I highly, highly recommend it as one of the best series I’ve ever read. And one of the (many) reasons I adored it was an initially rather awful character called Malta Vestrit.

Malta is the youngest female character in the Vestrit family, at 13, and fights with pretty much every character we grow to love. While her mother and grandmother struggle to make ends meet and her aunt Althea runs off to have adventures on the high seas, Malta just wants expensive jewellery, pretty dresses, and everyone’s attention on her, and she despises every other sympathetic character for standing in her way. In the first book, her selfish actions sabotage her family’s attempts to salvage their situation, and she is very, very hard to sympathize with or like.

But even when I absolutely hated her, I kind of loved her too. I love that Robin Hobb wasn’t afraid to make her act horribly to every other character we care about, and to be horribly wrong in so many ways, not as a villain figure, but as a basis for her growth as a character.

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Westworld

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The first I heard of HBO’s new show Westworld was a not-very-positive review (that I now can’t find again), which said the show was like the ‘new Game of Thrones’, in more ways than one. I wasn’t exactly eager to get pulled into another mess of misogyny with characters just compelling enough that you can’t stop watching, so I ignored it for a while, until people I trust started raving about it and I got overly curious, and ended up marathoning all three aired episodes back-to-back.

Westworld is one of those rare shows that makes me reach for a notebook to scribble down thoughts within about two minutes of starting it. There’s so much to discuss. Does that make it a good show? Was that initial review wrong? Well. I’m not sure yet.

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Thoughts on All-Female Remakes

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In case you missed it, there was an all-female remake of Ghostbusters this year.

Not that you did miss it. Nobody missed it. I don’t think there’s ever been such a vitriolic response to a movie before. You’d think the film had been remade as a piece of Nazi propaganda from how fiercely people hated it from the moment it was announced. Making the Ghostbusters into women? Absolutely criminal.

Next on the bandwagon is an all-female Ocean’s Eleven, designed as a companion story/sequel starring Danny Ocean’s sister. Maybe people will be less violently opposed to this one, because it’s not such a childhood movie, and it doesn’t replace the original in the timeline. This one does have a supremely cool-sounding cast, to the point that I might actually go see it, even those it’s not my usual sort of thing.

But as cool as the concept of all-female remakes might be, I’ve never been able to get particularly excited about them. I’m not a Ghostbusters or Ocean’s Eleven fan, so I’m going to imagine that someone planned to remake The Lord of the Rings with an all-female fellowship. The concept would be pretty cool, but I still don’t think I would be able to get genuinely excited about it. Because these “all-female remakes” aren’t badass feminism, even if that’s what their critics say. They’re gimmicks. “Super special edition” versions, like “it’s Sherlock Holmes, but with mice!” “It’s Ghostbusters, but with women!” It’s presented as something different, something a bit weird, something not normal.

On the plus side, this trend does allow girls to watch, for example, a Ghostbusters movie where they’re the heroes. After I’d already written the outline for this post, I stumbled across a Tumblr post that made me rethink this topic a lot, arguing that while adults might talk about, for example, Obama as the “first black president,” children just see him as the president, and that these are the people remakes are really for. Adults might see the Ghostbusters remake as the “female Ghostbusters,” but to a six-year-old, they’re just the Ghostbusters.

And perhaps this is what people are actually worried about when they say remakes are “destroying their childhood.” It’s not their childhood that’s being affected. It’s other people’s childhoods. New childhoods. Kids who won’t get the same all-male Ghostbuster experience that they had, but will instead see women in the roles. Boys, perhaps, who don’t get to see themselves as the new Ghostbusters, the way these people saw themselves in the 80s. That, I think, is what inspires so much vitriol.

But I don’t think they have to worry. Sometimes the reincarnation replaces the original in the public’s consciousness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury or Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but in those cases, it’s one more inclusive casting in a context of more traditional choices, and it doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Captain America and Iron Man are still white men. The character change is not the most noteworthy thing about the reboot. But every gender-swapped remake announcement basically confirms that the default is still all-male (or mostly male, one female), and that once you’ve told that story and had it be successful, then you can introduce an all-female story as a gimmicky remake version. The gender swap is the real thing that matters when selling this movie. And sure, they could be cool stories. But I want us to have our own stories too.

Of course, it’s really hard for groups of female characters to avoid that sense of being a “gimmick,” even if they’re in an original story. An all-male fantasy quest is normal, but an all-female fantasy quest would be seen as noteworthy at absolute best, a sign of the domination of women in society and the Fall of Men at worst. But I would love for a story to automatically, naturally have lots of female characters in it. A heist story that’s always about women, not remade to have some women. A superhero story about female superheroes, not male superheroes recast as female ones. There’s something to be said about having female stories from the start and allowing them to become iconic themselves. Like Katniss Everdeen. Like Rey (even though some would argue she is part of a remake).

But of course, it’s hard for these stories to get made, and hard for them to get recognized if they do get made. Star Wars had the benefit of being Star Wars, and The Hunger Games was already a best-selling book series, and even then it was romanced-up in the marketing for the first movie. An all-female remake is a way to get past the “female characters don’t sell” stigma — and even that might be shaky after the vitriolic reaction to Ghostbusters. So I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, or “anti-feminist,” or anything other than “cool but not quite there yet.” I’m still not sure we should heap on the praise for “it’s THIS popular thing, but with women!!” as the epitome of social change. Remakes can be fun. But original female genre stories would be better.

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Tommy Wallach and Literary Suicide

Young Adult author Tommy Wallach has not been having a great week. There’s a full summary of recent events on YA Interrobang, with screencaps and all that magic, but here’s the quick version. A few days ago, he made a (now-deleted) Facebook post to promote the paperback release of his second novel, which includes a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. His comment? “That’s a damn sexy bridge right there. I could really get into jumping off it. :)”

When many people pointed out that’s not an acceptable thing to say, he responded, “Oy. Friends. I was not making a suicide joke. The whole conclusion of the book is about whether or not Zelda jumped from that bridge.”

So it wasn’t a suicide joke. It was a joke about the fact that the book ends with the ~mystery~ of whether or not one of the main characters killed herself, and slyly nodding to how fun and sexy it is that his book contains suicidal bridge jumping at all. This on top of an old blog post of his, which I won’t link, about the “top 10 literary suicides,” including jokes such as wishing that all the characters from Girls would kill themselves, and mocking Sylvia Plath for being oh-so emo.

I haven’t read any of Tommy Wallach’s novels, and I really don’t intend to now. But the blatant disregard for the impact of his words here — the apparent assumption that no one who’s ever been suicidal could be reading and be hurt by the joke, the treatment of a character’s suicide as something to wink-wink nudge-nudge about — hints at a wider problem in the representation of suicide and mental illness in fiction. Instead of telling stories to represent the perspectives of people with mental illness, it’s using mental illness as a tool to tell a different story, often about a different character. It’s used to be deep, to be edgy and literary. Because, to put it bluntly, reviewers eat that shit up.

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