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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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Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

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loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.

In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.

Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.

Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.

But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!

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Hugo Nominees 2014: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

neptunesbroodNeptune’s Brood is the most painful book I’ve read in a long, long while.

The prose isn’t bad. The worldbuilding is incredibly in-depth. There’s action and intrigue and space pirates and mermaids. But the execution of the story was so painful that I could barely force myself to read halfway through the book, let alone to the end.

Ostensibly, Neptune’s Brood is about a financial historian named Krina, who’s searching across the universe for her missing sister. As the novel opens, we’re not told why she’s hunting for her sister or why she might be missing, but eventually we learn what Krina has known all along: the two of them were tracking down the biggest fraud in history, trying to figure out what happened and collect any millions that may have gone unclaimed in the aftermath, and they angered the people involved along the way.

But Neptune’s Brood isn’t really about Krina. It’s what I’m going to call “financial fantasy.” It’s all about a fictional financial situation. The financial instruments that are used. Their history. How they’re abused. The problems that they cause. And this isn’t just a background for a plot. This is the plot. The financial system is the protagonist of Neptune’s Brood. It receives whole chapters of explanation and exploration. And hey, if speculatory financial systems in universe-sized economies are of interest, you might get a lot more out of this book than I did. But if you’re looking for a novel, this isn’t the place to turn.

Because, yes, there is a plot. Sort of. But Stross doesn’t seem to care about it. It’s constantly interrupted by massive info dumps about economics. It has no real structure or sense. The first person narration withholds information from the reader to create “intrigue,” but it only creates frustration. Meanwhile, the prose style fluctuates wildly, the novel switches between first and third person even when our first person narrator is present in a scene, and information is repeated in an almost identical manner multiple times. The narrative makes some attempts to set itself up as a diary, or a historian’s report, or something vaguely along those times, but it never bothers to keep up the conceit, to explain how the supposed narrator knows what happened in places she never was, with people she never communicated with. It’s the most flimsy and inconsistent novel I’ve read in a really long time.

And yet the effort is clearly there. The world has a lot of depth and thought put into it. The effort was just in the wrong place. For example, Stross seems to love world-building. Really love world building. But he doesn’t want to put anything in that world. Characterization, plot, emotion, compelling action… they’re all a distant second to explaining the novel’s setting, over and over again. We land on a new planet, and we get pages and pages and pages telling us about its politics, about its economics, about its uranium deposits and the exact technical terms for this kind of planet. We know more about a city where we’ll spend thirty pages than we do about any of the characters.

I stubbornly stuck with the book to the end, not caring about the characters, not really knowing what their aims where, not caring too much about the mysteries, in the hope that the end would provide some great payoff. But spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It doesn’t even properly end. In the final two chapters, a few revelations are thrown out, and we end up in a space battle… which basically involves the protagonist saying “space battles are boring,” the narration skipping over any action, and the novel ending so abruptly that it’s almost as if the author had to wrap it up in ten seconds before his laptop battery died. Did characters live or die? What were the consequences of this dramatic turn of events? What even happened during this grand finale? Who knows? Who cares? The characters and the plot never really mattered, so they’re dropped almost in mid-air, leaving the reader to stare at the blank page and wonder what on earth just happened.

And yet, this novel is nominated for a Hugo award. Because of name recognition? Because of the depth of the world building and economic thought? I don’t know. Economics enthusiasts may enjoy this one, but as a novel, it fails almost entirely.

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Classic Book Rec: Edith Wharton’s Summer

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I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton’s more well known novels (like The House of Mirth and Age of Innocence), but I’d never heard of Summer until I stumbled across it in Barnes and Noble one day. It’s considered a shorter precursor to Wharton’s more famous work, Ethan Frome, but after devouring it myself, I think it’s definitely worth a read on its own merits. Especially as you can get the e-book for free.

The novel focusses on Charity Royall, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her adoptive father in the miniscule rural village of North Dormer. She feels stifled by her inability to leave the village, meet new people or have any kind of life at all, and works in the never-visited library in order to save the money needed to finally escape to the more exciting world beyond its borders. When Lucius Harney, a new lodger, arrives in town, eager to research the “quaint old buildings” of the place, Charity is eager to attach herself to him, intrigued by his knowledge of the outside world and wondering if he might provide her ticket out of the village.

Charity has something of Disney’s Belle about her. If you like your heroines falling down onto the grass, plotting and dreaming of the day they’ll be able to leave their small towns and discover something bigger in life, then Summer is a pretty good bet. Of course, as this is Edith Wharton, not Disney, Charity’s plans don’t exactly go smoothly. But the entire book is filled with a deep yearning, a need for that undefinable more, and it is wonderful read as a result. Charity doesn’t know precisely what it is that she wants, but she knows that she wants it, and that exploration, along with its inevitable pitfalls, gives the otherwise quiet book an intoxicating and gripping quality.

If you’ve never read any of Edith Wharton’s books before, I’d recommend that you start with the Pulitzer prize winning The Age of Innocence. But if you’re looking for a relatively short, readable, feminist (and free!) classic, Summer is more than worth a look.

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Mansfield Park and the Original Nice Guy

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I know I usually write about more recent books (and TV shows and movies and video games), but I just finished a reread of Mansfield Park, and my brain is full of THOUGHTS.

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen takes to task a pervasive and problematic narrative trope, not just in early 19th century fiction, but in all modern-day media. The “romance” between the virtuous and rather boring Fanny Price and the rakish Henry Crawford is based around the familiar structure of “she doesn’t like him now, but if he keeps wooing her, she’ll like him later,” with an extra helping of the idea that the “friendzone” is unfair, and that kindness to women should be rewarded with romance. It embraces these narrative and societal tropes, surrounds it’s heroine with their pressures, and then, in one sudden blow, tears them all apart.

And it’s pretty epic.

(more…)

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Still Star Crossed by Melinda Taub

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Still Star Crossed is Romeo and Juliet meets Much Ado About Nothing, rewritten as a fun YA novel with a bit of Disney thrown in. It’s set in Verona after the end of Romeo and Juliet, and is told from the point of view of two teenagers of different houses: Romeo’s once Capulet-crush Rosaline, and his only surviving best friend, Benvolio. They, understandably, hate each other. But Prince Escalus has decided that only a Capulet-Montague wedding can truly unite the houses, and our two protagonists are the focus of his plan.

The result is a lot of fun. They hate each other! But they must work together to stop the violence and their wedding! And actually, they might possibly grow to love each other! But even love will not stop their bickering and banter. Add in some swordfights, secret meetings, plots, hidden rooms, chases through the countryside and kisses in storms, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty addictive book.

Of course, the success of a book like this rests on the protagonists, and luckily Rosaline and Benvolio are both great. Rosaline is a badass, without wielding a sword. She’s mastered the art of defiance and quick wit, and is brave and determined and intelligent to boot. Benvolio is a little less compelling, but he makes a really fun antagonistic romantic lead. He’s funny and flirty, kindhearted and generally sensible but a little hot tempered, and he’ll never say anything serious when a bit of banter will do.

Part of the plot is, unsurprisingly, a bit predictable, but that’s actually one of the book’s strengths. If you pick up a book like this, you know what you’re in for, and the smug, delighted “I know you’re really going to fall in love” feeling every time the protagonists bicker is part of the fun. Plus, beyond the romance, there are many plot twists that I did not see coming, at all, including things that I thought I had all figured out a third of the way through the book, only to find out I was completely wrong after all.

And the Disney tones? I can’t really say which scenes reminded me of Disney movies without saying giving some of the plot away, but I definitely got some Beauty and the Beast and some Pocahontas at least. But as a Disney fan, I can only see this as a plus.

The book does have a couple of weaknesses. The dialogue attempts to recreate Shakespearean English, with lots of thees and thous, which is annoying at first, but easy to ignore once you get into the swing of the book. And there is a love triangle, with the non-Benvolio character pulling a major jerk move that made me wonder why Rosaline might ever forgive him. But all in all, Still Star Crossed is just plain fun. It’s absolutely delightful. And if you’re looking for a book that you can just enjoy, this is a great one to try.

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A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison

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A Wounded Name is a haunting, lyrical modern retelling of Hamlet, told from the perspective of Ophelia.

If that sounds boring, then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if it sounds as exciting to you as it did to me, you won’t be disappointed. It’s wonderful.

The plot follows the story of Hamlet fairly closely, except that it’s set at an old-fashioned boarding/prep school, and Hutchison has added some gorgeous paranormal twists. Ophelia is considered “mad” by her father, because she can see ghosts. She hears the laments in the graveyard and watches the magical hunt in the forest, and she lives in fear of her father finding out and sending her back to the “cold place” that is designed to cure her of her madness again.

If I were to use one word to describe this book, I’d say it was intoxicating. The prose weaves a spell that makes it impossible to put down, delicate and eerie and dark and compelling all at once.

The book sticks fairly close to the play — too close, in some cases. The scenes that didn’t work for me were always the ones that tried to follow the play too closely, with almost direct quotes from soliloquys and moments whose inclusion didn’t really make sense. Polonius in the story didn’t seem like the blundering, rambling figure we see in the play (at least to me), and so the inclusion of some of those lines felt out of place. Perhaps someone who’s less familiar with the play would feel differently, but I found myself skimming over the scenes that were direct quotations — partly because I already knew what they would say, but partly because they felt out of place with the tone of the rest of the book. In contrast, the best scenes were often the ones that were completely original, where the author had room to breathe and craft her own gorgeous words.

One big warning: the book contains a lot of abuse. Hamlet is as much as a damaged jerk in this as he always appeared to me in the original play. Some might see the story as a romaticization of abuse, as Ophelia is always ready to forgive Hamlet for hurting her, and she is willing to do anything that might comfort him. On the other hand, it could be seen as a plotline that shows how intoxicating and impossible to escape abuse can be. Ophelia loves Hamlet. She wants him to be whole and happy. And she wants to do whatever she can to make that happen, even if it means deluding herself into thinking that it’s OK if he hurts her to help himself. I leaned more towards the second in my reading, but the fact that the narrative never explicitly condemns Hamlet means that sometimes I swayed towards the former, and some readers may find it disturbing. It’s far more of a Wuthering Heights sort of “love story” than a Pride and Prejudice, except that Cathy had a lot more guts.

And that was my other big complaint. Ophelia just felt too passive. The writer is under a certain amount of constraint, given the subject material, and it was fascinating to see Ophelia struggle with her powerlessness and her slow descent into madness. But that didn’t stop me from occasionally wanting Ophelia to DO something. To stand up to Hamlet, to tell her father where to shove it, to just be MORE than she was. She’s a beautiful, heartbreaking character, and it’s easy to become enraptured in her world… but I wished that the her spellbound passivity in the beginning had grown into something more by the end.

Still, if a Hamlet retelling appeals to you, or you just want to read an absolutely gorgeous book, this is definitely one to try. It’s original, it’s beautiful, and it will grip you until the end.

I also did an interview with the author, Dot Hutchison, which is posted here.

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Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

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Imaginary Girls is a deliciously eerie Young Adult novel about sisters, a strange town in New York, and drowned girls who simply won’t stay dead.

Chloe was practically raised by her stunning, compelling, adored older sister, Ruby. Nobody can say no to Ruby. No one would want to. Everyone loves her, and wants to be near her. But the only person Ruby loves, or even cares about, is her baby sister. Yet when Chloe discovers the body of her dead classmate in the reservoir, she moves away to live with her father, and doesn’t hear a single word from her sister for two whole years. Until one summer, when Ruby appears on her doorstep, insisting that if she comes home, things will be exactly as they were before. Chloe just has to follow a few simple rules: don’t leave the town lines. Don’t go near the reservoir. And don’t question how a girl who she saw dead in the water is suddenly walking around as though nothing happened at all.

The novel starts somewhat slow, and I simply couldn’t understand why Chloe was such a doormat when it came to her sister, or why everyone loved a girl who was clearly pretty horrible and self-absorbed. But the book gets better. Oh, it gets so much better. It’s a slow build, but by the time you reach the midway point, it’s gained so much spine-chilling momentum that it’s impossible to put down. Not because it’s particularly full of action or plot, mind. Not a lot really happens in the book. But as the layers are pulled back, and you discover more and more about Ruby, and the town that lies at the bottom of the reservoir, the book weaves a compelling spell. It’s somewhat supernatural, although it doesn’t make clear exactly what is going on. It’s all questions and suppositions and “I wonder if…”, and if you love lyrical prose and supernatural mysteries, the sort that make you feel nervous and exposed in a subtle, indefinable way, this is an excellent novel to get lost in.

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Request for Book Recs!

Over the weekend, I got an email from Nina, asking for recs for books with protagonists like Brienne of Tarth. Specifically:

Prominent female characters who aren’t just great warriors but who really have to struggle for their place in a male-dominated world. Preferably characters who aren’t children or teenagers but grown-up women.

wish I had some recs to share, because I’d love to have read more books with characters like Brienne. But I’ve been racking my brain for days, and I really can’t think of anything that I’ve read. My best suggestion is The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, which has a mutant hunter girl called Thymara who sets off to start a new community with a bunch of other outcasts and has to struggle against the guys’ attempts to force her into the gender roles she was partly trying to escape. But she’s neither a warrior nor a grown-up woman, so it’s hardly a good match!

So… does anyone have any recommends to share? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

 

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The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison

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Ailsbet loves nothing more than music; tall and red-haired, she’s impatient with the artifice and ceremony of her father’s court. Marissa adores the world of her island home and feels she has much to offer when she finally inherits the throne from her wise, good-tempered father. The trouble is that neither princess has the power–or the magic–to rule alone, and if the kingdoms can be united, which princess will end up ruling the joint land? For both, the only goal would seem to be a strategic marriage to a man who can bring his own brand of power to the throne. But will either girl be able to marry for love? And can either of these two princesses, rivals though they have never met, afford to let the other live?

Or so goes the official summary. Luckily, the two princesses never see themselves as rivals, or set themselves up to kill the other one. Ailsbet is a princess in the court of her vicious tyrant father, struggling to stay alive and help save the country however she can. Marissa is a princess in the more peaceful, greener northern lands, sent south by her father to marry Ailsbet’s brother and hopefully unite the two kingdoms, for the peace of them both. But Ailsbet’s father never really intended peace, and when he discovers that an Ekhono, a man with “feminine” magic or a woman with “masculine” magic, is hiding in his court, he’s determined to do anything it takes to rout them out… even if that Ekhono happens to be his own daughter.

The book’s magic system is rich and fascinating. It’s split into two kinds of power — taweyr, the masculine magic, used for violence, for hunting, for thrills and lust and death, and neweyr, the feminine magic, used for controlling plants and other natural, quiet, healing things. Those who have the “wrong” magic (like one of her heroines, who has masculine magic) are persecuted, considered vile abominations who stole the rightful magic of others. It sets up an interesting exploration of the division between “masculine” and “feminine,” especially as we have one traditionally feminine, kind (if slightly spoiled and naive) heroine, and one more “masculine,” distant, dignified and passionate heroine, both of whom need to figure out where their strengths lie and what they want their lives to be. The book frequently discusses a prophecy of how the two types of magic will be reunited, and although my initial assumption that it would become a love story between the two princesses did not pan out, the exploration of the friendship between the two girls and of the importance of each kind of magic was compelling.

Unfortunately, the writing didn’t live up to the world-building potential. Although the book was a quick and easy read, the writing always made me feel somewhat distant from the characters and the story. I didn’t feel I had enough time to properly connect with any of the protagonists. My biggest problem was with the book’s big romance, as the two characters went from barely knowing each other to being in a tragic doomed love without anything in between, making me wonder if I’d somehow missed the chapter where they had a private conversation and decided to even start liking one another. The pacing of the novel also felt off, like it came to a conclusion without enough build-up or development beforehand… but I did love many things about the ending, and the interesting magic system and unusual protagonists were enough to keep my interest right until the end.

If you’re looking for some light YA fantasy with some interesting feminist ideas, it’s worth giving this one a chance. It’s just the sort of thing for a long plane ride or dipping into on the subway — interesting and undemanding, if not living up to its own potential.

I received a copy of The Rose Throne from Egmont and Netgalley for review.

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