Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Reflections on To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

Image Source: from Annie Laurie Miller's papers, archive of the 
Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen years old, as part of a tenth-grade reading assignment for English class. I also saw the Gregory Peck film more than once because my mom loved Gregory Peck, who looked so much like my handsome grandfather did as a young man. But until now, I'd only read the book for that long ago English assignment. I'd mentally classed it with "Southern family, female protagonist" fiction, along with books like Carson McCuller's Member of the Wedding, although I felt TKAM was deeply unsettling. There was something about the way Lee depicted the ugly way people reacted when caught desiring something society frowned upon and about the mob mentality of humans that made me uncomfortable. I don't think it occurred to me that that was her point. I didn't like what TKAM told me about people. If you'd ask me to sum up the book, I'd have said Harper Lee was telling us about justice and injustice or even more simplistically, about good and evil. I was a huge reader early on, just like Scout, but I can honestly say that in rereading TKAM, which recently was named the winner of PBS's The Great American Read, I've realized that I didn't understand the book in any depth. I didn't see how great, how deep TKAM actual is, as an examination of culture and people. 

Since I finished reading/listening/rewatching the film, I've spent the past few weeks wondering about how I could not have seen, even at age fourteen, how profound what Lee was telling us about the grayness of the moral spectrum and the ugliness that is racism. (Especially since a year later, at age fifteen, I was busy telling everybody who would listen that Anna Karenina was one of the most important novels ever.  Go ahead and insert an eye roll, because I was pretty dramatic at that age.) I try to imagine what adult readers in the 1960's thought of this book and wonder what could be lost on a young person reading it. After reflecting upon it, I think the problem with assigned reading of books like To Kill a Mockingbird when you're in Middle School or High School is that you are reading a story told from a child's perspective and, in all likelihood, you do not see the full effect of Scout Finch's story because you yourself are still a child and you're used to things being from a child's perspective- after all, that's your current life view. The huge impact of Scout's story on an adult reader in the 1960's is perhaps more muted when you yourself are a child. I related to Scout as a peer. I identified strongly with her bookishness, and with her tomboyish ways. I also identified with Jem's burgeoning maturity, his sense of justice, and his disillusionment. The adult reader, however, immediately recognizes the racism, sexism, and misogyny all so skillfully rendered, seen through Scout's innocent eyes. 

As an adult, reading this book forty plus years after I first read it, I think the most disturbing aspect of Lee's story is how sadly fresh this story still feels. We still have innocent black men like Tom Robinson who die simply because they are black, whether doing nothing or even in the midst of doing their job as a security officer. We still may have young black men being lynched in America. In 2018! Harper Lee's Tom Robinson is a poignant character. Without question, Tom Robinson, with his compassionate and gentle spoken way is, to me, a mockingbird, the true mockingbird of this story. The false accusations of rape and physical assault heaped on him by a young woman and her family are touchy subjects to tackle, in a world that all to often doesn't believe women who have been sexually assaulted and where women are likely to endure questioning far less delicate than Atticus Finch's. However, although the book is from Scout's perspective and that she does not engage much, other than with Calpurnia, with the black residents of Maycomb, how much do we really see about Tom Robinson and his life in this book? As an au courant reader, I feel it's important to realize that this is a book about racism from a white person's perspective. More on that later.

Lee's story of injustice and false accusation potentially has different shadings based on the generational, gender, and racial perspective of the reader. There is, sadly, a long tradition and much legal precedent of disbelieving sexual assault victims, but that certainly depends on who was doing the assaulting. Historically, a young black man just looking at a young white woman could end badly in the Deep South. Meanwhile, even in the present day, a white man raping just about anyone can get off with no jail time. How do we, as readers in 2018, unpack Mayella Ewell's actions? There is moral complexity in her situation and in the community's reactions to it. In the era of the #metoo movement, we can look at the abuse heaped upon Mayella with more a penetrating gaze and no small amount of ire. The gravity of her actions, her lies, in a world where many times women are blamed for their sexual assault, or they are not even believed when they have been harmed, feels visceral. But Atticus Finch's questioning of her, and of other witnesses in Tom Robinson's case, makes clear that Mayella was harmed. Just not by the accused. Her story is at once poignant and utterly horrifying. Here we have a young woman trapped in a life that seems devoid of love and hope, abused physically and, we can infer, likely sexually, by her father. She is wounded, trapped in this heartless situation. She craves love and affection enough that she effectively sets a trap for a damaged yet still, even to Scout Finch's eyes, beautiful young black man. That he is married, a father, and has been kind to Mayella does not spare him from his community's condemnation and her brutal betrayal of his kindness to her. (The unintentional sting of his statement that he, a black man, felt sorry for her, a white woman, which implies he has more self-esteem than she has, is something apparently intolerable to the jury and to the community at large.) Tom Robinson is doomed by racist taboos, by a need to affirm white supremacy, and in a sad way by his own goodness. I pity Mayella but I can never forgive her, even though I am cynically unsurprised by her weakness that ultimately cost a man his life. After a lifetime of abuse, she cannot give truth to the court or even to herself. She wanted Tom, wanted to be with him physically, and she hates herself as much as her father hated her for it. Tom Robinson, a kind man, a man for whom it is physically impossible to have restrained and assaulted this young woman, is rendered a black rapacious monster with his conviction by a jury of his supposed peers- a bunch of "good old boys" white men. 

Boo Radley, a character who seems to have mental health issues, is another interesting portrayal. He too, just like Tom, is perceived in his community as some sort of monster. Scout learns, as Jem did with Tom, to see Boo's humanity. When you look at Boo's communications with Jem and Scout, his giving them gifts, either those he made or those that he earned, he is, just as Scout points out, a mockingbird. I am struck by Lee's complex take on mental health comprised in Boo's character. He is a kind man who has done bad things (stabbing his father, albeit not fatally, and hanging with a bad crowd when a young man), but he is a giver of odd gifts, a protector of the vulnerable. Boo, himself a mockingbird, effects belated justice for the other mockingbird who was so cruelly killed by injustice.

"It's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see where we are." - Jack Finch, Go Set A Watchman
This is such an apt quote for my feelings about how this book got published. Looking back we get an image of Harper Lee having a different plan for Go Set a Watchman. 

For quite some time I resisted reading this novel. Beyond the fact that so many who grew up admiring Atticus Finch were outraged by this book, I had a lot of ethical questions about how the book came to publication. One of my little known avocations is that in addition to being active in the child welfare arena (guardian ad litem, guardian advocate, foster parent) for thirteen years I was was also a professional guardian. That's a person who manages the affairs (personal and financial) of someone who is mentally incapacitated. While I managed the lives and affairs of three adult former guardian ad litem youths who never had capacity, all of my state's professional guardian training dealt with those who originally had capacity and who now lack that capacity. The maxim of an ethical professional guardian is substituted judgment. Harper Lee was reportedly deaf, blind and according to some who knew her best, like her sister, lacking in capacity in the few years before her death, after a serious stroke in 2007. Thus, I look at Go Set a Watchman, from a "what would Harper do?" paradigm. My thought was that Harper would have gone on doing what she did for many decades- keeping that first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird (see below) locked away in a safe deposit box. And perhaps gift it upon her death to a University library archive where it could be studied by scholars interested in the evolution of a great American novel. But no. That is clearly not what her lawyer and subsequent executor (who pays herself from Harper's estate, by the by) and her publisher decided to do. So I struggled with whether or not to read this book. Ultimately, I suppose intellectual curiosity won out. That and a desire to perhaps weigh in on whether or not publishing this book in the way it was done was "right."

Go Set a Watchman is an interesting series of vignettes about the residents of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of an adult Jean Louise Finch, in the 1950's. Jean Louise is a progressive. Jem, a boy on the cusp of adolescence in TKAM is dead (no spoilers there, you find that out within the first few pages of the book in one tossed off sentence.) Atticus is... well, let's just say he is not exactly the Atticus of TKAM. (In some ways, Uncle Jack's character in this book, with his quiet wisdom, is folded into the character of the Atticus we meet in TKAM.) Although, I can't deny that there is always the fact that a child, even a child like Jean Louise, who thinks of her father as an old man, might hero worship her father for the sense of duty and honor he puts (from her perspective) into Tom Robinson's defense. (I always have to remind myself that Atticus didn't volunteer to represent Tom, he was asked to.) The Atticus we knew through Scout's eyes was a good man, though the veil of racism and classism still shrouds him, to the astute reader. The Atticus we meet in GSAW is a stubborn, aging Alabaman, attended a KKK meeting (ostensibly to keep tabs on what they are doing) and is no fan of the NAACP. He would rather see white lawyers representing black cases because when the NAACP lawyers step in, you get things like... well like Brown versus the Board of Education. Is the Atticus Finch we see as an old man the same man we met in TKAM? Are we merely seeing him through Jean Louise's adult eyes rather than the rosy perspective of an adoring child? Atticus Finch has become an iconic figure in American literature and yet there has been literary criticism such as that by Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a literature professor at the University of South Carolina that points out that he has a "paternalistic and downright accommodationist approach to justice." (I am, however, pragmatic enough to believe that a white man who is a single parent in a racist town in the 1930's might not try to break too much new ground in his legal defense of a black man accused of rape, though an honorable man would still, as did Atticus, try to give him a well-mounted and well-thought out defense.) It is possible to see how these two versions of Atticus are not as different as we would wish them to be. But in that, I feel it is a pity that this iconic figure Harper Lee created, and seemingly wished for most of her life to maintain in the public's eyes as the TKAM Atticus, has been forever altered in our mind by publication of a book Lee may not have wanted you to read for anything other than a scholarly purpose. I prefer to think that Harper Lee, in discarding the first draft of her only book and rewriting it from the perspective of Jean Louise as a child, chose to give us the Atticus she arrived at and wanted the reader to know.

If you look at the photo at the top of this post you will see an index card kept by Harper Lee's literary agent, Annie Laurie Miller. It records the single novel for which she represented Harper Lee, a novel sold to J. B. Lippincott publishing house (later acquired by Harper and Row) in 1957. The first title, Go Set a Watchman, is crossed out and replaced with the title To Kill a Mockingbird. This one card tells us everything we need to know about what Go Set a Watchman is and what Harper Lee intended in keeping it locked away for almost six decades. It was the first draft, set aside, of a novel later rewritten from the perspective of Scout as a child, and honed over the course of three years into To Kill a Mockingbird. If you need more convincing you can read more of the story here.

So what options do you have, if you wish to read Go Set a Watchman for yourself but don't want to potentially enrich a lawyer and publisher that might have gone against Harper Lee's long-held wishes? Check it out of your local library. Or pick up a second hand copy. All safe and legal ways of reading a book that maybe the author wished you wouldn't. Honestly, if I hadn't read it for review purposes, with my analytical hat on, I'd be sad I had done so. So if you want to hold on to your cherished view of Atticus Finch, a good man who did his best, you might want to skip Go Set a Watchman. There's no going back after you've read it. 

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the great American novels. Full stop. PBS voters said it was America's "best-loved" novel. I look around at this present juncture in history and question whether it's possible to love something you don't understand. Because I wish the novel's message about racism and injustice was better internalized by American readers. A powerful read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel heartbroken for Harper Lee that the manuscript of this book wasn't just placed in the University of Alabama archives for scholars who wanted to study the origins of To Kill of a Mockingbird. I can give it three stars for the caliber of the writing of the vignettes and anecdotes that comprise this book. This isn't a finished novel. It's not a sequel or prequel. From various passages it is so painfully obvious that this was the first draft of Mockingbird. Its value lies in what it offers scholars who wish to see where she went after this. One can only hope that it doesn't detract from the masterpiece Lee gleaned from this draft.

"It's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It's hard to see where you are."

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review: City of Broken Magic

City of Broken Magic City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Getting a debut novel to publication is a long process for an author and I try to be sensitive to that fact. Finding a debut with a fresh take is always a plus. But sometimes the execution of a good idea seems elusive. Having great editorial direction can lead an author to a better story but that, too, is a hard thing to find. In the past year I've read more than a few debut novels in which better editorial direction might have taken a potentially great book and smoothed pacing issues, removed inconsistencies, and built more compelling characters. This is one such book.

In City of Broken Magic we have a novel magic system, of amulets trapping spirits, and sweepers (who in spite of the blurb, are possessed of some magical abilities) who dispose of dangerous monsters who emerge from broken amulets, or who can even prevent those monsters from escaping them. The only time I've read anything similar is in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series. World-building like this is a treat, but we have to have characters who make us enjoy this world, and a story arc that is paced to keep us well engaged. Bolender almost has us there, but I just never warmed to Laura Kramer, a young woman apprenticed to sweeper Clae (a man with a dubious family history), and I found the manner in which Clae's other apprentice sweeper, Okane, joins the band to be awkward and rather implausible. The characters felt a bit flat and I didn't feel very engaged in their battles. The overall story arc, which features a world in which the powers that be lie and cover up the ongoing presence of these monsters, minimizing an ugly reality, claiming that sweepers and monsters are a cipher in their society, is a great storyline to explore, especially in the era of claims of fake news and media/social media distortions of truth. Thus, I'd definitely pick up the next book in the series to see where Bolender goes with this story. I just hope that she gets editorial direction worthy of this story's potential.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Tor via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Review: Lies Sleeping

Lies Sleeping Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lies Sleeping, the seventh novel in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series completes a longstanding series story arc, that of the Faceless Man, but leaves plenty of room open for further adventures of our young Detective Constable, his delightful colleague Sahra Guleed, his goddess girlfriend Beverly Brook, his wizard prodigy cousin Abigail, his mentor and boss Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and of course, his renegade former friend, Lesley May. One of the delights of the book included finally getting to see what DCI Nightingale can do when his gloves are off. The power of his magic versus that of the Faceless Man was exciting to read. Peter has continued to make progress but is still no match for Chorley, and is still quite vulnerable to Lesley's influence. In a surprise move, Peter communicates with more ancient figures in this novel, harking back to Roman times, looking for answers about Mr. Punch, Arthur, Merlin and Excaliber, and he tries to save a river goddess, who had isolated herself from Mama Thames' family, from a terrible fate. We also formally meet a new and interesting high fae character, Foxglove. (Let's just say that it's a very good thing that Peter has spent a lot of time listening to and winning over Molly. His kindness pays off well here because he understands the hissing language of the fae.)

All in all, while a satisfying entry in the series, I felt the pacing of the story was a bit more uneven and that the narrative occasionally got bogged down in excessive historical detail. This is the first Aaronovitch book where I felt the story could have been more tightly edited. Much of the action occurs in the second half of the book, so be sure to hang in there, Reader! (Don't get me wrong here- this is still one of my all time favorite series.) I may adjust my rating after listening to the audio version. It took me several days to finish the print version, which is not something I recall from previous entries. The book felt longer than it should have, in part because of the pacing issues and the dense historical elements. Perhaps the added benefit of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's marvelous narration will help liven the story.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from DAW via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Blanca & Roja

Blanca & Roja Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blanca & Roja is a Latinx fairy tale retelling of Snow White and Rose Red (best known from the Brothers Grimm version) and a variety of swan fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen, Musäus, Tchaikovsky), with strong influence from Andersen's The Ugly Duckling recast as a tale of discovering one's authentic self. The complex sisterly love McLemore gives us is more realistic than that in the original sister story, painted with affection, rivalry, protectiveness and worry. Blanca and Roja del Cisne (of the Swans), daughters of a cursed line in which one of two sisters must always become a swan, are seemingly opposite in nature and appearance but as one character notes, also so alike, as if they were braided together. Their "Yearling" bear, Barclay, and a non-binary character, Page, receive alternating chapters along with Blanca and Roja's chapters, weaving a story that is like a tapestry. The battle to save one sister from being taken by the swans forms the central theme of the book but there are also subplots about becoming who you are, about seeking justice, and that moment that you find out your family isn't what you think it is and how you can be cast into the wild by that knowledge.

McLemore's languid writing is always beautiful to read and the merging of the various tales and allegories is also well done. This is an enjoyable read that offers interesting perspectives on sibling love, the limits of family loyalty, and gender issues. A beautiful story for those who love fairy tale retellings.

"The story of the the Ugly Duckling was never about the cygnet discovering he is lovely. It is not a story about realizing you have become beautiful. It is about the sudden understanding that you are something other than you thought you were, and that what you are is more beautiful than what you once thought you had to be."

I received a paper ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea

A Very Large Expanse of Sea A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars bumped, because it's such an important topic.

This is the first novel of Tahereh Mafi's that I've read. But oddly, I've followed her on Instagram for quite some time. Some of the other authors I follow, like Leigh Bardugo, would comment on her photos and I became intrigued about how stylish she was and started following her. Mafi always looks elegant and soulful. Earlier this year though she started posting some different photos. Photos not like the ones of her usual elegant outfits + poses, or photos of her husband and daughter, or of herself against some beautiful natural backdrop. First, back in February, she posted an image from the LA Times in which she was spinning around her hand, elevated off the floor. I saw it in my feed and was caught off-guard. Elegant. Tahereh Mafi. break. dances...? No. Way. Then in May she posted some pretty amazing photos (including one where she's balanced on her head) saying she was getting ready to shoot a video for her latest book in which the main character enjoys breakdancing. (Here's that video, by the way... IG video) By July I had serious questions. First I want to know how she keeps her hijab doing her head moves. Or really any dance moves. (No, really. This is a serious question, okay? You may not understand this, but as a person who can barely even keep a simple barrette in place on my hair, I want to know how she keeps her hijab not just in place but looking perfect. Is that magic?) My other question was about how I could get my hands on this book. Thank you Harpers Teen for sending me an ARC! I got at least one thing sorted. We won't talk about the other one.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the story of Shirin, a fifteen year old Iranian-American girl who has just started a new school (again, sigh) not long after 9/11. Shirin wears hijab (a head scarf) and has taken a lot of flack for it. She wears it by choice. It is emblematic of her showing her whole self only when and to whom she wishes. It isn't a big religious or parental prescription. It's about her choice about how she goes out into the world. When we meet Shirin, her sophomore experience basically consists of trying to talk and make as little eye contact as possible with her peers, and even with her teachers. From the story's opening, where her Honors English teacher can't figure out how to pronounce her name and instead of simply asking her what her name is so he can hear it correctly spoken right off the bat, mispronounces it Sharon (a nice Biblical name) and then tells her he thinks she's in the wrong class (because it is inconceivable that a girl in a hijab can do Honors English, natch), we can see her life isn't la vie en rose. Things go south when she points out her English is "fucking perfect." Let me warn you up front that this teacher isn't the only asshole teacher in this story. Shirin has been the object of insults and assaults (verbal and physical) for a while and her parents, who had strife-filled paths to the US, are a bit less than sympathetic. Shirin doubles up on her mental defenses and tries to just move forward. But not before bumping into a tall kid, Ocean James, who seems curious about her. Brushing everyone off with her cool demeanor, Shirin wastes no time brushing him off too, for a while anyway. But Ocean persists and he isn't afraid to ask her questions about her culture, her life, and more, even though he's occasionally shocked by Shirin's teasing, acerbic replies. When they become lab partners in Bio she chides him for sending too many text messages (she worries because of a family sharing plan) and says if he sends too many he has to marry her, and such. Over time, their relationship becomes more than a friendship and that spells trouble. Bigotry rears its ugly head and the couple are pressured from all sides (peers, faculty, parents) about their relationship. Ocean is his school's basketball team star and the xenophobic, jingoistic post-9/11 environment doesn't seem to want to tolerate their All-American star athlete dating some hijab wearing Iranian-American girl.

I loved this book, though I felt that Ocean wasn't well defined enough, in some odd way. I wanted a better understanding of how he got to be this fine upstanding person with what felt like zero input from parents or family. I couldn't understand exactly why he was willing to take such risks to be with Shirin, to stand by her. But Shirin didn't really understand why either, and it's her POV so maybe it all makes better sense this way. That's pretty much the only thing in this book that I could quibble with.

This book offers young people an opportunity to see the world, and some of the truly idiotic, bigoted people living in it, from the perspective of a young Muslim woman who just happened to want to wear a hijab. Mafi has stated that this book, though a novel, is based on her real life experiences. There several scenes that actually brought tears to my eyes. And I'm sad to say that I have absolutely no doubt that everything that she describes in terms of bigotry has happened to her, or to friends of hers. (I think she left out the one where an Iranian or Iranian-American person has to explain that, no they aren't Arab. /insert facepalm here/)

"The more I got to know people, the more I realized we were all just a bunch of frightened idiots walking around in the dark, bumping into each other and panicking for no reason at all. So I started turning on a light."

This book, which is one of those lights, should be on every high school's summer reading list. There's important stuff about seeing your fellow human beings in here.

P.S. Dear Tahereh, I am not surprised you breakdance because you are Persian. I'm surprised because you usually look like a fashion icon. Turns out you're a fashion icon who also breaks.

I received a paper ARC from HarperTeen in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Review: A Light of Her Own

A Light of Her Own A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a Light of Her Own, a historical fiction novel set largely in Dutch Haarlem during the 1600's, is about the lives of Dutch painter Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber, also a painter and daughter of Franz Pietersz de Grebber. Leyster was one of the first women painters to join the Haarlem Guild after the Reformation. (There are some indications that Sara van Baalbergen was the first woman accepted into the Haarlem Guild in 1631. The "Sara" in this book is not that Sara.)

Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber make for interesting, contrasting characters and, though there is no historical indication the two women were as close as portrayed in this book, they certainly knew one another since Judith studied with Franz de Grebber. The de Grebber family was Catholic, while Leyster was, like the majority of the Dutch after the Reformation, Protestant. While possibly disadvantaged due to his faith, de Grebber was nevertheless a member of the Guild from 1600, and his studio produced his work along with that of his three children Pieter, Albert and Maria without their needing to separately apply to the Guild to be able to legally sell their work. Judith Leyster, however, was determined to form her own studio and in this novel we see her potential path during times in which few women took up a Guild profession.

For me one of the saddest facts is that Leyster, M. de Grebber, and van Baalbergen (of whose work none is known to have survived to the present day) all married and seemed to have produced little art after they began to have children. Leyster, who married artist Jan Miense Molenaer, had much of her surviving work misattributed to her husband, following her death in 1660 at the age of 50, until the mid-1800's. Her unique monogram JL* (the star being a reference to the Dutch Leyster/Leister which means Lead Star, as in the North Star used for navigation) led to the reattribution of 39 of her surviving works. (For comparison, that is more than have survived of Johannes Vermeer's work!) Leyster's dynamic style (for the era in which she lived) resulted in one of her paintings being mistaken for that of her contemporary Franz Hals, with whom she may also have studied. Upon discerning her signature, many more of Leyster's works were rediscovered. Fewer paintings attributed to Maria de Grebber have survived. She also married an artist, though not a painter.

This is a lovely novel that allows you to imagine the art, life and world that Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber lived in. While being a female painter in this era was not easy (if you didn't come from a Guild family like de Grebber did), it is notable that there were quite a few women painters actively working in the Netherlands in this era, in contrast to that which you see in countries like France, Spain or England in later centuries, even during the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

With its gentle pace, this book should appeal to those who enjoy the merging of art and historical fiction.

Self-Portrait, ~ Judith Leyster, 1633

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Amberjack Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: Breach

Breach Breach by W.L. Goodwater
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Breach, first in a new series, Cold War Magic, is an alternate history in which magic was used to create the Berlin Wall at the end of the Second World War. Karen O'Neil is a young magician at the Office of Magical Research and Deployment, doing research on beneficial uses of magic. She is called to Berlin by the State Department and CIA because of a breach in the Berlin Wall. Over a short period of time, and a series of betrayals, Karen begins to see that there is no good side to be working for. From her boss Dr. Haupt, to Mr. Ehle, an East German agent who claims he wants to help save the wall. Karen faces sexism, treachery as she embarks on search for a mysterious book in terrible former wartime camp called Auttenberg, where prisoners were victims of magical experimentation in Nazi Germany.

This book has an interesting premise but the last part left me frustrated with the Mary Sue-like quality of Karen's character by the end of the novel. Also, although the sexism of the era is to be expected if the alternate history remains true to the culture of WWII times, I felt like a lot of Karen's snappish answers to superiors and peers were unrealistic, and even lacking in skill. I can't resist comparisons to Tanya Morozova from The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, who benefitted from the influence of Max Gladstone's writing. I'll probably still pick up the next in the Cold War Magic series but I hope that Goodwater's writing of Karen will grow with the story.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from the First to Read program in exchange for an honest review

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Review: Unwritten

Unwritten Unwritten by Tara Gilboy
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

It's hard when all your early life memories and mementos indicate that you were a character in a book, rescued and brought to life. It's even worse when you confront your reluctant author with the intent of just getting a bit more information and she signs her autograph and disappears in a poof!, leaving you as the last person that saw her. Things can only go downhill from this point on, as Gracie and her author Gertrude Winters try to set things straight with the world of Bondoff.

This is a charming children's story sure to be enjoyed by fans of the Inkheart series.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Alex, Janelle and Marzie Buddy Read Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children, Book 1: Every Heart a Doorway

In celebration of the forthcoming release of Book 4 in the Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream on January 8, 2019, Alex of Alex Can Read, our friend Janelle, and I are doing a Buddy Read of the Wayward Children books. We'll tell you what we liked about them, and why these books have become so beloved by young adults who may feel marginalized or in the minority when it comes to story representation. I've heard Seanan McGuire say that these are some of the most pirated of her works. And while piracy is bad, and robs her of royalties, Seanan considers it a measure of how much some young people need a book just like this one.

Every Heart a Doorway
The first installment of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children portal fantasy series is the Hugo, Locus, Alex, and Nebula-Award-winning Every Heart a Doorway, which introduces us to an Earth quite a bit like ours, but with the twist of having a multiverse of portals leading young people to unique worlds. The various worlds often beckon to them. And by that I mean these worlds and their denizens can crave these young people as if they were born destined to enter these worlds, and the worlds want to keep them there. (Unless, for instance, a person makes a too big a mistake, like growing up or killing the wrong person, and gets asked to leave or booted out.)

So let's back up a bit, to be sure we're on the same page. What's a portal fantasy? Portal fantasies feature a magical doorway that connects our world to another realm that is often different in spacetime. The rules of the portal world, especially when it comes to time, may run differently than they do in ours. An example being that what feels like a day in a portal world could be years in our world or vice-versa. Children could enter a portal only to find upon their return to our world that they have been gone for an hour, a day, a month or... four or five years and their parents built a whole new family, assuming they were dead. The children may not even have aged at all during their time away, leaving parents shocked and confused. "How could they have been gone for years but still be only twelve?" And that's only one of the potential complications of returning from your portal world. While some might have wanted to go home, what if you felt your portal was a doorway to your true home and all you want to do is go back? What if you are left looking for that doorway, seemingly forever? When we think of portal fantasies, a wealth of children's stories like Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Barrie's Peter Pan, Rowling's Harry Potter, or Valente's Fairyland series come to mind. We know the mechanics of entering a portal, but we don't usually hear much about what it might be like to have to come home and wistfully live all the rest of your life here, in this hot, crowded, bustling, often disappointing, unaccepting, and un-magical world we call Earth. We don't hear about Alice's big depression, or the Pevensie children having big adjustment issues, being put on anti-psychotic medications because of their talking incessantly about their Narnia experience, or acting out because they miss Aslan and Mr. Tumnus so very much. (We won't get into Susan not going back to Narnia because she wears makeup and pantyhose right now, okay? I will have that tantrum at a later date, maybe if I review Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things.)

Source: Tor.com
In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire gives us Nancy Whitman, a girl who was sent out of her portal world and back to ours, so she can "be sure" she knows what she wants. Home from the "Hall of the Dead," Nancy struggles, trying to cope with a loud, fast, brightly-colored world that is the antithesis of the place she thinks of as her proper home. In the "Hall of the Dead," she practiced being still as a statue, hardly even breathing, and she wore diaphanous, shadow-colored clothing. Her parents, much as they love her, don't understand where their daughter went (literally and figuratively), why she doesn't love bright colors, dancing, and being social like a "regular" teen. (They also probably aren't going to understand a few other things, like Nancy's not having any feelings of physical attraction for boys, or girls, or anyone.) Nancy's parents send her off to Eleanor West's "Home for Wayward Children," a special school for "special" children who are lost, troubled, or downright delusional *cough*, all of whom seem to believe they have visited some other world and despair that they can't find their way back. As Nancy soon discovers, her world, an Underworld of Nonsense and Wickedness, is one of many. And all the many worlds can be described according to their alignment on a different sort of compass, where the cardinal directions are Logic, Nonsense, Virtue, and Wickedness. Most of all, Nancy finds she is not alone. She is surrounded by those who share her sense of loss and disorientation. They are all waiting for their doorway to come back for them. 

And so, with no further adieu...

Alex, Janelle and Marzie Read Wayward Children

Every Heart a Doorway

Discussion, Part 1

Marzie: I have to say that this novella feels quite different from what Seanan McGuire has written as Seanan. Frankly, some of it reminds me more of her Mira Grant books, and for some reason it reminds me of the children’s poem woven into her Parasitology series, “Don’t Go Out Alone.”

Janelle: I can see that. I think because they are novellas, the writing is tighter, like Mira Grant’s. It doesn’t have the verbosity of the October Daye series, that’s for sure.

Marzie: The writing is tighter but I also find it more explicitly gory than the Toby or InCryptid books. Even considering all of Toby’s continual bleeding all over the place. It’s more Mira in feel because of that goriness, to me.

Alex: The writing is definitely tighter, and a lot more lyrical. I think Every Heart a Doorway showcases her poetry skills in ways that we only really see in the Parasite books.

Marzie: I agree. And that may be why I link it to “Don’t Go Out Alone.” They're her only books that have used poetry or lyrical language so extensively.

Alex: I actually like EHAD more than “Don’t Go Out Alone.”  DGOA is SO childish that it grates on me, where EHAD fills me with wistful light.

Marzie: But I think that (the childish nature of that poem) was the goal in the Parasitology trilogy- it was a children’s poem because “they” were so young. (“They” being spoilers I won’t go into here.)

Janelle: “Wistful light” is the perfect descriptor. I wanted to find my own portal and see where I belong. I still think about that.

Marzie: Oh, wistful is a very good word for this first book in the Wayward Children series, isn’t it, Janelle?

Alex:I think it’s hard NOT to read EHAD and come away wishing for your own door to open. Even as an adult I find myself in situations day to day where something just feels so wrong and I desperately wish that I could have found my door and been living a more meaningful life in a world more suited to me.

Marzie: Hey, I’m still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts to arrive!

Janelle: Yes! Me, too!

Marzie: So let’s look at the characters Seanan’s given us...

Alex: Nancy and Jack and Kade and Christopher and just... I can’t choose a favorite! I love them all so much.

Marzie: I love Eleanor, too. That she is willing to help these kids is a powerful thing I identify with.

Janelle: Nancy is one of my favorite characters from any book that came out in recent years. I kept fearing that she would somehow find meaning in the “real” world, and stop needing or desiring her real home. So many portal fantasies end with the platitude that… no, people ought to be happy where they are, and people need to put away the “childish” longings to be somewhere else. I mean, that’s what almost every other portal fantasy tries to teach us, and it’s stupid. If I were Alice, I’d never leave Wonderland.

Marzie: I was actually sad at the thought of Nancy not being in the other books. (Pssst! You will see her again! Don't tell!) I loved her, too. And I totally agree that too many portal fantasies have underlying messages I just can’t abide. Aspects of the Narnia books utterly infuriated me.

Alex: Janelle, have you read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan? That’s one that doesn’t end like that.

Marzie: OMG, so much love for In Other Lands!

Janelle: I haven’t! Sounds like I need to!

Alex: You so do. It’s so good. It’s hard to talk about the characters in EHAD without talking about the diversity of representation that’s included. There’s such a spectrum and it makes me so happy.

Marzie: You mean the normality of the diversity? The fact that just like Mary Robinette Kowal says, Seanan has removed the homogeneity because the real world isn't homogeneous? I can’t tell you how much this book meant to a friend’s daughter. She’s Ace and to have an asexual character as a central protagonist is something that truly rocked her world.

Janelle: It is so very important to have characters like Nancy. I think Ace people especially don’t find a lot of representation in literature, because it is an easy way to evoke (or try) emotion, or create emotion by having a character fall in love, or lust with another. Nancy being Ace opens up new story opportunities, simply by having Nancy not fall in love with anyone.

Marzie: I definitely think writing an asexual character is more challenging for the author because many people don’t understand asexuality going in. I think Nancy’s emotions and thoughts are wonderfully conveyed here. Likewise, Kade’s understanding her, liking her authenticity, was a lovely thing. Alex, what did you love about Kade? I know you’ve said he’s one of your favorite characters.

Alex: I just love Kade as Kade. The fact that Kade is excellent trans representation is part of that, but I just love how he is so caring about his fellow students, and even though he’s a trans guy, he doesn’t feel forced to perform masculinity and reject femininity. He operates the school’s wardrobe and sews custom clothing - a traditionally feminine activity, but he just performs it as a service to the school. Kade just feels like the friend I always wanted to be. He accepts people as they are.

Marzie: I wish I had a friend like Kade growing up. Actually, your remarking on the sewing bit makes me realize I DID have a friend who was a bit like Kade when I was in high school. He loved fashion and would sew and took a sewing class that was part of Home Economics. The only guy. Though I guess he had a very nonbinary feel. He was a very kind kid. And he didn’t seem like he felt awkward or seem like he was anything other than at ease with himself. I really should have appreciated him more! I think that aspect of just being yourself makes it so much easier for others to be themselves, too. That's what makes Kade the perfect successor for when Eleanor is ready to go home.

You can read Part 2 of our Discussion over on Alex Can Read's blog...

Later this month look for our discussion of Book 2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones.

If you want to read along with us, you can check out the all the Wayward Children books here.

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