Archive for book club

2021 Book Club: Our August pick is The Frangipani Hotel

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

In August, we’re reading Violet Kupersmith’s sublime short fiction collection, The Frangipani Hotel, which examines a history fraught with war and displacement, as well as a stubborn determination to reclaim a culture from the aftermath of American aggression. Kupersmith’s work is born of her mother’s flee from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, her grandmother’s folkloric tales, and her own time in a Vietnam still rising after a millennium of occupation. The result is a collection of sometimes terrifying, sometimes welcoming, always all-too-human ghost stories about a people emerging from the shadow of war.

frangipani hotel violet kupersmit

This month’s book club will be on Sunday, August 29 at 12:00 p.m. Mountain time (2:00 p.m. Eastern) over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there!

2021 Book Club: Our June pick is The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

Seven Necessary Sins Women Girls Mona Eltahawy

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

In June, we’re reading Mona Eltahawy’s unrelentingly furious, deliberately profane The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Eltahawy presents her version of the seven sins: those seven things that women and girls need to, as she exhorts, “fuck the patriarchy.” Through a combination of searing academic work and lived experience as an activist around the world, Eltahawy argues for a singularly blazing approach to feminist thought, one that demands that the patriarchy fear the power of transgressive feminists to defy, disrupt, and destroy it. This brilliant, uncompromising work will teach readers how to be exactly those feminists.

This month’s book club will be on Sunday, June 27 at 12:00 p.m. Mountain time (2:00 p.m. Eastern) over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there!

2021 Book Club: Our May pick is Maybe a Fox

Maybe a Fox book club discussion

The Sirens Book Club meets monthly to discuss a book from our 2021 Reading Challenge, which includes 50 works by women, trans, and nonbinary authors that imagine a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world.

In May, we’re reading Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee’s stunning novel for young readers, Maybe a Fox. Jules and Sylvie are sisters and, even better, best friends. But when their mother passes away, they each deal with their grief a little bit differently—Jules hunkering down, Sylvie running away. One morning, when Sylvie races to throw one more wish rock in the river before school, she disappears; at the same time, a fox is born, one that seems destined to protect Jules as she searches with an ever-thinning thread of hope for her missing sister. Maybe a Fox is a delicate reflection on what it means to grieve and, ultimately, what it means to find hope again.

The next book club will be on Sunday, May 30 at 12:00 p.m. Mountain time (2:00 p.m. Eastern) over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there.

2021 Book Club

If you’ve been a part of the Sirens community for at least a year or two, you know that we offer an annual reading challenge based largely upon the works of our upcoming guests of honor, our upcoming theme, and newly released speculative works by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. Given the postponement of our 2020 conference to 2021, however, we covered much of that ground for our 2021 conference back in 2020.

So we jumped at the chance to do something slightly different in 2021: a reading challenge that really gets to the heart of Sirens, full of books that we think exemplify the mission of Sirens itself.

Sirens is a space that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. This year, we carefully considered what that means to us, and we’ve selected 25 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors envisioning that world. We find that these works demonstrate the true wonder of what speculative spaces can be—and what our real world can also be. When we ask ourselves what Sirens is, and what Sirens could be, we look to these works and others like them.

Given how important these works are to Sirens, we want to offer all of you the chance to discuss just a few of them throughout the course of the year. We hope you’ll join us at 2-3 p.m. Eastern Time on the last Sunday of each month, starting in March and ending in August, as we examine and debate one book a month from our 2021 Reading Challenge.

We Set the Dark on Fire

Our inaugural session will be March 28 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Our first book discussion will be about We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia. And if you’d like to join us, please email us at (help AT to be added to our list; for safety and security reasons, we’ll be emailing the link out to interested folks closer to the discussion date.

We hope to see you there!

The City We Became Is Very Human. And Very New York.

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

I have a confession to make: I hate New York City. I am told that this is because when I visit, I visit for work and that means that I spend most of my time in Midtown Manhattan, land of soulless office buildings and a million Pret a Mangers and seemingly two million douchey dudes that you’d think would work downtown on Wall Street but somehow don’t and are therefore somehow worse. But Midtown is also the home to Broadway and some amazing food and that winter village in Bryant Park—and it’s not so far from the American Museum of Natural History with that dinosaur who is too big for her room, so her head sticks out one door and her tail another. So you’d think that I’d be at least neutral on the subject of New York City, but no. All the subway trains are broken and every day is trash day and if I moved there, I’d have to start a podcast called “Shut up, New York.”

Which is to say that, when I tell you that you must—without delay or hesitation, without finishing whatever you’re reading now or stopping for niceties like dinner—voraciously consume The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin’s love letter to New York City, you should be believe me. Because I tell you this despite that I really hate New York City.

Because this is Jemisin, who just won a MacArthur genius grant and who achieved an unprecedented hat trick with three consecutive Best Novel Hugos, and because The Fifth Season, the first of those Hugos, is literally perfect, I know what you want to ask right now. I know this because every person to whom I have recommended this book has asked the same question: Is The City We Became better than The Fifth Season?

It is. It absolutely is.

So let’s do this.

We are in modern New York City: The hurry and scurry, the traffic and noise, the unbelievable food and magnificent music, the utterly spectacular people. The vibrancy and diversity and community that makes New York—more than LA or Chicago or anywhere else—the most American Dream place on the planet. Millions of American Dreams, bumping against each other, intertwining, making something wholly new. A reverie of striving and hustling and creating and awe. All in the shadow of Lady Liberty, who still means hope to people around the world.

In this contemporary beginning, New York has just awoken. It—and its people—have created the momentum necessary to transform it from a city to a city, an indelible place with its own sentience that will change the course of the stars. But births are never easy and as New York awakens it inhabits the body of a homeless boy, now tasked as the avatar of New York, who must battle for her life. He does, and he wins, for now. But the fight drains him and he needs the avatars of New York’s five boroughs to take their places and do their parts, before a monstrous invasion kills the nascent city.

And with that, a young man coming to New York for grad school steps off an escalator in Penn Station, onto the ground of Manhattan for the first time, and forgets his dang name. Because, much to his confusion, he’s now Manhattan, borough of money and assholes…

The City We Became is both tone poem and set piece, both paean to the wonder of the people of New York and Jemisin masterfully—and propulsively—moving her pieces around in preparation for book two. City is equal parts character and plot. The Bronx’s aging artist, Queens’s young immigrant striver, Brooklyn’s defiant MC-turned-mother-turned-politician, all BIPOC—and Staten Island’s insular white girl. An extrapolation of the Greatest City in the World from the granularity and individuality of its people. If you’ve ever thought people are beautiful, not in that glossy magazine way, but in their wrinkles and dreams and mistakes and kindnesses, this is very much your book.

But this isn’t just a tone poem, not just a tribute to the people of New York or even New York herself: This is a book with something bold and brave to say. Because when New York awakens, when she is at her most vulnerable, aliens invade. Like a virus, they spread, from person to person, taxi cab to bus, appearing most often as white, worm-like tendrils that will make you squirm. Our newborn heroes don’t know what they are or how they work or what they even want, but Jemisin’s Lovecraftian invaders are squishily insidious.

Most creators would stop there, reveling in having written a tour de force of character building, a terrifying villain, and a compelling plot about saving the newly sentient city of New York. But Jemisin is Jemisin: She takes her Lovecraftian invaders and specifically and inexorably tangles them up with Lovecraft’s bullshit. In one memorable scene, white supremacists, infected with tendrils, attempt to kill The Bronx with artwork that depicts an explicitly Lovecraftian (read, racist) take on New York City. The Bronx knows it—and equally importantly, we know it. Jemisin won’t settle for simply celebrating New York: She’s going to destroy those who would destroy it.

In the end, here’s why, for me, The City We Became surpasses the perfection of The Fifth Season: City is unrelentingly ambitious. It’s bold and brave and brilliant. It’s a shining work that makes you want to stand up and be counted alongside New York’s fiercest defenders. But it refuses to play by anyone’s rules: Not speculative fiction traditions, not an editor’s or a publisher’s idea of what sells, not your rules or mine. It’s unconstrained in a way that I don’t think The Fifth Season, for all its perfection, was. The City We Became is messy. It’s damp and dirty and joyous and right in your face. It’s very human. And very New York.

Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and handles strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president of a major media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape, plans literary conferences, bakes increasingly complicated pastries, and reads 150 books a year. She is a co-founder and current co-chair of Sirens, an annual conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, flagrant ambition, and a well-planned revolution.

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Dissonant Chords

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Hallie Tibbetts reviews Suzanne Collins’s A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes!

In 2008, at a book fair, I got an advance copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and then stayed up all night in what I remember as the dirtiest hotel room in all of Los Angeles reading it. Once, twice, maybe three times a year I run across a book that completely transports me and, when I’m finished, leaves me with the disorientation of falling out of the story’s world and back into my own. The Hunger Games was one of those reads. I’ll spare you the details of the room, but recall for you how it felt to be completely immersed in the story of a girl whose simple desire to save her sister became an uneasy attempt to save her world. Of a girl who wanted no part of heroism, but chose a path of survival, rebellion, and protection of others over and over.

When a prequel for the series was announced, it was rumored that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be Mags’s story. I was on board for finding out how Katniss’s octogenarian ally in the 75th Hunger Games achieved victory in the 11th, and then went on to be a mentor who volunteered in the place of others. But it was not to be: Songbirds and Snakes is instead set during the 10th Hunger Games, and about Coriolanus Snow, the president and main villain of the original trilogy.

I lost interest completely.

As it happens, though, I was given a copy of Songbirds and Snakes this summer. I work in publishing, and am always buried under my to-read pile; it’s sometimes enough to know the gist of a juggernaut for comparison titles and cocktail parties, so I still didn’t plan to read this book. Curiosity eventually won out. Consternation kept me reading.

Coriolanus Snow, Coryo to his closest friends, equivalent to a high school senior, lives with his cousin and grandmother in a once-glamorous penthouse apartment. His parents—a general and a woman described as vapid—are dead. His cousin picks up a little tailoring and fashion design work; his grandmother has embraced the Capitol’s propaganda. Soon, an increase in taxes will force them out of their home, which is a great embarrassment to Coriolanus. He struggles, at times, with memories of the war. The cannibalism. The bombings. The way his family fell from being wealthy to just hanging on (a fact that he hides through indelible charm, but he won’t be able to keep up the charade for much longer).

From the beginning, there are hints of Coriolanus’s affluenza, and of his seeming inability to truly see any other human as his equal. At first, his detachment can be excused by his care for his remaining family and the psychological consequences of the atrocities he witnessed. Still, early on, he describes his cousin as the sort of girl who “invites abuse.” For a moment, I was breathless, seeing that so blatantly stated. Why would an author whose work I respect allow this character to promulgate something so untrue? It takes a while for Coriolanus’s character to become clear, and for it to become clear that Collins intended this callousness as a defining trait. Coriolanus believes his cousin “invites abuse” because he understands abuse. Other people are not individuals. Their lives are not precious. Here is a boy who would never, ever volunteer as tribute.

This is where my readerly consternation comes in.

We already know that Coriolanus is a villain; we have the rest of the story, and we know there is no possibility of redemption. I question, very much, whether we need more stories of how young white men become villains. You can try to say that we have to unravel the reasons, that we have to understand the downward spiral so we can prevent it. You can say that there are infinite tales in this trope alone. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all.

And yet, I found myself wishing to see Coriolanus at an earlier point in his story because I wanted to see what makes him choose, of all possible paths, the ones that lead him to his eventual end. Maybe I wanted to feel how his love for his family prompts his decisions—but then again, I don’t want any more stories of women dying to give a man purpose, or even portrayed as incapable of playing some part in their own rescue. Collins avoids this to an extent; cousin Tigris is hustling to start her career, and it’s hard to fault the grandmother for clinging to the post-war regime for her survival when a broken elevator means she can hardly leave her crumbling building. It’s a long way, though, from scrambling for a leg up to becoming the leader of a country that sacrifices children for entertainment—the circus for Panem—and then I think: I don’t need any more stories that show a villain’s fraudulently reasoned choice to be evil. I can turn on the news and be inundated with that right now. But we’re not meant to have a reader-character connection, at least not at the beginning. Where The Hunger Games uses a compelling first-person narrative, The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds follows Coriolanus in a surprisingly cold third. Collins keeps readers at a stiff arm’s length, and—perhaps too kindly—gives us insight into his mindset, but doesn’t let us get too close.

Something Suzanne Collins does very well is incorporate the dark side of media into her stories while asking readers to critique their own engagement as consumers. (I speak about the books, and not about such things as movie tie-in makeup product campaigns where one can purchase a palette of Capitol-inspired eye shadow without ever considering the absurdity of the optics.) During the 10th Hunger Games recounted in Songbirds and Snakes, the games have been flagging. Coriolanus and his graduating classmates are selected to act as the first ever mentors, and the one who mentors the winner will receive a full ride to university, something Coriolanus desperately wants to leverage for salary and security as well as to cover up his family’s depleted finances. The mentors get a taste of fame when they’re interviewed to break up the coverage of the less-technological (almost analog) competition of the time. The longer a tribute stays in the games, the longer a mentor stays on TV. Even a bad death is good publicity when you understand the power of the screen.

The students are also tasked with coming up with ways to add excitement to the games. Some of the excitement invents itself: Rebels bomb the arena, creating hiding spots that allow the tributes to survive longer than the previous bare-bones venue allowed. But the government solicits the younger generation for new audience engagement schemes; their ideas spin the games toward the future high-tech nightmare. Coriolanus offhandedly suggests betting on the tributes, and this becomes a new initiative that brings in money for the government while ensuring the odds won’t be in any tribute’s favor.

The tributes, too, must work the public’s magnanimity. Lucy Gray, the underdog tribute from District 12 who Coriolanus suspects is assigned to him so that he will lose the games, is a singer, an entertainer—a master storyteller—who is so charismatic, one wonders why Coriolanus of the future doesn’t immediately suspect Katniss Everdeen of manipulation. Of course, for Coriolanus, no one else could be as clever as he. He cannot see that he is a teenager, lacking a mentor, raised in a world with little compassion, blithely throwing out ideas for the games with no regard for humanity. There are no adults in his life who ask him to analyze the results of his ideas for inherent harm, only those who encourage stripping others of their autonomy.

All of Coriolanus’s machinations would be stifling to read about if not for a secondary character that I more than once wished were the protagonist instead. Sejanus Plinth moved to the Capitol from District 2 as a child after his father became wealthy. Though Coriolanus sees the Plinths as hopelessly backward and sneers at their new money, he secretly wants their comfort for himself. Sejanus is, in Coriolanus’s mind, naïve to care about class differences and rebellions when fitting in is the path to safety and power. I’d also have enjoyed the story of a small group that included Sejanus and Coriolanus working through the difference between what they’ve been told to believe in the Capitol and the truth of their world, because realization and awakenings are central to young adult literature and also themes that follow people throughout their lives. Because, again, as we all know, Coriolanus is choosing villainy, and Sejanus is choosing something else.

And, again, it’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t read about villainy, or tragedy—and it is a tragedy when any one of us refuses responsibility to care for others—but why this?

I’m a fast reader, but it took me two months to read all of Songbirds and Snakes; I stalled out just past the halfway point in frustration (and, admittedly, due to life events, social media overload, too much bad TV, work deadlines, a surfeit of email, overdue personal projects, and other distractions). In the meantime, I zipped through a copy of Goldilocks by Laura Lam, which engages with some of the questions I’d been turning over in my mind while trying to figure out the why of this prequel, and that prompted me to finish my read and review project. Surely, there had to be more to Songbirds and Snakes.

I picked the book back up as the 10th games come to a close and Lucy Gray is named victor. Coriolanus should be fine—he’s passed himself off as a clever and kind soul. His education will be paid for. The girl he grew to love over the course of the games (oh, you expected that, didn’t you?) lives. Then, a moment when he gamed the games comes to haunt him. Not all is lost, as he becomes a Peacekeeper to avoid punishment, and asks to be assigned to District 12. It’s not the life he wanted, but perhaps he can make something of it with his love nearby. The reality of life in the districts and the monotony of the military seems at times a soporific routine and at others brings the despair of a bleak, dull, and impoverished future—and then Sejanus reappears. Sejanus, instead of being a model for Coriolanus, is an unwitting catalyst for Coriolanus’s beliefs. Coriolanus doubles down: “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” (343)

As Peacekeeper duties begin, and Coriolanus witnesses his first death at the hanging tree of song in The Hunger Games, he wonders how the rebellion, distant then and underpowered now, survived on anger instead of might. He knows that there used to be a District 13 and it is gone, so he believes that rebellions can be truly stamped out if there is a big enough show of power. The toxicity in him grows. He patrols, gun in hand. In District 12, poverty is everywhere, and he finds it reasonable to blame the poor for their plight. He sees why the Capitol should send money for property over people. It’s Sejanus who questions the Peacekeepers, and as before, Sejanus’s compassion perversely causes Coriolanus to dig in his heels, deny his own misgivings, and further embrace authoritarianism.

In spare hours, Coriolanus spends time with Lucy Gray’s (found) family, the Coveys, a tight-knit group of performers that get by, in their way, with strength and grace. Their story incorporates both old and invented Appalachian music, a real hidden gem for series readers, as we find out how some of Katniss’s songs came to be. Music nerds might know that Appalachian music has many influences, and that late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians avidly traced back snippets of song to sources overseas. Even when the memory of origins was lost, the rhythms and melodies and lyrics remained. In Songbirds and Snakes, the inclusion of songs nods to the other books in the series, set in the future, while reminding us how easily the past is wiped away.

History lost—and suppressed—is doomed to be repeated, and it’s bittersweet to see the cycle of loss and erasure in this plotline.

But back to the Coveys. Even surrounded by a working collaborative effort, Coriolanus can’t comprehend how humans might be kind to one another without force; he thinks that only authority can prevent a descent into disorder. Perhaps that’s the tragedy—the distrust, the lack of empathy, the anger at losing control over others. Perhaps you know a tragedy yourself.

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that Coriolanus takes brave actions for himself that also betray the people he claims to care about. I sometimes say that the challenge of being a human is pretending you aren’t an animal. It’s Lucy Gray who sums up for me how one can fail this choice: “You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.” (493) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins’s exploration of what happens when one doesn’t care about the right side of the line, especially when good is in danger of being usurped by evil.

It’s in the last pages that I finally find the gut punch, leaving me dazed. Coriolanus is smart. Arrogant. He believes himself exceptional. As a child, I was all of these things; you can draw some weird conclusions from praise and success stories. While I didn’t grow up to be the tyrannical leader of a country that sacrifices children, there is a frightened part of me that recognizes the desire to be in control, to be perfect, to save myself first. I didn’t grow up to be an abjectly horrible person, so what nudged me, over the years, to be more open minded, to be kinder, to lick my wounds and learn from mistakes and try to do better next time?

I don’t have to look far to see people operating with an open lack of empathy and every bad trait I could have exemplified. Every terrible, miserable, alternate-reality version of me.

If someone had known how to tap into my deepest, unspoken fears and offered me everything I wanted, would I have taken their hand?

There it is. Suzanne’s Collins knack for drawing us into the actions of others, and reminding us that the filter of entertainment is no excuse. We must constantly, consistently ask if we are complicit. And we must keep choosing to be on the right side of the line.

G – Bb – A – D.

Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator. On occasion, she tweets: @hallietibbetts

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Chelsea Cleveland on The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power

There is a certain type of book that I call a “chicken noodle soup” book. It’s a delicious escape; a beautiful little world that you want to return to when you catch a cold or a wave of homesickness. From a quick glance at the book flap, you might think Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that sort of title. It is not. But—in an entirely different way—it’s just as nourishing of a read.

Alderman’s latest comes out of the gate with a premise fit for any YA blockbuster. Something strange is happening, not just here, but around the globe. At first, it just seems like a rumor. A mad internet fad. Videos edited with special effects. But it isn’t long before the truth becomes impossible to ignore. More and more young women are developing a remarkable new power: an ability to generate electrical charges. And they’re not just creating electricity. They’re learning to use it.

We see the resulting shifts in the social and political landscape primarily through the eyes of four characters: Roxy, the illegitimate child of a UK crime boss and one of the first few to experience the power; Margot, a midwestern mayor and the mother of a teenage daughter with a secret; Tunde, a Nigerian college student who documents the growing turmoil from behind the lens of a camera; and Allie, a young woman who receives guidance from a voice in her head.

While the plot centers around these four individuals, the real story—and truly the most fascinating part of the book—is the author’s exploration of power and gender.

With the simple twist of giving women the ability to create electricity with their hands, Alderman overturns a key differentiator between men and women: physical power. And this one change affects everything.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens. It’s best if you discover it yourself. I will say that while this isn’t the first title I’ve come across where supernatural abilities were attributed to one gender, I have never seen it done with such gut-punching impact or specificity. It’s a specificity that actually makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

There’s no denying Atwood’s influence on The Power. Even if you didn’t know Atwood and Alderman had been paired though a mentorship program, the literary giant’s book blurb—a cheeky “Electrifying!”—is prominently displayed on the novel’s cover. I was particularly reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale in a couple of ways: the intimacy of the book’s setting (a breath away from present day) and the manner in which the most shocking fictional events were clearly and purposefully inspired by things that have really happened. It’s something Atwood has talked about as a guiding principle and as a reader, you can feel how the truth in these details gives a speculative work a terrifying sense of realism.

The Power is not a title that I would recommend anyone turn to for comfort. On the contrary, it’s at once foreign and yet unsettlingly all-too familiar. Instead of finding myself reading straight through until sunrise as I often do, this was a book that I frequently closed, put aside, and contemplated. It’s a book with ideas that inspire discussions and debates outside the context of the characters and events. It’s intriguing and conceptually satiating. Rather than chicken noodle soup, I’d call it something else. Maybe quinoa or kale. It’s a nutrient-rich brain food that sticks with you and keeps you thinking things over long after the last pages have been turned.

Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.

Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”


My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.

Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

We Ride Upon Sticks

In the fall of 1989, I was not a senior in high school, but in my last year of junior high. I didn’t live in coastal Massachusetts, but in western Michigan. I didn’t play field hockey, but rather softball and volleyball—and a year later I starting running cross-country and track.

These differences between me and the girls of We Ride Upon Sticks are, however, mere details in the grander scheme of things. Because Quan Barry seemingly wrote this book for me.

As We Ride Upon Sticks opens, it is, indeed, just about the fall of 1989. The girls—and one boy—of the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team are utterly terrible. So terrible that, at sports camp, they make a pact with the devil: a devil that, in Barry’s endlessly hilarious work, is embodied by a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. Tired of losing games, and with all the vagueness of people who haven’t yet learned the necessity of precision, the players ambiguously commit themselves to the devil in exchange for a winning field hockey season.

The Salem witch trials loom large in We Ride Upon Sticks, and not only in the title’s witchy, pithy reference.

In 1692, Danvers was known as Salem Village, just down the road from the more affluent Salem Town (now known as just Salem, home of the famed witch museum and annual Halloween celebration). The original accusers were residents of Salem Village, and the what and who and why of the witch trials is steeped into the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team from birth. It’s no coincidence that, when the girls look to the supernatural for help on the field, they turn, as their forebears allegedly did, to the devil. But the critical themes of the Salem witch trials—discussions of power and expectations and conformance—are threaded through We Ride Upon Sticks as well.

Barry’s work is structured around the 1989 field hockey season, from summer camp to the state championships, with a brief epilogue decades later. The story arc is nominally that field hockey season—and how, to maintain their success, the girls must perform increasingly bad acts to sate Emilio. Things start small—a lie, a cheat, a prank—and escalate over the course of the book as the girls attempt to reap the continued success of their bargain.

But this book is about so much more than a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. The narration—cleverly crafted as first-person plural, simultaneously committing to the team collective and bringing the reader along for the ride—jumps from one game to the next, and from one player to the next, without losing the forward momentum of the story. We start with Mel, who is the first to strike a bargain with Emilio, and her suddenly magnificent goalkeeping at summer camp. As the team improves, we meet co-captains Abby Putnam (descendant of a Salem accuser) and Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached and hairsprayed bangs, called the “Claw” by both the book and the team, has a mind of its own). We learn about Girl Cory, who has a stalker, and Boy Cory, who is queer, and Becca, who has very large breasts and all the issues that come with them, and adopted Julie, who now wants to be called Julie Minh to represent her heritage. We spend time with all of these players and more, with their insecurities and unhappinesses, their goals and skills, their families and frustrations.

And that’s the thing about We Ride Upon Sticks: The girls perform bad acts to placate the devil, and while the book is initially sympathetic to the framing of those acts as bad, that frame gradually shifts—even as the magnitude of the acts escalates—until things that were initially “bad,” things girls “shouldn’t” do, instead become acts of self-affirmation.

The relentless feminism of We Ride Upon Sticks is the inexorable recasting of societal transgressions as undeniable reclamations.

Emilio, it seems, doesn’t want you to be bad; he wants you to be you.

Assuming, of course, that Emilio is the devil in the first place. We Ride Upon Sticks never quite answers if the Danvers Falcons women’s varsity field hockey team has actually made a deal with the devil or if, instead, their collective belief supports the notion that they need to be “bad”—and that their societally-imposed construction of “bad” ultimately leads them to a place of self-discovery. But in the end, do we really need to know? The thrust of We Ride Upon Sticks isn’t any of these girls’ relationship with the purported devil, not in any significant way. The thrust is their personal journeys toward independence and freedom.

In 1989, I was in eighth grade. I lived a small town. I was an athlete on a series of mostly terrible teams. We Ride Upon Sticks was true for me, with all the force of nostalgia. Despite that the age is slightly different, the towns are half a country away, and these girls played one of the only sports I never did, these girls’ experiences are my experiences. Barry reconstructs my early 1990s youth, with its two-a-day workouts and Kool-Aid hair dye and lacey prom dresses, with its endless rules and “good girl” notions and inequalities, through a 2020 feminist lens. And she does so incisively, seemingly effortlessly, with a number of epiphanies along the way.

But that doesn’t mean that We Ride Upon Sticks works only for sports girls from small towns who are currently fortyish. We Ride Upon Sticks is two things: First, terrific fun. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and not only for those who get the in-jokes and the cultural references. Barry’s insight is acute and she uses that to tremendous, hilarious effect. Second, it’s uncompromising in its feminism, in finding a feminist story through a thirty-years-later lens. Barry’s insight serves her—and the reader—here as well, as you relive an earlier time through the contemporary analytic eye of someone who really, really gets it.

This is the best book I’ve read so far in 2020. And I’ve already read over 100.

Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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