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Book Club: Fen by Daisy Johnson

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!

Fen

Some days, I aspire to a more feral version of myself. To respond with fang and claw to admonishments to be more civilized—to calm down, stand down, take it down a notch. To be nothing more or less than my prodigious unfettered aggression.

Which is to say that, at a visceral, atomic level, I get Fen. I know this work in my bones and my fangs and my claws. I know this work in my violence and my solitude. This work and I met, bloodied and snarling, under a sliver moon in the wild.

This work and I know each other.

Maybe this work and you know each other, too.

Fen, by Daisy Johnson, is a collection of twelve short stories, each more feral and fantastic than the last. These stories come with titles like “Blood Rites,” and “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” and “How to Fuck a Man you Don’t Know.” The titles are reflective of the work: a warning, a red flag of blood and bruises and fucking. You may not be ready for what you find here.

All of these stories revolve around the fen, an unnamed portion of Great Britain that is purportedly still wild, still free, still full of strange things that don’t go bump in the night so much as crawl into your bed, shaped like a fox or a cat or a girl, and worm their way into your bones. You may never be the same after what you find here.

But what Fen is really about, beyond its wildness and strangeness, is what men take from women. The quotidian existence of attention paid, and assurance granted, and bruises formed, and sex reluctantly given. The collection’s determined, insistent feral-ness is a furious reaction to all the desperate time and energy women spend trying to manage men’s demands: our smiles, our acquiescence, our sex, our blood. Attention must be paid, Willie Loman, but in Fen, it might come with fang and claw.

In “Starver,” a girl, trying to achieve impossible beauty standards, starves herself—perhaps accidentally, but perhaps not—until she turns into an eel. Is she happier as an eel, slim, sleek, and glossy? You tell me, and further, if so, tell me why. Did she finally get the form she wanted? Or did she finally escape the constraints of societal expectations?

In “Blood Rites,” three beasts, jittery from living on raw meat, consume men, gore and all. But they find themselves with those same men’s vile words in their mouths, demanding their attention, even after death. You would think death would be enough to finally get men and their words to leave you alone.

In “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle,” which can—and perhaps should—be read in juxtaposition with Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, a jealous house consumes Salma’s lesbian lover. While the house isn’t explicitly gendered, come on, that house is a dude.

In “Language,” a mother can’t live without her newly dead son, so she brings him back. But after death, every word he utters bruises his wife. The wife loves him—of course she loves him—but every single thing he says harms her. He doesn’t mean to—of course he doesn’t mean to—but that doesn’t change the hurt. Even one bruise is too many.

In “A Heavy Devotion,” a son’s growth robs his mother of her memories, both emotional and practical. She becomes a shell of herself, unable to recall even her name. Finding that his mother has nothing more to give, her son leaves—and pieces of her world slowly return.

In “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a woman wants to be left alone with a fish and even that’s too damned much to ask.

Fen is for when you’re ashamed, when you’re furious, when you’re desperate to regain just a piece of yourself from the daily exhaustion of being a woman in a world founded on men’s demands. Fen is for when you’re told you’re too loud, too shrill, too bossy, too big, too much. Fen is for the days of blood and bruising and fucking, when you need to remember that you’re dangerous, too. Fen is for your fangs and your claws.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Mishell Baker’s Borderline is like Real World: Fey Los Angeles

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Mishell Baker’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Nivair H. Gabriel on Mishell Baker’s Borderline.

Borderline

There aren’t nearly enough grumpy, disabled heroines in fantasy literature. As a woman who’s lived with mental illness for the better part of thirty-one years, I’ve frequently felt bereft when roleplaying my favorite protagonists in my head. They don’t need to pack their daily medication when they go on quests. In their critical face-offs with villains, anxiety never triggers their most unhelpful stress response. Their bum knees (I have those too) never collapse in the heat of battle. I can follow their adventures from a distance, but implicit in the trends of these stories is the assumption that I could not have adventures of my own.

Not so with this book. Reading Borderline, for me, was relatable escapism at its finest from moment one. Protagonist Millicent Roper begins the story in a psychiatric center, where she’s sequestered herself after a suicide attempt that left her with two prosthetic legs and scars both literal and figurative. (It did no good for her pre-existing Borderline Personality Disorder, either.) An enigmatic, unflappable recruiter named Caryl shows up to offer Millie a ticket back into the film industry and a place to stay—and then Caryl disappears, in the blink of an eye. When Millie’s therapist warns her away from Caryl with more urgency than she’s ever shown before, she seals the deal. That’s how Millie finds herself at an eclectic mansion with the Arcadia Project, a ragtag crew of former mental patients that would make an incredible season of Real World: Fey Los Angeles.

Yes, Millie’s Hollywood is full of fey: not just fairies, but vampires, goblins, muses, and even the odd changeling, all surveilled by the Project. Her first assignment with too-gorgeous partner Teo is supposed to be a simple errand, but it turns into a missing persons case that soon points to a massive fey conspiracy. It turns out fairies and celebrities are mostly one and the same, and Millie’s the perfect person to deal with them; after her promising early career and sudden estrangement, she’s equal parts savvy about and enthralled with the fey and famous.

Mental illness is also an ideal qualification for a human working in the world of magic. Having lived through the particular hells of a chronic mood disorder, traumatic brain damage, and psychiatry, Millie has more than enough honed survival skills to handle supernatural danger. She’s always keeping track of her “Reason Mind” and “Emotion Mind” and practicing “distress tolerance”—familiar concepts to anyone else who’s been in dialectical behavior therapy. The constant thought-churning of a person who has to fight their own brain to survive is not unlike the hypervigilance required of a magical private detective.

Millie’s disabilities, though, don’t give her superpowers; she’s not a shallow trope. The iron in her prosthetics does neutralize fey magic, but that’s inconvenient or irrelevant as often as it’s convenient. Her journey is not about soothing an ableist world. In fact, she frequently points out its flaws: “As wrong as it is, people in wheelchairs don’t get treated normally by strangers. People see the chair first and wrestle with their discomfort, then their guilt over their discomfort.” She’s also careful to note that she’s not immune to socially instituted prejudice herself when she meets a new roommate who is a little person, and then when she meets that roommate’s boyfriend, who is Black: “I felt intimidated, then guilty about being intimidated, torn between the white liberal fantasy of color-blindness and the stereotypes I’d been fed my whole sheltered life.” Baker’s clear commitment to nuanced, three-dimensional characters and careful evasion of harmful tropes show that she’s not just trying to write inclusive literature—she’s trying and doing a damn decent job.

More than anything else, what I yearn for in writing is voice, and Borderline has that in spades. Baker has not only crafted a protagonist with the richly developed, complex layers of an award-winning tiramisu; she’s also woven Millie’s singular personality into every line of her narration. At one point, Millie notes, “It had been a long time since I had been awakened by a sunrise, and I’m one of those rare people who adores it. I love a day I haven’t screwed up yet.” Her cynical rejoinders make me snicker, but her sarcasm carries a self-aware vulnerability that both surprises me and secures my loyalty.

Somehow I haven’t yet mentioned the nimble pace of this novel. It’s the kind of swift delicious that’s my reader brain’s favorite and my writer brain’s worst nightmare—it takes who-knows-how long to create, but you could devour it in an afternoon. Or in an evening, say, when you suddenly realize you have twenty-four hours left to write a review of a book you read a very full two years ago. If you’re anything like me you’ll tell yourself to skim, but end up just plain reading . . . and being so very glad that this time, you’ve got a copy of the sequel on the shelf right next to you.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Book Club: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

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!

A Dash of Trouble

So often, fantasy books—even feminist fantasy books—are about women claiming men’s power. Seizing a throne held by a man, perhaps. Cutting down a sword wielded by a man, often. Sorcery taught by a man, sometimes. Dominance stolen from a man during sex, occasionally. As if power comes only in masculine forms. As if in order to gain power, we must rob men of theirs: take their leadership, their weapons, their knowledge, their seed. As if the only path to power is the one they chose, they covet, they permit.

And that’s all fine, I suppose, though not nearly enough attention is paid to breaking down those particular patterns in fantasy works. But I frequently grow weary of those same tropes, those same plots, those same imbalances and authorities and uprisings.

Which is to say that I have a soft spot for fantasy books about traditionally feminine skills made magic. There’s something compelling about taking our foremothers’ crafts—baking, singing, knitting, and thread-spinning—and rendering them magic. It’s a ready metaphor for claiming our stories and our power, not in traditionally masculine ways, but in the traditionally feminine ways we have always used to survive: through sisterhood and secrets and a damned good loaf of bread.

(Side note: You can imagine the incandescence of my rage when these books about traditionally feminine skills made magic feature a male protagonist mastering those skills to save a damsel in distress. But that is a whole different book review or twenty.)

Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble, the first book in her Love Sugar Magic series, overflows with brujería de la cocina. Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas. And from the first chapter, the book gathered me up with scents of cinnamon and cardamom and baking bread and sugary cookies—not to mention the fact that Leo’s mom is the businessperson of the family, the one working, working, working to achieve her dream of owning a larger house down the street from her Amor y Azúcar Panadería.

People, I was smitten.

Please, fantasy authors, give me more women with small businesses born of everyday magics. Give me more women who, on the page, are spectacularly resourceful in bookkeeping and customer service and magic. Give me more women with big business dreams and big family dreams and big dreams that they’ll achieve through hard work and smart business and just a bit of magic. Please, fantasy authors, please?

Eleven-year-old Leo is part of that family of big dreams, the youngest of five sisters—and her frustration is palpable: She’s the youngest, the one with the fewest freedoms and responsibilities, the only one who isn’t fluent in Spanish, the one who has to go to school while everyone else gets to stay home and prepare for the bakery’s Day of the Dead celebration. Even as she clings to her much-loved childhood traditions, like dressing up for Halloween, she wants so badly to be grown up, to be taken seriously, to have responsibilities equal to her older sisters, and to be part of whatever secrets her family is telling in Spanish.

So she does what any eleven-year-old protagonist full of curiosity and vexation would do: She sneaks out of school to spy on her family. Leo has more than a dash of Claudia Kincaid and Trixie Belden.

What she discovers through her spying is her family’s magia: The women of her family, including her four older sisters, are brujas: They can influence emotions, make objects appear from nowhere, and commune with the dead. And all those “lucky” cakes that Amor y Azúcar Panadería sells? Well, they really are lucky.

When Leo’s best friend Caroline has a falling out with another friend, Leo finds the perfect opportunity to prove—mostly to herself—that she’s just as smart and responsible and grown as any of her sisters. So she and Caroline start solving Caroline’s problem with spells, spells with hilarious, unintended, regrettable consequences. Spells with consequences that maybe Leo can’t fix on her own. Consequences that might cost Leo her best friend. Consequences that Leo might, gasp, not be able to hide from her mom.

A Dash of Trouble deftly navigates all those minefields of being eleven. Of still finding comfort in rituals and objects that you increasingly see as babyish. Of wanting to be given more responsibilities and more freedoms and more independence. Of just knowing that you can tackle anything, solve anything, fix anything—until you can’t. Of walking that tightrope between being a little kid and growing up, even as those who know you best don’t even notice that you’re bigger and braver and bolder than you were even last week. Of learning what responsibility really means, and what being a good friend and a good daughter really means, and what fixing your mistakes really means, even among a series of truly unfortunate events.

What I loved about this book—even more than its baking magic, even more than its panadería-jefe mom—is how active Leo is. Things don’t happen to Leo; she happens to them. She makes decisions, good and bad: She sneaks out of school, she convinces Caroline to cast spells, she fixes her own messes (with a bit of help from her dead abuela). Leo is a girl who gets shit done. And when you get to the big showdown between Leo and her mom, after her mom unravels everything that’s happened, Leo’s mom is equal parts exasperated that Leo didn’t tell her before and proud that Leo was independent enough and resourceful enough and determined enough to fix her own mistakes. Leo is more than my kind of heroine: She’s the sort of heroine that I give to my seven-year-old niece as she learns to navigate her independence and her mistakes and her power.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Read Along with Faye: Books I Read for the 2018 Reading Challenge

Success! After not meeting my goal last year, I’m proud to share that I’ve completed this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge: 26 books. Because it’s a reunion year, I had more books to read than a usual Sirens year—often, I’ve already read a few of the books on the required theme list and can get a bit of a boost. But with four themes to revisit, I was forced to abide by the asterisked rule per category: books I’d read previously, and authors I’ve read previously, were ineligible. That Amy Tenbrink, she’s sneaky.

Reading Challenge Collage: Faye Bi
*Unpictured: Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, as I made this list prior to the change. But I have read it, though!

Here are some stray observations I offer to you, fellow readers, which you are welcome to discuss with me in the comments or in person at Sirens:

  • Novellas reign supreme in adult fantasy and science fiction. I like reading them, and publishers seem to like publishing them. Perhaps readers like myself—and publishers putting them out—are catching on that you don’t necessarily need a doorstopper to get a great fantasy book. It’s no surprise I chose to read them for this challenge; they’re quicker to read, are the perfect length to truly explore a concept and focus on craft, and you can really sink into it over short stories (some of which are over too quick!). Some of my favorite reads this year were novellas: Passing Strange and The Black Tides of Heaven.
     
  • I’m hard to impress in YA. YA has been rough for me for the past few years now. I refuse to lower my standards for YA books, having worked in children’s publishing for the last eight years. I have my favorite standbys, Laini Taylor and Megan Whalen Turner, who are ineligible for the challenge. Contemporary YA has been really exciting lately; I think I’m looking for diversity, worldbuilding, and craft in fantasy YA, and I couldn’t quite find a book this year—by a new author eligible for my challenge—that hit all three.
     
  • More pictures, please. One of the best books I read this year was The One Hundred Nights of Hero, which I’m a little surprised seems under the radar (or maybe it isn’t and I need new book friends?) But I didn’t get as much graphic novel love as I did last year, and I miss it.
     
  • I need to pace my reading for next year. What happened, inevitably, is that I inhaled all the books I was looking forward to reading at the beginning of 2018, and then stalled, and stalled, until late August when I realized I still had ten books left to go, none of which I was super looking forward to (though there were some surprises!). Because if I had, I would have read them earlier. It made for a pretty frantic last month.

The quick five-question survey, modified for reunion year.

Favorite Book: Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which matches the rage I so often feel, especially this last week. Probably the best book I’ve read in the last five years, if I’m being honest.

Favorite Reunion Category: This is a tough one. Rebels and revolutionaries is my favorite theme that we’ve ever had, but this year, all the hauntings books I read were pretty great: The Walls Around Us, The Memory Trees, and Sing, Unburied, Sing. Followed by lovers, a category that was never really my favorite—but I loved The One Hundred Nights of Hero and Passing Strange.

Favorite New (Or New-to-You) Author: Angela Slatter and her collection A Feast of Sorrows. This is how you write a collection of fairy tales!

Favorite Female/Nonbinary Character in a Book: Mary and Ada in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, because they complement each other beautifully and are so freaking awesome. Also known as the Most Delightful Duo.

Book that wasn’t what you expected: Food of the Gods was certainly the biggest surprise, as it’s the most absurd. I also had expectations going into Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Poisoned Apples, and Caraval, which none of them really met. I was also a bit surprised by The Geek Feminist Revolution, which I very much enjoyed, but seemed to be written primarily for a writerly audience that I am not part of.

Here’s the full list of what I read:

Guest of Honor Books: Required

Kameron Hurley, The Geek Feminist Revolution
Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel (read in a previous Sirens year)
Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours (read in a previous Sirens year)
Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone (read previously)
(also Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad)

Hauntings Books: Pick Three

Nova Ren Suma, The Walls Around Us
Kali Wallace, The Memory Trees
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

Revolutionaries Books: Pick Three

Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough
Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes
Christine Heppermann, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Lovers Books: Pick Three

Isabel Greenberg, The One Hundred Nights of Hero
Heidi Heilig, The Girl from Everywhere
Ellen Klages, Passing Strange

Women Who Work Magic Books: Pick Three

S. A. Chakraborty, City of Brass
Rin Chupeco, The Bone Witch
Mary Rickert, The Memory Garden

Middle Grade/Young Adult Books: Pick Five

Melissa Bashardoust, Girls Made of Snow and Glass
Lindsay Eagar, Hour of the Bees
Stephanie Garber, Caraval
Jordan Stratford & Kelly Murphy, The Case of the Missing Moonstone
Ibi Zoboi, American Street

Adult Books: Pick Five

Cassandra Khaw, Food of the Gods
Fonda Lee, Jade City
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Angela Slatter, A Feast of Sorrows
J. Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven

Now please excuse me as I read all of the sequels and author favorites in the next month before the 2019 challenge comes out!


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Read Along with Faye: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass

The premise of Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass is stunning: a feminist retelling of Snow White where the queen stepmother and the princess are pitted as rivals, but realize they are more similar than they are different. They eventually recognize each other’s strength and power, and rule the realm together. If someone gave me this elevator pitch, I would ride it all the way up to the penthouse! It’s certainly why I picked this up in the first place.

And that is partly the reason why I was so lukewarm towards the actual execution. It feels as if someone had said, “Hey, do you know what would make a really great book?” but then only gave an outline—or fable, perhaps?—instead of a full-length novel. The outline is pretty good: in a cursed land where the snow falls year-round, Mina has married King Nicholas after the beautiful queen dies, now a stepmother to his infant daughter. Though their marriage is loveless, Mina has ambitions of her own, and plans to build a university in the South, where she is from. Lynet grows to be sixteen, the absolute spitting image of her late mother, and seen by everyone—her father the king, the council, etc.—to fill her delicate, dainty shoes in both looks and personality.

But here is the twist, and it’s a good one. Mina and Lynet are actually close. Lynet wishes to step outside of her dead mother’s shadow and be her own person; Mina has always wanted that for her, even though her husband the king would rather his daughter copy his dead wife. They have a well-established mother-daughter relationship at the beginning of the novel, even when everyone else expects them to resent each other. More yet, they both share a secret: Mina’s heart is made of glass, fashioned by her magician father Gregory, and Lynet—well, Lynet was created by Mina’s father as well. The former queen did not die after giving birth to Lynet… Lynet is fashioned completely from snow. As a consequence of such magic, both Mina and Lynet have power over their glass and snow respectively, including the power to conjure and shape inanimate objects and animate beings.

While the magic is not particularly well fleshed out—Lynet conjures a cloak from snow, but can she create food that’s truly nourishing? Does vanishing something mean it’s destroyed? How do you create organic matter out of thin air? Etc. Etc.—it does have a crucial limitation: life requires blood. Gregory gave his own blood to give Lynet a pulse, so yes, she is a real person and not a hollow body like the Huntsman, and that’s the only indication of magical cost and the crux of the novel’s conflict. But given the misunderstandings galore in this novel, one truly wonders why either Lynet nor Mina didn’t just conjure a bird with a message to fly to the other person and get this Shakespearean drama (including a fake death!) sorted out once and for all.

Ultimately, however, my biggest complaint with Girls Made of Snow and Glass is the lack of specificity. The setting, for instance, feels incredibly generic, lacking the details that make Arendelle Arendelle, or Winterfell Winterfell. We know it’s cold, and there’s a curse. Most of the court politics and personality descriptors are told rather than shown, and while they’re relevant to the main plot, they feel like unsatisfying filler. So, the reader must hinge on something else, perhaps the characters? Well, there are only five characters total: Mina, Lynet, the king-who-eventually-dies, Mina’s magician father with his own motives, and the young surgeon, Nadia. Seven if you count the Huntsman and the head Pidgeon/court lady whose name I forget. As such, it feels small. That means that a lot of the novel is focused on the inner lives of these characters and their emotions—is my stepmother planning to kill me? Who could ever love a girl with a glass heart? I was going to sell you out but you changed everything for me!—without any textual examples to sink into and make me actually feel those emotions.

Still, that said, there is plenty to like in Girls Made of Snow and Glass. Bashardoust was successful in pacing two perspectives in different timelines—contemporary Lynet and past Mina—and weaving them together for the last act. The romance between Lynet and Nadia is a lovely idea, but the focus between Lynet and Mina is front and center, as it should be. It reminds me much of Malinda Lo’s Ash, with much of the same strengths and flaws (great, underrepresented premise, yet lack of specificity in setting, characters, and plot). I can only hope that, as Bashardoust’s first novel, her subsequent efforts will be more what I’m looking for in my reading.

Next month: A recap of Faye’s 2018 Reading Challenge!


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Book Club: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Like Water for Chocolate

In 1989, when Like Water for Chocolate was first published, I was 13. I was reading my mother’s mysteries and bodice rippers, where the girls were either, respectively, dead or had to be told how much they wanted sex. I was consumed with my own perfectionism and already worried about achieving perfect grades, perfect attendance, and perfect extracurricular activities in high school, which I wouldn’t even start for another year. I did not read Like Water for Chocolate when it came out.

But maybe I should have.

In certain Spanish-speaking countries, the phrase “like water for chocolate” means “furious.” Often, in those countries, hot chocolate is made with near-boiling water, so the simile is, essentially, so mad that one is boiling over, rage-filled, livid. And Laura Esquivel’s book is so much like water for chocolate: a scalding, blistering work of fiery passions and violent anger and ultimately, literal conflagration.

Widowed Mama Elena has three daughters: Gertrudis, Rosaura, and the youngest, Tita. Like Water for Chocolate is Tita’s story, born of Mama Elena’s insistence that, as in family tradition, Tita never marry and instead stay home to take care of her mother. As with life, instead, Tita is the first of the girls to fall in love, instantly and fervidly with Pedro, who promptly appears in Mama Elena’s living room to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses, of course, and instead offers Rosaura to Pedro, who…accepts. Pedro’s reasoning is that, by marrying her sister, he can be close to Tita. Tita is predictably heartbroken and bakes her sorrow into Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feast, causing sickness and, ultimately, a magical realism river of vomit.

Like Water for Chocolate, while purportedly told in monthly segments full of recipes and cooking tips – as befits Tita’s passion for cooking – in fact covers over 20 years of Tita’s life: her love of Pedro; Gertrudis’s escape from the household (another magical realism moment of unquenchable passion that culminates in a naked race into the desert and sex with a stranger on a horse); Mama Elena’s death (and haunting of Tita); and finally Tita and Pedro’s eventual consummation of their passion, only to have Pedro’s orgasm cause his death – upon which Tita, unwilling to let him go, creates her own death, burning the ancestral family ranch to the ground in the process. Does that sound like a lot? That’s not even the half of it!

Like Water for Chocolate is, even more than Tita and Pedro’s story, Tita and Mama Elena’s. Tita is, fundamentally, a creature of her mother’s making: selfless, abused, oppressed, a perfectionist. The first story in the book is about Mama Elena refusing Tita’s heart’s greatest desire, not because Tita is too young or even that Pedro isn’t suitable, but because Mama Elena wants someone to cook her food, draw her baths, and care for her ranch. Like Water for Chocolate is a slowly accelerating burn, lit when Tita is refused Pedro. The book is Tita’s, as she discovers her agency and how to use it, but every action she takes is in reaction to her mother, her mother’s literal ghost, and her mother’s legacy in Rosaura’s beliefs about marriage, dignity, and eventually, her own daughter staying home to care for her.

Mothers are powerful. As we grow into ourselves and our feminism, so much of that growth is in reaction to what we learned from our mothers. Whether we were encouraged on that path. Whether we were told to be selfless and put our mothers, our fathers, our husbands first. Whether we were taught that cooking, cleaning, and sewing were fundamentally about caretaking. Whether we were taught to suppress our passions, physical and otherwise. Whether we were told that we had to be perfect.

Like Water for Chocolate is that book. It’s about a daughter’s journey as a reflection of her mother’s influence. It’s about finding her own agency and her own path–but always in reaction to what she learned from her mother. Tita’s situation is perhaps extreme–as Esquivel likely intended–but even without violence or a boyfriend given to a sister or a ghost, her story will be so familiar to so many of us because Tita’s story is, ultimately, about her boiling point: her rage, her passion, her reclamation that, in the end, is all about burning it all down.

I didn’t read Like Water for Chocolate at 13, but maybe I should have.

Like Water for Chocolate is a quick read. Twelve chapters, one for each month of a figurative year, each with a Mexican recipe important to Tita’s life. Esquivel is primarily a screenwriter, and it shows, as the book does a lot of telling rather than showing. If it were a longer book, perhaps the writing would be a more significant deterrent, but at a very quick 250 pages, it’s worth the time, if only for a moment of contemplation on how much of what we do, even today, is in reaction to our mothers.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Read Along with Faye: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

Each year, Communications Director Faye Bi attempts to read the requisite 25 books to complete the Sirens Reading Challenge. In 2018, a Reunion year, she’ll be reading books from the past four years’ themes: hauntings, revolutionaries, lovers, and women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. If you’d like some structure—or company—on your own reading goals, we invite you to read along!

The Memory Garden

As in much capital-L Literary fiction, Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden is light on plot but heavy on atmosphere. Let’s set the scene. In a nondescript (Midwestern?) town, people believe the old woman in the cottage with the wild garden may, or may not be, a witch. Nan’s garden is described absolutely beautifully: wild, a life of its own, full of thriving plants that shouldn’t really thrive, in orphaned shoes thrown by passers-by. Each chapter begins with a flower or herb, as well as their practical, magical or medicinal use.

Though well-past her childbearing years, Nan has a teenage daughter, Bay, who she chose to raise when Bay appeared on her doorstep in a shoebox as a baby. And as Nan turns 79 at the outset of The Memory Garden, she invites two very old friends, Ruthie and Mavis, for a visit. The reason is unclear… but it’s evident that all three are haunted by what happened to their girlhood friend, Eve, and they have not seen each other in a really, really long time.

And here, dear reader, is where I interject with, maybe I’m just too young to appreciate this book as it deserves. In my review of Her Body and Other Parties, I talk a little bit about landmark books: the books that influence and shape you because you found them at just the right time in your life. Maybe I’m too early with The Memory Garden, because while Bay is only fourteen or so, she was my lens into this story. She also has no idea why, after all these years, her mother has invited these old friends over. She knows her mother is acting oddly—grappling with guilt and memories—but she doesn’t really know what’s going on, except that Ruthie is really good at cooking and Mavis is really imposing and confident. She hears the line, “How do the girls with dreams as big as the world end up old women with regrets?” but doesn’t quite understand why it’s so heartbreaking… yet. Or when she deduces what actually did happen to Eve, only to have Nan tell her, “You young people know so much more about these things than we did.”

But The Memory Garden is told from Nan’s perspective, not Bay’s. And I did love having Nan’s point of view. She’s so incredibly guarded and complex as a character, and the number of secrets she keeps from the reader (besides what happened to Eve), like: Who is Mrs. Winters? Is Bay actually a witch? means that the novel is structured much like a mystery. And while I did find it somewhat difficult to connect with Nan, Ruthie, and Mavis, I still cheered for them, felt sad for them, and wanted them to forgive, grow, and heal. I wanted Mavis to get to go to Africa! I wanted Ruthie to open her restaurant and get revenge on her bastard husband! (She did.) I wanted Nan to make peace with her decisions—not all of them good ones—but knowing that they were in good faith. I definitely fist-pumped Mary Rickert’s author’s note where she sets out to reclaim the word “witch” as a positive one, as witches are maligned throughout history for being eccentric, old, outsider women with power.

While I very much enjoyed Rickert’s poetic language, plant symbolism, strong female relationships, rich descriptions of food, and subtle hints of magic, I can’t help but shake this feeling of determined neutrality. It was fine! It was good! It was… familiar, and not precisely in an exciting way. It was slow-going at first and somewhat confusing—with the multiple uses of present tense in various timelines—but once the mystery began to unravel I found myself racing until the end. It did not feel particularly intersectional. I hear that fans of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this, but having read little of either I can’t make an official recommendation. Maybe ask me in a few decades, and I might have a different answer.

Next month’s book: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust


Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

Sirens Review Squad: The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, in honor of Violet Kupersmith’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Alyssa Collins on Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel.

The Frangipani Hotel

In “Boat Story,” the first story of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, a granddaughter asks her grandma for a story she can use to complete a school history project. Over an overripe papaya, grandmother and granddaughter have the following exchange:

“What kind of story did you want me to tell you, con?”

 

“I’m after the big one.”

 

“Oh dear.”

 

“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”

For me, this exchange frames the entire collection. Eventually Grandma does tell a story, just not the right one. By the end of the telling (and I won’t spoil it for you) Grandma has introduced her first rule of Vietnam and consequently the first rule of The Frangipani Hotel: “it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.” This slight of hand is the magic of the work. In nine vignettes, Kupersmith builds a world that expands outward from her mother’s homeland of Vietnam across the Pacific to the urban United States, and back again. Yet, just like Grandma, Kupersmith resists giving readers stories they expect. For the majority of US readers (of which I am a part), any working knowledge of Vietnam and Vietnamese culture is wrapped up in a history of colonialism and conflict. To tell that story, the story we ask for would be to limit a place and its people. Telling the expected story locks Vietnam into a historical moment and a geographic place, but for Kupersmith’s characters, Vietnam is always simultaneously central and peripheral, past and present, whole and fragmented, a place to escape from and to return to. It is always with you and impossible to know if one is truly free of it. And it’s within the movement between these binaries of place and time that ghosts, magic, and horror blossom.

I really loved this collection! The beauty of it is that the stories are literary popcorn. While reading, I wanted to dip in for just one more mouthwatering story. And there a moments that are literally mouthwatering. (Everyone eats in these stories, making it my kind of book!) Kupersmith uses dishes, like bánh mì, bún bò, and egg rolls, to anchor the unfolding of stories. Thus, the telling and consumption of stories (and by extension of history, culture, and ancestral knowledge) is inexplicably intertwined with the preparation and consumption of food. The moreish quality doesn’t end with the descriptions of delicious food and its consumption; it’s also built into the shape of the tales with stories building to or past climaxes in unexpected ways. Violence and monsters lurk in the wings of the stories just as often as they feature on the page. The storytellers in Kupersmith’s stories stop and start, or divert their stories in surprising directions, and often it’s the anticipation of action that fills out the dénouement. This structure drew me in over and over even as the stories themselves would end.

The particular wonder of this collection, for me, is that unlike a light and salty snack these stories are laden with questions about being, history, and pain. They grapple with what it means to carry intergenerational trauma, to deal with the remnants of foreign invasion and colonialism, to immigrate and assimilate. But the stories are never heavy; they move quickly, aching with equal bouts laughter and horror. We easily move from the urban hunting grounds of a parched river spirit with a hankering for white men (“Reception”), to the rural bamboo backyard of cursed twins (“The Red Veil”), to the clever nursing home machinations of a mother trying to convince her busy daughter to visit (“Descending Dragon”). And that’s to say nothing of the folkloric elements. The monsters in Kupersmith’s folktales are often just as bewildered, as unstuck in time and place, and as angry as their human counterparts. They are difficult to summarize, but leave quite an impression. The one image that has stayed with me is of a woman surrounded by black flies. She has white markings on her fingers and is carving bread for the perfect bánh mì. Covered in flies, she continues to cook, hanging between worlds, neither fully living nor fully dead.


Alyssa Collins is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Virginia and a 2016-17 Praxis fellow in the digital humanities. Her work explores the intersections of race and technology as depicted in 20th century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she’s not writing her dissertation she writes about race, superheroes, television, and embodiment around the internet.

 

Book Club: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

The Book of Joan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the exchange between reader and writer.

I think we’re taught that if, as a reader, we didn’t connect with a book, it’s the writer’s fault. The writing wasn’t good enough. The story wasn’t true enough. The writer failed. And we, as readers, get to go on our merry way to other books that, maybe, wouldn’t fail us.

And before all the writers start fist-pumping and the readers start thinking that I’ve spit in their tea, there’s a lot of truth in that. Some writing isn’t good enough. Some books aren’t true enough. And while I wouldn’t say that writers necessarily have failed us, sometimes books do.

But sometimes, readers fail, too.

A few years ago, when Sirens tackled “hauntings,” and I read an awful lot of books about ghosts, I ran across a quote from Edith Wharton, herself a great lover of—and writer of—the ghost story: that she was conscious of a “common medium” between author and reader, where the reader actually “meet[s] [the author] halfway among the primeval shadows …” And I, who had been reading all of these ghost stories in sterile hotel rooms with their sterile lighting—which, in no one’s estimation, had any primeval shadows—took a moment to realize that, if I wanted to be scared by ghost stories (I didn’t), then I really should change my reading location (I didn’t). A stormy lamp-lit night might be a better breeding ground for the imagination required to truly appreciate Shirley Jackson than the New York hotel room where I actually read The Haunting of Hill House.

Which is a somewhat ridiculous example because, as many Sirens well know, my interest in ghost stories approaches zero. But this is true in a number of other instances as well. If writing doesn’t engage the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the writing, but a failure of the reader’s focus. If the book doesn’t seem true to the reader, maybe it’s not the quality of the book, but a failure of the reader to recognize someone else’s truth. Or, you know, maybe it’s just a bad book.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Which brings me to The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Let me start by saying, categorically, that this is not a bad book. It’s a good book. I just had a hard time deciding if it’s a great book.

As a reader, I bounce hard off most sci-fi. It’s not you, sci-fi, it’s me—except dude, it is so often you. Someone asked me recently if I liked The Stars Are Legion, and I made a face and said that, while I respect it greatly (I do) and I think it’s a great book (I do), I also found it very damp. (Not that fantasy can’t be very damp, too.) My best friend tells me that I read the wrong sci-fi; I tell her that the right sci-fi seems somewhat unicorn-ish, not to mix metaphors.

To add insult to injury, I read most of The Book of Joan on a plane (usually fine) seated next to a toddler who very much wanted to talk about his big red truck (somewhat less fine). He was quite well-behaved, given that he was being asked to sit quietly in a seat for four hours. But he was chatty. So, so chatty.

And finally, maybe it wasn’t the right year for me to tackle The Book of Joan, which is fundamentally about, not to put too fine a point on it, the end of the world as we know it, a bossy totalitarian dude, and a Joan of Arc character who is supposed to either end the world or save it (sometimes it’s hard to tell). Maybe this year I could use some more escapism in my escapism?

But, all that said, even taking into account the many, many ways in which I failed The Book of Joan, I think it’s an important book, a good book … but not a great book. Let’s discuss.

Several decades in the future, war has devastated the earth and remaining approximation of humanity—virtually genderless, colorless computer ports—lives in a space station named CIEL. Our first narrator, Christine, has just turned 49, which means she’s a mere twelve months away from being recycled, if you will. As she begins her last year of existence, she also begins what she thinks will be her last act of resistance: telling the story of Joan, literally burning the words onto her own body.

Joan, you see, was the leader, the figurehead, the most visible of the “eco-terrorists,” or alternately the revolutionaries, the losing side in the war. (To the victor go the spoils and also the definitions.) When Joan’s side lost, Jean de Men (seriously), the leader of the winning side, had her burned at the stake—a method suitably flashy and final. Joan’s story remains in the hearts of those who resent Jean’s rule, and Christine intends to take this to the extreme, echoes of Joan’s fiery demise burned into Christine’s post-apocalyptic flesh.

SPOILER

But Joan didn’t die at the stake. Her friend and most constant companion, Leone, saved her, only for the two of them to wander the ravaged planet, alternately avoiding and fighting the other few thousand remaining people. As Joan’s story converges with Christine’s, an uprising, a second apocalypse, a re-birth, if you will, happens—and much is made about how the earth has survived much, though humanity as we know it has not. END SPOILER

The Book of Joan is largely experimental, vaguely feminist, with thinly explained worldbuilding, a non-traditional narrative structure, shifting points of view (made all the more confounding by the fact that both Joan and Christine use “she”), and tenuous timelines. So much of it is, more than anything, resistance-as-performance art, in a Russian nesting doll sort of way, as the climax of the book literally hinges on Christine’s performance art.

And for once—and I may never say this again—I wanted more book with more explanation. I didn’t need more plot, but I did find myself wanting more understanding, more details. How did we turn into neutered, hairless, space-dwelling creatures only a few decades in the future? How did our technology evolve so quickly? How did Leone save Joan from the stake? In many ways, this reads less like sci-fi and more like a religious text that demands that we accept things on faith—which may well be the point.

Which is the (very) long way of saying that, in the end, The Book of Joan worked for me (sometimes) as commentary, as an interrogation of faith and humanity and truth, but rarely worked for me as a story. The sole exception to that, incidentally, was Joan’s relationship with Leone, which gutted me several times, for many of the same reasons that Maddy and Queenie’s relationship in Code Name Verity gutted me. The denouement of The Book of Joan feels right and good and heartbreakingly terrible.


Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Sirens Review Squad: Mirage by Somaiya Daud

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Casey Blair on Somaiya Daud’s Mirage.

Mirage

I love stories about bold girls who forge their own paths and throw off conventions. I love stories full of action, with space battles and magic duels and sword fights. I love stories about talented, skilled women, shining at what they do best.

Somaiya Daud’s debut novel Mirage isn’t one of them.

There is so much to love in Mirage. (The lone exception, ironically, being the romance, which for me was the least interesting part.) I love its rich setting, a fantasy Morocco-inspired culture in a world with intergalactic travel. I love how deeply that culture suffuses every part of the story: the prose woven through with poetry, the complicated female friendships and family relationships, the structural use of mimicry to examine appropriation, the allusions to female historical figures as symbols of inspiration—not just the warrior queen, but also the prophetess whose power endures in words—and the incisive critique of the long-reaching effects of colonialism across multiple axes.

But here’s what’s truly remarkable about what Daud has accomplished with Mirage and why I will be yelling at everyone (I do mean literally everyone) to read this book forever:

This is a story that poses the question, who are you when your oppressors can erase your face, your family, your history, your language, your culture? What can you do that matters?

And Mirage’s emphatic answer is that you do not have to be a uniquely talented bold girl who bucks tradition in order to deserve to be at the center of stories.

Early on, our protagonist Amani tells her captor that aside from speaking both the language of the oppressors and the language of the oppressed, she has no other skills. As far as her captors are concerned, this is absolutely true, though they don’t understand why that should give them pause. They don’t understand why they should fear a girl who can bridge understanding between people from different worlds. A girl who can make her culture and her people real and seen and valued to those who participate in its erasure, and who can understand her oppressors well enough to change their course. Her greatest asset is not her hidden knowledge of poetry, or the incredible attention to detail she’s forced to develop to imitate the princess, or the sharp-tongued court cleverness she learns to deploy on her own behalf.

It’s her capacity for empathy.

For Amani, finding joy in objectively terrible circumstances is worthwhile in its own right, not something to be ashamed of; happiness is rebellion, too. Although Daud is careful not to excuse those responsible for victimizing others, Amani doesn’t limit that desire for happiness to just herself or her people. And while she is a dreamer, she’s not exempt from the realities of living under conquest, which makes her bravery in trying to make her dreams reality all the more powerful.

Amani chooses to embrace tradition when the world shaped by her oppressors belittles her into discarding it. She clings fast to caring about other people rather than closing herself off. She doesn’t take the expected path, be it revolution or assimilation. She considers what she can, in fact, do, given her many but unique constraints, and she resolves to do what she can.

I will tell anyone and everyone to read Somaiya Daud’s quiet, powerful story for its beautifully wrought characters, its resonant worldbuilding and prose, its centering of the representation of women (including mothers and old women, be still my beating heart—they can exist in fantasy worlds and matter) and people of color, and its profound rendering of colonization and its complexities. Any of those would be enough to make Mirage one of the best books I’ve read.

But more than that, what makes Amani special is her compassion coupled with action. Mirage is a story in which that alone is not only special enough—it’s more important than anything.


Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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