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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 Equivel’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 Equivel 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. Equivel 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.

 

Read Along with Faye: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford

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 Case of the Missing Moonstone

One word jumps to mind when describing Jordan Stratford’s Wollstonecraft Detective Agency novels, which is: delightful.

But here are some others: freaking adorable. Positively charming. If these books were animals, they’d be big-eyed puppies, ones that I would want to snuggle forever. The first book, The Case of the Missing Moonstone, introduces our two heroines: precocious, socially awkward, and brilliant eleven-year-old Ada Byron, and adventurous, emotionally intelligent, story-loving fourteen-year-old Mary Godwin. Stratford has reimagined the world’s first computer programmer Ada Lovelace and the world’s first science fiction novelist Mary Shelley as young girls who form a secret constabulary apprehending clever criminals in 1826 London—and, more importantly, as best friends.

While an author’s note at the end of each book explains the liberties Stratford has taken with the timeline—real-life Mary was eighteen years older than Ada—as well as the numerous homages to the time period, historical figures and various Easter eggs, young readers will be won over by Ada and Mary themselves. Both tutored by Peebs, an in-disguise Percy Shelley who remains a friend of Lord Byron but with no funny business with Mary, the two decide to form a detective agency, named after Mary’s deceased mother (of course the famed Mary Wollstonecraft). When Ada discovers a thing called the newspaper and that only unclever criminals get written up as they’ve gotten caught, she locks poor Peebs in the distillery closet while she and Mary take on their first case—clandestinely, of course! Book nerds will delight in the fact that their case is based on the very first detective novel published in English in 1868, The Moonstone.

Stratford has rendered Ada and Mary wonderfully. He’s captured Ada’s mathematical genius and isolation, with references to her BLE (Byron Lignotractatic Engine), her friend Charles Babbage, her hot air balloon, her illness (in later books), and her evident difficulty with names, people, and social situations. Mary then, is her foil: not just older, but empathetic, keenly aware of social interaction, and with a drive for drama and Romanticism. The Watson to Ada’s Sherlock, except better because these are tweenage girls who are very, very choosy about their cases! They must be interesting enough to keep Ada’s attention, and—as she is brilliant and easily bored—run-of-the-mill cases just will not do.

I must say, I barely got to enjoy Kelly Murphy’s illustrations, as I listened to all the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency novels on audio with voice actress Nicola Barber’s expert narration. (A glimpse of the illustrations in a library copy confirmed they were super cute!) Barber captures Ada’s willfulness and Mary’s reason, Peebs’s lilting confusion and Charles’s (yes, that Charles Dickens, I didn’t realize until the end!) wry humor with variety and skill, with different regional accents for the servants (northern, of course). Listening to the first book was such a pleasant way to pass the time, I immediately downloaded the next two books.

If I had any complaint, it would be that—except for the references to the Georgian period and technologies of the time—there is no reason that Ada and Mary need to be based on real-life Ada and Mary, given the liberties taken with the timeline and characterization. Ada doesn’t really use her mathematical prowess to solve any cases, but rather her logic and reasoning skills. The references, though, are a huge part of the series’ charm, and their lives are so reimagined it certainly feels more like fiction than real-person fanfiction. Even more so when the cast enlarges with book two, The Case of the Girl in Grey, bringing on Ada’s sister Allegra and Mary’s sister Jane—real-life Jane was actually real-life Allegra’s mother.

The publisher has compared the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency books to the Mysterious Benedict Society and Lemony Snicket, which, I guess, if you’re going to go down the puzzle-solving mystery novels for middle graders lane, makes sense. I found it better than both of those series, and the voice spiritually similar to Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia, but for a slightly younger age group. Similarly charming. Similarly delightful.

Next month’s book: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert


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 Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

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 Kameron Hurley’s Guest of Honor week here at Sirens, we welcome a review from Manda Lewis on Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

The Stars Are Legion

Pungent. Can a story be pungent? That is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to describe this wonderfully brutal, disturbingly weird, and fantastically creative space opera set in an extremely oozy, sticky, slimy, living world-ship. I quite loved it.

In The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley gives us an epic journey of a damaged heroine who is trying to uncover her past as well as achieve a goal she doesn’t remember setting out for. Zan wakes aboard the world-ship with no memory of who she is, how she came to be there, or whom she can trust. The world-ship belongs to the Katazyrna family, who claim Zan as one of their own—although she seems more like a prisoner. The ruling matriarch, Anat, is attempting to conquer another world-ship owned by the Mokshi family, and Zan has been the main force in trying to achieve this, over and over and over again. The Mokshi, it seems, have the ability to move among and away from the Legion of dying world-ships—an ability the other ruling families desperately wish to control. Zan’s faulty memory is blamed on these repeated attempts to capture the Mokshi, but we’re left feeling like there is a much larger mystery to solve as she interacts with her supposed sister, Jayd. While Jayd refuses to provide answers, the narrative hints at a deeper history and relationship, as well as a dangerous plan that Zan must follow without fully understanding it.

A botched alliance lands Zan, near death, at very center of the world, a biological waste processing hold complete with recycler monsters. Zan finds herself in the company of a lost and discarded woman from another world, and a smart and cheerful engineer from a level above. Together they begin a harrowing ascension to the surface where Zan will have to decide if she is to carry out the scheme devised by Jayd and her past self.

This is where I fall in love with the story. Hurley’s vivid worldbuilding unfolds as we journey with Zan though the many levels of the world-ship. It’s wildly imaginative and kept me curious for what could possibly be next. The world-ship itself is fascinating; I found myself trying to imagine how the mix of technology and biology evolved to the point of creating this life-sustaining environment. One of the details I particularly liked was that the all-female population aboard the ship gives birth to things the world needs to sustain itself—not just children, but biomechanical pieces and so forth. The themes of birth, rebirth and reuse come up throughout in many ways. I am in the early motherhood years of my life, so all of the emotions and physicality associated with birth are still at the forefront of my mind. Grossness and bodily fluids are a part of my everyday life, so much of this text felt viscerally real and completely natural. This is what you deal with when keeping something alive—a person or a world.

There are so many more things that make this book an amazing read. The characters are complex and interesting women—many are unlikable or even terrible. Both Zan and Jayd are unreliable narrators, which keeps you guessing, mistrusting how you feel about them and wondering whether you want them to succeed. The various levels of the ship present different cultures and societal norms, and different ways of interacting with the world. There is also a plethora of ideas around identity, agency, and body autonomy presented throughout that make for great discussion.

The Stars Are Legion is, for me, an excellent blend of dark fantasy and weird fiction in a unique sci-fi setting filled with a strong cast of characters who have complex and often disturbing relationships. I enjoyed the ride, but it is not for the squeamish.


Manda Lewis holds a BS degree in aerospace engineering and a Masters of Tourism Administration, and served in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small humans who look like her and often have dragon tea parties. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. Manda has been a volunteer for Phoenix Rising, Terminus, and Sirens for the last ten years.

 

Book Club: The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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 Memory Trees

Once upon a time, the Sirens theme was “hauntings.” And there were ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night. We all read The Haunting of Hill House. We all talked for days about how, for more than a century, women disguised women’s issues as phantoms and shadows and slowly creaking doors. We all learned an awful lot about that liminal space where fantasy meets horror.

But that year, the aspect of “hauntings” that spoke to me was never the ghosts or the spirits or the bump-in-the-night things. Like everyone else, I did read The Haunting of Hill House. I did delve into its use of a supernatural manifestation as a proxy for Eleanor’s boundless mommy issues. I did marvel at Shirley Jackson’s cleverness and defiance. But I also failed to, as Edith Wharton might demand, meet Ms. Jackson “halfway among the primeval shadows”—and I couldn’t figure out why the book was supposed to be scary. After all, aren’t we all used to being undermined, shamed, ordered about? Even if by people who are perhaps more tangible? Is this because I read Hill House in a hotel room in Manhattan? Don’t @ me.

Rather, the part of the “hauntings” theme that resonated with me was the idea of being haunted by something somewhat less spectral: A family rift. A mistake made. A memory half-remembered. And then binding that up in a fantasy world, where magic is yet another, perhaps more limitless, opportunity to explore our more human connections. Such as in Redwood and Wildfire, where there are ghosts, yes, but where Redwood’s haunting is far more profoundly about overcoming her family’s history with slavery and lynching. Or in The Monsters of Templeton, which also did include ghosts, just a bit, but was really about trying to go home again and the roiling, barely-hidden monstrousness that you might find there.

Thus, why I chose to read The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace—and why I think it’s one of the best examples of both a non-ghost hauntings book, but also a fantasy book where the magic and the impossible provide another avenue of exploration. Let me tell you about it.

Sorrow Lovegood lives in Miami with her father and her step-family. But Sorrow has lived there only half her life: She spent her first eight years living with her mother in the matriarchal Lovegood family apple orchard in Vermont … until something terrible happened, something that Sorrow can’t remember, and she ended up in Miami. She has not been to Vermont, or seen her mother or maternal grandmother, since.

Sorrow is a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Her memories of her first eight years are hazy at best, blank spaces or even false at worst, presumably rendered by the terrible event that precipitated Sorrow’s move to Florida. Even better, Sorrow knows she’s an unreliable narrator. (And even better than that, Wallace avoids the trap of having her heroine, in the fog of her memory, focus single-mindedly on her frustration for several hundred pages.) Sorrow’s unreliability allows, neatly, for both a first-person point-of-view and a mystery to be solved.

Sorrow, driven by her muddled memory, suddenly demands to return to Vermont, to the apple orchard, to the mother and grandmother she hasn’t seen in half her lifetime. And thus, the book truly begins.

Wallace quite cleverly sets, and then frequently twists, the tone of Sorrow’s time in Vermont. Sorrow’s hometown is much like many small American towns, and Sorrow’s return in summer plays, deliberately, on readers’ (presumably) nostalgic memories of their own (presumably) happy vacations in similar towns. But, despite the tourists and the ice cream and the annual town play (focused both hilariously and horrifically on the generations-long feud between the Lovegoods and their neighbors), Sorrow’s time in Vermont is most certainly not a vacation. The more time she spends there, the more she remembers: the orchard’s sometimes uncanny intricacies, the often shocking family history, how suffocating a small town can be—especially when your family is just a bit different. Memory, you can almost hear Wallace assert—perhaps smugly as the reader attempts to deconstruct what is on the page from what their own brains have oh-so-unhelpfully supplied—is a powerful tool.

Much like in The Monsters of Templeton, Wallace sets most of her book in the present, but some of it in the past. Chapters are dedicated to the history of Sorrow’s family, from the point of view of her female ancestors who founded and then held the orchard against the neighboring family’s onslaught). These chapters give the reader insight into the history of Sorrow’s family—and equally importantly, the orchard itself—even as Sorrow begins to (re)learn her own.

In the end, both Sorrow and the reader learn what happened eight years ago, and without spoiling too much, the true lens of the mystery, of Sorrow’s missing memory, of the struggles of her family, both past and present, is grief. Over the course of the book, as she learns pieces of her memory that she has lost and then found, Sorrow’s heart shatters again and again.

The Memory Trees is, in turn, going to shatter your heart. It’s a harrowing portrait of grief, loss, and the very best of what a hauntings book can be—even sans ghosts.


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: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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!

Matilda at age nine. The Protector of the Small series at ages 12–14. Daughter of Smoke and Bone at 22.

These are landmark books for me, books that I found at exactly the right time in my life, that now comprise my reading identity. At each of these moments, they were definitive—formative, even. They represented not just what I liked to read, but what I looked for thereon after. At nine, I wanted witty, plucky heroines who were whip-smart and got revenge on mean people who didn’t understand or care about them. In my early teen years, I wanted strength against bullies, deep friendships and family relationships, and a strong ethical core in my protagonists. When I had just graduated college, I was unsure about pretty much everything—as an ambitious person who didn’t know what the next chapter held, I wanted beauty, magic, and a feeling of wonder, even if it was beyond my control. I still love all these books like I love my limbs.

These days, I have a full-time job, a spouse, and a dog. I have bills to pay, white supremacy to dismantle, and patriarchy to smash. My time is limited; between sharing (and negotiating sharing) household management, working, keeping up with our social calendar, and planning for the future, gone are the days when I could read 100 books a year. So, there are books I no longer pick up if I don’t have to: books by men or unwoke white women, books that are super sad or pretentious, or books that do the same-old, same-old.

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties is brazenly none of those things. The stories are punch-you-in-the-face, unabashedly feminist. Darkly hilarious. Sex-positive. Queer. Smart as hell. More often than not, brutal. Her protagonists are easy for me empathize with and to cheer for. The stories, as I suspect Machado does too as in “The Resident,” know exactly what they are and do not have the time—or patience—to beat around the bush.

Having just turned 30, I consider Her Body and Other Parties a new landmark book.

I could wax poetic about several of the stories, and indeed, I will be presenting a paper at Sirens on “The Husband Stitch,” so I’ll be brief here. I read it, then made my husband read it, and then waited until my (male) friend visiting for cocktails also read it. The symbolism, voice, literary and cultural references, raw emotion, and agony of truth made it one of the best stories I’ve ever read. “Inventory,” a catalog of the narrator’s sexual encounters set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, was so clever and tender I could only bow my head in awe.

Over and over again, Machado addresses the fears, insecurities, and horrors women and queer people often have. In “Motherhood,” a woman’s female ex-lover confronts her with a baby they’ve conceived, possibly out of their imagination. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” Machado creates a world where a pandemic renders no-longer-young-and-beautiful women invisible. (This one hit me like a metaphorical ton of bricks.) “Eight Bites” made me weep; as someone whose friends are starting to have babies, I can see just how fragile and toxic it can be to pass on your own self-loathing to your daughters. In “Difficult at Parties,” a young woman turns to pornography to cope and heal after her sexual assault. The only slight misstep, for me, was “Especially Heinous,” the Law and Order: SVU parody, which was funny after a few pages but went on a bit too long after that.

There’s too much to unpack in the confines of one review—each story deserves its own paper. There could be the running thread of gaslighting, body image, the female realm of domesticity, the influences of fairytale and folklore, or the grand tradition of ghost stories handed down by Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. For women and queer people, the fears in Her Body and Other Parties are a day-to-day reality, and Machado’s stories give them validity, truth, and wings. Of her collection, Machado said in a previous interview, “I think of it as surreal, liminal horror about being a woman or a queer person in the world.” For men, shut up. Listen. Believe us.

Next month’s book: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy


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: From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

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 Manda Lewis on Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire.

From Unseen Fire

I’m not saying that while finishing Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire that I donned a toga and took my meals lounging on a couch (chairs are so old-fashioned!), but I’m not saying that I didn’t either. I think those who know me know which is most likely.

At its heart, From Unseen Fire is a story about a woman discovering the depths of her own power, while overcoming abuse and repression to forge a new path instead filled with purpose and love. This is the story of Latona of the Vitelliae. Latona, a mage in the city of Aven who has spent years in the court of a vicious dictator, has traded her body for the protection of her family. When that dictator dies, she is free of his maltreatment and manipulation. Can she settle back into a loveless marriage of convenience and into the life of a noblewoman, supporting the political aspirations of her father, brother, and husband? It seems that the Goddesses who have blessed her with Spirit and Fire magic have other plans for her. Latona’s long repressed magic starts to manifest more powerfully, and with it, the drive to help her city and its citizens.

There were many things I enjoyed about Morris’s debut novel, which is part historical fiction and part fantastic re-imagining of a Romanesque republic. Aven is in a state of flux, as exiled leaders race back to the city in the wake of the dictator’s death. The Aventan society will have to weather rebellion, the threat of war, and political power struggles between several factions as it recovers from the terror under which it was living. I was easily pulled into the world with her rich descriptions of the city, its people, the architecture, the food, and even the fabric! Morris’s historical research shines through when showing us Latona’s day-to-day life, along with her family and several other power players in the republic.

Mostly, I was taken with the relationships between these players and how they affected the city. I enjoyed seeing Latona’s devotion to her two sisters and the interplay between them, as well as her new friendship with Sempronius Tarren, a recently returned senator who has his sights set on a praetorship and military power. In regards to Latona’s newfound power, Morris does a great job contrasting the support from Sempronius, her sisters, and the high priestess at the temple of Venus against the objections of her father, her husband, and the restraints of their society. I found myself asking: to whom will Latona acquiesce, and more importantly, will she follow her own heart?

I must admit, I did stumble a bit over the names of the many characters while reading, which sometimes meant I had to go backwards to remind myself who was whom. This made the early part of the book a little slow-going. Midway, I switched to the audiobook version, which helped me a lot with the pronunciations and keeping the characters straight. That said, their complexity lent to the historic authenticity and the Romanesque feel of the entire culture.

From Unseen Fire gives us an intriguing beginning to Aven Cycle, and Morris has much more to tell us in future novels. I look forward to seeing how Latona evolves and grows, both in her strength of magic and strength of character. I hope that we will see more of her working with the Aven people of different classes as she carves her place in the world; I also hope to see more of Sempronius, and how war and his growing relationship with Latona changes him. Then, the biggest question: will they do what they must to secure a prosperous future for Aven, or will it fall to ruin?


Manda Lewis holds a BS degree in aerospace engineering and a Masters of Tourism Administration, and served in the Air Force for seven years. She currently works for a children’s museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, hosting after-hours special events. She is also the caretaker of two small humans who look like her and often have dragon tea parties. Manda has always made it a habit to draw, color, and doodle on just about everything within reach and loves themes far more than anyone really should. Manda has been a volunteer for Phoenix Rising, Terminus, and Sirens for the last ten years.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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