News

Archive for book reviews

Book Club: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

The Monsters of Templeton

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 day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

Thus begins The Monsters of Templeton.

I read somewhere north of 150 books a year—and when you do that, you have the luxury of tackling books for any number of reasons. I don’t have to jealously guard 12 or even 50 available slots a year, cautiously filling them only with books that come highly recommended. I can read for any reason under the sun. For example, I’m notoriously a sucker for well-designed covers, sometimes for good and sometimes for spectacular ill.

This might, however, be the first time that I chose a book because of its first line.

But look at it. Just look at it.

Even putting aside my preternatural love of monster narratives—which we absolutely should not because my love is legion and we’re going to discuss this monster in particular—that’s a magnificent first line. There’s a gravity to it, a weight, around not just a return to Templeton, but a return steeped (steeped!) in disgrace. But there’s an absurdity as well, as you read on to the dead monster surfacing on the lake. Oh, the questions! Who is the protagonist? Is Templeton formerly home? What is this disgrace? How bad was it? What is this monster? Do you have a lot of monsters in Lake Glimmerglass? Are there monsters everywhere?

I had to know.

And that’s what hooks a reader, right? That need to know what happens next.

Well, it worked.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (yes, that Lauren Groff), is one of my favorite fantasy literature subgenres: the sort of adult fiction that is so literary and so real that the marketing team can readily sideline the fantasy elements, making it all-too-easy for booksellers to shelve it with the general market fiction. (Annoying!) Think Jesmyn Ward or Carmen Maria Machado or Violet Kupersmith, all of whom write fantasy works, but none of whose works live in the fantasy section of your local Barnes and Noble. (Someday, I’ll write an essay that starts with those three and then happily proceeds to Erin Morgenstern, then Helen Oyeyemi, then Cassandra Khaw, at which point we are well and truly down my very favorite rabbit hole.) The Monsters of Templeton lives somewhere in this procession between Ward and Machado: a number of ghosts, some magical realism-style conflagrations, and the aforementioned monster—but we’re wholly and resolutely in a thinly-veiled Cooperstown.

Willie Upton, an archeological doctoral candidate, magical only in the very slightest of ways, opens the book by returning to her hometown: Templeton, New York. The town is important, not only as a predicate for the plot that follows, but also as a foil for the larger, perhaps grander, sometimes more disappointing world outside. The book can suffocate: After Willie’s arrival, her story arc happens entirely in the town of her birth; only rarely does the outside world intrude (the occasional phone call, a single postcard, a number of scientists looking to examine the monstrous corpse). Those intrusions periodically remind Willie—and the reader—perhaps unwantedly, of Willie’s scholarship, her ambition, and her success navigating that outside world.

Willie’s reason for returning home—and indeed, her return home itself—is fraught. She’s had a (perhaps) ill-advised affair with her married professor, found herself pregnant, and fled her summer work in Alaska to return to the bosom of not only her single mother, but the hometown she hasn’t seen in years. Willie’s flight from Templeton was, in her mind, a necessity; her homecoming, even more so. Never underestimate the emotional trauma of returning to not only your family, but your tiny hometown, “steeped in disgrace.” You can never go home again, I suppose, until you think you have nowhere else to go.

Vi, Willie’s mother, is drawn unsympathetically in Willie’s first-person narrative: a hippie-turned-Baptist, a professional caregiver, a descendant of town founder Malcolm Templeton, a woman who (smugly) knows her daughter better than Willie knows herself. Upon Willie’s arrival home, Vi (cleverly) gives her academic daughter a research task: Discover who her long-secret father is. Vi tells her only that he’s a resident of Templeton—and also a descendent of the revered Malcolm Templeton. Willie the archeologist gets to work and uncovering her father’s identity becomes both mysterious plot arc and book structure: sections alternate between historical depictions of Willie’s ancestors and her modern-day discoveries of links between those same ancestors. It’s a clever conceit, but one that causes the book to lose steam about two-thirds of the way through; at that point, the reader yearns for a hastened pace, but the book stoically maintains its structure.

Willie, Vi and the rest of Templeton are written with a lot of sensitivity. Anyone from a small town will startle at Groff’s insightful depiction of both the unchanging sameness and the roiling, gossip-worthy drama. That same group of middle-aged guys runs around Templeton every morning, but the more Willie uncovers in her quest for her father’s identity, the more the reader learns about the scandals of the town’s past. That sameness and that long-buried gossip birth both security and contempt in Willie, but also provide an unexpected accelerant for a story of monsters premised on, of all things, familiarity. Harken back to that first sentence: Willie has gone home, but equally important, a monster has died.

For those of you looking for a “here be monsters” adventure, this is not your book. Instead, that dead monster is a ready metaphor for every small town and for Willie’s story in particular: those churning scandals—an affair, a death, a fire—made manifest and, not coincidentally, surfacing at last. Not an inapt parallel, once you stop to consider, and one that Groff mines to raw, honest effect. You can go home again, in the end, but heaven knows what you’ll find.

Amy
 


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 One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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!

We’re back, Read Along! January was cold (insert your favorite bomb cyclone pun here), it was dark (it’s finally still daylight when I leave the office, but barely), and it was bloated with the aftermath of rich holiday food and the promise of reading resolutions. I thought we would ease our way into this year’s challenge with Isabel Greenberg’s brilliant, irreverent, pure delight of a graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero. It’s perfect for long winter nights in a cozy reading chair and a big mug of tea, and it won’t take long to read—perhaps a few glorious hours if you can prevent yourself from being transfixed by every page—and it will be so worth your time to go back and savor it all over again.

The title alone might have you believe this is an homage to Scheherazade, and it is, in a way. The prologue starts almost more ambitiously: with the god BirdMan (gendered male, mansplainer extraordinaire, whom fans of Greenberg’s previous work The Encyclopedia of Earth may recognize) messing with a perfectly good thing a woman has created. In this case, it’s Earth, which was created by his daughter, Kiddo. She’s fascinated by these perfect humans she’s made, who grow up, eat, sleep, love, and eventually die. But of course, BirdMan, a foil for a certain kind of blowhard every woman knows, decides that Kiddo’s Earth is boring and that the humans should worship him instead. So he creates religion, which leads to disciples (who are . . . you guessed it, dudes) called the Beak Brothers and by the time the main story starts, Earth is a weird medieval theocracy-dystopia ruled by the patriarchy. Sigh.

It is in this world that the heart of the story begins. Two dudes, real POS dudes, decide (of course!) that they should have a bet. Manfred bets Jerome that he can seduce Jerome’s wife Cherry while Jerome is away for hundred days. Jerome is like “omg no way, my wife is way too faithful, she’s the pinnacle of purity blah blah let’s compare dick sizes” (not an actual quote) but needless to say, they make this bet and Manfred starts his quest. Little does he know that Cherry is totally in love with her maid, Hero, who is part of the League of Secret Storytellers. Hero does the Scheherazade thing where she saves Cherry from Manfred’s advances each night by weaving a tale he’s desperate to hear the end of. And Manfred, because he’s a cocky dude, just goes, “oh, well I’ll just rape Cherry the next night, no biggie” (also not an actual quote) except this happens for all the nights until Jerome comes home, because Hero lives up to her name.

There’s so much more I could say about Hero’s stories. They’re lovingly illustrated, and Greenberg draws from folklore, mythology, ballads, and fairytales. There’s the story based loosely on the Twelve Dancing Princesses, one based on the child ballad Two Sisters, and one where a man falls in love with the moon and she just goes, “Oh, well I’m the moon. What did you expect besides heartbreak?” (still not an actual quote). Stories of women who lived their lives defiantly, despite jealousy, rage, forbidden love, and accusations of witchcraft; stories of super brilliant, crafty women who find ways to resist and fight back against the oppression they’re expected to endure; stories of “brave women who don’t take shit from anyone” (actual quote). Stories of women who paid for it.

There’s a kind of dark humor and light sadness Greenberg’s gorgeous book portrays in the fantastical, whimsical illustrations. Her the dark line art and limited palette aren’t unlike those of Emily Carroll or Kate Beaton, but I find Hero and Cherry’s clapbacks harder and funnier. And yet for me, there’s so much truth to these stories not-so-buried under the rapid-fire witticisms each page offers, like these gems (all actual quotes): “Lesson: Men are false. And they can get away with it. Also, don’t murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important.” And “Whatever we say will make no difference. Our fates are set. They always were.” And my favorite, “No, I’m not finished yet. I’ve had quite enough of staying quiet thank you very much (sic).”

I won’t say too much about the ending, but Hero and Cherry live in a dystopia, and things don’t always turn out the best for women who dare to dream beyond the confines of their societal roles. Still, their actions and legacy spark something greater-a storytelling revolution among the women of this weird beaky world.

It’s hard to imagine another book that speaks as strongly to Sirens’s themes as The One Hundred Nights of Hero. Present in it are lovers, revolutionaries, many tales retold, various women who work magic, and probably more if I think about it hard enough. Save it for a particularly tiresome day when you’ve had enough of, oh, everything, and you need to rail against another ridiculous, unconscionable patriarchal standard. Or read it again, using Hero and Cherry’s strength as a balm when you need to feel inspired and a little less helpless about the world. You won’t regret it.

Next month’s book: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


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: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Bloodprint

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!

Several years ago, Sirens featured a guest of honor who wrote one of my all-time favorite books. Despite not being a please-sign-my-book person generally, I sentimentally dragged my copy of this book to Sirens, and in asking the author to sign my copy, mentioned that I really loved their book.

This guest responded, quite drily and certainly correctly, that they had been sitting in the Sirens community room for two days listening to me talk about how much I loved all the books—with a strong implication that we were discussing but one book in an apparently very large pool of beloved literature. This is neither here nor there, but I did eventually convince this guest that there is love and there is love, and got them to sign my bloody book.

But, you know, they weren’t wrong. I do love many books. And upon reflection, I have come to realize that I do not love them in many different ways, but rather in three very specific ways.

Sometimes, I love a book because there’s something about it: world-building, perhaps, or a certain character, or the writer’s craft. The other elements of the book might be nonsensical dreck, but if I love an individual element or two enough, the book and I are good to go. Last year, memorably, I wrote a review of Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns in which I wished for more coherent world-building and more competent characters and more stringent editing—and then proclaimed my love purely because in the end all three of those hatefully incompetent girl characters made bold, ambitious, hateful choices. Brava, I said, as I fell in love with a book whose world-building, characters, and writing style I did not like.

Other times, I love a book because it tells a good story. Maybe this is because of its world-building or characters or writing, or maybe this is essentially independent of those elements, but sometimes a book invites you to journey with its characters in a way that feels adventurous or relentless or shockingly human. These books are, I find, often compulsively readable. Perhaps A Crown for Cold Silver, where you’re halfway done before you take a breath. Or Bleeding Violet, where I would have followed Hanna and her unreliable narration and her weird hellmouth town anywhere.

But the best books, for me, are the books that—putting plot and characters and story aside—have something to say. They may also, and often do, have great plot and great characters and great story, but they’re something more: an exploration of gender, maybe, or a portrait of grief, a commentary on racism or an examination of the importance of friendship as we age. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, with its all-feminine pronouns, is a terrific example: a great story, a fascinating main character, but also an epiphany for a reader. Or Alif the Unseen, with its incisive intersections of myth, religion, and technology.

The Bloodprint, by Ausma Zehanat Khan, has something to say.

The setting for The Bloodprint, while fictional, will be familiar to anyone who follows the news: a patriarchal group known as the Talisman, led by a mysterious One-Eyed Preacher, is amassing power quickly and over an increasing large area. The Talisman’s methods are insidious: control communications by destroying reading materials, brutally execute rebels to sow fear, and enslave any woman not protected by a father or husband. It’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that, rather late in the book, we discover that many of the people now living under the Talisman’s rule—even for only a single generation—aren’t really bothered by their authoritarian rule. They don’t remember anything different. How horrifyingly quickly things change.

The book opens with Arian and Sinnia about to attack a caravan taking a number of enslaved women to who-knows-where. This has been Arian’s work for years, though despite the number of women she has freed and the number of Talisman men she has killed, she has yet to discover where the Talisman takes the women. She knows only that, until she learns more about what the Talisman is doing, she can’t free them all.

Shortly after the book opens, Arian and Sinnia are summoned home. Both women are Companions of Hira, a group of powerful women whose magic and authority is based on the Claim, a work of sacred scripture. But even in this group of women, called to a higher purpose, intrigue abounds and Arian cannot trust things she thought she knew.

The Bloodprint is Arian’s story: from her traumatic childhood, to abandoning her great love for her calling, to her commitment to saving her country and her people. The driving force behind the book is her discovery that a piece of the Claim, called the Bloodprint, is real—and if Arian can recover it, that might provide the Companions of Hira the power they need to truly fight the Talisman on a grand scale. As Arian journeys through the long-forgotten legends of her land, she learns the true power of perseverance, not only her own, but that of oppressed people.

Note: The Bloodprint is the first in a series, and has a seriously cliffhanger ending. If you like your series finished, you might want to wait.

I don’t usually include pieces of author bios in my book reviews, but this seems especially relevant: Khan holds a PhD in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. In reading this work focused so much on war crimes, you’re in good hands.

Should you read it? Absolutely. While this story is purportedly Arian’s, it’s really the story of every rebel against an authoritarian regime who has found that their fight is against not only the regime, but their own people’s fear, blindness, carelessness, and ignorance. And if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps the book’s tag will: The only defense against the ignorance of men is the brilliance of powerful women.

Amy
 


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.

 

B Reviews Guests: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

We’re excited to share the last in a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who has been reviewing books by each of this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season!

I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.

I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people whose immense magic can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet. And to understand how it happened, one has to understand how many injustices—small and large, premeditated and coincidental—came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.

It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.

There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am White, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here about what it is to be Black—the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.

But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.

The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.


B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.

 

Read Along with Faye: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

I labored over this review. It felt like nothing I could write would be able to do Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike justice. When we analyze text, we don’t just read the words on the page. We coax meanings from between the lines; we muse on the influences of a creator’s background and socio-historical context; we inevitably read texts in conversation with what came before. Comics add another layer. Not only must the reader understand and appreciate the interplay between art and words, there’s a reading style—proficiency level, so to speak—one needs to know how to read a comic, and it helps to know its position in the whole wide world of comics. In the case of Pretty Deadly, which is completely uninterested in holding the reader’s hand, I found myself pushed out of my comfort zone in a major way.

Pretty Deadly has influence from fairytales, myths, a western setting, and probably a million other things I’m not well-versed in. I have read Sandman, but not really Weird West (watching Firefly doesn’t count) so I’ve dabbled a baby bit in Death personified in comics. My reaction on those first few page turns were, “What is this?” and a little bit of “WTF?” It is kinetic, violent, and densely-packed with visual details. Words are sparse. If you don’t read a lot of comics—or even if you do—it can be demanding and intellectually challenging… but parsing out the text, bit by bit, was incredibly rich and worthwhile.

We begin with a bunny, who gets shot in the head by an unknown woman, and the butterfly who witnessed the kill, as framers of the narrative. It’s sometime in the 1890s in the American West (I think). We’re introduced to characters—an elderly blind man, Fox, and a young dark-skinned girl with differently colored eyes, Sissy—who are going from town to town telling the tale of Beauty and singing the Ballad of Deathface Ginny. Deathface Ginny, the daughter of Beauty and the personification of Death, is the reaper of vengeance, who can be called by victims of “men who have sinned.” (She has a lot of work to do!) Big Alice, a large, imposing woman in a black coat with silver hair, is sent by Death to bring Ginny back to the spiritual realm. And did I mention, Death isn’t a god, but a post—in the order of things, the mantle of Death gets passed on to the next gatherer of souls.

What follows is a very, very, convoluted tale in which Death falls in love and wants to prevent the next Death from coming to power, ending death (his and everyone else’s) for all time. And at the forefront are multiple, fascinating, complex female characters who look very different and get a lot of shit done—Sissy, Big Alice, Sarah, Ginny herself and even Beauty. There’s betrayal, stabbings and vengeance—but also sacrifice and redemption. It’s like the animated sequence from Kill Bill with a splash of Sandman, but its own thing.  And it’s paced incredibly unevenly, with unexplained occurrences aplenty and characters that don’t show up again. But somehow, the denouement pulled it all together in a spectacular manner that made flip to the front page again. Ultimately, it’s an origin story for Deathface Ginny, as well as for the new Death.

It would also be remiss not to mention Rios’s artwork again, which is stunning, fluid and frenetic all at once, colored by Jordie Bellaire in a mostly desert-colored palette with beiges and pinks. Though it made me work for it, Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike is incredible, myth-making, myth-breaking stuff. My brain broke, too, from everything to take in, but I had a fine time putting it back together on re-reads.


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 Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb

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 Jae Young Kim on Ann Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter.

Ann Claycomb’s debut novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, is a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” mixed in with a healthy dose of opera and composition. Kathleen, an opera student at a conservatory, learns that the stabbing pain in her feet and the phantom sensation of her tongue being cut out are not signs of mental illness, but the consequences of a long and dark curse made generations ago. Kathleen is left with two choices—kill herself or kill her lover, Harry.

I love fairy tales. They’re old stories, some coming from oral traditions going as far back as a thousand years, changing over time with every retelling. Each omission, addition and embellishment reflects the teller’s perspective. So when we read a fairy tale retelling, we know, more or less, what the plot will be. It’s the little tweaks in the retelling that make the read worthwhile.

“The Little Mermaid” is one of my favorite fairy tales. Although I was a kid when the Disney animated version came out, I had read Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale before watching the movie, which could not be more different from each other. Disney’s version is a musical with cartoon animal sidekicks, an evil witch that turns into a giant monster, and a happy ending complete with a wedding between the mermaid and prince. Andersen’s tale is dark and bloody, with cut tongues and phantom knives stabbing the mermaid’s feet—and no happy ending. I love both of them, but I was disappointed with Disney’s: it felt too clean and safe, and was totally at odds with the Andersen’s original.

Claycomb does not go the cartoon route with The Mermaid’s Daughter. She does not shy away from the stabbing pains, the cutting of the tongue, and the gruesome trade made by the mermaid. Told in three acts through four viewpoints (Kathleen, Harry, Robin (Kathleen’s father), and the sea witches), the novel is bleak in tone and possibly even darker than Andersen’s fairy tale. Claycomb uses the first act to establish Kathleen’s life, beginning with Kathleen and Harry’s relationship, a great queer take on the usual heterosexual pairings in traditional fairy tales. She also focuses attention on the father-daughter relationship between Robin and Kathleen, and it’s clear that they love each other deeply. Since the novel has a modern-day setting, some time does have to be spent working through disbelief in magic and mermaids. I admit to being impatient that Kathleen didn’t realize the truth of her heritage earlier, but I did have the advantage of knowing she was a mermaid. The sea witches do provide a touch of fantasy as well as the stories of Kathleen’s ancestors, but it may feel dry for those wanting a book that jumps straight into the fantastical elements.

Kathleen also has the beautiful voice of Andersen’s mermaid, making music and opera an integral part of this mermaid’s story. I am a fan of opera and have sung in choirs all my life, so reading about the various singers and the roles and songs they perform was loads of fun. Robin is a famous composer and I loved reading about his composition process, even though I don’t know a thing about songwriting.

The build-up to the reveal of Kathleen’s mermaid secret is long but necessary. Love and music are central to this retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” Once Kathleen learns of her mermaid curse, third act flies by as Robin and Harry help Kathleen resolve it. I won’t spoil the ending but I think it’s clever and fitting for a fairy tale retelling. The book also includes a bonus short story connecting Hans Christian Andersen to Kathleen’s ancestor. It provides some context for final act and is a welcome addition.

I recommend Claycomb’s The Mermaid’s Daughter and look forward to reading her next book.

 


 
Jae Young Kim is a born-and-bred New Yorker and a lifelong fan of fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction. She is a non-profit attorney by day and writes when she can, not always by night. The only thing that keeps her up until dawn is a good book.

 

Book Club: When the Moon Was Ours Anna-Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was Ours

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!

Books have to have a plot.

I said that recently to my six-year-old niece. Last winter, an author-illustrator of children’s books visited her school, read them his books, and taught them to draw a tree. She — a tremendous lover of books — was rapt. And ever since, she’s wanted to be an author-illustrator. That is, when she doesn’t want to be a mom or a boss.

So we make her books. We take a few pieces of paper, fold them in half, and staple them. Then she can write and illustrate her books to her heart’s content.

Her first books were what you might imagine. Pages after pages, and books after books, of scintillating prose like “This is blue,” with an equally scintillating blue dot.

On her own, she progressed. Her next round of masterpieces had pages after pages of statements like “I eat the egg,” accompanied by a picture of an egg. (Not even a fried egg, or perhaps a scrambled egg, mind you. Just an egg, still in its shell.) Each page had the same action, but a different food. Though there was no clear context of time or progression, one could assume that she would eat the egg prior to eating the grapes on the next page.

Next, she moved on to her friends. “I talk to Jenna,” with a drawing of Jenna looking lovely with her stick arms and blue skirt. “I talk to Ben.” Clearly, my niece is a fan of the present tense.

At this point, we had a talk. About plot and how, in the most interesting books, things happen. About how maybe she talked to Jenna, but then went home, learned some Spanish, ate her dinner, read some books, and didn’t talk to Ben until the next day. My niece was shockingly unconcerned about this thing called plot, though in her next book, Ben did accomplish a series of chores at the pet store. (Sorry about those hamster cages, Ben.)

As I read When the Moon Was Ours, though, I considered the accuracy of my assertion that books have to have a plot.

When the Moon Was Ours is a love story. Sam, a boy who paints moons and hangs them around town, and Miel, a girl who has roses that grow out of her wrists, are best friends who find that best friendship can be a harbinger of more. SMALL SPOILER Or, put another way, Sam, a part-Pakistani, transgender boy, and Miel, a queer Latina girl, are best friends who find that best friendship can be a harbinger of more. /SMALL SPOILER

I don’t draw that dichotomy to be reductive. Rather, Anna-Marie McLemore’s second novel is two things: one of them lovely, the other transcendent.

First, When the Moon Was Ours is a fairy tale, a story of two teens, one who paints moons and hangs them all over town, the other who has maybe magical roses growing out of her wrists. It’s about love and community and relationships and magic – maybe not always spells or potions, though there are some of those as well, but more the magic of finding your community, your family, and your romantic love. It’s about discovery and forgiveness. And even if that’s all When the Moon Was Ours were, it would be lovely because Anna-Marie McLemore is one of most lyrical fantasy authors writing today.

But that’s not even close to everything that When the Moon Was Ours is.

SAME SMALL SPOILER
McLemore has crafted a fairy tale – a lovely, magical, hopeful fairy tale – for people who don’t often see themselves represented in such things. Sam is a transgender, part-Pakistani, part-Italian boy with a single mom. Miel, a queer Latina girl who appeared from a water tower, has been raised by Aracely, the town’s curandera. These identities, so remarkable to readers who too rarely get to experience an enchanted love between people like Sam and Miel, are utterly unremarkable to Sam and Miel themselves. Not because Sam doesn’t have to work to come to terms with his gender (just like Miel has to work to come to terms with her water-tower origins), but because it never occurs to Miel not to love Sam, no matter his gender (just like it never occurs to Sam to judge Miel for, essentially, being born of a water tower). /SPOILER

And that, that layering of inclusive identities on top of painted moons and roses grown from wrists, on top of a fairy-tale love story, on top of McLemore’s dazzling prose, that makes When the Moon Was Ours transcendent. McLemore took the best parts of fairy tales and the best of who we, as people, might be, and with her stunning craft, put it all on the page.

That said, here’s where some of you might struggle with this book: The plot is virtually non-existent. There’s a bit about four sisters, maybe witches, who very much want Miel’s roses. There are some revelations, especially regarding Miel’s family, but they don’t drive the story so much as shape the characters. The tension and the minimal action, indeed, are almost entirely character driven. This is a book about coming to terms with yourself, your family, and your community, rather than antagonist witches or saving the world.

It turns out, not every book has to have a plot.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for a media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty 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: An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

It’s the end of August! Which means, according to the rules of the Reading Challenge, I have just over a month to read nine-or-so books. At this point, I’ve read books that were on my radar but hadn’t tried yet, or had been itching to read anyway. But due that other rule that I must read works by authors I’ve never read before (and I have read a lot of these authors’ other works), the books remaining are mostly quiet books, or by authors I haven’t heard of, or hard to find.

Fortunately, Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes wasn’t too hard to find—I’d managed to check it out from my library. Without having read her previous Above, I went into this one without any expectations, nor any idea of the plot, setting or level of shininess (a standard YA measure for me, or also known as: how much kissing, swooning, or angst over a hot, beguiling, usually male love interest is in this book, as oft characterized by their foil-effected covers?). And, well, Ashes certainly is a quiet book. And I’m pleased to say, full of surprises, and not shiny at all, in the best way possible.

Hallie (full name Halfrida Hoffmann) and her pregnant sister Marthe run their family farm in what feels like a pre-industrial, agrarian society. There’re goats to be milked, barns to be repaired, barley to be harvested, and talks of “courting” when considering romantic interests. The next-door neighbors, the Blakelys, look in on Hallie and Marthe, since Marthe’s husband and father of her future child has not returned from the war. The two sisters are struggling, each one emotionally isolated from the other, and they’re barely surviving. But then two things happen: Hallie hires a veteran soldier, Heron, to help out on the farm before winter sets in (even though there’s something off about him), and she finds a Twisted Thing on her property.

Then, another detail. It turns out we’re not in the past. We’re in the aftermath of war—a victorious one, whatever that means—set in a society in post-industrial decline, after cities and all their tech “went dark.” The war that Heron, Tyler Blakely and Marthe’s husband Thom all fought in was one of, well, portal magic, and the Twisted Things are instruments of a Wicked God in another dimension, presumed to be eradicated after the war ended. This unusual setting allows Bobet freedom to come up with new norms and new standards of normalcy: a queer couple’s relationship is featured prominently and unremarked upon, the best scientist for miles around is a young girl, and her characters are a melting pot of ethnicities and skin colors.

But where Bobet shines the most is what I like to call the “low fantasy” stuff—not the epic battlegrounds or complex intrigue of kings and generals, but the mundane, every day, equally significant events in the lives of farmers, soldiers and small townspeople. Heron must come to terms with his past and how the rest of the Great Army perceives him. Tyler, injured from his service in the war, feels constricted by his caring mother and sharp sister who only want him to be healthy. Hallie’s coming-of-age is easy to believe and root for: here’s a girl who constantly feels like she can’t do anything right, but still tries so damn hard. Her fraught relationship with Marthe has scabbed over wounds from years of abuse from their now-dead father—wounds that have festered, reared their ugly heads, and taken flight before finally being healed.

Ashes has all this, plus musings on small-town politics and what it means to be a hero or a villain. It’s set against the backdrop of a refreshingly different time period and a vague but real magical threat. It starts slowly, is sparse with flash, and though there is some kissing, it’s pretty quiet. I am someone who loves quiet books. If you do too, An Inheritance of Ashes won’t just be up your alley, but the reason you bowl.

(I read this on e- so I don’t know if the cover is shiny. Is it?)
 


 
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.
 

B Reviews Guests: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

We’re excited to share a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who will be reviewing books by this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of A Darker Shade of Magic!

V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of four parallel Londons, each linked and locked by magic, each with its own history and relationship with magic. Within each of those worlds, there are only two people—Kell and Holland—who can walk across the worlds. Only two people who can see these other worlds and report back and forth. Or, at least, we think there’s only two who can travel between them.

Throughout the book, Schwab plays with the idea of distorted reflections. The various Londons are all distorted reflections of each other: each are very different, but each are wed together by peculiar bones, similarities of names and fixtures of space. The two travelers who can walk between these Londons are also distorted reflections of each other. Both are brilliant, secretive, complicated men bound to the rulers of their London. Both live lives where they are valuable tools as much as they are independent people. But Kell, from Red London, is young and brooding and nostalgic for a life he’d wish he’d lived. And Holland, from White London, is older, and ruthlessly, viciously pragmatic in pursuit of his goals.

Everything about A Darker Shade of Magic is contrasted sharply with Grey London—our London—a London which exists without magic. Schwab’s masterful and tragic opening scene sets up the dynamic between Grey London and the other Londons in a way that beautifully sets the stage for everything to follow. Kell visits Grey London with news. On his way out, as an act of mercy, or pity, or both, he visits Mad King George. It’s clear from their interaction that they have known each other for years, and that the knowledge of other Londons and magic has thrown King George’s life completely off-kilter. It’s also clear that, while Kell knows this, and knows that he is part of this, that he is reckless with it. This is a tale of obsession and sacrifice, and all of that is spelled out in those opening interactions Kell has.

Grey London also gives us the heart of the book: Lila Bard, hungry thief and sharp-tongued street rat who dresses in men’s clothes and dreams of being a pirate. Kell and Holland are interesting characters, but Lila was what I was reading for. She is smart, and she is alone, and she can smell danger on the breeze, but she has absolutely no safety net. She is a girl with hidden talents just breaking through caught in a mess not of her making, drawing on strengths she did not know she had. She is a wonderful and lively character. When her life and Kell’s grow tangled, they cut a blood-soaked trail from one London to the next, plagued by an artifact they only half understand, while hunted by the sadistic rulers of White London—a London hungry for power and dominance.

V. E. Schwab has two enormous strengths going for her in this book: first, she can write; second, she can fascinate. She constructs effortlessly emotional sentences. For example, when she writes that Lila “would rather steal a thing outright than be indebted to kindness,” I laughed, but my heart broke in the same moment. And she is just as good with worldbuilding: “Kell—inspired by the lost city known to all as Black London—had given each remaining capital a color. Grey for the magicless city. Red, for the healthy empire. White, for the starving world.” She has a way of quickly, efficiently punctuating her prose with these asides that cut you to ribbons and emotionally fill in the gaps and leave you craving more.

I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect—the plot took too long to fall into place, which meant the pacing was uneven, but the story and the world was fascinating enough that I kept going anyway. I wanted to know more about the histories and cultures of each of the other three Londons. Why do they have different languages? Why is the magic distributed differently across them? What, exactly, happened in Black London?

A Darker Shade of Magic is great fun. It’s exciting and adventurous, with a rich and evocative world. Plus Lila Bard, the fast-talking pants-wearing pickpocket is my new book crush for the foreseeable future.


B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.

 

Book Club: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

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!

We’re always a product of our time, aren’t we?

While Practical Magic takes place in three acts, the setting changes significantly between the first and second. The book opens in a small town in Massachusetts, one that, if you’re the right age and grew up reading the right books, you can see with very little textual assistance: old houses, wrought-iron fences, trees that turn riotously orange in the fall, only to have their leaves fall and cover the sidewalks, because, heavens yes, there are sidewalks and everyone walks to school and Halloween is blustery as clouds skid across the sky and summers are endless and full of sunny promise. I could go on, but if you’re the same age as I and read the same books, you don’t need me to.

Reading the first act of Practical Magic was, for me, sentimentally wistful. Strange, since I’ve never read Alice Hoffman before, and I’ve never lived in Massachusetts or even New England, and I’ve never lived in town, let alone a town with old houses and wrought-iron fences. But I must have read a hundred books with that exact setting as a kid, enough to produce a sort of sentimental wistfulness for a place where I’ve never lived and rarely visited, a place that is profoundly different from my rural childhood, where my mile-long block had exactly six houses and four kids.

Do books that do depict the rural Midwest, settings with more animals than people and Halloweens with snow and summer vacations to rundown lake houses, produce the same wistfulness? Not even a little bit.

Which goes to show, I suppose from my very small sample size of one, how very much books affect our hearts and our subconscious. How even now, at 41, the first act of a book with the right setting can produce a nostalgia not so much for a place I’ve never lived, but for the reading experiences of my childhood that transported me, time after time, to a quaint New England full of blowing leaves and black cats and cracked sidewalks. Memory is a powerful thing, even when – or especially when – it’s playing tricks on you.

When Practical Magic opens, in that small Massachusetts town, Sally and Gillian Owens are kids, living with their “ancient” aunts after their parents’ deaths. Their aunts, like all Owens women, are witches, which the town both loves and loathes: they’re terrified and contemptuous of the Owens women, but then seek them out, under the cover of night, for spells for the lovelorn. Sally and Gillian grow up secretly watching their aunts perform those spells, and they solemnly swear that that sort of nonsense will never happen to them.

Enter boys.

As Gillian blossoms, she goes from being shunned to having a string of boys, one of whom she runs away with while still a teen. Sally stays home, shocked by her sister’s seeming betrayal, and vows never to marry. But of course she does, and has two girls before her husband is hit by a car. Sally, stifled by her family history, her lost husband, and the town’s expectations, takes her girls and moves to a New York suburb. Where some years later Gillian turns up with a dead boyfriend in the passenger seat.

The second and third acts of Practical Magic are set in that banal suburb, where the juxtaposition of that studied banality with the thin veneer of the Owenses’ magic is itself a commentary about everyday lives and small magics. Hoffman’s brand of magic is a sort of magical realism, not with the same passion and grandeur that you might expect from Laura Esquivel, but with a more measured inevitability. No matter how normal they try to be, no matter how many times Sally avoids conversations with her daughters, no matter how determinedly Gillian avoids both her aunts and her hometown, the Owens’ women are witches. Things are bound to happen.

The beauty of Practical Magic is that it’s about a bunch of women – a coven, in a different sort of book – all doing the best they can. Sometimes solutions are magic, sometimes they’re determination, sometimes they’re taking your fears in hand and charging forward, and sometimes they’re calling your aunts and asking them what to do about the dude you buried in your backyard who just won’t bloody well stay buried. Mistakes abound, people get angry, a frog vomits a really ugly ring, and life goes on. Life, with your girls, goes on.

And so often, you just do the best that you can do with what you’ve got. Even when you’re a witch.

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for a media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty 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.

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

RSS Feed

The news archive for Sirens is linked below as an RSS feed. If you need instructions or would like more information, please click here. If you have questions about our RSS feed, please email us at (web at sirensconference.org).

RSS Feed Button

 

Archives

2018
February, January

2017
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2016
December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March

2015
November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2014
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, March, February, January

2013
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2012
December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2011
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2010
December, November, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

2009
December, November, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January

 

Tags

annual programming series, attendee perspective, auction, book club, book list, book reviews, books, bookstore, boot camp, chat, community, compendium, deadlines, giveaway, guests, hotel, inclusivity, interview, meet-up, menus, narrate conferences, newsletter, perspective, programming, read along, recap, registration, review squad, schedule, schedules, scholarships, sirens, Sirens 2009, Sirens 2010, Sirens 2011, Sirens 2012, Sirens 2013, Sirens 2014, Sirens 2015, Sirens 2016, Sirens 2017, Sirens 2018, Sirens Shuttle, Sirens Studio, Sirens Supper, site visit, skamania, special edition, sponsorship, support, testimonials, themes, things we're excited about, travel, volunteering, website
Meet Our Guests of Honor
About the Conference
Attend
Sirens Twitter
Present Programming
Sirens Facebook

Connect with the Sirens community

Sign up for the Sirens newsletter