The Impossible Knife of Memory: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse AndersonHayley and her father Andy have been on the road for the past five years. Sometimes riding in Andy’s rig. Sometimes laying low while Andy tries to hold down a job and Hayley does her version of homeschooling. But then everything stopped and Hayley has been moved back into a life she doesn’t want in a childhood home she refuses to remember.

Being home gives Hayley a chance at a normal life with friends and maybe even a boyfriend. Unfortunately the more the Hayley lets down her guard and allows herself to imagine a future, instead of living day-to-day, the more obvious it is that Andy is still haunted by memories of all the demons and friends he left behind after his last tour over seas. With monstrous memories looming for both of them, Hayley begins to wonder if having a normal life is something she and her father are even capable of in The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Hayley is an unreliable who lies both to the reader and herself as pieces of her past unfold in memories that cut like knives and unwanted visitors from her past. Slowly, with flashback-like memories from both Hayley and her father, the story of how they returned home unfolds. At the same time, Anderson manages to ground this book in the present with a fledgling romance and a grocery list of other problems that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, would feel trite as the perfect facades of Hayley’s friends also fall apart.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is an interesting book. But it’s also an incredibly difficult read at times. My mother was very sick last year and it took a toll on both of us–so much so that, as I read this book, I saw much more of myself in Hayley than I would have liked. That said, Anderson’s writing is excellent and returns here to the quality found in Speak with the same surprises and another fresh, surprising narrator. Although Andy is deeply troubled it was also nice to see a parental figure in a book with genuine affection for his daughter and interest in her well-being–even if it is mostly mired in the hardships that come with dealing with his own psychological traumas.

On the outset The Impossible Knife of Memory sounds like an issue book with its focus on Hayley’s father’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Anderson, however, brings her usual skill to this topic offering a well-rounded story that encompasses more than this one timely topic. I probably won’t re-read this book because of the personal slant that made it hard to read. I am actually painfully certain I don’t even want a copy in the house. That said, The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book that is never heavy-handed or obnoxious. Instead Anderson offers an honest, unflinching portrayal of one family’s difficulties with PTSD as well as the promise of not just a way through but also even a chance at a happy ending.

Possible Pairings: The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Linktastic!: Stories and Memories and Feminism (1/27/14) Edition

More links! More feminism! Also stories and memories and baby names!

The Clockwork Scarab: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen GleasonMina Holmes is used to working alone. It’s hard enough to get anyone to take her deductive abilities seriously as a young woman in London in 1889. It’s almost impossible to get anyone to appreciate them–even if she is the daughter of Mycroft Holmes and the niece of Sherlock Holmes.

Evaline Stoker, on the other hand, is a veritable social butterfly by comparison. Much to her own chagrin Evaline finds herself spending far too much time at social gatherings when she could be using her preternatural strength and speed for their intended purposes–killing vampires.

This unlikely pair is brought together one foggy night in London with a summons to the British Museum. Soon both young women are recruited into the service of the Princess of Wales for a mission of the utmost secrecy.

Young women of quality are dying in London and it’s up to Stoker and Holmes to figure out why.

But with obstacles at every turn and odious young men underestimating their skills, both young women will have to stay sharp to solve this supernatural mystery before it’s too late in The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason.

The Clockwork Scarab is Gleason’s first novel in this series.

Gleason creates an intriguing alternate London where Sherlock Holmes is real and the Stoker family is the latest in a long line of vampire hunters. In this London electricity is illegal and steampunk elements abound in this steam-powered city.

These backdrop elements, combined with a mystery based in Egyptology (the scarab on the cover is not just for show) promise a most excellent mystery novel with just a few fantastical elements to taste.

Then a time traveler shows up.

Then not just one but both heroines find themselves in painfully contrived love triangles.

And then one of the biggest mysteries of the story isn’t resolved at the end of the book. (It is clearly going to be a thread that develops in later installments, but still.)

The Clockwork Scarab has so much potential that, unfortunately, is never realized as the plot becomes mired in these extraneous plot points and devices.

Mina and Evaline are interesting heroines (though far too quick to gush over handsome young men–because all of the men in this book are handsome) though their first person narrations often sound surprisingly similar.

Short on violence and high on action, this is an ideal choice for younger readers looking for excitement without the gore. It would also be a great stepping stone for readers who want to move onto something else besides the Theodosia books or the Kane Chronicles. That said, readers looking for a purer steampunk read (or a better plotted mystery) would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carringer, The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia C. Wrede, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

Anyone could be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: An Article Response in Which I Say We Need More Stories

An article has been making the rounds of my twitter stream this past week. Fellow librarian Jody Wurl brought it to my attention. Maggie Stiefvater had a few thoughts about it on Saturday. You might have heard about it from someone else.

The article is: “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Laurie Penny (posted on the New Statesman site)

To start, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” are a character type often found in bildungsroman movies featuring male leads. They fall in love, the MPDG shows the man how to live. She disappears, dies or otherwise fades away leaving the male lead better for the acquaintance. Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really a character in a film or book. She is a plot device. She is a trope. She is Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Kiersten Dunst in Elizabethrown, the female lead in either version of Sweet November. (Did you know the version with Richard Gere was a remake? Because I did not until last week.)

She was also, at one point, writer Laurie Penny.

Her article is really interesting and I suggest you all go read it because Penny has a lot of valuable thoughts about feminism and what being a feminist really means. I was especially pleased when the second paragraph nailed all of my issues with Dr. Who. I’ve wanted to like Dr. Who for years. Since Rose was the Doctor’s companion. But I never could get there. For a while I thought Donna Noble would be able to transcend her role as companion. And she did. Only to be written out and told she isn’t allowed to have those things, or even want those things, after.* And then we went back to having a dashing, manic in his own right, Doctor and a pretty, young companion to keep him company and show him how to understand humanity.

Maybe I’ll start watching again when the Doctor regenerates as a woman.

Anyway, after that insight, Penny explains that she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the short stature to the pixie cut to the ukelele playing.

And that’s when things got interesting because Penny also posited that women (girls when they are MPDGs) never have the expectation of being the hero of their own story. Instead she suggests “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”

Later in the article she goes on to say that this is the reason MPDGs appear in real life:

“Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing.”

Penny came to realize that personality had to go when she wanted to be a writer and that meant becoming a “grown fucking woman” and making choices that would ultimately alienate and intimidate potential male partners.

Penny tries to end on an up note urging women to write their own stories, create their own characters and, more importantly, grow up and leave the Manic Pixie Dream Girl behind.

Reading the article I had a lot of “duh” moments because it feels like information anyone (or maybe I should say anyone who identifies as a feminist) would know already. But maybe there are people out there who didn’t know. And maybe that makes this article surprising to some.

For me, it wasn’t surprising and I thought it was one-sided and missed some key points (thus the giant response post so that we can all talk about this together!).

I’ve never been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I am neither short or thin enough although I often had the right hair. I think I’ve always been too pragmatic and far too caustic. And to borrow Penny’s own phrasing, I was a “grown fucking woman” long before I decided to pursue writing (if you can call what I’m doing writing–there’s a novel in the works and this blog–I grant it’s no professional career . . . yet). My mother is disabled and I’ve been helping run the household since college. We co-manage an eBay shop. I’ve had a job since I was seventeen-years-old and put myself through college and grad school with that job and a combination of scholarships and state funding.

I don’t know Penny’s life but I found the idea that the biggest facet of becoming a grown woman was becoming a writer deeply frustrating and deeply misleading. Much like the rich inner life a MPDG never reveals, we all have responsibilities and things we carry. I’ve been carrying things since I was in my teens. It has never had anything to do with my writing or professional choices. (And, frankly, I think the idea that being a political writer is the only thing to be intimidating to Penny’s suitors somewhat laughable. Maybe that was part of it but I dare say being outspoken, well-educated, and a feminist contributed just as largely.)

I don’t know what stories Penny had growing up. I don’t know the books she read or the things she did. But I was sad when I read that she fell into the role of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it was the character she saw again and again that most resembled herself. I was sad when she talked about men growing up to be heroes and women growing up to be damsels.

I suspect all of the credit here goes to my mother but I didn’t have that moment. I have never for one second doubted that I am the hero of my own story. Sometimes it’s a dumb story. Boring even. But it is always my story. And I am never, ever in a supporting role. I don’t think that always has to do with the models available. I watched the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty every day when I was a toddler. I loved anything and everything princess as a child (I still do).** That has never lessened my conviction that I can accomplish great things all on my own. Because my mother never let me think any less of myself; she never doubted me.

Returning to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as fictional character (rather than real person), Penny goes on to say MPDG is “one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority.” Here’s the thing (which Maggie Stiefvater said on Saturday on Twitter) as we see her, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was never meant to have an interior life. Because the story is never about her. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but the MPDG is a plot device. She is there to teach something, to showcase something. She is not there to tell her own story.

It is a shame that there is a whole trope about these (young) women who descend to impart wisdom only to disappear but there it is. If the story were from her point of view, we wouldn’t be dealing with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all. We just don’t call them that because we’re busy calling them the HEROINE. One recent example is Kiri in Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith. But there are others too. From the outside these characters look like Manic Pixie Dream Girls but because the story is in their head–because we get to see the cracks and flaws in that persona they wear like armor–they transcend the label and become more than a plot device.

But here’s the thing: This problem exists for any character. Any character, any person, who is boiled down to a core set of stereotypes and traits is going to be seen as less than the sum of their parts. They are always going to exist as more legend than person. What is Edward Cullen or Mr. Darcy*** but a reinvented version of Prince Charming–a male character meant to rescue a princess and/or take her on a great adventure?

While some of the logic was (fairly and rightly) skewed, I agree wholeheartedly with Penny about the power of story: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic – but it’s a risk you have to take.”

I’ll finish now by taking that one step further: We don’t just need new stories for women. We need new stories period. We need stories for the nice guy who is never going to fall into a bad boy situation. We need stories for the girl who cares more about studying than prom. We need stories for people of color. We need stories for the kids who are still trying to find a way to articulate who they are and who they want to be.

We need more stories.

We need more stories to move beyond characters as plot devices–be it a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Prince Charming or something else entirely. We need more stories to be mirrors instead of exemplars. Personally, I’m looking forward to finding those stories.

*Seriously. The “Dr. Donna” storyline is tragic. I still haven’t recovered.

**One of the first fantasies I ever read (when I was eleven), and one of my most favorite, was A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It has no female characters (beyond one herb witch who acts as a rudimentary teacher in early chapters). It doesn’t even have room for female characters because girls can’t become wizards. I didn’t read that and go about to make myself an ideal companion for these adventure-having characters. I sat down on my family’s first-ever computer, put in a fresh floppy disk, and I started writing a version of the story where a girl did become a wizard. (I guess this would also be one of my only forays into fan fiction–years and years before I even knew what fan fiction was. But that’s a different post.)

***Or Peter Pan or Po or Adam or my beloved Alan Ryves or any other devastating male lead.

YA Isn’t a Genre: Another Manifesto of Sorts

I recently came across this article on Twitter (I think it was originally posted by Terra Elan McVoy but I can’t be totally sure) from The New Statesman called: “Ghost Stories”: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances by Tara Isabella Burton.

Burton worked her way through college by ghost writing what she calls “YA romances” and she references Tanya Gold’s article from November discussing the anti-feminist elements of Twilight. If you’ve read Twilight or watched the movies or have followed news about it, then this is old news. Twilight has been called everything from abstinence porn in Bitch Magazine to anti-feminist. I actually don’t have any problems with Twilight or the people who love it. But I can see how some might. It happens. It’s called freedom of expression.

(Burton also mentions Twilight leading to its fan-fiction-turned-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey and the poorly defined world of “New Adult” which should be about emerging adults AKA twentysomething characters but has somehow become a landing board for YA masquerading as erotica but that’s another story and one handled better by other bloggers besides. Don’t even get me started on Fifty Shades of Grey. Just don’t.)

Burton’s article is interesting and Burton raises some very valid points including the fact that books in what I’m going to call the “Twilight vein” can suggest and maybe even elevate questionable behaviors. Burton notes: “that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.” In other words, the hypothetical “Mary Sue” of Burton’s YA romances is cast as a love interest and all of her identity and value comes from whatever romantic relationship she pursues.

That’s really bad.

What I found deeply troubling about the article is that it is incredibly one-sided. Burton claims she is writing with an insider’s perspective but by “insider” she seems to mean “another author making sweeping generalizations about YA based on a very small percentage of YA titles.” Burton never qualifies that she is speaking to a very narrow part of the world of Young Adult literature and to an even narrower part of what gets grouped under the umbrella of YA Romance. Instead of qualifying her claims Burton makes sweeping generalizations about YA Romance and its anti-feminist tendencies.

And yes, the problems are very true for some books. But the article ignores all of the books where these problems do not exist. And it kills me because the general public still doesn’t really know how large the YA world is and read articles like this and thing that’s all there is.

Here’s the thing, actually two things:

First: Young Adult isn’t a genre in the traditional sense. Marketing-wise, of course it is. But really YA is about audience and character age and format. Grouping all YA books together is like grouping together books about World War II or books set in Europe. Sure, all of those books fit together in one sense. But there are also tons of ways that they are unique.

Second: YA Romance doesn’t start and stop with Twilight. It doesn’t even stop with mass market romances like the ones Burton probably wrote. When you mention Twilight there are two other obvious blockbuster comparisons: The Hunger Games and, more recently, Beautiful Creatures. I’m not going to re-hash The Hunger Games because it isn’t strictly speaking a romance and because everyone already knows everything about it. So let’s look at Beautiful Creatures where Lena is the female lead and also in the power position. She pushes Ethan away, she saves Ethan, she is powerful, she makes sacrifices. She is mysterious and quirky and well-read and dimensional. And, oh wait, she’s a heroine in a YA Romance. Go figure.

I’m probably not saying anything new here and given who reads this blog I’m also  probably preaching to the choir but I’m just so tired or people pretending YA can wok as a universal label or genre indicator akin to “fantasy” or “legal thriller” when the terminology was never (I think) meant to work on that level.

I find it equally frustrating to see all of this talk of romances as if Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James (and maybe Nicholas Sparks) are the only authors out there. Adult novels have a very specific meaning when they classify a book as a “romance” and it serves those readers well. Some YA publishing houses have a similar focus but it doesn’t work the same way. Furthermore, no genre–for any age–should have be treated so dismissively and criticized out of hand.

Every book–even the ones that are troubling, even the ones that aren’t literary–every single book matters. They start conversations. They lead readers to other books. They matter.

I just felt like that had to be said even though in retrospect it might be familiar territory. I’ll finish by pointing you to my favorite manifesto (that I wrote) on Reading Without Remorse.

I’ll also point you to my book club where we can talk about YA books in broader terms and have some good, old fashioned fun with books.

MPBClogo

Linktastic!: Oscars Edition

Some fun links from my Twitter feed and some stuff about the Oscars and other things.

  • “Paperman” won the Oscar for Best Short Film this weekend. The short played before Wreck-It Ralph and the win was very well-deserved. What was less deserved? “Paperman” producer Kristina Reed was thrown out of the Oscars for being charming and clever and tossing paper airplanes with lipstick on them (as seen in the film!) over the balcony. She was let back in eventually, but talk about being killjoys. MTV Geek! has the full story by Eddie Wright. You can also watch the adorable short in its entirety while you’re there. (via @bkshelvesofdoom on Twitter)
  • I haven’t seen Life of Pi or read the book it’s based one. BUT I did see the trailers and I know there were a lot of visual effects at work in that film (kind of a given with a tiger on a boat, right?). And it’s really lovely that Rhythm + Hues won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for that movie. Except that before the company got to mention the sad turn of events leading to its bankruptcy their acceptance speech was cut short. By the Jaws theme. And no one really seemed to be acknowledging the work that these brilliant people did to help make what is a visually impressive film. Phillip Broste has “An Open Letter to Ang Lee” posted on VFX Soldier that explains the situation more eloquently. (via @Jodyth on Twitter)
  • I’m not even comfortable getting into the details here because it’s so disgusting, but I was appalled by some of the things I’ve been seeing about nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. I haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild and I don’t know a lot about it but I think Ms. Wallis is absolutely adorable and I want to hug her and compare dog bags with her and tell her how great it is that she is so confident and self-assured. The Onion’s twitter account (no link because they don’t deserve the publicity) apparently thought differently. So did Seth MacFarlane while HOSTING the ceremony where Wallis was ONE OF THE NOMINEES. Wallis is nine-years-old. This treatment isn’t okay at any age but it seems especially horrible for a child. N. K. Jemisin explains the situation and why it’s so appalling on her blog. (via @veschwab and @bethrevis on Twtter)
  • Which brings me to my thoughts on the Oscars. Keeping in mind I only saw an hour of the ceremonies, I was horrified by the “jokes” MacFarlane delivered throughout the show. Putting aside the casual sexism, when did it become okay to be “funny” by making hurtful, demeaning remarks about others? The LA Times has a full list of coverage of the Oscars and everything that they did wrong.
  • That led me to a Buzzfeed post by Hillary Reinsberg about 9 Sexist Things that happened at the Oscars. When you get a chance, watch the first video. It doesn’t matter if you listen to the tasteless lyrics. I want you to watch the actresses they show during the song and the way their faces fall every time MacFarlane continues. Oscar Night is a BIG deal and instead of being a part of it these actresses were singled out, ridiculed and demeaned. That is not okay. And I think we all know it would not have happened to male actors. Here are two gifs of Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron to show you just what I mean:
  • Also, that song? The one everyone wishes they could forget? Four of the actresses named were playing characters who were raped. Nice one. (via @studentactivism on Twitter)
  • Don’t worry, I’ll end on an up note.  How awesome is Jennifer Lawrence!? I really liked Lawrence’s dress and I felt so bad when she tripped but I so love that she just got back up and kept going never once losing her poise. That’s classy. I also love Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper even more for rushing to help Lawrence even though she totally didn’t need it.
  • I’m very biased but I really enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook and I was sorry that it didn’t win Best Picture and that Bradley Cooper lost out on Best Actor. BUT I will say this: Ben Affleck knows how to give an acceptance speech. I especially liked this part (via @elizeulberg on Twitter):

    “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen, all that matters is that you gotta get up.” -Ben Affleck

So, that’s largely what I thought of the Oscars. What did you think?

Grave Mercy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Brittany, 1485: Ismae bears a deep red stain from her left shoulder to her right hip–a tangible reminder of the herbwitch’s poison that her mother used to try to expel Ismae from her womb. The poison didn’t work. Proof, according to the herbwitch, that Ismae was sired by the god of death himself.

Even without her wicked scar, Ismae’s parentage would be a burden to bear. Fearful of the wrath of Mortmain everyone tolerates Ismae’s presence but little beyond that. Her life is not one of comfort or compassion. Not until a priest gives Ismae one small kindness that will forever change her life.

Taken from a brutal arranged marriage, Ismae is spirited across Brittany to the convent of St. Mortmain–a sanctuary where women like Ismae, her sisters of Mortmain, work to execute their god’s work throughout Brittany.

Staying at the convent will mean a new life. One where Ismae will be trained as an assassin to serve as a Handmaiden of Death. The decision, of course, is an easy one. After being the prey of others all her life, Ismae is more than ready to be the hunter.

The life she chooses and the training are simple. At first.

After Ismae completes her first assignment for the convent several complications arise. Thrown together with a man she cannot trust and little likes, Ismae finds herself at the center of Brittany’s tangled politics as the country’s young duchess struggles to hold onto her tenuous authority. The more Ismae learns about her country and her own heart, the less she understands about her teachings at the convent. Soon Ismae will have to decide if she can follow the will of her god while also following her own heart in Grave Mercy (2012) by Robin LaFevers.

Grave Mercy is LaFevers’ first young adult novel. (She is the author of several middle grade novels including my beloved Nathaniel Fludd books as R. L. LaFevers.)

While the setting and language make for an immersive read, Grave Mercy takes a bit of time to get to the core plot not only starting years before the main story but also leading with tangentially related pieces of Ismae’s training at the convent and her assignments. Readers expecting immediate action might be disappointed though rest assured patience will pay off in the end.

Ismae, though sometimes frightening in her fierceness, is an engaging heroine as she makes her way through the labyrinths of both Breton politics and the inner workings of her own sisterhood. LaFevers handles the complicated matter of faith versus service well as Ismae works reconcile her own wants with her duties as a Handmaiden of Death. Although the latter part of the story drags as LaFevers works to resolve several plot threads, the tension is high enough to make up for it. Ismae’s personal journey remains compelling throughout.

Filled with intrigue, murder, and more than a few shady characters Grave Mercy is a definite page turner even if some shocking revelations are not so shocking when finally revealed. An excellent choice for fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief books or an alternative/follow-up to Kristin Cashore’s novels. Grave Mercy is the first book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy but this book works just as nicely on its own.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carringer, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Born Wicked: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cate Cahill and her sisters are witches. Unfortunately they don’t hide it as well as their mother did. Too educated and far too clever, the Cahill sisters are already known throughout town for being eccentric and reclusive. Cate doesn’t mind their poor reputations, though, not if it can keep her younger sisters Maura and Tess safe.

And all three of the Cahill sisters do need to be kept safe. If the Brotherhood finds out about their magic, the girls could be sent to a prison ship. Or an asylum. Or they could disappear altogether never to be heard from again.

Cate’s efforts to keep the family beneath the Brotherhood’s notice begin to unravel as her Intention Ceremony approaches. With six months to choose between marriage or a life of service to the Brotherhood, Cate finds herself thrust into the heart of town society where she has to contend with tea parties, securing a suitable proposal, and the completely unsuitable but fascinating Finn Belastra.

Cate promised her mother she would keep her sisters safe. But as Cate learns more about the nature of her family’s magic and the risks they all face, Cate wonders if she is up to the task. Being a woman in New England during the late 19th century is bad enough. Being a witch could prove deadly in Born Wicked (2012) by Jessica Spotswood.

Born Wicked is Spotswood’s first novel. It is also the first book in the Cahill Witch Chronicles trilogy.

Set at the end of the 19th century, Spotswood creates an alternate history where witches are very real and women are seen as a threat. With historical details, some familiar and some not, Spotswood brings Cate’s New England to life with lushly described settings and brilliant characters that all but jump off the page.

Cate is a witty, realistic heroine torn between her own wants and her desire to protect her sisters at all costs. Cate’s siblings Maura and Tess have less page time but are equally individual and add another layer to the story. Finn Belastra, in addition to having a very cool surname, is an excellent foil for Cate throughout the story.

Born Wicked is a fast-paced, exciting read that will keep you guessing. The novel is well-plotted and keeps up the tension until the shocking conclusion. With so many delightful characters and so many unexpected turns, Born Wicked is a splendid start to a series that gives readers a lot to look forward to in book two.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

You can also read my exclusive interview with Jessica Spotswood starting May 7, 2012!

Song of the Sparrow: A (poetic) Review

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann SandellElaine of Ascolat could have been a lady with lovely dresses and finery. A lady who spent her days weaving like her mother in a tower room of their home on Shallot.

But that home and her mother are gone.

Instead Elaine lives with her father and brothers who fight in the Briton army under the young Arthur. The only girl in the camp, Elaine runs as wild and free as her brothers. She wishes the handsome knight Lancelot would see her as more than a child. She listens to Tristan’s sweet songs. She mends the soldiers’ clothes before each battle. She tends their wounds with herbs and poultices after.

Although she has a home in this strange world of men and fighting, although she has hundreds of brothers, Elaine longs for a real place among the men as much as she wishes for female companionship.

When another girl, Gwynivere, arrives at the camp Elaine is thrilled–until Gwynivere proves herself a cold and cruel companion.

Spurned by Gwynivere, faced with an uncertain future as war looms, Elaine decides to make her own place in Arthur’s camp and prove her worth to the soldiers–especially Lancelot. What starts as a simple plan soon turns into something more complicated and much more dangerous as Elaine has to struggle to protect everything–and everyone–she holds dear in Song of the Sparrow (2007) by Lisa Ann Sandell.

Song of the Sparrow is a revisionist retelling of the legend of King Arthur. It is also a novel written in free verse.

The Lady of Shalott, Elaine of Ascolat, has appeared in numerous retellings of Arthurian legend. Sandell has done something different here not only in giving Elaine a voice of her own but also in giving her agency in her own right. Song of the Sparrow is the story of before Arthur built Camelot–a prequel of sorts to the legends readers will know from movies and stories. Elaine is a winsome narrator with a captivating story that is as exciting and moving as it is poetic.

Beautifully written and elegantly told Song of the Sparrow is a delightfully re-imagined look at the time and world of King Arthur through a feminist lens. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Guardian of the Dead: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ellie leads a typical life for a seventeen-year-old. She goes to class, hangs out with her best friend Kevin, wonders about Mark, her mysterious (and good looking) classmate. She has a black belt in tae kwon do and, after a night of ill-advised drinking with Kevin, she has also volunteered her time to staging fight scenes for a play at the local university. Even if it is being directed by Kevin’s oldest friend Iris who is annoyingly perfect and makes Ellie feel like an ugly, ungainly giant.

After that things start to get less typical.

The news keeps talking about a serial killer. After a literal run-in with Mark Ellie is starting to see things. One of the actresses at the play seems to have an unhealthy interest in Kevin.

The more Ellie learns the more it seems like Mark might be at the center of all of the strange happenings around her and, stranger still, Ellie herself might have a role to play before it’s all over in Guardian of the Dead (2010) by Karen Healey.

Guardian of the Dead was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Cybils. Although it did not win the top spot it holds a special place in my heart as a personal favorite from 2010 and I am very excited I can finally post my review. (It is also set in New Zealand. As such, if you are not familiar with New Zealand school structure the beginning might be confusing, but don’t worry it all resolves itself quickly.)

Without giving too much away, the incorporation of stories and mythology–most notably traditional Maori myths–adds another dimension to the plot here–particularly the notion that stories shape us all. Much like traditional myths nothing is quite as it seems in Guardian of the Dead and, often, nothing works out quite as one would expect it too. Consequently the plot is rich and filled with twists and turns to keep even the most astute readers guessing.

It’s weird to say about a fantasy but Guardian of the Dead is extremely authentic when it comes to the characters and how they interact with each other. All of the characters, even the minor ones and the creepy ones, feel strikingly complex and well-developed in a very natural way. It all seems so real even as all of these improbable things start to happen to Ellie. Healey is really one of those writers that makes her craft seem effortless.

Ellie herself is also a joy. She is proactive and desirable and powerful throughout the story. Tall and ungainly she is athletic but also chubby. None of which is the point of the book or becomes over-emphasized because there is so much more to her. Which is such a realistic and healthy characterization even if it is one that doesn’t always appear in books.

Guardian of the Dead is everything I want to see in a Chick Lit Wednesday book and Ellie is everything I want in a heroine. Filled with mythology, action, wit, and even some romance Guardian of the Dead is a charmer that will leave you thinking even while it leaves you with a smile.

Possible Pairings: The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Misfit by Jon Skovron, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Exclusive Bonus Content: I actually have a funny degree of separation story about Karen Healey. Back before she become a YA author Healey wrote a blog/column called Girls Read Comics . . . And They’re Pissed which is a great resource about feminism and, you guessed it, comics. Anyway, in January 2008 in a post called Farewell to Meat, Healey linked to one of my early Chick Lit Wednesday Reviews for Ella Enchanted. It was one of the first times my blog got a ton of views and it was a big deal for me. In late 2010 when I realized Healey was  the genius behind Girls Read Comics it became even more exciting and interesting. So now, having posted about Guardian of the Dead in a Chick Lit Wednesday Review I feel a bit like I’ve come full circle.