I’ll Give You the Sun

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This YA story is about a pair of artistic teenage twins dealing with loss and their first loves. The point of view alternates between the two, one in the present, and the other 2 years earlier. It was pretty engrossing, as the structure leaves so many unanswered questions. I found the language impressive and whimsical. Noah is always imagining paintings, while Jude follows strange superstitions. One character, a Colombian sculptor, made me think of Marquez. The family’s alliances twist, as the son and daughter shift loyalties between the mother and father, and the teens trade identities from artist to athlete and back again. Some of the things the parents say to the kids about their gender identities are clearly messed up, but very common. The love stories were both intense and passionate, fun to read about. I’m glad to see inclusive novels like this one, in which two boys fall in love with each other, becoming more and more common.

33

So today I turned 33. Because good food is really all you need to have a happy day, I had sushi for lunch, and fajitas and margaritas for dinner, with ice cream cake for desert. And of course, sharing that food with family. I had tuna rolls with the guy who first introduced me to sushi, and my four-year-old had his first tortilla, and my one-year-old made a funny face when he tasted the lime from my margarita and then got super excited about taking tiny bites of ice cream.

I’m a little sad I didn’t get to see my mom today. Since having my kids I’ve realized that birthdays are celebrations for mothers too. Every time one of my boys has a birthday, I want to get a picture of just me with him, the two of us together as a unit like we were the day he was born. My boy’s birthday is a chance to congratulate myself on keeping him alive for another year, to celebrate his growth and the care I’ve put into it. I don’t think I’ll feel differently in 30 years. My mom is the person I miss the most since moving away from the family, and I especially wish my sons could see her more often because they love each other so much. And I also remember how she baked Barbie cakes and threw pool parties for me and my sister and took us to Johnny’s Toy Store to use our keys to the castle. She made our birthdays special, and since mine is in June, it was always in the middle of a summer that we spent at the pool and the library. So I miss my mom on my birthday.

I’m getting to be old enough where birthdays make me have existential thoughts and wonder about the direction of my life. 33 is in my head as a key year for some reason–I’ve heard it called the “Jesus year” because that’s how old He was when He died. It seems like a pivotal number, even though it’s not really any official milestone. So I’m asking myself, Am I on track? Is my life going the way I want it to? Will I have regrets someday because of the things I didn’t do this year?

Looking at my life like this, I think one thing I can say for sure is that I’m proud of my children and my family life. I’ve made some choices to prioritize that aspect of my life, and though I wish I could have everything and not have to choose, I would make the same decisions again. I do regret not writing more, or more ambitiously, and I’ve resolved to change that. It’s a matter of habits and scheduling and confidence.

As a teacher with a summer birthday, I get a day to myself that’s a vacation day, just as I did when I was a kid. The years of my life overlap with the school year, and the academic calendar, not the Gregorian, dominates my life, so that birthdays seem like a more natural time for me to make resolutions than January 1. The free time I get in the summer is time I like to use to kick off good new habits, try new things, and rejuvenate myself in lots of ways. I’ve been doing a good bit of that work this year, but I’ve been keeping quiet about it so far. I’m hoping these efforts will come to fruition in the next month, so that I can have good habits established when the school year starts again. I hope I can make 33 live up to the hype I’ve been giving it.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

This short fantasy novel enchanted me thoroughly with its gorgeous formal language, imagery, scenery, and magical animals. The female protagonist, Sybel, cares for mythical creatures alone on a mountain, until she is given a baby prince to care for. When he grows up, she is thrown into the middle of the rivalry between the king and a competing court. She tries to keep herself out of the drama, until she is brought in against her will. It’s so cool and rare to find a strong woman character who knows who she is, who has power without the need to prove anything by wielding it. Watching Sybel almost lose that quality in a search for revenge was tragic; seeing her finally save herself and prevent a war, with the help of her loved ones, was triumphant. Except for the villain, who mostly acted in fear and desire, the characters all treated each other with such love and acceptance and forgiveness. The final twist was perfect and beautiful. If you like immersive fantasy and pretty sentences, this book is worth a try.

Mediocre Fantasy

Here are 3 quick reviews of some fantasy novels I wasn’t very impressed with. The last two of these books are very long, and may have been worth the time investment if it weren’t for that factor.

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Wither, because it seemed like a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with drastically shortened lifespans to add extra stress. But Rhine, the protagonist, seemed to lose much of her spark and will to fight in this sequel. She spent much of the narrative ill or in a drugged stupor, and then got captured again at the end.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This book concludes The Passage Trilogy. It examines the series’ villain at length. I often found it needlessly violent and maudlin. I had a hard time buying into the ending, in which 700 people on an isolated Pacific island are all that’s left of humanity, then 1000 years later things are back to normal, almost exactly the same as they used to be before the virus, with technology and culture comparable to today’s. I found that absurd.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I remember loving The Mists of Avalon years ago, but Bradley’s version of the Trojan War is not as good as her version of the Arthurian legends. She chose Kassandra, the future-predicting daughter of Priam, as her protagonist. One perhaps understandable flaw, which may be inherent in the source material, is the idea of predestination and the will of the Gods, which makes the choices of the characters seem pointless.

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.

The Dark Days Club

The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.

I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.

Simple Kids’ Books

These are nice children’s books, but I wouldn’t say they’re interesting or complex enough to cross over and satisfy an adult reader. They feature female protagonists and good use of language. But their problems are either melodramatic or mundane, easily solved and not compelling. I’m not their intended reader, but a 10 year old girl might like them.

Esperanza Rising by Katie Munoz Ryan

This book is about a rich girl in Mexico in 1930, who has to move to California and work on a company farm after she loses her father. There is a  subplot about strikes and deportations. As a Spanish teacher, I liked the way that Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.

This is a happy story about a girl whose migratory family comes back to its hometown, which she discovers is a magical place. Felicity Pickle makes a friend and they do good deeds and eat magic ice cream. Her talent is for words, and she’s always collecting odd ones, including cute made-up ones like “spindiddly.”