The Arrivals

The Arrivals by Melissa Marr

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Imagine purgatory is the wild west with monsters. This fantasy novel is set in a desert dimension populated with demonic monks and bloedzuingers (vampires), where people from Earth arrive in a seemingly random way. Except that they’ve all killed during their time on Earth. When they die in the Wasteland, sometimes they stay dead, and sometimes they don’t. (Maybe calling the Wasteland purgatory is just my interpretation, but it seemed to fit, especially in the first half of the book.)

The main characters are Jack and Kitty, a brother and sister who were the first Arrivals from Earth, coming from a frontier town in California. Their cowboy sensibilities shape the story, and also explain why they’ve survived so long in the dangerous Wasteland. Chloe is the latest Arrival, from 2013, and she and Jack have an almost instant attraction. The villain is Ajani, a rich and powerful man who’s also from Earth and seems to be pulling all the strings.

This novel is by Melissa Marr, who wrote the Wicked Lovely series, and it has all the strengths of those books–action, romance, description–but with a different feel: grittier, less ethereal. The characters are all battle-hardened, yet quirky, and the plot moved quickly, especially toward the end. A fun, adventurous read.

Cress

Cress by Marissa Meyer

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The Lunar Chronicles embed fairy tale retellings in a story of interstellar war, plague, intrigue, and romance, in a future fantasy world where cyborgs and androids fly space ships and the men in the moon have special mind control powers. The villain, Queen Levana, ruler of the moon, is trying to marry Emperor Kai and gain control of the Earth. Cinder, the first novel, introduced the central character, a cyborg mechanic princess-in-disguise who puts Cinderella to shame. Scarlet, the second, gave us Meyer’s answer to Little Red Riding Hood and her Wolf, who join Cinder in her quest. Cress, like Rapunzel, has been trapped in a satellite for years, unable to cut her hair, until Cinder’s crew rescues her. She has lots of little romantic fantasies that keep her going, reveal her whimsical yet plucky character, and provide some humor. Cress is very dramatic, in an over-the-top way that allows us to laugh at her while still liking her.

This series is incredibly enjoyable. The world is complex and immersive and strange and gorgeous. It’s fun to look for the little fairy tale touches, and especially for the moments when the fairy tale is critiqued or turned upside down. Here’s my favorite line, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler:

“The people of Luna don’t need a princess. They need a revolutionary.”

None of these “princesses” are passive, and all have important skills. Cinder can fix anything mechanical or electronic, while Cress is a master hacker. I especially loved the big scene between Cinder and her “prince,” Emperor Kai, where he is totally humbled when she finally tells him her true identity. It’s kind of beautiful the way he grows because of the way Cinder has made him rethink some of his beliefs and assumptions. In this Cinderella story, it’s not so much about the prince raising her up from the ashes. Instead, it’s about what he has to learn from her.

The ending makes it clear that the next book in the series will be called Winter, and will focus on the stepdaughter of Queen Levana, who’s mentally unstable because she doesn’t use her “lunar gift,” and in love with the guard who was a new character in this volume. I can’t wait for it.

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

 

This novel is a loose modern retelling of Snow White that focuses on the point of view of the evil queen. The setting is a New England town in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Instead of a queen, Boy is a girl who runs away from an abusive parent and marries a widower with a young girl. Their fraught relationship is the focus of the book, and there is no prince or enchanted sleep. The fairy tale premise is only the bare-bones skeleton of the story, the starting point. Any reader who wants exact correspondence in her fairy tale retellings will be disappointed.

Instead, the style is the main attraction here. Oyeyemi dances on the edge between realism and magic. For example, mirrors don’t seem to behave normally around any of the three main women of the novel, but it’s unclear whether that’s a false perception or a fact. There are several dream sequences, or stories-within-the-story that grow and take on a life of their own. A couple of the more memorable of these focus on the meaning and consequences of beauty. The imagery is often violent, and the stories seem to go a step farther than I expected them to. In some cases, two characters tell the same story each in their own way, which is a fascinating way to reveal their personalities as well as the tale. This writing really captured my imagination and made the book incredibly enjoyable.

Here are some spoilers. Snow and her father are African-Americans “passing” as white. Their secret comes out when Boy has another baby, Snow’s half-sister Bird, who has darker skin. These racial issues and the way they affect the family create most of the drama of the second half of the book, culminating in a supremely uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner. Through combining this plot with the fairy tale setup and language, the novel really shows how problematic the idea of a fairy tale princess whose beauty is defined by her “skin white as snow” is in a multiracial world.

The ending is very loose and abrupt, almost as if it were leaving space for a sequel. Not much is resolved at all. I hope a second book is in the works, but there doesn’t seem to be any word out about one.

River Secrets

River Secrets by Shannon Hale

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River Secrets is the third of the Books of Bayern, a series that began with The Goose Girl and Enna Burning. At the end of the last book, a war had just ended, and this one deals with establishing friendly peacetime relations between Bayern and its warlike neighbor Tira. The main character, Razo, a friend of Enna and Isi, is a young soldier who is sent to Tira’s capital to guard the ambassador. He becomes a spy, searching for the answer to a mystery. Burned bodies keep appearing, and it seems someone is trying to incite another war by framing the Bayern for murders. Also, there’s a cute redhead Razo is interested in.

The best book in this series is the first one. This one was kind of predictable, and the violent climax scene was kind of laughable and cartoonish at times. But the writing was ok and the love story was nice.

Mereader’s VIDA count

Every year VIDA keeps track of how many women are published in literary journals and reviewed by publications like the New York Times Book Review. This year, they noted significant progress in several magazines. Reading about the yearly count made me wonder how my blog and my book list stacked up in terms of inclusivity. So I decided to examine my own reading practices to see whether I’m reading more men or women. I looked back at my list of all the books I’ve reviewed in the 2 years I’ve been blogging, 217 in total. Here’s what I found:

I read 76 books by men and 139 books by women. That means almost 2/3 (64%) of my reading list is female, and 35% is male. (The numbers don’t add up to 100 because I read 2 books by pairs of male/female coauthors, and I didn’t put them in either category. It should also be noted that I counted Cuckoo’s Calling in the female category, because J.K. Rowling is female, though she published it under a male pseudonym.)

This was not a huge surprise to me; I had a hunch my authors skewed female. I think my reading list stacks up this way because the genres I read are more female dominated. The men that I did read were more likely to have written nonfiction (Malcolm Gladwell, Martin Seligman) or classic novels (Dickens, Tolstoy).

I don’t think this means I need to do affirmative action to begin reading more men. Throughout my education, I read plenty of books by men, and needless to say, they still dominate literature. Otherwise no one would bother doing counts like this. If I were to change my reading habits to be more inclusive, I should probably begin reading more books by people of color. I’d love suggestions!

The Interestings

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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This novel follows a group of friends from the summer camp they attended as teenagers in the 1970’s to middle age today. Jules, probably the main protagonist, has aspirations to become a comedic actress, but ends up as a therapist, married to a depressed ultrasound technician. Ethan becomes a wildly successful animator, and his wife Ash directs feminist off-Broadway plays. Jonah, son of a famous folk singer, abandons his musical talent to go to MIT and design products for the disabled. The novel examines some big questions without positing one single answer, which is probably the best way to approach themes. Questions like: How do money and jealousy change friendships? What happens to a friendship when one person’s dreams come true, and the other has to “be practical”? How does keeping secrets change a friendship and a marriage? What does it mean to be talented? How important is creativity to a life well lived?

I really enjoyed this book and felt like I knew its characters.  I sympathized deeply with the feeling that Jules experienced, the sense that her teenage self was watching her and judging her, disappointed with the way she had turned out. Jules kind of spends her life trying to recapture the feelings she had at camp, only to find that the transformative experiences of youth are so intense and perfect precisely because they happen to you when you’re young. The setting–New York over 40 years of recent history–while common, was used well to shape the plot. The writing was wry and witty and never boring. The book reminded me of a few other books I’ve read recently about groups of friends in New York (Motherland) and groups of old friends who stay close over many years(The Red Book).