Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy Snow BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Website)

Genre: literary fiction/ magical realism

Setting: Flax Hill, CT (fictional)

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 308 pp

Published by: Riverhead Books (27 Aug 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

**Major spoilers below**

In mid-century Massachusetts, Boy Novak marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter, Snow. Eventually, Boy has a daughter of her own, which is when it becomes clear that Arturo and Snow are light-skinned Blacks and they are ‘passing’ as white. 

Boy, Snow, Bird is touted as a Snow White retelling, but if that is true, I fucking missed the point. Yes, there was a bit of an obsession with mirrors throughout and a sense of competitiveness about ‘who is the fairest’ between Boy and Snow. Beyond that, I guess I missed the similarities to the fairy tale. This isn’t a real problem for me because I generally felt this novel was more a discussion on race relations and racism than anything else. 

I thought the first part of the book worked well, told from Boy’s point of view. She was raised in an abusive household by a single father and traumatized by his penchant for rat catching. When she turns 20, Boy flees from her father’s home in NYC to the small town of Flax Hill, MA, outside Boston. There, she begins her new life, finds new friends, and marries Arturo. She feels there is something weird or not trustworthy about Snow, which is about all I could suss out regarding the Snow White plot. The ‘evil stepmother’ sends away the child everyone loves and fawns over. This confused me because I wanted to know why Arturo didn’t object to his new wife sending his first daughter away. As a parent, I would never stand for someone wanting to send my kid somewhere else. 

The second part was from Bird’s POV. This didn’t work as well, partly because of the epistolary element. Why not just give Snow her own section if you want her voice to be heard? Also, this was the section that seemed to have the most magical realism, such as how Bird says she doesn’t always appear in mirrors. These elements were later dropped entirely in the third part and we never got a resolution to them. 

In the third part, which goes back to Boy’s POV, the novel just loses the plot. There is a lot of discovery and revelation but it felt contrived and not that connected to the story. It is here where it becomes the most apparent that the characters are also really flat and have been throughout. It was in this last part, about 25 or so pages from the end, where Boy learns that her father, Frank, was actually her mother. Frank had been Frances and she was a lesbian, but began living as a man after she was sexually assaulted in grad school. There was a really gross implication that transpeople become trans because of sexual assault and that they then proceed to become abusive sociopaths. Um, no. Just no. I am sure that’s not what Oyeyemi meant to imply, but the message is there nonetheless. I know that there are plenty of examples of people, especially women, living as men in the earlier parts of the 20th century (for example, Trenton Makes) and passing as men, similar to how some Black people passed as white. However, WHY? Why was the transgender thing even here? I don’t  understand what it was supposed to add to the story; the story wouldn’t have changed one bit if Frank really was Boy’s father and her mother really had died in childbirth. Unless it is just to highlight to Boy that Arturo and Snow passing as white shouldn’t be the shock it was since her own mother had passed as something she wasn’t for Boy’s whole life, whether she knew it or not. 

This was the first novel by Helen Oyeyemi that I’ve read and I do plan to read more by her. I liked her writing and the hidden bits of humor. Some of it was pure poetry on the page. I just didn’t care for this story or the way she handled trans issues. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.
  • For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.
  • The general advice is always be yourself, be yourself, which only makes sense if you haven’t got an attitude problem.
  • If you wish to be truly free, you must love no one.
  • I told her that magic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it. It ends when continuing becomes simply too ghastly a prospect.
  • She was only fifteen. At that age embarrassment is something you can actually die of.
  • People underestimate the freckled.
  • I’d have liked for him to say my name again, though. You know how it is when someone says your name really well, like it means something that makes the world a better place.
  • Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away in them, setting two mirrors to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (Website)

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Robert Glenister

Source: my own collection

Length: 15:54:00

Published by: Hachette Audio (30 Dec 2012)

Cormoran Strike is a private detective living in London. Typically, he investigates missing people, extramarital affairs, and the like. But when Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls to her death in an apparent suicide, her brother begs for Cormoran’s help to investigate. He is convinced his sister didn’t jump but was pushed, that her death was a murder. Cormoran takes the case and is rapidly enmeshed in the world of high fashion and the ruthless, greedy people Landry had surrounded herself with.

Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling for anyone who’s been living under a rock) delivers a thoroughly tepid story that really drags in spots. I truly don’t know what all the hype was about. The plot was actually quite boring and predictable, despite being overly convoluted at parts. My opinion has nothing to do with wanting her to write more like Harry Potter. It is an adult mystery, so I don’t really know why so many people gave her negative reviews because it wasn’t written like Harry Potter. Helloooo, it’s a totally different genre! Even so, it was deadly dull in general. I only kept listening because it ticks a box for a reading challenge task.

Strike seems in many ways like the opposite of the usual private detective. He’s described as kind of short and really hairy. He is not handsome, and frankly, even if he were, his excess hair, described as a pelt or like a coconut mat, would take care of that. Yuck. I don’t really get why Rowling would want her protagonist to be kind of gross, unless it is just to make readers (and characters) focus on his skills rather than his looks. Which, if so, well done on the social commentary about the shallowness of modern society! If not, then just why? I did like that he is a protagonist with a disability, and that the disability wasn’t a constant focus of the narrative. It just was the way he was. The occasional reference to his aching stump or badly-fitting prosthesis was about it; Strike isn’t defined by his disability. 

In other ways, Strike is entirely typical – down on his luck, broke, difficult relationships with all the women in his life, ex-soldier, more competent than the cops or than anyone gives him credit for, with a sassy but highly competent assistant who kind of has a flame for him. It is very cliched.

I wanted to like this one, I really did. I wanted to see Rowling write an adult novel that grabbed my attention and was pleasingly complex. But I was disappointed. This was the first adult novel of hers I’ve read and it doesn’t inspire me to read any more. The narrator did a good job on this, but that was probably the best part of the book for me.

The Distant Hours

The Distant HoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction/ mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Caroline Lee

Source: my own collection

Length: 22:31:00

Published by: Bolinda Publishing (26 Oct 2010)

Edie Burchill never really understood her mother. But the arrival of a letter, lost for 50 years and addressed to Edie’s mother from Milderhurst Castle, sets Edie on a mission to discover the mysteries of her mother’s past. Mystery mixed with a bit of the Gothic and the romantic, the plot takes Edie back to Milderhurst Castle, her mother’s home during the evacuation of London’s children during the Blitz. There, she meets the sisters Blythe, twins Persephone ‘Percy’ Blythe and Seraphina ‘Saphy’ Blythe, and their younger sister Juniper. Edie digs deep to discover why her mother is so reluctant to talk about her time at Milderhurst, why the abandonment of Juniper’s fiance in 1941 sent her mad, and what the twin sisters are really hiding. 

This was a solid Gothic mystery, though not one of my favorites. It seems like it has all the requisite components of a very good Gothic mystery, but something was just lacking. I think there was often too much telling and not showing, what must have been pages of no dialogue (listening to it on audio makes it a little hard to tell), and then the denouement was kind of flat and not really a surprise. 

I didn’t really like Edie very much. Not that she was a bad character or anything, she was just rather boring. Maybe this was intentional on Morton’s part because the sisters Blythe were certainly NOT boring. Maybe Morton did that so she could highlight the eccentricity of the sisters. Whatever it was, I did very much enjoy the sisters. The writing style itself was also nice. I like the florid style of Gothic literature, and while this wasn’t exactly florid or fully Gothic, I liked the atmosphere Morton created all the same. 

This was my first read from Morton and, while I didn’t care for some aspects of it, I liked her writing and am happy to give her other books a go. 

#NotYourPrincess

#NotYourPrincess cover#NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charleyboy (Twitter, Insta) and Mary Beth Leatherdale (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: nonfiction, women’s voices

I read it as a: hardback

Source: library

Length: 109 pp

Published by: Annick Press (12 Sept 2017)

A collection of poetry, essays, art, and songs by Native American women, this slim book contains multitudes. Some of the entries look into the past, into abuses and humiliations the creators or their family endured, and some look forward into a more hopeful future. A nicely eclectic collection.

I like the glimpse into the experiences of American Indian/First Nations women. It is horrifying how badly they have been treated and difficult to read. But I think the best way to learn more and educate myself about things I have no experience with is by reading the experiences of those who have gone through it. It sounds trite to write it out like that, but it is a fundamental part of how I read now; I do not know the experiences of Indigenous women or Black women, and I can’t really understand what it is like to experience the racism or fear or humiliation that so many of them have endured. Reading about it in their own words is the best way to learn.

I liked how varied this compilation was. However, I found the actual format to be off-putting. It is a physically huge book, like a giant magazine or something, and is impossible to stuff into a purse. If I were a student wearing a large backpack everyday, that would be one thing. But the dimensions of this were 9×11.5 inches and it’s just…big. Also, while the individual contributions were all excellent, the book as a whole didn’t feel like it had a proper flow to it to blend and merge from one section to the next very easily. It actually felt somewhat incomplete, as though there were pieces missing from each section as well as from the overall book. It sadly makes me a little hesitant to pick up another book edited by Charleyboy. 

I would give it 3 stars in honor of the women who contributed to it, but the book itself as a whole would probably only get 2. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Patriarchy is quite simply the systematic oppression and regulation of women’s bodies, minds, and spirits. … In Indigenous culture, Indigenous women and girls are sacred, known as life-givers, as independent, as autonomous, as decision-makers. (“Reclaiming Indigenous Women’s Rights”, Nahanni Fontaine (Anishinaabe), p 25)
  • “I rather you be terrified than think,” she warns, “that you can beat the wrath of Mother Nature.” (“Falling,” Natanya Ann Pulley (Navajo), p 36)
  • You are allowed to cry/ You are allowed to scream/ But you are not allowed to give up./ If you ever need a hero/ Become one. (“Dear Past Self”, Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota), p 98-99)

 

Angels in America

51vmgruhwl._sl500_Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary literature/plays

I read it as an: audiobook (audio play?)

Narrator: National Theatre Broadway cast

Source: public library

Length: 06:53:00

Published by: Random House Audio (14 May 2019)

A two-part play, Angels in America focuses on gender identity, social justice, and AIDS in the time of the Reagan Republican counter-revolution. It features various storylines of several people living in NYC, primarily Prior Walter, Joe Pitt, his wife Harper, Roy Cohn, and Belize. Each person is struggling to make sense of themselves, often hiding who they really are, and the miseries and fears that go along with denying your true self. 

This was a brutal read. It was set in the 80s, my childhood, so when it was actually happening, I was too young to understand or care about issues like AIDS, the gay community, or why it is so important not to cover up your identity. I also wouldn’t have understood why that was sometimes the only way people could survive. Although it was a painful story to hear, I am so glad I did. My favorite character was Belize, so quick to tell you just what he thinks but at the same time also quick to care for another person, even if that person just royally offended or insulted him. We need more people like Belize in the world.

I have never listened to a play on audiobook before, though I’ve certainly been to several live performances. I didn’t know what I would think of the experience, but it was fantastic! The cast was amazing, of course, and the way the narration and stage directions were delivered made it really easy to follow. I would definitely listen to more plays on audiobook. 

The Land Beyond the Sea

31568110The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss+

Length: 688 pp

Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)

Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school. 

Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery. 

The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it. 

Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles. 

Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness. 

All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages. 
  • William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise. 
  • “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer. 
  • He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
  • Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
  • [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
  • He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend. 

 

 

 

Read Harder 2020 plan!

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Read Harder Challenge. Image credit Book Riot, https://bookriot.com/2019/12/03/2020-read-harder-challenge/

Yay, it’s here! Read Harder 2020 is here! I look forward to this list every year. In part, I just like to see what the brains at Book Riot have come up with, and in part, I love to put together a plan for myself for how to cover the tasks. Additionally, I try to make it more feminist by finding books to cover each task that are written by women or authors who identify as women. For various reasons, this doesn’t always happen, but I try hard to make it so. #RequisiteStarTrekReference

So, what do we have this year? How will this pan out? I am thinking of the following: 

  1. Read a YA nonfiction book: #NotYourPrincess by Lisa Charleyboy or How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana
  2. Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi OR One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. Probably the 1st one since I’ve owned it forever and haven’t got round to reading it yet.
  3. Read a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman: The Appraisal by Anna Porter OR The Distant Hours by Kate Morton OR Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  4. Read a graphic memoir: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero
  5. Read a book about a natural disaster: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala OR Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward 
  6. Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author: Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Mostly because I know Jason Isaacs (Twitter) was in this play at one point. Carrying on with my hardcore Jason Isaacs (Insta) crush. 
  7. Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII: The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman. Also, this task is funny to me, as ALL the HF I read is set in a time other than WWII. Is there really that much WWII HF? LOL. I’m already reading this one, so I might as well use it for this task; I won’t get it finished before the new year, so I reckon it counts.
  8. Read an audiobook of poetry: If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar OR The Poets’ Corner by John Lithgow
  9. Read the LAST book in a series: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (don’t know if it is the LAST, last, but it is the most recent one out in the Jackson Brodie series). Also, DID YOU KNOW that there is a TV series of these books called Case Histories? It stars… wait for it… Jason Isaacs! Dear god, that man’s eyes… 
  10. Read a book that takes place in a rural setting: Gilead by Mary Robinson OR The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth
  11. Read a debut novel by a queer author: How to Survive a Summer by Nick White OR Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead OR Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
  12. Read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own: Muslim Girl by Amani Al-Khatanahtbeh OR Educated by Tara Westover. Every religion is different for me. Hardcore atheist…
  13. Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before: Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala OR Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi (both Nigerian chefs). This was hard for me even to find some since it turns out I’ve eaten a LOT of different cuisines, and many that I haven’t seem not to have any books written about them.
  14. Read a romance starring a single parent: Maybe Home Again by Kristin Hannah, mostly because someone gave it to me and so I don’t have to look for something else. I really don’t know yet since I am definitely not a romance reader. I might pick one from this list because it’s awesomely comprehensive: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
  15. Read a book about climate change: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (double dipper!) OR The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  16. Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman: The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (double dipper!)
  17. Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages): Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire OR Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand. Probably the 2nd. I love Elizabeth Hand; her stories are so fucked up.
  18. Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community: No idea. I’ll probably just wander around the kids’ section at the bookstore and pick one while my daughter is browsing.
  19. Read a book by or about a refugee: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (because my daughter already has it, so that’s convenient) OR The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
  20. Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (double dipper!) OR Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb. Probably the 1st since the 2nd seems a little older than middle grade.
  21. Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non): House Rules by Jodi Picoult or maybe Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  22. Read a horror book published by an indie press: After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones. Been wanting to read this one forever.
  23. Read an edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical): I have a backlogged stack of Arthuriana that will do nicely for this.
  24. Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author: #NotYourPrincess by Lisa Charleyboy (double dipper!) OR The Round House by Louise Erdrich

It’ll be interesting, at the end of 2020, to see how many of these books I’ve planned are the ones I actually ended up reading for this year’s challenge.