LABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Cordova

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the feminist young adult literature we’ve come across lately (her original post extolled a book she’d just finished about lesbian pirates: “YA lit just keeps getting better and better.” Thank you for this intro, Rachael Collyer). She’s totally right. The YA lit community (at least a large part of it) seems particularly determined to defy norms, take risks, and blur boundaries, both in genre and in the lives of their characters. I have a theory about this: we currently live in a moment where YA is still often met with disrespect in some literary conversations. I think that this reality makes YA lit primed to disregard convention, to feel more comfortable messing with the status quo. If you’re a reader who still hasn’t given YA a chance, I encourage you to check out the diverse, imaginative storytelling that seems to be part of the genre’s identity, and a great example of this can be found in Zoraida Cordova’s novel, Labyrinth Lost.

IMG_0952

Labyrinth Lost tells the story of Alex, a teenager in Brooklyn who doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of her family, but not for typical reasons. Alex comes from a line of brujas–her mother and her sisters all have their own unique powers, as well as a deep-held spiritual belief in those powers and their worth. Alex isn’t as comfortable with her own identity, and has been concealing her powers from her family and her friends. When her magic is finally revealed, her sisters are excited to finally celebrate Alex’s deathday, a ceremony and party that acts as a coming-of-age celebration for a new bruja. But Alex has a plan, one that she hopes will rid her of her powers and the pain she fears they will cause. When that plan backfires, Alex must venture into a mysterious spiritual realm, and overcome the trials there, to win back the people she always wanted to protect–and she’s going to have to use her powers to do it.

Labyrinth Lost is a beautifully imagined urban fantasy, which is a genre I don’t have much exposure to. It navigates between our world and a completely imagined universe fluidly and effortlessly, and both settings feel vivid and real. I was also so impressed with the way Cordova is able to weave cultural folklore into the narrative. Her mythology is deeply based in traditions like the Day of the Dead celebration, and it was interesting to have those touches weaved into her fantasy universe–so often, fantasy stories are steeped in a Tolkein-esque generic template, and so this was a refreshing and welcome change.

Another element of the book I really enjoyed was Alex’s characterization, and in particular, her sexuality. Alex is bisexual, and the book manages to make this reality part of her character without forcing the story to be about it entirely. The story is not about Alex’s sexuality–it’s just about a bisexual teenager going on an adventure to save her family and discover herself. The relationships that are presented in the book are natural and incredibly endearing; they never feel relegated to tropes or gimmicks. I don’t want to give anything away, but the love story is handled with heart and care, and it is one of the best elements of the book.

Of course, it’s not the only good element. There are epic battles, terrifying villains, and a kick-butt hero, one who exhibits strength and courage in the face of uncertainty and insecurity–a battle that real teenage girls fight, and conquer, every day. I’m glad that there are books like Labyrinth Lost to help them along the way, and I think even if you’re not a teenage girl, you will find something in this smart, imaginative story to bring you along for the journey.

Advertisements

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us is yet another book that I consumed largely over the course of one day (I’ve been particularly lucky about that lately). I actually read the first chapter of this book a little while ago, and I had to put it away to wait for a time when I felt more prepared for it–the first chapter was already intense and foreboding, creating a palpable and disquieting tension. This tension never really let up once I returned (more ready to face it), but instead of repelling me, it pulled me into the mystery, the book urging me to confront it’s darkened corners and claps of thunder. The Walls Around Us was a story that kept me up at night, turning the pages under my covers, but now that I’ve finished, I don’t think it’s ready to let me sleep just yet.

FullSizeRender(6)

The Walls Around Us is a young adult novel that hops between the perspectives of two girls. One of them is a prisoner in a juvenile detention facility, and the other is an accomplished ballet dancer on her way to Julliard. As different as their circumstances are, they both seem to see the world through a prism of regret–or rather, a question of regret, and of debts paid and unpaid. The connection between them is in the form of another girl, one who doesn’t get to speak as a narrator but turns the plot on its axis all the same, and as the story unfolds, the reader discovers how the two disparate worlds, the ballet stage and the prison cell, become connected through her. And maybe, it would seem, this connection is becoming more than just a metaphor.

This story surprised me so much, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The mystery unfolds in a unique and unsettling way, and the two narrators accomplish strong work in this story. They are unreliable, but in the way that reality can so often be. The ending of the book seems somehow both impossible and inevitable, leaving you with both a sense of completion and a lot of questions. This is an element that also exists in the characters. Nova Ren Suma has done an incredible job of blurring the lines between villains and heroes, which is especially effective given the seemingly simple juxtaposition created by the two narrators: one a criminal, the other a ballerina. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but whatever it is you’re expecting at any point in the novel, the real answer is so much more complicated.

The Walls Around Us eschews simplicity at every turn. It’s tinged with the paranormal, but in a way that’s grounded and illuminated by real, tangible horror. It’s a mystery that unfolds in a spiral, rather than linearly. It interrogates consequences, responsibility, and justice. It is about a curse, but that curse lives as much in the realm of memory and morality as it does in the realm of the supernatural. It was brilliant. Someday please read it and email me about the ending.

LUMBERJANES VOLUME 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters

Between reading Lumberjanes and watching the premiere of the newly re-vamped Powerpuff Girls, my week was filled with monster-fighting girl power, which is exactly how a week should be. In fact, as a subgenre, monster-fighting girl power is one of the main components of my wheelhouse, and I’ve been excited to get my hands on this volume for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson’s work ever since I read her graphic novel Nimona last year, and Lumberjanes completely met my expectations.

photo(16)

Lumberjanes is a young adult graphic novel about five teenage girls at an unusual summer camp (called Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know). While the girls try to participate in normal camp activities like canoeing and plant identification, the appearance of some gigantic monster or mysterious tunnel always seems to lead them off course. As the girls work to outsmart and defeat every monster that comes their way, they begin to piece together clues about something mysterious and supernatural happening in their camp; something that, it seems, needs to be solved by a kick-butt group of friends.

Lumberjanes is delightful mostly because of its wholly imaginative and entertaining storytelling. Every element works together so nicely–I mean, what doesn’t sound perfect about a group of teenage girls solving mysteries in a camp filled with monsters? It’s just impossible not to have fun. The dialogue is also fast and funny, and the art style accents that sense of humor perfectly. It’s hard to describe, but the pacing of the story and art style together makes each page feel almost animated. The humor and storylines are fast and entertaining, but it’s also worth it to slow down and really look at the pictures. The book is beautifully illustrated. The monster designs are scary, but also zany and fun, and the outdoor environment is so colorful and alive. The environment of the story is so encompassing as you read, which is so enjoyable.

Another thing that I really like about this book is its approach to presenting gender. You can get an idea from the fact that the camp advertises itself as one for “hardcore lady-types.” The five girls represent a broad spectrum of gender representation, not just along the tomboy/girly-girl divide, but outside of that binary altogether. There are even two characters that seem to be developing feelings for one another, opening up the inclusion of LGBT-themes. Each character is just themselves, full of contradictions and difficult to categorize, but completely unique and identifiable, just like real people are. And they are all so strong, and not just in a generic way involving superhuman abilities and tight spandex clothing. They solve puzzles, use math and science, and figure out how to best work together. They’re sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t negate their ability to rise to the occasion, often relying on each other. It’s a great portrait of female community and strength that’s so wonderful to see, especially in a work aimed towards younger readers.

So, if feminist, LGBT-inclusive, monster-fighting, outdoorsy graphic novels sound like something you’d be into, go find a copy of this book. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure how much you’re getting out of this blog. (Also, a fun note for those in Columbus: Grace Ellis is giving a talk at Ohio State on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m. Details here).

THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ve been talking this book up to coworkers and friends since I was about halfway through with it, but I’ve found the process to be a bit superfluous. Despite the long list of specific praises I’ve had at the ready, the right sort of person (which, fortunately, is the sort of person I’m surrounded by daily) has been sold on the book as soon as I’ve said the title. And really, the title does a lot of this work for me. If you find it clever and cute, you will be as completely enchanted by this book as I was.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is Catherynne M. Valente’s first children’s book, and it’s easily become one of my all-time favorites. The story follows the adventures of a young girl named September who has tired of her life in Omaha. With her father off fighting in World War II and her mother at work in the factories, September decides she won’t be missed and accepts the Green Wind’s invitation to take her to Fairyland. Once there, September meets a variety of strange and sweet characters, all of which seem to have suffered a loss. Fairyland is darker than September expected, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that September might need to become the sort of hero she’s read about in stories, even as she becomes less and less sure that she’s the right girl for the job.

photo(13)

I loved this book for so many reasons. The characters are lively and wholly endearing. The world Valente creates is imaginative but so well-realized, somehow managing to feel both completely fantastical and lived-in all at once. The tone is humorous and self-aware, similar to a Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman story, but Valente’s voice is so unique that I don’t want to downplay her with comparisons. Valente writes not only with humor and fantasy, but also with enormous intelligence. This book doesn’t talk down to its audience at all, which is my favorite quality in a children’s book. Not only does the book have a sophisticated vocabulary, but the language itself is so poetic that it merges with the narrative to create storytelling that’s different than anything I’ve experienced before. The story itself is poetic. It’s hard to even extract a passage as example; the best I can give is when September finds herself in a magical bathhouse, being taken care of by a soap golem named Lye:

“September’s head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch.

‘This is the tub for washing your courage,’ Lye said, her voice as even and calm as ever […]

‘I didn’t know one’s courage needed washing!’ gasped September as Lye poured a pitcher of water over her head.”

The language wasn’t the only part of this book that was sophisticated. This isn’t an easy story of good and evil, knights and princesses. The characters in this story, and the world they live in, are textured and flawed and genuine. There is deep darkness and deep love, and often, the two are intrinsically connected. This book dazzled me with its brain and its heart, and I’m really looking forward to diving back into this world. (Thank goodness it’s a series!) If a whimsical narrator, lovable characters, and a story filled with surprisingly dark turns and unflappable hope appeal to you, I think you will love this book–but again, you’ve probably known that you would from the moment you read the title.

NOTES FROM NO MAN’S LAND by Eula Biss

This week’s review is another collection of essays (published once again by Graywolf Press, no less!), but what can I say? My wheelhouse is my wheelhouse. I do worry about becoming redundant, though, so before I begin to accidentally tread familiar territory, espousing things like “the expert blending of memoir, criticism, and journalism” and “the examination of the personal to reach a conclusion that’s universal,” let me tell you a truth about this book. It made me uncomfortable. It made me deeply uncomfortable. And this discomfort is so crucial, so necessary, that I want to make sure it’s not overlooked. Why did it make me so uncomfortable? To put it bluntly and succinctly, this is a book about being white in America.

photo(12)

 

In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss excavates the framework of race that underlies nearly every part of American life, from where we live (and why we can afford to live there), to how we experience school, to our response to natural disasters, even to the toys we cherish. The book is organized by Biss’s experiences living and working in different parts of the country, and the large, challenging concepts are belayed by her personal experiences, and her frankness in exploring them. Biss is not easy on herself, and this enables the reader the same sort of unflinching self-examination. In her essay “All Apologies,” for example, Biss explores some examples of official “apologies” that have been issued by our government, juxtaposing them to her own apologies as a way to explore the tension between remorse and the more selfish desire to be absolved. She writes of the time she punched her younger sister in the stomach, saying, “It was an experiment. And I was sorry the instant my fist hit her. Sorry before I even saw her face, covered in shock, a horrible purple. […] ‘I’m sorry,’ I gasped. ‘I’m sorry.’ But I already felt something else. I grabbed her arm desperately. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t tell.'”

If the description of this book as being “about whiteness” seems strange, it’s not by accident. The white perspective has been the default in our national conversation for so long that it’s unusual to see it articulated, and that’s precisely why this book is so important. Biss is in a unique position to write about this topic. She herself is white, but she is directly related to people who are not, and as such, she seems to have grown up constantly aware of whiteness as an identity, rather than as a lack of one. She recalls her experiences as they oscillate between extremes of wanting to reject white identity but, at the same time, reaping its benefits. The rejection of whiteness itself contains paradoxes, as well; Biss seems to want to distance herself from her white identity as a judgment of the system that has elevated her from others, but she also seems aware that doing so might be to deny one’s own complicity in this system. At times there is a palpable tension in the works as Biss examines the ways race has scarred this country and yet, by doing so, implicates herself. This tension is smart, as it keeps Biss from treading into a sort of White Savior complex. Instead, she is informative and honest, and the lessons she derives from her experiences are jumping-off points into a much broader conversation, one that appears in daily life again and again. This book needled under my skin and lives there now, prickling every time I turn on the news, or go out to eat, or look for apartments…

There is so much to unpack here, and these essays provide no easy answers. The act of examination that this book creates seems to be an important start, but the book leaves you with the staggering work left to be done from there, work that is so immediately pressing. It feels like a call to action, one that it as necessary today as it has ever been.

 

WINNIE-THE-POOH by A.A. Milne

I’m sorry for my absence in the last couple of weeks; I’ve missed writing about books for you all! It’s been a time of a lot of change for me, and I’m looking forward to the future. But change is always a little hard. I’ve been craving things of comfort: mashed potato dinners, cozy sweaters, adorable childhood favorites.

photo(8)

Surprisingly, I had never read the original A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh stories. I, like many children, was introduced to these characters by Walt Disney. I was surprised by how similar the stories I knew from those films were to the original text. Some of the lines and plots were exactly the same, and of course, both versions are so charming. I think the biggest difference between Milne’s original stories and Disney’s versions is the sense of intimacy. The stories in the book feel much more familial, a world created by a father for his child. Often, the narrator of the stories steps out of the plot to speak directly to his listener, the child Christopher Robin. This element added so much sweetness to the stories, and made their structure and narrative unique. The text plays around a lot with the concept of storytelling, which is something I really liked about it.

There are a lot of clever jokes throughout the stories. My personal favorite is the fact that Piglet lives in a home with a partially damaged sign that reads “Trespassers Will.” The real-world understanding of this sign would be that it was the beginning of a threat of violence, but instead, Piglet understands it to mean that the grandfather who passed down his home to him was named Trespassers William. If you’re like me and enjoy over-analyzing everything, you could read this as more than cute wordplay, but as an intentional subversion of something unpleasant and unfriendly for something sweet and familial. It’s a good trade.

Of course, the best parts of the stories are the characters. Pooh and his friends are kind and funny. They are also (for stuffed animals) so human. They like to be recognized and admired for good deeds; they like attention. They pretend to understand more than they do at times. They’re not always the best to one another, but at the end of the day, friendship always seems to prevail. My favorite of the stories was titled “In Which Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents.” Pooh and Piglet learn that Eeyore is feeling alone and neglected on his birthday, and each decide to bring him the perfect present. They both mess up the gifts and feel terribly about ruining Eeyore’s birthday. I won’t spoil the details, but I’m sure you can imagine it doesn’t end in hurt feelings. It’s so sweet and perfect.

This book was exactly what I needed. It’s comforting and warm without being too frivolous and silly. It manages to be smart while retaining a child’s sense of wonderment and joy. It’s a classic for a reason, and if you’ve never given the original stories a try, it’s definitely worth it.

CORALINE by Neil Gaiman

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit holiday-obsessed. As soon as the calendar is turned to the right page, I am covering my home with decorations, listening to themed music, and eating whatever CVS is willing to wrap in the appropriate colors and stock in that middle aisle it reserves especially for the weak wills of people like me. You might think that this could only apply to Halloween and Christmas, but I’ve been known to put up Valentine’s Day window stickers and stuffed rabbits with pastel bows. Basically, I’m everything Tim Horton’s wants when they strategically decide the colors of their doughnut sprinkles. To quote Icona Pop: I don’t care, I love it, I don’t caaaaare.

Halloween is a particular favorite, though, especially because of the stories associated with it. It is in this spirit of Halloween that I have chosen the books I plan to read and review in October. This week is a book I’ve been really excited to revisit. It’s the first book that I remember DEEPLY scaring me as a child, so of course, it was one of my absolute favorites. And let me assure you, Coraline by Neil Gaiman absolutely holds up.

IMG_3693

Coraline is a story about a young girl who is cunning and stubborn and extremely bored in her new home. Her parents are a bit of a rarity for children’s literature. They are not especially whimsical or a source of entertainment for Coraline, but they are attentive enough and generally well-meaning. Still, Coraline is a bit lacking in companionship and fun, so when she finds a secret passage to a parallel world, one that mimics her own in many ways but is much more interesting, it proves to be entertaining at least. But when Coraline returns home to find her parents missing, she has to venture back into the parallel world and contest with her Other Mother to get them back. What was once interesting and new becomes nightmarish and awful, and Coraline has to outwit it if she wants her life to return to normal.

One of the best things about this book is the character of Coraline. I think she’s so refreshing because she doesn’t act the way one might expect a child protagonist to act. She is not so hyper-precocious that she seems unbelievable, but she isn’t helpless and naive. For example, one might expect that when she first encounters the parallel world, she would be instantly charmed by it. Instead, she is curious but remains weary, deciding that she would prefer not to spend the night there. The sorts of things one usually yells at horror story protagonists never come up in this story. Before you think Don’t do that!, Coraline herself has decided that she probably doesn’t want to, thank you very much.

IMG_3690Of course, the world of this book is also as consumable and fun as Halloween candy. Neil Gaiman’s imagination has yet to disappoint me, and Coraline is no exception. What Gaiman creates here is almost an uncanny childhood wonderland: everything is whimsical and fun, and should be wonderful, but is just enough off to be completely unsettling instead. The scariest things in the parallel world are the singing rats, an element I had completely forgotten:

“The rats formed a circle.
Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.
The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,
We have teeth and we have tails
We have tails we have eyes
We were here before you fell
You will be here when we rise.

Just, shudder. No thank you no thank you no thank you.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about perhaps my favorite element of this story: the cat character. This is the most accurate, best depiction of a cat I’ve ever encountered in literature. When Coraline finds it in the parallel world (the only creature, besides her, who can move between them and doesn’t have a counterpart there), she discovers it can talk and briefly bickers with it about the fact that cats don’t talk in her world:

“‘Well, you’re the expert on these things,’ said the cat dryly. ‘After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.’
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.
‘Come back,’ said Coraline. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I really am.’
The cat stopped walking, sat down, and began to wash itself thoughtfully, apparently unaware of Coraline’s existence.”

Every encounter with the cat is perfect.

What do you think, kitty?

If you’re looking for a good, fun, scary read this Halloween, this is a great choice. It completely breezes by (I read it in one sitting) because it is so enjoyable. There was also a kid’s film made about it a few years ago. (Behind-the-scenes note: I typed “a few years ago” and then found the trailer and discovered that it came out in 2009. What is time. Why.) While it changes some things, it still captures the core of the story pretty well, including the Uncanny Wonderland-ness of the world and the spirit of the protagonist. The film also, like the book, has its share of “nope nope nope” moments. If someone were to try to adapt this book into a straightforward adult horror movie, I think it would go over really well, too. It’s just so creepy and great. Have a cup of something warm, curl up under a blanket, and enjoy this book.