Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

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Tell The Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt

★★★★☆

2012 • 360 pages • The Dial Press

No matter how much young adult fiction I read, it’s difficult squaring the fully realized humans that populate the vast majority of them with my own experience of adolescence—foggy, confused, and only on the road to being a person. (Tips for teens: everybody is worried about themselves. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Also, queer girls, don’t let straight girls give you makeovers. Their motives are rarely pure.) I understand why, of course. Not every author or every story needs to dig deep into the strange dreamscape that is the adolescent psyche. And every adolescent is different. But it’s important to write stories about the painful, harrowing process of becoming a person, lest kids (like yours truly) grow up ashamed of the half-formed nature that is, by rights, theirs.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells the story of one such teenager—June, a fourteen year old in the eighties, mourning the loss of her beloved uncle Finn. Her parents attempt to put on a brave front and refuse to discuss the disease Finn died from, while her elder sister Greta views June’s excessive mourning with cruel contempt. Only Finn’s final painting, a portrait of his nieces entitled “Tell The Wolves I’m Home”, marks his time in their lives. Adrift without Finn and vague at school, June suddenly finds a new avenue back to Finn when Finn’s boyfriend, Toby, asks to speak to her. The two begin meeting clandestinely, bonding over their love of Finn even as June has to keep him secret.

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Review: The Mist-Torn Witches

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The Mist-Torn Witches
by Barb Hendee

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 336 pages • Roc

Last year, buoyed by the runaway success of Frozen and Sleepy Hollow, I predicted that sisters were going to be the next big thing in media. Alas, it hasn’t dominated the cultural landscape as I’d hoped, but the realization that women can have meaningful relationships with other women has saturated mainstream media to a small but significant degree. (Fun fact: Maleficent fails the reverse Bechdel test. I have no idea how the live-action versions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are meant to top that, but Cinderella features Cate Blanchett with a cat on a leash, so I’ve got hopes.) Case in point: The Mist-Torn Witches, a fantasy novel that caught my eye while I was working at the bookstore for featuring two young women. Lovely!, I thought, and faced it out, despite being a tiny mass market paperback. (I was fanatical about facing out diverse speculative fiction at the store. It helps to see a friendly face or two.)

The Mist-Torn Witches’ young ladies are the sisters Amelie and Céline Fawe. Having lost their father and then their seer mother at a young age, the two sisters scrape together a living, with the diplomatic Céline pretending to be a seer and the rough and tumble Amelie as her guardian. One day, Céline is approached by representatives of the tyrannical sub-prince Damek, who want her to assure the Lady Rhiannon that she should marry Damek. Céline agrees, but when the girl shows up, she has her first real vision—Rhiannon being murdered by her husband. Céline warns her against the match. In retaliation, Damek has their home burnt down, but they are rescued by Damek’s brother, Anton, who wants their help in solving a recent run of bizarre murders. Pretty, unmarried women are being found not only dead, but dried to a husk. Unused to their new powers and the politics of court, Céline and Amelie have to solve the murders if they want to ever find a home again.

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Review: What Happened to Lani Garver?

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What Happened to Lani Garver?
by Carol Plum-Ucci

★★★½☆

2004 (originally 2002) • 314 pages • Harcourt

Jared Leto’s Oscar win for his role as Rayon in The Dallas Buyers’ Club was an ugly cap to a season of measured, indignant discussion about Rayon’s status as a Magical Queer who dies tragically after inspiring the straight hero to greatness and the choice to have a cisgendered man play a transgendered woman. Rayon manages to hit every stereotype about transgendered women almost casually, from Leto refusing to even identify her as such (he only refers to trans folk as “the Rayons of the world” in his acceptance speech) to the information that Rayon was a completely invented character.

When I started What Happened to Lani Garver?, I was afraid that it might fall into Magical Queer territory. The cover copy, which ends by questioning Lani’s gender, is not encouraging, and Claire, our protagonist, spends the first chapter wondering whether or not it would have changed things if she’d known what Lani was. But, as the novel continues, Claire is not talking about Lani’s gender—she’s talking about whether or not Lani was a floating angel, It would soothe her soul to know, given that Lani’s body has never surfaced after the two of them were almost drowned at the hands of the popular boys of Hackett, the tiny, backwards island off the coast of Pennsylvania they inhabit.

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Review: My Real Children

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My Real Children
by Jo Walton

★★★★½

2014 • 320 pages • Tor Books

Jo Walton is an unmitigated genius.

Everything I have ever read by her—Tooth and Claw, Among Others, and the astonishing first two installments of her Small Change trilogy—has been consistently spectacular, so when My Real Children was first announced on Tor.com, I was over the moon. But over the course of my move, I lost track of it. Which is why it was meaningful to come across it in the new fiction section at my new local library. That’s in hindsight, of course; in the moment, I snatched it off the shelf and scurried home to binge read it.

My Real Children is the story of Patricia Cowan, an elderly woman suffering from dementia in 2014. Or is that 2015? Patricia’s memory is deteriorating rapidly, and she finds herself remembering two lives that overlap and differ in significant ways. In one life, Patricia was Tricia, wife to the cruel Mark but mother of four beloved children. In the other, Patricia was Pat, a travel writer who raised three children with her beloved biologist Bee. The novel opens and closes with the elderly Patricia, but otherwise tells Patricia’s life story, from her childhood and schooling (the same in both lives) to the divergence point (a marriage proposal cum ultimatum) to the twilight of her lives.

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Review: Stray

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Stray
by Elissa Sussman

★★★★½

2014 • 384 pages • Greenwillow Books

As we established in Friday’s interview with author Elissa Sussman, I’ve been following Stray’s journey as a book for a good long time. But in the context of this summer’s Maleficent, which managed to sneak an utterly radical feminist message by cunningly disguising itself as a hot mess of a movie, Stray feels both timely and desperately, gaspingly long-awaited.

Stray is the story of Princess Aislynn. Like all aristocratic girls in her culture, Aislynn is attending school in order to make her a graceful lady for her future husband and keep her firmly on the Path. The Path, a very thorough and strict set of teachings, accepted behaviors, and expectations for women, purports to protect women from their inherent magic, putting them under the protection of their male guardians. Aislynn, however, has trouble controlling her magic, and when her debut is ruined by a burst of magic, she is promptly Redirected: her “loving heart” is removed and she is sent off to become a fairy godmother, a ladies’ servant meant to serve as a living warning to aristocratic girls. Aislynn is assigned to the monarch princess, but the small freedoms she enjoys as a fairy godmother begin to make her realize that the Path may not be the only way to live.

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Interview: Elissa Sussman

I met Elissa Sussman by breaking the rules.

“I know it’s easy to do a little Googling and find these people, but please don’t contact these authors,” our instructor of the day said on a blazing hot day sometime last summer, as we all riffled through the pages on our tiny fold-out desks.

I peered over my printed out excerpt from what is now Stray, my foot looking for my lost heel somewhere on this stupid row (my big fidget then was popping one of my wedges on and off, thus my predicament), and made a face. Well, I thought, that’s not happening. It’s pretty simple: genre feminists think other genre feminists are pretty groovy. If you put feminist fantasy in front of me, I will seek it back to its source.

Said source turned out to be Elissa Sussman. Continue reading

Review: Gossamer Axe

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Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino

★★★★½

1990 • 351 pages • Roc

Gossamer Axe found its way onto my reading list after several commenters recommended it on a lesbian-focused installment of Tor.com’s column Sleeps with Monsters, but, like a lot of older and more obscure speculative fiction on my list, it happens to be out of print. I despaired of getting my hands on a library copy. (In retrospect, I probably could have picked a copy online for quite cheap, but I have this allergy to paying for shipping.) But my despair was short-lived, because the universe immediately realized that a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy novel from the eighties was practically my birthright. One of my friends found a copy at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Atlanta (which I’ve still never been to!) and I immediately roared dibs.

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Review: How I Live Now

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How I Live Now
by Meg Rosoff

★★★★½

2004 • 194 pages • Penguin Books

During my sophomore year of high school, we were given a choice between two novels to read in English class. The first was Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, which had worked its way from newly published book to speculative fiction suitable for expanding the minds of our young folk in only a few years. Examining the book, I realized that it featured a love story between two blood cousins. Obscene!, I raged to myself. Inappropriate!, I raged to myself. Despite having read American Gods at the tender age of twelve, I had virtuously tricked my mother into purchasing that novel for me by not saying a word when I presented it at the counter; a school passing that filth out? My recently developed and oversensitive sense of morality was offended to the core. (I saw myself as an authority, set apart from other kids. Needless to say, I was an insufferable giant child.)

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Review: The Penelopiad

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The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood

★★★☆☆

2005 • 224 pages • Canongate

Margaret Atwood, especially in her later years, has a very specific and peculiar gift as a writer. Reading her prose, you hear not only the voice of a fully developed character, but Atwood’s as well. I’m tempted to say that her female protagonists have some similarities, but I haven’t read enough of her bibliography to feel comfortable saying that. All I can say is that Penelope and Offred are two different women related by a common mother. Atwood’s voice never intrudes, but you would never confuse her books for anyone else’s.

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Review: The Jewel

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The Jewel
by Amy Ewing

★★★★☆

2014 • 368 pages • Harper Teen

I enjoy a good referential pitch as much as anyone else. I myself constantly convince people to watch Plunkett and Macleane by describing it as “A Knight’s Tale Gothy, romantic older sister,” only for them to rage about how hard it is to get ahold of. (It is one hundred percent worth it.) But seeing The Jewel marketed as The Selection meets A Handmaid’s Tale gave me pause. It’s not the latter title, as everybody should read A Handmaid’s Tale, especially teenage girls, but the former. It just ties in so neatly to the young adult juggernaut narrative, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games to Divergent to the current interregnum. The Selection itself was marketed as a riff on The Hunger Games. Obviously, there’s very good marketing sense to invite comparisons to The Hunger Games, but I have mixed feelings about the young adult juggernaut narrative.

But in this case, I’m fine with it, because if it gets more teens reading The Jewel, the better.

The Jewel’s premise is, as promised, along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the Lone City, the royalty is so inbred that they cannot produce live births. Fortunately for them, a rare genetic mutation found, for some reason, in the lower classes gives girls the ability to do limited and hardwon magic—magic useful for fixing royal fetuses, once implanted. The surrogate system, where girls are taken from their families for training after they manifest their powers, trades luxury for freedom and bodily autonomy. Violet Lasting is Lot #197 for the upcoming auction. Already ambivalent about her role, her purchase by the cold and mercurial Duchess of the Lakes whisks her into a world of privilege, servitude, deceit, and danger. As she comes face to face with the fact that she will be impregnated against her will, she discovers a way out—a way out that will compromise her budding but secret relationship with a male companion. Continue reading