Reread Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Title: White is for Witching
Format/Source: Hardcover/my copy
Published: June 2009
Publisher: Picador
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Contemporary + magical realism
Why I Read: Ready for my annual reread
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Second book for the Reread Challenge
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

I love this book so much that I refuse to discuss it. Even if you loved it as much as I did, I don’t want to hear about it. Perhaps you loved it in a different way. I don’t want to know. I don’t want my love of this book to be spoiled in any way! I’m very fierce about it. There isn’t any other book about which I feel this way.* Then why I am writing this post? Oh, I don’t know, I’m just asking for trouble, aren’t I? ;P This year thus far I’ve been very diligent about documenting everything I’ve read and this book counts towards the 2015 Re-read Challenge I’m participating in…so maybe making a few notes about my reading experience (without somehow talking about the book itself) won’t kill me.

WHEN I First Read – I can’t quite remember, but I think it must have been shortly after the book’s publication in summer 2009 (certainly my first reading was in 2009). I remember reading it in the cafeteria at high school. Since then, I’ve read the book nearly every year (2014 flashed by too quickly for me to choose a good time to read it ;_;).

WHAT I Remember – I remember how I felt while reading it – totally enveloped in the story, as though nothing else exists, feeling differently even after I set the book down, spending more time quietly and observantly, thinking about different things than usual. I remember how the book feels in my hands, the soft touch of the pages and the perfect style of the font. I remember how I’m not sure I can ever understand the whole story, but I discover something new on each reading.

WHY I Wanted to Re-Read – To experience the sensations described above! I know I did an awful job at trying to describe ‘that feeling’ I get from this book. Perhaps it’s best to say no other book has made me feel that way. This is why I so often return to it. Also, I felt especially eager to read it because I hadn’t read it in 2014 (I should have read it in the spring, before I got caught in moving overseas!).

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Just as satisfied as every other time! Every now and then, I do a search for Helen Oyeyemi on Twitter to see if I’ve missed any interviews, etc. I was delighted to find another reader tweeting about how she felt the same way. She was reading the book for the first time and we talked about how we love it so much we don’t want to talk about it with anyone! I was very happy to find someone who felt the same way. She didn’t want the story to end, so I assured her it holds up on rereads.

WOULD I Re-Read Again -Yes, of course. I will continue to read this book every year, until – heaven forbid – it starts to lose its magic for me.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve spoken publicly about my most beloved book. I’m still standing. It’ll still be the same wonderful book next I read it. Phew. 😉 Is there a book you fiercely guard and love? 

*I only have a greater love for the Tolkien’s Middle-Earth writings, but it’s a different kind. That world is so vast, it allows a for a broad variety of fans. I can easily find those who feel the same way, and even if I’m chatting with those who have a different love than mine, I can set aside my personal adoration to explore all all its intricacies and build on them with other fans.

Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Author: Eden Robinson
Title: Monkey Beach
Format/Source: ebook/Kobo
Published: April 2002
Publisher: Mariner Books
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction (magical realism?)
Why I Read: CBC Books group read for February
Read If You’re: A fan of B.C. as a setting; interested in Indigenous literature 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

One of my goals this year is to read more books by Indigenous Canadian authors. I’m happy this book was chosen for CBC Books’ February group read because I hadn’t heard of it before. I jotted down my own thoughts, then went through the GoodReads discussion and added responses to some comments. When I’m quoting someone else, it’s from that group discussion. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.

I really enjoyed this book but I’m having a hard time writing about it! I just like most everything – the mood, the setting, the focus on culture and spirituality, Lisa’s narrative voice. I didn’t like the ending. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Please humour me as I try to explain 😉

First and foremost, I love the atmosphere of this novel. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The foggy atmosphere is created (for me) by the setting and tone/mood of the narrator. I love the British Columbia setting. I haven’t read many novels set in B.C., but Monkey Beach brought to mind A Tale for the Time Being. The dense forests coming to meet the vast ocean naturally creates a moody atmosphere. The setting helps to fuel the atmosphere of the novel. MJ wrote “I am not sure that I would call the mood of the book melancholic but it definitely had an unearthliness or other worldish aspect to it – most likely because the book was filled with so many references to the spirit world, the afterworld, ghosts, mythic creatures and living creatures (birds, seals, whales, crows, snakes, cats) all who seemed to have aptitudes and impacts far exceeding what non-native people usually attribute to these same creatures.” Well-said! I also enjoyed Lisa’s narrative voice, though it took me a bit to really settle into the reminiscent style. I didn’t realize most of the story would take place in the past. The mood felt like one shrouded in fog, I think one could describe the novel, at least in part, as an exploration of how we deal with different types of loss. The melancholic, distant feeling comes from looking back into the past, to those difficult memories.

I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they luanch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its head. (1)

I understood I had just had a vision, but I was afraid to think about what it meant. I went downstairs and waited until Jimmy woke an hour later. I followed him onto the porch as he took a bag of stale bread out to feed the crows for good luck. The crows fluttered around his feet. He seemed puzzled that I was watching him do what he’d done for years. (64% of part two)

Family relationships are at the heart of this story. Jane from BC writes, “I feel that Robinson is doing a great job of giving us a sense of place and the dynamics amongst the characters. So many sibling relationships that have been introduced and then the relationship between the generations.” Agreed! Many types of familial relationships are explored, both horizontal (siblings) and vertical (parents/aunts/etc.).

All major characters in the novel are Haisla. Indigenous spirituality plays a significant role, and was one of the most interesting parts of the story for me. This is where the ‘magical realism’ comes from, but I never thought of using that term until I read it in the discussion. If someone asked me for some magical realism to read, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Aboriginal experiences that one may often hear of, such as residential schools, play a less major role in the story, because Lisa herself wasn’t affected by them. One scene in particular (when Lisa stands up to a group of white guys and is almost attacked) stood out for me, though, and was tough to read. In my hometown, I hear too much about missing and murdered Indigenous women. There are too many of them, but what’s almost as sad is that while not every Indigenous women is going to be attacked, a large majority have experiences such as what Lisa had, some likely on a regular basis. For them it’s just a part of everyday life.

One struggle I had while reading this book was keeping track of Lisa’s age. I was very happy to read I wasn’t the only one with that problem! Her experiences are so much older than she is. I thought she was three or four years older than she actually was when she started smoking. Specific ages are rarely mentioned and I kept losing track. I was always surprised when an age was mentioned. It was always far younger than I thought. I wonder if this uncertainty about ages was intentional on the author’s part? I suppose you could look at it as a comment on memory, as some people in the discussion mentioned. I think also part of my issue was that I thought the Lisa we meet at the beginning of the story is also older, but she’s still young. I was surprised to find her reminiscing take us up to Jimmy’s decision to go fishing. I wasn’t expecting that.

The main qualm I have with the story is the narrative skipping over critical events (and just as I’m typing that I’ve thought – maybe it’s because Lisa doesn’t want to recall those awful, specific moments? But that’s beside the point here). Usually this type of narration really bothers me, and I was kind of bothered…but only because I usually am? Hah, what I guess I mean is. – the skipping over major events didn’t actively bother me until I thought about it afterwards – “Hey, how come I didn’t get to read about that? I’d rather read about it than find out in casually dropped comments!” I still enjoyed the book. So, I only became annoyed at the skipping when I thought about it because I enjoyed all the stuff I did read. It didn’t feel like I had missed out (though if I followed my usual reactions/logic, it felt like I did). My note during reading when this happened for the first time was “AUGH do I or do I not hate this convention?” (beginning of part two). Later notes include “not a fan of skipping big parts”, “boo why’s all the action off the page”, “another big off stage moment” but the last note is “I WANT ANSWERS but I’m kind of content”. A related note is that the reader doesn’t know much about many of the characters background, which I suppose is realistic given Lisa’s age. So much of your family’s relationships play out before your born. Michelle noted,  “What is interesting about this book is that we are left to fill in some of the stories of many of the characters- we know them, but not everything about them.” I think because we can fill in the gaps on our own, skipping the main scenes doesn’t bother me tooooo much. This ambiguity is why I’m giving it 3.5 stars here and 4 on GoodReads. If it bothered me more, I’d be going down to 3.

Please note: The next paragraph discusses the novel’s conclusion. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

I don’t mind if characters die towards a novel’s conclusion and I don’t mind if the protagonist’s situation ends the same as it was (i.e, I just don’t want to see them worse off). Can you imagine really if Jimmy was dead? That’s the impression I got, but how awful that would be for Lisa. Jimmy’s death could be just another part of her story. It could have been portrayed like the others deaths. Because of my wish for Lisa not to lose another significant person in her life, I’m on the side that Jimmy lives. I don’t like that it’s so ambiguous, though.

The Bottom Line: A sad story, perhaps, but full of heart, featuring thoughtful and soothing (somehow, it was soothing to me) prose and beautiful locations. An intense examination of an Indigenous family. The conclusion may be difficult for some readers to accept but I still recommend it.

Further Reading: 

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Author: V.E. Schwab
Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Format/Source: ebook/Amazon
Published: February 2015
Publisher: Tor
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Magical fantasy
Why I Read: Excited to keep reading after the sneak peak
Read If You’re: Fantasy/magic fan, of the Gaiman variety
Quote: “The wall gave way and the traveller and the thief stepped forward and through.” (49%)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Whoop whoop. Now that it’s released and I’ve read the whole thing, I can build on my sneak peek comments. Did the story live up to my expectations? Mostly. Everything I loved about the sneak peek persisted throughout the book. But there’s one big thing that keeps me from giving this five stars (discussed after the spoiler warning).

Hm, but now that I’m writing this, there’s not much to add to my previous comments! I think the world-building aspect is covered by saying it lives up to the jacket description. I can add that you really get a sense of each London from the behaviour of its inhabitants. I love the eerie mob voice Schwab gives to the people of White London. My comment about characters is expanded below the spoiler warning. Regarding the prose – now that the final copy is available I can give a quote to demonstrate. This passage isn’t particularly shining but I noted it because I think it gives a strong of sense of Schwab’s style in this book.

Slowly, the man – or rather now, the thing inside him – lifted his head. His black eyes shone, slick against the dry dark as he surveyed the alley. Te body of the second cutthroat lay nearby, but he was already quite dead, the light snuffed out. Nothing to salvage. Nothing to burn. There wasn’t much life left in his own body, either – just enough flame to feed on – but it would do for now. (31%)

I can also add that I ship RhyLa (Are people calling them that? It’s not just me, right?). I made this note in the book before they even meet, on the line, “A procession was marching down the avenue” (52%). The pairing hadn’t crossed my mind until then, but the ship appeared before my eyes and I jumped on it. There might be a spark between them; they barely interact, but I’m intrigued to see if or how their relationship (romantic or not) develops.

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains significant spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Here’s a first for me – I think this book has too many deaths. Why are they so many? Almost every character who is introduced dies. These are characters who have personality and seem like they’d make great players in the ongoing story. They were barely around long enough for me to care (only in the sense that I thought, “Dang, that guy would have been fun to read about!”). One of the deaths is clearly meant to have an emotional impact on Lila, but because the reader knows so little of her and her relationship with Barron (erm, was that his name…), I didn’t feel too sad about it. Because there are so many deaths,  I’ve started to wonder if there’ll be some sort of return from the dead plot in the next book… did anyone else think the death toll was abnormally high?

While the story clips along, it concludes with many unanswered questions, particularly about our heroes Kell and Lila. I enjoyed reading about them, but I’m still very curious about their backgrounds and motivations. I especially want to know where Lila’s pirate ambitions come from! The book feels like an introduction to whatever is going to come next. Usually I like stories that are set in a big world but remain small and contained. However, this book finishes feeling almost too contained. You can guess at where the next book will go, but the conflicts present in this book are largely resolved. There’s not yet a greater thread that one might expect to be present in the first book of a series. I’m left wondering all about the few characters who survive the book and what they’ll be getting up to next. Something else I’m curious about is the character(?) of magic, how he(?) came to be, if ‘he’ was always that way (I’m not sure the best way to refer to this ‘character’, as you can see…I guess magic technically is a character but I feel strange referring to it/him that way!). I wasn’t expecting that sort of personification. Not sure yet how I feel about it. I don’t mind having all these questions because I enjoyed reading the book and I know there will be another, but I would have liked some tidbits to tide me over.

Some bit notes on Rhy, Holland and the Danes: I was really really glad when it was revealed Rhy was possessed and not actually terrible. I did get stressed out when it seemed he might die, cos at that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did (maybe that was the purpose of all the deaths?). Of the deaths, Holland’s was most shocking for me (okay, maybe tied with the Dane’s – I certainly didn’t expect both of them to be gone already!). I like the antagonist Antari. Going back to the Dane’s deaths, it felt a little quick and too easy for me liking.

Please don’t think I didn’t enjoy this book! I recommend it. There was just more to say about the thing that I didn’t care for than all the aspects I loved (style, world-building, characterization).

The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the setting, the atmosphere and the portrayal of magic. I look forward to the next book, where I hope we’ll get to meet new characters and learn more about Kell and Lila.

Further Reading: 

Review: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Author: Cecelia Ekbäck
Title: Wolf Winter
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: January 2015
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Historical suspense
Why I Read: Recommended for fans of The Snow Child, description brought to mind Burial Rites
Read If You’re: Looking for an ominous winter tale 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I came across the term ‘Nordic noir’ a few days ago. When I googled it, I discovered it’s an actual term for Scandinavian mysteries, but I think it’s just the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe books such as Burial Rites, The Snow Child and now, Wolf Winter. Books where winter features as a key character, an atmospheric and sombre (but not necessarily dreary) mood drives the prose, a historical setting strips away modern distractions, and characters’ daily struggles for survival have just a kiss of the supernatural about them (if only due dark and romanticized nature of their situations). The setting doesn’t necessarily have to be Nordic, but it works especially well. All of these components I love are present in Wolf Winter, Celia Ekbäck’s debut novel.

The prose holds many stark moments. I won’t give them away! But there were places I had to pause and shut my eyes for a moment, because the impression in my mind was so vivid. I’m wowed by writing that can truly startle you, when all you’re doing is reading words on a page. It’s such a different experience from watching a movie, and yet a talented writer can draw out just the same emotions. Those specific moments aside, the prose is what you might expect from such a tale – vivid and succinct, atmospheric and bold.

This novel features many great characters. I like the ghosts, and their questionable physicality. I enjoy reading about settlers. Even without winter majesty or supernatural happenings, I would still be happy to read about settlers. I didn’t think I would find myself reading another book featuring a priest so soon! In The Enchanted you have the disgraced priest, in Burial Rites you have the young priest, in Wolf Winter you have both in one. (Maybe I should do a list – “great books featuring non-traditional priests”?). Though I’m not sure how I feel about the priest, I adored Maija! She’s a great mother, sincere in her love for her children,  She loves her children and this shows through (twice I noted passages I thought particularly sweet) but she doesn’t coddle them too closely or have an unbelievable relationship with either daughter. I felt for her as she came to realize she didn’t know Frederika like she used. The mother-daughter relationship becomes prominent as the story progresses. Maija is a role-model for me beyond her role as a mother. I found myself admiring some of the decisions she made and the opinions she voiced, and how she remained down to earth, even if she wasn’t always correct. I sympathized when she worried about her family. She’s not too perfect or too flawed. Maija is the most well-drawn character of the bunch, I think (of course, she is the main character). Some of the settlers could have been expounded on more, considering they’re all meant to be suspects in the murder. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of them better.

Two small comments I’m not sure where to stick: It’s not so often now that I come across words I’m totally unfamiliar with…so it was with excitement I highlighted the word haulm near the beginning of the story. I like the slow creeping fear that pervades through the settlement as the story progresses, heigtened, of course, by the experience of a brutal winter.

Please note: The next paragraph contains minor spoilers regarding the conclusion of the story. Skip to avoid.

I haven’t commented much on the plot yet. There’s a lot going on in the story, but I didn’t really notice it until afterward. Everything fits snug together – women’s place in society, the role/relationship between the church and state, new vs. old religious beliefs, settling in a harsh landscape, handling sexual abuse, etc. For me, though, the story-line was the weakest aspect of the novel, mainly because of the conclusion. First, I wanted to know more about Maija and her family’s background. There’s something like an info dump towards the end of the novel, but that wasn’t really what I was hoping for. The conclusion wasn’t really for me. I thought it too political. I initially liked the inclusion of nameless politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to play such a big role in the storyline. Politics aren’t to my taste. The mysteries are solved quickly and wrapped up almost too neatly. There was a lack of suspense as everything came together. Lastly, I’m not sure about Paavo’s role in the story. I didn’t know whether to put my comments about him in the character paragraph or in the plot paragraph. I decided here because he felt mostly like a plot device, though when he was present in the novel I thought he had a lot of potential. I was sad to see him depart the story early on.  (I feel like there should be a companion novel about what he was doing and why he wasn’t writing and what happens when/if he comes back). I suppose he had to leave so Maija could come into her own? But then why have him there in the first place? I enjoyed Wolf Winter, but the conclusion didn’t meet my expectations.

Wolf Winter is an enjoyable read and a strong debut. I’d recommend it to people who like this kind of story. But, it’s not a ground-breaking book I’ll be pushing to everyone. And that’s okay! One doesn’t always need to be reading amazing books. Sometimes you just need a good read and not something that’s going to transform your world and turn you obsessive…

The Bottom Line: If you like moody winter stories or historical settler tales (or just need a book to snuggle up with during a blizzard), by all means give this a read. It’s a good debut and I already look forward to Ekbäck  ‘loose sequel’ (see the Shelf Awareness link below).

Further Reading: 

    Extra! Here is a song that came on the radio while I was writing this review. It perfectly matches the tone of this novel.

    Reread Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

    Author: Neil Gaiman
    Title: Stardust
    Format/Source: Paperback/my copy
    Published: 1999
    Publisher: HarperCollins
    Length: 248 pages
    Genre: Fantasy
    Why I Read: Part of the Reread Challenge
    Read If You’re: Enjoy a poetic fantasy in the fairy tale vein
    Quote: “The guard is relaxed once every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow.” (5)
    Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    WHEN I First Read – December 2008, over a year after the movie got me interested in the book. I had gone through a short phase of watching a Much Music talk show. One day I caught Claire Danes promoting Stardust. I thought the movie was sweet, and I wanted to read the book.

    WHAT I Remember – I remember being absolutely delighted to finally find the kind of fantasy story I always wanted to read. I even wrote an assignment for my grade 10 English class a few months later about how perfect I thought the book was. (I was also compared a passage from the book with a passage from The Lord of the Rings for a syntax course in university.) I still agree with all the sentiments I expressed five years ago! Here’s the essay (you can tell from the introduction that I was fed up with traditional fantasy, especially after giving Games of Thrones a go :P):

    I always held a vision of the perfect fantasy in my mind, determined to find the story that would meet my standards of a good book. It would be set in a time vaguely reminiscent of the Middle Ages. It wouldn’t have pages full of dry descriptions. It wouldn’t have a plot supported entirely by boring politics. It wouldn’t sprawl 2 000 pages across three volumes. Perhaps most importantly, at least one likeable character would be found within the novel’s pages. Hopefully, this ideal book would be an example of the direction I wanted my writing to go in, something I could read and say to myself after ‘I want to be able to write like that!’. I had never before found a novel that made me want to say that. After five years of reading the fantasy genre, however, I finally discovered the book that met all of my standards and fulfilled my hope of finding something to guide my own writing.

    I stumbled upon the novel by accident, as I have with all my most treasured books. This particular story was one I decided to read after seeing the movie version. The film was released the summer of 2007 and I rented it as soon as it was available on DVD. I thought it was a sweet movie; it had all the elements of a satisfying story. I promised myself to (at some point) read the book upon which the movie was based. For Christmas 2008 (over a year after I had first seen the film) I received Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. 

    Stardust is the novel I wish I could write. Every aspect of the book fits the story perfectly, from the characters to the length to the prose. The novel is not geared toward juveniles, despite being just 248 pages long. Although the target audience is older, Stardust is not full of repetitive unimaginative adult themes. The plot is free from unreasonable twists and expected turns. The tale is simple (boy likes girl, boy promises girl whatever she desires, boy falls in love with different girl), but full of unique elements and ideas only Gaiman could think of, such as fallen stars being human-like or sky pirates who catch and sell lightning. The author knows his craft well and this shows in prose that never drags. Every word has been placed with care and enhances the story in some way. For example, one of the Lillim is described: ‘the youngest one, who had been old when the wood they lived in was still beneath the sea.’ This sentence fragment says much about the woman without dragging on too long or using words unheard of in everyday language. Stardust is written without extravagant language, yet it comes off elegantly. Gaiman never uses excess words while delivering his tale to the reader.  He also knows how to utilize every character to their potential. Even the minor characters who only hold the reader’s attention for a page or two have something memorable about them, enough to make them a contender for ‘favourite character’.  Mr. Brown is one such character. He guards the gap in the wall between our world and Faerie. His determination to perform his job properly adds both humour and tension to the novel, even though his role only lasts a few pages. In Stardust, nothing is wasted. Every piece of the novel is used to its full potential. This book will live on my shelf among The Complete Hans Christian Anderson Fairy Tales and The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a staple I will enjoy for many years to come.

    I have not come across any other books similar to Stardust. Nothing is written in quite the same, careful style. My favourite genre, to read and to write, is medieval fantasy but Stardust is the only novel I actually enjoy in that category. It is the one guideline I have for my own writing, my single source of inspiration. It’s the standard of writing I can dream to achieve one day. Before Stardust, I struggled with writing my own stories, not knowing what I was striving for, what I wanted them to be like. Stardust proved that what I love to read can exist. It proved that maybe, someday, I will also be able to write a novel like that; a simple tale beautifully written, a story that people will fall in love with over and over again.

    WHY I Wanted to Re-Read I wanted to read a familiar and elegant story. More generally I wanted some pretty fiction because I wasn’t sure what to read next.

    HOW I Felt After Re-Reading Very pleased to find I still enjoy the story, and a bit surprised I don’t read it more often! It’s a great book to cozy up with for an afternoon, as did during this re-read.

    WOULD I Re-Read Again Yes, of course. To this day I have still not found another story like it, so reread it I will continue to do.

    A year after I first read Stardust, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Neil at a local bookstore signing. I thanked him for Stardust, for giving me something to keep writing towards, and he signed my book with a shooting star in ldusty rose ink. Now that book is my most prized possession! (Yes, that’s my real name, shhh, don’ tell anyone!)