REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember

REVIEW: Ruinsong by Julia Ember (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; November, 2020), 368 pages.

This book falls into two categories I generally dislike (YA and fantasy), and yet I loved it. I may have written something similar in my last review of Ember’s books (of The Navigator’s Touch, back in 2018, here), but there are just some authors who do a genre beautifully, and whose writing doesn’t rely on the bells and whistles of the genre for its strength and effect (I, and many folks, feel this way about Octavia Butler, for instance). Ember is one of those authors for me. She can throw in a dragon (I hate dragons, to the point of it being a joke among my friends), and I’ll buy into it anyway.

There are no dragons in this book, but there is magic and high drama, and everything that usually makes me run away. But I was absolutely hooked from the first chapter.

Ruinsong is the story of a woman with special abilities who combines forces with her community—and another strong, smart woman—to overcome some evil and oppressive ruling forces and reset the culture to a new, more equitable government. Given the time period in the U.S., I couldn’t help but read it as a parable for our own contemporary situation. (‘Nuff said.) It is also the story of two women falling in love. And it is also the story of a woman struggling with her strength and abilities and how best to use them, ethically speaking.

In the world of the book, magic is achieved by singing; there are different kinds of mages here (ones who sing their effects onto plants, for instance, or those who can affect elements like water). The really dangerous ones are the “corporeal mages,” those who can create effects on the living body—heating parts of it to blistering, crushing bones, suffocating it and the like, but also healing it. The society is ruled by a queen—okay, I’ll say it: an evil queen—who has enslaved corporeal mages to help her keep the rest of the population under her control. Cadence is a corporeal singer forced to do terrible things to people in the name of the queen.

Remi is one of those done-to people, but she also turns out to be the one with whom Cadence forms a tight bond. Together, they mount a resistance to the queen, attempt to overthrow the government and take care of each other in the meantime.

The novel, as much as it builds a convincing, complete world of magic and castles (and it does), doesn’t rely on all that. Its true power is in the story of relationships between its characters and in the characterization of each one as believable, complete, compelling. The story itself is compelling, too—folks banding together to overcome seemingly-undefeatable oppressive forces.

I’ve read that the novel is a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera tale—Ember has done quite a bit to re-envision old tales through a feminist, queer lens (see, for instance, The Seafarer’s Kiss, a re-envisioning of “The Little Mermaid”). I’m not familiar with the original Phantom (neither LeRoux’s nor the Lon Chaney film nor Broadway’s), but this novel stands entirely on its own. I imagine that if one is familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, there is probably extra excitement in reading a feminist, queer, updated version of this tale, but one doesn’t need to know the original to really enjoy this one.

What I love here is the smart, unwavering ethics of this book, combined with the compelling story and perfect pacing Ember gives it. The world feels so complete and believable—there’s magic in it, yes, but there’s also dust and animal slobber on the dress sleeve, high drama mingling with mundane reality in a way that really works. It’s dark and bright, ugly-beautiful, and it pulls you in and keeps you there, so that after more than 350 pages, you’re still ready for more.

REVIEW: The Camino Club by Kevin Craig

The Camino Club by Kevin Craig (Duet Books, 2020), 280 pages.

This novel is utterly charming.

And in writing that sentence, I’ve now fully claimed my position as a Batty Elder. (I’ve recently turned 50, so I’m feeling sensitive, but I’ve been like this since I was about seventeen.) Excuse me while I remove my lace gloves and pour myself a cup of tea.

Despite my feelings about saying it, I’m going to say it again: this novel is charming. The story centers around the experience of six “bad kids” from Canada who, instead of being sent to juvie, are taken on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain as an alternative penance for their teenage crimes (setting a small fire, stealing a car and the like). The group is a collection of boys and girls, queer and straight, privileged and not, all of whom have back stories to which the rest of the group—and the reader—are not immediately privy.

It’s a kind of Outward Bound experience, but with a path and little towns and hostels to stay in at night, a couple adult counselors and no ropes course. The walk is hard, sometimes uphill, be-blistering and tiring. By walking together, the theory goes, the kids will find themselves and form bonds of understanding and care with each other, and hopefully they’ll stop being such bad kids.

It seems to work. I mean, I’m not sure about the last part, but the bonding and understanding and caring happens. As the kids walk, their stories begin to take shape for each other (and the reader). Guards get dropped. Characters who first seem irredeemable become something new. Friendships and loyalties form. Kids figure themselves out. A few of them even fall in love. Along the way, the group picks up a lovely old fellow called Bastien who becomes for them some combination of tour guide, sage, friend and mascot.

This is something of a group bildungsroman, since it traces a coming-of-age for the six through a literal journey.

To help the story along, one gets occasional (required) journal entries, and each chapter is narrated by one of the kids (alternating between several of the voices). This affords the opportunity for quite a few points of view, both public and private, on the same situation. It’s quite a generous story in this way.

This novel did exactly what a good YA novel should do: it traced the coming-of-age from callow youth across difficulty and into a deepened perspective of one’s world and one’s place in it.

Perhaps one of the strongest points of this novel is how authentic and distinct the voices feel, even though there are several to juggle and the speakers are young. (As an aside, this is in large part why I’m cautious about the YA I read—too often, young adult characters’ voices aren’t quite right, being written, as these novels almost always are, by an adult remembering/imagining such a point of view. Not so here—the voices feel genuine.) Traumas feel neither overblown in that teenaged Everything Is Awful way nor diminished by an ironic adult perspective. Wonderment and happiness, the same. It all feels, in a word, authentic.

I realize now that I’ve actually given two one-word sums. So let me get back to my original word: charming. The novel made me want to go to see the Camino de Santiago and all the little towns and people on the way. It all seemed so charming. The novel also made me want to hang out with Bastien, who seems unavoidably charming. Though difficulties are real here, nothing gets too hot to touch, and everything gets worked through in the end. One is left feeling delighted, feeling entranced, feeling lured in and well pleased by the experience of the story. A little sobby inside, a little in love. Charmed.

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern (Steliform Press, 2020), 90 pages.

When I came to the last page of this novel, I actually shouted, “No!” (Mind you, I was reading an e-book version, so I didn’t see the end coming.) I was angry at this book for a good ten minutes. I should say it was not because it was a bad book–quite the opposite. I was angry because the book had ended and I hadn’t prepared myself to leave it yet.

Even though the central characters spend nearly the entire novel in danger—Biblical danger, with hurricane and ark-worthy flood, fire, sheltering in awful places, barbarous people all around—I found it oddly comforting and pleasant to immerse myself in it. This was probably due, in part, to a recurring dream from childhood in which I was on the run from… something… and I kept finding trap doors and further-down secret chambers into which I escaped the something coming for me. The point of the dream was not the arriving, it was the journey there, every step toward safety. Freudians, do what you will with that. I’m married to a psychotherapist, so don’t think I haven’t thought about it before.

But it was probably also due to the fact that the central import of this novel is the tightening of a community of outsiders (queers, trans folx, POC), and what it means to belong in a group. Perhaps it’s needless to say, then, that this book hit my sweet spot.

In brief: Noah Mishner is forced to take emergency shelter in the Dallas Mavericks arena after a devastating hurricane wipes out Houston where he and a small band of friends had lived together. In the shelter, danger all around, Noah quickly forms a small enclave in which he and other trans and queer people huddle together, trying to keep each other safe from the dangers of some of the (crazy, gun-carrying) homophobic, transphobic, racist, angry residents.

In the chaos, Noah begins to see visions of his great grandfather, Abe, who fled Nazi persecution during WWII. The scene unpredictably shifts on Noah—walls blossom with Nazi graffiti, the guards appear to sport SS armbands. There’s a clear parallel drawn by Noah’s visions—racist homophobes melt into Nazis and back again—but the parallel is not used as a bludgeon. The metaphor with which the novel works is more subtle than that and allows the reader to make realizations herself. It works more like a very slow flood, getting your shoes damp, making you uncomfortable, seeping in.

In writing this kind of story—huge climate disaster event, death, flight, queers in danger from racist homophobes—one runs the risk of aggrandizement, of a shrieking kind of narration, too strident, too obvious, moralistic, inflated. Depart, Depart!, however, does not ever get close to these troubles. It manages to grow, quite naturally, an understanding of certain problems (namely, climate crisis and how its potential disasters might affect our current way of life, and how the lives of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ folk, poor folk, POC, etc, might be affected especially deeply by climate change). It manages at the same time a very broad story about a community—a state, a world—and to be about one person’s life.

Here’s a more basic review: Depart, Depart! has clearly-drawn, relatable characters and an urgent situation they must all survive. The writing is clean (neither too much nor too little in the way of anything here), the plot drawn tightly across disaster and danger. It feels urgent but not rushed. I will read this again and again, if only to return to that world and those characters in it. I miss it already.

REVIEW: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019).

Years ago, I read Her Body and Other Parties. I’d come upon it entirely because of the title—I was working at the time on a dissertation about “the body” in English and French literature and film. The collection of short stories, it turns out, was far less foo-foo and pretentious than my dissertating, but entirely smarter and more meaningful to me. (I finished and still have the book; the dissertation, not so much.) Despite all that admiration, I allowed the book to languish for on my shelf (well-fanned, to be sure, but languishing still), along with most of the stuff related to my now-defunct academic career.

So when one of my favorite former students suggested I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I didn’t make the connection that it was written by the very same author whose work I had loved so well years before. Instead, I went running into it with my eyes closed and my mind (as it so often is) completely blank. I tore through it. I mean, not literally—the book is a little worse for wear, but intact—but I could not stop reading.

In the Dream House is a memoir, the story of a queer woman’s relationship with an abusive partner. As is fitting for a narrative like this, it’s fragmented, told in tiny chapters (the longest of which is probably four pages, but the most common of which barely makes a single pages). It’s gulps of language, and it makes for a rhythm I first fell in love with in poetry. There’s a finished quality to each chapter, each one rounding itself into the perfect sigh of thought; but together, the chapters refuse to make a watertight whole and instead give the impression of bursts (emotion, language, action), snapshots, gut punches. Reading Dream House was very much like being pushed into the pool before I could get my shoes off. It was a violent, nasty little prank of which the teenagers at the public pool seemed very fond. Stooping too near the pool’s edge to remove your shoes made you vulnerable. So did being slight enough to be whisked over someone’s shoulder and carried to water’s edge and tossed in. (There’s a scene like this in the film Dans ma peau that guts me every time.) Dream House felt like this to me: a shockingly immediate opening-up of the narrative.

While that might sound like a criticism, it’s definitely not. One of the things that studying poetry teaches you is the ethos that form should be part and parcel of content—that the shape the art thing takes should be part of the meaning of the art thing—and this is true for Dream House.  It is a story about the unmaking of a woman, how her partner systematically blasted her into pieces, how the imperative of silence (laid out by a disbelieving and homophobic culture) weighed like a brick to keep her in her place. It is the story of why a woman might stay in such a relationship as much as it is the story of the ways in which we often go before truly leaving.

Any review of this book which characterizes it as being a memoir of an abusive relationship runs the risk of mischaracterizing the book, and I’m hoping you’ve read this far in the review so I can explain myself. Let me, as Obama used to say, be clear: it is the story of an abusive relationship. But it’s a story told differently than it’s usually told. Most narratives of abuse focus on what happened and how it made the subject feel. That’s certainly here, but it’s not the focus. The focus seems to be more about recreating the experience of being torn apart and reassembling oneself through the very form of the story and through the telling of it. In other words, this is not a tell-all, salacious narrative of a treacherous relationship. There’s plenty of those out there. What makes this imperative to read is that it is art made from such an experience. Your writing teacher in some grade or other was probably fond of exhorting you to “show, don’t tell.” But better writing such as this doesn’t even do that—if telling is at the bottom rung and showing is one step up, this functions at a higher level. It recreates the experience (of fragmentation, of confusion, of moorless desperation) while still insisting that you understand and make sense of it. It evokes. It pulls you in and won’t let go.

No. It throws you in.

Review: THE SEAFARER’S KISS by Julia Ember

The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (May 4, 2017); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Now, I don’t know any of the versions of the story known to most Americans as “The Little Mermaid” (neither Hans Christian Andersen nor Disney nor subsequent K-Mart bedspread mythos), but I believe The Seafarer’s Kiss is a retelling of the tale, but à la Wicked, retold empathetically from a different point of view (than, at least, the Disney version). As with all good retellings, this is a new story, not simply a recast rehashing of something already said.

I won’t waste your time with comparisons, since I’m not very familiar with any of the other versions of this story; this novel stands on its own, anyway. I’m living proof that you don’t need to have any connection to the Disney or Andersen stories to understand and like this book. The only thing I will say, based on admittedly brief internet-based research into the other versions, is that this one seems more feminist, featuring female characters prominently as more than victim or villain (those roles get really complex here), constructing a kind of Handmaid’s Tale empathy for the conditions under which the female mermaids must function, and coloring every character’s actions with real motivations that extend further than simply stating that someone is an Evil Witch.

I’m trying not to reveal the actual story here, the discovery of which is part of the fun of reading, so forgive the verbal gymnastics.

This is, at its heart, a really strong character study. Don’t mistake me: I mean this in the best of ways, as all good stories, in my opinion, are character studies. Too many novels rely too strongly on plot and forego character development at all, but in my opinion, good insight into character should be what drives the plot at every turn. The plot of a good story should feel like a surprise as it happens, but inevitable once it does, because the characters are so well drawn that things could unfold no other way than the way they do. This is assuredly the case.

The titular seafarer, and the titular kiss she gives Ersel, the main character (is this the original form of Ursula, who is the sea witch in Disney’s version?), is what drives the plot, though not in the mooney-eyed-weak-princess way most Disney films seem to require. The chain of events that becomes Ersel’s adventure (and eventually the impetus for her growing up and finding her strength and her moral drive) starts with this girl, this kiss, but it’s merely the catalyst, and not the only driving force. Too often, female heroes are depicted as being solely motivated by love in their heroism. Not so here, and thanks for that. (Nor, for that matter, is Ersel’s “coming out” as being in love with a human girl much of a horror to anyone—and when there is discomfort, it’s with the “human” thing and the going-against-decree thing, not the “girl” thing. That’s refreshing.)

Basically, this is the story of a young mermaid who’s expected to be betrothed to her childhood bestie merman in a society in which reproductive heterosexual pairings are required due to a waning population (and in which, as a result, a girl’s worth is based on her potential fertility), but who bucks—and eventually upturns–the system, has her own adventures and her own ideas. She makes grave (I’m talking Shakespeare’s Mercutio-pun-grave) mistakes along the way, strives to address those mistakes, and becomes a better person, all without losing her fierceness. In fact, her fierceness becomes her great strength (no eternally slumbering and helpless princess, no mice to dress her, no unreal femininity clouds this up).

And K-Mart, as a result, probably won’t sell the bedspread. But, seriously, bedspreads are for sleeping princesses anyway.

REVIEW: Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles (February 16, 2017); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

 

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles tells the romance of Sid, a clothing designer and C-DRT volunteer (those are the folks who support the firefighters and other rescue workers on the scene of a disaster) and Eddie, a firefighter (who is also the fire chief). Playing large parts in this romance are the struggles each character faces with family and loss: Sid’s mother died when he was younger, and his father is in the throes of dementia when the novel begins; Eddie had a baby with his friend Maggie, who died of cancer not many years after, leaving Eddie to raise their now-5-year-old child, Adrian. The two men meet on the scene of a fire and strike up a relationship, but they must figure out how to accommodate their responsibilities to take care of other people and things (Eddie, the fire victims and his son Adrian; Sid, aside from his work as firefighter support, has his suffering father and his fledgling clothing-design business, Bastra).

There is neat symmetry here: though the characters are dealing with very different forms of loss and caretaking, they both do. Negotiating their new relationship together is, in part, about negotiating the difficulties of those pulls in other directions (other people, other cities). Along the way, each becomes imbricated in the other’s concerns (Sid, for instance, becomes attached to Adrian; Eddie… well, I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but Eddie gets attached, too).

This is a mature romance, in other words. Or, it’s a romance about mature people with mature-people problems: kids, illness, jobs, attachments, and very fully-realized lives outside each other. This is the kind of love story that’s hard to find: one in which the world doesn’t stop and end at the romance. I remember when I was young and fell in love—everything else fell away and was secondary; my life (my desires, my time, my location, everything) fit around my love. When I got older, though, falling in love meant having to figure out how to fit my love around my life instead. When two fully-realized lives come together, there’s fitting to be done, compromising and rethinking, falling in love with (or at least learning to tolerate) everything your lover cares for (family, friends, houses, etc.), figuring out how to share with someone else what’s always been yours alone. Very often, younger love gets to be more selfish; mature love has to learn to compromise.

(Don’t misunderstand: these guys are still pretty young, by my standards, but they’re established in their lives. They’re not Romeo-and-Juliet-aged teens. They’ve got roots and responsibilities. Maturity is about that, not the number of candles you put on your cake.

As a result of all the different kinds of attachment, this is a story of different kinds of love. I may be Greek, but I’ve done my best to forget everything I had to learn in Greek School as a kid (yes, non-Greeks, that’s a thing), so I don’t remember the different kinds of love the Greeks named, but I’m pretty sure they’re all here. There’s romantic love, of course, on center stage, but there’s also the love of children, fathers and mothers, friends… and beyond that, there’s the love that is passion for hobbies or work. All those kinds of love figure prominently here.

The title comes from the story’s theme of stars and constellations, a passion that Sid’s father Lou shares with his son. This connection to something more permanent and bigger-than-people fits, for me, with the story’s concern for maturity: love isn’t fleeting, and it’s not limited to your tiny sphere of concern, burning bright and hot, but igniting and burning out fast (like I remember it did when I was 16); mature love is something larger that shifts the world and gives gravity to all bodies,  a force by which to guide ships (was that Aphrodite?), to mark the seasons and the hours, and one that will outlast any single tiny life.

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson (February 2. 2017); 226 pages. Available from Interlude Press here

 

OK, so first off I want to state that if I could have figured out how to print this review upside down, I would have done it, since the narrative in Storm Season takes place in Australia, and I am just that corny.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with the real business of telling you about this book. Storm Season tells the story of a woman (Lien) who lives in Sidney but goes camping in the relative wilds with her small cadre of friends, gets distracted while taking photographs, and falls down a hole. Or ravine. Chasm. Some nature-y pit. That’s not the point, and neither is my absolute ignorance of outdoorsy stuff. In this way, actually, I am very like Lien—she’s a city girl to her core, and part of the reason she falls is her insistence on wearing inappropriate-but-fashionable shoes. (She’s a journalist who covers fashion and music. In this way, I am nothing like Lien, because nobody should ever read what I have to say about what to wear. It would be wrong.)

The point is she bangs her ankle bad enough that she can’t get out of the pit or move around much, and she’s rescued by a park ranger (Claudie), who—due to flooding—can’t get her back to her campsite and takes her, instead, to stay with her at her own cabin until the roads and driveable again.

So the two women are forced by circumstance to spend a handful of days together, alone with each other, in a cabin in the wilderness, while kookaburras…make whatever noise they usually do… outside the windows. A few things happen here: first, Lien discovers that Claudie is that Claudie, an ex-indie rock darling, and she’s fascinated. (Why did Claudie quit the band and stop performing to hide in a cabin and be a park ranger? Lien’s Spidey—no, Clark Kent—senses are tingling for the story.) Second, Lien discovers that Claudie, while her polar opposite in most ways (Claudie’s fashion sense seems to be about the practical and bush-ready), is fascinating. And attractive. And, well, stuff happens, and it’s everything you’d hope from a trapped-in-a-cabin-with-a-love-interest narrative.

Eventually, as all storms seem to do, the storm passes, the roads clear, and Claudie can take Lien back to her campsite and her friends. But since Claudie lives in the bush and Lien lives in Sidney, taking her back means letting her go, and paradise is, indeed, Mr. Milton, apparently lost. Of course, that can’t be how it ends, can it? (Hint: it can’t.)

Storm Season is a romance and, like a good real romance, it’s part mystery and part adventure, but with a good soundtrack (if you could hear Claudie’s music, at least). It’s got the inward spiraling focus of strangers-to-friends-to-lovers intensity, without ever feeling claustrophobic. Both characters have connections outside their world together, and there are narratives outside their love story which come to matter (intrigue among Lien’s friends, the story of why Claudie quit making music).

It strikes me that this is a novel about trying to get away but then trying to find your way back. Lien absconds to the bush for a vacay, but hurts herself and can’t get home again. Claudie leaves music, leaves hope, leaves love, but Lien shows her she must figure out a way back into those things. I don’t want to give away more of the novel, but much of its plot and character development are about this going-away-and-returning.

In fact, this kind of form—a run away from the norm, and then a return, slightly different, but still familiar—has a long history in art. In music, it might be the fugue (a form whose name translates as “flight”). In psychology, too, it’s a “fugue state.” In nature, it’s the echo. In literature, I can’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Decameron (great for those who want dirty short stories), in which the unifying tale is one of a handful of friends who escape to the country to avoid the ravages of the Plague, and pass the time telling stories. It’s also the history of the topsy-turvey festival (most notably nowadays, Carnavale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans) in which revelers turn every societal norm on its head (traditionally paupers dress like kings, men dress as women, fish fly, etc., but nowadays it translates into breaking from “good” behavior and getting drunk and running around half-naked while you’re having sex and cussing a lot, I imagine), but for only a limited amount of time to let off the pressure of being normal, like a steam valve that lets the pot go on cooking.

Storm Season is in this tradition, albeit with a lot less naked running around and more intelligence and feeling. What’s interesting is that it not only revels in the topsey-turvey love-affair-in-a-remote-cabin narrative, but also explores the flip side, what happens when Carnavale is over and somebody has to sweep the streets, when Lien must go back to Sydney and Claudie must stay in her remote cabin and paradise goes slipping away, or falls, maybe, into one of those chasms.