By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In the world of Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.
Otter is the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power. She’s a proud and privileged girl who takes it for granted that she will be a binder some day herself. But when Willow’s power begins to turn inward and tear her apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she’s not ready for, and a power she no longer wants.
For some reason this book was really slow going for me. I can normally finish a book in two days and because I’m trying to muscle through my TBR pile I’ve really been trying to get through the books quickly. Not so with Sorrow’s Knot, but I don’t think this was a flaw of the book. Quite the contrary. What slowed me down was the writing style, lyrical, beautiful, and cleverly crafted, and the fact that the story and story building was so incredible.
I’m rather sorry this book doesn’t seem to have gotten much fanfare. I’ll admit the slow pace of it all wouldn’t appeal to everyone (it is light on heart-pounding action), but it was such an amazing story. Bow manages to create a world in North America that is both familiar and foreign. She peoples it with all sorts of interesting native people. She even creates a storytelling tradition complete with stories for the Shadowed People, Otter’s tribe. It’s all clearly well-thought out and she gives you little glimpses here and there of the world beyond the Shadowed People and slowly you piece together how things work in this North America. You discover (approximately) where they live, what their traditions are, what their relationship is to their world and to the other people who live in it. It’s familiar enough that you don’t need an info dump, you can discover bits and pieces as the story goes along.
But it isn’t completely familiar. There are the ghosts. There are small shadowed things that suck the warmth and life from you. They aren’t especially powerful and are easy to avoid as well as fend off. These are easily dispatched with the blessed cords and knots the binders* make or by the spears of the rangers too. Then there are the White Hands, which are really the crux of the story. They are tied to the problem Otter and her mother are having with the cords and knots. And they are very dangerous. If touched by one you have nine days until it overtakes your mind. The book is, at heart, a ghost story. Something I didn’t really realize until I started reading.
This is where the stories come in. Bow created stories for the Shadowed People and they are an integral part of the book. Otter must use them to understand what is going on. She uses them to find where she needs to go and what she needs to do to help her people and her friends. Some stories are only hinted at, but others are told in full and more are revealed as the book progresses. They don’t feel like stories within a story, but they essentially are. Bow is so deft at crafting them in, that they fit within the book fluidly.
Sorrow’s Knot is also a friendship story. While the focus of the story and events are around the Shadowed People and their problems with binding and with the ghosts, it really focuses on how these things affect Otter and her two friends Cricket and Kestrel and eventually Orca. The three teens have such a strong bond and when Cricket and Kestrel fall in love and pledge themselves to each other, no love triangle appears and Otter doesn’t feel any jealousy over their relationship. That was a breath of fresh air. Otter and Kestrel also have such a strong, healthy female friendship. It was really refreshing to see them, not as rivals, but as allies and support for each other.
I would like to note I’m not wild about the cover. It certainly fits the book in that it shows elements of the story, but the glowing cords feel really out of place. Like it might be sci-fi. Just a minor complaint. At least the girl on the cover looks like she could be Native American (she does fit the description of Otter) and isn’t white. I know showing a character on the cover really bothers some people. I am not one of them, so it didn’t really matter to me. I do wish the graphic part filled the cover a little more and the title was a little better integrated? I don’t know. I’m not good at identifying what it is exactly that bothers me with graphic design.
All in all a really, really wonderful book.
*I’ll clarify here that being a binder is job. Being a binder means you weave/braid cords from various fibers. You also tie knots and patterns much like a game of cat’s cradle. Only binders have real power behind these knots although everyone can tie knots and do simple cat’s cradle figures. The knots bind the dead, they can get rid of the small ghosts, and they ward off danger. Primarily a binder’s knots deal with death and the dead.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Last month I made a point to read a bunch of books that took place either in diverse settings or had diverse main characters. I know the debate of the lack of diversity in Kid Lit and YA is exploding yet again, but it is new to me and it really got me thinking and evaluating both my personal collection and my values as a reader and potential collection developer. I value having books in my own personal collection for my daughter that show a variety of cultures and a variety of histories but there really isn’t a lot of that. Nor is there a lot that shows diverse people just being regular people. It is also incredibly easy to default to reading about white or Western European cultures and protagonists. Even the Eastern Europeans get left out (think anything Russian that doesn’t have to do with the Cold War or WWII). So in addition to limiting my reading this past month I am also going to try very hard to be sure I am selecting books to read in the future that show diversity.
So here’s the round up on what I read last month and my thoughts on them. For the sake of brevity I did not include descriptions, but if you click on the title it will take you to the GoodReads page where you can read it.
A Moment Comes / Jennifer Bradbury: I know there isn’t infinite time in history class to get through all culture and countries, but I wish there was more diversity in what we studied in history class. I don’t think I ever studied Indian history. Well, we watched the movie Gandhi, but I hardly think that should count. I was ignorant enough when I read this book to have to look up where this was taking place and I checked a few other places on the map too. I really enjoyed this novel. The three different perspectives, which were diverse in religion, ethnicity, and gender, was a really interesting way to come at this moment in history. There was a sort of love triangle, something I am beginning to find to frequently in YA and find irritating, but it wasn’t exactly the focus of the story and it doesn’t play out in the typical way. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I was reminded of Rumer Goden’s Peacock Summer which I believe takes place a little earlier and in a different part of India, but had a similar flavor. I think A Moment Comes, without sounding like a history text, did a beautiful job of showing the history of the split between India and Pakistan and the people who were caught in the event. I would even say it could be appropriate for upper middle school, but would be equally appealing to high school.
Copper Sun / Sharon Draper: I couldn’t finish this one. It was well written, but there is only so much tragedy and violence I can take. And it just kept coming with this book. I think it was the relentlessness of the killing, beating, rape, etc. that turned me off. I know it all happened and was probably a lot worse than what this book portrays, but I just couldn’t get through it.
Liar / Justine Larbalestier: I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time and just hadn’t gotten to it. I knew very little about it except that the narrator was unreliable which struck me as very interesting. When I finished the book all I could think was “what the did I just read?”, but in a really good way. In a way that made me think Justine Larbalestier can write and I need to read that again. It also made me think of I Am the Cheese, for the unreliable narrator, the possibility that what is going on is being shown but also being distorted by the narrator through the narration, and living in the past. Although I admit haven’t read I Am the Cheese in a long, long time. I was surprised to read the debate over Liar, about Micah being unlikable. I was rather surprised by this criticism. I don’t think I ever thought of her in the light of likable/unlikable. There wasn’t time. I was trying too hard to figure out what was going on. I mean I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, but unlikable? She’s not actually real. I’m not sure I think of any character as likable. Plus I don’t think you have to like a book character to click with them. I’m sure I would find my tween and teenage self unlikable if I met her, so I hardly think that would be a fair standard to judge book characters by.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name / Cynthia Leitich Smith: I liked that this book was about overcoming a tragedy and dealing with grief in a positive way. It was nice because the story, while it acknowledge and dealt with the fact that Rain was Native American, it wasn’t about the Native American Experience. She was proud of her heritage, but it wasn’t the story. It was also a quick read (GoodReads says 144 pages, but that would be counting the title page and stuff) which even for a good reader is sometimes a nice break. It was really well written and compelling.
A Girl Called Problem / Katie Quirk: This book was problematic for me and it called into question a white author writing from a non-white (Tanzanian) perspective and I hate that I had that thought, because I don’t think it’s especially valid. First and foremost it read like a hi/low novel, but I don’t think it was. I think I felt like this because it read a lot like a middle grade novel, but the cover and the fact that you don’t tend to study modern sub-Saharan African countries until high school or even later made it seem like it shouldn’t have been MG. If that makes any sense. There was also a huge, clunky info dump at the beginning. So I guess it was the writing in this that was the problem. It was an interesting story about a historical event I hadn’t heard of.
The Vine Basket / Josanne La Valley: This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.
Bird / Crystal Chan: I spent most of this book, a book about family and friendship, thinking how awful everyone was to each other. Not Jewel so much, although she’s pretty hard on herself. Especially John; especially him. Sure he has problems but he pretty unabashedly does some crappy things. Especially initially. I know they all have problems but, sheesh people, get some help and figure it out! That being said this was a fabulous book. It was beautifully written. Or they tried to at least. Bird was slow moving story about how a broken family and how they begin to mend. It’s also about the damage that can be done by remaining silent and never engaging with the grieving process (again, get a therapist people!). Regardless of family tragedy I think it’s easy to identify with the difficulty we can have communicating with our families and in how hard we can be on ourselves over perceived let downs. The family had an interesting mix of cultures too, in a rather white small town, which was a nice touch. I don’t think they had to be different from their neighbors, but the way the author wove in aspects of the Latin and Jamaican heritage really made the story.
The Tyrant’s Daughter / J.C. Carleson: This was a really interesting book. It was well written, if not literary and lyrical in the way that The Vine Basket was or Sorrow’s Knot, but definitely well written. We’ve all heard the news stories about the strife in the Middle East and the fall of several powerful dictators. In an interesting twist Carleson takes the perspective of the daughter of an unnamed dictator. It is never specified which country she is from and it doesn’t really matter. (In her author’s note Carleson says she drew events and ideas directly from headlines so everything has a familiar flavor.) What matters is you see everything from a very different perspective. It’s hard to think of the dictators and regimes as people, but Laila makes it clear they are. Laila is such an interesting character. She’s conflicted about everything- her father, her family’s power and money, boys, clothes, friendship, returning home, making a new home. She is horrified to discover the things her father did while in power, but on the other hand she is rather unapologetic about having benefited from their wealth and power. The year in the US brings her to some realizations and changes her in a lot of ways, but also makes her realize there are parts of herself and her culture she doesn’t want to change or to lose. She loses her naiveté and uses that to become a better person to discover what she wants going forward.
Alif the Unseen / G. Willow Wilson: This one is technically an adult novel, but I can see it appealing to older teens for sure. Wilson is an impressive author and it shows both in her writing here and the creativity of the story. She so deftly and cleverly weaves mythology and folklore with modern technology. The story of a computer hacker who creates a program that can identify individuals and is then pursued by the government and becomes entangled with jinn and magic shouldn’t work. But it does. You can really see Wilson’s reverence for the Middle East and its history and culture here, but she doesn’t shy away from computers and sex or religion. It took me awhile to get through this one, but it wasn’t a slow slog. I was enjoying her writing style and the story which gets complicated to say the least. It’s so worth the read if you can stand a story with some coding jargon.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Apr 2014 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten
I usually like to post one thing a week, but it just isn’t going to happen this week. My daughter caught some nasty cold and has now managed to pass it to me, my husband, my mom, my mother in law, our neighbor and her baby. There could be other victims that have yet to show symptoms. Ugh. I’ll have content next week, though.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?
This was a rare one for me – I wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it. I like a lot of the books I read, love a lot of them even, but I rarely feel like I want to read them again. Unfortunately I did not have time to do that, but I have put the title back in my TBR pile so I will get to it again.
So this one I think is touted as a Middle Grade Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Having read Diary I get the comparison, but I’m going to be totally honest, I enjoyed Diary, but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with this one. I know that’s like YA Div-Lit blasphemy, but there it is. If I Ever Get Out of Here felt like there was more of a plot to it and the fact that Lewis was a Native American was less of the issue (which I felt was the point in Diary) than the other aspects of the book. And I felt that’s a big part of what made If I Ever so good. It gives you compassion for how Native Americans live (lived? I doubt conditions on the reservations are much better these days, but I certainly hope they are), but ensconces that in a story that is so relatable for the middle school set- embarrassment over family and where you live, parents who don’t “get” you, making friends, fitting in at school, a bully at school. Middle school kids experience all of that so seeing Lewis struggle with and overcome these things humanizes the more foreign parts of his story.
If I Ever Get Out of Here was also so well written and crafted. Lewis has a passion for music (primarily 1970s pop & the Beatles) and that was woven throughout the story and even into the structure of the novel. That was something I thought could have felt incredibly forced, like Gansworth trying to prove how much he knew about Wings, but it wasn’t at all. It was just another layer to Lewis that felt organic and relatable.
One of the things I really appreciated about the story was Lewis’ uncle. I get frustrated reading about parents who don’t care or are aloof or absent. Or parents who seem to willfully misunderstand their kids or want to mold them into someone they are not. Liz Burns recently wrote a post about why kids need to see those kinds of parents in MG and YA lit and I totally agree. But it doesn’t make me like those parental characters any more! They just make me sad and frustrated knowing that there are real people out there like that and I get tired of feeling so bad for all those kids out there. Lewis has some pretty dysfunctional parents, sadly, even though his mom tries, but he has his uncle. His uncle is a little odd, sure, but he gets Lewis, offers good advice, calls Lewis out on his shenanigans, and genuinely cares for and loves Lewis. It was so heartening to find a character like that in such a bleak situation.
I know one of the hallmarks of MG literature is that it tends to a bit more hopeful than older YA (I know this is a generalization) and that is why I often find that while I appreciate MG I don’t love it. I’m a realist at heart, what can I say? However If I Ever did something very unexpected for me. The ending while hopeful didn’t have one of those neatly wrapped up, everything worked out perfectly happily ever after endings. It’s a bittersweet ending and a little unclear if Lewis will ever get out of there. The story wraps up a little more in his head where he has had his perspective on life shift and that’s where the hope comes from. Not from getting the girl, the house, the friends, the family, the education.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I just got through reading two awesome books that I would categorize New Adult! Although I doubt they are being marketed as such. Just to quickly rehash the discussion, New Adult seems to be primarily focused on romance or romantic novels and are of dubious quality. That’s fine, except I kind of want to read New Adult (not that I don’t love my YA) because in theory it should be pretty reflective of where I am now and was just a few short years ago. Romance, although a popular and genre, just isn’t my thing, so I was rather elated to pick up two books that were right up my alley and NA.
I love books set in Western Africa. I think it hearkens back to a sub-Saharan African cultures class I took in my undergraduate years. I was completely taken with the cultures we studied, especially the music. My professor had done her doctoral (and continued) research with the Hausa so she tended to focus on West Africa so my exposure is a little limited (Africa is a big continent!), but I found what slice we got to be incredibly beautiful and fascinating. So any opportunity I get to read authors from West Africa, I take.
I can’t remember how I came across Aya of Yop City. I know it was through one of my library blogs, but I was intrigued because it was set in Cote d’Ivoire. It was also a graphic novel, a format I like when I read, but don’t tend to specifically seek out. Win-win so far. Unfortuately I was only able to get a copy of the first volume (if you go over to Goodreads, you’ll notice the cover/edition I have shown here is actually a compilation of the first three volumes).
Interestingly this one is shelved with the teen collection in our library system and the characters are on the younger end (late teens, I believe) so I can see why. But their lives and issues seem to be more in line with the New Adult crowd. Men- good ones and bad ones. Marriage. Babies. Family. Parents. Finding yourself and what you want to do. School. While it has some unique struggles for the characters that are a function of time and place (1970s West Africa), I think there are a lot of universals here as well. So even as a white suburban woman I found the characters and situations relatable and sympathetic. I could certainly see teens liking these characters, especially those teens on the cusp of adulthood. But I also see the appeal for new adults.
The Butterfly Mosque I picked up because I realized the author had been in Cairo around the time I was. It turned out we arrived at the same time, were there at the same time and lived in the same neighborhood for the time I was living there. It was little uncanny. But what really struck me was how our experiences diverged so completely. She had the experience I thought I would (mostly).
For years (we’re talking more than a decade) I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I worked hard toward that goal in college, getting archaeology experience, getting my degree in anthropology, making friends in the field. The next logical step was to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. The program was actually a year abroad, which was fine with me. I thought I would fall in love with the country and never come home. In reality, the experience was a disaster. For the purposes of this book review I don’t need to go into details (although maybe I can share another time), but I left a semester early, decided not to pursue archaeology, didn’t accept any grad school offers, and spent the next few years anchorless, wondering what the hell I wanted to do. It was traumatic to say the least.
Willow Wilson took a job teaching English, converted to Islam, met and married an Egyptian man and went on to become a writer. It was never easy for her, but she didn’t suffer the way I did. For that alone it was comforting to read her story and know that the country I so wanted to love wasn’t in fact unlovable. It was just me.
Like Aya, The Butterfly Mosque really tackles some issues that I have seen myself and my friends struggle with despite how different her circumstances were. She examines faith and religion, obviously, however there is also the issue of marriage and falling in love. She examines what she wants to do, how she views the world, and balancing old friendships with the changes in her life. There is even a bit about finding her place in her family and in the world. She has the quirky first job, a story everyone seems to have, and she goes on to start following and discovering what it is she really finds herself called to do. Not everyone wants to write about Islam for the West, but we all have spent time finding our callings.
The only thing I wish is that she had written this a little later and been able to include more about how she and her husband faired in the States, about having their daughter (whom her next book was dedicated to), and how the Arab Spring impacted them. But maybe she’s saving up for another memoir. 🙂 I certainly hope so.