#TheReadingQuest: Nevernight

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I read this for #TheReadingQuest, started by Aentee @ Read At Midnight with artwork by CW @ Read Think Ponder. First book of a series done.  

Mia Corvere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Destined to destroy empires, the child raised in shadows made a promise on the day she lost everything: to avenge herself on those that shattered her world. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, and Mia must become a weapon without equal. Before she seeks vengeance, she must seek training among the infamous assassins of the Red Church of Itreya. Inside the church’s halls, Mia must prove herself against the deadliest of opponents and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and daemons at the heart of a murder cult. The church is no ordinary school. But Mia is no ordinary student.

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Nevernight by Jay Christoff is a gripping tale let down by racist undertones. The story, in theory, has a lot going for it. It has an appealing heroine, Mia, hell bent on revenge and dealing with some severe trauma from one event we know (the hanging of her father) and one that remains shrouded in mystery (whenever Mia’s mind starts to go there she tells herself don’t look). She’s darkin, which means she has some magical powers that involve being able to control shadows, though she mostly doesn’t know what she’s capable of unless she is pushed to find out. To be darkin is very rare, so there isn’t another one about she can ask. She is forever accompanied by her shadow cat (literally a cat made of shadows), Mister Kindly, who appeared to her the night her powers first manifested (the day her father was hanged for treason and her mother and baby brother imprisoned and Mia herself almost murdered.) and feeds off Mia’s fear. Since she is dealing with not a little trauma, Mister Kindly is very well fed.  Oh yeah, and he talks. With sass. They are together attending a boarding school where teenagers learn to be assassins.

Kristoff’s method of storytelling appealed to me. He uses a third person omniscient narrator who becomes one of the biggest personalities in the story. Through a mixture of footnotes and asides the narrator keeps the tone light in even its darkest moments –disappearing in its most violent, which was particularly effective – using humour and satire to inform the reader of all of the grimmest aspects of the world we have, however temporarily, stepped into.  The narrator was kind of like the villain in a Shakespeare play, nodding and winking at the audience as the others flail about none the wiser.

But it was the narrator, as one of my favourite parts of the novel that came to be the biggest let down. As a voice on the outside of the story, analysing it and at times mocking those it describes, it was perfectly placed to challenge the problematic ideas posed by Kristoff’s characters.

But it never did.`

The problem was with the representation of the Dweymeri people, who are described as ‘dark of skin’. And also as violent rapists.

Sigh.

We mainly hear about the Dweymeri through the character of Tric, who is mixed race, with a Dweymeri mother and Itreyan (white) father,  and because of this, rejected and abused by the Dweymeri people (strike one). With the exception only a few, including Tric and another student of the Assassin School he and Mia attend, Floodcaller, who is a violent asshole and then a dead one (who hates Tric for being mixed race), the Dweymeri people are barely represented in the novel at all (strike two), so when we’re told early on that they are rapists and murderers (strike three and we’re out) there is really no basis on which to challenge that idea. Even more so given that the only positive representation we get of the Dweymeri people is through Tric who we learn was not brought up in that community. This style of storytelling leans heavily on the trope of the dark skinned aggressor, and it stings particularly in a book about ruthless murderers to single out one group for being ruthless murderers.

Kristoff does make some efforts to challenge his own use of stereotype. There is a scene early on where someone calls Tric koffi, which it comes to light means ‘child of rape’. Mia’s immediate assumption is that Tric’s mother must have been raped by a Dweymeri man, but Tric quickly corrects her that it was in fact an Itreyan man who assaulted his Dweymeri mother. Obviously this is a step forward, but Mia’s mistake isn’t analysed, she isn’t ashamed of it and the wider context and social and racial politics of her remarks were never discussed at all. Given that the characters of Mister Kindly and the narrator (who I have a theory may be one and the same) in particular were so astute in their summaries of other situations in the novel, it felt wrong to me that on this they were silent.

I also felt like Kristoff had a tendency to exoticise people of colour in the book. Mostly because, with the exception of Mia, he would largely only ever describe a person’s skin colour if they were black or brown – never white. For example when we’re introduced to Spiderkiller (another ruthless, murdering Dweymeri), the potions teacher at the Assassin’s Hogwarts, she is described like this: “Her saltlocks were intricate. Immaculate. Her skin was the dark, polished walnut of the Dweymeri..” where as one of Mia’s best friends is simply called “brunette.” Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that Kristoff neglected to describe white skin as such, but I felt like this practise served to other people of colour, and as I said, exoticise. To not describe someone as white in this scenario, felt like the reader was supposed to assume they were, which creates a situation in which whiteness is necessarily considered the norm, and anything else other. So. Freaking. Problematic.

I would like to think that as the series progresses, Kristoff will break down the stereotypes he has introduced in the first novel and reveal them for the ignorance they truly are. But, seeing as by the end of the novel we are down yet another Dweymeri, I sort of doubt it.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

She annihilates standardized tests and the bad guys. Genie Lo is among droves of ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from hellspawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are dramatically rearranged. Enter Quentin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quentin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukong, the mythological Monkey King incarnate – right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the least of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

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The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee is a DELIGHTFUL book. It’s an action packed, romantic, relatable and funny read – giggling to myself on the bus level funny – driven by Chinese folklore.

‘“Go ahead,” I said, groping behind me for any heavy, hard object I could find to clock him with. “Tell me your real name and we’ll see if that makes it all better.”

Quentin took a deep breath.

“My true name,” he said, “…is SUN WUKONG.”

A cold wind passed through the open window, rustling my loose papers like tumbleweed.

“I have no idea who that is,” I said.’

I have for a long time been a huge fan of epic stories of saving the world told within the boundaries of a domestic setting. In a genre overflowing with tragically dispatched parents and groups of feral teenagers, a character who has to save the world from the rabid demon horde and get home before curfew? That’s an interesting story.

And Genie Lo is a fantastic main character. She is a joy to read, with Yee deftly avoiding all of the stereotypical and trope-ish behaviours so often displayed in characters with Genie’s snowflake status. She is, as Quentin puts it, unquestionably, undeniably human, just with a whole bunch of other stuff going on as well. The ‘stuff’ sometimes being finding out that she is the reincarnated physical form of a stick Quentin used to fight demons with, and other times, figuring out how to have a relationship with both of her parents after their bitter divorce.

She also defies many gender and racial stereotypes. Genie is a hot tempered lady, and, for better or worse, not above punching an asshole in the face every once and a while. In Western culture, which is flooded with negative representations of Asian women as passive sex objects, Genie’s self-directed narrative is a refreshing and necessary one.

I found Yee’s focus on Genie’s body to be super interesting also. It is emphasised throughout that Genie is a big girl – she describes herself as ‘monstrously tall’. This puts Genie’s appearance at odds with the ideal of the tiny, stick thin Chinese woman her body shaming mother makes it clear she thinks that Genie should be.

Additionally, Yee makes a point of Genie being much taller than her love interest, Quentin. That this was something of a revolutionary move is a testament to how fucked up our body image is as a society, but whatever. It was. And guess what, all of those girls out there who have staunchly declared they would never date a guy shorter than them (me included)? It affected nothing. I was shipping as hard as ever. Obviously.

Yee makes it more and more apparent as the story develops that Genie’s big body is for the benefit of her badass, demon slaying self. There is a point, fairly early on in the novel when Genie discovers that she can in fact grow herself to whatever size is needed for the purposes of demon slaying. Initially, she is totally ashamed and embarrassed by this development. Getting bigger is literally the opposite of what she wants for herself. But, as the narrative progresses, Genie embraces and starts to appreciate her body, something that is shown in the final battle of the novel where she deliberately grows her physical self to gigantic proportions in order to defeat her adversary. In a culture where women are taught to take up as little space as possible, with Asian women suffering from this in particular, it was such an empowering and, as the title would suggest, EPIC, moment.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a wonderful example of a YA novel. Genie and her supporting cast leap off the page, and their adventures swept me along so fast I finished this book in only a couple of sittings. It 100% lives up to the hype.

July Wrap-Up

This has been something of a big month for me.

I am officially no longer a waitress. I am officially no longer and intern.

I am officially an editorial assistant.

!

And I graduated 2 years ago this week. WTF?

A friend of mine started work as a qualified doctor. In a hospital. Where she plans to care for people’s vaginas. WTF?

I hung out with my school friend and her husband, who is awesome and someone I am glad to know. WTF?

Adulthood. Oof.

Let’s dive into safer subjects.

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This month I reviewed:

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

Feelings: I would like to join the Peskin-Suso family, please?

Marlena – Julie Buntin

Feelings: Difficult but beautiful, this tale of addiction and grief will stay with me for a long time.

Radio Silence – Alice Oseman

Feelings: NEW FAVOURITE ALERT.

Too Much and Not the Mood – Durga Chew-Bose

Feelings: A gorgeous, dream-like essay collection. Beautiful, whimsical and everything my brain needed.

I also talked wrote:

To the Bone: Authentic or irresponsible?

Mood Reads

5 Reasons to Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Other than books: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for…

To read: THIS fantastic interview with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter AKA one of my favourite books of last year.

To watch: Lilly Singh talking success and hard work with Lewis Howes (review of her book How to Be a Bawse coming soon.).

To listen: Edie Falco on WTF with Marc Maron talking about being an adult with a chaotic childhood and why she’s too scared to talk to her heroes, even when she’s on set with them. I LOVE HER.

 

The Upside of Unrequited

Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly is always careful. Better to be careful than hurt.

But when Cassie gets a new girlfriend who comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick, everything changes. Will is funny, flirtatious and basically the perfect first boyfriend.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s co-worker, Reid, the awkward Tolkien superfan she could never fall for… right?  

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The Upside of Unrequited is an adorable, bitter-sweet story of first love, change and marriage equality. Fans of Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda won’t be disappointed by Becky Albertalli’s follow up. Like its predecessor, it aims straight for the heart.

And oh my god does it meet its target. It took me right back to being seventeen, and the last boyfriendless nerd girl standing. I wanted to call up Albertalli and ask why she couldn’t have written this seven years ago (yes, I am old) because seventeen-year-old me would really have appreciated it.

The Upside of Unrequited is the quintessential contemporary young adult novel. Molly is obsessed with the worlds of love and sex she has not yet experienced for herself, but through the constant presence of both in movies, books and her home – her moms are super in love and get engaged toward the beginning of the story – she feels like she knows it.

But actually putting it into practise? Molly can’t think of anything more terrifying. It doesn’t help that in all those movies the girls are skinny, which Molly certainly isn’t.

Can we just take a moment and appreciate a fat bodied girl in a YA novel, please? I can’t be the only one fed up of YA girls who mysteriously almost all describe themselves as ‘too skinny’ (I know some people feel this way, and I’m not shaming them for it, just acknowledging that those people perhaps aren’t a majority, as many books would have us believe…). Molly’s insecurities about her body are present throughout the story in a way that felt very authentic. She’s always pulling on a cardigan to hide the parts of herself she feels self-conscious about. In one of the most anger-inducing scenes in the novel, a boy at a party tells Molly that she’s “pretty for a fat girl”. Conversely, in one of the best scenes, after pulling on her wedding outfit she realises she’s hot AF in a dress that makes her look “fat on purpose”, which in a world where we’re forever being told to buy clothes that are ‘slimming’, felt very empowering.

This scene where Molly feels fat and beautiful is emblematic of much of the writing in the novel. It’s a cute contemporary giving some serious side eye to outdated ideas of what love is, what family is and what people should look like. It has a diverse cast of characters – Molly has two moms in a mixed race relationship and was born via a sperm donor – and felt, like Radio Silence, so refreshing to read.

The Upside of Unrequited, though undeniably sweet and charming, also packs an emotional punch. It’s about change, growing up, and, inevitably, away from the people you’ve been closest to all your life. Molly spends much of the book trying to resolve the idea that the relationship she has always had with her sister will change as they head into hopefully parallel, but also different futures. She tries to cling onto the past in a way that only pushes the people she wants closest, namely her twin sister, Cassie, away. Albertalli beautifully illustrates the unique pain we experience when our priorities change at different rates than those closest to us.

In this sense, though it’s somewhat on the younger end of the YA spectrum, The Upside of Unrequited totally appealed to me as an older reader. The sweeping changes that start at the end of your teens go on (at least, in my experience) to become your new normal as you progress into your twenties. As such, there was something in the irrepressible optimism that is the heart of this novel that I found deeply comforting.

I highly recommend it.

Marlena

The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life and define the other’s for decades.

Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter until she meets her neighbour, the magic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat is quickly drawn into Marlena’s orbit, and as she catalogues a litany of firsts – first drink, first cigarette, first kiss, first pill – Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within a year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try again to move on, even as the memory of Marlena calls her back.

Told in a haunting dialogue between the past and the present, Marlena is an unforgettable story of the friendships that shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to bring oneself back from the brink.

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Marlena by Julie Buntin is a poetically written coming of age set against a backdrop of rural poverty, drug abuse and the magical powers of female friendship.

Oof. This is not an easy read. To read Marlena is to live a few days with the particular sadness of getting to know a character with the knowledge that at some point in the book, they are going to die. Our willingness to inflict emotional trauma on ourselves is one of the odd peculiarities that comes with being a total story fangirl.

It’s rare that I talk about world building outside of the context of fantasy, but in Marlena, Julie Buntin has created one that is as immersive as it is oppressive. The bleakness of the landscape, occupied by, as so many spaces are, only the very rich and the very poor, seems to soak up the potential of its inhabitants. Though Marlena is undoubtedly a book of feelings – of love, rejection, shame and grief – it is also one of the all-encompassing boredom that comes with being a teenager in a shitty town in the middle of nowhere.

Unlike a lot of the stories I read written from the perspectives of teenagers, our protagonist, Cat, is telling the story as an adult woman looking back on the year that formed so much of who she became as an adult. This creates an awareness of adolescence that is necessarily absent from YA (because when you’re a teen literally the last thing you’re interested in is analysis of being a teen from people who no longer are one. Then you turn 22 and start realising you need to figure out your shit and then it’s all you want to read. Trust me on that.). Marlena is an exploration of adolescence from adulthood in which Buntin reflects with painful emotional honesty on sex, obsessive friendship, naivety and body image to the point you can’t help but feel, as Stephanie Danler writes, “sick to my stomach, with equal parts fear and nostalgia – stunned that any of us made it out of our adolescence alive.”

Cat and Marlena’s friendship makes for a compelling and tragic read. They in fall in love through each fulfilling for the other a need they had never vocalised: for Cat, the need to be connected to somebody, to feel seen in order to feel alive (who hasn’t been there?) and for Marlena, to be loved innocently for the first and probably only time in her short, difficult life. Buntin skilfully maintains an insurmountable distance between the two girls using the comparative innocence that likely drew Marlena to Cat in the first place. The evil lurking in Marlena’s life is the meth addiction that has stolen so many people from her community, including her abusive father, whose addition controls his life. It also has her boyfriend, Ryder, who sells the drug, in its grip. This is a force that dominates Marlena’s life, and always has. It’ll lead to what seems at the end her inevitable death. Yet, when Cat first sees the improvised meth lab lurking in Ryder’s home, she has no idea what she’s looking at, she doesn’t see the fire that’s already burnt Marlena’s house to the ground.

Marlena is a beautiful and tragic book about sisterhood and grief. It is a story in equal parts sickening and compelling with a rawness concerning the darker aspects of girlhood that left me in pieces. Buntin has presented us with a difficult but thrilling debut that has left me excited – when I recover, anyway – for whatever she comes up with next.

Mood Reads

When the idea of hanging out with your friends makes you want to puke from anxiety…

Fan Girl – Rainbow Rowell

When is feels like EVERYBODY has somebody but you and you’re going to die alone…

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

When you want to set fire to things…

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

When you want to start a political movement…

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

When you want to celebrate adult life, in all its weirdnesses…

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When you want some serious sexy times…

The Hating Game – Sally Thorne

When you’ve had one of those nights with friends where you feel like you’ve found your place in the universe….

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

When you need to feel like you exist…

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

When you need to disappear…

The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson

When you want to have learned EVERYTHING…

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

When you need to hear that it’s okay to be insecure…

The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness

When you need reminding that the world can be beautiful….

No Matter the Wreckage – Sarah Kay

Radio Silence

TRIGGER WARNING: There is an emotionally abusive parent in this book.

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances is a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Engaging with themes of identity, diversity and the freedom to choose, Radio Silence is a tour de force by the most exciting writer of her generation.

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Radio Silence by Alice Oseman is a complicated world of inclusivity, art, heartbreak and abuse wrapped up in one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I have read in a long time.

Can I be super honest about something? When I opened the book and read that Oseman is only 21-years-old, I wanted to hate Radio Silence. The fact of her set every alarm bell in my head screaming: FAILURE. But then I remembered that thing I read somewhere that said everybody is on their own timeline, and tried very hard to put it to the back of my mind. Like I have to do every time I read something written by Tavi Gevinson. Sometimes you have to love the thing more than the thing makes you feel bad about yourself, because if I had decided not to read this book, I would have missed out.

Radio Silence is a character driven contemporary that rejects the heteronormativity and romance that dominates the genre. It presents us with a familiar situation: outcast girl meets outcast boy, sets the scene for what we expect to be yet another epic teen romance and then denies us. Frances explains it best: “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – We don’t. That’s all.”

Oseman does this throughout the novel: she acknowledges our assumptions – of straightness and whiteness, etc – gives them some serious side eye, and then blasts past them in order to let her characters be their fully expressed selves.

This rejection of ‘traditional’ narrative is also apparent in the writing itself. Radio Silence is a book concerned with options and with identity and even the structure of the book demonstrates this. Each part of the novel is identified with a school term and that term is then separated into parts a, b, and c. It reminded me of an exam, where you get to choose whether to answer question a, b or c and was reflective of the way in which Frances, Aled and their friends were choosing which life to lead: one where they lived up to the expectations of their parents/themselves, one where they lived in the way they wanted to while appearing to live up to expectations of their parents/themselves, or one where they threw it all out the window and instead decided to live a life they really truly wanted.

Radio Silence also engages with online culture in a very authentic and satisfying way. The book is set around a Welcome To Nightvale-style podcast that Aled and Frances work on together, and through that story, Oseman analyses the positives and negatives of online life, particularly for those who have gained a following. On the one hand, we see a space where people get to express themselves and their identities in a way they might not be comfortable to do at school – Universe City, Aled Last’s podcast has a gender neutral narrator – but on the other, a world in which people receive death threats by strangers who have decided their identity is offensive. Oseman presents a volatile space and asks us to see the positive in it. After receiving a death threat, Aled tells his boyfriend that he’s demi-sexual, an identity he learned of online and that opened up an understanding of himself he had never had before. Negative offset by positive.

It’s an empowering read that resists tropes at every step from its dissection of the joys and heartbreak of platonic love to its unique take on intelligence in all its forms. You will finish Radio Silence with a little bit more hope than when you started.