Fantasy Book Review: White is for Witching

4/5 Stars

Do you know what I love?

I love picking up a book and thinking “What the hell is going on?” But in a good way. I love when a book is so out there and unexpected that it actually surprises me. And I read a lot of weird shit, so this is not easy to accomplish. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is one such book. It is eerie, and strange, and unexpected in so many ways that I wish I could give it 5 stars just for that.

This book is about family, and friendship, and race, and class, and education. And then it’s not about any of these things. It is just a piece of a life being torn apart by psychological illness. I think a lot of people read this book and found it pretentious. I think they came at it, expecting it to be difficult because it’s strange. But it’s not difficult. I think it’s actually quite straight-forward, and readers do themselves a disservice by trying to read more into it than Oyeyemi is giving us.

As if what she gives us isn’t enough! White is for Witching is the story of Miranda Silver, and her struggle with an eating disorder called pica, which prompts her to eat inedible materials. Miri is wasting away, knowing that she is sick but trying to get better, as she watches her illness begin to break apart what is left of her family—a fraternal twin brother and a father—after the death of her mother.

Women of the Silver family (the twins have their mother’s surname because they were born with blue eyes, an agreement that their parents made before their births) are plagued by madness, a kind of curse. And as Miri and her brother Eliot become adults they are pulled apart by more than the inevitable changes of adulthood; Miri’s downward spiral into mental illness is destroying their relationship.

Miri remains a bit of a mystery. At the very outset of the novel, Miranda Silver has gone missing. She is never given a first person narrative voice as are her brother Eliot, her best-friend/lover Ore, and the house that she and her brother have grown up in. Yes, that’s right, the house narrates a portion of this novel. And it’s kind of a bastard. The suggestion is that the house has a large part to play in the madness of the Silver women, though just how large a part isn’t made clear until the end of the novel. And by then you’re wishing someone would just burn the thing down. Seriously creepy.
The only reason I haven’t given White is for Witching 5 stars is that I felt some things were left a little too open. I’m not big on having plot spelled out for me, I actually like to be able to bring a little of myself to story. But there were moments in this one that left me a little baffled. For example, why is the house racist?—it seems as if the house has taken on the prejudices of the original occupants in the Silver matri-lineage. But why did this one woman’s world-view stick and none of the other Silver women seem to be able to sway the house’s opinions?

Okay, if you haven’t read this book that sounds like a strange line of inquiry. If you have read it, maybe you can tell me… Did I miss something? And then there’s the sub-plot with Eliot’s girlfriend who seems to want to look like Miri, and uses her disguise to… get some immigrant boys stabbed to death? Riddle me that. I would have liked just a tad more than Oyeyemi’s given us here. I just couldn’t connect the dots in any kind of meaningful way.

In spite of these minor glitches I felt White is for Witching to be an exciting, original read. It’s a brief and poetically written. It’s a little dark, which I like, and has just a touch of magic realism without coming across as campy. Take an afternoon off and pick up this book! It’s a quick and rewarding read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Book Reviews: Reader Requests!

I’m waaaaay behind on my book reviews. So here is a list of some of the books that I’ve read recently. Let me know which ones you would like to see a review for, and I’ll do those ones first.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi

Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen

Sugar Queen, Sarah Addison Allen

The Peach Keepers, Sarah Addison Allen

Glimmerglass, by Jenna Black

A Red Herring without Mustard, by Alan Bradly

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou

The Birth House, by Ami McKay

There is a sad lack of SF on this list, but that’s because I’ve already left it too long to do proper reviews on some of the recent SF I’ve read. The above books are simple enough that I can let time and other novels get between me and the books without losing too much… I’m working on a review for Alistair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” but I need to skim it for a refresher. So, anything spark your interest?

A brief editing update

Hello all,

I’ve been busy busy these last few week. Editing is hard work! So far I’ve already trimmed 8000 words from my original MS (which was a beastly 146,742 words!). I’m only on page 160 of my edited text (approx. 185 of the original) with another 350 or so to go. I anticipate being able to cut at least 12,000 total. I’m hoping for 20,000 (but I’ll have to be really aggressive to make this goal… can I do it?) which would bring me back into optimal first novel length for agents and publishers. I have two small publishing companies that are waiting to read my edited text, with one being quite promising. There are also a couple of agents I will be re-submitting to once this is done. So I have high hopes for my new, improved Timekeepers’ War. Hopefully what I end up with is more commercially viable! Is anyone interested in seeing the next two chapters? I’d love to have some extra feedback on my first 30 pages or so… Thanks for reading,
Cat

Holy Crap! An Update!–Further adventures in editing…

Okay. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m sorry I haven’t been updating very frequently. The waiting game is tough, and it’s hard to keep thinking of positive things to tell myself (and my readers) when I’m wallowing in a pit of despair.

However–!

–I have news: I’ve just gotten back the results of my professional edit. And I’m posting here instead of hiding under my bed, so it must not have been too bad. Here’s the good news: 1) He said I’m “better than most new writers [he] works with” 2) He liked my characters, and thought I had a good story* 3) The edits were helpful in so many ways that I didn’t even expect and I’m thrilled that I decided to do this even though it cost me real money (thanks Dad!)

*a good story that is hiding inside a web of verbosity.

So, long story short: He liked my book, but it needs to go on a diet. I knew that already but I didn’t really know where to start. The trouble with editing your own work is that every word is already justified in  your mind. Even once you’ve set the thing aside for months, in the back of your little brain you know why you put stuff in there.You unconsciously justify scenes and images that should have been deleted long ago, because you’re stubborn. You are. Trust me.

My trouble is–one of them, anyways–that I often confuse details that are necessary to me when I’m writing the story, with details that are necessary to a person who is reading the story. World building is tricky business. Too often, potentially good tales (esp. in SF and Fantasy) fall flat because the world is inconsistent, or unbelievable, or just not “present” enough. I know that. I tried really hard not to be that writer. I succeeded… and then some. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

Building a rich, detailed environment for your SF novel to flourish in requires more than a little noggin scratching and weird doodles in the margins of your rough draft notebook. You should be able to answer any question about your world that someone might think to ask. Test yourself, have someone ask you random questions and see if you can answer them. It’s tough!

But… just because you know every nook, cranny and dirty secret of your world doesn’t mean you have to show it all to your reader. Right now, my novel is basically just wandering around in a trench coat waiting to expose itself to the first person who looks its way. Its a total perv. I kind of suspected this, but now that it’s be pointed out by someone who knows his stuff, I can actually see it for myself. It’s embarrassing, but kind of awesome too.

I’m much happier having to trim the fat than I would be if I’d been told that my characters were unsympathetic losers, or that my story was pointless, or that my world-building sucked. Those are much tougher challenges to overcome (and really, if that had been the feedback I would be seriously considering what I was doing trying to be a writer). But all of the elements of my story are there. My novel is there, it’s finished. I just need to carve away the excess and expose it in all its glory (back to the trench coat again).

Seriously, though. If you don’t have access to writing workshops in your area (there are some online, but this can be just as expensive as editing) I highly recommend taking the plunge and getting a professional to edit your novel. I used John Jarrold, an editor in the UK, whose website I stumbled upon purely by accident when I was researching SF agents. He’s great, and comes with my highest recommendations. He’s helped me to solve problems I knew about, but didn’t know how to fix, and how to fix problems I didn’t know I had. He made a suggestion about reordering my chapters that solves some major pacing issues I had at the beginning of my novel, as well as addressing issues I had with POV and time line confusion.

In one sentence, he’s helped me to rewrite the first six chapters of my book. I’ve always felt that the beginning was the weakest part of my novel, and now I think it’s got potential again. I’ve just finished editing the first 35 pages, and I’m pretty excited to finish the rest.

I’ll keep you updated with the rest of the editing process. But I think I’m off to a good start. I’m also going to post my new and improved chapter one, so you can tell me what you think…