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.

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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?

Horror Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Oh god.

It took me so long to finish this book. I’ve probably tried to read this thing at least a dozen times in my (not-so) short life, and I always made it to the end of Jonathan Harker’s journal and then BLAM! I’d hit the wall of drivel that is Mina and Lucy’s journals and letters to one another. Instant boredom.

Well this time, I pushed through. Mainly, because I started reading it as a free-download on my iPhone when we were motorcycle camping this summer and I had no other choice. Phil fell asleep within 10 minutes of my reading aloud, without fail. Even in the scary bits. But, low and behold, things do get interesting again! And I got far enough into it that I had to finish, even when it bogs down again innumerable times throughout.

I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood to read Stoker. Sometimes I can breeze through the classics without trouble—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t last a day in my hands, nor did the Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—and sometimes they make me want to bang my head against the wall until I pass out. Dracula has moments of genuine brilliance, it really does. There are subtle scenes in this book that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck the way modern horror never can with its tell-all style. Stoker had a gift for horror. Unfortunately he drowns it in tedium.

In part, I think, I take issue with his structural choice—the letters, journals, telegrams, and newspaper clippings—which, although it is an intriguing idea, didn’t really pan out the way I’d hoped. This style, I believe, was used to add “credibility” to his story. The Victorian gothic was all about making readers believe in the stories of horror they read so avidly (similar to the travel fiction that was popular before and after), and I can see how this stylistic approach would achieve this for Stoker’s readers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate for modern readers. What we have instead is a text that dissociates the reader from the narrative, by putting us at an arm’s-length of the action, rather than immersing us in it. This, combined with the necessarily repetitive nature of multi-faceted POV’s really bogs down the pace of the story.

The story, I should point out, was excellent. I think Dracula would not have suffered had it been pared down by 200 or so pages. But the real meat of the tale is great. Stoker drew from a lot of vampire mythology to create a text that has defined the genre for more than a century afterwards. Having just finished I am Legend I can see a lot of Matheson’s choices as a reflection of the myth that Stoker built (indeed, Matheson’s protagonist initially uses Dracula as a kind of how-to manual for killing vampires). Until Anne Rice picked up the torch in the ‘90’s, redefining the genre for a new generation, I would argue that no one has had such an influence on vampire literature as Stoker has.

So. Was it a slow go? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely. I think anyone with an interest in mythology and folklore should read this book; it’s full of interesting tidbits and really makes you think about how stories evolve and are passed down through the ages. Also, anyone with an interest in modern vamp-lit should give it a try, to see what the original blood-sucking fiend was all about. Unless your reading level has stagnated at Stephanie Meyer’s slush bucket of sparkle vamps and angst-ridden puppy-lovers, you don’t want to hurt yourself. Was Stoker the first to pick up the vampire myth and bring it to a new audience? No. But no one can deny that he popularized the genre, and I believe there was a reason for that. It might have taken me two months to get through (an unheard-of marathon for me), but I’d do it again!

YA Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Okay.

I’m writing another YA book review. I don’t know why I read this one, except that another reviewer that I really respect gave it 4/5 stars. But it’s still YA, so I still expect it to suck. So sue me.

Worse, it’s YA Paranormal Romance. Ugh.

But I read it. And I finished it. Which means it didn’t suck as badly as I thought it would.

Actually Shiver didn’t suck at all. It was a decent, if simple, book. The plot wasn’t so derivative that I knew what Stiefvater was after from page one. Actually, the ending was a bit of a surprise. Pleasant, even. Weird, right?

For the most part, Stiefvater’s language was complicated enough to be interesting without being so purple that I couldn’t get through it. I know there are some reviews that focus on particularly bad lines. But I’m willing to overlook these in the greater scheme of things. “I am a leaking womb” is not the greatest imagery to pass through my ocular filter and make it into my brain. However, surprisingly, it is not the worst either. And that shit doesn’t happen often enough for me to write off the whole novel for the sake of it.

I’m a forgiving person.

Can I just say, now, that I’m not into werewolves. Or vampires, or any other kind of monster you can think of that might make a good love interest for a female teenage protagonist. But Shiver, although it does follow the paranormal romance formula, did not strike me as “just-another-teeneage-werewolf-romance” kind of book. Granted, I haven’t read enough of them to know the difference.

What I do know is that I didn’t hate Grace, the protagonist. And although he was a bit of an emo wimp, I didn’t hate Sam either. In fact, I felt that both of these characters transcended their stereoptypes and became “real.” That’s a big statement coming from a YA hater, such as myself. Both characters grow more than thier Hunger Games contemproraries, and although this world is more similar to ours, I felt like Shiver was saying more that HG was in the first novel of the trilogy.

To be fair, I am partly in love with the fact that the text is colour coordinated with the cover. I.e. it’s blue for Shiver. Green for Linger. Etc.

But I swear, the story was decent too…

…If you can get past the awkward teeneage romance aspect, that is.

Was it really this painful when we were going through it? I don’t remember teenage love being like this at all. Maybe I’m a freak. I’m willing to accept that. But seriously. Who is considering marriage at 17 years old?

These gripes aside, Shiver is actually an interesting novel about two young people attempt to find a place in the world. Stiefvater’s take on family and society is interesting and unforgiving, which I like. I like that she doesn’t pretent the world is a wonderful place and she makes room for weirdness even in the most “normal” of relationships. Grace is a likeable character, even if she’s a little emotionally removed. Stiefvater gives us enough background to explain why this is. Conversely, Sam is an interesting counter-type to Grace and his own backgrouned adds to this rather than complicating things unnecessarily. I liked them both.

I actually liked all fo the characters, and felt that they remained true to their types throughout the novel.

Okay, Sam’s lyrics kind of suck. But he’s an 18 year old guy. I’d be a little suspicious if they didn’t suck, really. And they do get better as the novel progresses. And you’ll like Sam. So you’ll be able to forgive him for being that shaggy haired douche in your English Lit class, I swear.

Just read it, okay?