It’s been a while since I was truly excited about a young adult book, in part because I haven’t read very many in the past year or two. There was a stretch of time when every new book was reminding me of The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. However, when a book is independently recommended to me by two well-read lady friends, I take notice. That book is An Ember in the Ashes.
Young adult, like every literary genre, is lacking in diversity. This applies to both authors and character representation. So it’s wonderful to see a Pakistani-American author receiving well-deserved recognition for this book. In An Ember in the Ashes, you will find a society based on the Roman Empire in a desert climate with a variety of characters who aren’t white (!). Tahir builds an immersive world with a strict class system, slavery, and soldiers who are trained from childhood. The stakes are high for characters in every social sphere.
The narration is split between Laia and Elias. Laia was born into the oppressed Scholar class. When her brother is arrested for suspected collaboration with the Resistance, she is forced to become a slave in her attempt to save him. Laia isn’t the typical heroine found in fantasy adventure stories. She doesn’t start out as tough, capable, and fearless, but circumstances push her to challenge her fears. Most importantly, her understanding of herself and her family evolves as she faces these trials. Hers is a classic coming-of-age journey.
On the other hand, Elias has been trained since boyhood to join the ranks of the Empire’s most lethal assassins. Although Elias holds a privileged position, his ambiguous parentage and nontraditional upbringing give him an outsider’s perspective. He can’t speak out against the brutality of the Empire without risking death. Tahir is highly successful at bringing out the contradictions and messy emotions in this character as well. Elias objects to the role he’s expected to play, but he also loves the comrades with whom he grew up.
My friend Emmie and I were discussing how authors sometimes struggle to continue a series after a promising start. She suggested that those authors didn’t have a specific idea of where they were headed when the began the series. In addition, I think that the pressure to make each book more epic and action-packed sometimes causes the emotional threads of the story to get buried. Sabaa Tahir has planned four books for this series. I will be reading A Torch Against the Night soon and hope to love it nearly as much as An Ember in the Ashes. Even if she falls into some of the fantasy series traps, she’s a young writer with tons of potential for the future. I look forward to following her career!
Margaret Atwood has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I ever read. As a seventeen-year-old budding feminist, Atwood’s cautionary tale had a lasting impact on me, with certain scenes still etched in my memory. This week saw the release of the first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist nightmare where, as a response to widespread inferility, the government has taken control of women’s bodies. Fertile women are forcibly trained by religious leaders and assigned as handmaids to high-status couples who have been unable to conceive. It’s sex slavery hiding behind religious justification. I hope that anyone would be horrified by imagining this reality, but it’s particularly frightening as a woman to imagine what your life would be if your worth was determined entirely by your husband or ability to procreate.
Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (“of Fred”), a handmaid whose daughter was taken and husband shot as they tried to escape the country. The series opens with their flight through the woods, pursued by armed men. Being hunted like an animal anticipates Offred’s new life, in which she is essentially breeding stock. Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that Elisabeth Moss has the ability to project silent agony and repressed rage. This role gives her ample opportunities for both. I wasn’t initially sure about her decision to deliver the voiceover in a hoarse whisper, but it fits the tone of repression that permeates the story.
As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly cinematic. Light and shadows are both used in extremes, from lens flares to dark figures silhouetted against a window. A culture of extremity is also reflected in the handmaids’ uniform of a long red dress and white bonnet. When out in public, oversized wings are added to the bonnet to obscure their faces. Pop music is inserted sparingly at climatic moments. Although I found the music conspicuous in the first episode, the fact that it’s incongruous with the world being shown makes it effectively jarring. After all, speculative or dystopian fiction aims to show us how aspects of an imagined society bear a disquieting resemblance to our reality.
Although watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly joyless experience, I believe that it’s a valuable one. Margaret Atwood externalizes the Madonna-whore complex by creating a society in which women are explicitly categorized as virtuous wives or sexual handmaids. (There are also domestic servant “Marthas” and execution or exile.) This may seem like an impossible idea, but the aspects of this story exist around the world in different forms. Even in relatively liberated societies, women feel the opposing pressures to be sexy but not slutty, a good girl but not a prude. In a tumultuous time, I appreciate that creators are reminding us about what has been, what still is, and what we must be vigilant to prevent.
Last week I took a quick trip to Florida for some furry friend therapy.
Just what the doctor ordered.
Every book lover knows that authors are the source of both our greatest joy and our greatest pain. I’m talking about the often excruciating wait that comes between books from our favorite writers. On a rational level, we want them to take as long as needed to produce a quality novel, but on an irrational level, we’re desperate for our next fix. There are several authors whose disrupted publication schedule is keeping me in suspense at the moment, so here’s a rundown.
J.K. Rowling, as Robert Galbraith, was publishing the Cormoran Strike mysteries like clockwork. 2013, 2014, and 2015 each brought an installment. But 2016…nothing. There’s still no publication date for the fourth book, which means we probably won’t see it until fall at the earliest. I realize that she’s been busy, y’know, writing movie scripts and collaborating on plays. But I need more Cormoran and Robin in my life! The Guardian reports that she’s working on two books: the next Cormoran Strike mystery and a novel under her own name. Here’s hoping for the mystery in the latter part of 2017 and the novel in 2018.
Meeting Rainbow at NerdCon 2015 when Carry On was freshly released
Rainbow Rowell spoiled us by being impressively prolific in her early years of publication. I believe she was already working on Fangirl (or possibly done with it) by the time Eleanor & Park was published, which resulted in two books in 2013. Then she gave us one book a year until 2016. I know she wrote a screenplay for Eleanor & Park, a movie that didn’t get made, and she signed a deal to write two graphic novels. I’ve been so anxious for the first graphic novel collaboration with Faith Erin Hicks. I imagine that the art side is extremely time consuming, but this announcement was made three years ago. Three years!
My last torturer is Maureen Johnson. Maureen has had some serious health shenanigans in the last few years, so I can’t really begrudge her the delay in her publishing schedule. And yet…the last Shades of London book came out two years ago. I miss my favorite irreverent ghost squad! I reread The Name of the Star recently, which was delightful, but it also made me impatient for the fourth book. She also has a new mystery series scheduled to launch this year called Truly Devious. That could almost make up for Shades of London. (Almost.)
Also at NerdCon 2015, Maureen Johnson leading a Q&A with the Vlogbrothers
In all seriousness, I love these women and will happily read their books whenever they’re released. 2016 was just a dry year for a lot of my favorite authors. In literature we play the long game, so there’s always something to anticipate.
With the help of my trusty friend Good Reads, I have another year of reading data to share. My goal for 2016 was to read 20 books and reread some recent favorites. Well, folks, I read 20 books! And for the first time since I started setting these goals, I finished more than a week before the end of the year.
However, I failed in the rereading part of my goal. This is partially due to the fact that I went back to school part-time in the fall. I’m happy that school doesn’t seem to be restricting my pleasure reading too much, but it does reduce my free time somewhat. As I worked on my Best of 2016 posts, it became clear that I still managed to read many wonderful books. There were impressive second novels from Suzanne Rindell and Eowyn Ivey, two favorites from past years. I’m also pleased that I read four nonfiction books. Hooray for broadening horizons!
In 2017, I will read 20 books and continue trying to reread. 20 feels like a realistic goal, even with the addition of school. Although I don’t have as much time for it, rereading helps me grow as a writer. I’m looking forward to new books from Sarah Dessen and Paula Hawkins—and hoping for something new from Rainbow Rowell and another Cormoran Strike mystery. Happy reading!