Myfanwy Thomas, written by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook

I initially encountered The Rook on Kim‘s Instagram feed over the summer, and she blogged more about it here. With a description like “Ghostbusters meets James Bond meets Memento, if James Bond were a lady spy who is also a kickass administrative genius,” I kind of had to read it. And broke my only reading challenge for the year, but whatever, it was so worth it. I like weird fiction and fascinating female characters, and this book definitely hit the spot.

The book centers around Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas, who has to be one of the most unusual characters I’ve encountered. Myfanwy wakes up with no memory  and has to piece things together through clues her past self left (in the form of notes in coat pockets) and excellent deductive reasoning.

Myfanwy has a unique set of skills that would make Liam Neeson’s character from Taken shit his pants.

Literally.

Myfanwy can control people through touch, and her past self, whom Myfanwy calls Thomas, never really explored that power. The titular Rook, Myfanwy/Thomas serves as a member of the Checquy, a secret British organization responsible for keeping a lid on paranormal activity, conducting research, and offering support to those with powers.

The combination of Myfanwy’s narrative and Thomas’s letters allow the reader a unique perspective into one person whose selves are night and day. Thomas is more timid, a bureaucrat comfortable in a more diplomatic, sometimes soft-spoken role. Understandable — traumatic experiences growing up have made her afraid to use her powers.

Still, Thomas is a force with which to be reckoned. While she might not be an “action girl,” she doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty, especially when she realizes that she’s on the trail of something dangerous and potentially deadly.

Myfanwy, by contrast, is more outspoken and bold. She takes chances. She delights in her own capabilities and potential, because she does not bear the emotional trauma of learning to control them. She retains that keen sense of reasoning and intuition, and she finishes the investigation Thomas started.

But for all her blunt bravado, she’d be nothing without her past self’s guidance. It creates a beautiful narrative balance, with both characters reliant on each other and their strengths and weaknesses dovetailing nicely. Two different characters embodying the same woman, seeking to achieve the same goal. It’s a funny, charming, and oddly inspiring work, so I hope you’ll take a moment to sit down and read a few pages.

There will be fist pumps, because Myfanwy isn’t the only awesome character. You’ll see.

A final note: I listened to The Rook as an audiobook and while I really enjoyed it, I would recommend reading the physical book. The narrator, Susan Duerden, does a fantastic job, but the book includes a lot of longer exposition/back story breaks in media res, and I personally find those a bit tedious during a listen.

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Agnieska? 

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Being the Secret: A Women in Fiction Guest Post by Dot Dannenberg

This week’s Women in Fiction post comes from Dot Dannenberg. Dot is an extremely talented writer and an editor at 1:1000.  Please check out her 1:1000 pieces on our contributors page here. You’d be remiss skipping the 10-part West series (just saying).

Dot’s post below is one of my favorite pieces about books this year, because it’s whip-smart in its observations about teenagers, body image and self-consciousness, and two of my favorite books this year (go read them, for real).

At first glance, the female protagonists of two of this year’s hottest YA novels couldn’t be more different, aside from their boy names. Will (Willowdean) Dickson, in Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, is an overweight Texas high schooler who upends her small town by entering a local beauty pageant. Theo (Theodora) Cartwright, in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, is a recovering anorexic ballerina forced to face her past when her best friend’s kidnapper is finally caught.

These two seventeen-year olds seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in everything from race to BMI to the circumstances they face. In Pointe, the stakes are much higher than in Dumplin’–Theo’s unreliable narration swirls around the details of past and current loves while only skimming the surface of the darker things going on around her–sexual abuse, drugs, anger. Willowdean’s world is much softer. The darkest cloud in her life is her aunt, dead at thirty-five from obesity complications, who serves as both Willowdean’s guiding light and ghost of Christmas future.

I am not the target audience for young adult fiction starring seventeen-year-old girls. At times, I wanted both books to go deeper into the obsessive internal minds of these narrators, something I recall so clearly from adolescence, which is sadly missing from most YA fiction.

But I was impressed with how these two books about such different young women manage to capture a universal experience I do remember about being a teenage girl: when a boy wants to keep you a secret.

In Pointe, Theo entangles herself with a drug-dealing piano prodigy named Hosea. He understands her. He introduces her to feelings she didn’t know could exist. And, of course, he already has a girlfriend. Theo spends the book oscillating between refusing to be the secret and caving to Hosea’s advances, telling herself to have fun while it lasts–the rest of her life waiting to unravel in the wings.

I kept waiting for the reasoning behind Hosea’s secrecy to appear. Had he and his girlfriend been through some life-changing event? Was it about race, all along, because Theo is black?

But Colbert doesn’t take us there. Instead, we get the mundane truth of high school: high school boys don’t have real reasons. Hosea and his girlfriend have been together for two whole years, and at that age, longevity trumps everything, even self-actualization. Now that I read it, I see how accurate this is–how catastrophic the power-couple breakups at my high school tended to be. I remember the cutest boy at school holding my hand, then agonizing that his recently-dumped girlfriend of two years would be angry he was moving on so fast.

I even more directly relate to Willowdean in Dumplin’. Willowdean crushes hard on Bo, the cute boy she works with at a fast food restaurant. It’s clear from their banter that there’s a connection, but their romantic trysts always seem to take place in secret–behind dumpsters or parked near abandoned buildings. Willowdean almost can’t believe he’s into her, to such an extent that she doesn’t even tell her best girlfriend about her first kiss. And of course, in classic teenage boy style, Bo insists he can’t handle a relationship right now. Sure. That’s what they always say.

It’s taken me almost thirty years to re-write the narratives I told myself about growing up fat. The line I repeated–“boys just weren’t into me”–was a lie. Like Bo with Willowdean, boys were into me. They were just too ashamed to be the guy dating the fat girl. The internal battle between shame and longing rings clear and true in Dumplin’.

I wish I’d had books like Pointe and Dumplin’ when I was in high school. Watching Theo and Willowdean live through these experiences would have made me feel a little less crazy. I would have second-guessed myself less. And maybe I’d have learned a little sooner to speak up for the things I know I deserve.

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Theo and Willowdean? 

Greta, written by Carol Rifka Brunt

Just a reminder, spoilers below!

I just finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home earlier this week (I’ve been not-so-great with finishing my audiobooks of late, letting them linger and listening in spurts every other week). I cannot recommend it enough, and I had a difficult time selecting one of the female characters to portray – protagonist June, her sister Greta, or their mother (who may get her own post on a re-listen, TBH).

Ultimately, I picked Greta. She’s stubborn and a bit of a firecracker, and while the story focuses primarily on June’s narrative, I thought Greta upstaged her younger sister in their shared scenes. Somewhat fitting, given Greta is a talented young actress known for stealing the show.

Greta straddles the line between sympathetic and obnoxious. She toggles between her mother and her younger sister June, particularly in how she reacts to Uncle Finn’s death from complications due to AIDS. We find out that Greta knew of their uncle’s diagnosis long before June. Why? Because their mother caught Greta using Finn’s chapstick, the same one he used to treat his cracked, bleeding lips that winter. June isn’t afraid of Finn, or his lifestyle, and her lack of fear and status as favorite exacerbate a rift between the two sisters.

Greta pokes. Greta prods. She sneaks and sabotages. For all her bravado, her bold, brash act, she’s hurting. Her sister is growing apart. Her mother is pushing her into a career path she doesn’t know if she wants. There’s something so universal about Greta – that wounded way she lashes out but still hopes for the best.

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Greta? 

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Women in Fiction Series Updates & Guest Post Opportunity

First of all, congrats to Jenny at Reading the End! She won the kick-off giveaway and will be receiving the first two books in the Nola Céspedes series.

Some brief updates about the series:

  • Spoilers are happening, people. It’s way to hard to write about some of these characters without including spoilers, because such a big part of their arcs involve, you know, what happens to them and how they respond (or don’t). I’ll include a spoiler tag at the top of the post, too.
  • I’m looking for guest bloggers for November for the Women in Fiction series! If you’re interested, please contact me by Saturday, October 31st with your pitch. I can be reached at erinmjustice {@} gmail [dot] com.

Thanks for reading! 

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Bella Swan, written by Stephenie Meyer

bella

Well, I did say not everyone would agree with the selections.

Look, I’m not a fan of the Twilight series. I understand why it’s been so popular, but I found it poorly written.

And here’s the thing: I don’t love Bella. Most of the time, I don’t even like her. What I appreciate, though, is that she’s become a cultural icon who manages to occupy space on both sides of the feminist playing field. I’m not writing about Bella because of who she is on the page – I’m writing about her because of how her character is internalized and interpreted. And I can think of no better character than Bella Swan when it comes to literary dichotomy.

In my world, the anti-feminist perspective is more prevalent: Bella Swan is an awful role model for young women. Bella has no real agency. Bella defines herself through an unhealthy, borderline (if not outright) abusive relationship.

And then there’s a the flip side: Bella Swan is an accurate portrayal of the female gaze.* She’s a contemporary adolescent woman and many readers can relate to her and the obstacles in her life more easily than, say, Hermione or Katniss.

Really, I think that’s what it boils down to for a lot of people: I can relate to Bella, maybe even a bit of the wish fulfillment I want to relate to Bella.

There is such vocal support for the feminist interpretations of what Bella’s character means,  but there’s also the readers who internalize who Bella is. They don’t see Bella for what she represents in a social sense, they see her as a kindred spirit. That we can have such a massive literary figure — and yes, for better or worse Bella is a hugely popular character — who is both anti-feminist  and easily relatable is telling and problematic.

That’s the piece I think we keep missing. Bella’s legacy is that for a certain segment of feminism, she’s indicative of ever-changing roles, norms, and expectations. Be confident, be brave, be vocal, be your own person. And maybe secretly, you just want to fit in, to not feel so different all the time, and you just want to be loved.

Those don’t have to be mutually exclusive – but I guess when the guy you want to love is climbing into your bedroom at night and watching you sleep, they kind of are.

*young, white, heteronormative female gaze

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Bella (and her new counterpart, Edyth)? 

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Agnieszka, written by Naomi Novik

agnieszka

I read Uprooted over the summer and loved it, thanks in no small part to the protagonist Agnieszka (okay, and the earthy, grounded magic).

Agnieszka is a young woman who fears what will happen when her best friend is chosen to be a servant to “the Dragon,” a powerful wizard who protects their area from the dark magic of the forest. Agnieszka is one of many surprised when the Dragon choses her rather than her best friend Kasia.

When I think about Agnieszka, the first thing that comes to mind is her outspoken nature. She’s never afraid to ask questions or even challenge others when she perceives unfairness or dangerous situations. Sometimes this can seem naive or impetuous, especially since Agnieszka is a young woman and a novice in her craft. Still, there’s a genuine earnestness that she has, and you can’t help rooting for her.

Agnieszka’s magical abilities also play a huge role in the character’s unique likability. Novik avoids the dangerous Mary Sue territory by balancing skill with education. Agnieszka has a spark of talent, and through the impatient Dragon’s teachings she learns more about how to control and use magic. It’s a familiar story, but what I appreciated is the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality Agnieszka has. Agnieszka carries herself with confidence, even when she’s fighting the forest’s deadly magic.

Agnieszka confronts sexual harassment and attempted sexual assault, treason, and rotten, mystical magic. But she does so with a tenacious refusal to go it alone. Putting up with the prickly Dragon, they grow to trust and respect each other. She figures out how they can use and support each other – no easy task, considering how long the Dragon has been selecting young women from the village. Agnieszka never forgets her friend Kasia, and their close, kind friendship is a constant bright thread in the novel.

Agnieszka is chosen thinking that there’s nothing special about her – not when she compares herself to Kasia, who seems to shimmer and shine in every category. And while Agnieszka doesn’t dwell on this long, it’s easy to see the many reasons why Agnieszkva was chosen. A charming, clever young woman, Agnieszka is a character you’ll enjoy getting to know!

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Agnieska? 

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