Our Year in Books: Liz

Article by liz

Anyone who’s talked to me for more than five minutes probably knows I graduated from Wellesley College, one of New England’s famous Seven Sisters. For 2014, my first full year out of Wellesley, I found myself missing the strong women I’d surrounded myself with for four years--so I filled my empty Wellesley bubble with strong women in stories, and the even stronger women who write them. My time in college taught me that as a woman with a voice, it’s my job to advocate for other women: for female authors and great female characters, all of them incredibly different and with vastly different stories, all told in amazingly diverse ways.

So here’s 2014, Liz’s Year of Ladies Living Dangerously.

The Book: REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers
The Lady: Deborah Samson/Robert Shurtliff
The Dangerous Living: As a colonial militia member in the Revolutionary War

Revolutionary Cover Image
ISBN: 9781451663327
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Simon & Schuster - January 14th, 2014

I kicked off my year with REVOLUTIONARY, the true story of Deborah Samson (one of the author’s ancestors), who took on the identity of Robert Shurtliff to fight in the colonial militia in the last days of the Revolutionary War. As she slips further into Robert’s identity to avoid detection, something happens that I’ve never seen happen in a book before: the narrative changes, referring to Deborah as Robert, and using male pronouns instead of female. REVOLUTIONARY is an incredibly visceral, incredibly private book--Myers keeps us very close to Deborah/Robert, being very clear that neither identity is more or less real than the other. There’s an incredibly strong commentary running through the book about Deborah’s quiet realizations of how she’s been socialized to act as a woman, and how different it is to be a man. REVOLUTIONARY resonated deeply with me as I moved from a mostly single-gender space, as Deborah had, into a more mixed world.

The Lady: Addison Stone
The Dangerous Living: As a deeply troubled wunderkind of the New York fine arts scene

Staff Pick Logo
The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616953607
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Soho Teen - August 12th, 2014

Addison Stone broke my heart. No, really. This fully-realized fictional biography, told via interviews with her friends and family, draws a compelling picture of a young woman struggling with both the burden of genius and her own mental illness. Addison’s art, displayed in full-color through the book, is both beautiful and haunting, and as someone who’s struggled with both making art and some very low periods, both her art and her story stayed with me long after I finished. Like so many young people who are both talented and vulnerable, Addison is surrounded by people looking to capitalize on her work, or well-meaning people who just don’t understand, or actively terrible people who use her up and spit her out--and naturally, bad things happen. Though we only get glimpses of Addison unfiltered, through her art, the pictures of her, and the few unaltered texts and emails from her we’re given, she is gloriously real. The ways the people in her life see her are so incredibly true to how teen girls are seen, especially teen girls struggling with their mental health: damaged, out-of-control, unladylike...the list goes on. This book would have mattered so much to me as a teenager, and I’m so glad that it exists for the girls like me to-be.

The Book: THE WORST PRINCESS by Anna Kemp & Sara Ogilvie
The Lady: Princess Sue
The Dangerous Living: As a bored princess who teams up with the dragon!

The Worst Princess Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385371254
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Random House Books for Young Readers - April 22nd, 2014

This book, y’all. This. Book. I was raised on Disney movies--I love me a good princess story. But as an adult, y’know, I’ve come to realize that there are some problems with classical princess stories. Very often, the princesses have absolutely no choice in what happens to them; they’re objects, not actors, and that’s not the best role model to give little girls--someone who has things happen to them, instead of someone who makes things happen. THE WORST PRINCESS is a princess picture book that gives its heroine agency. Princess Sue doesn’t just accept the traditional princess narrative she’s handed--she decides she deserves better and to do what she wants to do. She doesn’t settle. I want to give THE WORST PRINCESS to every little girl who walks through this store.

The Book: BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman
The Lady: Marjorie
The Dangerous Living: As a single mother leading her children though a hostile outdoors she has never seen--blindfolded

Bird Box: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062259653
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Ecco - May 13th, 2014

BIRD BOX, like the previous book on my list, is also heartbreaking--but unlike THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE, BIRD BOX is completely terrifying. This edge-of-your-seat horror novel takes place in a world where something outside drives anyone who sees it homicidally insane. So, naturally, what remains of the world are isolated communities of shut-ins, terrified of letting any outsider in. Marjorie lives in a boarded-up house with her two children--children she hasn’t let herself grow attached to; children she’s named nothing but Boy and Girl; children she’s ruthlessly and relentlessly trained to hear better than dogs or bats, so that when they make their blindfolded escape from the house, she can use her children’s ears as eyes. This book delves deep into the darkness in people, and I have to be honest with you: it messed me up a little. But it’s hopeful, at the end, and it’s a great book about humanity collectively pushing through their fear and terror and making something good together. Author Malerman, while admittedly a dude, did a great job with Marjorie. She’s so conflicted and fearful, but also so resilient and bold--she pushes through her fear, and I would challenge anyone who thinks being a “strong woman” means you can’t be afraid to read BIRD BOX.

The Book: THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB by Genevieve Valentine
The Ladies: Jo, Lou, Ella, Doris, Hattie, Mattie, Rebecca, Araminta, Sophie, Rose, Lily, and Violet
The Dangerous Living: As a band of dancing sisters determined to live their lives in spite of their controlling father

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476739083
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Atria Books - June 3rd, 2014

THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB are twelve young women--sisters--who’ve spent their whole lives locked in the upper floors of their New York brownstone in the 1920s, except when they sneak out at night to go dancing in speakeasies. Each girl is completely distinct from her sisters; they all have their own fears, motivations, likes, and dislikes--they’re all so REAL. Jo, the eldest, nicknamed “The General,” does her best to keep her sisters together and safe, and she worries if, in so doing, she’s becoming their father. Jo is the nominal main character, though we spend time with all of the girls, and her fears are so deeply-felt and completely understandable--she wants to protect her sisters, but they’ve all been so damaged by their controlling father that she wonders if she’s becoming him by trying to look after them all. For anyone who’s been torn between worlds, or a caregiver to their family like Jo is, her struggles will resonate. Without giving spoilers, I’ll just say that something happens in the middle of the book that forces all the girls to break out of their routines, and shows how incredibly strong and adaptable all twelve of them are. They may have grown up sheltered, but because of Jo, they all know how to make difficult decisions and take charge, and they all find different ways to survive with what skills they have. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club are another bold challenge to what it means to be a strong woman in fiction today.

The Ladies: Melanie, Helen Justineau, and Caroline Caldwell
The Dangerous Living: As survivors, scientists, and test subjects in a world of ravenous creatures and fraying civilization

The Girl with All the Gifts Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316278157
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Orbit - June 10th, 2014

Say it with me: zombie books are played-out. Have we all agreed? Okay. Now ignore everything I just said and pick up THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I wasn’t even sure this was a zombie book until I was fifty pages in, and by then, I didn’t care. Melanie is the most completely described little person ever; she’s smart and funny, wide-eyed yet wise, but for as intelligent as she is, she is still inescapably childlike and undebatably imprisoned, treated like a lab animal, and we feel for her. I felt as deeply for Melanie as I did for the teacher she lives in awe of, Miss Justineau (Helen, to the rest of us)--a scientist who grows too close to her subjects because it’s impossible not to see them as people, as we do. Carey’s intensely close writing style gets us deeply into the heads of our three female protagonists--the third being Caroline Caldwell, the slightly sociopathic head of research at Melanie’s “school.” I really did not want to come to understand Caroline Caldwell as much as I did, but that speaks hugely to Carey’s incredible ability to represent these three very different women. They’re three very different types of people, and Carey does a fantastic job of not making one woman more or less right than the others--their opinions are incredibly well-balanced. Since there isn’t just one female character to seem like an avatar for all women, each woman can be variably right and wrong, and not have it seem to reflect on women as a whole in these circumstances. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS brings these three viewpoints seamlessly together in an ending that is shocking but curiously inevitable-seeming. Pick it up if you think this genre’s tired and boring--you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Book: DARK AEMILIA by Sally O’Reilly
The Lady: Aemilia Bassano Lanyer
The Dangerous Living: As a mistress, would-be poet and mother in plague-torn Elizabethan England

Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9781250048134
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Picador - May 27th, 2014

I love historical fiction. I write it. I breathe it. I love it, but the inescapable awfulness of how history has treated its female character is--well--inescapable. Most books gloss over this or flinch away from how painfully women were treated at times. DARK AEMILIA does not. Aemilia Bassano, one of the possible historical candidates for the famous Dark Lady of the latter series of Shakespeare’s sonnets, comes vividly to life in these pages, giving a voice to someone who is possibly one of the most famous objects in literary analysis and history. Aemilia wants to be a poet, something women had a very hard time being in Elizabethan England, but even while her ideas are stolen, her poems ripped to shreds, and her life at times put in physical danger, her voice refuses to be silenced. She’s by turns vicious and victimized, hysterical and maternal, loving and hateful, and she is a force of nature. Aemilia’s undoubtedly my new historical crush--a real life Lady M. (oh, yeah--there’s also a fabulous origin story for The Scottish Play, and the play’s curse, for any Shakespeare buffs like me!), glorious in her fury and unstoppable in her vengeance.

The Book: LOCK IN by John Scalzi
The Ladies: Agent Leslie Vann, Cassandra Bell and [SPOILER]
The Dangerous Living: As an FBI agent investigating mind-hopping crimes; as the leader of a separatist movement for the locked-in; and as [STILL A SPOILER]

Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future Cover Image
ISBN: 9780765375865
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tor Books - August 26th, 2014

LOCK IN takes place a few decades in the future, after a virus sweeps the globe and causes sufferers to lose total control of their voluntary nervous system, leaving them “locked in” to their own minds. A small percentages of sufferers don’t become locked in, but have their brains so altered by the disease that they possess the ability to let the consciousness of the locked-in jump into their body, letting the locked-in pilot their bodies and experience the world again. Sounds like nothing could ever go wrong, right? Riiiiight. LOCK IN is a brilliant thriller populated with equally brilliant characters, men and women alike--but obviously, I’m going to gush about the women to you. Agent Leslie Vann and Cassandra Bell are two very different people--Vann is a no-nonsense FBI agent who’s seen it all, and Bell was born locked-in after her mother passed the disease to her in the womb. Bell, therefore, has never properly been in the real world, living her whole life in the liminal cyberspace given to the locked-in to interact in. Vann’s cynicism spoke deeply to me as a fellow cynical jerk, and Cassandra’s peculiar viewpoint is presented like a vision of the future. I loved her. There’s one other character I need to include on this list, because she is amazingly down-to-earth, hardworking, and honorable, but to do so would be a definite spoiler. So, for those who have read the book, click through to hear the author himself discuss it. ...Are you back yet? RIGHT? The coolest. For everybody else who wants to get in on the conversation, read the book and get back to me. We still have signed copies from John Scalzi’s visit in August!

The Book: LUCKY US by Amy Bloom
The Ladies: Iris and Eva
The Dangerous Living: As a would-be actress and the behind-the-scenes help, respectively--and then as many other odd job-workers besides, trying to make a living between World Wars I and II

Lucky Us Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400067244
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - July 29th, 2014

You don’t get to hear a lot of stories about working-class women and disenfranchised women before World War II--at least, outside of the Dust Bowl. LUCKY US gives us those stories in spades. Iris and Eva, and the women they meet and love, are bright and resilient. Iris can be incredibly selfish, and Eva incredibly stubborn; like magnets, they push and pull at each other, always circling in a complex relationship of love and resentment. Anyone who has siblings can understand the complicated relationship between these two. From Hollywood to Long Island and even London, no matter how disappointed they become in each other, Iris and Eva’s relationship survives--despite Iris’ impulsiveness and Eva’s harshness. I cried when I finished this book--a good, cathartic, happy cry at the resolution.

The Book: THE GIRL FROM THE WELL by Rin Chupeco
The Lady: Okiku
The Dangerous Living: As a ghost who exacts horrible vengeance on the murderers of children (okay, so maybe she’s just dangerous to other people)

The Girl from the Well Cover Image
ISBN: 9781402292187
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Sourcebooks Fire - August 5th, 2014

Okiku scares me. Not just with the vengeance thing (this story is based on the same legend that inspired The Ring, which tells you pretty much all you need to know), but in the way Chupeco perfectly paints how old and wise and sad she is. Can you imagine having to live for hundreds of years, with your only job to see, and punish, the worst in humanity? Okiku is ancient and almost past-human, yet she still cares so deeply for the souls of the children she saves. Her strength is in her resilience, to still feel such an undying caring after so many years of darkness. This book overflows with resilient and caring women--Callie, who is fearlessly determined to save her cousin Tark from a dark spirit threatening to overwhelming; Tark’s mother, present almost only in spirit, but dedicated to saving her son; the miko of the Japanese shrine where the story’s climax leads…but over it all, Okiku’s spirit casts her unearthly, beautiful shadow. She stayed with me long after I finished the book.

The Book: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
The Ladies: Kirsten--and author Emily St. John Mandel
The Dangerous Living: As an actress in The Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare to the outskirts of a wild civilization; and as an author unafraid to bend genre and convention with a beautiful novel.

Station Eleven: A novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385353304
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf - September 9th, 2014

Everybody just...read this book. Don’t argue with me. I don’t have time to tell you why; they told me I could only put ten books on this list and I’m pushing my luck throwing on my eleventh ELEVEN here. Just take it home and read it. I’ll give you your money back if you don’t like it. But you will.

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