What’s Ahead

Most of what I’ve been reading lately is for our Coven Chat discussion posts (previously called Coven Reads), so I figured now’s a good time to announce what we’ll be talking about as a group in April and May.

The Starbound Trilogy, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner:  I’ve been hearing wonderful things about this series for years, so I’m really looking forward to our discussion. I just finished These Broken Stars (#1), and I’ll finish This Shattered World (#2), and Their Fractured Light (#3) this week.  Since each book is about different characters and takes place in a new setting, I’m most curious about how they will relate to one another and bring clarity to the series’ overarching plot.

 

The Winner’s Trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski: The Winner’s Curse (#1) and The Winner’s Crime (#2) are a couple of my favorite books, so I can’t wait to read The Winner’s Kiss (#3), available tomorrow.

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A Gathering of Shadows Final

The Shadowhunters Novels, by Cassandra Clare: I’m now finishing The Mortal Instruments books (City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, and City of Heavenly Fire). Next I’ll read The Infernal Devices Trilogy (Clockwork AngelClockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess), along with the first book in The Dark Artifices Trilogy, Lady Midnight, and The Bane Chronicles. We’ll also compare the books to the Shadowhunters tv show, so I’m really excited for our discussion.

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2), by V.E. Schwab: Allison and I had so much fun discussing A Darker Shade of Magic last year, and I’m looking forward to talking about its sequel.

The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater: I can’t wait to re-read The Raven Boys (#1) and The Dream Thieves (#2)  before The Raven King (#4) hits the shelves on April 26th. I’m glad I waited until now to read Blue Lily, Lily Blue (#3), so I won’t have a painful wait between books 3 and 4.

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23308084A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas: Last May Allison, Nicola and I had so much fun discussing A Court of Thorns and Roses, and I can’t wait to chat about this sequel with them!

The Rose and the Dagger, by Renée Ahdieh: The three of us loved The Wrath and the Dawn (see my recommendation) and are excited to discuss its sequel in May.

Have you read these series? Which books are you looking forward to the most? 

Happy Spring! – Alyssa 

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Coven Read: Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch

21414439Well, we said we’d discuss Truthwitch in January and now it’s February. What can we say? Life happens. Still! It’s Truthwitch Tuesday and we’re ready to talk Witchlands with you.

Remember, ahead lie spoilers. If you haven’t read Truthwitch yet, don’t read on! 

Allison: One of the things that I really loved about Truthwitch is that it felt familiar and fresh at the same time. The alter-verse aspect of the Witchlands and its correlations to our ideas about Europe evoke a similar feel to Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse and there’s a certain element of Dennard’s magical framework that calls Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass to mind.

Nicola: I loved the European feel to the world! A lot of high fantasy settings are vaguely pre-industrial/feudal European, but the Witchlands feels more historical European than ‘Standard Mediaeval Fantasy Setting’. While I love reading about fantasy worlds that are based on other world cultures, as a European reader I do have a soft spot for a well-constructed European-esque world, and the Witchlands hits the spot (though I wouldn’t complain if future books expanded the world into Middle Eastern or African AUs!). I particularly liked Veñaza City; I visited Venice last year and fell in love with the city, so it’s no surprise I appreciated seeing a fantasy version of it in the Witchlands.

Alyssa: I’m not sure if you two saw this youtube video in which Susan Dennard explains that the Witchlands are loosely based on Imperial Europe. Her fascination with the small republics that were able to stay independent during centuries of war between the Venetian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires greatly inspired her writing this series. I love that her alternate Imperial Europe includes witcheries–which significantly influence political and social structures.

Allison: Yeah, the idea that magic influences everything from the personal to the political (and global, in the case of the Cahr Awen) makes a lot of sense to me — of course if there are people with all this immense power running around, it’s going to shape everything about the world. I’m enjoyed the fact that magic wasn’t just a feature of Dennard’s worldbuilding, but the force that defines it. It’s also a very cool idea that magic is “real” in that there are actual threads connecting people, emotions and interpersonal interactions.

Nicola: What did you think of the whole Threadsister/Thread-family thing? Personally, I loved the focus on Safi and Iseult’s platonic friendship; so often in YA the most significant relationship for the protagonist is romantic, which I love, but it’s so nice to see a strong non-romantic relationship.

Allison: It’s probably no surprise that I love the idea of Safi and Iseult’s relationship being the primary focus. I like that Dennard didn’t hold back about it being the primary relationship either. I love the idea that they are more than friends, that there’s a “more than friends” that isn’t romantic. I think it’s so normalized to see stories where two men have a strong homosocial relationship, but not so much with women. It’s one of my favorite things about the book. I love the idea that Thread-family is built in so many different kinds of ways– anger, love, compassion, just basic human stuff. It’s a really cool idea that there’s a tangible way to understand how we’re bound together.

Alyssa: I love this concept too! As you both point out, romance is the dominant relationship in most YA (and fiction in general). And in fantasy, in particular, there’s the tradition of bromances having centerstage. So what makes Truthwitch special and very refreshing is that the Threadsisters’ friendship is the most important relationship. I also really like that Merik and Kullen are Threadbrothers, making male friendship important too.

Nicola: I don’t know if either of you ever read Something Strange and Deadly (if not, you should!), but in that series, the idea of a ‘found’ family is treated as a valuable and precious thing. Eleanor loves her mother and brother, but there are complexities to those relationships that aren’t found in the Spirit-Hunters’ unwavering support for each other. I have no doubt that if the Spirit-Hunters lived in the Witchlands they’d be bound by the same Threads that link Safi and Iseult, Merik and Kullen. It’s interesting to see how Dennard follows on the same theme in Truthwitch but adds a magical component to it.

Alyssa: I love that Dennard created the phrase Mhe verujta, which means in Nomatsi “trust me as if my soul were yours,” and how valuable this concept is for romantic love (Heart-Threads) as well as non-romantic love.  

AllisonMhe verujta got me right in the feels, because I think we all want to feel that way with someone, whether it’s non-romantic love or romantic love. Dennard has a knack for exploring non-romantic relationships in a way that I really appreciate. That the bond between Thread family is more than other relationships was especially powerful because I do think in most fiction that romantic and familial relationships are portrayed as the most influential and powerful. It’s especially intriguing to me in Truthwitch that she decided to make these bonds tangible (and visible to Threadwitches).

Nicola: Yeah, I really liked that there’s a palpable quality to these relationships in the Witchlands; it contrasts the way that fantasy in particular often focusses on shared blood or marital alliances. The concept of Threads is one of my favourite parts of the worldbuilding, not just in the way they represent relationships but also in the paradoxical way that Threadwitches are constantly barraged by other people’s emotions yet expected to suppress their own. I’m excited to see more of the Threads in the next book!

Allison: Me too. It’s cool to think about how the Threads will play into the larger idea of the Origin Wells and the Cahr Awen. I saw the reveal about Safi and Iseult being the Cahr Awen coming, but I’m really interested in how the narrative itself played out. Dennard has managed to fit quite a lot of complex worldbuilding into one novel, especially given the ensemble narrative, which I thought added a lot to my understanding of the Witchlands, overall.

Nicola: I really liked the ensemble narrative. They’re hard to pull off, but each character’s motivation, and the resulting tension and conflict, felt so real and important to me. Merik clashes with Safi over Iseult’s safety because he’s trying to save his people, while Safi cares most about her Threadsister, and even though I favoured saving Iseult I could completely appreciate both of their perspectives. Aeduan’s probably the POV character for whom we get the least sense of underlying motivation, but there’s still some indication of family loyalty (or perhaps fear) that drives him to pursue Safi.

Alyssa: Yes, I like the ensemble narrative too and I think it works well overall in Truthwitch. I also like that we don’t know Aeduan as well as the other POV characters. He remains a bit of a mystery in terms of his motivation and loyalty. He’s a “bad boy” who may be “good”–especially if he fall in love with Iseult. I really enjoyed his complex feelings towards Iseult because of his “life-debt” and his confusion when it comes to trust and loyalty. Will he follow through on his sworn duty to protect the Cahr Awen or will he try to capture the Truthwitch for his father?

Allison: I found Aeduan incredibly intriguing. I feel like we got a pretty good sense of who some of the other characters are, but not as much with him. I think we’ll see much more of him in the next book. I thought the end was brilliant, by the way. It was one of those endings that blew the story open entirely. I’m really excited to see what happens next. I get the impression that we’re going to see a whole new side to Safi and that really excites me.

Alyssa: Yes, Aeduan is intriguing. I love that his witchery makes him very vulnerable and yet it’s such a powerful witchery. The Monastery protects him from a world that wants to kill him because he is a Bloodwitch; yet, he did not choose that life and is not a true believer in the Cahr Awen. He seems to be the most complex and conflicted character in this series. Which is why I’m really curious to find out what he does in the next books.

I look forward to seeing more of Vaness and the Empire of Martok, too, in Windwitch. And Safi. She really embraces her powers at the end of Truthwitch when she realizes that she “can do anything.” She demonstrates such bravery and strength when she gives herself over to Vaness in exchange for a trade agreement that benefits Merik and Nubrevna. I wonder how she and Vaness will get along in the next book. How will their relationship develop? Will they become friends? How will her time with Vaness and in Martok change her and her relations with Iseult and Merik? The ending definitely left me wanting to know more.

Nicola: Yes! The ending was everything the ending of a first book in a series should be. It wrapped up some storylines and opened up some others. I don’t even really count it as a cliffhanger, because it’s a natural resolution to the core conflict that drives the book (maybe not the resolution we expected, but not one we didn’t expect, either), and I expect it will form a major part of the conflict in the second book, rather than being something that gets resolved quickly in chapter 1. I’m so excited to see the fallout for Safi and Vaness, Iseult and Merik.

Allison: Needless to say, we’re looking forward to finding out what happens next in Windwitch, set to publish in 2017. Thanks for joining us today and let us know what you thought of Truthwitch in the comments or on Facebook!

In book magic and mayhem,

Allison, Alyssa and Nicola



November Reads: Six of Crows


23437156A few weeks ago,
Nicola recommended Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy to you. Like Nicola, Alyssa and I both loved the trilogy and were very excited to learn that Bardugo would write another series in the Grishaverse. Turns out that Six of Crows was a little different than what we expected — and what a lovely surprise it was!

As a reminder, our discussion posts often reveal spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, better go do that before forging on. If you have read the book (lucky you!), leave us your thoughts in the comments!

Allison: So, like both of you, I loved Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising). I’ll admit that I was a *wee* bit worried, but also crazy-excited that she decided to write another series in the same “verse.”

What I loved about this book was that it sets us down in the same world as the Grisha trilogy, so we know how the “magic” works, but since the Grisha books don’t give us a full picture of how the world is getting on outside of Ravka, Ketterdam is new to us. It’s a fresh perspective.

Nicola: I think setting it in a different part of the world was a good idea, as it helps distinguish Six of Crows from the Grisha trilogy, and because the events of the Grisha trilogy only peripherally impacted the characters in Six of Crows you can pick it up without having read the prior series (though if you read the Grisha books after you may be a little confused by Inej’s Sankta Alina dagger …). Similarly, the Grisha trilogy is about big ideas like civil war and oppression, while Six of Crows keeps to the edges of those concepts and is instead more focussed on the personal aims of the crew.

That being said, I found that the new setting made it hard to connect with the story at first. I picked it up right after Ruin and Rising and expected to feel like I was sinking into a familiar world, as you do when you start the fourth book in a single series. Instead, it was a different culture entirely, and after the prologue-esque first chapter there’s barely a hint of any Grisha until Nina appears.

Allison: I had a similar reaction. I read the first chapter and it didn’t hit me quite right. I actually read another book in between before returning to it. I’m so glad I did! I think this is always the risk of staying within an already-structured world, but plopping characters and readers down into unfamiliar territory.

It reminds me a little of how I felt about The Infernal Devices series, by Cassandra Clare. I loved The Mortal Instruments and was at first a bit put off by the completely new aspects Clare introduces by setting her satellite series in the past of the first series. In the end, I liked The Infernal Devices better. I can see the possibility for the same thing happening here.

Alyssa: I also really like that Six of Crows is set in a different part of the Grishaverse than the Grisha trilogy and that you don’t have to have read the trilogy to understand the characters and events of Six of Crows. Honestly, I was surprised by how much that’s the case, and it also took me a little while to adjust to a different series.

I re-read the Grisha trilogy right before Six of Crows because I thought that having the events of Ruin and Rising fresh in my mind would be necessary. I assumed Six of Crows would be a continuation of the Grisha trilogy and take place simultaneously or right after the events in Ruin and Rising. I thought Nikolai, Alina, Mal, etc, would have more of a presence in Six of Crows, even though it focuses on different characters, setting, and events. I assumed Six of Crows would be more obviously related to the trilogy, but I was wrong. Six of Crows is really the beginning of a stand-alone series, and while I recommend everyone read the Grisha trilogy before picking up Six of Crows, it’s not necessary. At first I wanted Six of Crows to be more obviously connected to the Grisha trilogy, but now I’m really glad Bardugo chose to write such a different companion series.

Nicola: What did you think of the ensemble cast in Six of Crows? It’s quite different from the first-person narration of the Grisha trilogy.

Alyssa: I generally like ensemble narratives, but even so…six POV characters is often too much! (I can only think of a few authors who do ensemble narratives really well: George R. R. Martin, Sarah J. Maas, Marissa Meyer, Morgan Rhodes, and now Leigh Bardugo.) I really enjoyed getting inside Six of Crows’s multiple characters’ heads versus a main character’s head, such as Alina’s. Even so, I usually don’t like third-person narration as much as first-person narration and, at first, I missed the first-person narration of the Grisha trilogy. But I’m really glad Bardugo wrote Six of Crows with a third-person ensemble cast, which makes adventure and romance dynamic, thrilling, and fun–perhaps even more so than in the Grisha trilogy.

Allison: Ensemble narratives with multiple POVs are really hard to pull of and this was excellently done. I can see how it will build momentum for several subsequent books.

Nicola: It took me longer to really get into it because of the ensemble POV, but once I did I really loved the characters – as individuals and as members of the team. The only one I didn’t really feel like I knew at the end was Kaz, but I think he’s meant to be a bit of an enigma, in the same way we never fully get into Poirot’s or Sherlock’s mind as it spoils the fun.

Allison: Yes, I agree that Kaz was a bit of an enigma — I cared about him a lot more at the end than I did at the beginning, though. My first favorite was truly Inej and I still think she’s probably the most well developed thus far, which is brilliant, given the ending. If we’re most invested in her, then we definitely care about the Dregs getting her back! I loved Nina from the beginning, and I think she’s our link to the the Grisha trilogy. She feels like a very familiar character, even though we don’t know her from previous novels.

I have to say that liking both Matthias and Jesper was a bit of a surprise for me. At first, it seemed like Jesper just wasn’t that interesting, but he really started to shine in the second half of the book. Matthias on the other hand… I hated him at the beginning. Witch-hunters aren’t high on my list of people to care for and I tend to dislike oppressed/oppressor relationships, but I think it becomes clearer in this book that the fear of Grisha is somewhat justified.

Nicola: Yeah, I hated Matthias, too, to start with. That said, I’m a sucker for bigot-sees-the-light narrative arcs, so him growing to respect the Grisha and view them as human beings was something I really enjoyed seeing.

Allison: That moment where we think he’s sold Nina out in Fjerda was so poignant for me. I truly believed he’d turned her in, that he’d finally chosen a side and it wasn’t hers.

Nicola: Speaking of the ensemble cast, wasn’t the diversity of it great?

Alyssa: Definitely. I love how Six of Crows has a diverse ensemble cast, but not in a stereotypical way. Their diversity seems natural rather than forced.

Allison: Yes. Yes. Yes. There’s been such an ugly discussion of diversity, tokenism and “agendas” in the YA world lately. I think this is a fantastic representation of how diversity should and could be, with a little effort. Bardugo’s playing with a lot of slow reveals here, and one of my favorites in this book was Jesper’s sexuality — I got the impression he might be bi, but we’ll have to see.

Nicola: Yeah, it’s not clear on if Jesper’s attracted to women or not, but he definitely likes men. I’m not sure Ketterdam/Grishaverse have the same kind of distinctions as we do, though, so it might be that Jesper’s never really considered a label for it.

Allison: That’s one of the nicest things about fantasy. Even when you’re working with a world inspired by the “real” world (like the Russian/European influences in the Grishaverse), there’s absolutely nothing saying you have to replicate it exactly. If you want fluid sexuality to be a part of things without a label, you got it. It’s fantasy, anything actually can happen. You just have to choose it.

Alyssa: I agree. I love that about fantasy, too…that Six of Crows doesn’t label sexuality or diversity.

Nicola: Speaking of diversity, I thought the treatment of Wylan’s learning disability (dyslexia?) was well done. I love how it’s so obvious to everyone but Van Eck that Wylan has an absolutely brilliant mind. It’s a really good example of how some people look at someone like Wylan (or Kaz!) and see nothing but the disability.

Allison: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s dyslexia or another kind of processing disorder, but the reveal that Wylan couldn’t read was astounding to me. I can’t remember the last time I saw disability portrayed quite this way. One of the things about writers is that we prize literacy so highly that being literate often makes its way into our narratives as the ultimate flag that a character is “smart” or that another character isn’t. To allow a space for Wylan to be absolutely, out-of-this-world, crazy smart and then drop that he can’t read, was one of the best shattered-perception moments I’ve seen in a long, long time. I actually did a little “woo-hoo” arm pump for Wylan (and Bardugo).

Nicola: That’s a really good point, about how readers and writers subconsciously equate literacy with intelligence. The other thing I appreciated about Wylan’s characterisation is the way he brings a lot of more feminine traits to the team: it’s his brains, not brute strength, that are his biggest asset, and he also tends to serve as the moral compass or ‘heart’ of the team, which is usually a role assigned to female characters (often the only one in an ensemble). All in all, he defies expectations and stereotypes.

The thing I loved about the Dregs is that the diversity of their group actually reflects the kind of friend group many teens have these days. There’s still this assumption that the average reader is straight, white, cis-gendered and able-bodied, which erases all those readers (more than a quarter of the population of the US) who aren’t, but by populating the entire cast with them it doesn’t reflect the realities of the readers who are, either. Teens from all backgrounds are more likely to see their circle of friends reflected in the Dregs than in a monochromatic cast.

Allison: I agree. As someone who works at a majority white, American university, I can say that even in that very limited scope, most of my students have friend groups that have more diversity than a 100% normative crew. It’s nice to see diversity represented by a white author in a way that isn’t tokenism or god-forbid, have an “agenda,” but rather as a nuanced portrayal of how different people from different backgrounds have a variety of of strengths and weaknesses based on those backgrounds. That’s, like, the way real human experiences work and it’s nice to see a white author being careful and thoughtful with these ideas.

I’ll also applaud Bardugo for incorporating intersectionality into this whole idea. Instead of taking a “one of each” approach, it’s more of a “everyone is a mixed up mess for lots of complicated reasons” — which I think is really realistic feeling. So even though this novel has a very fun, heisty feel to it, there’s a deeper level of emotion here. With each gradual reveal that the cast is more than just what they bring to the crew, Bardugo draws us into the story, giving us multiple levels to identify with her characters and we become very invested in each of them.

I know I speak for all three of us when I say I’m looking forward to the next book, Crooked Kingdom, in Fall 2016. Bardugo has promised that one of our favorites, Wylan will get his own chapters and Nicola especially is looking forward to those moments.

If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, have a wonderful holiday and if you’re not, then have a great Thursday. Thursdays are wonderful whether you’re stuffing your face full of food or not. Until next time.

Yours in magic, mayhem and merry adventures, 

Alyssa, Nicola and Allison

 


Coven Reads Discussion: Everything I Never Told You

EINTY-largeEverything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is CBC’s second novel in our “Coven Reads” series. Ng’s debut novel has received a significant amount of attention since its publication in 2014. It’s a New York Times bestseller and has received both the 2015 Alex award and the 2014/2015 Asian/Pacific American award for literature in adult fiction.  Here’s a short summary of the plot (courtesy of Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

Our discussion veers away from our usual commitment to providing spoiler free commentary, so those who haven’t read the book may want to revisit this conversation later, as we do reveal some of the pivotal plot points in the text. Those who have already read the book, read on and give us your take in the comments!

Maria: I just want to take a minute to thank you ladies for participating in this discussion with me. I first heard about Everything I Never Told You on Roxane Gay’s twitter, where she spoke very highly of it. I dutifully put it on my Goodreads “to read” list and then I came across a copy in the used bookstore near my house this spring. It seemed like fate. I couldn’t put it down, and then when I finished it, I was dying to discuss it with someone, but no one I knew had read it. And now you all have.

What was your first response/reaction when you finished the novel?

Maria: The revelation about Lydia’s death made me feel like I had been sucker punched in the gut. By the end of the novel, I assumed her death was a suicide, and found it heartbreaking. But then, when it’s revealed as an accident, a naive mistake, my heart broke again-even though I didn’t think it could. I didn’t find it disappointing though. Was it heartbreaking? Yes. But it came at a surprise at a point in the novel where I didn’t think there would be any more surprises. Ng continually challenges the ideas we form about the characters, and I love that. Lydia’s death demonstrated that I didn’t understand her the way I thought I did. And part of what makes that final scene with Lydia at the dock so tragic is that we, as readers, learn something about her final minutes that her family will never know- that her life ended, not on a note of despair as everyone expected, but with hope.

Allison: My literal first thought was, “Do Nath and Jack get together?” It’s strange after all that happens in the last few chapters to be concerned about that, but I was. My second thought was more of a feeling: there was something a little disappointing for me about Lydia’s death being an accident. I’m not sure what to do with that. Perhaps I wanted something more sensational to happen, or for there to be some kind of consequences for her parents’ smothering behavior… I don’t know. Maybe it was that it was just too sad that she decided she wanted to live and didn’t.

Maria: I also found myself wondering if Nath and Jack would get together. Jack’s feelings for Nath were so unexpected, in light of how cruelly Nath had treated him, that I couldn’t help but fixate on their scenes together. For the first half of the novel, I assumed there was a romance between Lydia and Jack (and it seems, many of the Lees thought that there was a mysterious love interest in Lydia’s life), but the real love story is between Nath and Jack. The line that really stuck with me was near the end of the novel after Nath has fought with Jack. The narrator notes that Nath will think of Lydia,

  when, one day, he looks at the small bump that will always mar the bridge of Jack’s nose and wants to trace it, gently, with his finger.

There are so many types of transgressive (for the time period) love in the novel: James and Marilyn’s marriage, James’s affair with Louisa, and Jack’s attraction to Nath.

Allison: YES. I love the way Ng shows us so many different kinds of love, even those that would be considered problematic in the seventies and with that the effects of those choices. Some of the most moving moments in the novel, for me, are between James and Marilyn as they fall in love, despite their differences. This is contrasted with the equally poignant moments after Lydia’s death when both are confronted with the possibility that those very differences have been playing a part in all three of their children’s lives and that they’ve turned a blind eye to those struggles. That was perhaps the most interesting part of the novel for me. James and Marilyn’s children are so attuned to the “real” world, but both parents are living under a kind of delusion that they aren’t so deeply affected by race. On Lydia’s part, this is due to her incredible effort to deceive both her parents into believing she’s a different person than she truly is. I think it’s a testament to how narrowly focused James and Marilyn are on Lydia that they don’t notice that Nath is much more open about how he experiences the myriad ways he’s different from his peers. I continue to wonder if one of those differences is that Nath is gay.

Maria: Good point Allison. I think perhaps that’s something that Nath hasn’t figured out for himself yet, but does in the future? (depending on how you read the quote I included above)

Alyssa: I also wondered if Jack and Nath would get together, and I wasn’t that surprised by Jack’s feelings for Nath. I started thinking that maybe he had feelings for Nath after that scene at the swimming pool when he tried to save Nath from total humiliation. Also, when he became friends with Lydia, he kept asking about Nath and really wanted Nath to like him. At first, Jack seemed creepy and the likely suspect for Lydia’s death; but as the book progressed, I felt more sympathy towards him. It was painful to witness Nath’s anger towards Jack (especially since we did not get his POV and he was not to blame for Lydia’s death). I think I prefer this ending: that Lydia’s death wasn’t suicide or murder, but that she was attempting to swim and drowned. Even though her death was extremely tragic, it was a gesture of hope, of overcoming her fears, and demonstrated her will power. It’s sad that when she wanted to live, according to her own desires, she died; but then her family also regained hope at the end of the novel.

The novel begins by telling us that Lydia is dead. What is the effect of this stylistic choice? How did revealing this information right away influence the way you read the novel?

Allison: The whole time I was looking for clues as to why she dies, which I think is the point. Is it a psycho? Does Jack kill her? Does she kill herself? At one point, I actually wondered if Louisa might have killed her, which only proves that I watch too many crime dramas. It’s never the obvious suspects.

Maria:  When I first read Alexander Chee’s New York Times review, I disagreed with his characterization of the novel as a “literary thriller.”  It didn’t feel like I was reading a thriller- I didn’t have that rush of adrenaline that prompted me to power through hundreds of pages really quickly. The prose was too beautiful and complex to skim, and the pacing was slower than I would expect from that genre. However, I realized I was doing exactly what you describe, Allison- trying to solve the mystery of how Lydia died. I definitely thought Jack might have killed her because of his skittish behavior, and then I was convinced she had killed herself. But I think that there are actually 2 mysteries at the heart of the novel: how Lydia died and how the Lee family became so dysfunctional, and ultimately I found the latter a bit more compelling, perhaps because it’s what leads to Lydia’s death.

Allison: Yes, that’s what was most interesting for me, and what’s stuck with me. To be honest, when I finished the book I was glad to be done with it. Its darkness was leaking into my consciousness in a way that bothered me, but it’s stuck with me for weeks. I find myself thinking about it all the time, and what I think about is how angry I was at James and Marilyn for forcing their desires onto their children. I felt Lydia’s desperation so acutely. That sense of being trapped haunts me. So maybe that’s what bothers me a little about the way she died. Aside from the fact that there’s a part of me that’s glad that she didn’t kill herself and that she wasn’t horribly murdered, I have this agitating feeling that if she hadn’t died, she might have killed herself eventually. Because I think it’s her death that spurred the changes and the realization that Marilyn and James have about their marriage and their children. I wonder how they would have reacted to Lydia simply saying no to it all and I wonder if she would have been able to hold her ground against them. I guess part of the point (and my deep sadness) is that we’ll never know.

Alyssa: Maria, I like what you said about there being two mysteries at the heart of this novel. Like both of you, I first read this novel as more of a literary thriller and wanted to figure out how Lydia died. Suicide, murder or accident? But I became more interested in understanding Lydia’s family in relation to her death.This novel seemed less like a murder mystery and more focused on social issues and their struggles with racism, misunderstandings, etc. It became more of an attempt to understand Lydia’s death as either suicide or accident rather than as murder (even though murder was still a possibility). I guess racism could have played a major role in Lydia’s death if she had been murdered, but I think if she had been murdered, the book would have seemed jarring and forced. Like the author was trying to shock us rather than depict a tragic family situation.

Allison: That’s an excellent point! I too approached the novel like a literary thriller, akin to Gone Girl, and it wasn’t that at all.

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The narrative doesn’t unfold in chronological order- instead it moves backwards and forwards in time, and regularly switches point of view (between the different characters).  What did you think of the way the plot unfolded?

Maria: I loved the structure of the narrative- it felt as though it was ebbing and flowing, seamlessly moving backwards and forwards like waves, which is appropriate because the lake plays such an important role in the novel. Every once in awhile, I did have to reread a section to catch the shifts in perspective, but it was nothing like the multiple narrators in White is for WitchingIt seemed like each of the Lee family members received equal narrative attention, which I also loved because it allowed me to understand the family dynamic.

Allison: I thought the non-linear narrative was really effective in revealing the mystery of Lydia’s death piece by piece. I think what struck me most about this aspect of the text was how carefully crafted it was. Ng is a master storyteller. As a writer, I see what kind of devotion (and skill) it would take to tell a story this way and I found it really impressive.

Alyssa: Normally I wouldn’t like a book that switches POV so much, even sometimes in the same paragraph; but this is such a beautifully written book that I loved the multiple narrators and it’s not difficult to understand, like White is for Witching. I also liked that the narrators are given equal attention and that the narrative is non-linear.

The book is filled with a fascinating set of characters. Who is your favorite character and why?

Maria: I actually loved all the characters (except maybe Louisa I guess, but she’s a minor character). I felt equally for each one, which made it tough when their actions hurt each other.

Allison: Hands down, Hanna. I felt so deeply for Lydia and Nath, but I loved Hanna. Primarily because she is so unloved and unnoticed, I think I felt it was almost my responsibility to care for her. I think that Ng’s real ability as an author is showcased in the moments where we see into Hanna’s world. Her little thefts beg to be noticed and every moment she hides underneath a piece of furniture or silently wishes to be seen, my heart just ached with love for her. I wanted to scoop her up and sit her in my kitchen and make her talk and talk.

Alyssa: I don’t have a favorite character. I felt compassion and frustration towards all of the major characters. They were all pretty equally relatable too.

Alternatively, what character frustrated you the most? Why?

Maria:  Marilyn frustrated me the most. The way she abandoned her family, the pressure she placed on Lydia, her refusal to see what was right in front of her all got under my skin. But, at the same time, I felt so much sympathy for her. Her desire to become a doctor, to have a career, to avoid her mother’s fate, the way she felt trapped by her family—these were all very moving. She reminded me of April Wheeler in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, who is brilliant and talented, but trapped by the constraints of family life, and the inadequacy of birth control.

Allison: I was equally frustrated with Marilyn and James, though I felt deep sympathy for them both. I sympathized with their struggles to fit into the rigid expectations of 1960s-70s America, but at the same time, it broke my heart to see how that played out with their children. Obviously, it’s their actions that ultimately lead to Lydia’s death. The tragedy of their child’s death is compounded by the fact that their extremely legitimate experiences lead them to parent their children in such a way that lead to so much unhappiness. The fact is that we’re all like the Lees in some ways, repurposing the grief of our lives and turning it on others, at some point or another. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the book. It’s difficult not to care for the Lees, because they are making the kinds of mistakes we all make in life, the little mistakes that happen over and over, that sometimes lead to tragedy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “We’re all the Lees in some way,” because we’re not. What I would say is that the depth of their humanity is easy to relate to.

Alyssa: Marilyn frustrated me the most, but all of the characters frustrated me. This did not prevent me from loving the book though!

What scenes in particular made an impact on you, or stayed with you?

Allison: More than any other, the scene where Lydia rips their father’s locket off her sister Hanna stuck with me. The pure anger about what the locket represents was intensely relatable.

Maria: There were so many memorable moments in the novel it’s hard to choose. But the scene where Hannah describes noticing when a drop of lake water fell from Nath’s body and landed on Jack’s hand, and then Jack quietly licks it off his hand really stayed with me. Jack’s feelings for Nath came as a total surprise to me, which might be why I love that scene so much. It was so subtle, but it was also so revealing; about Jack’s feelings for Nath, and about Hannah’s keen observation skills.

Alyssa: The scene Allison describes really stuck with me too. The book is so rich with memorable scenes though.

Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?

Maria: I would absolutely recommend this book to others, with the caveat that it is a sad read. I’ve already recommended it to some of my friends, including Allison.

Allison: Yes, completely. I’d recommend this book to just about anyone.

Alyssa: Yes, definitely. Now I understand why it’s been a bestseller and received such high-praise.

Thanks so much for joining us and let us know in the comments, on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr, what you thought of the book.