juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Title: Call Me by Your Name
Author: André Aciman
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 250
Total Page Count: 229,885
Text Number: 734
Read Because: recommended by Holly Dunn, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: One summer in Italy, a teenage boy grows infatuated with his family's boarder. That narrow perspective—focused almost entirely on one time, one place, one formative relationship—set within hot, idyllic Italy is certainly an experience: intimate, claustrophobic. The fluid sexuality, sincere intimacy, and the sense that a relationship can be simultaneously transitory and indelible are all well-realized. The voice, a stream of consciousness memory, dense with mixed metaphors and the inconsistent but sincere revelations of adolescence, is perhaps less so: it contributes to the atmosphere but is samey (the dialog sounds just like the interior monologue) and sometimes rambling and inaccessible. There's something seductive in the experience of this book, and I can see why some readers fell in love; it failed to quite grab me.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale (The Bear and the Nightingale Book 1)
Author: Katherine Arden
Narrator: Kathleen Gati
Published: Random House Audio, 2017
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 340
Total Page Count: 230,225
Text Number: 735
Read Because: recommended by A Case for Books & others, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A daughter with the second sight tries to save her family home from the deadly Russian winter, the old spirits from the rise of Christianity, and herself from a woman's fate. This succeeds when it creates investment in the protagonist, Vasya, which it does: as a rare exception to female social roles and thus the consequences of a misogynistic society, she's sympathetic wish-fulfillment; the final act, with its large magics and an opportunity for Vasya to win the day, is a strong finish. But this is unremarkable on the whole, from the uninspired characterization (especially of antagonists) to the predictable pacing; Arden renders a strong sense place, but her voice isn't especially evocative. Mostly, this fails to feel larger than the sum of its parts, to be numinous or profound—an arbitrary judgement, but one that determines whether or not I find a fairytale narrative successful, which this one is not; it feels instead like the promising but unrefined debut which it is.

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Book 1)
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published: Simon & Schuster, 2012
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 360
Total Page Count: 230,585
Text Number: 736
Read Because: multiple recommendations, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Two boys met, become best friends, and survive adolescence together. Once again: it's (mostly) not you, young adult contemporary; it's me. The characters are realistically rendered, the themes are well-intended—but the voice is flat and repetitive (especially the dialog; especially how often people break out laughing), and, while I see the appeal of the arc from drama to tragedy to happy endings, while I think happy endings are valuable especially for teens in minority groups, the end of the book bothers me. The final deus ex parents is ridiculous and removes the protagonist's agency; moreover, he transitions from a troubled young man to someone completely cured. It's untenable and erasing; it feels more like everything wrong with the "it gets better" campaign than anything truly productive. These criticisms are unfair: the journey is frequently more realistic than the destination, and the happy ending obviously works for most readers; I imagine the narrative and voice are more successful for fans of the genre. But this fell flat for me.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: In Calabria
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Published: Tachyon Publications, 2017
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 175
Total Page Count: 226,640
Text Number: 723
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A farmer's prosaic, solitary life is disrupted by the appearance of a unicorn. Beagle has a phenomenal eye for "it is not the same thing, of course, but still it is"—for moments where the specific meets the metaphorical, imprecisely but profoundly. The plot doesn't always live up to that—the intrusion of the modern world is intentional but still unwelcome and makes for a literal, overlarge conflict; the romance fares somewhat better—but there's an abundance of beautiful scenes and the end is strong. It's impossible to avoid comparing this to The Last Unicorn, however unfair; they're different stories and genres, but I've never seen anyone handle unicorn imagery so well as Beagle and In Calabria possesses that transcendence. It's charming and swift and I sincerely enjoyed it, despite niggling caveats.

Title: Roses and Rot
Author: Kat Howard
Published: Saga Press, 2016
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 320
Total Page Count: 226,960
Text Number: 724
Read Because: this review, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Two sisters, estranged by their abusive mother, reunite to attend a prestigious artists's retreat which seems too good—and too magical—to be real. This is half mythic/urban fantasy (of the de Lint variety) and half a Tam Lin retelling—a ridiculously indulgent combination which cribs a bit from The Night Circus in its styling. But writing about a writing (the protagonist is an author) draws attention to the craft, and this a debut which feels like one, especially in scene structure and character voices; worst of all, the inset fairytale sections are facile and repetitive. There's still some magic here: fairyland has a dangerous allure, and the protagonist's desire for it is compelling. But the contrivances of an ever-changing rulebook and sibling squabbles weaken the plot in the second half. I admire that this prioritizes a sibling relationship, but it lacks the emphasis on communication, faith, and female agency which makes Tam Lin so resonant. This is a fun, quick read, but not a particularly good one—more's the pity, as the premise is hugely relevant to my interests and I wanted to enjoy it.

Title: League of Dragons (Temeriare Book 9)
Author: Naomi Novik
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published: Tantor Audio, 2016
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 300
Total Page Count: 227,260
Text Number: 725
Read Because: continuing the series, audiobook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: The final Temeraire novel, seeing the war to its conclusion. It has a lot to wrap up, geographically and politically, and does so in a way that's comprehensive but not excessively neat. This means a lot of combat, military theory, and social politicking, all of it engaging if somewhat rushed, functioning as a final exam for the protagonists that returns to their military origins while encompassing their intervening character growth. There's otherwise not much room for significant character development, although there's some lovely personal moments (and one new character, Ning, who has a fantastic voice and whom I adore). This is in itself not a particularly memorable installation, but as a conclusion to the series it's satisfying—and what a series it's been! Insofar as a review of a finale is a review of the series entire: I loved it, loved it immensely; I'm only sorry to reach the end.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Rose Daughter
Author: Robin McKinley
Published: New York: Ace, 1998 (1997)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 290
Total Page Count: 189,550
Text Number: 555
Read Because: reread, borrowed from Dee
Review: A retelling of Beauty and the Beast, about three lively sisters and a cottage covered in roses. Once upon a time, this was one of the first McKinley novels I read—and, after Deerskin, it felt insubstantial. But I've read more McKinley since, and come to appreciate her breadth of style. This was much better upon reread, cozy and charming and enchanting; the haunted atmosphere of the Beast's castle is particularly well done. McKinley has knack for finding definitive moments, and Beauty's monologues, as she gives herself voice and carves her own experience out of her fairytale setting, are the unequivocal highlight of the book. The ending is half that: beautiful, intimate, character-driven; but it's also half talky, confusing, and largely divorced from the core plot and characters, which sours things. This isn't my favorite of McKinley's retellings (that would be Spindle's End)—I see too many flaws in it, and its messages lack personal appeal. But it's lovely comfort reading, as McKinley often is, and I recommend it.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Published: New York: Del Rey, 2015
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 430
Total Page Count: 183,310
Text Number: 540
Read Because: enjoyed the author's story "Araminta, Or, The Wreck Of The Amphidrake", ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Every ten years, the Dragon, a local wizard who guards the land against the encroach of the magical Wood, takes one girl to live with him. This time, the girl has magic of her own. Uprooted is ridiculously engaging, a book to lose time to. It has a vivid protagonist and almost universally well-drawn cast, and convincing interactions (although I didn't care about the romance). Action sequences are endless, exhausting, and have undeniable momentum, and engage a flexible and dynamic magic system. But I'm not sold on the ending: the Wood is an intelligent, intimidating adversary, but discovering more about it decreases it in scope rather than providing a climax that pays out the plentiful buildup. I loved the first two thirds, and liked the last; that's enough to warrant a recommendation but it leaves me with some lingering regret.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers
Editor: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Published: New York: Open Road, 1998
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 350
Total Page Count: 176,955
Text Number: 518
Read Because: fan of the editors, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: 22 stories that combine fantasy with erotica by exploring seductive, magical, unearthly lovers and romances. Datlow and Windling, especially in combination, are accomplished anthologists, but this is the closest I've come to disappointed with their work. For one, only three stories feature queer relationships (two others have them in background roles); the heteronormativity is toxic and uncreative, a particular oversight in a collection of strange love. (Compare to something like Caitlín R. Kiernan's phenomenal The Ammonite Violin & Others.) At its worst, the heteronormativity is damning: the stories are magical and strange only because the attractive, desirable women have power that threatens their everyman partners. For another, the collection has an unforgivably slow start: you can skip the first seven stories and miss nothing.

There's a marked improvement with the first standout story: Elizabeth E. Wein's "No Human Hands to Touch," an unlovable, intimate retelling of Morgan LeFay's relationship with Mordred. Doris Egan's "The Sweet of Bitter Bark and Burning Clove" is less profound, but successfully explores power dynamics, violence, and sensuality. Kelley Eskridge's "The Eye of the Storm" is my favorite, no contest—its exploration of violence, sensuality, poly dynamics, and the balance between personal need and social interaction is engrossing.* The unique concept and sympathetic, quiet execution of Mark Tiedemann's "Private Words" makes for the last standout story. I found this collection worth it for those four, but the rest is passable at best and a waste of time at worst. I don't recommend it—

—But for finding Eskridge's short fiction, I'm glad I read it.

* See also: Elizabeth A. Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor: similar second world settings, similar fluid interpersonal relationships, similar fluid physical redefinition, similar id-level wish-fulfillment, similar focus on interpersonal intimacy and personal growth, also, just, really good, both of them.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Deathless (Leningrad Diptych Book 1)
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: New York: Tor, 2011
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 352
Total Page Count: 173,258
Text Number: 507
Read Because: fan of the author, purchased from Powell's Books
Review: Young Marya waits for her husband to come to her: Koschei the Deathless, who will abduct her into his fairy tale set in World War II and the Siege of Leningrad. In many ways, this is Valente's most accomplished novel; in as many ways, one of my least favorites. It's a fluid dreamscape of a fairy tale retelling, historically entrenched, dark humored, beautiful and bitter, archetypal, rich with magic and Valente's distinctive prose. Its individual components are strong—most especially, Marya's marriages—but its larger narrative feels only piecemeal, making it difficult to grow invested in the work as a whole. And—intentionally, and enlivened by gallows humor—how grim. I recommend this but didn't particularly love it; it's not a novel I'll return to.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Fire and Hemlock
Author: Dianna Wynne Jones
Published: New York: Firebird, 2012 (1985)
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 438
Total Page Count: 161,649
Text Number: 472
Read Because: discussed by [personal profile] rushthatspeaks, among others; ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: When Polly meets Thomas Lynn at a funeral, she sparks an odd relationship which will change her life. I adore books about books, and this turns out to be one—pointedly, about using books not to rewrite or escape reality, but to create and understand it, with the reader's identity remaining paramount within their own life. Polly's story is sad and charming in equal turns, and makes full use of Jones's ability to live in liminal space, with the fantastic creeping and crashing in to normal life. It also has an undercurrent of the strange—Lynn as an adult, courting Polly's attentions as a ten year old girl—which is easy to dismiss for the sake of the narrative but which the book's ending brings to the forefront, forcing the reader to reinterpret all that has come before. The ending—not the climax but the very brief coda—is brave and bold and slightly flawed, because while it allows Jones to do much it does it inscrutably and swiftly. Most of Fire and Hemlock is made literal and explained; the ending is left to the reader to decipher, and that shouldn't be necessary in a book with an otherwise flawless balance of readability and thematic depth.

Otherwise: phenomenal. I've never clicked with Diana Wynne Jones—she has a vast and whimsical creativity which creates great setpieces and themes but leaves the plot piecemeal. Fire and Hemlock exhibits a level of intent I haven't found in her work before. It's still whimsical, liminal, a loving story about stories. It's also a nuanced and sympathetic examination of broken homes and self-made homes. And it's about the potential and perils of creating yourself around someone; about the need to acknowledge and function within reality. It's about being liberated by the very thing that breaks your heart. It is, simply, one of the better books I've ever encountered.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: Spindle's End
Author: Robin McKinley
Published: New York: Ace, 2000
Rating: 5 of 5
Page Count: 354
Total Page Count: 159,894
Text Number: 467
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, following the fairy family that raised her. This is my seventh McKinely novel, and my favorite. I return to her because she's consistently pleasant, cozy and whimsical, female-focused, featuring small domestic magics within larger archetypal settings. Deerskin breaks that trend by approaching tragedy with the same local, magical focus, and so stands above her other novels. And so does Spindle's End—but here, McKinley achieves that by taking her normal style and focus further. This is her voice at its most lively and humorous, her domestic magics at their most prolific, and—

—and, it's important. This is Sleeping Beauty told with the intent of returning agency to the protagonist, and there's an endearing and necessary thematic transparency: the scene where the child princess insists she's not pretty, but rather intelligent and brave; when Katriona's aunt tells her one's inner magic and strength are always a little messy and inaccessible; when Rosie and Posey fail to engage in the female rivalry the text initially sets up, and instead become best friends. It's reminiscent of the film Maleficent in its emphatic emotional appeal wrapped in a charming magical atmosphere.

Spindle's End isn't flawless. The climax is particularly troublesome: the domestic magic, with its own internal logic, grows archetypal and intangible and, frankly, hard to follow. (The final denouement is blissfully free of that: it's a moment of simple, perfect clarity, and ends with a lovely bittersweet epilogue.) And if McKinley's style doesn't work for you, then this exaggerated example certainly won't. But if you've enjoyed any McKinley, or want to try just one book, this is some of her best work.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Title: The Perilous Gard
Author: Elizabeth Marie Pope
Published: New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (1974)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 280
Total Page Count: 153,557
Text Number: 449
Read Because: discussed on this fantasy of manners reading list*/interest in fairy tale retellings
Review: Banished to a remote estate, ungainly Kate finds herself in a place where old magics linger in the form of fairies and deadly teinds. The Perilous Gard surprised me: it's fantastic. Its Young Adult trappings are unfortunate, making the book accessible at the price of caricature, forced humor, and predictability—it feels a little slight. And more's the pity because, at its heart, the book is anything but. This is the character development I long for in female protagonists, based on coming of age rather than the discovery of unseen beauty. The fairies are subtle and superb, and rather than retelling Tam Lin directly it sets itself as a distant sequel, avoiding much redundancy while maintaining the ballad's themes.

What lingered in me was the conflicting emotions that linger in Kate, an awe and a fear, a complex desire, a stubborn practicality; a glimpse of inaccessible magics tempered by a vivacious, mortal humor. Pope's love for this book rings off the pages, a heartfelt intent and a lively engagement, and it resonates. The Perilous Gard is certainly flawed, but I forgive it that; what it does right is so good, so important, and frankly a pure pleasure to read.

* Unsure that I'd class this as fantasy of manners, however: the historical setting rings true, but this isn't setting-as-story; the conflict has social ramifications, but is more self-against-other than it is self-against-peers or elsewise primarily political/social.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Title: Beauty
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Published: New York: Bantam, 2009 (1991)
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 463
Total Page Count: 149,429
Text Number: 438
Read Because: fan of the author, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: A half-fairy girl goes on a long journey to discover the fate of magic in a changing world. Normally I approach Tepper like Atwood's genre writing: message-driven to the point of transparency, but sympathetic and consistently well-written. But Beauty is a mess of a book. It begins as a Sleeping Beauty retelling but crams in Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and the Frog Prince, growing increasingly predictable; it spans a lifetime and jumps between half a dozen settings, the worst of which is an ill-conceived environmental dystopia--yet the book says so little. It's a ham-fisted morality tale about the sins of environmental destruction and ... horror novels, I guess? because they best represent humanity's desensitization to violence and evil? It's sanctimonious, plodding, and runs a hundred pages too long. This is the first of Tepper's novels to disappoint me and I by no means recommend it.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Once Upon a Time has this fascination with interconnection. That was fine in the first season when it functioned to knit together the parallel storylines; now it makes for a plot which hinges on coincidence. I'm catching up on season 3, and the reveal of Pan's identity is uncalled for.

I finally got around to reading Barrie's Peter Pan this year, and it lines up with Mary Poppins and the Alice books in that the source material can be pretty creepy and that's fantastic. Poppins is a little inhuman, capricious and cold. Wonderland is as much nightmare as dream, denying Alice bodily autonomy and questioning her identity. And Pan is what Valente calls "heartless" in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:

All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.

He is incapable of seeing the world outside himself, unaware of consequence; a consummate child and, given the power he has in Neverland, that makes him scary. I love the idea of dark retellings of children's classics like these books, but the truth is the source material often does it better; compare the disconcerting undercurrent of Pan's nature within the wonder of Neverland to the artless, racist, excessive gothic parade of Brom's The Child Thief which, as you may gather, I rather disliked. I love to see subtext turned text, but it's hard to find retellings that are actually loyal to, or even as effective as, what it is that makes the text intriguing or unsettling or dark.

Once Upon a Time's Pan isn't perfect but he's surprisingly good--in part because Robbie Kray can act; in part because his dynamics with other cast members intrigue me; in part, and to the point, because Pan has that same heartlessness and because he treats his machinations as a game--and while that phrasing grows stale, it's effective. The Lost Boys are older in OUaT but it works, it makes them more rebellious and as such more dangerous. But Pan still feels like a child, capable of leadership and responsibility but with not just a refusal but an inability to fathom compassion, relationships, selflessness, sympathy.

Finding out that he hasn't always been a child, and putting him in a parent/child relationship with another character, undermines the shit out of that. It makes him seem pathetic, even a little gross; a desperate play-actor rather than a precocious, heartless child. All because the narrative wants to make one more madcap, half-written, coincidental interconnection, sigh.

Watching OUaT is an exercise is missed opportunity (not even gonna mention Mulan right now), but this one stung.
juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
Title: Zel
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Published: New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1996
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 227
Total Page Count: 142,149
Text Number: 418
Read Because: personal enjoyment, borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Young Zel and her mother live in near isolation far from the village—but when they go into town for market, Zel encounters a young man who her mother feels they must protect themselves against. Zel is a dark, delicate retelling of Rapunzel. Napoli's voice is stylistic and poetic—it's unusual, even offputting, and it fails to be a convincing voice because it stays static even when the narrative headhops into first person, but the language is terse, beautiful, and evocative; this is a book for reading between the lines. The story doesn't stray far from the tale of Rapunzel as we know it, except that it delves painfully deep into emotional motivation and response. This is at odds with a sense of predestination that runs through the text: characters stick to the Rapunzel script as though following it rather than creating it, and it undermines their decisiveness. These flaws are visible but can't overwhelm the book's sparse, powerful, dark beauty; Zel has deceptive weight and it lingers in the mind. I recommend it, and will read more from Napoli some day.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Title: The Dark Wife
Author: Sarah Diemer / [livejournal.com profile] mermaiden
Published: 2011
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 245
Total Page Count: 126,948
Text Number: 369
Read Because: personal enjoyment, gift from my maternal grandparents ($5 says they didn't read the product description)
Review: As Persephone comes of age, she's introduced to the gods of Olympus—and to Zeus, selfish, violent, and powerful. But when she meets Hades—to her surprise, not a god but a goddess—she discovers something new: choice, and freedom. The Dark Wife is a pointed lesbian revision of the Persephone myth, and desperately well-intended; it's also an amateur effort. As such, it's as often good as bad: Hades is compelling and inhuman but vulnerable (and like her, the Underworld is beautifully envisioned); Persephone's inner monologue leans bombastic, but her journey is fueled by self-determination and love. It's exactly the character arc I want, but it's all a bit too good: the morality is simplistic, Persephone's battle for choice is too explicit and grows repetitive, and the romance—although sensual and well-developed—is saccharine. It's good YA, reading swift and easy, containing the best intended messages of character growth, but it wants refinement: tighter editing to bring out the descriptive potential of Diemer's voice, and a story somewhat more oblique so that the good intentions can blossom around the reader than than battering her over the head. As it is, The Dark Wife has all the right components but it rings slightly hollow; I recommend it only moderately.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: The Armless Maiden: and Other Tales of Childhood's Survivors
Editor: Terri Windling
Published: New York: Tor, 1995
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 382
Total Page Count: 104,417
Text Number: 300
Read Because: fan of fairy tale retellings and this editor, borrowed from the Corvallis library
Review: In 46 stories, poems, memoirs, and essays, this a collection of childhood suffering and survival as explored in and through fairy tales, from wicked stepmothers and licentious kings to magical girls and wolf-hearted boys. The Armless Maiden is desperately well-intended, and succeeds and fails on account. Its subject is already prevalent in fairy tales and their retellings, and it well deserves to be collected and fully explored—but this collection pushes thematic into the realm of didactic. Such a direct focus on this theme renders it ineffective: it strips away the magic of the fairy tale metaphor and denies the subtleties of interpretation that could make these stories meaningful and convincing; it hammers home its message with all the grace of a disease-of-the-week or Lifetime movie. Windling's brief, blatant introductions to the short stories only exaggerate this flaw—skip them if you can. The result is too often artless, shallow where it should be resonant, edging up on sensationalized and cheaply cathartic, and simply not all that it could or should be.

Yet somehow, the anthology as a whole maintains a certain effective atmosphere. Perhaps it's that theme does beg collection, because it is so prevalent and so powerful—and so even a subpar collection is, in its way, rewarding. Perhaps its that not all the selections were written for The Armless Maiden—and the reprints are often the best, the least transparent, the least didactic, of the lot. Certainly it's that Windling's arrangement is fantastic—she's a practiced and polished editor, and this anthology flows beautifully: a varied pace (with a particularly superb ratio of poetry to prose) keeps it fresh, while thematic and tonal growth give it forward momentum. I prefered the poems, with Delia Sherman's Snow White to the Prince and Terri Windling's Brother and Sister among my favorites; the prose is less successful, but Peter Straub's The Juniper Tree and Joanna Russ's The Dirty Little Girl are welcome exceptions, and many of the brief memoirs are quite strong. Some of the short stories are accompanied by essays by the author, and while this theme can stand up to analysis, these analyses have an unfortunate knack for wandering from insights to truisms. The exception is Windling's remarkable afterward, which captures the balance between the metaphorical and literal, the implied and actual, of fairy tales themselves and the readers and writers who interpret them. The problem is that so little else in the anthology finds this balance—but other fairy tales and retellings, even if they have a less obvious focus on child abuse, do. The Armless Maiden has atmosphere and intent, but its content is mixed, with a few standout selections but many more which are disappointing. It's compelling and effective at the time, but leaves only a shallow final impression. I recommend it with those caveats: I applaud what Windling tries to do, and would rather read this collection than none—but I would have preferred, and the theme deserves, something that goes beyond good intentions, something more impassioned than didactic, sometime of greater art and impact.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
(It's worth noting that in the fairy tales one can rarely remain in the forest—one takes what was found there and brings it back into the world.)

—"A Matter of Seeing," Ellen Steiber, collected in The Armless Maiden: and other Tales of Childhood's Survivors, ed. Terri Windling, 351
juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Michael Gruber
Published: New York: HarperTempest, 2006 (2005)
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 377
Total Page Count: 102,901
Text Number: 295
Read Because: personal enjoyment, purchased used from St. Johns Booksellers
Review: When a witch finds an exceptionally ugly baby left in a basket—accompanied by a note that reads "the devil's child for the devil's wife"—she takes him in against her better judgement. Raised by a witch, a bear, and a djinn, destined to become a fairy tale legend himself, Lump's story is one of love and the birth of wickedness. The Witch's Boy is one of the books you pick up to read for ten minutes, and then put down an hour later. Its constant sense of discovery and forward motion are what make it so compelling: The world that Gruber creates isn't wholly original, but it's sufficiently inventive and colorful that it always offers another secret to uncover—but never edges towards twee, which is good because that would do Lump's story no favors. Lump's story isn't the only one in The Witch's Boy (his mother in particular is fantastic, and it's the depth of her character—and thus her relationship with and impact on Lump—that brings the book to life), but it's a remarkably well-realized tale, a detailed, realistic, painfully honest story of personal corruption, and what it is that makes someone bad. It doesn't wallow in the fact, but this is a surprisingly dark book. It's rare to sympathize and dislike simultaneously and completely, and heartbreaking, and an admirable accomplishment.

But The Witch's Boy has its weaknesses. It's ostensibly a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but when it finally reaches recognizable aspects of that tale they're hurried and fairly plain. Lump's redemption, which ends the book, is likewise. Thankfully his isn't quite an instantaneous fix, but what makes the rest of the book remarkable is the well-paced, realistically rendered growth of Lump's character. Redemption wouldn't defy his wickedness if it were given the same care—but as it's not, it makes for a weak ending to a book that's otherwise strong. Thankfully, the ending alone doesn't ruin the book and—given the reader's well-fostered interest in the cast's well-being—the happy ending is emotionally satisfying. And so much of the rest of the book is worth reading, creative and compelling, utterly engaging, realistic and true, and presented in fluid, half-transparent, half wryly insightful prose, that I still enjoyed and recommend it. I don't want to oversell this book, it's not my new favorite, but I'd never heard of it until finding it at a used bookstore and it was an unexpected delight that I'd love to pass on to others. It has numerous flaws, but there's plenty to defy them and make The Witch's Boy a clever and engaging read.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
Title: Tender Morsels
Author: Margo Lanagan
Published: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 433
Total Page Count: 102,240
Text Number: 293
Read Because: intrigued by Baobhan Sidhe's recommendation, borrowed from the Corvallis public library
Review: Molested by her father, gang raped by her peers, Liga wishes for death but instead find herself delivered to a magical haven, safe from all sexual violence. But as she raises her two daughters there, overlaps begin to appear between her world and the one she's left. Tender Morsels is a brave, beautiful, but not untroubled book. In the line of McKinley's Deerskin, it manages to do what most novels are better off not even trying: combine rape and fantasy, without distorting one or diluting the other, to paint a heartbreaking and heartbuilding portrait of sexual trauma. To an extent, Liga's experiences are exaggerated and straightforward examples of sexual violence, but they don't occur in a vacuum and the culture which fosters them is as much at issue here as those specific events; likewise, Tender Morsels's magic is creative and intensely otherworldy, but it serves to explore, rather than dismiss or simplify, the issues at hand. And so Tender Morsels is a story of miracles and real-world truths, traumatic events and entire societies. It offers up some exquisite moments, and for the most part Lanagan handles her issues with respect and careful ambiguity—save for one exception: near the end of the book (and this may be a SPOILER, so consider yourself warned) rape is used to revenge rape, and the event goes by largely unanalyzed, which is troubling to say the least. Given the book's challenging content, it's no surprise that it has some weak points; still, this one makes for a sour conclusion.

Tender Morsels is also troubled on a technical level. Although it immediately establishes a strong voice, the book takes some time to gain momentum and never manages to sustain it. Lanagan's voice is unique, with unusual diction that nudges the book towards a fable, but it rides an uneasy line between immersive and contrived, and always feels a little raw. Together these elements make Tender Morsels seem unfinished and unrefined. The narrative also switches between first and third person—and while my dislike of that may be a matter of personal taste, the fact that the first person narrators are exclusively male gives men a stronger sense of individual identity than women, which seems rather counterproductive. It's also worth noting (although it's not necessarily a complaint) that Tender Morsels is by no means young adult fiction. It's no more inappropriate for a YA audience than any other piece of literature, and it has some adolescent protagonists, but on the whole its difficult content and focus on lifelong female experiences and social roles sets it apart from that genre. But perhaps what bothered me most about Tender Morsels was just that I didn't love it as much as I wanted to. I have a passion for these sorts of brutal, beautiful fairytale retellings, and Tender Morsels tries hard to be among the best of them—but it never quite convinced me, never quite won me over, despite putting up a good show. That doesn't make it a bad book—but sometimes even good can be a disappointment. I still recommend Tender Morsels and I would love to read more books like it, but it's not one that I'll ever need to return to myself.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
Author: Helen Grant
Published: New York: Delacorte Press, 2009
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 287
Total Page Count: 100,135
Text Number: 286
Read Because: personal enjoyment, borrowed from the library
Review: The freak accident that kills her grandmother makes Pia a social pariah, but it isn't the only strange thing that happens in the German town of Bad Münstereifel. When a fellow student disappears without a trace, Pia and her only friend investigate local legends and figures to discover what may have become of her. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is good but never quite good enough—promising as it is, it's missing something. Despite initial appearances (and cover flap), this isn't so much a fairy tale retelling as it is a murder mystery with fairy tale trappings; those fantastic influences often create wonderful atmosphere and depth of setting, but (and this may be a SPOILER, so be warned) the final reveal is wholly mundane. Yet that mundane explanation lacks the substance and depth that the fairy tale aspects give the rest of the book, and so it dissipates their magic and replaces it with nothing much at all. The problem isn't either aspect outright, but rather the balance between them: would that the mundane aspects had more substance, or the fairy tale aspects lingered longer; without either, this promising book ends on a low note.

For it is a promising book. The setting is unusual and brilliantly realized, foreign and fantastic without becoming a caricature. Pia is a believable child narrator for better and worse, irritating sometimes but largely convincing, rooting the fantasy of her story within reality. The fairy tale influences are often brilliant, filtering Pia's view of Bad Münstereifel so that its residents become more vibrant, its shadows darker, its shapes stylized, its events echoed by legend, myth, and archetype. It's the best of a fairy tale retelling, recast atop a real-world mystery—and that could be a fantastic combination, one I don't see often and which this book fosters high hopes for. But it fosters hopes only: Grant never takes her story, style, or depth quite far enough, and the underwhelming conclusion is the book's greatest betrayal. I tried to love The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, and I want to read more books like it—but as it stands, while I admire what it tries to do, I don't recommend it. It's a little too much of a disappointment. Perhaps, with some experience under her belt, Grant will have the guts to take her next book a little further.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.

Behold as I pass 100,000 pages since I started reviewing. It may be arbitrary, but it's still a landmark to me.
juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
This comes about a week late, but better that than never. Having reviewed it, let me talk a bit more on Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, because this is one of those books that I wanted to discuss with someone while reading it. For lack of a fellow reader, I poked around on the internet instead. Rowan Inish's Green Man Review is a look at the book in the best possible light: a dense and delicate, indulgently idealized, brilliant college fantasy blossoming into a strong, realistic rendering of a fairy tale taking place in our real world. Meanwhile, Asking the Wrong Questions approaches the book more critically, searching for some body behind all the glorious fantasy of manners fluff, and failing to find it at key moments. (Both reviews are rife with spoilers, so be warned.) I stand between the two opinions—

Because I was surprised that reading Dean's Tam Lin didn't inspire a slew of college nightmares, but really that makes perfect sense. Blackstock is so intensely and perfectly the college experience that I wished to have that it defies nightmares about the reality of the hell college actually can be. I can't overstate the effectiveness of Dean's wish-fulfillment fantasy. The book is so dense and detailed that the fantasy college experience is utterly immersive, and the experience itself is seductive to the hopeful academic. The whole thing is a delight. But I know that I'm an easy mark in this regard, and I begrudge being made and taken for my last penny—and I'm bitter, too, that the real world can't compare to the book's fantasy. It's a bit like the allure of Harry Potter: Mary Sue-ing yourself into a House and picking a wand and guessing at your patronus is fun, but it's silly and a bit humiliating in hindsight—and heartbreaking, too, that you'll never get to attend Hogwarts because in the real world, people don't turn into cats (and, for that matter, you're far too old).

So as much as I enjoyed Dean's Tam Lin and wanted it to succeed, I turned a jaded eye on all of its faults—and it has many of those. It was a bit of a conflicted read: as many joys and complains, and much reading aloud of the good as of the bad. (Sorry for that last part, Devon.)

Somewhat less relevant to the quality of book, but more relevant to its quality as a retelling:

I have some doubts about how Dean approaches Tam Lin. (Spoilers for the end of the book follow; consider yourself warned.) In Janet's general, growing impression that something fantastic exists at Blackstock, Dean does a wonderful job building up to some sort of fantasy—but until she's already pregnant with his child, Janet knows nothing of Tam Lin himself. The original ballad, on the other hand, begins by introducing Tam Lin and warning maidens to avoid Carterhaugh, where he can be found. This warning is not specifically directed at Janet, but it is placed in explicit contrast to Janet's journey to Carterhaugh. In other words, the ballad implies that Janet knows, and willfully encounters, the risks. Which isn't to say that Dean's Janet is uninformed: the book's focus on birth control makes sex and pregnancy the known danger and the risk willingly taken.

But it's not quite the same thing. I should state that my introduction to Tam Lin was Tricky Pixie's version of the ballad, which brings the sexy back to the source material—and the willfulness, and the consent (which, for some strange reason, are a pretty big part of the sexy)—and encountering that version first has certainly influenced my interpretation of the ballad. Even with that influence aside, what makes the ballad so remarkable is Janet's agency: she knows the dangers, she goes to Carterhaugh, she bears the blame for her pregnancy, she declares the identity of her lover, she returns to him, she asks for his story, she asks how to save him, and she does then do so.

Dean's Janet may know about the dangers of pregnancy and suspect that there's something supernatural afoot, but in the rush of the last 50 pages Tam Lin's story still takes her by surprise and his rescue is a last-minute, conflicted decision; furthermore, because the quick ending receives none of the complexity and detail given to the rest of the book, it feels like Janet is fulfilling a role rather than making her own choices. That role may be more or less logical, it may not feel entire out of place, but it still lacks the remarkable, wonderful, willful agency that Janet possesses in the source material.

And Dean's novel is the poorer for it.

To end on a positive note, I give you one of my favorite paragraphs from the book:

Janet considered interrupting, but what she thought of as the fatal flaw of the novel-reader prevented her. She had meant to ask Nick if he and Robin were coming to the party, since neither of them had actually expressed any intention of doing so. But the flaw of the novel-reader is to want to know what will happen if a situation is allowed to develop unmolested. So she let them talk, and ate her canned okra and tomato soup, and wondered if they should move any of the furniture in their room to make more room for the party.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean, 190

A favorite because it is true, you know—or, at least, it is true for me.

Adopt one today! Adopt one today! Adopt one today! Adopt one today! Adopt one today!
juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
Title: Tam Lin
Author: Pamela Dean
Published: New York: Tor, 1991
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 468
Total Page Count: 94,696
Text Number: 272
Read Because: interest in fairy tale retellings, borrowed from the library
Review: In the 1970s, Janet begins at Midwest liberal arts Blackstock College, and so enters a world of unusual students, burgeoning love, intense academia, and perhaps even fairies. Tam Lin, intended to be a retelling of the Scottish ballad of the same name, is both a surprising success and a regretful disappointment—in both cases, perhaps attributable to its particular style of fairy tale retelling. Of its 450 pages, only the last 50 reenact the source material; the rest of the book is given over to Blackstock college and its students. In this way, Tam Lin is largely a fantasy of manners: an academic dreamland where the classes are inspiring, the students brilliant, and literary quotation peppers dialog and replaces graffiti; the cast is composed of a colorful handful of students, navigating the complexities of romantic entanglement and the rigors of education. It's so complex and clever to be self-indulgent leaning towards twee: this is the college education that romantic academics wish to have, and it's hardly convincing as the real thing. Yet it's such beautiful wish fulfillment that it's a joy to read—a joy compromised by the fact that, despite its brilliance and complexity, there's little here which is real enough to latch on to, but a joy nonetheless.

Peppered as it is by anachronisms and ghosts, constantly hinting at some fantasy on the edge of reality, the bulk of Tam Lin is also a convincing setup for the fairy tale to come—yet for those first 400 pages, Dean shies away from explicit fantasy. Creating and then denying expectation emphasizes the enjoyable nuance of the fantasy of manners, provides a solid base to support believable fantasy, and keeps anticipation high, and when that fantasy finally arrives it is welcome and initially convicing—but the fairy tale comes so quick and to the letter, filling the last 50 pages with a brief and near-literal reenactment of the original ballad, ending abruptly upon the ballad's completion, that it doesn't fulfill the expectations raised by all that anticipation. Perhaps Tam Lin ought not be a retelling of Tam Lin. It's clever and indulgent, if ultimately unsubstantial, as a fantasy of manners, and it's ready to blossom into rich explicit fantasy, but as a retelling of Tam Lin it is sudden and insufficient—the retelling is merely an ending which, while not out of place, is largely tacked on. It begs better integration and resolution, and the same care and detail given to the rest of the book. As it is, "Tam Lin" may be on the cover but there's just not enough of it in the book, and so Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is gorgeous, intelligent, indulgent, but leaves something to be desired. I recommend it, but I wish that I could do so without reservation: there's so much here to enjoy, and I certainly did, but the book's successes also serve to make its failures more visible and regrettable by comparison.

Review posted here on Amazon.com.


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