“A survey of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan libraries showed that half the patrons of the public library had come to it simply for a good book to read. Yet patrons who come to the library are seldom accosted by a librarian who has thought enough of books to read very many of them, or if [s]he has read extensively, cares enough to recommend books to others searching for good reading. The library profession hopes to improve its image and seems to feel this can be done by proof of efficiency. Those students who enter the library profession because they love books and wish to work with people soon discover they are being trained for technical services, and become bored and disillusioned. If we continue to confine ourselves to administering collections, to making information and materials available, to answering questions but remaining unconcerned for the individual, then we should be honest enough to admit we are technicians, cease insisting on professional status, disown the bastard YA, and catch up with our work! I say that when the time comes that library schools train readers’ advisors as well as technicians; when administrators make the promotion of reading as important as the informational services; when staff members render creative professional service to individuals; then we shall not have to worry about our image.”
—Margaret A. Edwards
The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, 1969
As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.
There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?
The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.
The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.
Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.
Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!
The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.
Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.
Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.
By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!
If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.
That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.
If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.
So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”
Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.
For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.
There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?
The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.
It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.
Last week, I was checking for a book on bookoutlet.com, a discount site that provided me with many budget-saving deals during my 10 years as a teen librarian running three book clubs on a budget. If you have never been there, then beware; you can spend an awful lot of money while “saving” it. Only books that have been remaindered appear for sale, but that includes a surprising number of mainstream authors and excellent reads, and you can buy most of them for between $2.79 and $6.49 apiece. They do have a “remaindered” dot or slash on the bottom or top of their pages, but if you aren’t one of those fussy people whose personally owned books have to be absolutely pristine, then you can greatly expand your collection for not a lot of money. The only tricky part is that shipping is high, so in order to get it for free, you have to spend $35 or more. But if you regularly go on Amazon to buy new fiction at $25 for one hardcover, then you won’t find that difficult; and if you’re buying in bulk for a book club, this is a website you need!
Anyway, I was shopping there, and attempting to buy everything I wanted or “needed” at once so as to obtain the free shipping, so I ended up adding in a book by Michael Koryta. I had never read him before, but he is “blurbed” by the likes of Michael Connelly, so I decided he was worth a try. I settled on the particular book I bought—The Prophet—because it was a stand-alone, and because it sounded more straight-up mystery/thriller than the others, which apparently harbor some horror tendencies. Since I am squeamish about horror, I turned away from those, although I have subsequently discovered from other reviewers on Goodreads that his supernatural twists are “suspenseful without being gory enough or scary enough to fall into the horror category.”
The Prophet is about two brothers whose lives have been shaped by the murder of their sister. When all three were in high school, the eldest, Marie, walked home alone one twilight, and was kidnapped and killed. Either of the brothers could have escorted her home, but one was wrapped up in football while the other had recently fallen in love, and both shirked the responsibility to pursue their own goals, reasoning that not much could happen in five blocks. Both spent their lives regretting that decision.
It’s 10 years later, and although Kent has moved on, becoming the town’s beloved head coach of the competitive high school football team, Adam continues to live in the family home with an untouched bedroom shrine to his sister. Adam is a bail bondsman, and is a hard-drinking risk-taker who is haunted by that one lapse of judgment. The brothers became alienated over the family tragedy, and haven’t spoken in years despite continuing to live in this small, depressed Ohio steel town.
Into both their lives comes a girl looking for a reunion with her father, a paroled criminal. She is connected tangentially to both brothers—she has hired Adam to get her an address for her dad, and it turns out she’s also the girlfriend of Kent’s wide receiver. So when she goes missing and then turns up dead, it throws both of them directly back into their mindset after Marie’s death. When the crime turns out to be further connected with the brothers, they must put their differences aside and work together to find the killer.
In some ways this was a beautifully balanced thriller: I liked the juxtaposition of the two brothers, the one hardly distinguishable from the criminals and outlaws with whom he does business as a bail bondsman, the other an upstanding member of the community, deeply, overtly religious, and the town’s best hope for a football championship that would brighten the lives of the many unemployed steel workers whose children play for his team. When a psychopath turns up in their town and begins to manipulate the both of them, their varied reactions are fascinating to watch. I enjoyed the way the mystery played out, and never guessed its resolution, being as shocked at various circumstances as were Kent and Adam (and the police).
This is also a book full of football, and I appreciated that much less. I have never been a fan of the sport, and a large percentage of the book is spent following both the team itself and the machinations in its head coach’s head as he tries to reconcile his belief that the game is merely a means to an end—a way to help these young people develop skills and opportunities—with his deep-down raging desire to win the state championship, just once in his career. Although the psychological aspects of the game to some extent mirrored the psychological aspects of the other things going on in town, I found myself becoming impatient with the minute details of practices, plays, and strategy.
So for those wondering whether to read The Prophet, I would say it’s a good thriller with a solid plot and some well-developed characters, but if you really love football, then that is what will carry you over the top to victory in your search for a good book.
I believe I will try one more of Koryta’s, not burdened by football, and see what I think.
For those who have never read Greek mythology, or who have hit just the basics but not all the extras, here is the story of the half-goddess Circe in a nutshell: She was the daughter of sun god and top Titan Helios, and Perse, an ocean nymph. She was a sorceress who was exiled by Zeus to an island, to which she lured Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, seducing him and turning his sailors into pigs.
In Madeline Miller’s book Circe, we get the back story, the forward story, and pretty much the entire kitchen sink of Greek mythology, with mixed results.
We discover that the reason she was exiled by Zeus was that she was either A. clever enough to realize that certain flowers that had been bled upon by gods still contained powers and make use of them, or B. powerful enough within herself (despite no previous knowledge of this) to catastrophically transform both her love (a fisherman) and his subsequent flirt (a nymph) into, respectively, a god and a monster (in the nymph’s case, the monster Scylla).
This book feels like a saga; but is it an epic saga? Certainly it is a long story with many events, much colorful detail, and some extraordinary insight into the natures of both gods and mortals, but…
The main issue I had with the book was that it was a retelling rather than a reimagining. Although Miller certainly did some impressive research and tied things together beautifully, I could wish that she hadn’t tied in quite so much, and had instead focused more on a personal story for Circe. So many Greek myths and personages are crammed into this book’s pages that I felt like the objective of the book ceased at some point to be about Circe and instead focused on giving a slightly more personal feel to a panoply of stories about everybody from Daedalus to the Minotaur to Odysseus. The stories that were told from a first-hand point of view were most of them compelling; but the stories that were related about and to other characters in the book second- or third-hand were, dare I say, a bit tedious?
The book was also both accurate and depressing about the depth of disdain in which women (in which I include goddesses, nymphs and other supernaturals, and human females) were held by both gods and men in these legends and these times. Not that it should have surprised any of us, but the portrayal of the almost offhandedly vicious disregard for women’s feelings, their priorities, and life itself was constant and disheartening.
The parts of the book I loved unreservedly were Circe’s personal experiences and, paradoxically, the most mundane details of the story. After her exile to Aeaea, she must come to terms with being alone and isolated on this island and turn it into her own place. The passages about her immersion in nature and the delight she took in it, and also the narration of the everyday tasks of feeding the livestock, tending her garden, and gathering herbs, learning to weave, and all the daily routine, were beautifully showcased. They made me think of poetry such as William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its mesmerizing tone of joy.
I also rooted for her as she began to come into her powers, trying them out and honing her knowledge and practice of witchcraft. The paradox at which she finally arrives—that despite her embrace of herself and her powers as good, she is also subject to fate and the whims and brutality of those more powerful than she—finally made the book into something more than just a serial retelling of the deeds of heroes.
I also have to say that the language of the book was beautifully simple but evocative and musical, and while there were a few overwrought passages, there were also many phrases that I enjoyed reading over several times as I passed them in the narrative.
I would by all means recommend assaying Circe to anyone with even a faint interest in the subject matter (and by all means pick up her earlier book, The Song of Achilles); but for a story that deals in a much more original manner with the whims of the gods, you could also try The Just City, by Jo Walton. Walton takes the basic natures and legends of a few of the gods and applies a walloping serving of “what if?” to them with amazing results. On the other hand, if you want other personalized treatments of Greek legends and philosophy that are classic, beautifully written and timeless, read the works of Mary Renault: The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, The Last of the Wine. I have enjoyed all her books several times over.
Having read the most recent five of JoJo Moyes’s books, I decided I would visit her back catalogue as well, and being a soft touch for a horse story (as you can see from my nearly unwavering fandom for Dick Francis), I chose
The Horse Dancer.
There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.
Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.” Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.
I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle, made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.
The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.
This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.