I decided on a re-read this week, and picked one of JoJo Moyes’s lesser known books, The Horse Dancer. I enjoyed it enough the second time around to want to revisit (for my newer readers) the review I wrote in 2019 when I first read it.
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.
I was first introduced to Melina Marchetta when I was a young adult librarian. Although she is probably best known in YA circles for her books Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca, or perhaps her Printz-award-winning On the Jellicoe Road, all of which identify as realistic / contemporary fiction, I first encountered her in the guise of a fantasy writer, with her series the Lumatere Chronicles. We read the first book, Finnikin of the Rock, for high school book club in 2010, two years after it was published, and although I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn’t really recognize the brilliance of her prose until she came out with the two other books in the trilogy—Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn. I won’t go into the details of what the series is about (it’s kind of complicated), but these books are filled with heartache, pain, adventure, mystery, magic, and madness, and the characters, world-building and story-telling would be hard to surpass. It’s one of those series about which I tell people: “You have to read the first one in order to know what’s happening in the subsequent books, but those make it well worth the effort.”
After having read nearly all of Marchetta’s YA books, I was pleased to see, in 2016, that she had written her first for adults. And although Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil contains a bunch of teenagers as significant characters, it is from the adult viewpoint that the story unwinds, and the adults in the story have the typical hard time fathoming the teen mindset. The book was primarily a suspense novel (reviewed here), which proved to me that Marchetta can write pretty much anything successfully.
I was pleased, then, to pick up her latest offering, The Place on Dalhousie, published in 2019 but just discovered by me. It is contemporary fiction, focused on relationships (both romantic and familial), and is fully as compelling, if somewhat more low key, as anything else she has written.
The book is a little bit confusing at first, because there is a “time out of time” quality to the meeting of two of the protagonists. Rosie is living in a small town on the coast of Queensland, serving as caregiver to an elderly woman, and the two are caught up in a natural disaster when the town is flooded. Jimmy Hailler is also by chance in a kind of time-out there, and it is his work helping to save the stubborn villagers from the rising waters that brings he and Rosie together for a cautious two-week interlude fueled by the disaster. Then Rosie returns to Sydney to her childhood home, which is in dispute: Her father built the house for she and her mother, Loredana, but her mother died of cancer when Rosie was 15, and her father married Martha 11 months after Loredana died, sending Rosie off in a fury. A few years later her father also died, and now she is in a standoff with her hated stepmother over the ultimate ownership of the house.
The story picks up 15 months later, when Jimmy tracks down Rosie and arrives on the scene to discover Rosie living upstairs, Martha downstairs, and a battle raging about whether to sell the house. Rosie, a prickly, difficult young woman at the best of times, is suspicious of Jimmy’s motivations in finding her so long after she initially reached out to him, and the remainder of the book, centered on families both interconnected and divided, compromise, love, and identity, proceeds slowly and cautiously to explore not only their relationship but those of almost everyone involved. I don’t want to give away too much, because a huge part of the enjoyment of the book was in discovering the details as you went along. But there are great characters here (she writes women of all ages particularly vividly), and a lot of humor and pathos in the telling of their stories
I thought Jimmy’s name sounded familiar, and when I checked reviews I soon realized that he was one of the characters introduced in Marchetta’s book Saving Francesca, when he and the others were in high school, and the one character of the group notably missing from the sequel, The Piper’s Son. Many refer to him as the most sympathetic or compelling character, and are thrilled to see him turn up in a later incarnation. You don’t have to know any of that or have read the other two books to enjoy this one—it definitely stands on its own. But for those who loved the YA books, this is a culmination of those stories, and some also hold out hope for additional books with the others—Frankie, Tara, Tom, Justine, and Siobhan—as protagonists.
If you do feel moved to read the two YA novels as foundation, you won’t have wasted your time. Marchetta’s writing is severely underrated outside her native land, and it would be lovely to think that I have convinced more people to appreciate her fully.
I was trying to decide what genre would next receive attention for possible summer reading recommendations, as August winds down. Some people who are turned off by traditional fantasy (quests, medieval societies, talking animals, etc.) are hooked by what some designate as urban fantasy—a story that takes place in a contemporary setting with “normal” people, but eventually fantastical creatures or events invade that space and change it or them. I started pondering, then, what crossovers there are with urban fantasy—so often, paranormal creatures are the fantasy part of urban fantasy, so I looked to my paranormal list to see what fit and what didn’t within that broader category. It also crossed my mind that works of magical realism could, in some cases, twin as urban fantasy. So this will be a mashup of all of those, which, while technically being separate genres, share the characteristic of something “wyrd” intruding on everyday life. (It is obviously not comprehensive, since that would take a post five times as long. But hopefully it is a representative offering.)
The first urban fantasist who comes to mind when thinking about that genre (at least for me) is Charles de Lint, a writer who sets all of his stories in the fictional Canadian city of Newford. People refer to his work not only as urban fantasy but as magical realism and mythic fiction but, whatever you call it, it’s compelling. He has written at least two dozen books that are consciously numbered Newford #1-21 etc., but many of his nondesignated works also take place in and around that city and its anomalies, as well as several collections of short stories featuring characters from various novel-length works.
I have enjoyed reading most of his books, but my two favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader. Memory and Dream takes place mostly in flashback: It begins with the story of an artist, Isabelle Copley, who has retreated from the city to an island where she isolates herself and paints only abstract works; but in her youth, she was a vital part of the art scene in and around Newford, and studied with a master painter who abused her but also taught her a method of painting that could (at least theoretically) bring the subjects of her portraits to life. Trader is about a musician and craftsman (he makes musical instruments, mainly guitars) who is going through a bad patch in which he has no joy in life and no appreciation of his situation. Across town, there is another man who is going through an actual (rather than psychological) life crisis generated by his own bad behavior—he’s a gambler and a cheat, and has just been evicted from his home with only the clothes on his back. He has come into possession of an Inuit artifact and, as he goes to sleep that night, he clutches it in his hand and wishes hard for his life to get better, just as the other man is wishing the same. In the morning, everything has changed for both of them.
While de Lint’s books are filled with both events and characters who are out of place in their everyday environment, his are based on myth and legend (mostly from the Original Peoples), with archetypes such as Coyote and Crow (as well as more whimsical made-up characters) making appearances. But the next writer who springs to mind—Seanan McGuire—has much more crossover with the paranormal genre than with magical realism, because her unorthodox characters are mostly scary supernatural creatures—were-people, sentient snakes, monsters that cause those bumps in the night. The protagonist and her family call them cryptids. The early books take place in New York City, where Verity Price (a cryptozoologist) is working in a bar while trying to become a competitive ballroom dancer. But she keeps getting drawn into conflicts between the native cryptids, both advocating for and fighting on their behalf for their right to life against the monster-hunting society called the Covenant of St. George, whose members are dedicated to wiping out the monsters one and all, regardless if they are talking mice or dragons in the subway system.
In addition to these InCryptid stories, McGuire writes another urban fantasy-ish series called Rosemary and Rue, around the protagonist October Daye, a half-human, half-faerie changeling who keeps getting burned by both sides of her heritage. It is set in San Francisco, and is about the remains of the fae (faeries) who exist in the cracks of that city and keep intruding on its existence, sometimes in nefarious ways. Although McGuire has a lot of fans for this series, I found it wordy and tedious compared to the witty, light-hearted tone and fast pacing of the Incryptid books.
Finally, McGuire has a new series about which I have raved in reviews on this blog: the Wayward Children books. They are compact little gems of literary writing based around the fascinating premise that some of the children who disappear every year into the back of the wardrobe or under the faeries’ mound on the heath or down the rabbit hole have been kicked out of their alternate worlds back to this real one, and their sole desire in life is to return to whatever world they discovered when they walked through that mirror. Eleanor West runs a Home for Wayward Children that takes in these unhappy souls; their parents believe that West is attempting to re-acclimate them to their mundane life in this world, but Eleanor’s secret goal is to aid them in finding their way back to the magical lands they long for.
A couple other well-known urban fantasy writers are Jim Butcher, who writes the engaging Dresden Files, about wizard Harry Dresden, who consults with the Chicago P.D. whenever a crime seems a little “out of this world” to be solved by a mundane police force; and Charlaine Harris, who has written full-on paranormal (vampires as a part of everyday life in the Sookie Stackhouse books) and also has been more restrained (as in the wonderful Harper Connelly series, about a woman who was struck by lightning and can, as a result, stand on someone’s grave and tell you how they died). Harris has recently extended her imaginative worlds into both alternate history and dystopian fiction with her Gunnie Rose series, which is also urban fantasy with the inclusion of wizardry by Russian and British practitioners.
There is some debate about whether Melissa Albert‘s books The Hazel Wood and The Night Country should be included in the urban fantasy category, since they are predominantly new fairy tales. But the fact that the protagonist and her mother live in the real world while her grandmother, who wrote a cult classic book of dark fairy tales, has thus created the Hinterland, a parallel land into which the protagonist ultimately travels, makes this duology a candidate for both.
It is difficult—and sometimes arbitrary—to differentiate between urban fantasy and paranormal as two different categories, and after thinking it through, I have decided for myself that the paranormal books only qualify as urban fantasy if the urban setting and mindset predominate. In other words, the scene is first and primarily set in the real world, and the fantasy intrudes upon it to the surprise of the characters living in that setting.
One young adult duology that I adore that qualifies in both categories is Lish McBride‘s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone. While both books are filled with all sorts of paranormal critters, the first book starts out in a commonplace setting and with an all-too-characteristic protagonist. Sam lives in Seattle, still at home with his single mother despite having graduated high school. He’s not exactly a loser, but he lacks focus and ambition; rather than going to college, he has chosen to continue working in the fast food joint where he and his friends have a light-hearted routine of playing “potato hockey” in the back parking lot during slow periods. But when a potato flies out of control and smashes the headlight on a brand-new Mercedes, Sam comes to the attention of Douglas, a scary dude who turns out to be the neighborhood necromancer and reveals to Sam that he, too, has this “gift.” Douglas is threatened by the presence of what he sees as a rival for his territory, and gives Sam an ultimatum; but Sam, baffled by this amazing discovery, feels helpless to know what to do. Fortunately, his mother, his uncle, and even some of his friends have abilities that can help him out of his dilemma.
Another young adult author who specializes in the urban fantasy/paranormal mashup is Maggie Stiefvater. Some, like her Wolves of Mercy Falls books, fall more heavily on the supernatural side, with setting being instrumental (the necessity of a cold climate) but not primary, while others, such as her Dreamer books, feel a lot more like urban fantasy. The Raven Cycle, four books set in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, straddle the line between urban fantasy and legend. All are intriguing and beautifully written.
Then we come to the crossover with magical realism. Urban fantasy and magical realism have the connection that there are uncanny things happening within a mundane setting; but in magical realism, the setting is often not as important, and this is seen by some as the dividing line. Who could argue, though, that it wasn’t crucial for the book Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, to be set in the straight-laced French village of Lansquenet, with its narrow-minded mayor and contentious residents? Or that the events in Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, would have had the same impact had they not taken place in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women had been renowned for more than 200 years as witches? Or that the events of Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield, would have differed significantly had they not been centered on an ancient inn on the banks of the river Thames? Looking through my list on Goodreads of the 50+ books of magical realism I have read, these are three that stand out for their significant settings, while the others could most of them have happened anywhere, as long as it was within this ordinary world and featured extraordinary events or characters. But you can see that there are commonalities that can be significant.
The bottom line for me is that all of these permutations contain the wonderful premise that there are things taking place around us in our everyday lives that, could we only look up at the right moment and see them happen, would change everything in a heartbeat. I love this premise and, therefore, the books that promote it, be they classified as magical realism, paranormal fiction, or urban fantasy. I hope you will find a book or two from this blog post that appeal to you in the same way they have to me.
I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.
I previously enthused here about The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen, and mentioned how excited I was to move on to the sequel, The Faithless Hawk. I picked that book up this week, and right away discovered two things I liked about it:
- It continued to be timely, in the same weird way as was the first book, as far as its association with current events is concerned;
- Although I had thought (I think because of the title of #2, which didn’t seem to indicate finality) that this was going to be a trilogy, it turned out to be a duology, complete in two books. I wouldn’t have minded reading more about these characters, but the second book was as tightly and dramatically written as the first, and you couldn’t ask for a better wrap-up. Since so many times a trilogy turns out to have either a weak second book or a rushed-to-be-completed third one, I was satisfied and happy with the arc of this two-book story.
The second book picks up about a month after the first one left off; Fie’s troop of Crows are still on the road, and they’re taking her Pa to a Crow way station, which is the equivalent of retirement. He will live there and provide safety and supplies for all Crow troops who seek sanctuary. While at his designated way station, Fie meets with an enigmatic caretaker who is supposed to be the contemporary stand-in for the mythical god “Little Witness.” But to Fie’s surprise, awe, and unease, the person she meets is the actual Little Witness, and she hints things to Fie about her past and her future that are truly disquieting. One of them is that Fie has not yet fulfilled her contract with the Covenant, which she thought she had met by saving Prince Jasimir and bringing him to the General who is keeping him safe while championing his cause. But apparently Fie’s indebtedness to the Covenant goes back many lifetimes and is, in fact, the reason why the Crows roam friendless on the roads.
Just when Fie is absorbing all of this, she and her troop learn of the death of the king, Surimir, by Plague, and they decide to make their way to the Prince, who is with General Draga and her son Tavin, Fie’s love (and the Hawk of the title). A short time after they reunite, however, they are all thrown into dismay and confusion by the machinations of Queen Rhusana, who will do anything to ascend the throne. Once again Fie realizes that the fate of the kingdom may rest on her unready but stubborn shoulders.
In The Merciful Crow, the focus was much more on the journey (both physical and metaphorical) made by Prince Jasimir, Fie, and Tavin, discovering more about the current situation of the kingdom and about each other, and specifically cultivating the romance between Tavin and Fie. By comparison, The Faithless Hawk focuses on a bigger picture: the system of magic, the history of the various castes’ birthrights, and politics in general. This book really fleshed out the world-building, but it didn’t neglect its characters; we also get to learn more about Fie and start to fathom why she is such a central character to this conflict.
The content I mentioned at the top of this review—about its being timely and in synch with current events—has to do with the examination of the entire system of governance, caste, and society. One character remarks,
“We made a society where the monarchs could ignore the suffering of their people because it was nothing but an inconvenience, and we punished those who used their position to speak out.”
I don’t want to give away the entire plot here, but a seminal part of this story is how the characters come to realize that if this world is going to work for everyone, simply substituting a new ruler at the pinnacle of the government probably won’t serve. The rules and systems need to be examined, and must adapt, change, or be abolished in order to make things safe for all people going forward. In The Faithless Hawk, it takes the predations of an unexpectedly corrupt ruler and the threat of a worldwide plague to make that plain.
Some trigger warnings about this duology: There are seriously gory, disgusting scenes with realistic and thorough descriptions of what has occurred; and the use of teeth in their form of magic/wizardry is creepy/troubling (especially to those of us with dental anxiety to begin with). But the books are well worth a few squeamish moments for their powerful portrayals. I hope this immersive fantasy gets the attention
One thing you learn when becoming a readers’ advisor is,
you can’t be a book snob. Some people pride themselves on only reading “worthy” or “classic” or “literary” fiction. Others believe that while mainstream fiction is legitimate, anything that falls within a genre description is somehow less-than. When you read so as to address the interests of every type of reader, the fortunate outcome is that you discover there are “worthy” books—that is to say, engaging, well written, and with something to say—within every category of fiction.
I have wondered whether I should bother reviewing older books here, or whether I should just be addressing newly released works, to keep up with the ever-changing whims of contemporary readers. My conclusion so far has been that it’s all right to cover older reads, because no matter how long ago they were written, they will be new to someone.
Today, I just finished rereading Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2), by Tamora Pierce. Pierce is much beloved by many fantasy readers, and has been incredibly prolific in the number of books and series she has written that are all set in the kingdom of Tortall. Tortall is a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies (and some knights who are also ladies), master craftspeople and master thieves, commoners both honest and corrupt, and the supernatural creatures who also make an appearance. The gods are definitely present (though mostly in subtle ways) in Tortall.
Rather than write one long series with a particular cast of characters, Pierce has broken down the Tortall legend into small “cycles” of three or four books each, that come at the world and its events from many different perspectives. While all these novels are immensely popular with a wide variety of people from 10-year-olds to the elderly, it does seem to me that the earlier books were specifically written to appeal to middle-school teens. Although many adults read them, there is a large percentage who do so out of nostalgia, because they read Pierce as a child and want to revisit the world of Tortall.
The first thing I like about the Beka Cooper series, therefore, is that while the books are completely teen-friendly and accessible (and are, indeed, marketed to teens), they are written from a much more adult viewpoint. While Beka, the narrator, is a young woman, she is more woman than girl, and the others with whom she interacts are likewise more mature. This is yet another in the growing list of teen fantasy series that could equally well (or perhaps more successfully) have been marketed to adult fantasy readers.
The second thing I like about the series is that it so fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format—basically, all my favorite genres rolled into one. The characters (and there are many) are engaging, the situations are surprisingly sophisticated (how many young adult novels expound on the effects of counterfeiting on a nation’s economy?), and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beyond this, Pierce has exerted herself to provide a made-up language, reminiscent of the “thieves’ cant” you find in Regency romance novels, that give the books a particular flavor. The inclusion of this lingo also cleverly circumvents any criticisms she might get from parents who ban language and sexuality by expressing things that she couldn’t do in a teen book if she put them in contemporary English. Pierce has taken pains to spell out the differences in rank from that of the King in his palace down to the lowliest gixie picking pockets amongst the slums. There is no difference made in the characterizations between children, teens, and adults in terms of attention to detail, and while Beka remains firmly the main character, the people with whom she partners, the neighborhood from where she rose to the police force, and the “coves and mots” she encounters in the course of her work are all given a real existence. Finally, the books feature strong female heroines, a welcome departure from some fantasies.
Terrier, the first book (released in 2006), takes us away for the first time from the lords and ladies, knights and squires of the other series and introduces Beka Cooper, an orphaned 17-year-old with some special gifts that lead her from the Lower City (the worst neighborhood) of Tortall into a career as a “Dog,” or police officer, in the Provost’s Guard. She is assigned as a trainee (“puppy”) to two veterans, Tunstall and Goodwin, and proves herself as an officer who hangs onto a case like a terrier until it’s solved.
In Bloodhound (2009), her second year on the force is also documented in the pages of her journal, and it’s quite a ride. As a new Dog, she is matched up with four different partners who don’t work out, and she ends up instead working solo with Achoo, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She and Clary Goodwin, one of her former training partners, are then sent by the Provost General, Lord Gershom, down the river to Port Caynn, on a secret investigation to discover who is behind the spread of counterfeit silver coins that are destroying the economy. She falls in love, falls afoul of the Port Caynn Rogue (Queen of the thief caste), and earns her new nickname as she doggedly (pun intended) pursues the solution to the case.
The third book, Mastiff (2011), is equally compelling. Three years after their mission in Port Caynn, Clary Goodwin has finally opted to promote to a (stationary) command position, and Beka is now paired with Goodwin’s former partner (and her other former training officer), Tunstall. Beka has suffered a recent tragedy—her fiancé, a fellow Dog, has been killed while pursuing slavers—and she doesn’t know how to go on, mostly because she was on the verge of breaking up with him when he died, and now she’s feeling guilty for receiving unwanted attention as the grieving almost-widow. But an assignment abruptly pulls her away from her familiar surroundings and sends her, her partners both human and canine, and a strange mage assigned to their team on a hunt the outcome of which will determine the future of the Tortallan royal family and government. As with the second book, the pacing ramps up as the Dogs get closer to their quarry, and unexpected elements throw several wicked curves into the story before it ends.
There have been two things against this series when I talked it up to others: The first was the truly abysmal cover art on the original paperbacks, which was actively ugly and made it almost impossible to “sell” these books to anyone (especially teenagers). The photographic image chosen to represent Beka was both laughable and disrespectful. The recent re-release of this series with new covers may give it a chance; if you are a librarian reading this, please consider immediately replacing your originals with the new versions!
The second is the supernatural element, which I sometimes completely leave out of my descriptions. When you say that a book is about a girl who gets messages from the recently dead by listening to pigeons, and who also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils and picking up bits of conversation the dust devil has been hoarding, people look at you like you’re crazy!
This fantasy series has so many facets and is so hard to adequately describe that I don’t often find myself promoting it to anyone—but after rereading #2 on impulse this weekend, I decided to make another pitch, because these books are a worthy, intriguing, and entertaining addition to the mainstream fantasy canon.
This week, I picked up two books to which I had been looking forward: Jane, Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore, and Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, by Melina Marchetta. I didn’t look forward to them because I’d heard anything at all about their contents, but simply because of my sheer adoration of both authors’ previous work. Both have been exclusively young adult authors up to this point, Cashore with her fantasy series set in the Five Kingdoms that begins with Graceling, and Marchetta for a combination of realistic stories (Saving Francesca and sequels) and her fantasy series (Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn).
These two YA authors share something else that I have puzzled over since I have been reading YA: Their work doesn’t necessarily appeal to teens as much as it does to adults. Although Marchetta’s contemporary realistic books seem to have teen fans, the teens I coaxed into reading Finnikin liked it well enough but not sufficiently to go on and read the two sequels (which is a shame because I think they are her two best books). Similarly, the minute I read Graceling, I was raving about and recommending it to every teen fantasy fan I knew, and although a certain percentage connected with it, that percentage wasn’t nearly as high as I estimated it should be, given that it’s a brilliant story with a feisty, personable heroine. I keep talking it up, but I have sometimes wondered, in both authors’ cases, if they shouldn’t have released their fantasy series as adult books rather than sequestering them in the teen section. Certainly many adults I know have loved them.
It’s always interesting when a teen author branches out into adult, or when an adult author writes for teens. I have previously blogged about the sometimes disappointing results when adult authors tried to write teen books and only succeeded in diluting the spirit of their adult books in the mistaken belief that teens need things to be dumbed down. Similarly, there are YA authors I adore whose books for adults have left me cold. Of the two books I read this week, one incited that reaction, while the other was exactly the opposite.
My friend CeCe on Goodreads says about Jane, Unlimited, “It’s a bizarrely delightful puzzle box of a book, and I enjoyed every second of it.” Other friends similarly adored and raved about this book. I’m glad they had that experience, and extremely sorry that I can’t echo their enthusiasm.
After I somewhat guiltily decided to put the book down at 132 pages and not finish it, I went back and read Kristin Cashore’s afterword about it, and discovered that it had started life as a “Choose Your Ending” type book and then evolved into its current incarnation. This might offer a possible explanation for my poor reaction, because I have read two of those books in the course of my tenure as a book club leader for teens, and greatly disliked the experience both times.
Before anyone accuses me of such, I want to say that it’s not that Cashore didn’t follow in previous footsteps by providing another gripping fantasy story set in the Five Kingdoms; I am eclectic in my tastes, and perfectly willing to read from all genres. But to me, this book didn’t know to what genre it belonged (which is, according to some reviewers, one of its delightful strengths), and the beginning of it was so disjointed and confusing that it just never took hold in my imagination.
It reminds me of The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, beloved of middle-schoolers everywhere, apparently. We read it for my teen book club, the kids gave it an 8.5 out of 10 rating, and I hated every minute of it. It was confusing, went off on tangents, provided no character development for its quirky tribe, and left me floundering.
That’s exactly how I feel about Jane, Unlimited, which begins with a similar setting—a strange mansion, set on an island, belonging to a reclusive millionaire, with a lot of puzzles to be solved. (It harks back to Agatha Christie as well.) I had an inkling of a feeling for Jane, the one person in the story with a tiny bit more character development, but as the rest of the array rushed past in dizzying numbers, I couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for learning more about them; and if I did, I was doomed to disappointment. For instance, at one point Jane’s mentor and host, Kiran, offers a private conversation that seems to promise more enlightenment about what her thing is (for the first 100 pages she has been merely a sulky looming presence), and just as my interest was piqued, Jane thought to herself, No, there are more interesting mysteries than this one to solve in this house, and said “See you later!” to Kiran, who wandered, off, disappointed. She wasn’t the only one! There was instance after instance of this, when I thought a story was about to take off, but nothing ever did.
I guess that if I had stuck around for something to finally gel, there are interesting developments to be had (CeCe says so), but my patience was exhausted, and I decided to go read something else. So sorry, Kristin. I know you worked hard on it.
Providentially, the “something else”
I decided to read (not without trepidation, considering this experience) was Melina Marchetta’s adult suspense novel, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil. In this instance, not only was I not disappointed, but I finished the 400-page book in two days. Although this book contains a bunch of teenagers as significant characters, it is from the adult point of view that the story unwinds, and the adults in the story have the typical hard time fathoming the teen mindset.
Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a cop who is “on leave” from his department after having lost his temper and threatened a superior officer. His daughter, Bee, is on a school field trip in France when word arrives that her bus has been bombed in Calais, and that children are dead and injured. Bish rushes to the scene, and discovers that his daughter is shaken but unharmed, but the same can’t be said for other people’s children. Partly on his own initiative and partly because the French inspector on the scene seems to need the help, Bish finds himself getting involved in the conundrum of who did it and why. Then it’s discovered that one of the girls on the trip (who has been rooming with his daughter the whole time) is the grandchild of one of the most notorious bombers in recent British history, and the daughter of the woman who confessed to making that bomb. The question is whether Violette is a suspect, a simple victim, or the intended target of the bus bomber? Things get more complicated when Violette and a boy she befriended on the trip disappear, somehow making their way across the Channel to England, and fears for their safety combined with the need to find out how they were involved cause the Home Office to unofficially but peremptorily commandeer Bish to do their research and liaise with the girl’s family.
I loved that the principal protagonist, Bish, plays dual roles in this book—frantic father and analytical cop—and that he is such a flawed human being and yet somehow capable of connecting with everyone in his effort to arrive at the truth and also to protect the two wayward children. The differing viewpoints, the lack of trust of everyone for everyone else, the convoluted nature of the crimes, past and present, all add to the suspense and provide for a truly satisfying reading experience. I felt like the book portrayed sensitivity in its dealings with a difficult topic, and yet was honest and true to people’s natures. The story arc held my attention throughout, and I loved the ending and even the epilogue (not usually a fan of epilogues, but this one didn’t end the story, it added to it).
Bravo from me!
I’d like to say that it’s possible Jane, Unlimited truly is something new and innovative that some readers may love, and that it may be my lack of imagination that causes me to prefer a more traditional story arc discernible as such. You’ll have to try them both and see for yourself.
I’ve just gone on a reading odyssey not quite as lengthy or labyrinthine as Game of Thrones, but definitely of a complexity that would deter some readers! It’s a series containing four books, each of the first three coming in at around 500 pages, and culminating in a fourth book with a staggering 752! The series, by Kate Elliott, begins with Jaran. I had read Kate Elliott once before when I took a look at her young adult series that begins with The Court of Fives. I liked that one well enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but not well enough to keep reading the rest of the series. But in my comments, one thing I mentioned that I did enjoy was the portrayal of the societal relations between the conquerors and the oppressed.
That turned out to be something that Elliott does even better in her adult novels, and I was immediately hooked by the deeply complex interrelationship of all the players on the board of this science fiction saga. My response to the first book was that it reminded me of a couple of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish books (and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that). Similar to Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s an anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who may know about each other but don’t know each other. It’s old school, and yet it’s fresh, and I enjoyed and was engaged by the way it unfolded.
In the first book, we learn that Earth has been subsumed into a vast galactic empire ruled by the alien Chapalii. At one point a human, Charles Soerensen, led a failed rebellion against their dominance, but rather than punishing him, the Chapalii inexplicably made him a “duke” of their kingdom and gave him dominion over an interdicted planet, Rhui. (What it means that the planet is interdicted: The native peoples are prohibited from knowing about space travel, alien or human technology, or anything that is beyond the development of their existing culture.)
On Rhui, there are two types of people, the jaran and the khaja. Khaja is actually a jaran word for “not jaran,” otherwise designated by the jaran peoples as “barbarians.” The jaran are akin to the Romany people of Earth, in that they are nomadic, dwelling in tents and moving from place to place according to whim and affected only by weather and pasture. They are matrilineal, with female etsanas of twelve tribes deciding what’s best for the people, but the women work in a fairly equal partnership with men, who are the warlike, saber-wearing, horseback-riding element of the tribes. They are proud, romantic, mostly illiterate but nonetheless intelligent people with an oral tradition and an elaborate history. And under the leadership of the charismatic and visionary Ilya Bakhtiian, they have recently grown larger aspirations and are in the process of conquering the khaja within their realm of influence.
The khaja are all the peoples on Rhui who do not follow in this nomadic tradition—those who have settled down into city-states or kingdoms and jealously guard their land for their own people, who speak various local dialects and are unwelcoming to strangers. Their lifestyle differs markedly from that of the jaran, not just because they are not nomadic, but because they follow a more traditional pattern of patrilineal societies in which women have few rights and are treated as chattel. This includes those groups spread out across the landscape of Rhui and also the inhabitants of the city of Jeds, which is the secret stronghold of Charles Soerensen, the aforementioned duke of the planet, known in Jeds as the Prince of Jeds. This city is the de facto capitol of the planet, where there are schools and universities, a library, and supposedly more “civilized” inhabitants, although under their thin veneer of culture, they also subscribe to the unequal treatment of men and women.
The people of Earth associated with Soerensen cautiously visit and explore the planet in various ways, while maintaining a cover as locals. The Chapalii are supposedly forbidden by the interdiction from traveling to Rhui at all, but as the first book opens, we discover they are not all sticking to this contract.
Charles Soerensen’s heir to the “throne” of Jeds (and actually to all his holdings on all planets) is his sister, Tess. She is young, just graduated from university, and is uncertain of the role she wishes to play in Charles’s complex agenda. She is also suffering from a broken heart, and feeling rebellious. So she sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, intending to go to Jeds and buy herself a little time to think; but because the Chapalii on her ship are involved in an illegal operation, she ends up getting dumped somewhere out in the wilds, and is picked up after a week of wandering by the leader of the jaran warriors.
Tess decides that she will remain with the jaran people, immersing herself in their society, as the perfect cover for attempting to solve the Chapalii smuggling scheme that put her there on the planet. What she doesn’t reckon with is her seduction by the warmth and inclusiveness of their lifestyle, and her growing feelings for their leader, Ilya Bakhtiian (and his for her).
Whew! That’s a long and complex introduction to an equally elaborate and convoluted story, but if it sounds like something you’d like, definitely invest the time. With each book more conflicts arise, more truths (about each of the peoples depicted) become apparent, and more investment in the future fates of all takes place. And while we do eventually reach an ending that is satisfactory, the potential is there for more about the individuals and the cultures involved, should Elliott ever decide to revisit them. I can’t help hoping that someday she will!
The four books are as pictured above: Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming. Don’t be put off by the covers (dated looking and unfortunately not great to begin with); two of the four books are out of print at this time anyway. But this could be considered a good thing: Who has room on their bookshelves for four more 500+-page books? Do as I did and buy them as a four-book set on Kindle. If you’re not sure you want to read the whole series, you can get each book individually for the Kindle, but why spend the extra money? I checked out the first one from the library, and then got tired of being on the holds list for the other three and bought the set.
If you have ever had a romantic dream of wandering on horseback with the Travelers; if you have ever wondered how a matrilineal society might work; if you have ever wondered if there are, indeed, aliens among us; this is the series for you. (And do check out the Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin as well!)