For some time now, I have meant to catch up with other readers, reviewers, and critics who have sung the praises of Nnedi Okorafor and bestowed multiple science fiction awards on her various writings. I was initially only aware (because of my profession) of her young adult books, Akata Witch and Binti, so I decided to start with Binti.
I was immediately fascinated. Binti is a marvelous protagonist, a 16-year-old of the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose traditional and isolationist family and culture nonetheless prepare her, through a magical gift for mathematics, for defiance of her family’s wishes. She receives a mathematics scholarship from the prestigious Oomza University, and bravely and optimistically chooses to attend this cosmopolitan and multiracial (as in, alien races) galactic institution despite the many fears with which she has been imbued by her family. The details of how she insistently brings her cultural identity along with her, despite the judgment and sometimes shock of the reactions around her, and her quiet persistence in finding a way to fit in are an arresting narrative. On the transport ship, she meets a diverse group of young people headed for the university and begins to find her footing and make friends.
Then, five days before the ship reaches its destination, a cultural conflict confronts the entire university as the Meduse, a fantastical race of beings bent on revenge over a thoughtless cultural appropriation, turn Binti’s transport into a nightmare of death, and Binti must act as the representative for the human race, despite her marginalized placement within it.
I was completely fascinated by this tale and thus completely outraged when it ended a few pages later! I had no idea it was a novella of 90 pages, and frankly wonder why it was published in that form. There is a huge story here, with so many intriguing ideas and influences to be unpacked, and rather than developing it into the full-length book that those details demanded, Okorafor instead wrote three novellas to cover the same material, and sacrificed continuity, in my opinion.
I decided, based on her facility for character creation and world-building, to give one of her full-length adult novels a try, so I picked up Who Fears Death from the library for my Kindle and began making my way through
For sheer scope and number of ideas and themes, I’ve never read anything comparable; but one could wish that Okorafor would slim down her vision to tell just the story she’s in at the moment, instead of including every conflict, controversy, and social injustice of which she can conceive.
This is at once a post-apocalyptic tale of the Sudan, centuries older than our own but still plagued by savage internecine war between the Okeke and Nuru; a coming-of-age story; and a “savior” quest. The initial focus of the book’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is on her own story and how it highlights all the problems of her society. She is a child of rape who faces persecution based on her mixed-race status as an Ewu, and is also discriminated against because of her gender. It is a severely misogynist landscape in which such horrors as female genital mutilation are still practiced. The early parts of the book relate her struggles in these areas, as well as her frustrated pursuit of a magical mentor to help her come to terms with her emerging powers.
I had trouble at first understanding that this was supposed to be post-apocalyptic. The problems with the society seemed both contempo-rary and timeless, and it wasn’t until well into the book, when some comments were made about the sins of the Okeke as regards technology, that I realized that was part of the history. It was hard to distinguish between the Okeke and the Nuru when all was said and done, since the Okeke were the victims while having previously been the people with the upper hand in society, while the Nuru, despite their single-minded persecution of the Okeke, seemed in some ways more advanced, or at least more benign. (Don’t misunderstand—both tribes were repellent in their treatment of anyone not “one of us.”)
After the growing-up phase of Onyesonwu’s life, the story takes a turn towards the necessity for her to learn and control her powers, and the reluctance or outright refusal of most of the (male) wizards to take her on as an apprentice or, in fact, teach her at all. She does manage to get her training, but it’s a rather interminable part of the book as you watch what she goes through to achieve it, and grew wearying before the end.
Then, the story turns again as Onyesonwu realizes that she has a pivotal role to play in the salvation of her people. She and her lover and friends set out on a quest across the desert to stop the genocide happening in the Seven Rivers region, and their squabbles and travels are at some points interesting and at others aggravating in their repetitiveness.
My favorite part of the book is in this third section, when the travelers meet up and stay with the Red People, nomads protected by a dust storm who, unlike the other tribes of the country, embrace their social pleasures without being proprietary about them, and to whom the concept of misogyny seems largely foreign. Being open to all things, they find that life is sweet, which is a strange concept to Onyesonwu and her companions.
At the point where the travelers, number reduced, depart the desert and head into their destiny as saviors of the Okeke and Nuru is where the book completely lost me. Onyesonwu has various ideas about how she is to accomplish this mission: One is destroying her father, the powerful magician whose act of rape created her; another crops up out of nowhere near the end of the book, which is to physically rewrite the “Good Book” followed by various sects of each tribe (but with no explanation of specifically how it would be rewritten and what that would achieve in terms of the genocide); and yet another seems like simply a fatalistic meeting of her ordained death, which will somehow transform the world. And that’s what we are left with—a confusing exploration of all of these things, with no real resolution or sense of a goal met. I have absolutely no clue what actually happens at the end.
I found this book so ambitious and at the same time so frustrating. Okorafor unflinchingly explores such issues as rape, child abuse, female genital mutilation, adolescent sexuality, and genocide, all subjects that need to be faced. But she does so by creating some frankly unlikable characters whose flaws are so great that it’s hard to have patience with them, let alone read nearly 400 pages about their journey. I still could have gone with it, however, if not for the utterly confusing ending, which takes the entire slow, minutely examined quest of Onyesonwu to “solve” genocide, sums it up in a few pages, and then rewrites itself in three separate epilogues! (I think I have mentioned before how little I enjoy 99 percent of epilogues in fiction.)
Perhaps I am just not sufficiently tuned into this book or its author to get the point of this saga; but from my perspective, a story with meticulous world-building and an interesting premise simply went off the rails and failed to fulfill its promise despite its author’s obvious brilliance.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
When I teach Young Adult Literature, one of the things we discuss at the beginning of the class is the concept of the “home run book.”
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a leader in the field of reading, and discovered through his research that people who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read, or who only read under compulsion.
But the key ingredient in creating a reader is to hit upon the book that gives them that one positive experience that forever cements their relationship to reading. Jim Trelease came up with the concept of the “home run book,” basing it on a quote from wordsmith Clifton Fadiman, who said:
“One’s first book, one’s first kiss, one’s first home run are always the best.”
Trelease did a lot of anecdotal research, asking people who were readers whether there was one particular book that made them into regulars. He was surprised and pleased to discover that almost every reader could cite the very book that changed their attitude about reading to a positive one.
This issue came up for me lately when a good friend of mine read for the first time a book that has been a beloved one for me since childhood. Although I can’t cite The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as my “home run book,” it is definitely one of the top 10 that kept me interested in reading. As an only child, I empathized with the heroine’s isolation; I loved gardens and nature and the thought of a secret one that I could discover and have all for myself was compelling; and I liked how being forced into relationships with others almost against her will finally turns Mary from a sourpuss into a better, nicer, happier person.
Kim, however, came at it with a contemporary perspective, and her judgment was anything but flattering. Her first reaction was that while the descriptions of the gardens are lovely, “the entire book is a sermon on a set of values that have no place in a humane world.” She goes on to cite the colonialism and racism, comments on “healthism” that betrays both the disabled and the physically able child, and notes the “noble savage” trope depicted in the “peasant” character, Dickon. Despite the descriptive writing, the bright and resourceful children, and the extolled virtues of playing outside in nature, she concludes that the story cannot be disentangled from its classist moralizing, and maintains that it’s time to retire the book.
This reaction made me cringe, mostly because I recognized that she was probably right. Her comments made me remember a discussion in my YA Lit class one year about the relative merits of continuing to require the book Huckleberry Finn to be read by upper grade students, despite its rampant racism, and how severely my young students judged it, despite my urging them to consider context. It also made me recall what a shock I experienced when I recently reread a book that I had previously listed as one of my most beloved—China Court, written in 1961 by Rumer Godden—only to encounter an inexplicably forgotten and utterly shocking example of sexist physical abuse in the last chapter that effectively spoiled my previously unalloyed delight.
Suddenly, my judgment was suspect as I thought back over six decades of reading and wondered how I had been shaped by books that I had embraced unquestioningly at various stages of my life. This prompted me to revisit some of those, to see if books other than Burnett’s should have modern judgment pronounced upon them. So I picked up a few I had particularly loved, and began to read with a gingerly sense of both anticipation and dread.
The first, from a series that I read over and over as a child, was The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. The initial theme of the book is eerily similar to that of The Secret Garden, in that the child’s parents (well, his father and stepmother—that trope is present here!) are out of the country, and the boy, whose name is Toseland, is sent to live with his great-grandmother in her big old mansion verging on castle (it has a moat) in the English countryside. But the similarities (in characterization at least) end there: The boy’s personality is trusting, open, and sweet, and the grandmother is delightfully quirky and kind. Toseland becomes Tolly, except when Grandmother Oldknowe forgets and calls him Toby after his ancestor (the stepmother, unforgivably, calls him Toto), and is welcomed into the rarefied atmosphere of her life surrounded by the memories of generations of the occupants of Green Knowe.
The question for Tolly, however, quickly becomes whether they are memories or something much more tangible. He hears giggles coming from the upstairs bannisters, and catches quick movements out of the corner of his eye as he enters rooms. Gifts and trinkets turn up under his pillow, on his chair, in his pockets, and as Grandmother tells him the stories of the three children who lived at Green Knowe in the long-ago days—Toby, Alexander, and little Linnet—he begins to believe they have never left.
I still loved this book, and found nothing objectionable that would prevent bringing it up as a favorite to contemporary children (although I didn’t read past the first book in the series, so I can’t vouch for all of them). I wonder if this series is the origin of my love for the surreal? You could call them ghost stories, but with the interactions with animals, with supposedly inanimate objects (a carved mouse, a garden topiary, a statue) that occasionally come to life, and with the three dead children, we’re talking magical realism. The relationship between the grandmother and child is touching, the fanciful narrative is wonderful, and I probably loved the whole thing the most when I was a child because I, too, was an only, solitary child who longed for playmates, loved animals, and had a vivid imagination.
The second book about which I had fond memories—again the beginning of a series and this a lengthy one—was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. This is the story of four enterprising brothers and sisters—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and little Ben—who have been raised by their father to believe that their maternal grandfather is an unkind and unloveable tyrant. So when their father dies the day after they have moved to a new town and the neighbors propose to find their grandfather and send the children to him, the children respond by running away. They find an old boxcar, buried in shrubbery along a disused railroad siding (and adjacent to a convenient brook), and turn it into a home, finding clever ways to provide water, food, clothing, and entertainment for themselves, even though they are children without adult supervision.
This one has a few coy moments, and the author does that prescient thing (“they were not to know that this moment would be a lasting influence in their lives…”) that informs you not at all but nonetheless manages to take you right out of the story in a most annoying way; but in most respects the book was surprisingly good. Although at one point Jessie, who is “motherly” to her younger siblings, is referred to as “the housewifely girl,” and the oldest boy, Henry, takes the fatherly role by going “out” to work (mowing lawns, picking fruit, and doing various chores for a doctor in a nearby village), mostly the children work together at chores and projects without too much regard for gender roles, and take delight in objects (Ben and his pink china cup) without any remarks about “girliness” and such.
When the children’s situation is eventually discovered, near the end of the story, and they go to live with their grandfather, I was further pleasantly surprised. Ben asks their grandfather, a curmudgeonly sort, what they will all do when they grow up; at first he says that Henry will take over his business (typical). But then, when I expected him to say something sexist about Jessie’s and Violette’s prospects as girls (marriage and family), he instead tells Ben, “You will all four of you go to college, and then you can choose to do whatever you want!” Considering the book was first published in 1942, that is an exceedingly progressive sentiment! Bravo, Gertrude!
I have a few more childhood favorites I’d like to revisit, but I’ll leave this subject for the moment, just concluding that, as painful as it can sometimes be, it’s never too late to become cognizant of our blind spots when it comes to learned prejudices. So while I still treasure my memories of The Secret Garden, perhaps I will find books less fraught with flaws to recommend to contemporary children.
The two books I just finished reading—
The Sparrow Sisters and The Forbidden Garden—evoke the same sense of place that I was discussing in my last post. Rather than being specific to a country, however, that place is a
small world created anywhere that it can thrive:
Next to reading books about books and books about art, I love books about gardens and gardening. While both reading and painting keep me busy enough not to have time for many other things, I aspire to be a good gardener, a better one than the person who plants a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants every spring and vows to do more next year. The truth is, if I didn’t love reading about gardens quite so much, I might do more actual work in my garden—well, I think at this point you’d have to call it a yard, but oh, I have visions!
My favorite garden-oriented books are inevitably the ones set in England, because where are there better examples of the cottage garden, the kitchen garden, the parterres and the knots, the maze, the giant rhododendrons lining the drive to the estate? From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my most favorite books as a child, to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton in fiction, or the factual but bewitching writings of such gardening titans as Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, and Gertrude Jekyll, the wonderful natural world comes alive in tales of lush plantings of azaleas, of bright poppies and peony buds weighing down their stems, of orderly beds of herbs surrounded by low box hedges, of espaliered pear and apple trees and wildernesses of blackberries. When my cousin and I took a long-awaited trip to Cornwall in 2003, although we had gone because our favorite writers set their books there, we ended up spending four of our eight days tramping around the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick, and the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, as well as a visit to the garden on St. Michael’s Mount, and counted it all as time well spent.
With a preference for this kind of reading, picking The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick, off the shelf was a natural for me. The cover blurb described a Shakespearean garden on an English estate that had gone to ruin, and the hiring of a woman with almost magical gardening powers to bring it back to life. The cover itself was beautifully ornamented with a botanical painting of peachy-pink peonies, and the quote from the New York Times called it a “rich tapestry of family lore, dark secrets, and love.” Who could resist?
Upon beginning to read, however, I discovered that although it said so nowhere on the book, this was a sequel to Herrick’s previous work, The Sparrow Sisters, to which it referred back on almost every page in the first few chapters. So I put it down, picked up my Kindle, and ordered up the first book from the library.
I’m not sorry for having read either book…but I couldn’t rate them as highly as I would have liked, given that all my likes come together in their pages. The Sparrow Sisters is about three young women (20s and 30s) in a small town in New England. They have suffered tragedy in their lives—the loss of mother, then father, then their fourth sister, Marigold. The way they eventually pull through the tragedy is to band together and rediscover the legacies of their mother and grandmother, who were gifted master gardeners, by opening a vast and bountiful garden center and selling their various wares. Sorrel, the eldest, is the grower of flowers, while Nettie (short for Nettle) specializes in fruits and vegetables (and is the family chef) and Patience (a shortening of Impatiens) found her calling in the growing of a physic garden and the compounding of “remedies” that would do any hedge witch proud.
The sisters have a special gift for raising plants that extends beyond a mere green thumb into the realm of magical realism, and this is where the books fell short for me. I am a big fan of magical realism, but even magic has to correspond somehow to its own rules, and the expression of it in this story was all over the place. The author didn’t seem to be able to decide, at any given moment, just how far outside of reality she wanted to travel with their abilities, and it resulted in uneven and slightly confusing story-telling. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the personalities of the three sisters very much, and the tale itself, of a town that turns against the people it formerly treasured, is a compelling one. But the magical bits were too isolated, too abrupt, and not sufficiently integrated to work well.
I liked The Forbidden Garden a little better, once I got to it, but with much the same reservations. The story of the blasted and desolate (possibly cursed) Shakespeare garden at Kirkwood Hall is the backdrop for a scene of inclusive family life amongst the Kirkwoods. Graham Kirkwood decides to solicit the help of Sorrel Sparrow, asking her to bring her extraordinary talents to England to resurrect his garden from its barren state. He and his family welcome her into their home and treat her like one of their own…except that the truth is, Graham has brought her in because he is afraid for his wife or his daughter to take on the garden project, the presumption being that the curse will affect only Kirkwoods. But when his wife’s brother, Andrew, recovering from a broken heart, strikes up a relationship with Sorrel, she essentially becomes one of the family…so what now?
The best parts of the book are the vivid descriptions of the work Sorrel does to restore the garden, intricately detailing the overall design, the plants, and the process. The love story is also gratifying. But the twists and turns as Graham reluctantly reveals the background details of what his family (generations back) did to kill the garden are overwrought and somewhat confusing, and both the consequences and the ultimate discoveries take too long to resolve themselves, occurring in the last 30 pages of the book! And again, the author can’t make up her mind whether there is true magic or whether it’s all coincidence based on a talented gardener, and keeps turning tail on choosing either option. So while I enjoyed pieces of the books—the characters, the settings, the gardening bits—quite a lot, the magical realism, of which I am usually such a big fan, worked against the writing to fragment the stories and ultimately render them confusing.
If you, like me, are a gardening book fan, here are some recommendations of other titles you might enjoy, both fiction and nonfiction:
An Island Garden, by Celia Laighton Thaxter
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden
In and Out of the Garden, by Sara Midda
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart
If you have been a reader of the Book Adept blog for a while, you will perhaps recall my review of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, and the depth of disappointment I experienced on reading it.
It took me a while to be willing to assay another of her books, but I found the description of Once Upon A River, published in 2018, to be too enticing to resist, so I bought a copy and read it this past week. I am happy to say that it fulfilled my expectations, which included the lyrical language of her previous books but also contained a satisfying story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and resolution for the varied and mysterious characters involved.
As its title promises, the book is framed as a fairy tale, or at least is fairy tale-like. The river in question is the Thames, and the river is the central character of the book, as it affects everyone who comes in contact with it—those who live along its length, in pubs, villages, towns, and isolated huts, those who punt along in its shallows or ride its currents on barges or private yachts, and those who end up drowned in its depths.
“They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said
can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next.”
This 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 who are caught up by chance in the events that restore one of them to life.
Amelia is the daughter of the Vaughans, a wealthy couple, who gladly pay the ransom when she is boldly kidnapped right out of her bed, but don’t receive her back again after their payment. Alice is the child of a desperate mother who, abandoned by her ne’er-do-well lover and unable to care for herself or her little girl, ends it all in a jump from a bridge above the roiling waters of the Thames, after first dropping her daughter in to drown. And Ann is the sister of Lily, a poor unfortunate who makes her way by keeping house for the local parson, but who isolates herself in a hovel by the river because she is making amends for something dreadful she did as a child that lost Ann to her forever.
Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.
On the night of the winter solstice, the regulars at The Swan, an ancient inn at Radcot along the Thames, are occupied in their usual pursuit of telling stories. The door bursts open to admit a stranger, badly wounded and scarcely able to keep to his feet. He is carrying what everyone present at first identifies as a doll or a puppet, but after calling for the local nurse to examine and treat his injuries, someone realizes that it is actually a child, a little girl, already dead.
Hours later, however, the girl stirs, takes a breath, and comes back to life. No one can account for her previous deathlike state, but all are happy to have a child returned to life, against all odds.
But whose child is she? Helena Vaughan, who has been deranged with grief over her daughter’s kidnapping, is ready to embrace her as the missing Amelia, even though two years have passed. Someone else recognizes her as Alice, the granddaughter of another local family, who would be happy to welcome her although she is the love child of their wayward son. And Lily is convinced her sister Ann has returned to life. The girl herself is mute and unable to answer the questions of who she is, where she came from, and to whom she belongs. Both the principals and the villagers who were present at her dramatic denouement involve themselves in theories and possible solutions, and under all runs a dark current of deceit and, some would say, evil.
This is a compelling, thoughtful, and engaging read. The ins and outs, the possibilities, the theories and discussions encompass not only the fate of one small child but the bigger picture, the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, what is the best way to pursue them. The discussion includes the new theories of a man called Darwin, who posits that man comes from water and from animals and is therefore related to and also responsible for all life, not just that of humankind. The historical details included in the occupations of some of the characters are engrossing (farmer, charlatan, photographer). And all of it is entertwined with the constant presence of the river, the giver of life and death to so many who move along its banks and in its depths. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique.
I think perhaps Diane Setterfield has, with this book, surpassed The Thirteenth Tale, as wonderful as that book was. But it’s hard to compare them, for although they both have literary language and a timeless feel, they are completely different stories, sharing only the theme of magical realism. Now that I have regained my confidence in her work, perhaps I will return to that book for another look—it’s been a decade since I read it.
A mixed bag
In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:
“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”
It turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.
And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.
One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.
The next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.
The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.
The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.
Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.
My favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.
The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.
I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.
Call Down the Hawk
The mind of Maggie Stiefvater is a strange, labyrinthine forest of compelling characters, lyrical prose, and tantalizing half-formed truths not quite available to anyone but her.
This much-anticipated book is the first of a new trilogy that nonetheless revisits some familiar characters. Starring in this series are the Lynch brothers—Declan, Ronan, and Matthew—previously seen in Stiefvater’s Raven Boys books, plus a new dreamer, Jordan Hennessy, and her creations, a host of doppelgangers pulled from her sleep-time. All of these actors—familiar and unfamiliar—are fascinating, fallible, and easy to like or at least to follow.
Less sympathetic because harder to fathom are the “Zed” (dreamer) hunters who are on a mission to kill due to some nebulous vision that a dreamer will end the world if not stopped. The only one of these we get to know in some measure is the enigmatic but sympathetic Carmen Farooq-Lane; the rest of her “crew” by uneasy association (Lock, Ramsay, etc.) are mere names and occasional paragraphs of words, all hired, paid, and spurred on by an unnamed organization about which we are fated to know nothing, at least in this volume. Equally puzzling are the Visionaries who are in on the kill by association, in that their visions lead the hunters to the dreamers.
But it’s hard to understand where they came from, what was their original purpose, and why they are cooperating in the death of people who are, let’s face it, more sympathetically aligned with them than are these killers.
You will get from this description that there are parts of this book that are clear, linear, and engaging, and other parts that are frustrating, tangential, and confusing.
I was happy to see Ronan in the driver’s seat. I was less happy with the few glimpses we get of his paramour, Adam, away at college, but there are implied promises that Adam will reappear down the road. I loved the revelations about Declan’s persistent efforts to present a false face to the world, because in The Raven Boys and sequels I found his stance unbelievable and knew there was something better underneath the smug, preppy exterior. The new character(s) Jordan Hennessy, with her skills and her plight, are interesting and endearing and make you hope for their salvation. The exterior details surrounding everyone—the art forgeries, the black market, the odd foreshadowy people who turn up here and there, the bizarre real estate—give an extra depth to the story.
This is definitely not a stand-alone work, what with all of its many implications left hanging. Truths are almost but not quite revealed about so many puzzles left over from The Raven Boys books or opened up for speculation in this one—the origins of Niall and Aurora Lynch, the disembodied voice of Bryde hocking Rowan from his dreams, the as-yet-unknown Dreamer X who is responsible for the hypothetical apocalypse…. This book is made of dreams and, like the dreaming mind, it all seems to make perfect sense until you wake up and realize you have a lot of questions! Can you please write a little faster, Saint Mags?
Charmed by books
After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!
The first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.
It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.
I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.
I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.
I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.
The next book I took up was
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!
At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.
Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check
Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.
Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…
You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.
I didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it; I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!
Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.
Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.
I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.
These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!
YA authors, adult fare
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.