I find myself enjoying Undermajordomo Minor quite a lot

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(Quotefrom page 176 of the hardcover)

Patrick DeWitt is certainly a strange one, and it took me a few tries to get into his style, but now I’m hooked. Daniel Handler’s review in the New York Times was encouraging, and I largely agree with his assessment so far.

The bleak setting and futile tone sometimes remind me of Stefan Zweig, if he were to try his hand at an adventure story in a made-up land. But the sense of humor is wry and fresh and there have been several little turns of phrase that made me laugh into my latte.

We shall see if my admiration continues. I just felt like sharing that snippet, as it brought a smile to my allergy-puffed face. Buy the book from an indie bookshop and give it a try.

Brilliant settings, rather upsetting: Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal

March is funny (and not only because it bloody snowed this week, upon the first day of spring, hardy har har what a laugh.)  I spent the entire first week of the month getting through a single book, Welcome To Braggsville, which I liked immensely but couldn’t rush.  Then I devoured five books in the following two weeks, reviewing exactly none of them. After reading The Gamal on St Patrick’s Day, I noticed a trend: both Braggsville and The Gamal were absorbing, transporting, and upsetting as hell.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Why am I gravitating towards stories that make me nervous and miserable for the major characters?  Why all these books in which life and justice behave unfairly towards our modern heroes?  Truly, there was very little heroism to be found in either book; just people doing what they think is best, only to find out that it’s not enough.

The appeal lies in these novels’ settings – how vividly both T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins evoked environments they knew, made fictional settings real for those of us who have never seen the likes.

I could feel the nerves and excitement D’aron experienced when first moving to UCal Berkeley after growing up in a small-orbit Southern town, even though I’ve never been to San Francisco or Georgia.  Each time I picked up Welcome To Braggsville, it would take all of four seconds for me to feel the warm California sun or sticky Southern heat again.  I now have such a clear picture of “Bezerkeley’s” wacky ambiance; it’s dorm rooms; the oddities of campus life, it’s like I was in D’Aron’s freshman classes.  And I know I wouldn’t do well in those classes at all. Braggsville – D’Aron’s hometown – also felt realer than real.  Despite Johnson’s gift for exaggeration, the made-up place lived and breathed and shot and swore.  I don’t understand the South, though I’ve read literature that loves it; mocks it; romanticizes it; despises it.  I do understand a community’s weird love for re-enactments – being from Old North Bridge Land – but like D’Aron’s classmates I’m a little scandalized by the notion of an entire town re-creating Civil War times as good old days.

The town and the folk that Johnson conjures half-feel like something down the rabbit hole, half like my own tiny hometown. (Maybe anyone’s home if there’s not enough privacy and a little too much pride.) Identifying with various characters’ perspectives of the place was easy. While most of the messed-up proceedings are told from D’Arons point of view – exposing his frayed nerves as he stumbles while juggling loyalty and righteous indignation – his three friends’ perspective of Braggsville are more akin to what I would surely experience.  Through Louis’s eyes I saw how funny the place could be; through Candice’s, how inhumanely human; and, perhaps most importantly, through Charlie’s eyes I caught a glimpse of how difficult it must be to navigate an environment that sometimes glorifies a heritage of hatred. People expected Charlie to be patient and good-natured about the conspicuous racism inherent in the white parts of Braggsville, and his perspective on the place was often the most telling, though he was more economical with words than his friends.  Four ways of seeing D’Aron’s part of the South, all contributing to the picture of it in my head.

When I finished Welcome To Braggsville – and it took a while because reading it stressed me out – I almost wanted to go back there and fix things for the characters myself. Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center, the Gully, the coroner’s office all felt like places that would go on existing after the book was closed. I wish and doubt that things around Braggsville would change a little after D’Aron and his remaining friends left.

And don’t even get me started on the town of Ballyronan in The Gamal. I spent all of Thursday and Friday feeling as though I had just stepped off the plane from Ireland. It wasn’t necessarily a fun mental trip, though there’s a bit of laughter sprinkled throughout Charlie’s tale. Most of the mirth is of the laughing-at variety, rather than laughing-with. Trying to emerge from The Gamal was a challenge, and I still feel rain-soaked, with Charlie’s cut-to-the-bone manner of speech rambling through my head at odd times.

Where the narrative voices in Welcome To Braggsville shift from time to time, The Gamal is told entirely in the first person. Even the court transcripts are peppered throughout with opinions and corrections from our narrator’s uncanny memory. Charlie is begrudgingly writing a book at the bequest of his psychologist, who thinks it will help the young man to come to terms with some upsetting events in his past. On the very first page, he writes: “Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages in this book explaining the look of something…. This is for people like myself who hate reading.” That being said, the town quickly grows into something so real I could probably map it.

“The Gamal” is sort of the village fool, the weirdo kid, though in reality Charlie’s more perspective than the people around him suspect. When James and Siobhan – also outsiders in their own ways – make friends with Charlie in school, their passions for music and dreamy approach to life transform his surroundings into a place where love and hope can flourish. As the two of them fall in love with each other, Charlie sort of falls in love with the bond between them all (and with Siobhan a little, too, because everyone falls in love with her. I’m in love, and you will be too when you read the book). When they cut through the woods or walk down the street; when they write songs in James’s library; when they hang around the football pitch and ignore shouts of abuse, I walked with them. I watched James trounce the other boys, and winced at his father’s unbridled joy, because in Ballyronan you don’t celebrate your son amongst the other fathers. When they stay long after the pub closed, playing the old piano until they fall asleep, my heart hurt because I knew how these perfect scenes would eventually be ruined by jealousy.

The people of Ballyronan aren’t so bad, most of them, but (as I’d already been reminded by the folks of Braggsville) a sleepy town gets comfortable with the way things have always been. Tradition; boundaries; the same faces telling the same jokes at the pub every night, that’s how some people know they’re at home. So a whole community can turn against the sorts of young people who might want to wake the surroundings a bit, through art or protest, which are basically the same thing. The strange and shining light cast by James and Siobhan illuminates every description, turning grey drizzle and bleak schoolyards into scenes that deserve “poetic picturesque horseshit passages” explaining how they look. Charlie can see this, when he’s not “acting the Gamal.” I loved seeing that corner of County Cork through Charlie’s memories, which just made it harder to read about the aftermath of two tragedies that change everything.

Just as I fell automatically into the jumbled patter of Charlie’s voice, the gravity in Ballyronan seemed stronger than that which glued me to my cafe chair. The sprinklings of Irish language and easy attention to dialect made the American accents around me disorienting while I read – it took a whole day to get my bearings in this part of the world again. That’s what I mean by transporting.

But don’t forget: upsetting as hell. The relative youth of these characters – D’Aron, Louis, Candice, Charlie, [Irish] Charlie, Siobhan, James – didn’t protect them from the horrors of unfairness. Their shining ideas, clever hypotheticals, and best efforts weren’t enough to make their dreams come true. I think I got so upset, so wrapped up and nervous, for these characters because I am one of them. I’m a confused twenty-something who would right wrongs or write songs or try to change things if I knew how, but like them all, I’m stumbling half-blindly through the big world. I’ve yet to learn the extent to which people will cling to tradition over sympathy or reason, or how easily betrayals can form in a friend’s mind. It hurt to see misfortune inflicted upon characters I would befriend in another life, and the utter lack of justice those characters faced didn’t exactly inspire faith in how things are run in the world. But these books do inspire sympathy, and small hope, and the unhappy questions that need to be asked.

In Braggsvile and Ballyronan, things fictionally continue much as they always have. The news crews get bored soon enough across from D’Aron’s house and around the pub where Siobhan worked. The big tragedies which shake the narrators to their cores might stir up some dust in daily life for as long as news and novelty last, but the landscape remains unruffled.   The people who grew up and took root in those towns cling to the biases that make them feel like part of the safe crowd, the exclusions that won’t let anyone change what has worked for so long. T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins write about places built upon foundations of love and distrust; real-feeling stages for events I wish weren’t so believable. I was transported thoroughly while reading Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal this month, but I couldn’t live in those books forever. My heart would give out from either the stress or the despair.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

The Most Loved Book I Got For Christmas: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – Graphic Novel Edition

My sister and I were always given one book apiece on Christmas Eve, ever since we were very small indeed.  After the midnight candle-lit carol service, before racing up to bed, we’d sit by the tree and open up our “first gifts of Christmas.”  I’ve received many a wonderful book in this manner, but the one I loved the most was this graphic novel version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. (HaperCollins, 1995)

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

I must have been in third or fourth grade when I got this one; old enough to have already read the Chronicles of Narnia books, but still so young I was more than a little frightened by the nasty creatures Jadis has in her audience at the sacrificial stone table.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995

It’s the first graphic novel I ever read, and is the only one I’ve re-read multiple times.  They aren’t usually my preferred style, but this one captures the pace and spirit of those Narnia books nearly perfectly.  My copy’s pages are torn on the edges and soft like old dollar bills from all the times I turned them, curled up by the fireplace or hidden under the covers at night.  Most of the words come straight from C. S. Lewis’s original novel, just adapted and distilled by Robin Lawrie, who also drew the cinematic illustrations.  She made sure to include a great deal of the dialogue between the siblings, animals, and Aslan without letting the conversations get too cluttered with text.  It got to the point where I had memorized chunks of the real book, just because I could picture what was said and done in this illustrated version as though I had lived it myself.

Lewis’s wonderful descriptions aren’t lost here, either.  Paragraphs from the book that capture his magical balance of winter mystery and hopeful warmth are not left out, including one of my favorites about the first time the Pevensies hear Aslan’s name.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995. Text by C.S. Lewis

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside.  Edmund felt a mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave. Susan felt as if some delicious smell had floated by.  And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays.”

That’s the feeling that used to define Christmas Eve for me: anticipation and history.  The strange combination of coziness and goosebumps.  I remember reading this book the night it was given to me and feeling like I’d gone straight through the wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.  How horrible it would be to live in a world where it was “always winter, never Christmas.”  And how grand an adventure to go about bringing Christmas back.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

I loved the illuminated style of the illustrations: the creative borders with animals, trees, and heraldic symbols characterizing each chapter’s mood.  The pictures are expressive, particularly the characters’ faces and all the movement in exciting scenes of battle or escape.  C.S. Lewis has described Narnia so well in his books that fans of the series can picture certain settings in their mind’s eye like photographs of real places.  The illustrations here can go along hand-in-hand with your own inner Narnia: no artistic liberties veered too far away from my own imaginary constructs, at any rate.  The Beavers’ house, Cair Paravel, even the Professor’s mansion are brought to life in a simple but solid manner. The embellishments of style and extra details get to stand out in the framework and the layout: columns with carved satyrs on either side of the pages in which Mr. Tumnus describes Narnia in the spring, or the twisted roots around the picture where Lucy finally brings her siblings through the wardrobe and into the woods.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is such a good story.  It has a tint of medieval romance – Lewis was a medievalist as well as a fiction writer and theologian – as well as an enveloping glow of childish goodness that can fight back even the most biting winter miseries.  Robin Lawrie’s adaption is colorful, exciting, serious, and blessedly faithful to the original book.  I loved it as a little kid, back when Christmas Eve was a night of heart-in-your-throat nervous excitement.  I love it now that winter has taken on a more medieval coldness in my older-ish age, because it warms me up: the memory of reading it three, four, five times in one month acting like embers that have not quite died out.

The Chronicles Of Narnia is a delightful series of books, but I think that this graphic novel is even better loved in my memory because it can transport me instantly back to Christmastime in the late 1990s.  I don’t think it’s still in print, which is a terrible shame, because this would be a great way to get more reluctant readers hooked on the vivid fantasy world and larger than life characters of C.S. Lewis’s imagination.  There’s also an adaption of The Magician’s Nephew, which is almost as good.  (A tragically under-appreciated book in the series, I say.)  If you can find a copy of either at the library or a used bookshop, do give it to someone this holiday.  It can turn Christmas Eve into something extra magical, where any danger lurking in the cold darkness outside can be dispelled by bravery and the assistance of a majestic lion.  (Lion not included.)

What I Read In September: 13 Books and Then Some

Ahoy there, readers and spies. I’ve got a list for you, today, instead of a proper review. It was a busy month.  I moved into a new apartment, agonized over which books to bring to said apartment, and spent half the month without much internet access.  Maybe it was the stress of relocating that had me reading up a storm.  More likely, it was the lack of Tumblr and Facebook to distract me over breakfast.

Anyway, over at my blog I entertained the notion of listing what I read in September, only to find that this would be a more daunting task than I expected.  I read a lot of books last month!  Some of them I’ve already reviewed here, but I’m afraid others might get lost in the shuffle.  So here’s a (fairly) complete run-down on what I read, what I started, and what I hope to finish soon.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Do you think I should maybe get outside more often?  Possibly.  Though I did read some of these out under the first changing leaves.

What I Read In September:

Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

A stunning, complex, magical, and heartbreaking re-telling of The Wild Swans fairytale.  Daughter Of The Forest is set in 9th century Ireland, and is the first book in Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I thought it was a wonderful story with great historical detail and lovely descriptions.  It also wrenched my heart into a hundred brittle pieces.  In a good way, I promise.  You can read my full review of the book here.

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

A lively Middle Grade novel from the author of Rooftoppers, starring a brave and wild heroine who is forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe for a stuffy English boarding school.  Rundell’s writing was still magical, though I still like Rooftoppers better.  You can read my review here.

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

I had no idea what to expect with this one, which is a good thing, because Girl Defective rather defies expectations and generalizations.  Set in a wacky Australian record store, this was a YA novel that I think a lot of adults would enjoy, too.  I got really into the character development and the general vibe of Howell’s writing, even though the plot was hard to pin down exactly.  I’ll just say there’s a reason it’s not quite called Girl Detective.  Highly recommended to fans of good realistic coming-of-age stories.  Also recommended to the sort of people who hang out at record stores and bewail the death of vinyl.  I reviewed this one, too.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This one was hard to review.  (But I tried my best.)  I had a fabulous time reading about Abigail and Jackaby’s adventures as investigators of supernatural murders in 19th century New England.  Jackaby satisfied my desires for both banshees and witty banter.  At the same time, the characterization and plot occasionally veered too closely towards obviously well-known literature and/or pop culture.  Still recommended for anyone who likes their mysteries to be macabre, takes their suspects otherworldly, and prefers detectives who are more than a little zany.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This collection of Roxane Gay’s essays, musings, and rants is pretty much everything I love about this fascinating modern age of information.  I waste a lot of time reading literary reviews and criticism of under-representation on various  internet wormholes.  It’s how I learn what’s going on, and the hours of scrolling scrolling scrolling through Tumblr have made me much more aware of how my own privilege and environment have made me predisposed to selfishness.  It’s how I remember to try and look past myself and recognize what’s troubling people I might never meet in real life.  But that method involves a lot of scrolling past cyclical arguments and senseless trolling.  So glory be to the publishing powers on high that Roxane Gay has compiled a whole book full of her interesting, moving, important, and often hilarious thoughts.  She is everything I like best about the bloggy-type world.  Bad Feminist is super easy reading because her style is so convivial, but it actually contains a whole battalion of hard truths ready to rain down wake-up calls on the casual page turner.  Nothing terribly new for Twitter-ers or Tumblr-scrollers, but an enjoyable book which should be thrown at any head which appears to be buried in the sand.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Click the photo to read my post which includes the recipe for baked apples with custard.

George Orwell’s strange novel was my “classic”-ish book for the month.  I appreciated Keep The Aspidistra Flying more than I would say that I enjoyed it.  The protagonist was frustrating and the setting was bleak.  But Orwell is very talented at relaying a character’s thought process without suggesting that we should agree with the hapless fellow.  I couldn’t hide my smile when Gordon griped inwardly about the more difficult patrons at the bookshop where he works.  This was a sharp look at class and ambition in 1930s England. While the characters’ philosophies put my teeth on edge more than once, I found it to be a smart, wry, and insightful novel.  If I see an aspidistra anytime soon, I’ll probably either laugh to myself or try to throw the plant out a window. I needed to eat a lot of dessert while I read this one, so my embellished thoughts on Keep The Aspidistra Flying can be found in this blog post, which is also a recipe for baked apples with custard.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (#3 in The Raven Cycle)

I read the ARC of this the very same day I found it on the shelf at my store.  All other reading projects were put the hell on hold.  I’m not going to post my review of Blue Lily, Lily Blue until the book is released, but I can assure all followers of Blue Sargent and the Aglionby Boys that this third installment is a fine addition to The Raven Cycle.  I so very rarely keep up with a series anymore, not because I lose interest in extended story lines but simply because I don’t have the time when so many books for work or review demand my attention.  Maggie Stiefvater’s series is a big fat exception to that rule.  The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves brought our magnificent ensemble cast closer to finding the sleeping legendary Welsh king Glendower, with many a heart-wrenching twist and agonizing turn along the way.  Get ready for even more complications, my friends.  Prepare to tear at your hear and gnash your teeth in distress.  This volume might be the weakest of the three, when I consider it seriously, but the character development continues to be unparalleled even as the complicated plot gets a little muddled.  Oh, and the witticisms.  The banter.  The references to myths and legend and proper tea brewing techniques!  Check back for my full review nearer to the book’s release on October 21st.

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

I had trouble reviewing this book, too. (You can witness my attempts here.)  Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Readers, 100 Sideways Miles is most likely a humorously self-conscious work of realistic YA literature, but it could also be a perplexing story about fate and possible aliens.  No matter what, Andrew Smith has written some passages of freakin’ excellent dialogue between his teenaged characters.  The use of symbolism and wacky facts about the earth’s velocity were nearly as memorable as the central friendship, too.

A Book Of Scottish Verse selected by R. L. Mackie

a book of scottish verseI re-read about 3/4 of the poems in this little old book the night before results came in about the Referendum for Scottish Independence.  I bought the collection when I visited Scotland in the spring, and found it very comforting this month when I was afraid that my chest would explode from all the conflicting emotions.  My poor roommate had to hear to me declaiming William Dunbar’s 15th century verse in early-modern Scots, but she was very patient because I was in distress.  I may or may not have forced her to listen to James Hogg’s “Bonnie Kilmenie gaed up the glen” in its entirety, too.  55% of me – a slim majority – is happy that Scotland is staying within the Union for now, but reading these poems again was a great reminder that my favorite country in all the world needs more freedom and respect than it currently receives.  The more romantic, poetic, dramatic 45% of me is heartbroken.

Dark Spell by Gill Abruthnott

I wanted to read some of the books which have been nominated for the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and a history-infused contemporary fantasy set amongst witches in St Andrews seemed like the right place to start!  I thought the writing and plot were only slightly above average in Dark Spell, but the lovingly-described setting was like a powerful healing potion for my constant homesickness.  My full review of this book is here.

Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

This was a collection of much more modern poetry than the late-Medieval stuff I was weeping over earlier in the month.  Heppermann bends fairy-tale expectations and society’s demands into thorny new images and broken reflections.  She writes about wicked queens and desperate girls in castles and high school bathrooms and all the fraught places in between. Some of these poems deal very closely with issues like eating disorders and self harm, and while it’s all handled very artfully I did feel my innards twisting up a little at some of the anorexia images.  I’d rather spend my time thinking about fairy tales instead of remembering my old nemesis the eating disorder, but it took a little while for me to shake off the paralyzing mental dust that settled after a few of Heppermann’s poems.  I really recommend this collection to teenaged girls who need a charm for strength or sincerity in the shape of frank and powerful verses, but read with caution if you’ve struggled with difficult issues that aren’t quite banished for good!

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

This book has been thrown at me so many times by my room-mate.  Now that we live under the same roof, have one meager between our bedrooms, and share all those glorious bookcases, it was high time I relented.  Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better.  I’m going to try to write a more in-depth review within the next week, as I only finished reading Sunshine two days ago and need to dwell on it a little more.  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The final book I read this month!  And what a way to end September.  Station Eleven deserves more thought than I’ve given it so far, and I don’t want to go into too much detail since lots of people I know are interested in reading it.  A Shakespeare company and Symphony travels around North America, performing to settlements twenty years after a terrible pandemic destroys life as we know it.  The non-linear narrative draws us into several different characters’ lives pre- and post- collapse.  Art, fame, immortality, and the nostalgia for a past which can never be regained are torn apart and put back together as characters alter others’ lives in big or little ways.  The beginning and end of Station Eleven kept my attention better than the middle bit, which focused on the End Of The World stuff too closely while still straining my willingness to suspend disbelief.  But the idea of a Shakespeare company wandering the wreckage is really good. I hope that Station Eleven gets a lot of attention for its lifelike characters and the level-headed writing behind those big ideas.  This is another one that I will try to review sooner rather than later.

Books I started in September, which I aim to finish ASAP:

Heap House by Edward Carey

I’m having trouble getting into this book, even though it’s exactly the sort of glum story I usually enjoy.  I think that I was too frustrated with England when I started reading it, around the time of Scotland’s referendum debates.  I’ll definitely give Heap House another try before it comes out, because I certainly expect to be in the mood for some dry Dickensian humor and Gothic misfortune sometime soon.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

It usually takes me over a week to read a book of nonfiction, since I tend to read a novel or two at the same time to balance out my brain.  I’m about halfway through The Other Wes Moore.  It’s a fascinating book about two boys who grew up in similar circumstances, but one went on to be a White House Fellow and Rhodes scholar while the other went to jail for murder.  The details about each boy’s life make the narrative go quickly, but it’s the portrait of what life was like for young black men in Baltimore (and other cities) at the time which makes this such a universally important book.  I’ll probably finish reading it next week.  October’s nonfiction book will, naturally, be about witches!

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

I read half of this when I visited my house one Sunday.  I had just finished reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and didn’t want to start another fantasy or YA book for fear of finding it disappointing in comparison.  Wandering up to my old bedroom, which is now the library where the 80% of my books live, I picked this up at random.  Maugham was a good way to waste a few hours, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to it.

All The Wrong Questions # 3: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket

That dratted Lemony Snicket!  Can’t he ask the right questions for once in his mysterious life??  This third installment of our young apprentice’s attempts to find answers in an unfathomable town just came out on September 30th, but I read a few chapters of it when I got to work early and saw them sitting in a tantalizing stack by the register.  I guess I’ll have to buy it to find out why school isn’t the right place to be.  (Hint: School is rarely the right place to be when there’s something nefarious afoot.)

So, what’s the final count?  Thirteen books and some change.  Let’s hope that the momentum continues!  But now that I have internet back, it’s time to catch up on what my favorite bloggers have been reading.

Thoughts on Some Stories in Rogues (ed. George R. R. Martin)

Earlier this week, I was hit with a fantasy craving.

I needed to read something completely engrossing, something with really cool magic and characters full of surprises.  But I didn’t know exactly where to start.  Should I try an author I’d never read before?  Should I return to an old favorite?  Did I want to read fantasy set in our world or another one entirely?

Luckily, there’s a solution to those questions.  An anthology!  And how convenient for me that an anthology has recently come out containing a huge selection of engrossing, magical, surprising stories.  Surely one or two of them would do the trick.

I got Rogues out of the library that very night.  I really like the concept of new stories about each author’s rogue-ish and mischievous characters.  They’re usually my favorites in Fantasy series, anyways.  I only read about five or six of the stories, and started a few others without continuing on, but there were a few I really enjoyed.

Obviously Neil Gaiman’s story, “How The Marquis Got His Coat Back”, was fun.  The Marquis de Carabas was easily my favorite character in Neverwhere, and his adventure was funny and twisty. It took us back to the underground and slightly sideways world from the novel, and even introduced us to the Marquis’ brother!  The story wasn’t a long one, but it was good to re-visit a character who I sort of consider an old friend. (**** 4 stars)

Michael Swanwick’s “Tawny Petticoats” had a sort of alternate wild-west feel to it. The setting was a futuristic New Orleans, with throwback fashions and some not-quite-human characters.  I’ve never read any of Swanwick’s fiction before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying his story of con men and tricky ladies.  There was an interesting take on zombi-fication, which was a little freaky, and the villains weren’t very nice.  In fact, even the hustler protagonists weren’t exemplary citizens, but it was fun to root for them and see what would happen. (**** 4 stars)

“Now Showing”, by Connie Willis, was really incredibly strange. It was about college students in such a near future I felt it could be a peek into life ten years from now.  There wasn’t much magic to speak of in her story, aside from the enchantment caused by mysterious boys who make you want to listen to them even when they’re being cryptic assholes.  In the end I did like the story, even though I was making a really puzzled facial expression the whole time I read it.  I then recommended that one of my film-geek friends read it, because I knew she would like the cinematic theme and all the hidden movie references. (*** 3 stars)

As for “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane”,  it was my favorite story (of those I read) and another one by an author I’d never tried before.  How, exactly, have I made it through 23 and a half years without reading Scott Lynch?!?  This situation needs to be rectified ASAP, because I LOVED “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane.”  It was EXACTLY the sort of story I wanted to read, and nearly cured my fantasy craving all on its own.  The cast of characters was largely female – this deserves an extra huzzah in “high fantasy” literature, where that’s not always the case – and they were all so bloody cool!  

This was another heist story of sorts, with lots of entertaining plans and slapstick failures while the fatal clock runs down.  The main character and her old crew have sworn off crime after being granted clemency, but they’re getting restless in their retirement.  When a wizard battle shatters the serenity of Therandane by causing huge creatures to fall from the sky and into their favorite bar, Amarelle goes and gets herself in trouble.  She and her friends have a year and a day to steal an entire street, or an extravagant and powerful woman will ruin them completely.  The magic in this story was unique (enchanted mixed drinks, anyone?), the setting was vivid, and I felt like I’d known these characters for years.  Next time I want to read some good old fashioned grown-up Fantasy — with creates characters so lively they might walk off the page, and a touch of humor to even the most dire circumstances –I’m absolutely going to try Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. (***** 5 stars)

I didn’t get a chance to read about half the stories, but there are a few which caught my eye that I’ll surely try to read during my next visit to the library.  Some others failed to capture my attention, but the beauty of an anthology is that you can just move one and find something more appealing.  I’m not sure that every author gave the roguery prerequisite an equal amount of consideration, but whatever.  The stories I read were pretty good, I now have some new authors to read who might soon become favorites, and the fantasy craving was assuaged.  So Rogues is worth checking out, for fantasy fans, whether you’re familiar with these authors or not.

(These thoughts were originally posted within a longer fantasy rant at my blog.)

YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

Huntley Fitzpatrick, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, gave a reading and talk at my bookshop last Thursday night.  I had a great time hearing about little real-life details which inspire her, and the writing process in general.  Huntley read aloud from her newest YA book, What I Thought Was True, which is a love story between a girl who works year-round on a New England island and one of those dreaded rich “summer boys.”  I haven’t read What I Thought Was True yet, but the piece she read aloud was funny and unexpected and sweet.

huntleyfitz

But… wait a minute!  I don’t ever read novels with candy colored spines or pretty young people modeling beachwear in the sunset.  If I pick up a beach book, it had better feature a pistol duel between mutineering pirates, or some buried treasure, at least.  So why am I talking about realistic, romantic YA all of a sudden?

I’m thrilled that Ms. Fitzpatrick came to our bookshop because she was funny and interesting and started a great conversation with the audience.  But I’m also glad she came because it gave me a reason to pick up her first book, My Life Next Door, which otherwise I might never have read.  Hah… “might never have”…  I almost certainly would not have cracked the spine without an incentive.  And that would have been a big mistake!  Despite the swoon-y cover, My Life Next Door is actually an engaging story with thoroughly unique characters.  It isn’t one of the assembly-line summer romances which flood the shelves every season.  I couldn’t predict what would happen in each chapter according to some tired out pattern of insta-love, misunderstanding, dramatic rebellion, redemption.  The supporting characters and dramatic tension were a step above what I’d expected to find in a book of this genre, and I take back any judgements I foolishly made upon perusing the cover.  (Reminder to self: authors have no say in their book cover.  I guess international editions are even more surprising for the author, sometimes!)

source

Samantha was brought up to dislike the Jarretts next door.  Her mother is an all-too-tidy conservative senator and demanding single parent.  So Samantha has heard no end of complaints about the Jarretts’ messy yard, their overabundance of children, and the general joyful ruckus going on across the fence.  Though she’s not spiteful by nature, Samantha watches the Jarretts from her balcony every night, where she imagines what it must be like within that lively house with such a close family.  Then, one day, Jase Jarrett climbs up her balcony and asks if she needs rescuing.  Typically, this would be the part of the book when I throw up my hands in dismay and shout “UGH!” to the heavens. But I kept reading because…well…  I liked Samantha.  I wanted to see how she would react. And I liked what she saw of the Jarrett family.  No better fuel for good stories like a big, rambunctious family, eh?

The main characters were likable and not melodramatic about their attraction.  Huzzah!  The “minor” characters got plenty of attention, and had really interesting back-stories and plot-lines of their own.  Double huzzah!  When speaking at the bookshop, Huntley Fitzpatrick  said that she sometimes noticed that Tim – Samantha’s best friend’s deadbeat but complex brother, and my own favorite character – kept running away with the story and threatening to become the hero.  I wouldn’t have been surprised.  She did such a good job of making sure that each and every character had their own developments to undergo in the course of this one summer.  Nan and Tim’s family life, Samantha’s mother’s troubling new campaign manager, and the side-dramas experienced in the Jarrett household were all crucial elements to Sam and Jase’s story.   That’s probably why I liked My Life Next Door so much: it was a book about how different people interact, and two of those people just happened to fall in love.  Take away the romance and the (refreshingly frank/realistic) sexual tension, and the story would still have been utterly readable.  Good job, Huntley Fitzpatrick!  Thanks for writing about teens in a way which neither trivializes them nor tries to make them so-edgy-it’s-just-silly.

While thinking about My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, I also remembered how much I liked E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars.  I read that one in the winter, so my thoughts aren’t quite so fresh in my head, but it would be a terrible shame not to recommend it here.

We Were Liars and My Life Next Door were each rather stressful reads in their own way, with moral conundrums all over the place. While Fitzpatrick’s book has social and political tension to keep things exciting, We Were Liars has a dark mystery at it’s heart.  The reasons for Cadence’s damaged memory are as foggy as the details from the summer of her accident.  She’s been kept in the dark about what happened, but upon returning to the family island she starts to notice that things are a little different.  Her mother and aunts aren’t getting along very well.  Her demanding grandfather is being particularly difficult.  And her friendship with her two cousins and Gat Patil – who she’s grown to probably-love after so many summers with “the Liars” – is weirder than usual.

Why don’t the three of them ever go to the new big house for meals or activities?  Why is there a new house in the first place?  In her uncertain absence, everything seems to have been thrown out of balance, and it just might be her fault.  Unfortunately, no one will tell her what happened.  So she’ll have to find out for herself, even if it means destroying the careful peace of the family’s island paradise.

There was quite a bit of buzz circulating book-world about We Were Liars, but I was determined not to have any set expectations when I read it.  But it’s hard not to make early judgements… as I find out again and again.  My first thoughts upon reading the book were along these lines:

“Ugh, rich people on fancy islands are the worst.”

“Has this family ever set foot into the real world?”

“I wish the patriarch wouldn’t be such an asshole about his grandson’s Indian friend.”

But then I realized something: I felt like I was on the island myself.  I felt like a part of Cadence’s weird family.  When she and her cousins explored the ocean or told secrets under the night sky, I wanted to be part of their group.  It got to the point where I felt like I had seen the island before.  I could describe each and every house to you, even now, months after reading. The setting is so typical of these beachy YA summer novels, but Lockhart sets the scene for her events so well that you’ll forget about any other book’s vague sandy paradise descriptions you’ve had to slog through.  We Were Liars is a short, fast book and nothing is ever a slog.

The plot really extends over two summers, while memories from several previous years filter in and out of Cadence’s reminiscence. The first year she met Gat.  Happy younger days. Distinctly less-happy present ones.  A dreamy atmosphere – brought about by the gaps in her memory as well as the idyllic setting – sets the stage for a series of revelations which come so subtly.  The characters sneak into your brain and heart without asking permission first.  We see everything through Cadence’s eyes, her family and their messed-up priorities, so her dawning horror becomes our own.  I didn’t realize how invested I’d let myself become in the story until I closed the book and realized that I was crying buckets in a not-so-adorable way.

All that initial eye-rolling and frustrated exclaiming was actually adept build-up to the heart of the novel, and now I see why Lockhart chose to make it difficult to muster up sympathy for parts of Cadence’s family.  When you do end up feeling for them, you feel a lot. So yes, We Were Liars got to me, and the book-hype was not disproven after all.

(Last summer, in my back-to-school phase, I reviewed Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which was not as good as We Were Liars but still pretty fun.)

Two YA “beach reads” with unforseen depths below the surface, lying in wait for the venturesome browser: is it a miracle for this modern age?  A stroke of luck?  Did I just happen to pick up the right two sun-dappled covers because of sheer dumb luck?  I will admit that books like these don’t usually commandeer my attention, but even with no mutinous duels and very little swashbuckling they were very much worth the few hours’ perusal.  If anyone has suggestions of other great stories masquerading as trashy beach reads, please direct my attention to them at once!  I’m not necessarily ready to chart a course for a season of summer romance stories just ey, as I don’t like the sun and heartaches make me seasick.  But I’m willing to re-think my position on them, if there are others like My Life Next Door and We Were Liars waiting just over the horizon.  Please leave suggestions.

Be they cannons blazing, or passions; masts shattering, or hearts, I hope you enjoy your summer reading.

An Apology From The Future

Guess who was living one day ahead of Real Life for all of yesterday.  Ahoy!  ‘Twas me.  TONIGHT is World Book Night.

Read Code Name Verity – it’s spectacular.

TODAY is Shakespeare’s Birthday.

source. Sorry Will!  You don’t look a day older.

So TONIGHT you might see World Book Night givers wandering around in public places, bent a little sideways under the weight of 20 books they think that people would enjoy.  I know it sounds suspicious – free books with no strings attached, no signing away your soul or trying to think of a fake email address on the spot?  But for once it’s not too good to be true.  No sneaky shenanigans, they’re just trying to spread the love of reading.  Take a book and ask why they loved it.  They might convince you to love it, too.

Now I have to reconcile myself to getting through what will feel like the second Wednesday of my week.  Read on!

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.

The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.

After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.

At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.

The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.

It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.

Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.

Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.

Books I’ve Read:

Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones

souce: goodreads

One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.

Tithe by Holly Black

source: goodreads

Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

source: wikipedia

You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.

Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin.  Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it.  Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind.  Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people.  The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters.  The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter.  My full review is here.

Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:

The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.

I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.