Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

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Book Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (5 stars)

Character Development: ****** (6 stars. Deal with it.)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle will always be the Big Fat Exception to the I-rarely-read-sequels rule.  The third installment of this four book series comes out on October 21, and I urge everyone following the adventures of Blue and her Raven Boys to rush right out and buy it.  Buy it and read it and make bothersome noises at your friends until they read it too. The cover is gorgeous.  The premise continues to be sublime.  And these characters are so addictive I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without without them after the fourth book is over.  (Settle down on a rainy day and re-read the whole series in one go, I expect.)  Same as when I first read The Dream Thieves last year, I’m too excited about Blue Lily, Lily Blue to be eloquent or organized.  (My better Dream Thieves review can be found here.)  This review will be very long, and I’m not at all sorry.  I read an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue last month, but stalled my review to reduce the risk of ruining things for people who still need to catch up with the series.  Be that as it may, there might be a some spoilers for the previous books ahead.  And as I read an ARC, a few details may have changed before publication.

The summer has ended, and Henrietta, Virginia, continues to be a weird; dangerous; wonderful place.  At 300 Fox Way – my favorite House Full Of Psychics in literature (and I’ve read a lot of Alice Hoffman) – Maura has gone missing.  Blue has no idea why or where her mother has gone, only that she’s underground and it has something to do with Blue’s father.  Blue is angry that her mother went off right before she started senior year.  She may be the only non-psychic in the house, but she’s determined to find Maura anyway.  Persephone is helping Adam develop his powers as the eyes and hands of Cabeswater.  It’s not easy for a teenage boy balancing a laborious job, school work, and the demanding expectations of an ancient enchanted forest.  Ronan sullenly adjusts (as best he can) to the realizations about himself and his family which he had to face the previous summer; a summer fraught with dangerous boys and hit men and dreams.  There’s still a lot to learn about Ronan’s powers as the Greywaren, and his own deep connection with whatever gives Cabeswater forest its magic. Noah has been struggling more and more to remain corporeal, despite his friends’ best efforts.  For the most part he’s as odd and lovable as ever, but something must be changing on the ley line, because his spooky moments have turned terrible to witness.  Gansey – Richard Campbell Gansey III – continues to be rich, determined, and (unbeknownst to him) doomed.  His fussy academic friend Malory comes over from England to assist in the friends’ quest for the sleeping Welsh king Glendower, but despite Malory’s often-comical huffing and puffing, the search has grown even more dangerous than before.

What if Gansey gets stung by a wasp?  What if they wake the wrong Sleeper?  Persephone, Maura, and Calla have seen that there are three sleepers: one to wake (presumably Glendower), one to leave very much alone, and one they aren’t quite sure about.  Three guesses which one they wake up.  In between their spelunking adventures, psychic consultations, and mystical research, Blue and the Boys have to worry about regular teenage stuff as well.  Blue wants to have adventures after high school, but money has always been a problem.  Adam’s money woes are even worse.  Ronan’s attraction to one of his friends might get in the way of the group’s dynamic, and Ganesy is preoccupied with keeping that precious balance at all costs – even when his own feelings for Blue must suffer for it.  They’re all worried about Noah.  Even school life at the prestigious Aglionby Academy takes a turn for the ultra-dramatic when the boys meet their new Latin teacher.  Remember how their first Latin teacher tried to kill them?  Well, this one might be even worse, and a whole lot better prepared for the job.  Even with a reformed hit man on their side and magic all around them, Henrietta has become a treacherous place for five young people on a quest.

I’m going to admit right now that Blue Lily, Lily Blue is, in my opinion, the weakest installment of the Raven Cycle so far.  That said, it’s also one of the best YA books I’ve read all year.  The Raven Cycle continues to be my favorite ongoing YA series.  Huh?  Well, the plot felt unnecessarily tangled here and there, while a few new characters struggle to carry the narrative’s building tension. Colin Greenmantle, the Very Bad Man who sent Mr. Gray after the Lynch family in the previous book, is wicked just for the sake of gleeful villany. This makes him and his bloodthirsty girlfriend extremely fun to read about, but their motives are never clear enough to inspire real concern. Where Ronan’s dreaming abilities as the Graywaren were integral to the plot of The Dream Thieves, and central to his character’s place in their banner of knights (for that’s what it seems like they’re becoming), the stakes against him aren’t nearly so compelling with such a shallow antagonist.

Gwenllian – another new character – was similarly frustrating sometimes, though I bet the mystery of her existence will be developed further in the next book. Basically Helena Bonham Carter’s ideal crazy-lady role, she acted as a good reminder that even with all the side-dramas playing out, the quest for Glendower is at the heart of this series. The magic that has taken over their lives is largely of the ancient and Welsh variety. Gwenllian makes it impossible to forget that history is full of scary, dark, heavily symbolic mythology.  Watching Gwenllian try the patience of every single woman at 300 Fox Way was immensely entertaining, too, since you can see how Blue is a product of her house whenever she gets impatient.  I’m interested to see how she changes the nature of their search.

The little weirdnesses are so very easily forgiven, though.  You won’t find a better ensemble-driven fantasy series around.  The setting is unique, and host to wonderful minor characters which could thrive nowhere else but in modern rural America.  Take the mountainous and booming Jesse Dittley, who blames Blue’s small stature on the suggestion that maybe she never ate her greens as a child.  He’s a much needed interjection of good-hearted Virginian warmth into the atmosphere, with his cursed cave and spaghetti-os. It was also terrifically amusing to finally meet the ever-so-British scholar Malory, on his own quest for a decent cup of tea.

The strength of the cast as a whole just keeps getting better and better. Everyone has hidden depths, and even when you know people are doomed, you just want to learn everything about them. Watching Ronan and Adam realize over and over that they’ve only seen the surface of their friends made me proud and sad and fiercely attached to them all at the same time. The passions behind the boys’ and Blue’s decisions are based on the intense bonds of friendship and loyalty. They find one another more interesting than all the big-ancient-magic stuff that goes on around them. Aarrghh I just want these young people to be happy, and I don’t know if they ever will! Maggie Stiefvater may be a fantasy writer, but she takes the follies of free will and the cruelties of fate to their realistic conclusions every damn time. Free will and fate like to behave unkindly to her characters, so reading plays hackey-sack with my heart. A++ character development. Six stars.

Magic functions so inventively in this series, with one foot in old Welsh mythology and one foot in dreams.  Maggie Stiefvater is rather a wizard at handling both styles.  She describes the uncanny creations that are dreamed into life as though she has a window into our own nightmares.  And the mythology… just… damn.  If you don’t want to dash to your library for books full of words spelled like lwwlywllyylwl after you’ve finished, then I don’t know how to get you excited about anything. (Lots of Ls and Ws in the Welsh stories.)  This year I found a review of The Dream Thieves over at Girl In The Pages which celebrated the way that characters never lose the sense of wonderment whenever they encounter magic in the world. So true! This is such an important element to fantasy – especially stories where regular modern life gets suddenly mystical – and I wish that more authors would embrace the eternally surprising nature of new discoveries.

The plot was so complicated, I know I will have to go back and re-read all three books in rapid succession before I can really wrap my head around all the intricate threads that are woven into these characters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that so much can happen in less than a year! It makes sense that each character has one or two plot lines which are most important to them, and since this is an ensemble-driven series that means there will be many different story arcs struggling to some fate at any given time. As a piece of a series, Blue Lily Lily Blue is a magnificent book, but it doesn’t stand so well on its own as the other two did. Suffers from a little too much going on at once, but I think that it will be worth it by the series’ conclusion. (The only real plot that begins and ends in this book was Maura’s disappearance, but even that hinges on unexplained cave phenomena and various prophecies.) For sure it has introduced and built upon some truly gripping, complex layers for the story, and I have faith that Stiefvater will develop all those twists and turns before she tragically finishes the cycle. The cruelties of literature, to keep us from being able to read them all straight through at once! Maybe I should have waited until the whole series was released to save myself the torture… But no, because then I would have never realized that Stiefvater’s newer books are so wonderful.

Holy heck do I need to know how this all comes together in the end. The plot is so twisted and involves so many cool pieces, but honestly it’s the characters who keep dragging me back to Hentrietta, VA. I would to follow these people to their fates even if it messes with all my reading plans. (Honestly, I had planned to read a different novel the day I finally saw this ARC on the shelf. Those other plans disappeared in a puff of ancient tomb-dust.)  I’ll drag this over-long review to a conclusion, now, with a fervent demand that anyone who hasn’t started reading The Raven Cycle picks up The Raven Boys straight away.  With such a lively mix of characters and an exciting plot, it’s highly recommended reading for all genders and all ages from 14 and up. A content advisory would include language and sex and violence. All of which are necessary. All of which are great.  Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my very favorite YA writers, and I stand in constant reverence of the mind that drives her pen.

Book Review: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races.  The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary.  I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies.  And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly.  What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there.  I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself.  I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me.   (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.)  My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions. 

The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses.  People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride.  But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them.  As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher.  Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge.  Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago.  Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races.  Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident.  She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was.  She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence.  The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor.  She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition.  And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year.  And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend.  When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.

Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading.  If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what.  And Thisby drew me right in.  (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them.  But pretty close.)  I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own.  I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables.  I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same.  I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place.  I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums.  The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is.  Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them.  It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland.  The setting was just that good.

I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place.  Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations.  The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional.  My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read.  Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony).  They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel. 

There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions.  That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another.  So huzzah to that.  Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well.  She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea.  She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters.  The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real.  People on islands, man.  They’re my favorite sort of people.

For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss.  I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment.   On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either.  I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011.  It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today.  This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer.   I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book.  It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.

Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Dianna Wynne Jones

Star Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

Just to say: I read an advanced readers’ copy of this book, so some details may have changed by publication.

The Islands of Chaldea is a middle grade fantasy adventure which was nearly completed by Dianna Wynne Jones before her death.  (I’m still not over that tragedy.  Waaahh.)  Her sister, Ursula Jones, put the finishing touches on the book. That being said, the story-telling and sense of magic absolutely feel like something out of a Dianna Wynne Jones book, full stop.  This is a stand-alone novel, so anyone can start reading it without having prior knowledge of Jones’s impressive bibliography, and there’s no unresolved ending to trample our souls.  The plot and world-building in The Islands of Chaldea aren’t quite as impressive as in some of my favorite D.W.J. books, but it was an enjoyable read and brought me back to happy days reading this sort of book in the library when I was a 5th grader.  Any book which would have made 5th grade Sarah happy makes 23 year old Sarah happy, too.

It’s a fairly traditional story, described with Dianna Wynne Jones’s beautiful language. Aileen’s aunt Beck is a wise-woman of Skarr, and young Aileen will be one too.  That is, she’s supposed to become a wise-woman someday. When she doesn’t witness any magical visions at her initiation it looks like she might not have any special powers after all.  There’s not much time to worry about that, though, because Aunt Beck and Aileen are soon sent on a quest by the high king: a voyage across the great magical barrier to the island of Logra, where the prince has been held captive.  In order to get across the barrier, which has separated Logra from the other islands for political reasons largely unknown, Beck and Aileen will have to bring one individual from each island with them on their quest.  Joined by Aileen’s favorite whiny prince; a castle servant who got left on the wrong side of the barrier; an invisible cat; a sprightly man with an omniscient bird; and some artistic distant cousins, Aileen and Aunt Beck will do their best to find the prince and finish their mission.  Along the way they meet mythical figures reminiscent to the Tuatha De Danann; suspicious sailors; and magical monks, all the while weird weather and strange luck greets them at every turn.  Too bad there are people who don’t want them to succeed at all.  People like evil enchanters and a queen who likes turning people into donkeys, but also someone from Skarr who may be hoping they don’t ever make it safely home.

The not-so-merry band of heroes cover an awful lot of ground on their quest, so it’s no surprise that the world-building in The Islands of Chaldea was a bit rushed.  However, the setting here is quite similar to what we encounter in so many fantasy stories – a magical land heavily influenced by European geography and mythology – so the brief encounters with faraway lands aren’t necessarily hard to imagine.  I like how Jones pushed the similarity between typical old-timey fantasy worlds and our own world to the point of obvious parallels; with Skarr being so very much like Scotland (plaids and all), Bernica’s green hills and Leprechauns as Ireland, and the other British Isles represented as well.  Each island has an animal spirit associated with it, and those guardians had wonderful personalities of their own.  Even though Aileen and her companions don’t get a chance to thoroughly explore each island on their way to Logra, their quick but memorable encounters do make a strong impression.  It could be the authors’ ability to boil down the essence of a place into a few anecdotes which keep the pace moving so swiftly, or it could just be the sense of familiarity which would strike any reader of similar fantastical children’s books.  The former option seems quite likely, though, especially given Jones’s legacy of creating wonderful fantasy worlds which always have a twist or two to keep them unique.  (The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for example, bends the magical land with traditional fantasy creatures rules so very amusingly with its Earthly tourists.)  Chaldea isn’t nearly so inventive as some of her other settings, but the story staged on these islands is a traditional, comfortable tale.  The recognizable landscapes, one after another, still seem magical because of the adventures they host and the wonderful characters who dwell there.

The plot was pretty detailed but not so complex as other DWJ books.  I think that The Islands of Chaldea is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than my favorites of hers.  Books like Fire and Hemlock are packed full of legendary references and fairy-tale traditions, but featuring twisty plots which are staggeringly unique.  Her earlier works are so rich in detail, they invite multiple re-readings and have almost always surprised me with something new even years later.  This book is more up front, and the twists are more predictable. Compared to the Chrestomanci books, which are good for a similar age range of readers, the plot of the first 300 pages in The Islands of Chaldea is a little tame. The last few chapters of the book threw a whole bunch of action and twists into relatively few pages.  Things get nicely resolved – perhaps they even fall into place a little too nicely – but I felt that the conclusion was rushed, with so much complexity appearing all of a sudden. It’s the writing and the characters which make it such a likeable fantasy book, then.  Because it really is likable.  The descriptions are lovely, feeding our imaginations with the sights, sounds, scents, and atmosphere of Aileen’s surroundings without straying from the young narrator’s believable point of view.

The characters are just so much fun.  I want to be Aunt Beck when I grow up.  She’s snappy and impressive and looks really great in plaid.  Her relationship with Aileen is brusque but caring, and when their authoritative roles get reversed due to a curse gone wrong halfway through the adventure I found the ensuing character development to be quite satisfying.  Prince Ivar and his teenaged servant Ogo are banterous and amusing; they act as nice foils to the girls’ attempts to keep things in relative order.  The animals have wonderful personalities, too, and the various travelers who join up on the quest ensure that things stay interesting along the way.  Alas, the villains were a little underdeveloped, mostly appearing in the already-rushed end of the novel.  But Aileen’s personal journey as she tunes in to her own powers and the magic of her lands is the real pulse of The Islands Of Chaldea, and not so much the results of the quest itself, and she becomes a very interesting young lady by the story’s end.

I would say that it was an enjoyable escape into a good old-fashioned fantasy world, and will appeal to fans of Dianna Wynne Jones who still aren’t ready to say goodbye.  New readers will probably like The Islands of Chaldea as well, especially anyone who likes wise women who don’t stand for any nonsense (fans of Morwen in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for example), or likes the traveling bits of high fantasy more than the political entanglements.  For older readers who want something a little more challenging and inventive, I would recommend Fire and HemlockHowl’s Moving Castle, or The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Really, pick up anything by the late and very great Dianna Wynne Jones, and you’ll have a magical experience ahead of you.  She was one of the best.

Some St Patrick’s Day Reading Suggestions

Way way back in 2011, in honor of Bloomsday (even though I couldn’t actually finish UlyssesI listed three examples of good Irish books to read.  Well, I figure it’s about time I expanded that list a little.  There are probably hundreds of Irish books I could recommend for the occasion, and even more which are inspired by that marvelous and literary country. But we’ve not got time to sort through a list of titles longer than the road is long, so here are some of my particular favorites chosen from the crowd:

The Burning Of Bridget Cleary is an astoundingly compelling book which Jane Yolen recommended to me years ago.  I usually have trouble getting into nonfiction, but this true story is so strange, so twisted, and so evocative of more magical times that I get fully absorbed every time I go back and read it.  The Burning of Bridget Cleary is the true story of a village in county Tipperary who believe that a clever and slightly strange woman, Bridget, is a changeling and to get rid of the evil faery spirits they burn her. Even her husband believes this to be true. Did I mention that this incident happened in 1895? That’s not much more than a century ago! I re-read the book while I was in Ireland last year, and looked at all the old cottages and the sprawling farms under the spell of this tragedy whenever I rode past small villages on the bus.  It’s a book you won’t soon forget, and shows how superstition and fear can influence whole communities through the lens of this one tragic event.  Angela Bourke is an excellent authority on the subject; she speaks Irish and lectures on the language and Irish oral tradition in several respected universities in Ireland and America. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Irish folklore, 19th century history, and even true crime.

When I was a teenager, I picked up John The Revelator by Peter Murphy randomly one day because it had a crow on the spine, but lo and behold it was about two things I love: childhood and Ireland. I was told it compared to an Irish, modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and being one of Mark Twain’s biggest fans I purchased this book immediately. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was as good as Tom Sawyer, John The Revelator gave a lasting impression of what it was like to come of age in the South East of Ireland under the guidance of a very sick mother, a nosy and intrusive neighbor (the perfect caricature of the traditional well-to-do old Irish woman), and a mischievous and persuasive best friend. The book tackles religion, the law, loyalty, and innocence without ever becoming too preachy, and in fact the moralizing characters are generally disliked. How could it be otherwise when the narrator is relatively normal boy with a slightly unhealthy obsession with bugs? There is also a certain creepy atmosphere of doom and very-Irish-gloom throughout the whole novel which, naturally, I rather enjoyed.

I read Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl over the summer, upon my bookshop manager’s recommendation (although he wasn’t my manager yet at the time, I’ve just always trusted his suggestions).  I actually didn’t know much about Ms. O’Brien before I read the book, but she wrote so beautifully about growing up in rural Ireland, and then about growing into a writer while trying to make a life in bigger cities, that I felt like I’d known her for ages as I read.  Memoirs aren’t always my cup of tea, but when the writer can describe the setting for her own life’s story in such vivid and amusing detail as this, I can be won over completely.  I particularly like her memories of being a young child in a small town – so different from my own childhood, and yet she captures the aches and joys of being young and in the country so accurately I forgot that I didn’t grow up in the same time period and place.  The later half of the book has some great details about her famous friends, as well, though I preferred the early half simply for the setting. 

If you’re after good memoirs about decades past in Ireland, also check out Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir Of A Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain.

My favorite Irish children’s book might be The Hounds Of The Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.  I wish wish wish it were still more readily available, but since it came out over two decades ago you’ll probably have to find it either from used bookshops or appeal to your trusty librarians.  This is a fantasy adventure in a similar style to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series or even Dianna Wynne Jones’s children’s books, but with a wonderfully hilarious style akin to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Two young Dubliners – 10 year old Pidge and his hilarious little sister Bridget – encounter figures straight out of Irish mythology as they embark on an epic adventure, hotly pursued by the hound servants of the Morrigan, who wants to take control of a mysterious old book Pidge has come across.  The range of characters is spectacular, and the story moves along at a sprightly pace.  I loved this one as a middle schooler, but re-read it in University and was happy to recognize even more references to the legends and folktales I’ve read along the course of my life.  Highly recommended to anyone who misses the fantasy books of the past few decades, children and adults alike, as well as to people who like their Celtic Mythology to be lightened with a bit of clever, youthful humor.

Finally, I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention my beloved W.B Yeats.  I was lucky enough to see a whole exhibit devoted to his life and works at Trinity University last year, and have been a big fan of his writing for a long time.  I’ll admit that I only understand about 70% of his poems – the more metaphysical stuff goes right over my head – but he has such a varied and impressive collection of work there’s bound to be a poem which speaks right to the soul of pretty much everyone.  Most of my favorite English-language poems from Ireland were written by this fellow, and if you haven’t read at least one of his poems yet, do so without any further delay! Yeats covers pretty much every subject that I care about: Ireland, faeries, the troubles of growing old, and history. Actually, one of his poems, “To Ireland in The Coming Times” covers the majority of these subjects at once. My favorite of his poems has to be “The Stolen Child,” which I first heard while studying Irish Dance as a child, and I think it captures the appeal of Irish faery-lore pretty damned perfectly, and childhood as well.   Other favorite poems of his include “A Faery Song,”, “A Crazed Girl”, “The Wild Swans At Coole”, and “When You Are Old”.  Seriously, just go to the library, grab a collection of Yeats’s poems, flip open to a random page, and read what you will.  Flip around until you find something which has the power to move you to tears.  I promise you there’s at least one poem which will make you want to weep in the hills of Ireland somewhere until you can weep no more.

Other suggestions for newer Irish books, which I’ve browsed through at my bookshop but haven’t yet read, include:

The Gamal by Ciaran Collins

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The River And Enoch O’Reilly by Peter Murphy

City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Greyhound Of A Girl by Roddy Doyle (a children’s novel by the author of Guts and The Corrections)

Any favorite Irish books to add to the list?  What are you reading this St Patrick’s Day?  I’m planning to eat soda bread, play the tin whistle very badly, and recite The Stolen Child at anyone who crosses my path.