Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations

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Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

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Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Be it known that I read an advanced galley of The Buried Giant and some details may change before publication.  The book will come out on March 3, 2015, from Alfred A Knopf.

Ishiguro is full of surprises.  His novels have become modern classics, inspiring movies and winning awards all over the place.   (How did he write so well from a young girl’s point of view in Never Let Me Go, capturing the competitive nature over favorite teachers and imaginary horses?  Kathy was given a voice I can still hear in my head whenever I remember that death exists, and somehow she is a comfort.  That book just wrecked me, it was so beautiful and the characters felt so real.  Similarly, Ishiguro is responsible for The Remains of the Day, which he apparently wrote in just four weeks.  That book has grown to be synonymous with the risky country-house discretion and Very English Butlers.)

So much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work embodies some defining trait of British-ness.  The struggle with mortality, personal vs. political sacrifice, the faults of memory, loyalty to a culture that is not so loyal to you… I could go on.  Even his books that aren’t set in the UK seem to focus on concerns of the changing past and the burden of forgetting failures; themes that I always associate with classic English novels.  His subjects and styles change time and time again, and you never know what sort of story you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of his books.  But you can always be sure that wresting your brain out of the book’s captivating language and ambling pace will take a while once you’ve fallen under its spell.

Such is the case with The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s newest book. The Buried Giant will come out in March and I won’t stop talking about it for some time.  It’s set in Britain during the Dark Ages, when Britons and Saxons lived in small communities scattered across the island, and a day of traveling could bring untold dangers.  The elements, disease, fearful villagers, and highway bandits were very real threats to anyone out in the open back then.  In The Buried Giant, mythical beasts cause trouble just as naturally.  While creatures from fantasy do feature in the book, the unruffled style in which this tale is told never builds the magic up to be terribly show-stopping – or even unusual – to the characters who witness it.  Just part of the scenery, and no more pressing than a powerful need to eat.  Mostly, this is a story about an old couple who want to journey from their community to see their son.  The Arthurian knights, Saxon warriors, cursed dragons, and mystical islands are merely companions and landmarks on their journey.  But, of course, the journey can not be so simple as we may hope for these kindly Britons.

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village; a sort of warren housing the community within a hill.  The elderly couple used to be respected by their neighbors, but in recent times they’ve met with coldness and odd manners.  The more Axl thinks about the inexplicable change, the surer he grows that they are all forgetting people and events which had been important to them not too long ago.  A “mist” has fallen on the collective memory of Britons and Saxons alike, so soon after peace was finally struck between their two warring races.  Nobody discusses what they will not remember, and recollections come without warning or invitation to Axl and Beatrice throughout their time together.  It was surreal and unnerving to read as one character re-told a shared memory to another who could only trust to believe that it was true.  Unnerving in such a way that made me worry quietly about the book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  What brought about this clouded barrier to recent history?  Were Axl and Beatrice really remembering things, or just telling stories to comfort each other?  Would their devotion be strong enough to guide them half-blindly through a journey, one that so many external forces would attempt to alter to suit grander – and sometimes dangerous – ends?

I could not get enough of this book’s style or story, though it’s hard to pinpoint what was so mesmerizing to me as I read.  There was clearly something missing in my reading life recently, and The Buried Giant filled that gap.  Was I feeling nostalgic for a charming, wandering epic ever since the Hobbit movies failed to capture Tolkien’s original style?  Possibly.  And Ishiguro delivered, though I’m reluctant to compare The Buried Giant to The Hobbit, despite the dragon and folks riding down a river in things that aren’t boats.  It reminds me more of his side-stories: the tales and legends Tolkien wrote that took place in Middle Earth, but were so obviously inspired by Northern epics and British storytelling traditions.  The conversational tone that guides readers into the green and wind-torn lands is familiar and comforting.  Whomever our narrator may be, he understands that we could get lost on our own in the dark ages.  Now and then, a little interjection reminds us of old Britain’s place in the shape of modern life.

“Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” (quoted from an advanced galley and subject to change)

It’s moments like that which reminded me of good old J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ishiguro, too, can weave a tale that draws from the storytelling traditions of long ago, but holds out a kindly hand to his readers now and then.  It’s the same mixture of wonder and comfort in inhospitable surroundings that makes even unhappy scenes rather a joy to read.  I couldn’t stop reading Never Let Me Go even when my sweater sleeves were sodden with tears, nor was I about to put down The Buried Giant when confusion and fear for the beloved travelers threatened to get the better of me.

Yes, there are ogres, dragons, and nastier creatures here in small doses.  They are not nearly so terrifying as the prospect that Axel and Beatrice might somehow lose one another.  There’s a Saxon warrior on a mission and even Sir Gawain, old after his adventures with Arthur.  Their bravery in protecting two old Britons and one young Saxon boy is admirably knightly, even when their motivations veer towards selfish pride.  Gawain’s one-sided conversations with his horse make him a comical addition at times, but after a while the effects of so much war become clearer and turn him into a more tragic figure.  Violence and suspicion tore the land apart once, and could do so again at any moment, so of course the book has its bloody moments.  Some are almost dreamlike; one unbelievable moment after another, told with unblinking, measured prose.  Other glimpses of brutality are cushioned with that confident, wise language I mentioned earlier.

“The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground.  Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: ‘Is it done now, Axl?’ ” (quoted from the advanced galley and subject to change)

The language here might seem strangely honest and simple at first, especially if – like me – you’ve been reading lots of fast-paced sarcastic writing lately.  But there is great depth below the surface.  There is a so much hidden underneath the mist that pacifies the people in Ishiguro’s early Britain.  As the real quest in The Sleeping Giant is that for memory and purpose, each character – and surely each reader – questions the benefit of forgetfulness, of forging one’s own memories based on remnants of love or hatred that fuel the current moment.  What would the state of Britain be if nothing could be left, untouched, to history?

But of course, we need to know the story.  So we keep reading as they keep walking.

I’m not exactly sure how to recommend The Buried Giant to friends or customers, but I intend to do so the best I can.  Rather than saying that it’s a good choice for anyone who liked Ishiguro’s earlier work, I’ll try to classify it as a restrained and moving quest story for fans of Romantic (capital R) epics and personal journeys.  I loved it in the same manner that I love reading Tolkien on a quiet day, but others might find the early-Medieval setting more reminiscent of Juliette Marillier’s writing, or various re-tellings of Arthurian legend.  This book is certainly not just for history lovers.  It’s a good choice for anyone who appreciates a simply-told story with unexpected layers of fallible humanity, each step leading to riddles even the best swordsman can’t cut through cleanly.

Book Review – Lockwood & Co #2: The Whispering Skull

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up

It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series.  Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read.  That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending.  But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time!  Break the rules!  Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!”  I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series. 

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed.  There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants!  And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.

I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares.  Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.

I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again.  You can read my review here.  The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense.  Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot.  More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.

And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords.  It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow.  Reeeeaad meeee.”  So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice.  Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book.  Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…

The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book.  Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London.  (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)

Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal.  They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps.  When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before.  Bruised pride and broken faces abound.  The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.

As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon.  An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene.  The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out.  With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk.  Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else.  Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them.  (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!)  And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her.  Only to her.  No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago.  So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention?  Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another?  And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?

The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel.  The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished.  (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.)  Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment.  For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one.  The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces.  That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run!  There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”

Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling.  These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages.  What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills.  There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well.  Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet.  (Did I mention the rats?)

I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers.  All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself.  Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets.  I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole.  But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better.  This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.

Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read?  None at all.  Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night.  I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

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

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

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

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.

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.

Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

Book Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 15+ (some violence and language; unpleasant sexual situations)
She Rises was a strange combination of things I love and things I hate, and while I definitely thought it was an interesting and beautiful book there were some details which made me shudder on a non-literary level.  Before I get my review underway I will mention that while I’m quite keen on seafaring violence, and am perfectly content to read about despicable characters, I had to skim over several instances of sexual depravity in order to keep reading.  If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, and if you like nautical adventures and tragic (rather than sordid) love stories, She Rises might be the book you wish you’d read over the summer.  I was happy I brought it with me on my weekend trip to the Maine coast, even though it takes place mostly in England or on British ships, because it was atmospheric, intense, and beautifully described.  This novel is as much a story about the irresistible (and deadly) call of the sea as it is a tale of how unlikely relationships can form all-consuming bonds of devotion.  Worsley writes about that intensely dramatic devotion in the close quarters of female society, on the one hand, and amongst conscripted men in the brutal 18th century Royal Navy, on the other.

The stories of Luke Fletcher and Louise Fletcher are told in alternating chapters, which I found distracting at first but which fell into a rhythm to match the tossing of the warship Essex on waves after about four or five chapters.  Louise tells her story in the second person, recalling the events which took her from a life making butter in a dairy to that of a lady’s maid in Harwich.  We read about the intimate memories which shaped her intense loyalty to and fascination with her charming but volatile mistress in an almost voyeuristic fashion; these words are spoken with love and trust, so their very presence upon the page made me feel like I was privy to a secret which I shouldn’t hear but which was too mesmerizing to ignore.  Louise’s chapters were a little slow to capture my interest, but soon enough the touching, emotionally complex story drew me in with its layers of social intrigue and budding identity struggles.  The almost painfully earnest levels of devotion had echoes of Jane Eyre or even Wuthering Heights, if the Bronte sisters had focused more on women’s personal relationships with each other; there’s plenty of brooding and temper tantrums but also admirable portrayals of friendship.  I found Louise’s mistress hard to understand at certain points in the novel, but since we are getting Louise’s version of events it makes sense that her portrayal of Rebecca might suggest an inscrutable, almost idolized figure of personal power.

In contrast to Louise’s languorous early chapters, Luke’s first pages begin with his disoriented realization that he’s been press-ganged into the Royal Navy and is stuck upon the warship Essex with nowhere to run or hide.  We’re dropped right in the middle of action, and I found myself instantly invested in poor Luke’s undesired adventures, despite the fact that his parts of the novel are told in an almost detached third person point of view.  The difference in narrative voice is dramatic and easy to follow, and my only complaint about the structure was that I would find myself thoroughly engrossed in Luke’s difficulties amongst the sailors only to be snatched away from the scene and placed back in the stuffy Harwich house, and vice versa.  Both story lines gripped my attention relentlessly. Luke’s situation appealed to me slightly more because I’m a huge fan of nautical adventures, but the fact that I was always disappointed to leave a character at each break says some good things about Worsley’s pacing abilities and careful planning.  The seafaring chapters had all the historical detail and high-stakes adventure of Patrick O’Brien’s series, and the young sailor forced to learn the ropes while surrounded by chaos reminded me of the Jacky Faber books.  However, Worsley never shies away from the harsh realities of 18th century life on land or on the oft-romanticized sea.  Luke forges loyalties out of necessity and fear, he witnesses depravity; cowardice; and betrayal, and he must eventually choose between his own morals and his desperation for peace and safety.  I tend to imagine that the life of a powder monkey or a bonnie sailor would totally have been the life for me in times past, but reading about the tribulations suffered for months or years away from land, and the extremely unpleasant circumstances of press-ganged men, reminded me that a life confined to soggy wood and endless crowds of men could get both stifling without privacy and endlessly lonely.

The sailor characters were colorful and vulgar; I can picture them even now as though I had sailed with them myself, though some events aboard the ship happened so abruptly that I had to pause and consider what might drive the rather underdeveloped officers to make such strange decisions.  Luke’s scenes focused on the inward turmoil of a character without any privacy in much the same way that Louise’s chapters showed how two people can eschew all other company and still experience worlds of their own.  The novel’s minor characters fell flat a few times, but this wasn’t so important since the important relationships were really forged between five or six individuals and their vivid surroundings.  She Rises is both an introspective novel about human intimacy and a story about how heavily one’s surroundings can influence someone’s path.  From the dairy farm, to ballrooms, to cramped hold of a ship, to the terrifying freedom of the rigging, and back to dry land, the Fletchers wander in and out of distinctive settings as well as in and out of peoples’ lives, changing drastically as they do.

I loved the descriptions of the sea’s power, not only aboard the ship but also in Louise’s seaport town where the rising tide can flow through the streets and the patterns of commerce and social interaction are dictated by the temperament of the sea.  The Fletchers are cursed with an inability to ignore the call of salt water, and since I love the sea more than I love most people, this was the relationship which fascinated me most in She Rises.  No character has complete control over their own destiny, nor do they even have true agency over their most private identities, and this tragic but beautiful inevitability is reflected through the ever-changing but also timeless landscape of water and horizon.  The setting is written with such reverence that I’m sure Kate Worsley must feel that draw of the tide herself from time to time.

Despite this novel’s fixation on the sexual side of human interaction and the occasional disjointed leap from characters’ motivations to their actions, I found it thought provoking and evocative.  The plot is handled cleverly – and well it had to be – since there are a few dramatic twists which would be spoiled had she been lazy with her structure, though I did guess one ahead of the reveal.

I would recommend She Rises to fans of tense seafaring adventures, readers who expect their romance to come with a large serving of tragedy and frustration, and anyone who is interested in how gender and identity play a part in our perception of our fates; our abilities; and our environments.  Think Great Expectations meets Master and Commander meets Orlando.  If you’re going to be near the coast at any point this year, bring this book so you can appreciate the eternal power of the sea while also appreciating the fact that it’s much more comfortable on dry land, in modern times, than it was in the salty life you’ve imagined for yourself when your day job gets unbearable.  At least you haven’t fallen asleep a free individual and woken up as an unwilling member of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, where life is short and your story’s harrowing.