Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

Book Review: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up. (Dark but not scary, though there’s some troubling emotional and domestic abuse.)

Be it known that I read an ARC of this book, so some details may change before publication.

Wow, guys, sorry for the reviewing slump lately. I’ve been bogged down in the mire of real life, and swimming through a swamp of Things Which Must Be Done. All marsh-y metaphors aside, I’ve been traveling, busy, and just generally uninspired. But The Accident Season was the sort of YA book that could tempt me out of such a slump. It’s a stand-alone contemporary with a bit of fantasy, easy to read and spooky, with good characters and an Irish setting. Honestly, how could I resist blabbing about such a story? The Accident Season is Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel, and it will be on bookshop shelves in August.

We’re dropped into events with a rhyme and a ritual. Costumed teenagers stomping their feet and chanting inside an abandoned house, being overtaken by some energy they share. It’s October 31st, and they’ve had a bizarre month. The prologue gives us a glimpse of where every strange injury and mysterious encounter will lead: to a party, and a fire, and some alarming revelations. Then the book really begins, and Cara tells us what brought them all to that moment.

The end of October is many things: Halloween, the night of an epic party, and the conclusion of “the accident season” which plagues Cara’s family. Every year, her mother pads all the corners in their house, unplugs the appliances, and makes everyone wear extra layers for the month’s duration. Bad things just happen from beginning to end: scraped knees, car accidents, dead uncles. While Cara and her ex-step brother Sam have just accepted this odd interlude in their otherwise normal high-school lives, Alice is quietly fierce about her skepticism. Even when the accident season batters Alice worse than the rest of her family, which Cara finds strange. There might be something hidden in their childhood memories that explains cool, polished, popular Alice’s propensity for injury, but no one’s thought to dig up those experiences to find out, not when it might be the Season’s fault.

Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea – Cara’s tarot-reading and brazen best friend – throw their Halloween party in a beautiful abandoned house, and the night is set up to be magical. They’re dressed as these changeling-children Cara saw in what may have been a vision. Even the “haunted” house seems to want their company. The thing is, they found the house while searching for their classmate Elsie, a nervous girl who somehow appears in every single one of Cara’s photos, but hasn’t appeared at school all month. When bad luck from the Accident Season, the abandoned house’s history, and various romantic tensions between the group of friends clash at the end of the month, this might be an even worse accident season than the one that killed Cara’s uncle. Unless Alice is right, and bad luck hits them for more mundane – and therefore more distressing – reasons.

I like contemporary fantasy best when it is strong in one of two ways (or both!). Stories with strange magic and haunting settings like Fiendish drag me to an uncanny corner of our world, where the bent rules of reality are specific to some well-drawn location. Series like The Raven Cycle enchant me with characters who are so real, so intense, as they discover whatever wonderful and frightening things exist around them, it almost doesn’t matter what the plot may be; I would follow them anywhere. The Accident Season sort of falls into a happy medium between my two favorite styles, never quite excelling in either but still shining in multiple places.

I enjoyed reading a YA novel set in Ireland without too big a deal being made of the setting – it felt a little foreign to me, yet totally familiar at the same time. This is a story about people and what haunts them; it could take place almost anywhere, but Fowley-Doyle chose a great place for her characters. The river that seems to call to Cara, behind the school where they all smoke, even the streets of Cork (where they find a mysterious costume shop that I now wish existed) seemed real and effortless.

But the setting and even the supernatural side to the plot weren’t what drew me into the story so thoroughly. The characters and their secrets had me hooked from early on. Cara, Alice, and their mother are three very different women, but each of them has a hint of tragedy they’re trying to cover up, and it’s easy to empathize with their irrational fears or occasional coldness. Since the narrative is from Cara’s point of view, her family can sometimes seem frustratingly closed-off or unreasonable, but she never once loses her grip on the enormous amount of love that holds them all together. Sam isn’t technically her brother, but they grew up together and you can instantly tell how heavily they lean on each other for comfort and support. I loved their constant banter of “I’m not your sister.” “If you say so, petite soeur.” It came as no surprise to me that eventually Cara started to realize why she kept reminding them that they aren’t actually siblings. I usually get put off by romance, and this one could come off as really wrong, but her feelings in this case followed such a logical path and were explained with such heart, I couldn’t help but hope for her happiness. Bea, Cara’s best friend, is a hot shit. She looks to the tarot cards for answers but also refuses to lose her head when things get magical and freaky. When some of Alices’ relationships get dangerously fraught, Bea is there to help mend things with her blend of humor and sympathy.

There’s a sense of humor trickling throughout the whole novel – a witty back and forth that fits well with the Irish high school setting – but it’s not all fun and ghosts. Searching for Elsie opens the door to new sadness. Alice’s strange coldness stems from some nasty relationship problems that made my blood boil. And the history of Sam’s father and Cara’s dead uncle is truly wretched. But strong friendships and one stunningly crazy Halloween party keep things spinning back to life whenever sorrow threatens to take over.

So much of the tension in The Accident Season comes from misunderstandings and painful secrets within this group of friends, and while sometimes I was just begging Cara to wise up about the people around her, there were other developments that surprised and impressed me. Elsie’s appearances, the metaphorical fairy people Cara thinks she sees, and even the reasons behind all those accidents are interesting enough, but if I read this book again – and I think I might – it will be to walk along the river and explore the haunted house with Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea again.

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

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

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

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

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up. (The main character might be quite young, but there’s torture and sexual violence.)

I had no idea that such a spellbinding, heartbreaking re-telling of “The Wild Swans” existed until I read this review on my blog feed.  Thanks, Elizabeth, for drawing my attention to what has become one of my new favorite historical fantasy books!  Daughter Of The Forest sets the fairy tale of the “Six Swans”/”Wild Swans” (depending upon the source) in 9th century Ireland.  The plot follows the important landmarks of it’s fairy tale inspiration, but the historical setting and extraordinary characters turn the story into something new and breathtaking.  Daughter Of The Forest is the beginning of a trilogy, but it stands quite well on its own.  It took me a few days to get through the book, mostly because – after a slow start – it kept crushing my heart and I didn’t want to get too emotionally compromised.  The sorrow felt by Sorcha as she weaves stinging plants into shirts to save her brothers, never saying a word despite the awful things which befall her, made me walk around sighing tragically myself. I was left feeling mute and weepy with my head stuck in Marillier’s tale, but also very much in love with the story.

The Kingdom of Sevenwaters is sheltered by forests: the sort of old Celtic wilderness that confounds anyone who wasn’t invited and may contain otherworldly spirits.  Sorcha and her six older brothers grew up half wild, raised more by the woods and each other than by their father Lord Colum.  The Lord of Sevenwaters is respected and brave, but not a very caring father.  So Sorcha and her brothers rely on each other for good advice, for games, and for sympathy.  She should have been the seventh son of a seventh son – particularly magical associations in the Irish beliefs which flesh out this re-located fairy tale. Instead, she will finish her childhood by becoming part of a more tragic story. 

When the malicious Lady Oonagh entrances Lord Colum and gains control of his household, she turns Sorcha’s brothers into swans. Sorcha goes into hiding. She must weave six shirts from the painful starwort plant to break the curse, as she learns from a mysterious forest lady (a sidhe or fey woman very much like the Tuatha De Danann). But we’re playing by fairy rules here, often cruel and complicated just for some amusement. Simply weaving the shirts would not be enough; if Sorcha speaks one word, makes one sound, signifies any part of what she must do to save her brothers, the curse will be eternal and her brothers will always be swans. If she can remain silent and brave and true throughout all the tribulations which may befall her (and oh lord are there some difficult times ahead), then Sorcha can have her brothers back. Alas, when she gets half rescued/half kidnapped by a Briton Lord – the Britons being enemies with the Irish and with Lord Colum especially – Sorcha’s diligence and fierce love might not be enough to keep from speaking. Life on Lord Hugh’s land is brutal for a young, half wild, Irish girl. Between the rumors that her weaving is witchcraft and suspicions about her political purpose at court, it will be a miracle if Sorcha can finish the shirts without crying out in fear, snapping in frustration, or giving up hope entirely.

So far, so like the fairy-tales by the Grimms or Andersen. Daughter Of The Forest is a nice re-telling of the tale we already know. But the historical details, the setting, the characters, and the writing really turned it into a book I would read and love even if I didn’t already adore “The Wild Swans.” It follows the same general plot, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the huge plot twists. I was often surprised none-the-less. Aside from the business of curses and occasional meddling by fairy folk, the book is richer in historical atmosphere than in fantasy. Even before Lady Oonagh cast her dark cloud of influence over Sevenwaters, the plot wheels were a’ turnin’.

The initial set-up took a little while to get going; we had to meet Sorcha and all her brothers, and learn how to tell them all apart . But then – calamity! A young Briton – possibly a spy, and definitely uninvited – is captured in the Forest and brought to Lord Colum. The methods used to coerce information from foreign intruders back in the 9th century were pretty horrific, so Sorcha helps her brother Finbar free the boy and bring him to safety. Aside from establishing Finbar as a thoughtful-yet-rash young lad (you can see why he’s sort of Sorcha’s favorite), this gives us an idea of the turmoil which was always churning in the Celtic lands back then. Sorcha’s family follows the old religion, yet they hide the Briton with a trusted and beloved Christian hermit. They have been brought up to fear outsiders, yet can feel sympathy for a boy who is caught up in the endless madness of ongoing war. The historical climate which gets introduced through this early harrowing experience sets up for really important conflicts later on. Without all the details about medieval Ireland and religion and general distrust, the drama would have to ride on the powers of love alone. Love is pretty strong in this sort of tale, but the bigger picture made it all feel real, and made Sorcha’s struggle all the more urgent.

Six brothers are a lot to keep track of. Six brothers, one sister, a hermit, various mythological presences, and a castle full of noblemen and women are an even bigger crowd. So it’s a testament to Juliette Marillier’s skill as a writer that I felt so connected with the entire cast of characters throughout the book. I do think that Lord Hugh’s villainous uncle was a little too nauseating to be believed, but he did fit into the fairy-tale mold quite well. Nearly everyone else had depth and an important role to play.

In the end, though, it’s Sorcha and her brothers who I’ll be remembering the most. For a group that spends over half of the book either silent or transformed into birds, they really played hacky-sack with my emotions. The too-short nights at each solstice, when the boys could turn back into humans, broke my heart and made me cry every time. It was just too unfair that Sorcha couldn’t tell them how she intended to help, and that they didn’t have enough time to help her in return. The romance and fighting in this book were moving, but nothing could compare to the bond between these siblings. Any time that bond was threatened I wanted to weep and wail, though I found myself trying to stay silent as long as our heroine had to bite back her own anguish.

I knew how the book would end. I’ve read so many versions of this story. All the same, I was surprised and enchanted by Juliette Mariller’s vision of the brothers turned into swans, and the sister who would do anything to save them. If you like old fairy tales or historical fiction steeped in folklore, go get Daughter Of The Forest from the library. (Or buy it from an independent bookshop!) If you are ok with getting your head stuck in medieval Ireland, and don’t mind worrying about these brothers as though they were your own, start reading this book. It now has a home on the same shelf as my other favorite re-told fairy tales, and I think they’ll find it’s very good company.

Some other fairy tale books I’ve reviewed:

Boy, Snow, Bird

Thorn Jack

Tam Lin

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Black Thorn, White Rose

Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)

 

The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

It helps that this book isn’t specifically called Tam Lin, so readers won’t be so hung up on spotting direct parallels to the ballad right from the beginning. And it definitely is more inspired by the old Scottish story than it is a re-telling.

The Fatas – Thorn Jack’s approximation of the Fairy Court – behaved much in the way the court does in “Tam Lin”, with the pageantry, the mockery, and the sacrifice of a tithe. And some other pieces of the novel stuck to the ballad’s form, too. Finn lives at home with her father; she keeps going to forbidden old estates; and only mortal love can save whomever’s been doomed to act as the tithe. But otherwise the story meanders in other directions. Since I managed to check my expectations at the door, I was able to enjoy most of the book for what it was. It’s a cluttered and crazy salute to centuries of fairy-lore, with immature writing at times, but I had a great time reading it despite the several flaws. Thorn Jack reminded me of my early teenage years, even though all the major (human) characters are college students. I got totally sucked into the preternatural melodrama and I liked playing “spot the fairy” at every party scene.

There are plenty of fantasy stories for both teenagers and adults which show fairies as timeless creatures playing at, or bastardizing, human culture for a bit of fun. Alluring, wicked things straight from hearthside stories pass in and out: a dreamlike parade of old spirits disguised as eccentric young people. So many writers have brought figures out of the mythological imagination and into our modern lives.* Add Katherine Harbour to that list, because Thorn Jack was crowded with phookas, sluaghs, ghosts, tree spirits, etc. The book is almost certainly over-crowded with these characters dropping in and out, but even though the plot suffered for it I was highly entertained by the ever-shifting crowd. They were appropriately terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, following their own selfish reasoning with no regard for mortals. I thought Harbour did a marvelous job of showing how small human lives were in the eyes of fair-folk; they really mean it when they call Finn and her friends “mayflies.” The Fatas were pretty, they were scary, and they were not of this world. I loved them.

My biggest complaint about Thorn Jack would undoubtably be about the romance between Jack and Finn. It did remain a few steps ahead of the sullen girl falls for dark boy because he’s aloof and hangs out by her window at night disaster-zone, because Jack is meant to be keeping an eye on Finn for more sinister reasons than his own heart. In fact, the concept that mortal love makes fairies grow hearts and bleed was kind of cool, and led to some examples of poetic cruelty between the Fatas themselves. With a knife, Reiko can take “heartless” to a whole new level – a reference to one of my favorite lines of the ballad. But Finn’s attachment to him happened too quickly and it seriously detracted from her own character. And oh, boy, did I get tired of hearing her describe his hands. I know there was enchantment at play, but the path from fascination to love wasn’t followed with enough conviction to justify the clinginess which followed. (Though there’s a moment when clinginess comes in handy at the end of the original “Tam Lin”. Ha ha ha.)

The friendships between other characters felt more believable, even though they also bonded almost instantly out of vague curiosity. Finn meets Christie within the hour of first moving to Fair Hollow, I think, but his rakish ways and grim logic in the face of horrors endeared him to me very quickly. Sylvie, the other member of their trio, is lovably goth, brave, and imaginative. Poor Nathan, all tangled up with the Fatas, is a sympathetic character and it’s easy to understand why Finn wants to help him. And the villains? They were scary as hell.

The majority of the action takes place off of HallowHeart’s campus, but the teachers there were mysterious enough that I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. And, as per the ballad, Finn’s dad was kind and smart but none too observant: the perfect sort of parent character for a story about young people struggling to keep a magical world separate from “real life”. I remember that fierce terror of having grown-ups catch wind of my supernatural concerns when I was a young teenager, and Harbour has managed to capture it very well.

“Ordinary Life had been infected by an otherworldly menace.” (p 245)

Her protagonists are older than I imagine them, but the threat of worlds colliding is very present and very right. Because even when the invisible world is crashing to pieces, you still never wanted to put your parents in danger or let on to your teachers that something was wrong. In this way, the emotional resonance never lagged in Thorn Jack even when the plot got tangled or the romantic tension felt off.

After the exhaustive academia of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m quite content to get a mere taste of college life in this novel. The real action takes place in atmospheric ruins, in the woods, and at dizzy parties I want to attend. Harbour’s descriptions could be annoyingly repetitive – yes I get that the staircase was “art nouveau” without it being reiterated at every step – but the atmosphere was spooky and a good stage for such dark drama. Some moments were maybe too similar to Pamela Dean’s version: the students behaving weirdly must be theatre majors, the old photos of Jack look-alikes from the past must have some logical explanation, the constant quoting of poetry. At least Sylvie had the decency to call out Christie’s weirdness whenever he busted out a line from Yeats in regular conversation. But I’m being too picky again. While Tam Lin is technically a much smarter novel, with more subtlety and cunning allusions, Thorn Jack was just a more enjoyable read for me. I liked the twist with the sacrifice and was happy to have a bit of magic on nearly every page.

In the way that Fire & Hemlock and Tam Lin pulled bits and pieces from various ballads into one complex homage, though not nearly so craftily as Dianna Wynne Jones, Thorn Jack has some obvious parallels and some smaller little references. Comparisons to Holly Black’s Tithe might be more accurate.  Harbour incorporates various fairy characters and traditions into her plot, using a huge cast of minor characters to create an unearthly atmosphere in our own realm. Read the book to appreciate all the moments which dip into legend, but let yourself embrace the diversion into a more modern story along the way.

So, was Thorn Jack a good book? I think so… The cast of characters was sometimes hard to follow, the writing had clunky passages, and the romance was a bit of a mess. The ending, too, was confusing enough that I had to go through it again before closing the book. The book suffers from too much trying to happen in not enough space. But the entire time I was reading it, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, and I wanted to stay in Fair Hollow for a long time. My delight in reading Thorn Jack is similar to my fondness for Anne Rice’s vampire books: there are so many weird characters I’d like to meet in the invisible world within our own. These books aren’t trying to be academic literature, they’re just fun. Thorn Jack is entertaining, dark, and an interesting debut. I will definitely be reading the next book in Katherine Harbour’s Night and Nothing series, whenever it comes out.

*An incomplete list would include Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Julie Kagawa, Brenna Yovanoff, Terri Windling, and many many others.

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.