Posts tagged Fiction
Posts tagged Fiction
Characters: ***** (5 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: ***** (5 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +
Review by Morgan
This is the sort of novel I want to read all day, every day. This is the sort of book I want to write, except Lindsey Barraclough has already written it. And I’m so very glad she did. Rosie will verify that when I saw the title of this book as we were aimlessly browsing Barnes and Noble, I seized it with such energy of action that it must have looked like I was struck by lightning. Long Lankin falls into my very favorite tradition of modern literature: haunting stories inspired by unsettling British legends and faery stories, usually featuring young children and strange settings, but always grounded somewhat in our own realm and history. Other books I put in that category are Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.
Inspired one of my favorite creepy old folk songs (of the same title), Long Lankin follows young Cora and her toddler sister Mimi from London to Guerdon Hall in the countryside in the decade following World War Two. Cora’s mother has been driven periodically insane by some dark memory from her childhood and their father can not take care of them, so they must stay with their less-than-maternal and wildly mysterious Great-aunt Ida on the ancient and decaying family estate. Guerdon Hall makes a perfect setting for this dark and haunting story: there are strange claw marks on the door, latin wards of protection on the gate, and Aunt Ida is vehement that no doors or windows are to be opened under any circumstances, and that they must never go into the yard when the nearby tide is out. Cora makes friends with a local boy, Roger, and his pack of comically English siblings, and soon enough the children break a few rules in pursuit of adventure in the small town. Unfortunately, their adventures in the forbidden church near the estate and their curiosity about the history of Cora’s ancestors prove to be more dangerous than they expected, and the twisted spirit of Long Lankin from the town’s old legend returns to continue his hunt for innocent blood.
The novel uses the general narrative of the folk song as background to the story we read: generations ago in Guerdon Hall a false nurse let Long Lankin in so that they could kill the baby and the mother when the lord of the estate was gone. In fact, the song lyrics make a ghostly appearance when Cora explores the forbidden attic centuries after the fabled murder, thus combining the real legend and Barraclough’s own invention almost seamlessly. She creates an origin for the song as well as a thrilling continuation of its nightmarish characters. While this appealed to me as a fan of the legend, it’s described well enough to be understood by a reader learning about the story for the first time, too. I loved reading little lines here and there which came directly from the song, and yet my prior knowledge in no way spoiled the novel’s plot or its ending. The plot has a traditional feel, but it was actually quite unpredictable and – to my eternal relief – there was no awkward and totally out-of-the-blue plot twist halfway through to ruin the ghostly atmosphere which Barraclough builds so well in the beginning. In short, the pacing of Long Lankin is superb: a well balanced mix of spirited childish adventure and bone-chilling supernatural suspense.
Several aspects of Long Lankin help it stand out from the other “Young Adult Adventure” books which were its neighbors on Barnes and Noble’s shelf. For one thing, the main characters are a young girl and a young boy, but they are childish enough that their friendship never develops into one of those overwrought romances which weigh down so many other stories. Their determined innocence fits well with the setting of post-war England, and the drama of Long Lankin comes almost entirely from the horrifying imagery and the mysteries which surround Cora’s family. It was a blessed relief to read an entire book without one moment of tragic teenage romantic agony. The writing and story crafting skills which Barraclough demonstrates captured my interest on their own, and I hope that young adults who read this book appreciate that scary stories can be gripping without any real romance at all.
There is true evil in Long Lankin – and that evil is terrifying – but even the good characters have depth and faults. Cora and Mimi are likeable and sympathetic, but they can be brats at times (as children are). Their Aunt Ida wants to do the right thing and protect them, but she also desires peace and solitude and does not have the patience to raise children. Roger and his brothers try to be dutiful sons, yet their adventurous spirits get them into trouble and the natural selfishness which comes with childhood blinds them to their parents’ struggles. These characters all grow and learn as they fight against the shadows of evil – and sometimes each other – but the children never quite lose the power of their innocence. The character development is good but never contrived, another way in which Long Lankin is better than most books I’ve read for the same age group.
I’ve mentioned how frightening the book can be, and I want to make it clear that I am a twenty-two year old girl who has loved ghost stories and scary monster tales since I was a child. Consider yourselves warned, therefore, when I say that this book gave me chills. It’s a little bloody and very suspenseful, but nothing to make you slam the book shut in disgust. Instead, the creepy foreboding mood which starts early on just builds and builds until the very last page of the book. Eerie dread which comes out of nowhere, the stomach dropping realizations that something is terribly wrong, and the paralyzing sight of a half-dead creature crawling outside your window: the book is full of these moments which would wake us up screaming if we dreamed them ourselves.
I would not recommend that anyone under the age of twelve start reading Long Lankin, despite the young age of its protagonists, unless those children have uncommonly obliging parents who do not mind waking up in the middle of the night to check windows. It’s scary stuff, even for me, and I’m a scary little person. Read Long Lankin if you love grim folktales, if you appreciate the charm of the English countryside and embrace the horrific past which so often accompanies that setting, and if you have several hours of uninterrupted reading time ahead of you. Once you start reading Long Lankin, you’ll be desperate to finish before you have to go to sleep.
Review by Morgan. Apologies for the short review and the brusqueness of tone, I originally reviewed the book on Amazon, because I wanted other readers of my interests to know that The Raven Boys is better than the cover and blurbs make it out to be.
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: *** (3 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Star)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)
Age range recommendation: 13+
This is the first book by Stiefvater I’ve ever read, though she’s extremely popular in the UK and I’m assuming in America as well. I ordered The Raven Boys on a whim because I needed another purchase to merit free shipping on some books for my dissertation, and it was new and caught my eye. I had my doubts but read it anyway, and here is why I’m glad I did:
The cover of The Raven Boys featured a tag line of “if you kiss your true love, he will die,” and the back description went on about how “This is the year [Blue] will fall in love.” I was, therefore, a little worried that The Raven Boys would turn out to be a dark-but-uninspired teenage romance with hints of the supernatural but more emphasis on the love story than on “the sinister world of the Raven Boys.”
Much to my surprise and appreciation, The Raven Boys turned out to be a fascinating - and quite original - adventure story with only a bit of the obnoxious romance I was expecting. The Virginia setting was quite vivid, the characters were amusing, and the plot (privileged high school boys use their resources to track down an ancient Welsh king’s burial site, and a local girl with psychic blood gets drawn into their search through a mix of curiosity and fate) was well imagined.
The novel had plenty of faults: too many side plots running at once meant that the story-line seemed disjointed at times and the ending was rushed/not explained very fluidly, but these problems didn’t irk me as much as they could have since I genuinely enjoyed the mystery and atmosphere of the story. Stiefvater’s writing is neither noticeably brilliant nor glaringly awful, her characterizations can be pretty obvious at times, and the book falls into the YA trend of setting up for a sequel when the tale should have been told in a single, longer, novel. But it’s clear that Maggie Stiefvater tried hard to write an imaginative novel for teenagers, one which didn’t fall unimpressively into a tired-out genre, and I would say that she succeeds.
There is moral ambiguity; there is genuine angst about the role fate plays in a person’s life and choices; and there are reflections about family, friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice which will resonate with both young adult readers and we-who-are-technically-adults-though-we-hate-it. There is also a truly fantastic twist in the story, one which completely justifies what I originally thought was a terribly written character, and I will admit that I wanted to high-five Stiefvater through time and space when I realized that she had known what she was doing with that character all along.
I guess I would call The Raven Boys more of a supernatural adventure, a ghost story, or a boarding school mystery than a Young Adult romance. Sure, there are four boys who make one quirky girl seem like she’s the center of the universe (which is one of my least favorite trends in YA literature these days) but there are enough good bits to make up for that and to ensure that I will read the sequel whenever it comes out.
Mr Toppit by Charles Elton
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 15+
Review by Morgan
This will be a short review, as Morgan still has a few hundred pages of T.S. Eliot criticism to slog through before the weekend. “A short review from the ever-so-rambling Morgan?” I hear you ask, “Hallelujah! We thought she’d never learn to shut up!” Well, today is a day of miracles.
The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort. However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.
The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves. I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.
The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures. People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost. If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)
The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:***1/2 (3.5 stars)
Review by Morgan.
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)
Hello my poor neglected readers. I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now. However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name. In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.
The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts. Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London. London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked. When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia. This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych. The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.
Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel. The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet. He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect. With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel. He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic. The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up. Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired. The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.
Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction. He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers. The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last. Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares. Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.
Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors. The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer. The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum. Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner. The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.
With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves. Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan. And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes. Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders. Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer. Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above. “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree. Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.
So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy? The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique. It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent. It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary. Go and read it quickly, before November is over!
Overall Rating: **** (4 stars)
Review by Morgan
Dearest readers, you may have noticed that our usual method of posting little star ratings of plot, character, and whatnot is suspiciously missing from this review. This is not because I simply can’t be bothered, I assure you. It is due to the fact that Black Thorn, White Rose is a collection of re-told and re-imagined fairy tales by several different authors, and it would be difficult indeed to rate the myriad of characters and plots therein. Some of the writers, like Jane Yolen and Patricia C. Wrede have been favorites of mine since the beginning of my fairy-tale-reading days. A few of the stories have the distinction of being the author’s first publication, but few of them seemed amateur or forced. The collection is marketed as fairy tales for adults – though I found it in the YA section of the library – so many of the stories have amped up the sex and gore and adult themes. I was not super fond of the overtly-sexual stories, as my Victorian sensibilities are fragile as all hell, but the violence and darkness in the more Gothic re-tellings were right up my proverbial alley. Below, I shall go into more detail on a few of the stories which stuck out in my memory for one reason or another.
Stronger Than Time by Patricia C. Wrede: A sweet take on “Sleeping Beauty” which, despite having only two major characters, contains a significant plot twist and one very gruesome thorn forest. The main character is an elderly woodcutter who has lived in constant wariness of the imposing tower near his home. When a young and adamant prince-on-an-errand requests the woodcutter’s help in a quest to reach the tower and save the sleeping princess within, the old man grumbles most amusingly but concedes. The story is mostly the two men talking and then their perilous adventure to the castle, which involves some pretty nifty magic, but it is the denoument which made me realize that the tale was so good. I shan’t spoil the ending, but at that point the traditional Sleeping Beauty storyline is twisted around in a most spooky and satisfying manner. It wasn’t the sort of story I normally expect from Wrede, as her Enchanted Forest series is more lighthearted and full of grouchy dragons and strong female characters, but it was a good read nonetheless.
The Brown Bear of Norway by Isabel Cole: This story appealed to the teenager in me, for it involves doomed love, Scandinavian magic, and a young narrator whose stoic acceptance of a shape shifting boy she knows only through pen-pal letters succeeded in melting my cynical little heart. I wasn’t familiar with the “animal bridegroom” folklore tradition on which Cole’s story was based, but even so the fairy tale elements and the power of Northern magic combined into a likable story which fit very well into the collection. The narrator is in high school, which may alienate some readers who have put those years resolutely behind them, but the story is sweet and well written enough to bring us wholeheartedly into her quest across the ocean to find the boy who turns into a bear.
Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen: I was surprised by this story, for though I had figured out from the title that it would be a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin it contains little to no fantasy. Instead, the story features a money lender and his wife living in a Jewish ghetto in the town of Ykaterinislav. The money lender is small and ugly, though his wife (the eventual Granny Rumple of the title) is supposedly stunning. When he meets a woman in the Christian part of town who is all bent out of shape because her father told her fiance that she could spin gold, he offers to help. That rumor does not lead where one might expect, for instead of spinning it himself the money lender simply gives her some cash to buy gold cloth and, as the rumor persists, dresses. In the end, the myth of the little imp who threatened to steal her baby is perpetrated by the women the money lender helped when his wife shows up after the wedding and demands payment. Disaster ensues. Though lacking the well thought out magic for which Jane Yolen is renowned, this historically religious take on Rumpelstiltskin is clever and important. Its narrative style; that of a legend passed through the Yolen family, adds the element of myth which would otherwise be missing.
Godson by Roger Zelanzy: This may have been my favorite story in the entire collection, though I had never heard of Zelanzy before in my life. I’ve always been a big fan of Death as a character, be it the narrator in The Book Thief or or Terry Pratchett’s character who speaks in booming capital letters. In this short story, which has since been performed as a three act play, a man rejects both god and the devil as voluntary godfathers to his son David, claiming that neither are trustworthy. Death, “he who makes all equal” meets the man at a crossroads and is deemed a worthy godfather. (Any tale which involves making a deal with Death at the crossroads is bound to be good, and Godson does not disappoint.) The godson knows Death as “Morrie” and is never surprised by Morrie’s ghastly abilities or inexplicable appearances at death scenes. Morrie gives the David a talking bicycle which happens to contain a human soul, several good chats about football, and a plant which can restore a person to life. My favorite part of the story was when David and Morrie have a birthday dinner in Morrie’s lair, where each living soul is represented by candles, easily snuffed out. Unsurprisingly, there are some mortal consequences regarding the use of this miracle plant; when David cheats death another candle is put out before its time. As David grows older and tries to escape Morrie’s influence, he has to make some serious choices, and the story throws into perspective the difficulties of choosing between a father figure and moral right. Godson is a modern and entertaining story. It could be included in an anthology of contemporary fiction just as easily as it is in this fairy tale collection. In it can be found a mix of everything good: a charmingly dark entity, humour, tension, inanimate objects which possess the power of speech, difficult choices, betrayal by loved ones, suspenseful altercations, and a mostly happy ending. That is, as happy an ending as one can expect when Death and mortals watch MTV together on the couch.
Sweet Bruising Skin by Storm Constantine: At first, I found it very unlikely that any re-telling of “The Princess and the Pea” could be dark and mysterious, since the fairy tale about princesses being hard to please never appealed to me much as a child. Somehow Sweet Bruising Skin manages to be both, with mixed results. Narrated by the prince’s ambitious and cunning mother, Constantine’s story incorporates alchemy and gross zombie-style-magic into a spooky tale of a Queen trying too hard to control her son. The writing is good, better than I had expected after reading the rather trashy-sounding title, and the characters are memorable. The queen’s alchemist is sleazy, the chancellors are stuffy, and the beautiful – though uncanny – princess who appears during a storm freaked me out entirely. This story reads like a thick fantasy novel; it’s about a made up country with archives full of magical laws, and for those readers who like their fairy tales resolutely starring a royal cast of characters it may become a favorite in the collection. I found myself wishing that Sweet Bruising Skin had been written as a novel, maybe one with a better title, because it seemed like the sort of disturbing tale which could go on for hundreds of pages. That’s a good sign, I suppose.
These were just my favorite stories, the ones which I’ll be carrying in my twisted brain for a good while. There is something for everyone who likes fairy tales and folklore in Black Thorn, White Rose. Do you like regency romances? There’s a story for you. Sci Fi stories with inter-species pairings? Check. Women struggling with painfully low self esteem? Two vastly different stories of that sort. I was not wild about the poems, but since I know next to nothing about modern poetry I will let other readers form their own opinions about those two inclusions. In short, one might read only a few stories in the collection – looking out for their favorite authors and original fairy tales – or one might race through it cover to cover as I did. Either way, or any way in between, Black Thorn, White Rose is a worthwhile anthology compiled by editors who clearly love what they do, and I look forward to perusing the other volumes of the series.