Books Completed in September

1. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling (****)
2. Burnout, written by Rebecca Donner, illustrated by Inaki Miranda (**1/2)
3. The Outcast Oracle, by Laury A Egan (****)
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (*****)
5. Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, by Linda Oatman High (***1/2)
6. Memento Mori, by Murial Spark (****)
7. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E Butler (*****)
8. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E Butler (****)
9. Shadow, by Suzy Lee (*****)

Reviews are behind the cut.

Continue reading “Books Completed in September”

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a long favorite of mine. I’ve read almost all of his bibliography, so I was thrilled to learn this novel was coming out.

The story revolves around a man who returns to where he grew up and begins to remember a series of terrifying events when he was a child. As a seven year old, he made friends with Lettie, the youngest member of the Hempstocks who live at the end of the lane. When a border within his home commits suicide, it sets of a series of strange events and unleashes frightening creatures.

This story didn’t disappoint me one bit. It’s interesting that this has been described as an adult novel, since its so clearly from the young boy’s POV and Gaiman captures that youth, wonder, and fear perfectly. The boy is fully realized and made me remember my own youth. I saw one reviewer describe the sex scene as awkward, but it wasn’t. It was sex from a child’s perspective, which makes it seem strange and undefinable at the same time. The scene was well executed and showed the character’s youth even more as the rent seemed unimportant to him.

I especially loved the Hempstocks and how they are portrayed. The three women are so clearly more than what they appear and have latent power. They are loving and warm and fascinating characters. I would love to see them turn up in more stories.

Gaiman also has a way of making magic seem matter of fact, just another part of the natural order, which I LOVE. It’s one of my favorite things about his writing in general. That, along with his invention of creepy creatures that are dark and terrifying and yet somehow sympathetic, too. Ursula was evil and wicked and cruel and yet I pitied her in the end.

Fantastic book. I really, really enjoyed it.

Books Completed in July

As I’m still playing catchup, so here’s my be-lated reading list.

1. Hands of Flame, by C.E. Murphy
2. 17 & Gone, by Nova Ren Suma
3. Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes
4. Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire
5. Anya’s Ghost (graphic novel), by Vera Brosgol
6. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
7. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (audio book), by Muriel Spark

Did not and won’t finish (at this time): The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Read reviews on my livejournal.

Ten Thoughts on Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes

The verse written by 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes represents the earliest of the Arturian romances as we recognize them today. These poems have been widely popular and have influenced the shape of every King Arthur and his Knights tales that came after. This translation of these five tales puts the verse into prose format, which has it’s pluses and minuses.

“Erec and Enide” follows the story of the two title characters, starting with Erec’s adventures and eventual winning of Enide’s hand, followed by Erec and Enide riding off to wander the land in search of quests together.

“Cligés” is a more meandering tale, which begins with Alexandre of Greece’s journey to King Arthur’s court in order to win renown, and then his son Cliges’ adventures and his romance with his uncle’s wife.

“The Knight of the Cart” is Lancelot’s tale, in which the queen Guinevere is taken away by an evil knight. Lancelot pursues her and fights many adventure in his great love for her. It’s an interesting one, because Lancelot is made to look foolish more than once in his love for her.

“The Knight with the Lion” is Yvain’s tale and follows a similar format as the other in that a knight goes off to meet a great adventure. Along the way he wins the love of a maiden, who then casts him off when he fails to return when he’s told to. He goes temporarily insane and has to fight many adventures before he can win her back.

“The Story of the Grail” is Perceval’s quest, though it also includes much of Gawain’s adventures. Perceval starts out as an idiotic ass, leaving a wake of damage on his way to becoming a knight. The grail has less of the Christian affiliations in this version and has to do with the Fisher King (not Arthur), who suffers from wounds that will not heal. There’s a lance that bleeds from its tip, as well as the grail in association with the Fisher King. This tale was not finished by Troyes, but the translator gives a nice round up of the various continuations written by other poets of the time period, which begin to bring in the more heavy handed Christian elements.

Some random thoughts, in no particular order:
1. The storytelling skill gets better with each subsequent story, which makes me think that “Eric and Enide” was written first and Troyes skill improved with each story he told (though I can’t be sure of that). The last three tales are the best in the book, and “The Knight with the Lion” is probably my favorite.

2. There’s a lot of redundancy. Characters will say one thing, repeat it in a slightly different order, then repeat it a third time, just to make sure you really know that they mean what they say. Also, the plot lines repeat fairly often and by the end of the book it’s easy to tell exactly how each battle will turn out: with the knights starting on equal footing, landing many great blows, and the blood flowing and so on. This repetition can make the reading kind of tedious.

3. The people in this era apparently believed that a fight could prove guilt or innocence. If you’re accused of treason or a crime, welp, facts don’t matter as long you have the best knight to fight for you. The winner is proved right, because God would only let the right one win. Uh-huh.

4. People were also rather obsessed with beauty. Beauty = good. Ugliness = evil. All the heroes are the most handsome of knights and draw the eye of every spectator to them. All the good maidens are beautiful and fair.

5. Arthur is kind of a fool. The most obvious demonstration of this is in “Eric and Enide,” in which it essentially goes:
Arthur: I want to do this thing, because it would be sooooo coool.
Gawain: That’s a very bad idea, because something bad will happen.
Arthur: You’re right, but I’m going to do the thing anyway, because I’m the king and the king should do whatever he wants.
*does the thing*
*the bad starts to happen*
Gawain: I told you if you did the thing something bad would happen.
Arthur: I know. You’re so smart. Now tell me how to fix it.

6. Kay is interesting in that he starts out noble and well loved in “Eric and Enide” but gradually becomes more of an ass by the time “The Story of the Grail” rolls around, when he’s called evil tongued and rude and worse and yet they still love him. I would have booted him to the curb.

7. As much as maidens and women are almost never given names and act as objects for the knights to win, they also have a surprising amount of autonomy and strength. Women are often found hanging out alone in the woods and it’s not uncommon for a girl to take up a horse and ride over hill and dale in search of a knight to help her, essentially having her own form adventure. Many of the women also own their own lands and rule their own castles. However, when women have power over men, their demands tend to be rather arbitrary and often have to do with keep the man by her side. In the end, the demands seem not to be so much about her wishes as they seem to be about setting up an adventure for some guy.

8. Morgan le Fay, sister to Arthur and always a favorite of mine, appears only in passing in these stories. But when she does, she is presented in a positive light, as a powerful healer and known for creating the best tinctures and good potions. Apparently, it’s not until later versions that she begins to play the part of the evil traitor.

9. The people are ridiculously prone to emotion. When saddened, they pull their hair, scratch their faces, threatened suicide, faint from sorrow and boredom, but all that can turn around in an instant to beaming dancing joy. A knight leaving darkens the skies and is an end to all good feeling; his return that very night is a cause for feasting and celebration. I’m surprised anyone got anything done with all this flailing about from one mood to another.

10. Oh, I have lots more thoughts about this and that, but this list is already long, so I’ll just leave off here.

Review: 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma

17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma“Girls go missing every day. They slip out bedroom windows and into strange cars. They leave good bye notes or they don’t get a chance to tell anyone. They cross borders. They hitch rides, squeezing themselves into overcrowded backseats, sitting on willing laps. They curl up and crouch down, or they shove their bodies out of sunroofs and give off victory shouts. Girls make plans to go, but they also vanish without meaning to, and sometimes people confuse one for the other. Some girls go kicking and screaming and clawing out the eyes of whoever won’t let them stay. And then there are the girls who never reach where they are going. Who disappear. Their ends are ends are endless, their stories unknown.”

I adored Nova Ren Suma’s previous book Imaginary Girls (and even mapped out how I would approach making the movie, if I could), which was a wonderfully surreal and creepy tale of two sisters and their loyalty to one another. So, 17 & Gone was a must read for me. It hooked me from page one, and by page three I had chills and was smiling from ear to ear.

When Lauren finds a missing poster for Abby, she begins to be haunted. Abby appears to her, tangled and lost, a seventeen-year-old girl gone missing, a girl who wants something from Lauren. But Abby isn’t alone and following behind her are other girls, all seventeen years old, all missing without a trace, all wanting their stories heard, all wanting to be remembered. As the visions of these girls multiply, Lauren begins to loose the tether to her own life and, seventeen herself, she begins to wonder, if maybe she’ll be the next girl to vanish.

Lauren’s self becomes submerged beneath beneath the stories of the girls and we get to see bits and pieces of her personal life like we’re coming up for air. In a sense this makes it a little hard to get to know her as the main character, but her story unfolds as the novel goes on and this erasure works as she looses herself under the tide of girls and their stories. It fits with the storyline and the discoveries at the conclusion.

Her writing is rich and vivid, and it’s really impressive how Nova Ren is able to layer the stories of the girls with Lauren’s thoughts and personal life, creating a complex web of narratives that is nevertheless easy to follow. She makes it look easy, though I know it couldn’t possibly have been.

As a side note, I suggest that you do not read the Author’s Note at the end of the book (as I did) before you finish, as it will spoil the ending. But even with the ending twist spoiled, I still loved this book, wholeheartedly.

My ultimate sadness is that Nova Ren only has one other book out, her first book Dani Noir (which was later republished under the title Fade Out). After I devour that one, I’ll have to patiently (or not-so-patiently) wait until 2015 for her next book, The Walls Around Us to be released.