Abhorsen

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

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The Abhorsen trilogy creates a fascinating magical world and infuses it with mood and atmosphere with rich language. Nix’s darkly powerful words and sentences truly weave a spell around a reader, creating a place that feels so real you want to visit it again.

The trilogy is very gender-balanced, with two strong heroines, Sabriel and Lirael, at the forefront of the action. Touchstone, Sameth, the ladies of the Clayr, and the dynamic pets, Mogget the cat and the Disreputable Dog, round out the team. This volume finishes the story that was left hanging in Lirael, with Sameth’s friend Nick held hostage by evil spirits, and a plot unfolding that could annihilate the entire world. Everyone contributes to the effort to stop the Destroyer according to their talents, but Lirael leads the charge, takes the biggest risks, and loses the most. The characters are admirable and well-developed, while the pets add wit and humor.

Tim Curry’s recording of the book is perfect, pulling out all the nuances and ominous meanings in Nix’s prose. His accent and timbre fit the story like no one else’s could, lending weight and consequence and even an indescribable feeling of timelessness.

The trilogy’s ending was surprising and appropriate, with a touch of Old Yeller. It’s not an easy happy ending, but one in which the salvation of the world is earned with painful sacrifice. I think this is a series I’ll want to come back to, one that would be fun to read aloud.

The Land of Painted Caves

The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel

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So I held out hope for this last volume of a series that I’ve devoted about 200 hours to…and got disappointed yet again. This book had all of the same problems I noted in reviews of the other books in the series: repetition, a protagonist with no flaws, a lack of compelling conflict, and a deluge of overly-researched detail. Now, I know the pedantic details might be defended by fantasy buffs as “world-building,” but I guess the problem is this: I didn’t find the world Auel built to be all that interesting. Its novelty wore off in one book, and there didn’t seem to be anything all that new or creative about it, especially when I compare it to dystopias or other fantasy settings. It was just prehistoric nature in all its unsurprising glory. At least there was only one sex scene in this book.

Most of the action of the book consists of Ayla traveling with Zelandoni and a small group to see a bunch of sacred caves with ancient paintings in them. She meets lots of people and solves their problems. One particularly disturbing episode concerns a small group of men who go around raping and pillaging. They are eventually brought to justice through a mob execution.

The big drama of the last part of the book comes when Ayla catches Jondalar having sex with another woman. Now, all “marriages” among these people are pretty much considered open marriages, so everyone agrees that he had every right to sleep around, and Ayla would have too. What happened was that Ayla got really busy with her priestess training, so Jondalar’s “needs” weren’t being met, and this hussy kept throwing herself at him, so he fell into an affair. I really don’t like the implications here, about working mothers not having time to keep a man interested, about men being entitled to sex, about easy opportunities for casual sex being “irresistible” to people in committed relationships, but because of the society’s definition of marriage as not sexually exclusive, I’m not going to focus too much on these aspects of it. The real problem that this whole debacle reveals is the couple’s horrible lack of communication. Until Ayla got too busy, niether she nor Jondalar had ever acted on their right to sleep around, and they had been monogamous and exclusive. But they’d never talked about it, never made any explicit agreement to be either monogamous or nonmonogamous, despite the fact that jealousy had nearly driven them apart once before. And on top of the fact that they created the conditions for this problem themselves by not defining the terms of their relationship, they deal with it in just about the worst way possible: by cutting off all communication. After the confrontation, Jondalar basically gives Ayla the silent treatment, even though he’s the one more in the wrong.

This conflict is finally resolved by Ayla getting borderline suicidal and going along with a stupid idea of trying to reach the spirit world through taking some psychotropic herb that she knows is dangerous, and almost dying. Jondalar “saves” her by hugging her back to life and crying over her limp body. This is a scene that’s basically recycled almost exactly from a previous book. When she wakes up, they make up and everything is fine.

What I don’t understand is that this resolution is presented as super romantic. Auel goes on about how everyone who hears this story wishes they had someone who loved them as much as Ayla and Jondalar love each other, as evidenced by the story. But the story is not romantic at all. Do you know what is romantic? Communication. Negotiation. Apologies. All the things Ayla and Jondalar seem incapable of, and that no relationship can survive without. I guess I should be thankful to Auel for proving to me once and for all how much sexier realistic relationships are than mystical spiritual connections like the ones portrayed in fairy tales with “true love’s kiss” waking the maiden.

The other main issue in the novel is that Ayla gets a revelation from the Mother that proves what she suspected all along: sex makes babies. Telling the people causes problems almost immediately, raising concerns about the legitimacy of children and the arrousing the instinct of men to be possessive and jealous. The lead priestess tries to explain these issues away, but doesn’t seem entirely successful, and it seems clear that this revelation will lead to more restrictive sexual practices eventually.

I’ve said several times that the thing I was waiting for, the reason I kept picking up the next book in the series, was because I wanted to see Ayla’s Clan again. No such luck. There was a dream sequence that said basically the same thing we’d heard in previous books: that the clan is destined to die out and their only legacy will be the children that they have produced through interbreeding with humans. Woop de doo. After all the hints and fake-outs from the previous novels, this lack of resolution really made me feel cheated. Once again, Auel refuses to give faithful readers the satisfaction they have earned.

A pet peeve from the audiobook I listened to. There were many references to Ayla having an accent of some kind, but I thought the accent that the voice actress gave her was utterly ridiculous. It was kind of a baroque, a light trilling accent with extra rolled R’s. Given Ayla’s linguistic background, this choice made no sense to me. She had no spoken language at all in childhood, but spoke in sign language, and learned to speak as an adult. To me, that means that she should be stumbling over her words all the time, and have real difficulty with grammar and sentence structure. She was about five when she lost her own people and began living with the Clan, so I guess it’s barely possible that she had enough early exposure to spoken language to be able to learn its basics later, and I can imagine it might be annoying to read and write about a protagonist who is barely functional with language. However, Auel insists that Ayla is super gifted with languages and picks up several of them quickly, because Ayla must be perfect and exceptional in every way. Anyway, I thought her voice would sound more like that of a deaf person or a stroke victim than a Spanish or Scottish accent. The problem wouldn’t be extra sounds inserting themselves, but a general tone-deaf lack of understanding of how to make sounds at all, kind of a lazy tongue. Trilled R’s are an especially hard sound to make, so it doesn’t make any sense that someone with such a complete lack of language background, someone who’s almost feral, would be making that sound of her own accord when she doesn’t have to.

Here’s my final verdict on the Earth’s Children series and then I’ll finally put it to rest forever. Each book is worst than the last. The first one might be worth reading, if prehistoric peoples interest you. It ends in kind of a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, then read the second. But stop there, please. Learn from my mistake. Don’t waste hundreds of hours subjecting yourself to this pointless, meandering, repetitive, conflict-free, pedantic, ideologically questionable series.

Hidden

Hidden by Sophie Jordan

Hidden is the third and last of the Firelight series, which is about Jacinda, a girl who can turn into a dragon (draki) who falls in love with a boy, Will, whose family hunts her kind. I previously reviewed Vanish, the second book, which introduced a third character into a love triangle, Cassian, another draki who has bonded with Jacinda. At the end of Vanish, Miram, Cassian’s sister, was captured by the dragon hunters, and they were coming up with a plan to rescue her. The book’s opening is dominated by this plot, and much of the rest of the book consists of outrunning and evading the hunters pursuing them.

It’s a pretty action-packed book with a few good surprises. A lot of running around in the woods and meeting exactly the right people or exactly the wrong people. Some of the drama felt manufactured, stirred up just to spark tension between Jacinda and Will, who are solidly in love from the first page and would otherwise never fight. Some of the sentences in the kissing scenes are decent, others are cliched and cringeworthy. This is not life-changing literature, just entertainment.

Hidden brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The love triangle is resolved, pretty much the way it was always going to be. The tribe’s bad leadership situation is fixed, thanks to some revelations. I stand by what I said about the second volume: it’s a series very much modeled on Twilight, but less objectionable when it comes to gender issues. I was wrong about the sex though. No sex in this book. Boo.

Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sophie’s Choice brings together Nathan, a charming, manic-depressive addict, Sophie, a beautiful concentration camp survivor, and Stingo, the young Southern narrator,in Brooklyn in 1947. Long sections of the book are flashbacks as Sophie tells the story of her time in Auschwitz to Stingo. Sophie and Nathan have a troubled, abusive relationship. Passages detailing the abuse, stemming mostly from Nathan’s drug use, were hard to read. Stingo befriends the couple and falls in love with them both. Nathan’s jealousy and instability doom the trio, though.

The flashbacks to Poland and Auschwitz show horror that is mostly psychological. I understand that at the time of publication, Styron got some flack for daring to write fiction about the Holocaust. Some said that only survivors had the right to pen memoirs, that no one who wasn’t there could truly understand the horror. I’d have to side with Styron on this. I don’t think it’s ok to say that any topic is off limits to writers. And this criticism gives too little credit to the human imagination. The book was also controversial because Sophie is a Holocaust victim, but not Jewish. Though more Jews were killed than any other group during the Holocaust, it is just not true that they were the only ones who suffered. I see no problem with telling the story of those people; it does not  take anything away from the respect and sorrow we feel for the loss of the Jewish people.

The passages that upset me most in the book were not about Auschwitz’s horrors, but Stingo’s trysts with Leslie Lapidus and Mary Alice Grimball. Because these young ladies were content to kiss for hours but refused to have sex, the narrator goes on for pages about how he is tormented by these “cock-teases.” I have nothing but contempt for this sentiment and anyone who would call a woman this name. A woman always has the right to decide for herself what level of intimacy is acceptable to her, and it’s ok for her to draw that line wherever she wants, regardless of her partner’s feelings, and even regardless of any promises she may have made or been understood to make in the past. She can allow one act and not another, and she needs give no justification for doing so. Any man who tries to get her to move that line, just because it’s oh so hard for him to stop once he gets going, is an asshole, pure and simple. Stingo seems to think he has the right to have sex with any woman who will let him kiss her for more than five minutes. He takes it personally when he’s rejected by them, looking in his mirror for physical imperfections to explain it. He doesn’t understand that it has nothing to do with him. Why should it? In these scenes, Leslie and Mary Alice draw very careful distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable touching, which shows that they decided long before the evening began what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do. There is nothing Stingo can do to change these decisions, and the more he tries, the bigger asshole he becomes. This idea that a man is entitled to sex and that a woman is obligated to “put out” after a certain physical line has been crossed contributes to rape culture. It was unacceptable in 1947, when the book is set, in 1976, when the book was published, and today. The only thing that kept me from putting the book down in disgust after these scenes was the narrative distance between Styron and his narrator (this differentiates Styron from a true misogynist writer I’ve reviewed here). I did not get the feeling that Styron thought that Stingo was entitled to sex. In fact, being generous to Styron, I began to hope that these scenes were meant to show Stingo’s flaws and his selfishness, as well as to build up steam for his final release with Sophie at the end.

The book’s ending was tragic in a classical sense, and I appreciated the inevitability and despair of it. It was foreshadowed perfectly, and “felt earned,” as they say in workshops. Stingo (Styron) makes some big universal statements about the meaning of tragedy and the Holocaust on the final pages, some numb with disbelieving grief (“No one will ever understand Auschwitz.”), some blackly despondent (“did not Auschwitz effectively block the flow of that titanic love…or…reduce to absurdity the idea of loving, in [such] a world…?”) but the final image is of hope and morning light. That’s important, I think. A book of tragedy so bleak and far-reaching must have a taste of hope in the ending if we are not all to follow Sophie and Nathan to suicide.

I really have to praise the language of this novel. It’s very stylized, approaching grandiosity, and there were definitely times when I wanted to go back in time and burn Styron’s thesaurus, but as a whole it created a voice and a character that were engaging and charming. Stingo’s unique way of talking comes from his illusions of grandeur, but it also demonstrates an intellect and an artistry that are incredibly appealing. I listened to an audiobook version narrated by William Hope, who did a great job switching between Stingo’s Virginia drawl, Nathan’s tough Brooklyn accent, and Sophie’s Polish lilt.

The book really made me want to see the movie that got Meryl Streep her Oscar. There’s definitely Oscar-worthy material here. It’s not on netflix streaming, though, and that makes me wish Blockbuster still existed.

Trapped

Trapped by Michael Northrop

This YA novel is about 7 high school kids who get stuck at their school during a blizzard. A serious blizzard that lasts for seven days and dumps over 18 feet of snow. It’s a good, suspenseful read, keeping you wondering whether they’ll make it and how they’ll escape.

The group of students is a random assortment, which reminded me of The Breakfast Club, but the worst moments in the writing were when the author went out of his way to point that out, telling instead of showing. Otherwise, the sentence-level writing was pretty good. It did the job of relating the plot.

There’s a little teen crush love story here, but it’s one of the less interesting parts of the narrative. What I liked about it was how it humanized the narrator and showed you he was just a normal kid whose life got interrupted by this freak storm. It makes sense that a small part of a 15-year-old boy’s mind would consider being snowed in with a hot girl as a romantic opportunity he should seize. Not that he does a good job of it.

I was a little disappointed in the ending. Honestly, I expected things to get a good bit worse for the kids before the end, both physically and emotionally. There was a cliched white-light-you-think-is-death-but-really-rescue. And then the book ended without giving any details of the aftermath: Did anyone lose their parents or siblings in the blizzard? Did anyone lose a finger or toe to frostbite? Did they get in trouble for destroying school property? How did the students treat each other a few months later?

But despite those small disappointments, the experience of reading the book and not being able to put it down was pleasurable enough that I’d recommend it to any teen who likes adventure stories. It was a fun, quick read.

Trapped is a good, suspenseful survival story. Not amazing, but good.

Happy Birthday Edith Wharton!

Today is Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday! So here’s a salute to the lady who gave us The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence

Professor Manheim at Centre introduced me to Wharton with The House of Mirth. I remember thinking she was the writer Jane Austen would have been if she were an American born 100 years later who hated happy endings. Three years later, I read The Age of Innocence and was absolutely blown away by the ending. It was one of those where I had to just put the book down and stare into space for a while, coping with how radically my expectations had been reversed, and yet how true the sadness of the conclusion was. It’s the kind of ending that makes you rethink your expectations not only of literature, but of life.

Here’s a quote that gives a hint of the emotional weight of that ending, which I can’t bear to spoil: “His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

And a couple quotes that just show how wise and real Ms. W was:

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

Out of Oz

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

 

I’ve enjoyed all four of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked Years series. He’s a great writer who seems to specialize in retellings. He’s also written several versions of some classic fairy tales that I greatly enjoyed, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror. What The Wicked Years does to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books goes beyond most other retellings. His world-beneath-the-world overshadows the original in depth and vision. I feel hesitant saying that, though, because I admit that I never read the original Oz series, and my familiarity with the story is limited to the classic movie. Maguire makes me want to go back and read them, but I’ve heard from readers I respect that the later books are not very good anyway. Maguire’s Oz cannot be the same as Baum’s Oz, and now Maguire’s Oz is the one that has my loyalty.

The darkness of this series is what sets it apart from children’s literature to me. It’s political, very concerned with the governing structures of this imaginary land. (And the governing structures are so interesting and unusual: I love that the leadership of several provinces is passed down matrilineally, for example). It also gets surprisingly violent at times. I don’t see much of what I know of pre-Maguire canonical Oz in the books, besides some place and character names. Maguire’s conception of what was going on behind the scenes of the original Wizard of Oz is revolutionary, undermining any conventional good-versus-evil narrative.

Out of Oz did a great job of tying up all of the loose ends from the other books in the series, bringing back characters and setting them down in appropriate final places. Even Dorothy comes back for the series’ end, taken back to Oz by San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Her wide-eyed guilelessness is reminiscent of Judy Garland, but even she developed a more complex and colorful vision of what her worlds were like. It cracked me up how Dorothy kept wanting to sing and everyone else just wanted her to shut up.

The whimsical language and exuberant wordplay in the book add a lot of fun to an otherwise somewhat dark tale. Maguire is always turning a phrase on its head, then on its side, then inserting it in the most unexpectedly perfect place. My favorite example: Brr (AKA The Cowardly Lion) answers a question,”A little bird told me,” and it makes me wonder if Maguire set up the entire previous scene (where he does indeed get news from a bird) just to give him the chance to say that. The main character, Rain, generates some of the more unique turns of phrase in the first half of the book, as a child with a very cute, incorrect way of speaking.

Though this slightly silly tone is dominant, it is far from the only tone Maguire adopts. The sentences in the love scenes are delicate, as if they might shatter with the slightest touch, mirroring the characters’ vulnerability. In such an action-packed book, many words are spent in exposition, explanation, debate, and description. The unique voices of the characters are what make these information-packed scenes go down so easily.

Without giving spoilers, I’ll say that I found the ending both surprising and appropriate. Unlike in a “gotcha!” ending, there were fair clues that could lead a careful and especially perceptive reader down the right path. Some possibilities were left open and true happiness was left offstage, merely contemplated, but it truly is the end of the series. In general, I think series books that are written with a planned end in mind are vastly superior to series books that just keep going as long as they’re making money. After a while an endless series gets repetitive or overly episodic; the connections between the different installments weaken to accommodate a more casual audience. A more thoughtfully planned series, though, will always have an end. The books, though there are fewer of them, gain momentum and force through driving toward a specific conclusion.  That is definitely the case with The Wicked Years, and my favorite series books.