Enchanted; Hero (Books 1 and 2 of The Woodcutter Sisters), Alethea Kontis

November has officially swallowed me up. Between NaNoWriMo, Ten to One, publicizing the new book and helping my sister-in-law with her wedding, my free time has seriously dwindled. Somehow, however, I found time to read not one but two of Kontis’ Woodcutter Sister books. And I really wish I had a third…

Not that I have time to read another one – certainly not when I have so many other more pressing projects I absolutely have to be working on – but if Kontis magically put out a new book tomorrow, I would find a way to squeeze it in.

Shoulders squared, feet apart, and tailbone centered, Saturday lifted the wooden practice sword before her. “Again.”

Velius laughed at her. Saturday scowled. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on her instructor; no dirt would be brave enough to mar his perfect fey beauty. Nor did he seem fatigued. She hated him a little more for that.

“Let’s take a break,” he said.

“I don’t need a break.”

“I do.”

Lies. He was calling her weak. The insult only made her angrier. “No, you don’t.”

Velius lifted his head to the sky and prayed to yet another god. Temperance, maybe, or Patience. Was there a God of Arguments You’ve Lost Twenty Times Before and Were About to Have Again? If so, Saturday bet on that one. (pg 2, Hero)

Kontis writes the kind of books I would have adored at twelve. Apparently not much has changed. Just as I needed a break from algebra and French grammar lessons back then, I still crave that peaceful feeling that comes from reading novels like these when I’m drowning in deadlines.

The love stories here are simple and predictable, yes, but that’s okay because the books aren’t about romance. They’re about Kontis’ young heroines figuring out how they fit into their family, and into the world. Along the way, they do happen to meet some sweet young men who are fall head over heels in love with them and are perfectly happy to be supportive of being, well, support. These guys enjoy the pleasures that comes from being partners (and occasionally sidekicks); since I know plenty of men just like this, I was tickled to see them appear on the page in more than one guise.

What I especially loved about these books (besides the author’s spot-on sense of humor) was that the women – not only the protagonists, but every woman encountered – had power. These women altered destinies; the men were mostly around to be loving and helpful (or pawns…sometimes they made excellent pawns). A few of her women were selfless, and some were wicked, but Kontis also wrote characters who fell along the spectrum in between.

Given that these books are aimed at a younger audience, I especially appreciated that fact. I read all sorts of trash when I was a kid, but I gravitated toward stories about competent, tough, questing women who also fell in love. I was a romantic, always, but I often wanted more from the female characters written for me. I read stories about two-dimensional women because my choices were limited. All I had access to was a single, small library, so it felt special to find something that fit my favorite niche. It turns out, it still does.

Of course, these days, I not only want stories about kick-ass ladies, I also long for fun books like these with a little more diversity. Where are the adventure romances about non straight/white/young characters? When I find books like Kontis’, that hit so many of my happiness buttons, it really does make me crave more. But why can’t I have the treat I love in other flavors?! It’s National Novel Writing Month, so I can only hope some of you are busy crafting what I seek – not books about issues, but stories that capture powerful, relatable, exciting protagonists who are more like us and less like the fairy tale characters Hollywood has cursed us with.

In case you aren’t writing your own but want to point me in the right direction, I’m looking for books to read in December with interesting, underrepresented narrators. Bonus points for humor, fantasy and/or YA.

 

For more about Alethea Kontis, head over here.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” (p 112)

If you were to do search for The Ocean at the End of the Lane this week, you would surely find hundreds of reviews about it. Dozens of them have been brilliantly written by friends of Neil Gaiman; these people have Opinions about this book being the best Gaiman has ever written and they are worth reading. They know him and they know great literature, and one way or another, they will tell you the same thing I will.

It is a beautiful book, and you should read it.

You don’t really need to read anything else I have to say about it. “It’s a beautiful book, and you should read it” sums up the general consensus. Everything after this point is just…me.

It’s me wondering how hard it has been for Neil Gaiman to carry around this story. The boy in the book is him. Or at least I believe it’s him. In his acknowledgements, he’s quick to say it isn’t, not really, but it is. Maybe the father is not his father and the house is not his house and the monster is not his monster, but all the same, it’s still him more than any of his other books have been.

I’ve been reading his books and blog for long enough to recognize the drain pipe and escapism and quiet, fearful truths as his. He’s been hinting at this book for years, whether he knew it or not. It became obvious as soon as I started to read. The way the man walked down the road in the prologue, or how there was forgiveness in the end, but also a vein of hurt that never completely opened itself up…

It wasn’t so much like finding his diary, though, as it was burrowing into his memory for an hour or two. It was as I imagined Gaiman’s memory to be – eternally struggling between the dark and the light. It frightened me, but I also knew that I would find goodness there. I wanted to protect the child in these pages, but not too much, because I could imagine the man he would grow to be if he was allowed to face down his own fears. This man would write wonderful stories and then read them aloud to weave the magic and hold it there. He would reveal  wonder lurking in all the most ordinary places, even if the luster of it was sometimes worn or sharp-edged or dangerous. He would catch my heart when I was a child and remind me that this was the heart I would always have. I would never grow up, not really, but I would live in the world anyway, and be happy about it, wrapping my hands around the truest truths I understood at seven, and taking them, always, with me.

I have always accepted that this is a world of monsters, although I don’t know if it’s because of how long I’ve been reading books like his, or just who I was meant to be – an anxious believer. In the darkness, there has always been something lurking; it may be an adventure as easily as fear, or it may be a terrible invitation, or it might be just a shadow. The thing about that though, is we need light to see a shadow’s true shape, and to name it. Those troublesome blind spots carve the light into something stronger, and  I wield it, and others do, and then both darkness and light are improved by the struggle.

Which is all just my way of saying, it’s a beautiful book, and you should read it.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

The Last Unicorn (part the first), Peter S Beagle

The unicorn was grey and still. “There is magic on me,” she said. “Why did you not tell me?”

“I thought you knew,” the magician answered gently. “After all, didn’t you wonder how it could be that they recognized you?” Then he smiled, which made him look a little older. “No, of course not. You never would wonder about that.”

“There has never been a spell on me before,” the unicorn said. She shivered long and deep. “There has never been a world in which I was not known.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” Schmendrick said eagerly. The unicorn looked at him out of dark, endless eyes, and he smiled nervously and looked at his hands. “It is a rare man who is taken for what he truly is,” he said. “There is much misjudgment in the world. Now, I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so I must be if you see me so. The magic on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference ‘twixt the two – the false shining and the true, the lips’ laugh and the heart’s rue.” (pg 40)

I’ve been trying to savor this book, choosing to read it only a chapter or two at a time even though it lends itself to a hurried read, and for that reason, I’ve had the opportunity to be struck by passages like this one. On the one hand, the story itself transports me back to childhood, with its shady glens and mystical beasts – it has all the magic I searched for with less experienced eyes; on the other, moments like the one above remind me of the endless struggle of growing up, the struggle that continues even after enough years have passed that a birthday cake looks more like a melting wax torch than a celebration.

The Last Unicorn is such a melancholy adventure. Its protagonist is a character that lives for an eternity, after all. I find it hard enough to be mortal, to have the years I have and hope desperately that they are enough, that I will make some small mark on the hearts of people I love before my time is up. Like Schmendrick, poor human wizard that he is, I want to be known and understood for my best intentions, even if even I don’t always know what those are.

It’s always fascinating to me to find a book that’s so well-suited to a young audience – fast-paced, straightforward story-telling, understandable language – but which resonates so deeply with a more mature one. I have no doubt I would have loved this book as a child or teenager, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated the subtly of the Beagle’s writing. It’s so lovely, and sad. I keep finding myself sighing and saying, “Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like to grow older. How does he know? How does he know?!” Quests are supposed to change us, and in this book, I have no doubt that by the end, the evolution will have occurred.

The straightforward nature of such quests, however, in a great book, is turned on its head. I still  remember finishing The Magician King  and experiecning the rising dread of a quest thwarted:

“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”

“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396, The Magician King)

(Damn it, Grossman – that still hurts. Please finish writing the next installment of soul-crushing delight soon.) Maybe The Last Unicorn will have a cheerier ending. Maybe it will be a straightforward “happily ever after,” but I have my doubts. Beagle seems too tapped into the reality of our flawed existence for a cut-and-dry resolution. That isn’t how the real world works, and it isn’t the most satisfying ending to most books either.

Sure, it can be great to know a character has vanquished every demon and reaped righteous rewards, but that may be difficult to relate to as a reader. Off the page, we know that the victory of one week may not matter the next, and more than anything, books serve as a reminder that the world is not only what we know from our own experiences. It’s tangled, and messy, and often brutal. It requires of us great sacrifice, and a willingness to love what might eventually be lost.

The world can be a hard place, and the quests we are asked to complete don’t always seem like the stories we have read. This is because we tend to remember endings above all else. We like to think of every obstacle overcome without bothering to recall how it came to be. We forget that the story is not just the final chapter but everything that came before it. It is the long, lonely nights in unfamiliar forests. It’s the roads that seem to stretch endlessly before us under a scorching sun. It is the friends we have cut with sharp, careless tongues, the friends who have left us so that we may find our better selves again. It is the old crone we must show kindness to, and the kindness we beg from strangers in return. The quest is the most special hard thing we’re ever given – it’s the rock we rub our lives against to shape them into what we want to be.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.” (pg 8)

Tonight, I was sitting in our church’s tiny Ash Wednesday service, and we sang one of my all-time favorite songs. While I probably should have been reflecting on the season of Lent stretching ahead of me, or about sacrifice, or prayer, instead, I was thinking about this book. I finished it a few days ago, but after posting on Monday, I didn’t feel like I had much more to add. It was a beautiful read, but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write something as thought-provoking as I felt it deserved. It wasn’t until we started singing together that I was swept up by how the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” remind me of the journeys, like September’s, that I most enjoy reading about.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, these are the verses I love best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
and Grace will lead us home.

I remember singing this at camp when I was a child, sitting with all my friends and looking out at the White Mountains, the night sky stretching above us. The words just flowed out of me, and when we finished, I wanted to sing it again. I get that same feeling still, this powerful surging desire for adventure with all the trials and growth it brings. I long for the mysteries that test me and make me stronger and more compassionate, that will tame my wild, raw heart without chaining it too tightly.

Of course, it helps that I think we create our own grace. We make it, give it, seek it, long for it – grace is, to me, an expression of our best, bravest, most selfless hearts – it is the part of us that steps up and becomes, even if it is only in a tiny way or for a single moment, heroic. It is our conscience and our grit, our faith in ourselves and our trust in the goodness of others.

“September did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.” (p 77)

When we’re young, it’s so much easier to brave and wild and cunning and marvelous. Each of our worlds are pinpoints of light, and we are at the center, shining more brightly and callously than we could ever believe when we’re all grown up and looking back. We can’t imagine how it was that we were simultaneously so fearless and heartless and young! Our minds were hardly made up at all. We could take one road, then turn off into the darkest woods with only the tiniest of hesitations niggling in the back of our brains. We could intentionally lose ourselves again and again because somehow, some peculiar whirling internal compass compelled us to – for how else would we find ourselves if not by getting completely turned around?

Thus is the murky world of childhood. The monsters are more terrifying, or we maybe are just more helpless, and yet, we are also more resilient, more willing to risk everything for the chance at some unknowable reward. Valente has captured this gamble, this scrambling from the cold grasping of childhood to the passionate frustration of adolescence, leaving us, at the end, on the tricky cusp of adulthood.

Those of us who are already grown can see our own paths leading backwards – the enemies we have vanquished, and the ones who have vanquished us, the delicate lives we have trampled and the people we have saved, even the grace we have given and that which we have received – it’s all there for us to see and remember and regret. I can’t help but love September, with her bursting, untamed heart, even though I know, as does Valente, that the happy ending of this story is only a moment on the girl’s larger journey. There will be greater mountains for her to climb yet, and bitterness will seep in with love, but that’s the adventure of growing up for all of us, isn’t it?

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the first), Catherynne M Valente

There are some books that just bound and determined to keep me from reading them quickly, and this is one of them. To be fair, The first book in this collection, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, had the same effect on me. I’m actually amazed I managed to get through that one in two posts.

Let me be clear – this is not at all an issue of quality. Valente is an incredibly gifted writer, and she weaves wonderful stories for her readers. The difficulty for me is that her books are, well, feasts. Visually speaking, she creates such a rich world that I cannot read it at my normal rate. I have to keep pausing to imagine what Alice in Wonderland-esque quirks she’s telling me about. I love it, but it’s also exhausting to the mental eye. I read maybe two or three of these brief chapters at a time and I feel completely full. I need to take time to live in her world before I can go on.

Valente has the ability to make me feel as though I’m a part of this place she’s created, but the price I must pay is speed. I cannot be my efficient, grown-up self if I want to come and quest with her. And I do. I desperately do – who doesn’t? Who hasn’t heard of Neverland and wondered what it would be like to fly through the window one night? Who hasn’t wanted to trade junior high gym class for a letter from Hogwarts? Who hasn’t been willing to take on the weight of the world in exchange for magic and mystery and heroics?

I think we all want it, in our ways.

Of course, our desires don’t all look the same. I grew up loving Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Piers Anthony’s Xanth, so my perspective on another world may look very different from an eleven year old girl who has read The Hunger Games, and Divergent, and Harry Potter at a highly impressionable age. Granted, I’ve read all those books and loved them too, so when I imagine what I might find if I climbed through a wardrobe, it has the elements of years of pages lovingly turned.

What stays the same though, through decades of literature and analytical critique, is that having a child’s open mind and hard heart is a strength. At the end of an adventure, of course, one does well to be wiser, but at the beginning? Not at all. In order to gain entrance, you must shrink down and let go of logic completely. That is not such an easy thing as we get older and struggle with practicalities all day, every day. Our sense of whimsy fades. Our patience for magic wanes. We read too quickly, and we forget to fall down into the rabbit hole of the story.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I love stories, and I have to cling to a version of myself that I barely remember when I open a book like this. I try to call back the stars to my eyes, desperately wishing for that sure, bright sight I used to have, but it gets harder every year. Even Wendy had to grow up eventually, the adventures of her youth becoming bedtime stories for new children. I always thought that was a desperately sad thing, that final moment when Peter returns for his friend and she has grown up on him. I don’t feel badly for him though – no – I ache for her, for all those years she told herself those tales so that she could remember what it felt like to taste magic.

In these stories, there are always people who inhabit a magical land, who get to live there forever, and then there are the people who have managed to sneak in, the people we follow just in case, someday, we find our path. Their stories are roadmaps for our secret, questing hearts. We must read them carefully or risk missing the moment when our opportunity flits past.

 

For more about Catherynne M Valente, visit her beautiful page here.

Icefall, Matthew J Kirby

I had the pleasure of reading Icefall a few months ago when John Scalzi recommended it in the “Big Ideas” portion of his blog (I think I have about ten more books waiting to be read that he’s garnered attention for there, and the ones I’ve already had the chance to read have been superb – definitely a site to check out if you need some new material). It’s the perfect book for winter (Hey – I’m throwing a bone to those of you south of the equator!) – it’s a claustrophobic story about the youngest daughter of the Norse King, Solveig, her brother the crowned prince, her sister, and the men and women who have been dispatched to protect them in a fortress hidden under a glacier while their father is at war. For months on end, these children are trapped between the icy sea and a mountain, surrounded by waist-deep snows, with a group of incredibly violent and ill-tempered berserker warriors who are supposed to be keeping them safe…of course, someone trapped with them is a traitor…

Doesn’t that sound fantastic?! It’s like one of those British murder mysteries that takes place on a dark and stormy night, except that the dark and stormy night lasts for more than half a year, and even if the children survive, their father may have fallen to enemy forces…so chances are they could still die once they return from hiding!

I don’t know – I thought it was pretty fabulous. Of course, I’m part Norwegian, so the idea of being essentially held captive by winter is practically a birth right. I’m also half Italian though, so the thought of all that dried fish with no garlic in sight…the thought alone is real torture.

Seriously though (as if I could be serious – the sun is shining, I’ve gotten to ride my bike every day this week, and I’m eating brownies – seriousness is a far distant cousin to what I’m feeling right now), I wanted to discuss this book as a companion to Winterling. It’s also a YA title with a young female protagonist, but they’re written so differently. As much as I enjoyed Winterling as a spunky little novel about magic, this book is a much more refined approach to both the genre and the targeted age-range. Kirby’s ability to capture the oppressiveness of his setting, combined with a plot that’s subtle, surprising, and at times (no pun intended) chilling, is a real gift for those of us who enjoy fiction aimed at a younger audience.

When I was considering this book again, I went to Kirby’s blog and noticed that, along with his writing career, he’s also a school psychologist. It’s clear that this second job, which he’s probably had much longer than he’s been a published writer, has greatly informed his work and educated him on material necessary to turn this unbearably confining setting and its many conflicting characters into a taut, suspenseful story. When reading his book, I trusted his characters, I believed they were responding to the overwhelming bleakness of the situation in a realistic way. Such a trust is a hard-earned privilege, and once an author has gained it, he has a duty to live up to for his readers; I was not disappointed.

Kirby blends a coming-of-age story about a young woman with ancient Norse mythology and a heaping dose of battle and intrigue – he’s written a book that easily appeals to wider audience – and one that made me love it even more for its unexpected warmth and delicately wrought charms.

Matthew J Kirby has a great site and blog here.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 2nd), Catherynne M Valente

My trainer and I were having a conversation today that gave me pause (this was in between wind sprints, which he claims have something to do with improving my VO2 max…I just call it Zombie Avoidance Tactics with Associated Panting…). He was asking me if I’d read The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, and I told him, yes, to both, and hadn’t I told him only last week that he would love The Hunger Games with all the killing and the running and the girl power (he’s writing his thesis on training young women athletes)?!

“Yes,” he said. “You did mention it, but you were disgusting and sweaty so I couldn’t take you seriously.” At least, I assume that’s what he was thinking, because to be honest, I would not trust a girl who sweats as much as I do either.

Just kidding. What he was actually saying, without saying it at all, is that he was a boy (well, a twenty-five year old male, but who are we kidding) and that boys and books have a rocky relationship, especially if said boy is also athletic and defines himself firmly in the physical realm. For all I’m scared of jumping hurdles and swinging a baseball bat in front of crowds of people who look much better in spandex than I do, my trainer is equally drawn to and afraid of books.

He wants to like them. He talks to me about them a lot, although always with a sheepish expression. He really loves to learn, but he’s most comfortable at seminars and in lectures. He seemed so hopeful today, while I was trying to hold myself in plank, inquiring whether there were lots of good books out there for guys.

“Maria,” he said, “are there lots of good books out there for guys?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I can think plenty of books you’d like.”

“Really?” I could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe me one bit.

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

We left it at that, but I went home disappointed that I hadn’t convinced him that books exist on every topic under, over, and through the sun. I thought of how much he would love The Hunger Games, or Into Thin Air, or Born to Run, or Ender’s Game, or Why I Fight…I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll come to the point that connects this conversation with my thoughts on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

The paragraph from this book that I shared on Monday, it spoke to how heavy a heart grows from reading. The whole book weaves in and out of its own narrative to prove just that point. And even September, its twelve-year-old protagonist, understands this on a fundamental level – reading about experiences outside of our own make our lives and thoughts and dreams that much richer and more expansive. Reading allows us a landscape to play out our wildest desires and most hidden fears without relinquishing power. It’s liberating even while it bears down our hearts with the cares of the world.

Awhile back, I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I didn’t know anything about living on a reservation before I read it (aside from the very little we’re taught in school), but he allowed me inside his story so that a part of me could be opened to the hardships and humor of a world far removed from the one I live in. And when Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) was found dead this past weekend, a man who I only knew from the pages of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I felt an intensity of loss I never expected – because McDougall wrote of his friend with such frank tenderness and esteem, I too experienced a deep stillness at the news his unexpected passing.

It really doesn’t matter whether we like fiction or biographies or poetry or stories written for children – it’s a trusting of books that opens us to the rawness of loving other people, different people, hard to imagine or even like people. I love that Valente’s book uses one girl’s adventure to explore this idea in a way that most adults would instantly grasp and savor, and that children will wonder at and explore with every passing year.

In her words:

I shall tell you what Calpurnia Farthing said. “The riddle of the Ravished,” she whispered, “is that they must always go down into the black naked and lonesome. But they cannot come back up into the light alone.” (pg 132)

or, as Lev Grossman wrote, in his crushingly true fashion, at the end of The Magician King:

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

I have heard it said many times that we come into this world alone, and that we will leave it the same way. And, you see, alone, we are all tired, broken, ignorant. We are solitary heroes in search of a story. Thank goodness, then, for friends and enemies,  for misunderstandings, adventure, and raw, heavy hearts in the process of growing up.