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Books To Look For
Midsummer Night, by Freda Warrington,
I REALIZED something sad the other day: I don't run into books with the "wow" factor as much as I once did. By that I mean the kind of books that swallow you into the story. They have a fresh premise, or setting, or great characters—the best have all three—and you simply have no idea where the story is going to take you (as opposed to the ones where after a chapter, you could finish the book yourself).
I mean books that are well written enough to stop you with a nicely turned phrase, but they don't bog you down with dull sections or forget that they have a story to tell. Books that you find hard to put down when it's time to go to work, or to bed, and look forward to picking up again as soon as you get a chance.
I suppose such books are few and far between for everyone, and will vary depending on your tastes, and possibly also your reading experience. The less you've read, the more such books you'll find. The more you've read, the harder it is to track them down.
During the reading period for this column I got a couple, and one of them was Freda Warrington's latest novel, Midsummer Night.
(If you're curious, the other was Tana French's 2008 mystery novel The Likeness, but it's an older title and doesn't really fit the parameters of this column. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't run out and get a copy. You should.)
Although there are other principal characters, most of Midsummer Night concerns a brilliant sculpture artist named Dame Juliana Flagg, and Gill Sharma, a young woman recovering from a bad accident that has left her unable to continue her professional sports career. As things stand at the opening of the book, Gill is still in constant physical pain and suffering from being dumped by her lover/manager.
She arrives at Cairdonan House, a large estate in a remote part of Scotland owned by Dame Juliana, looking for anonymity and to recover. She desperately wants to be left alone, and the small cottage she has rented on the estate promises her just that.
But Dame Juliana has her annual art course running when Gill arrives, filled with eager students hoping to learn from the great artist who has been working on a secret project and hasn't shown her work for fifteen years. Whether she wants to or not—and she most certainly doesn't when the book opens—Gill finds herself involved with Dame Juliana's staff, particularly one of the other teachers, a vibrant young woman named Peta Lyon. Peta takes a liking to her, is determined to be friends, and won't take no for an answer.
But where's the magic? I don't want to give too much away, but there's plenty of it that starts in amongst the mundane drama and soon takes precedence over all the plotlines. We have the otherworld, faerie folk (which Warrington calls Aetherials), lost souls, and all sorts of good stuff. And unlike the urban fantasy books that have taken over most of the fantasy section, this is old school fantasy. Magic that's full of awe and wonder. It reminds you why we love this kind of story in the first place.
Midsummer Night is a sequel to Warrington's earlier Aetherial novel Elfland. I have to admit that I didn't realize that until I was well into this book, so I feel confident that you can jump right into this volume and enjoy it without needing to have read the other book.
I don't remember the exact details of Elfland, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying it. (You can check out my review of it at the excellent archives to be found at www.fandsf.com.) And I do have to admit that the further I got into Midsummer Night, the more I remembered of Elfland: mostly the general sweep of the story.
But the point is, each book is a stand-alone volume and an absolute delight for all the reasons cited at the beginning of this review. I have a lot of fun with the kinds of fantasy/supernatural books that dominate the field at the moment, but none of them can match a novel such as either of these two—for storytelling that takes you where you don't expect to go, and for that exquisite sense of wonder that makes the heart of this old reader sing.
The Silence of Trees, by Valya Dudycz Lupescu,
Before starting this book, I wasn't familiar with either Valya Dudycz Lupescu or Chicago's Wolfsword Press. But I'm happy to have that corrected, because I want to read more of Lupescu's work, and Wolfsword Press will probably be publishing it. The Silence of Trees wasn't entirely successful for this reader (for reasons I'll get to), but the lovely prose and the mix of mythic Ukrainian matter with a contemporary setting won me over.
The novel starts in a farm holding in the Western Ukraine at the beginning of WWII, takes us through time spent in a P.O.W. camp, then spends most of its time in Chicago's Ukrainian Village, where the principal character deals with the ramifications of her traumatic past. Throughout we get bits and pieces of Ukrainian folklore and mythology woven into the narrative, all of it handled in a very believable and evocative manner, lending deeper import to the day-to-day lives of the characters.
Lupescu pulls all of this off with great aplomb, making it so natural that by the time the reader gets to the end of the book, those beliefs feel like they're something we've always known.
My problem with the book is the main character Nadya Lysenko. I just never warmed to her.
I could certainly empathize with her troubled life during the war. And I could admire how she made a new life for herself and her family in the new world. But I didn't like her.
Don't get me wrong. Lupescu did as excellent a job with characterization as she did with all the other elements of her book. I understood exactly why Nadya was the way she was. But I have little patience for immigrants who come to a new world to make a new start, yet bring along and maintain all their old prejudices and old-fashioned mores.
Maybe it's because I had a similar upbringing to Nadya's children (minus the Ukrainian aspects; we came from the Netherlands). But too often I recognized character traits that drove me crazy when I was growing up. If everything was better in the old country why immigrate? Instead of bad-mouthing your new home, why not embrace it?
Readers without my baggage could certainly feel differently. I hope they do. But for my part, I'm looking forward to the next book because while I had my problem with this novel, I really did admire Lupescu's skills as a writer.
Elixir, by Hilary Duff with Elise Allen,
When I saw Elixir on my stack of books to check out for possible review I found myself wondering exactly how this sort of novel is put together. Does the celebrity actually write it with her collaborator helping out as though she's a glorified editor—doing enough work to get a mention on the title page, but not actually a byline on the cover? Or does the celebrity just come up with an idea and the collaborator actually writes the book? Or is it somewhere in between?
I've thought about it before, but this was the first time I actually had a copy of such a book in hand, and I wondered if I could tell.
I'm a little bit of a pop culture junkie. Not enough that I know who's dating whom, because I don't really care (and only find out celebrity drama from headlines on the tabloids that I see while waiting in line at the supermarket), but I have some idea about what movies or TV shows they've been in, or whether they've dabbled in other forms of entertainment (thank you, Entertainment Weekly).
All of which is to say I know who Hilary Duff is. I've seen her in a couple of movies, though I can't remember which. I've heard some of her music and quite liked the pure pop vibe of a few tracks. But Hilary Duff the author? No idea.
Elixir starts well with an intriguing mystery. Clea Raymond (with a U.S. senator for a mother and a surgeon father who's gone missing in South America) is a photojournalist at seventeen and loves her career. Going through her photos after a recent holiday to Europe with her best friend Rayna, she discovers a mysterious and handsome man who shows up in almost every picture she took. One thing leads to another and then she learns that this man has been appearing in photographs of her that go back as far as the day she was first taken from the hospital by her parents.
At first she thinks he's a weird stalker. Then—after a number of dreams in which she is other women who have been brutally murdered—she fears he's a serial killer. Finally, she begins to feel as though he's her soul mate.
I didn't have a negative attitude going into this book. Being an actor is one of the tools a writer uses (albeit on paper) to make his or her characters come to life. For that, Duff certainly has enough experience to bring to the book. The snappy dialogue and breezy first-person narrative—especially in the first half of the book—prove that she (or Elise Allen) has a solid voice that can carry a story.
But an actor takes direction, while a writer has to make it all up for him- or herself. And that's where Elixir slowly begins to unravel. There's too much backstory, all of which has to be assimilated to understand the plot points and what's at stake for the characters; unfortunately, it also slows things down. The characters begin to make bad choices—that aren't so much in character, as they are presented to further the story. And in the flurry leading up the finale, one of the main questions that runs throughout the book—what happened to Clea's father?—is simply forgotten.
So to get back to my questions at the beginning of this review, I think Duff is largely responsible for Elixir, the good and the bad. It reads like a first novel by a bright, new voice with a big story to tell but someone who doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off yet. Which begs the question as to what Elise Allen contributed.
But this is all supposition on my part. What saves Elixir is that it's written with passion and energy. As Duff matures, and if she continues to stick with writing, she has the potential to develop into a fine writer. She just needs a little more direction, especially when it comes to her pacing and plotting.
The Turning: What Curiosity Kills by Helen Ellis,
There's a fun idea at the heart of this book—kids that can turn into cats—but unfortunately the rest of The Turning isn't nearly as strong as its terrific cover. Its worst offense is how a large part of the book is one long tease where the reader knows what's going on well before the character actually twigs to it.
I did find things to like, however. I especially appreciated the lead character Mary's response to being bullied. She and her sister Octavia are both adopted—she from Alabama, Octavia from Nebraska—and when her school's main mean girl Ling Ling starts badmouthing her with things like "You're so flat-chested, your redneck mama must have breast-fed you on Mountain Dew," Mary simply replies, "Could be." It's the perfect response because how do you verbally bully someone who doesn't take offense and won't disagree with you?
But I never believed the voice of the narrator to be that of a young teen. While I got used to it, I would have preferred some indication as to why she's so articulate. Her sister is presented as the smart one. What we end up with is an adult voice that becomes a little stiff and uncomfortable when it's dealing with the cadences of teenage dialogue.
Yet while it takes too much of the book for Mary to figure out what's happening to her, once she does, and once we start to get some of the mythology of the cat people, things pick up nicely.
Did I hate it? No. Not at all. But I did find it frustrating and doubt I'll be tuning in again to see what happens in the inevitable sequel.
The Ghost and the Goth, by Stacey Kade,
Here's another fun concept. Alona Dare is pretty much a stereotypical high school cheerleader: high on the popularity totem pole, self-centered, cute, blonde. Her first-person narrative is spot-on, and while the reader won't necessarily want to be her best friend, we immediately get her. The catch? She's dead and it's her ghost that's telling her story.
But we have two narrators here. Will Killian is initially presented as a stereotype as well: he's the school's resident Goth, dressed in black, not particularly social. The catch with him? He can interact with the dead.
So when Alona discovers that he's the only one who can hear and see her, she follows him around, demanding he help her—even though he's the last person she'd want to hang out with if she were still alive and he wants nothing to do with her.
As we get to know the characters, we soon find that the stereotypes are simply masks that protect them from the world around them.
If they were adults, and this book was set in the 1950s, it would be one of those great screwball comedies staring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. That said, let me assure you The Ghost and the Goth has a very modern sensibility. Stacey Kade knows her teenagers and it shows. But the prickly interaction between the characters favorably reminds me of those classic old films.
There's lots of humor, most of it centering on how different Alona and Will are from each other, but there's also plenty of serious drama. I'm not going to get into plot details—I'll let you discover those pleasures for yourself—but I doubt you'll be disappointed.
The voices are distinct. The pacing is great, the plot solid, and nothing is whitewashed. And though the characters go together like water and oil, they end up discovering they have a lot in common as well.
This isn't a message book, but not taking things at their face value isn't a bad lesson to impart.
A pleasure from start to finish.
Generation Dead: Kiss of Life, by Daniel Waters,
I'm in the apparent minority that doesn't get zombies. I've enjoyed a few of the movies in the past, but I really don't understand the explosion of all things zombie in the past few years. It's outgrown movies (though they're still being made with regular frequency) and has now filtered into comics (Marvel even has a whole zombie universe), classic literature (like Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and public gatherings.
(I'm not sure about other cities, but October brings a zombie walk to where I live with around a thousand of them shambling along the street in a ragged parade. This year they ended up on Parliament Hill, which is the Canadian equivalent of gathering on the White House lawn, or in front of Buckingham Palace. I have to admit that I do enjoy the idea of that and wish I'd been in town to see it.)
There's even an AMC weekly television series (The Walking Dead, which as I write this, is doing well enough to get a full season), while for its Halloween episode NBC's Community featured the college's Halloween party being overrun by actual undead monsters.
In short, they're everywhere.
The reason I'm not fond of zombies is that the stories are pretty much of a kind: you set up a bunch of characters, some likable, some not, then you kill them off one by one. Often it's only the setting that makes it different. Set it in a shopping mall! An English pub! After an apocalypse! Nineteenth century rural England!
I wouldn't take away anybody else's enjoyment of this material. It's just not for me. Which is why I was surprised to be so taken with Daniel Waters's Generation Dead series.
But these aren't traditional zombies.
These are kids who have died and then, for some inexplicable reason, come back to undead life. They don't eat or breathe. They move slowly and have trouble articulating. Some of them, as their movement and speech improves, assimilate back into their regular life better than others. Some are shunned by parents and previous friends, and left to fend for themselves. They all make most living people uncomfortable.
Kiss of Life picks up soon after the end of the first book in the series, 2008's Generation Dead. At the end of that book, our main point-of-view character Phoebe was on a homecoming date with the undead Tommy when her friend Adam stepped in and took a bullet meant for Tommy. Phoebe and Adam were both alive. But now in Kiss of Life Adam's come back and Phoebe has two undead boys in her life.
The new book continues this story, but it also adds a great new element, which is narration from Adam's point of view. These sections are presented in short, staccato partial sentences and really capture the confusion and frustration Adam is feeling about being undead and trying to communicate.
I don't need to give you plot specifics. Like the first book, it's a strong story that incorporates some telling observations about society in general and people in particular. I don't know if fans of the usual zombie mayhem will like it, but it'll be appreciated by anyone who enjoys a thoughtful story with strong characters that moves at a good clip, but also takes the time to add that extra dimension that makes a book special.
The Sorcerer's Companion, by Allan Zola Kronzek & Elizabeth Kronzek,
The first half of the last Harry Potter book to be adapted to film is just out as I write this. The reviews I've seen aren't rave ones—but what can you expect when only half the story has been told? I'm assuming it's mostly set-up, with all the good stuff still to come.
But it puts the Potter universe back into people's minds, and that seems like a good time for a compendium of all the magical elements in the books.
The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter is a revised edition of a book that first appeared in 2001 and was later updated in 2004. This version looks at elements from all seven of the Harry Potter books and—unless J. K. Rowling returns to this world—will probably be the last revision.
Pretty much anything of a magical nature in the Potter stories can be found here, with an illustrated description that puts it into context with the series. The mini-essays are competent, by which I mean they get the job done. They're not dry nor particularly stiff, but there isn't much of an individual authorial voice either. The illustrations appear to be taken from various sources in the public domain so there's no unity in their execution, though there is a very comprehensive source index at the back of the book.
Hmm. As I reread that last paragraph it doesn't seem very flattering, and that wasn't my intention. Let me add, then, that for what it is, The Sorcerer's Companion is an excellent resource for readers wanting to know a bit more about the magical elements in the Harry Potter series, and with its extensive bibliography, will provide a great springboard for further reading.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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