In as few words as possible, the best way to describe Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw (Orb Books, 2009) is to say that although it owes a great deal of its sensibility to the tropes of the Victorian novel, the main characters are all dragons. This is not in any sense a mash-up (do not, for example, think Abraham Lincoln and vampires), rather it’s a melding of two cultures—humanity and dragonity. (And as far as I can tell, the main difference between the two cultures is that dragons ritually eat their dead in order to share their wisdom, strength, and power.) As Walton herself put it, the novel is “the result of wondering what a world would be like if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” As a lover of both Anthony Trollope’s multitudinous works and fantasy novels, it was a natural choice for me to pick up. Walton begins with the bare outlines of the plot of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage: a father dies and the family begins a fight over his bequests. One son, a parson, hears his father’s last confession and learns a fact that he is not to divulge to the rest of the family; another son decides to contest the original will. Meanwhile, the two unmarried daughters become pawns of the male-dominated society. How will it all work out? Will the good get their just rewards and the evil be punished accordingly? Walton’s captivating tale is not to be missed.
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Schaffert’s fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled Books, 2011) is another triumph of storytelling, featuring quirky characters, humor, compassion, and insight into human strengths and foibles. The story revolves around its narrator, 83-year-old Essie Myles, who is the obituary writer for the County Paragraph, her grandson Doc’s small town Nebraska newspaper. In one of the many intersecting plotlines that make up the book, the paper has been contracted to print the last book in a fabulously successful series of teen novels called The Coffins of Little Hope (think A Series of Unfortunate Events and hope that Schaffert someday writes the series of children’s books he describes so appealingly). In another, a local woman claims that her teenage daughter Lenore (whom no one has ever seen) was kidnapped by her boyfriend Elvis, a ne’er-do-well photographer. And there’s more: Essie learns that her granddaughter, Ivy, long out of touch with the family, is planning to return home—news that is especially upsetting to Doc, who raised Tess, his niece, when her mother ran off to Paris when Tess was just a child. Things get very complicated when the national media learn about the (possible) kidnapping and descend on the small town, and pages of the top secret conclusion to the aforementioned series of novels start showing up. What anchors these multiple strands of plot and makes them work so well together is Essie herself—wry, self-aware, and with a secret or two of her own. This enchanting novel is perfect for readers looking for realism with a heart by an author who cares about his characters and wants you to, too. Here’s how it begins:
I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?
I don’t want to quote the last line, because it’s blow-your-mind perfection.
Preeta Samarasan’s brilliantly executed first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day (Mariner, 2009), takes place in Malaysia. Samarasan focuses her writerly lens on the lives of the Rajasekharans: politically inclined Raju, the paterfamilias, whose grandfather came to Malaysia from India in 1899 and initiated the family’s inexorable rise to the upper classes; his wife, Visanthi, who cannot abide remembering her lower class upbringing; his elder daughter, Uma, who is excitedly looking forward to leaving Ipoh, Malaysia, for college at Columbia University; his son, Suresh; and six-year-old Aasha, who is desperately sad at the recent death of her grandmother and her beloved older sister’s imminent departure. As Uma’s departure approaches, different chapters explore both the family’s past—in vivid, fascinating, and often troubling detail—and the equally vivid, fascinating, and frequently troubling events that shaped Malaysian independence. Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which this novel made me want to reread), this is a book that begs to be read aloud. Here’s one sentence that gives a good sense of Samarasan’s style: “A wry sun was setting with a vengeance on the British Empire.” Don’t you love the adjective “wry”? It’s such an interesting way of describing the end of Britain’s colonial reign.
by Monique Roffey
Right after they marry in England in 1956, Sabine and George Harwood move to post-independence Trinidad for a job that George has been offered. Fifty years later they’re still there. Now both in their middle 70s, George is, as he’s always been, happy with his life and loving his adopted country, while Sabine has never been able to adjust to the oppressive heat and the culture of the island. Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Penguin, 2011), which was a finalist for the Orange Prize, switches back and forth between time periods and narrators (so that both husband and wife get their say). In 2006, when George finds a cache of Sabine’s old (and unsent) letters to Eric Williams, Trinidad’s charismatic prime minister, it sets off a series of events that will shake the foundations of their marriage. But the true main character in this novel is Trinidad itself: its people, its customs, and its contradictions. Roffey’s explorations of longtime marriages, race, and the lingering effects of colonialism are insightful and often painful to read.
Oh my, it’s hard to describe how happy it makes me to find a novel like The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker (Algonquin, 2011) in my piles of books to be read. It doesn’t happen often; and when it does, it’s transporting. Once I read the first paragraph or two, I found it all but impossible to put down. Parker’s novel takes flight from the two historical facts it’s grounded in: Theodosia, Aaron Burr’s beloved daughter, who was married to the governor of South Carolina, disappeared in 1813 off the coast of North Carolina while she was traveling by ship to New York to see her father. One hundred and fifty years later, the remaining three residents of a tiny North Carolina barrier island decide to leave their homes and property and move to the mainland. Through the lives of its characters, this elegantly written tale reflects on the nature of race, love, regret, dependence, fear, sorrow, honor, and envy—the eternal challenge of being human. The characters, even the minor ones, are fully formed; the setting is so vividly described that you feel you know it intimately, and Parker’s writing is purely wonderful. Here’s a brief quotation that will give you a sense of the way he makes words work:
He said he knew she was sorry. He said in the way people say, “I know you’re sorry,” which makes you understand how pitiful you would be to them were they in the mind to pity you.
Guest Blog by Jean Hays Mishler
In the trilogy To Color the Wind: The Wolf Head Amulet, The Golden Stag, and King’s Capture, Barbara Glynn has created a fantastic world. The heroine, Jesipam, endears herself to the reader immediately with her quick wit, cunning, and outside-of-the-box thinking. Only a child, she is thrust into adult responsibilities when she and her sister are cast out of court, thanks to a tempestuous king who is also their father. Alone amid strangers, Jesipam must make new alliances, keep her sister safe and fed, and discover how to use and control her own strange magical powers. Along the way, she tirelessly works to regain the life to which she is entitled.
Tirshaw, a rich world of desert, spices, and magic, where communication happens via “thread tubes,” will entice young readers with its unusual people and customs. Three “houses” of differing life values contend for power. Jesipam cleverly weaves her way among the houses, and in the process gives the reader a clear view of this complicated political landscape. This fantasy series gives an entertaining glimpse into a new world, but also serves as metaphor for many current events where politics and value clashes cast large shadows on individuals and their life opportunities.
Even though I am an adult, I found Glynn’s writing captivating and could not put the books down. Her skillful suspense kept me turning the page and waiting at the mailbox for the next book delivery. I highly recommend these books, especially to young readers, as the heroine is such a great role model for that age group.
Jean Hays Mishler is a writer and singer who primarily makes her living teaching private voice lessons. If you are interested in hearing her music, listen here: www.mosaicthecd.com.
Castle Waiting, and its sequel, Castle Waiting 2 (Fantagraphics, 2006 and 2011), were originally available as a series of award-winning individual comic books. I’m hopeful that they’ll gain a much-deserved wider reading audience now that the collection has been brought together and republished in two beautifully produced volumes. Beginning with a Sleeping Beauty-like backstory of her cursed birth, the tale extends outward as the hobgoblin-infested castle where Sleeping Beauty grew up becomes a sanctuary for anyone in need. Each of the motley crew at the heart of these tales has sought out the confines of the castle looking for support, friendship, and comfort. They include Jain, a pregnant aristocrat on the run from an arranged marriage; Beakie, a merchant; a horse-headed knight named Sir Destrier; a group of bearded nuns (who were once part of a circus); as well as various other, equally distinctive characters. In the second collection, we continue to learn more about all the appealing characters before they came to Castle Waiting; we also follow their ongoing interactions with one another. The black and white drawings are precisely drawn, with small endearing touches that render each character entirely unique. The dialogue is clever and filled with subtle grace notes of drollness and humor. The set will be especially appealing to readers of all ages who enjoy seeing and reading traditional fairy tale tropes teased and played with, all with a sense of good-humored fun. Once you’ve read them, I know you’ll join those of us who are eagerly awaiting the appearance of Castle Waiting 3.
Stewart O’Nan’s novels just keep getting better and better (and they were good to start with). If you missed Snow Angels, his 1995 debut, remedy that situation soon. I loved Last Night at the Lobster, and now Emily, Alone, his newest novel, is just about all that a reader looking for three-dimensional characters, terrific writing, and a true-to-life plot could ask for. It seems to me that those of us—and I am one —who are drawn to character-driven novels are really voyeurs at heart; we want to get inside a character’s head and understand what makes them tick. O’Nan’s novel satisfies that desire. Emily Maxwell, 80-year-old widow, mother, grandmother, and loyal support to her late husband’s sister, Arlene (although she doesn’t always like her), returns. (O’Nan first introduced Emily in his earlier book, Wish You Were Here, but it’s not necessary to read it to love this one.) O’Nan gives us a vivid picture of Emily’s slowing-down life: the museum visits, the funerals of friends, a trip to the flower show, doing the crossword puzzles she loves, worrying about her aging dog Rufus, listening to classical music, and, after Arlene’s stroke, caring for her sometimes difficult sister-in-law. O’Nan is spot on as he makes us understand the push and pull, tension and love, of three generations of a family, as he describes, for example, Emily’s attempt to remain close to—but not dependent on—her two grown children and four grandchildren. She tries—and sometimes succeeds—in not resenting when thank-you notes don’t arrive promptly (or at all), or when long-lived family traditions are thrown to the wind by the younger generation. In this glimpse into one family’s life over the course of most of a year, O’Nan shines a light into all our lives. Fans of Evan Connell’s masterpiece, Mrs. Bridge, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge are natural readers for this powerful and moving novel.
Dystopian novels for teens have been around for a while, but this particular sub-genre of fantasy got a huge second wind from Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. If a teen you know is looking for a good follow-up, point them toward Matched, a first novel by Ally Condie (Dutton, 2010). The novel is set in a world controlled by an all-powerful group known as The Society, in which everything about each person’s life—food intake, profession, marriage partner, date of death—is determined by statistical formulas. Seventeen year-old Cassia Reyes gets her first hint that something’s not right during the all-important Matching Ceremony when she learns who her husband will be. It turns out that it’s her best friend, Xander. But when she gets home and looks at the picture she’s been given, it’s that of Ky, one of the school outcasts. How could this discrepancy occur in a perfectly regulated society? And is there anything she can do? Can any individual take on The Society—and win? Matched is followed by Crossed, which is due out in November, 2011; but I somehow doubt that the story will end there. Perfect for 7th graders and up.
Mysteries with a touch or more of the supernatural are not hard to find on library and bookstore shelves these days; but I found Ben Aaronovitch’s novel of elastic realism, Midnight Riot, to be something special, mainly because of the voice of the narrator, London Police Constable Peter Grant. Caught in the wrong (or right?) place at the right (or wrong?) time, he stumbles upon a murder scene where a ghost approaches him and claims he witnessed the crime. As a result, Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the Department’s go-to man for crimes involving magic. In short order, he finds himself enmeshed in a family feud among the personifications of the various tributaries (both above and below ground) of the Thames River. Meanwhile, this being a police procedural, he and Nightingale plod away at unraveling not only the original murder, but various other nasty events that seem to be related to it. And, under Nightingale’s tutelage, Grant begins to develop the magical abilities that he seems to have a gift for (as evidenced by his having been able to talk to the ghost witness in the first place) but of which he’s been previously unaware. Grant’s voice is colloquial and self-deprecating, the pages turn quickly, and London comes alive in all its squalor and beauty. And did I mention Toby, one of the best canine sidekicks in contemporary fiction? Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere should enjoy Aaronovitch’s novel and its sequels quite a lot. Now to decide whether to shelve it with the mysteries or the fantasies…