Check It Out, Part 2: A Recently Moved Library

Moving my library from a whole room to one wall of an apartment

By REBECCA, June 29, 2012

In the last post, Tessa let us snoop through her home library. Like Tessa, I’m also a huge nosy nelly when it comes to people’s libraries! Well, fair’s fair: here’s mine.

While I was in grad school (for literature) I, naturally, amassed a hell of a lot of books. Also, since I was writing my dissertation, I constantly had approximately 2 billion books checked out of the university library (not to mention many YA books checked out of the public library to keep me sane), so I had to have two bookshelves just devoted to my library books, one of which you can kind of see below. Sometimes when I was working on my dissertation, I would imagine that if the books I was writing about could really talk to each other, they might say things that were way smarter than what I was saying about them. So: I would make them embrace:

So, last summer when grad school came to an end and it was time to move from a house with an office into an apartment, I got rid of about a third of my books. Most of the non-fiction I stuck in my old bedroom at my parents’ house (thanks, mom and dad!), and the rest I donated to the library. Below are some of the books I brought with me to Philly (note the awesomely hideous chartreuse that I painted my office in an attempt to stay alert).

It was really cleansing to get rid of stuff—a lot of those were books that I’d picked up at book sales in middle school, or had three editions of from reading them in different college classes. Now that I’ve whittled things down to only books that I know I’ll want to read again, I feel happy every time I look at my bookshelves, knowing that it’s full of old favorites or new things I’m going to read soon. I’ve also adopted a strict policy of only buying books that I’ve already loved and know that I’ll want to re-read, or new books of authors I always love.

I’m fascinated by the color-coded bookshelves that some people do, but I would never be able to find anything. My home library is divided into categories; within those categories the books are alphabetized by author.

The categories are:

A. The shelf I keep empty for library books and books I’m borrowing from people, so things don’t get mixed up

1. YA fiction

2. Graphic novels & Art books

3. Non-YA, Non-Genre fiction

4. Sci-Fi & Fantasy

5. Poetry

6. Literary theory/criticism & Philosophy

7. Literature (that is, books that you might read in an English class, which is a totally meaningless and assholish distinction, content-wise, but I had those books separated by period all throughout grad school, so now that’s how they’re organized in my memory).

Here’s a closer peek:

My friend S— gave me this wicked witch, who likes to keep lookout over my YA books

A bit of sci-fi/fantasy, featuring one of my favorite authors and the octopus I got at the Camden aquarium the other day

A dash of “adult” fiction

Poems!

And some snips and snails of “literature.”

In my old house, my office was the second bedroom, so it had a closet in it. I took all the hardware out of the closet, and took the door off, and almost all the bookshelves you see above lined the closet, shelving my fiction and making this adorable, cozy nook that I would read in. I can’t find a single picture of it, although I know I must have one somewhere, but I do have this picture of my cat when she jumped in a bag I was trying to fill with books to take to the library. As you can see, it was carpeted, so naturally I sometimes read or slept in there. It was my favorite room of the house.

I don’t currently have any subscriptions, but I used to have a subscription to Martha Stewart Living and I saved all of them (you can see a few here, left, from an old picture). Then, when I moved, I recycled them all; the recycling bin was really full, so they were all kind of floating on the surface. I had this fantasy that some lucky recycler would go to stuff last night’s pizza box in the bin and be rewarded with five years of lifestyle hoarding! I also recycled about 95% of seven years’ worth of grad school articles; perhaps predictably, I did not have a fantasy that someone would come across those and be really excited about them.

Here are my cookbooks, in some milk crates in the closet in my kitchen. I am seduced by the prettiness of cookbooks, but I can’t really afford them, so I really only get them when I get them as gifts (oh, yes, do feel free!).

So, there you have it: the pruned garden of my library. And here are two more pictures of my cat, because she’s named Dorian Gray, and is therefore literature. Tessa and I think that Dorian and Tessa’s cat, Turkey, are best friends, even though they’ve never met, because they’re both so furry. You’re welcome!

Where do your books live? Want to do a guest post and show us—let us know. Finally, to echo Tessa, feel free to judge my books in the comments!

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Check it out: a librarian’s library

by Tessa

I think most people are a little nosy when it comes to other people’s domiciles, (in western PA we call it being “nebby” or a “nebnose”).  Maybe that’s just me trying to make myself feel like less of a creep. But there must be a reason that looking in someone’s medicine cabinet is such a well-worn cultural trope.  In this spirit, I’d like to take you on a tour of my home library, so that you can know me better.

As a confirmed lover of cataloging and organization in general, my home library has many different sections.  I once helped a friend organize her books by color, and it was lovely, but not something I’d want for myself.  Here’s the main book hoard:

It’s true that I have run out of room, and it’s true that my cat refuses to play with that purple contraption in the bottom right corner.

What sections will you find on this bookshelf?

1. personal memoir

2. general adult-marketed fiction, mostly contemporary

3. books in spanish

4. children’s fiction

5. YA fiction

6. favorite fantasy series

7. fiction from college years (Thomas Hardy, mostly) and non-contemporary authors: Malory, etc.

8. graphic novels

9. Steve Erickson

10. picture books

11. short stories

12. art books

13. McSweeney’s publications

WHEW

Here, snoop closer:

But wait! I also have 3 other places where I store my books (not to mention the whole other bookcase in my childhood home)

 

I know, though, that this is NOTHING compared to Rebecca’s bookshelves, or other people I know.  I had to make myself stop buying so many books, out of sheer practicality.

I’m kind of attached to my Norton Anthologies.

I bought many poetry anthologies in college, until I figured out that I prefer to read poetry in book form. So now I pre-screen any poetry books before buying.

I enjoy cooking from recipes. It makes it easy to shop – I can be easily distracted in the grocery store. The Mario Batali book has a bittersweet chocolate tart recipe you wouldn’t believe.

I subscribe to 2 magazines and regularly read one (The New Yorker).  The other (The Believer) I save, not only because it’s pretty, smells like wonderful ink, and has collectible illustrations throughout, but because I have no time to read it and someday I hope to have that time.

Although I’ve weaned myself from used booksales, I still love to buy impractical and often outdated reference works.  Piloting, Seamanship and Sailboat Handling is one of those books.  Also, the book on Wall-ear Berlin, how to Haunt your House for Halloween, all those sewing books I’ll never use because sewing makes me cry, Freewheeling (road bicycling… I don’t even know).  But How to Think Like A Cat proved to be extremely helpful when I found my cat and rescued him from certain death.

And why haven’t I read more of these books?  Because I always have piles

and piles

of library books all around me.

 

What are your shelves like?  Want to show us?  Do a guest post!  Judge my books in the comments!

Read The Summer Away!—No, Seriously, Make It Get Away From Me

A List of Books That Embrace, Glorify, Make Bearable, and Distract From the Summer

By REBECCA, June 24, 2012 (omigod, it’s only June!?)

Some people think summer is like this

According to the alignment of the planets, Wednesday was the first “real” day of summer. I don’t know what the planets are talking about, though, because it’s been approximately as hot as the outer reaches of the sun for, like, months now over here in Philadelphia. I realize that for many the summer is a wildflower-draped, lemonade-drenched, beach-volleyball-studded, school’s-out-for-summer love-fest. But me? I hate the heat. I hate the sun. I hate sweat. Thus, as you can imagine, it’s extremely necessary for me to have a cache of amazing books that convince me that these fires of hell they call summer aren’t really that bad—or, at the very least, can distract me from it. If you are a sun-worshipper, bully for you! I’m sure you’ll find some favorites here, too, and perhaps you’ll leave some tips about how to better enjoy this five-month-long trip to the cosmic dentist.

But to me it’s more like this

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

Basically, I want every day of summer to be like Weetzie’s L.A. The food, the clothes, the surfing—so dreamy. “In the daytime, they went to matinees on Hollywood Boulevard, had strawberry sundaes with marshmallow topping at Schwab’s, or went to the beach. Dirk taught Weetzie to surf. It was her lifelong dream to surf—along with playing the drums in front of a stadium of adoring fans while wearing gorgeous pajamas. Dirk and Weetzie got tan and ate cheese-and-avacado sandwiches on whole-wheat bread and slept on the beach. Sometimes they skated on the boardwalk. Slinkster Dog went with them wherever they went” (6). “Duck was a small, blonde surfer. He had freckles on his nose and wore his hair in a flat-top. Duck had a light-blue VW bug and he drove it to the beach every day. Sometimes he slept on picnic tables at the beach so he could be up at dawn for the most radical waves” (28-9).

The Truth About Forever Sarah DessenThe Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

Or really almost any Sarah Dessen book. The Truth About Forever takes place over a summer in which Macy decides to stop playing it safe and start taking risks to be herself. I love this book because it gives a prismatic view of summer: there’s Macy’s new job at the chaotic catering company, her late-night truth-telling sessions with Wes, and lazy evenings with her new friends, etc. My favorite scenes are the casual summer night hangouts at the diner, going for soda at the gas station, walking and talking with nowhere to be and nothing to get back to. SUMMERY!

 

Same Difference Siobhan VivianSame Difference, Siobhan Vivian

Emily is a girl from suburban Jersey who thinks she has her whole life planned, until she attends a summer art program in Philadelphia and realizes that she wants different things altogether. All the stuff at the art program in Philly is awesome (art, fashion, food, hair dye), but the stuff in Emily’s hometown is particularly summery. Lying by the pool, blended drinks at Starbucks, meetups at the local Dairy Queen, and cheering at boyfriends’ baseball games. It all sounds nightmarish to me, but it’s super evocative and summertastic. Check out the complete review here! and C&M’s interview with the lovely Siobhan Vivian here!

The Toll Bridge Aidan ChambersThe Toll Bridge, Aidan Chambers

Piers feels suffocated by his parents, by his girlfriend, and by everything that’s expected of him in college. So, when he sees an advert looking for someone to live in a small cottage and be keeper of a toll bridge three hours away from his home for the summer, Piers jumps at the chance to get enough space to figure out what he wants. I read this book when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I so badly wanted this to be my summer job. Living in isolation with one or two new friends popping by, barely having to talk to anyone, the beautiful English countryside: what’s not to love?!

 

13 Little Blue Envelopes Maureen Johnson13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson

I haven’t read this one yet, but I know Tessa really liked it, so I’ve put it at the top of my summer list. Ginny receives 13 envelopes and is told to buy a plane ticket to London, where she has an epic and (I imagine) romantic summer adventure. Note: anyone who would like to send me envelopes (of any color, really) that somehow lead to my ending up in London is more than welcome.

 

 

The Secret Circle L.J. SmithThe Secret Circle trilogy, L.J. Smith.

The Secret Circle trilogy opens with a series of delightful summer scenes. Still, I think the real reason it seems so summery to me is that the first time I read it, the summer after sixth grade, I was so enthralled that I stayed up all night to finish the trilogy. It was the first time I ever stayed up all night by myself (as opposed to at a sleepover or something, you know). I finished it at like 6am, before my parents were awake, and I made breakfast and was feeling all floaty and witchy, and I took the bus downtown and . . . it was MAGICAL, is what I’m saying. The Secret Circle feels summery the way that Harry Potter feels Christmas-y! Anyway, despite the recent terribleness of the show, this is a must-read summer series. Read more about why in my full review.

White Oleander Janet FitchWhite Oleander, Janet Fitch

Another L.A. book. Astrid is groomed by her mother to observe the world with all her senses—to smell the Oleander, taste the fruit on the trees outside, and really look at things. When her mother is imprisoned for murder, sensitive Astrid is shuttled from place to place, always hyper-aware of the world around her and always mistrusted because of her beauty. Astrid goes through a lot of shit, all against the backdrop of a gorgeously rendered L.A. and its surrounds. While not exclusively a summer book, White Oleander has that summer feeling of lazy days, brunch, and, of course, the California heat.

The Body Stephen KingThe Body, Stephen King.

Okay, so Stephen King isn’t exactly synonymous with bright and sunny. Still, his novella The Body, made into the coming-of-age epic Stand By Me, is total summer fare. It’s the 1960s and four friends set out on a quest to find a dead body that is purportedly in the woods. Along the way, they tell stories, outrun trains and dogs, tease each other mercilessly, and basically do what best friends do. Of course, the premise of finding a body is a touch grim, but if you haven’t read The Body or seen Stand By Me, you have to give it a chance—it’s in the same collection of novellas as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (also movie-fied), and it’s definitely of that ilk. Dude, SO GOOD!

Bonus!: Your Recommendations

I queried the Facebook crowd as to their favorite summery YA reads and they have spoken. Here are a gems few gems from them:

A Summer to Die Lois Lowry

A Summer To Die, Lois Lowry; recommended by T.C. One summer, Meg’s family moves to a little house in the country and has to share a room with her popular sister. Meg envies her sister’s popularity and beauty . . . and then her sister dies! Nothing says summer like a good guilty sob, eh? No, seriously, though, I haven’t read this since I was little and I totally will re-read it this summer!

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Betty Smith

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith; recommended by T.C. Resourceful Francie lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the start of the 20th century. Like the tree that pushes up through the cement in Brooklyn, Francie must transcend her circumstances (code for class and gender) to come of age. I first read this because my mom’s from Brooklyn, so I kind of thought it would be like reading about her childhood but, um, it wasn’t.

Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Patterson

Bridge To Terabithia, Katherine Patterson; recommended by A.R. Omigod, such a perfect summer book! The entrancing creation of a fantasy world, best friends, learning hard lessons. (It makes me cry, too, A.R.)

Bartimaeus series Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus series, Jonathan Stroud; recommended by A.R. This boy-magician-in-training series sounds like a perfect summer read. Indeed, A.R. says it’s his favorite series of all time! I will definitely check it out, although it’ll probably just make me sad all over again about how my letter from Hogwarts never came.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing Judy Blume

Anything by Judy Blume; recommended by S.W. I am in total agreement that Judy Blume provides some stupendous by-the-pool reading. While some may gravitate to Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I am more of a Fudge fan, myself: Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingSuperfudge, hell yeah!

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle

The Time Quartet, Madeleine L’Engle; recommended by A.H. A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels are exactly the kind of summer series that I want to read. For one thing, it’s not summer in them (indeed, at many points, it is a dark and stormy night), but always seems autumnal, which will distract me from feeling as though the ten minutes I spend outside waiting for the trolley are going to cause me to spontaneously combust. Great adventure, wonderful and flawed characters, and supergeniuses!

His Dark Materials Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman; recommended by Au.R. Like The Time Quartet, His Dark Materials series is a wonderful summer series that will cool us down (polar bears!) and distract us. Au.R. says that since it’s about Lyra’s budding sexuality and growing maturity it’s a total summer read, and I couldn’t agree more.

Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury (R.I.P!); recommended by E.H. Omigosh, such a summer book! Dandelion wine is the concentration of all of summer into one cup, and Bradbury packs exactly that into this book. Must re-read this summer. (Oh, and the 50th anniversary edition has a forward by Stephen King!)

Legend Marie Lu

Legend, Marie Lu; recommended by M.U.  M.U. says that this is a great, fast read, and I’m psyched about something like that for the summer; this dystopia sounds like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin

Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin; recommended by A.D. I am so delighted by the rush of older fantasy series in response to my asking folks for their summery recommendations! Le Guin’s Earthsea books are another series that I really must re-read this summer, preferably near the ocean.

So, what of you, dear readers? What are your favorite summer celebrations and distractions?

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: But When?!

A Review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007

By REBECCA, June 22, 2012

Someday This Pain WIll Be Useful To You Peter Cameron

characters

James Sveck: smart, sensitive James hates people his own age, dog parks, and “dead, meaningless language” like nice to meet you, too

James’ mom: thrice married, she owns an art gallery and is very particular about things

James’ dad: into keeping up appearances, he wants to be supportive but just ends up pissing James off

James’ grandmother: One of the few people James likes, she encourages him to think about lunch instead of woes

John: a co-worker at the gallery and James’ first crush

Dr. Adler: James’ therapist (mandated after a slowly-revealed incident), she is very therapist-y

hook

It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a professor named Rainer Maria, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order pasta as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.

worldview

I cannot overstate how brilliant the voice of this book is! James Sveck’s (I love that name) voice is awesome, yes, but Peter Cameron’s tone throughout the book is hilarious, smart, and deliciously pathos-soaked. The tone borders on satire, but this is an effect of seeing the world through James’ eyes, I think. James is a very sweet, intelligent guy who would likely be considered to over-analyze the world. Rather, I think, James simply does not take it as a given that things that are important simply because of their established value; instead, he tries to figure out what he really wants, what he thinks is really important. He does not, for example, have any interest in going to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn more by reading on his own; he doesn’t see any reason to come out to his family as gay because it’s not like anyone comes out as being heterosexual.

My inclination here is to quote you huge sections of the hilario-genius of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to convince you of its amazingness . . . but I’ll just give you medium-sized chunks, instead. In this scene, James’ sister has decided to begin pronouncing her name with a hard-g sound and their mother has returned from her honeymoon sans husband:

“‘Gillian!’ my mother said. ‘Please.’

‘It’s Gillian,’ said Gillian.

‘What?’ my mother asked.

‘My name is Gillian,’ said Gillian. ‘My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.’

‘Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.’ My mother looked at me. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why aren’t you at the gallery?’

‘John didn’t need me today,’ I said.

‘That is not the point,’ said my mother. ‘John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about. . . . Please remove that plate,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten'” (8-9).

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a character piece, and James’ thoughts and observations make up the meat of the story. But Cameron is amazingly deft at sketching even the minor characters, so the atmospheres of the Manhattan art scene, James’ father’s office building, James’ therapist’s waiting room, and an ill-fated class trip to D.C. are totally realized.

In the partner’s dining hall of Jame’s father’s office (after James’ dad instructs him that pasta is not a manly option), James informs his father:

“‘I can’t bear the idea of spending four years in close proximity with college students. I dread it.’

‘What’s so bad about college students?’

‘They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.’

‘You’ve never met Huck Dupont.’

‘I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.’

‘What’s wrong with hockey?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopaths.’

‘Well forget Huck Dupont. He’s going to Dartmouth. You’re going to Brown. I doubt they even have a hockey team'” (34).

It’s not all fun and semantics, though. James behaves badly on the Gent4Gent dating site, and has to go to the therapy mandated after the terrible D.C. incident, which is interspersed in flashbacks. All in all, I really have nothing but good things to say about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: Cameron is a hell of a writer; the story is engaging and moving; the characters are funny, ridiculous, clueless, and sad. It’s a perfect slice of a teenager’s life, and James Sveck is a character that I think about often—indeed, he feels so real to me that I can imagine more and more books that follow him as he gets older. Probably (at least a little bit) because . . .

personal disclosure

. . . It is truly uncanny how much the landscape of James’ mind resembles my own at certain moments in this book: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you'” (87). I almost feel that by recommending it I’m saying, here, read about me!, which seems super self-involved. Mostly, though, I was just really delighted to read a character whose thought processes and obsessions kind of a little bit seemed familiar, if at times neurotic. I don’t remember what made me pick the book up. I had read a few other of Cameron’s novels, but didn’t remember that at the moment. Probably I just liked the title, and I was doing this summer program in Ithaca and I didn’t know anyone yet, so obviously I was hanging out at the library and Barnes and Noble.

I went back to the room I was subletting, which had no air conditioning and was right off both the kitchen and the laundry nook (translation: the fires of hell could not burn hotter), and started reading, and I did not put the book down until I had laughed and cried my way through the whole thing. My room also had a door opening into the bathroom, so whenever one of the other people who shared the house came down to use the bathroom I would muffle my laughter/tears so they couldn’t hear me. This is a major reason that I live alone. Anyhoosier, that was the same summer that I read The Hunger Games, and James Sveck absolutely held his own alongside Katniss in my memory.

readalikes

When You Don't See Me James Timothy Beck

When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (2007). The writing team of Timothy James Beck (2 Timothys, a James, and—you guessed it—a Becky) have a series called Manhattan, which comprises a loosely-connected set of characters, and this is the fourth in the series, but it can totally be read as a stand-alone. 19-year-old Nick Dunhill left his parents and twin bro in the Midwest to come live with his uncle in NYC, where he struggles to get by and get over being a little traumatized in the wake of a 9/11-related subway incident. When You Don’t See Me tracks Nick through multiple jobs and friendships, as he learns what (and who) he wants, and figures a boatload of stuff out in the process.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (2010). The Freak Observer is more brutal than Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, but Loa, like James, is a merciless observer and truth-teller about the people she meets and the things she experiences. A totally gorgeous book with a truly unique protag + bonus points for best cover ever. Read Tessa’s review here.

Leave Myself Behind Bart Yates

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). Noah and his mom start to renovate a dilapidated house after Noah’s father dies suddenly, and Noah falls in love with the boy next door while his mother slowly loses it in the background. Noah is smart and snarky, and I feel like if he and James met in real life they would either fall in love instantly or decide that they hated each other before falling in love later. You can read my full review here.

procured from: bought in Ithaca

When the light from the lost land shall return: The Dark is Rising Sequence

As I make my way to ALA Annual, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite series, written by an author who will be awarded for writing it at ALA Anaheim 2012. Susan Cooper, I’d say it’s well-deserved.

by Tessa

The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence
Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010 (omnibus edition)

Includes:
Over Sea, Under Stone, 1965
The Dark Is Rising, 1973
Greenwitch, 1974
The Grey King, 1975
Silver on the Tree, 1977

Characters

Major Goodies:
Simon, Jane & Barnabas Drew – goodhearted & resourceful, but un-magical
Will Stanton – young but Old
Merriman Lyon – little bit Indiana Jones, little bit Gandalf, a lot Merlin
Bran Davies – mysterious albino harp player of the Welsh mountains

Major Baddies:
The Black Rider – evil
Caradog Pritchard – human but twisted by jealousy
Those Whom The Dark Embodies – variously evil, whether in yachts or in caravans

Hook

The Dark is Rising! Well, technically it’s been rising for hundreds of years. But now things are getting serious and the Old Ones need work quickly.  They have to depend on the help of children: three resourceful siblings, the last, youngest member of the Old Ones, and a surprising progeny appearing out of time. Or else the world will be a truly terrible place.

How did you encounter this series?
I was stuck on Narnia for a long, long time and had never heard of Susan Cooper or this series until I was wandering the stacks of the School of Information Science Library in search of something suitable for my booktalking assignment for my Children’s Services course. And there was The Dark is Rising. A book about an epic snow in a small English town, and the discovery of old knowledge and new responsibilities for its protagonist, Will Stanton.  Cozy and cold, mythic and childhood-nostalgic, hopeful and thrilling each have their place in this book. It was the perfect thing to curl up with in a silent, chilly Brutalist university building under the guise of classwork.  I still can’t think of a better book to read on a snowy day.

photo by flickr user enigmatic

It’s four days until Christmas and one day until Will’s birthday. Will is happy in his crowded house with all his brothers and sisters – the only thing he can wish for is more snow, “beautiful, deep, blanketing snow” so it feels like a real holiday.  His sister chops onions to season a meal in the warm kitchen as Will goes to feed the rabbits with his brother.  His family is the kind who walks to the neighboring farms to sing carols and drink hot cider in celebration of Christmas.  They live the kind of poor but idyllic life that sounds so appealing in books – the kind where hard work yields greater appreciation for family and the gifts of nature.

Something’s off, though, and it’s not just the thin, gray snowfall. The rabbits huddle in the corner of their hutch, afraid of the smell of Will’s hands. The radio blasts static when Will walks by. The crows in the grove of horse-chestnuts spring up and wheel around uneasily the sky when he passes. On the road, Will says he sees “a weird-looking man all hunched over, and when he saw me looking he ran off behind a tree. Scuttled, like a beetle.”  When Will mentions it to Mr. Dawson, his neighbor, Dawson just says “The Walker is abroad.”

And so Will, though he doesn’t know it yet, is introduced to the world of old knowledge, situations and phrases that seem plain but are otherworldy. As a reader, I was powerless to resist a book with this combination of rural life and eerie signs.

Plus, it had rad illustrations by Alan Cober:

photo by flickr user Ojimbo

Worldview
Cooper, who won the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards award for this very work, is concerned with how good can defeat evil. The Edwards committee describes it thus: “one of the most influential epic high fantasies in literature, Cooper evokes Celtic and Arthurian mythology and masterly world-building in a high-stakes battle between good and evil.”

Cooper prefers the terms Dark and Light to good and evil, and interestingly, the Light side here is ready to sacrifice things for its cause – it can come off as cold and practical.  That trait speaks to Cooper’s ambition for the scale of her story. It’s epic on  both sides, it encompasses three different kinds of magic as well as at least two different belief systems/mythologies, and the network of dark and light spans the world. But she doesn’t forget that humans are at the heart of the struggle, and her human characters are essential to the battle, as well as human imperfection. As Merriman says: “Every human being who loves another loves imperfection, for there is no perfect being on this earth–nothing is so simple as that.”

There’s so much to cover! Each book is centered around finding an item or items that will allow the Light to overpower the Dark side, and the searches happen to have to involve youth and unsuspecting humans.  Here’s a list of the things that need to be recovered over the course of the books:

  • The Six Signs (wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone)
  • The Grail
  • The Harp of Gold
  • The Crystal Sword

Although most of the stories center in either Cornwall (the seaside), Buckinghamshire (the forest), or Wales (the mountains), the last book takes place in a land out of time and space.  Giving each book a quest in a small location but imbuing it with big implications that stretch out across time ensures that the series has tension and balance. The smaller quests draw the reader into the books, while the larger quest draws the books together into the sequence.  It’s both mysterious and comforting, and I think that great balance in construction and tone is one of the reasons it has remained a fantasy classic.

What are the books’ intentions and are they achieved?
You don’t have to take my word for it, these books are influential and award-winning for a reason. I remembered being initially enthralled on my first read, and was able to read all five in under a month on my second read with the same amount of enthusiasm.

Let me make a list of how these books achieve their greatness:

1. exploration-type adventure

Can we all agree that exploring things is fun? Cooper’s characters get to explore their surroundings, usually in search of something, using clues (as in the first  and third books), or exploring one’s familiar home surroundings with new eyes (as in the second book), or exploring the legendary past with a real life person from it (the fourth and fifth books).

image via World Digital Library

2. historical mysteriousness
King Arthur and his dudebros feature heavily in these books. You don’t have to be an Arthur nerd from way back to enjoy this. You can simply revel in the way the plot doesn’t falter under the weight of the heavy literary baggage that comes with Arthurian legend. Like a fine batter, it incorporates, and even adds some pagan fun (“fun”) into the mix. This is the stuff of tragic folk songs ONLY OLDER.  The books have pedigree, and they treat it with pomp.
3. noble cause
Like many fantasies this book has a world that lives behind our world and behind what we see, but this one is very close to us. The Old Ones live all around us, and they rely on us not ever expecting their magic to be real to keep themselves hidden. The world that Will, Merriman, and the Drews are working to save is very much their world and our world, made out of the darkness and light in everyday life, and so the cause matters all the more.  In one scene, Will encounters a bigoted man and thinks that:

“From the moment when he had heard the man in the car begin to shout, and seen the look in his eyes, he had been no Stanton at all but wholly an Old One, dreadfully and suddenly aware of danger. The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear… it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth.”

And then, the Light comes back in an equally quotidian way:

“Tea was laid out on the orange wicker table, glass-topped, that stood outdoors with its matching chairs in high summer. Will’s spirits began to rise. For an Old One with the tastes and appetite of a small boy, it was hard to despair for long over the eternal fallibility of mankind when confronted with home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.”

the Greenwitch lies under the sea… photo by flickr user greenwich photography

4. real danger
There are snows that threaten an entire village. A man’s life and livelihood ruined by suspicion and jealousy, which makes him go and change the course of the lives around him.  Servants make wrong decisions and exist in a limbo of fear for hundreds of years, and their minds are warped so much they can’t even save themselves when help is offered. A slimy, isolated, covetous totem of the sea haunts the mind of a girl:

“she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. it would not move, or seem to come alive, she knew that. Her horror came not from fear, but from the awareness she suddenly felt form the image of an appalling, endless loneliness.”

5. deep magic
Not only do we have the kind of magic that existed at the Round Table, passed down in an awesome (I say that with full meaning) way through the Book of Grammarye, there is also even older magic. I like to call it space magic in my head, but that’s just me. This is the stuff that can be used for such unearthly things as this accident:

“He could never explain, afterwards, how he came to stumble. He could only have said, very simply, that the mountain shrugged. … The mountain did shrug,… so that a piece of the path beneath Will’s feet jumped perceptibly to one side and back again, like a cat humping its back, and Will saw it with sick horror only in the moment that he lost his balance and went rolling down.”

WALES. by flickr user formalfallacy

6. modern but ancient (and gorgeous) locales
I want to go to everywhere that is in this book.  The hedges, paths, stone walls, sheep cottages, creeks, boulder-strewn mountains, and cliff-buttressed seas are wonderfully described.  Here’s one small moment from Silver on the Tree that exemplifies the natural detail thrown into the descriptions:

“Jane peered closely at hedgerow and field as the car turned out into the lane, and saw Barney gazing too, but there was no sign of anything except white fool’s parsley, and rose-bay willow-herb tall in the grass, and the sweep of the tall green hedges above.”

And here at the beginning of The Grey King:

“The earth smelled clean. Yarrow and ragwort starred the hedgerows white and yellow, with the red berries of the hawthorn thick above them; the sweeping slopes where the valley began to rise were golden-brown with bracken, dry as tinder in this strange Indian-summer sun. Hazy on the horizon all around, the mountains lay like sleeping animals, their muted colours changing with every hour of the day from brown to green to purple and softly back again.”

7. you matter
All this magic and legend wouldn’t mean half so much if it weren’t anchored to humanity. There’s a clear division between the Old Ones and what humans are, and the Old Ones clearly need the humans to win, even if they don’t share the same morality (for lack of a better word).  It’s Will’s family and the sea captain of the house that the Drews rent in Cornwall, and the good sheep farmers in Wales that make the world worth saving. Cooper writes these people in so you know them.

Readalikes

The Snow Spider / Jenny Nimmo / 1986
The first in a trilogy, though I’ve only read this one. It’s set in Wales and involves sheep and magic and is utterly charming. It captured my imagination when I read it as a kid. But there’s a darkness in there, too.

Under the Mountain / Maurice Gee / 1987
More on the sci-fi tip, it’s a story about twins on vacation in Auckland, New Zealand,who discover that there are creatures posing as humans under a mountain. Tense creepfests ensue.

Disclosures & Digressions

1. I’ve never seen the movie they made based on the second book, and I suggest you do the same. And so does Susan Cooper: “You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different,” Cooper says. “But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different.” from this NPR piece on the books and their transition to a movie.

2. There was less food than I had expected! I always expect a lot of food in fantasy/quest stories so I tried to keep track.  Here’s the pages that I managed to mark, saying the things they ate:

“a stack of fresly-baked scones cut in half, thickly buttered and put together again; a packet of squashed-fly biscuits; three apples; and a great slab of dark-yellowy-orange cake, thick and crumbling with fruit.” (21)
“a dish of gooseberry tart and a small jug of cream.” (50)
“three plates of cold mackerel and salad covered up on the kitchen table, left for their lunch.” (157)
a sandwich: “the bread was soft and new, with plenty of butter, and in the middle there was some delicious kind of potted meat.” (175)
“two fried eggs, thick slices of home-cured bacon, and hot flat Welsh-cakes, like miniature pancakes fleck with currants.” (750)
the afore-quoted “home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.” (863)

It’s a wonder these children aren’t diabetic with massively high cholesterol.

3. I hereby call for a reissue with the old Alan Cober covers. You can’t improve on them, and they didn’t try very hard (I’m sensing they were going for boy appeal in the redesign and ended up in Clip Art Purgatory). This is worse than replacing Stephen Gammell’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, because at least they replaced him with another real artist, Brett Helquist (they still shouldn’ta done it, but anyway). Please compare:

More images here:
http://pantechnicon.tumblr.com/post/751330789/the-dark-is-rising

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ojimbo/sets/72157624100084285/with/4679552140/

YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse

A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff

By REBECCA, June 18, 2012

knots! To Build a Fire

Most of my friends are divided on whether or not they liked survival books as kids. Some (like me) found them exhilarating and educational, where others found them boring and/or stressful. It seems clear to me, however, that with the current (YA lit-indicated) threat of apocalypse, the resurgence of DIY culture, and people’s obvious desire to prepare for the impending zombie hordes, it is time for a crash course in SURVIVAL!

To that end, I have collected some of my favorite YA titles that teach us how to do stuff. I can personally guarantee that if you read all these books you will have significantly improved your chances of surviving—nay, thriving!—in the face of a zombie attack, economic collapse, the overthrow of capitalism, extreme global climate change, or whatever generalized apocalypse is your own personal bête noire. In short, this is for your own good! Crunchings and Munchings is trying to save your life (don’t say we never did anything for ya)! Don’t worry—this list does not stop at digging tubers and chopping firewood; read on.

SO, YOU NEED TO . . .

Homestead rurally:

Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls WilderThe Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932).

I don’t think I can possibly overstate how much useful stuff the Little House books can teach us. My favorites are the really descriptive ones, like when Pa makes bullets, and builds the smoker or their new house when they move to the prairie; when Ma makes head cheese (that is so disgusting) or weaves hats out of summer grass; when Mary and Laura churn butter. And, of course, there is my all-time favorite chapter, when they go to Laura’s grandparents’ house for sugaring time and they eat fresh maple syrup on everything, and make maple candy by pouring the syrup on pans of snow (which never worked for me no matter how many times I tried it with Mrs. Butterworth’s as a child). A must read for all hopeful homesteaders.

Survive off the land:

Hatchet Gary PaulsenHatchet, Gary Paulsen (1987).

The first in the Brian’s Saga, Hatchet introduces us to Brian Robeson, who must survive in the wilderness after the tiny plane he’s riding in crashes in the Canadian wilderness and the pilot dies—and let me tell you, it is a saga, indeed. Brian is wicked smart even though he’s only 13 and has nothing but (you guessed it) a hatchet to work with. I like this book because he makes lots of mistakes, but you can totally follow the logic of the things he does. In the sequel, The River, the government wants Brian to DO IT AGAIN! They’re so impressed by him that they want to watch what he does and use it to train military folks in impromptu survival. And Brian agrees. And, therefore, he is not as smart as Hatchet made me think he was, because obviously everything goes wrong and he has to survive again for real.

My Side of the Mountain Jean Craighead GeorgeMy Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George (1959).

Obviously, this cover looks like nothing that you would ever be caught dead reading, but I totally love this book. For New Yorker Sam, it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, so he pulls an Ishmael and goes to sea—well, to the Catskills. And lives in a hollowed-out tree. And learns to live off the land. And has a falcon and a weasel for friends. I’ve loved this book since I was a kid, particularly because Sam’s feelings about the world and wanting to be in touch with himself are so sincere and lovely.

 

Island of the Blue Dolphins Scott O'Dell

Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell (1961).

Twelve year-old Karana is being evacuated with the rest of the population of the island she lives on (horrible!), but realizes that her brother has been left behind. She jumps off the boat to stay with him and ends up living on the island alone for years and years. While totally horrifying as a concept, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a really beautiful book, and the descriptions of how Karana finds food, uses bone and wood to make tools, and creates shelter are really interesting and lyrical. It’s based on the true story of a girl who survived on an island 70 miles off the coast of California for 18 years.

Survive off the land while fighting people who are trying to kill you:

The Hunger Games Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008).

One of the most exciting things about The Hunger Games series for me is seeing how the strengths of each district translate into the survival skills of those districts’ tributes. That Peeta’s cake decorating could provide some form of protection in the Games gave me hope that perhaps my skills of cat-petting, color-coding, editing, and my frankly impressive ability to watch an entire season of tv on dvd without stopping to sleep might some day prove as useful as Katniss’ skill with a bow or at climbing trees. Note: please do not disabuse me of this notion; it is all that stands between me and terror.

Tomorrow, When the War Began John MarsdenTomorrow, When the War Began, John Marsden (1993).

When Ellie and her friends get home from a camping trip in the Australian bush they find that their town has been invaded and their families taken prisoner. So, they have to survive off of what they can scavenge from the abandoned houses of their neighbors and pool their knowledge to fight back against the invaders. I am a fan of seeing how the little bits of seemingly useless knowledge we have can be put together with someone else’s seemingly useless knowledge to outsmart other people and make . . . you know, bombs and stuff.

The Grounding of Group 6 Julian F. ThompsonThe Grounding of Group 6, Julian F. Thompson (1984).

Check out that totally ’80s cover; I love it. So, five teens are sent to a boarding school by their parents to whip them into shape. Or so they think . . . duhn duhn duh! In actuality, this boarding school offers rich parents the chance to send their nuisance children there to be killed and disposed of in a terrible accident during the start-of-year camping trip. Nat, the only-slightly-older leader of this year’s group 6, has second thoughts and decides to help the kids survive in the woods instead, allowing them to escape the fate planned for them. This is a super fun (and super dated) book; after reading it I accused my parents (who were trying to send me to summer camp, horror of horrors) of trying to group 6 me. As you can see from my presence here today, I must have scared them into calling off the hit.

Escape in order to avoid certain death:

Long Live the Queen Ellen Emerson WhiteLong Live the Queen, Ellen Emerson White (1989).

So, long story short, I had no idea until like two weeks ago that this book, which I read as a stand-alone as a kid, was actually book three in a series (so now, of course, I have to go back and read the rest)—anyway, it works just fine as a stand-alone. Anyhoo, Meg’s mom is the president and Meg gets kidnapped. She has to escape, once it becomes clear that she won’t be let go, and then she has to make her way to help. I really like Meg as a character and her feelings and tactics while she’s held captive feel super realistic. She has to do some gnarly things to get away, but they’re all rendered logically, so it seems like a totally useful primer if one were ever to be kidnapped.

Survive urban(-ish) perils:

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanSlake’s Limbo, Felice Holman (1974).

Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, Slake can’t take it any more and he runs away to live in the subways of New York City. I will confess to being straight up fascinated with any kind of off-the-grid living stories, so this is right up my alley. I mean, I read Jennifer Toth’s Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City and watched the documentary Voices in the Tunnels. Holman details how Slake gets food, makes shelter, and makes friends in 1970s underground New York.

The Borribles Michael De LarrabeitiThe Borrible Trilogy, Michael De Larrabeiti (1982).

Borribles are runaways who live hidden around London. They lie, cheat, and steal to survive, and they’ll always stay young unless they are captured by adults and have their (pointy) ears clipped, which is the ultimate horror for a Borrible. When creatures invade their Battersea neighborhood, a specially chosen group of Borribles sets out on a mission across London. Great world-building, and a super fun adventure story. The Borribles could teach anyone a trick or two about surviving on the streets, from nabbing fruit to breaking into buildings, and, of course, evading the capture of those most evil of creatures, adults.

Stick Andrew SmithStick, Andrew Smith (2011).

Fourteen year old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when Stick finds out that Bosten is gay he realizes that Bosten has to leave home to survive their abusive father. Once Bosten leaves, Stick sets out across three states to find him. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice. Anyone who reads C&M regularly knows that I basically fucking adore everything that Andrew Smith writes, so I’m thrilled whenever I compile a list that can include his marvelous books, which you should all be reading. You can check out my full review of Stick here.

Survive intergalactic perils:

Tunnel in the Sky Robert A. HeinleinTunnel In the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein (1955).

To pass their Advanced Survival class, Dr. Matson’s students have to take a practical final exam, which could take place on any terrain and in which anything goes, including weapons. But, when something goes wrong, Rod Walker and the rest of the class are stranded at an unknown place in the universe (AHHHH!) through a tunnel in the sky. With no promise of rescue, the class must try and survive in this unknown and, of course, hostile place. So, basically, this is close to my worst nightmare about space travel (my worst nightmare involving drifting in the vastness of space after my spacesuit has come untethered while I have enough of an air supply left to fully take in the complete and total existential horror before me that can only be ended by my slow and terrified death, but I won’t get into that).

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985).

Although Orson Scott Card is a raging idiot, I am annoyed to say that Ender’s Game is one of my all-time favorite books. Monitored for a particular personality type and level of intelligence, Ender makes the grade and is sent to interplanetary Battle School to train for command in an army that will one day fight the next in a series of Bugger Wars with an alien species. Small for his age and cumbersomely smart, Ender is certainly one of the most iconic survivors in YA literary history. His survival takes the form of a dizzying understanding of strategy, including interpersonal psychological strategy: knowing why people do things and, thus, being able to predict what they will do. He’s an amazing (but still believable) character and anyone who wants to think a bit about how we use strategy in our daily lives should absolutely pick this up.

Take down a corrupt government institution and stop the nation from turning into a police state:

Little Brother Cory DoctorowLittle Brother, Cory Doctorow (2008).

Hacker Marcus and his crew are gaming in the wrong place at the wrong time—in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. After being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security, they’re placed in a secret prison and interrogated mercilessly. After their release, Marcus realizes that the city has become a police state, with limited access to internet resources, surveillance of private citizens, and civil liberties violations up the wazoo. Marcus sets out to free the people (and the information), bending his not inconsiderable skills toward taking down the DHS himself. Awesome example of kids using the resources available to them to change the world. And Doctorow practices the freedom of information he preaches; you can download Little Brother here.

So, how about you—what are your indispensable YA survival guides?

Snow White and the Huntsman: More Axes & Birds, Less Talking

A Review of Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders

By REBECCA, June 15, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

Some weeks ago, my sister and I were having coffee and generally bemoaning the state of the world, and we decided that a great way to fix everything would be to go to the movies. We both had the same brainwave: ooh, let’s go see the Snow White movie that’s out; you know, the awesome looking one with Thor, where people turn into birds, Kristen Stewart is gritty and mournful, and Charlize Theron ridiculously doubts her beauty! We made plans to meet up on our street (we live four doors apart) for the 10.30 show that night and self-medicate with escapism and butter flavoring.

When we got to the theatre, I bought the tickets from the automated machine so that I didn’t have to talk to anyone, like I always do, we got our popcorn, and my sister and I settled in for what would surely be a pathos-drenched treat complete with beauty of all stripes. What’s that? You see where this is going? You are correct, the more fools we.

Instead of this:

Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

We got this:

Mirror Mirror Julia Roberts, Lily Collins

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like Breakfast at Tiffany’s more than most, and Lily Collins was pretty charming and has great eyebrows and I imagine she’ll do a good job as Clary in the Mortal Instruments series. But, COME ON!?

Not this:

Snow White and the Huntsman Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

But this:

Mirror Mirror Julia Roberts, Lily Collins

I was doubly saddened by the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Mirror Mirror (god, why is there no comma!?) because I generally love director Tarsem Singh. The visuals in The Cell were totally amazing, and The Fall is one of my favorite movies (I love Lee Pace so much). But, sadly . . .

Not this:

Snow White and the Huntsman

But this:

Mirror Mirror

So, of course, you can understand with what utter delight my sister and I went and actually saw Snow White and the Huntsman the other day! Quelle relief!

I found Snow White and the Huntsman to be that rare fairy tale re-telling that actually provides an interesting armature to prop up the familiar storyline. I was excited to watch the world that housed this story unfold, and it was peopled with good characters who didn’t make fools out of themselves.

Queen Ravenna Charlize TheronCharlize Theron as Queen Ravenna. She was a great mix of effortless beauty and total grotesquerie. My biggest problem with her (and a HUGE pet peeve of mine in general) was that her British accent was so bad. Not as bad, mind you, as Julia Roberts’ was in Mirror Mirror, but still distracting. I just felt like there could have been a fix for this—like, make her be from some imaginary land where they have garbled accents or something. Or work on it more and overdub. Something. Otherwise, though, she was pretty awesome.

Snow White Kristen StewartKristen Stewart as Snow White. I am a Kristen Stewart supporter, especially a The Runaways, Speak style Kristen Stewart, and I thought she did about as good a job as could be done on what I might nominate as the character most devoid of personality in all of literature. Snow White is a character famous for being pretty and nice, so basically the most boring person you’ve ever met. In Snow White and the Huntsman, she is a little grittier and has a lot more spine, but hasn’t been simply transformed into a warrior princess.

One thing that both my sister and I agreed was that we wish there had been more dialogue in the film, because the near silence of Snow White and the Huntsman’s adventures added to the lack of substance in their relationship. It’s not insta-love, since we know that they share a journey, but we don’t see any reason for the Huntsman to care for her except that she has the proverbial good heart, which is, in fairy tales, the only quality that female characters really possess besides beauty to make them appealing—you know, because it means that they’re nice to children and animals and always see the best in people, which is a real draw for fairy tale dudes who act like assholes. In any case, Snow White has been locked in a cell since her father’s death when she was a child, so without some dialogue to show us that she has substance, the character seems a touch unrealistic in her appeal. But I thought Kristen Stewart really pulled it off, adding elements of tortured resignation and awkward desire to Snow White. And, bonus, her accent was pretty decent.

Chris Hemsworth The HuntsmanChris Hemsworth as The Huntsman. I found Chris Hemsworth pretty hilarious as Thor, but haven’t seen him in anything else because no one would go see The Cabin in the Woods with me so I missed it, and I haven’t seen The Avengers yet (sad). I found him intensely likeable, though. That tormented, guilty, I’m-actually-totally-transparent-but-that-means-I’m-honest thing really worked for him. He’s not annoyingly heroic, nor did he attempt to temper the fairy tale hero role with charmingly-played ineptitude. He was an attractive, dirty, unintrusive follower, and I liked him.

The supporting cast was also good. My favorite was Sam Spruell as Ravenna’s grotesque and vaguely incestuous brother. The seven dwarves included the likes of Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Bob Hoskins, so they were totally solid, even though there are a few stereotypically buffoonish moments.

Snow White and the HuntsmanMost impressive, I thought, were the aesthetics of the film. It managed to be fairy tale-esque, with its flocks of birds flying above a twisted and magical forest, but still retain the grit of villagers starving under the reign of Queen Ravenna and the grime of the Huntsman’s drunken and guilty journey.

There were a few silly moments, some pat dialogue, and a little more spelling things out than was necessary, and some hilarious shots of skinny-legged Kristen Stewart looking like a twelve-year in her cut-off gown over leggings and knee-high boots. Overall, though, I was pretty delighted by Snow White and the Huntsman.

What did you think? Tell me in the comments!

Poison Apples, Poison Worms: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
Illustrations by Carson Ellis
Little, Brown and Company, 2007

review by Tessa

Characters
The Society:
Reynie Muldoon, ultra-observant orphan
Kate Weatherall, extremely resourceful orphan
Sticky Washington, mind like a steel trap, nerves like wilted lettuce, runaway from his parents.
Constance Contraire, tiny body, huge reserve of grumpy attitude.

Adults:
Mr. Benedict, a good man, also a genius with emotionally-triggered narcolepsy
Rhonda Kazembe, passed all of Benedict’s tests and now works as his assistant
Number Two, insomniac, always noshing, fond of yellow, very loyal
Milligan, the eternally sad super spy
Miss Perumal, Reynie’s tutor and only friend
Ledroptha Curtain, evil genius mastermind inventor. director of a boarding school on an island.

Hook
Every time you turn on the TV or listen to the radio in your car, you’re not just hearing the normal soundtrack. There’s someone whispering behind all the other words. It’s a child’s voice, saying what seem like nonsense phrases.  The whispering is ratcheting up world fear and causing all kinds of global problems. Mr. Benedict knows who is doing it. But he can’t stop it.  He has to find the children who can.  And he knows the best way to do it: take out an ad in the newspaper.

Worldview

It’s the world you know, but more sinister. Think They Live! but through the lens of Lemony Snicket.  The Mysterious Benedict Society opens with a premise that was nearly irresistible to me–the completion of tests with tests embedded within them. An orphaned boy (Reynie) spots an ad in the newspaper, which he makes a habit of reading every day, targeted towards “gifted children looking for special opportunities”. Reynie notices it not only because he is a gifted child, but because it’s addressed to the children themselves, not their parents. That’s just the kind of kid Reynie is.  He notices the little things.

Hidden messages… photo by flickr user lkrichter

This advertisement attracts four children in particular who make it through the tests in varying ways, using their particular skills.  I’m not going to describe the tests, because the fun part is figuring them out.  The kids are led on to more tests, and so on and so forth until they land at the house of one Mr. Benedict, and learn that they are all, more or less, alone in the world and all, more or less, equipped to help in his quest.  A quest that involves a school for special children, a reclusive genius who uses his mechanized chair as a bullying tool, and a machine called “The Whisperer”.

Of course, the school is much like another test for the children, but with much higher stakes.  Will they prove to be resistant to the lure and comfort of The Whisperer, and the stress of their mission?  They have almost nothing to go on, but they know their actions will determine the course of world history, and the quality of life for most people on the planet.  Because the Whisperer is behind the problems that have been growing worse year after year. Problems they are familiar with, having read about them in the newspaper every day.  The kinds of problems that don’t seem connected, more like a string of bad luck that goes on so long that it only merits a shake of the head when another example of it pops up.

“Things had gotten desperately out of control, the headlines reported; the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather … why, everything, in fact, was  a complete mess, and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major–no, a dramatic--improvement in government.  ‘Things must change NOW!’ was the slogan plastered on billboards all over the city (it was a very old slogan), and although Reynie rarely watched television, he knew the Emergency was the main subject of the news programs every day, as it had been for years.”

Weirdly, even with all this going on, Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance finally feel at home, because they’ve found each other, and they’ve found a purpose for their odd talents. (Well, no one is sure about Constance yet, because her talent seems to be stubbornness and grumpiness).

Intention Achievement

You’re probably sick of me talking about balance aaaaalllll the time, but it’s important, dammit, and I’m a Libra.  I know that part of what made me want to always be furiously reading The Mysterious Benedict Society was that I was burned out on reading what I’d been reading – many superhero comics.  I needed prose, and I needed a little adventure that required more detective work and less action fighting sequences (I know, Batman is technically a detective, but he does a lot of fighting, too).  The MBS provided all these things in a cute brick of a book that hooked me with its tests and did not let go.

But part of why I enjoyed it was that it had balance.  There are cheesy jokes, like Kate wanting to have a ridiculous nickname that never catches on–in fact, the character quirks of all the characters are the cheesiest thing about this book, and I didn’t escape without many an inward groan.  The names of the adults and some of the children usually have a meaning that points towards important facets of their personality–one of the traits the book shares with early novels, a similarity that I was happy about, even though it seems cheesy– Mr. Benedict is benevolent, Number Two looks like a No. 2 pencil, Constance Contraire is quite contrary, Kate Weatherall is tough and can weather it all, S.Q. Pedalian has big feet (ped = foot in Latin)… etc., etc.

Then there’s the requisite danger, which does get chilling, especially during its first reveal, because of its subliminal nature.

“The unseen child–it sounded like a girl about Kate’s age–spoke in a plodding, whispery monotone, her voice half-drowned in static. At first only a few random words were clear enough to be understood: ‘Market … too free to be … obfuscate …’ Number Two typed more commands into the computer; the interference lessened considerably, and the child’s word came clearly now, slipping through the fain static in a slow drone:

‘The missing aren’t missing, they’re only departed,
All minds keep all thoughts–so like gold–closely guarded …’

Again the words were overcome by static. Number Two muttered under her breath. Her fingers flew across the keyboard, and the child’s slow, whispery voice returned:

‘Grow the lawn and mow the lawn.
Always leave the TV on.
Brush your teeth and kill the germs.
Poison apples, poison worms.’”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is in the tradition of Gulliver. Here he talks to the Houyhnhnms (by Grandville. via Wikimedia)

There are riddles for the kids to work out that the reader, if they are above a certain age, will probably get before the kids do (this is firmly a middle grade novel, and I love it for that).  And most importantly, there is real feeling.  It’s the same thing that makes Lemony Snicket work so well–the life lessons mixed in with the silliness are written about as they would occur in a human brain.  And it’s in the same format as early novels like Henry Fielding’s The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels–the hero(es) have adventures and travel, and each new encounter says something about society and/or teaches a lesson–but it never fails to be imaginative or exciting.  When Reynie worries about whether he’s a good person or not, it rings true.  There’s a moment where the kids are exhausted and irritable and homesick, and it’s really poignant, because these are all kids that have felt alone for a long time, and they’re being made to grow up.  So although the themes are stated plainly, they don’t sound like a panel of child psychologist inserted them into the narrative to promote maximum emotional development in the reader.

“Reynie’s mind went back to his last night at Mr. Benedict’s house. It seemed so long ago now, yet he remembered it with absolute clarity.  Much like tonight, he had felt too worked up to sleep, and despite the late hour he had slipped quietly out of bed and crept down to Mr. Benedict’s study. Mr. Benedict had welcomed Reynie to sit up with him if he had trouble sleeping; and obviously he’d quite expected Reynie to do so, for when Reynie arrived, a cup of hot tea was waiting for him on Mr. Benedict’s desk. …

‘I was wondering if you ever wish you had a family,’ Reynie sputtered. He hadn’t meant to speak so directly, but once he’d begun to ask it, the words just tumbled out.

Mr. Benedict nodded. ‘Certainly when I was your age I did. But not anymore.’

Reynie wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or depressed by this revelation.  He’d been wondering how it would feel for him to grow up without relatives. ‘You … you grew out of it, then? You stopped wanting it?’

‘Oh no, Reynie, you don’t grow out of it. It’s just that once you acquire a family, you no longer need to wish for one.’

Reynie was caught off guard. ‘You have a family?’

‘Absolutely,’ Mr. Benedict replied. ‘You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.’

Reynie had drunk up those words like life-saving medicine. Even though the next morning he would leave on a dangerous mission, even though he knew something terrible was coming down the pike, those words of Mr. Benedict’s had made all good things seem possible.”

Readalikes

A Series of Unfortunate Events / Lemony Snicket
3 orphans grow up under the most dire conditions, learn vocabulary along the way.  In one of the books there’s a hotel where each floor corresponds with a section of the Dewey Decimal System.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase / Joan Aiken
Her website calls this series “invented historical” adventures – I’ve only read one, which I bought because Edward Gorey did the illustrations–much like Carson Ellis did the illustrations for The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place / Maryrose Wood
Like if Jane Eyre were obsessed with a series of children’s books featuring a horse and had to tame three feral children.

Will I read the next book in the series?
I already have, and though I’m sad to say Carson Ellis was not the illustrator, I am happy to report that the Society gets to go to an entirely different island, meet a brave Dutch archivist, and learn about botany.

Taste: A Coming of Age Story

How An Early Love For the Dark Arts Showed Me That Taste Matters

By REBECCA, June 11, 2012

Last week, I attended BEA (BookExpo America) for the first time. It was exciting, it was crowded, and I felt like the only person in the entire world without either a smartphone or an ereader, but still! It was great. I got some wonderful books, filled my to-read list to a dangerous capacity, and got to nerd out with the amazing book bloggers Em from Love YA Lit, and Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction!

But what BEA really drove home was how incredibly unique taste is. I talked to a lot of people in lines for the same books as me, but who were excited about them for totally different reasons. And I met a lot of people who were googly-eyed for books that I couldn’t have cared less about. So, of course, I found myself thinking about my own taste in books: how did I learn what I liked to read? when did I start to have strong tastes in books? has that taste stayed the same?

Now, at 30, I have pretty diverse tastes—I love a poignant or angsty book that will make me cry, a gruesome mystery, a lighthearted romp in which people overcome obstacles and dance, a monster story, ANYTHING about gymnastics, etc. But, if there’s one thing that I’ve internalized about my taste throughout the years, it’s that people seem to think I’m, well, morbid. I know what you’re thinking: “lovely, delightful Rebecca morbid? It simply can’t be!” “Duh.” And, well, I guess it’s a little bit true. I am really fascinated by things that other people seem to think are depressing or gross or weird—I mean, I have a Ph.D. in modernist literature after all; obviously something‘s wrong with me.

My Own Private IdahoBut, did I always have a taste for the macabre? Where do such things come from? Who clued me in to this fact? To answer these questions we have to rewind about . . . 22 years or so to when I was a little kid wandering the streets libraries of Ann Arbor. My parents weren’t strict about what I read, and they certainly never censored me (except for that time they found me watching My Own Private Idaho at, like, age ten) so I pretty much had run of the library and gravitated toward what interested me. Which was, I realize now, death, vampires, diseases, ghost stories, the Holocaust, and death. What?!

The thing is: I wasn’t trying to be creepy. I didn’t have any idea that what interested me was uncommon for an eight year old, or that it might suggest to someone that there was something wrong with me (there wasn’t!). I just knew that it interested me. So, it was really kind of shocking when my dad first expressed some . . . concern that perhaps I might not want to exclusively read books where people were dying, or that perhaps I would enjoy trying some literature that wasn’t about the Holocaust. I mean, he had read me The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was little, and those are chock-a-block with death, evil, betrayal, and genocide, right?

The Witching Hour Anne RiceMy dad never tried to stop me from reading what I wanted, but his suspicion that my reading preferences were somehow out of the ordinary was the first inkling I had that there was such a thing as taste and that it was an important expression of my interests—that is, a way of thinking about the things that were important to me. My dad referred to my collection of Lurlene McDaniel books as my “dead teenager books” and asked whether my latest Anne Rice novel was also “all about dead things like vampires and witches.” Duh, dad, witches are totally not dead!

Sure, it made me feel a touch self-conscious, but not in a bad way. In fact, it really opened my eyes to why taste can be so important, especially to teenagers and young adults—and why expressing that taste in how we dress, do our hair, etc., is so essential in announcing to others where we’re coming from. Just as the books we want to read are an expression of what we think is interesting, important, beautiful, desirable, worthwhile, so too is the way we portray ourselves to the world.

Once I started thinking about taste in this way it was easy to look around me at school and see which people’s tastes in books, music, and movies seemed to match their social group, clothes, and personality, and which people’s seemed like a mismatch. It brought up questions like why does J— dress like a boring preppy kid when he actually has really interesting taste in movies? Or, how can T— have such terrible taste in music when she has such awesomely colored hair? I started drawing lines between what people liked and how they liked to be seen. These questions are, of course, hugely reductive! But in a teenage world where there are only a limited number of ways to create a external profile that might express your likes, desires, and interests to an otherwise undifferentiated hormonal, scared, irritable mass, of course it’s important.

None of this is to say that having your taste in books match your taste in t-shirts is any more necessary than matching your shoes to your belt. But as a teenager, it was always an issue of trying to express to the world (or hide from it) what you thought was important, whether it was music or social justice. It was a way to connect with people who might share your values and tastes before any of you even opened your mouths—it was like a hanky code of taste. Of course, this shorthand disappears the older we get and, of course, it’s a code that’s quite easy to misread where it exists at all. Lesson learned when I awkwardly tried to talk dystopia with someone wearing a shirt with “1984” on the front who looked at me blankly and then explained that it was her high school reunion shirt. Oops.

Years later, in college, I was thinking about the way my dad gently teased me about those Lurlene McDaniel books. Home for winter break, I asked him why he had thought it was so strange that I was interested in teenagers dying of diseases. After all, I pointed out, he was a doctor—didn’t he ever think that maybe this early interest was a sign that I might want to be a doctor too? He only had to consider this for about a second before answering sincerely, “no; I just thought you were morbid.” And he’s right. I never wanted to be a doctor or a medical examiner or a historian, or any other occupation that would retroactively contextualize my taste for death, disease, the Holocaust. But how did he know? What was it about me that made my dad so sure that those books were an expression of my interests, obsessions, questions? Easy, I guess: he knew me.

The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler WarnerAnd, of course, what I realize now is that I wasn’t morbid, per se. I was a kid with thoughts, opinions, and questions that simply were not really addressed by fiction like The Boxcar Children or The Babysitters Club (although don’t get me wrong; I read those too). Books that dealt with what a character feels like when someone they really admire dies, or the inexpressible emotions surrounding genocide, or how it feels to be very afraid, or what it might be like to be immortal; books that challenged taboos, pushed boundaries, and explored issues—these were the books that spoke to the deep questions I had as a kid. These were also the topics that I didn’t hear other kids (or adults) talking about on a regular basis. I found them the most nourishing questions and the most satisfying answers. It’s no surprise, then, that I still do.

So, in honor of my morbid little self and in celebration of all the other folks out there who were looked at askance when they answered the question, “and what are you reading there, hon?,” here are a few of my favorite childhood morbidities!

Lurlene McDaneil One Last Wish Series Lurlene McDaniel One Last Wish Lurlene McDaniel One Last Wish

Lurlene McDaniel, One Last Wish series (1992-1995). Each book features a teenager dying from an illness who is given one last wish (by the One Last Wish Foundation, the origin of which is explained in one of the books).

Good-bye, Best Friend Cherie Bennett

Cherie Bennett, Good-bye, Best Friend (1992). Star and Courtney are both sick when they meet in the hospital and become fast friends, but disease makes Courtney uncomfortable so Star plays down the seriousness of her cystic fibrosis. This book, along with A Time To Die (above) made my ten-year-old self obsessed with cystic fibrosis, and since my dad is a lung doctor I’d always ask him to tell me more about it, which he thought was very weird.

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors Piers Paul Read

Piers Paul Read,  Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974). I was totally obsessed with this book in sixth grade. The story is incredible! Also it’s the only reason I know words associated with rugby, like “scrum” and “hooker.”

Jane Yolen The Devil's Arithmetic Jane Yolen Briar Rose

Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1988). Both deal with the Holocaust—The Devil’s Arithmetic finds a young girl sucked back in time to a concentration camp, and Briar Rose is a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in the German forests during World War II. I read each about a million times and Briar Rose remains one of the only fairy tale re-tellings that I really love.

Number the Stars Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (1989). Another Holocaust book, this one features two friends, one of whom is Jewish and moves in with her friend’s family when the nazis come, forcing her friend to go on a mission to save her.

Say Goodnight, Gracie Julie Reece Deaver

Julie Reece Deaver, Say Goodnight, Gracie (1989). Shy Morgan and outgoing Jimmy have been best friends since they were little kids. Now, in high school, they support each others’ dreams—Morgan’s of acting, and Jimmy’s of dancing. But when Jimmy dies in a car crash, Morgan is thrown into a tailspin of grief.

Jurassic Park Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990). Dude, velociraptors are so scary. That sound that they make . . . my cat sometimes makes a sound like that when she’s looking out the window at birds and I’m afraid she’ll tear my throat out.

Flowers in the Attic V.C. Andrews

V.C. Andrews, Flowers in the Attic (1979). Incest, child murder, locking people in attics, love, hate, incest, poison, ballet, sex, hate, incest, love, child murder, parties, sequels.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark More Tales to Chill Your Bones
Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories series (1981-1991). The Scary Stories series bloody terrified me, and the illustrations are the scariest illustrations I’ve ever seen (don’t look, mom!). But, but, but, they’re so spine-tingling! I cannot believe they’re reissuing them with new illustrations—mistake!

Interview With the Vampire Anne Rice Anne Rice The Vampire Lestat Anne Rice The Queen of the Damned The Tale of the Body Thief Anne Rice

Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire (1976) and the rest of the Vampire Chronicles. The tortured musings of Louis’ immortal life were the refrain for most of sixth and seventh grade. It’s like I had never anticipated how horrible life could be until I thought about it never ending . . .

Michelle Remembers Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers (1989). I can go ahead and say that this is the most fucked up book I have ever, to this day, read. When Michelle is five, her mother joins a cult of devil worshipers and offers her to them to try and summon the devil. She is, in no particular order: buried alive, locked in rooms, sexually assaulted, bathed in the blood of babies, put inside a statue where bugs swarm all over her,  forced to watch murders, and more. Michelle “remembers” these things later in life, in therapy (the book is co-written with her therapist). I mean, I think it’s pretty much been debunked as being a true story, but who cares: it’s totally bizarre and fucked up and I must have checked it out of the library like twenty times.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Louis Sachar Wayside School is Falling Down Louis Sachar Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories From Wayside School series (1978-1995). These are the books that first made me realize that we live in an absurdist world. If you never read these as a kid you missed out on a major life-changing experience. They are so, so amazing and I still leave them in my bathroom at my parents’ house so that I can read them every time I go home . . . and pee.

So, there you have it: a tour through the perhaps twisted taste of 8-12 year old Rebecca. And you? What morbid jewels are you hiding in your childhood bookshelf? Tell me in the comments!

The Glamour of Rock and Roll: War For the Oaks

A Review of War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

Ace, 1987

By REBECCA, June 8, 2012

War For the Oaks Emma Bull

characters

Eddi McCandry: badass musician who starts her own band and finds herself in the middle of a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts

The Phouka: sent by the Seelie court to guard Eddi, he is half Prince and half Oscar Wilde . . . oh, and half dog

Carla DiAmato: Eddi’s best friend, and a kick-ass drummer, who wants to protect Eddi

Willy Silver: the band’s beautiful and eerily talented new guitarist

Dan Rochelle: the band’s new keyboardist and wizard of sampler, sequencer, and synth—hello, it’s the ‘80s, folks!

Hedge: the shy and silent new bassist

hook

War for the Oaks Emma BullEddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making.

worldview

MinneapolisWar For the Oaks is set in 1980s Minneapolis, and Eddi is a guitarist and singer who has been playing with bands she’s not that into and dating Stuart, a certified douchebag. Then, when she’s making her way home after leaving the band and deciding to break up with Stuart, Eddi is chased by the phouka, a man/dog shape-shifting fey, and drafted into service of the Seelie court as a kind of human barometer of an otherwise unmeasurable war between the Seelie and Unseelie court. As such, it is now the phouka’s job to protect her from those fey who mean her harm. So he moves in and goes everywhere Eddi goes, which produces many awkward and amusing scenarios. The phouka is pretty hilarious, and his interactions with Eddi and her bandmates are delightful.

PrinceIn my reviews of Karina Halle’s awesome Experiment In Terror series here and here, I mentioned that I really like books that feature characters in their twenties. I feel the same way about War For the Oaks. Eddi is an awesome character—she’s intensely passionate about music, so it’s her main focus; she doesn’t really have a job, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend; and rather than turning to a family or lover, she has a really great relationship with her best friend, Carla. It totally feels like your twenties to me. I also really like the friendship between Eddi and Carla because it’s caring and they try to protect each other, but they don’t interfere in each other’s lives or try to control their decisions.

“[Eddie] looked down her nose at the phouka and said, ‘All right, play guard dog if it makes you feel good. I’ll go climb out the bedroom window.’ She turned and started away.

‘It’s painted shut.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Gracious, pet, I’m a supernatural being.’

‘You’re a shithead,’ Eddie said sweetly, and led Carla off to the bedroom.

Eddi paced the tiny space at the end of the bed, and Carla drew her feet out of the way in mock alarm.

‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell him how to handle you.’

Eddi glanced at her deadpan face. ‘I don’t think I want to know this.’

Carla shrugged. ‘Anytime I want you to do something, I convince you it would be stupid and annoying.’

Eddi laughed and sat on the bed beside her. ‘You don’t want me to start a band?’

Carla shrugged. ‘Sometimes I forget.’

Eddi pulled a strand of Carla’s shiny black hair. ‘Silly bitch.’” (53)

The chemistry between the characters is great: they feel like real friends, real people who are getting to know each other, and real bandmates. Bonus: awesome eighties rocker-glam-androgynous-badass fashion and hair!

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Image: Suza Scalora

I am a huge sucker for a really good dude-let’s-start-a-band book, and War For the Oaks is, first and foremost, a celebration of the magic that is intrinsic in making music. This, ultimately, is what makes the novel unique and interesting. Are there other books that deal with humans getting swept up in the affairs of the fey? Sure. Are there other books about music? Sure. But War For the Oaks is so much more than either of those things: it’s a story about a woman in her twenties who pursues an impractical dream, makes a band her family, and finds love—and if Eddi has to compete in a musical duel with the Queen of the Unseelie court to save her lover and her city, well SO BE IT!

Bull is a musician herself, so the scenes of making music and giving concerts really pop. Fun fact: some of the songs that War For the Oaks attributes to Eddi are songs that Bull wrote for the band Cats Laughing, which she sang in with her husband Will Shetterly, and can be found on their album Another Way to Travel. Here is the scene when Willy first auditions. As the book progresses, they get even awesomer, but I don’t want to give anything away . . .

“Carla gave Willy a pair of four-beats, and he led off with a fast rhythmic fuzzed-out riff. Carla spiked it with her high-hat cymbal on the two and four counts, and it sounded so fine that Eddi almost forgot to sing. He cut way back during the verse to leave room for her vocals and Dan’s vaguely demented repeating melody between the lines of lyrics. Between them they gave the first verse a feeling of breath-holding anticipation. Then Carla kicked in with the drum fill that signaled the chorus, Hedge and his bass came into the mix, and the waiting was over. Willy’s voice added new weight to Carla’s and Dan’s harmonies. The bridge, when they got to it, was nice and tight, and Willy’s lead break was manic, crisp, and tasty. Eddi could feel them all catching fire off each other, responding to each other’s experiments. Carla ended the whole thing with a Keith Moon-like percussive frenzy.” (84-5)

Published in 1987, War For the Oaks was really on the cutting edge of the emerging genre of urban fantasy, and Emma Bull was hugely influential. She also wrote Finder, a novel in the Borderlands universe, one of my favorite worlds! Bull also wrote a screenplay based on War For the Oaks, which was made into a short film directed by Will Shetterly, in which Bull plays the Seelie Queen. Holy amazingface, Batman—you can watch it here.

readalikes

Tithe Holly Black

Tithe (The Modern Faerie Tales #1) by Holly Black (2002). Kaye is used to living in crap motel rooms and dingy apartments, touring with her mom’s band. But when they end up back in New Jersey for a spell, Kaye rescues a mysterious stranger and finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between two Faerie kingdoms. In an interesting turn, given that Tithe is a contemporary inheritor of War For the Oaks, Holly Black also co-edited the most recent Borderlands anthology!

 Elsewhere Will Shetterly Borderlands

Elsewhere by Will Shetterly (1992). The first of two books that Shetterly wrote in the Borderland universe, this is a totally delightful romp of magic, motorcycles, bookstores, gingerbread men, and the lost heir of faerie! See my full review here.

Pattern Recognition William Gibson

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003). It’s not usually thought of as a YA novel, but Pattern Recognition features one of my favorite young heroines ever, Cayce Pollard, a quasi-trendspotter who has been hired to trail mysterious film clips that are popping up on the internet in the hopes of figuring out what about them has commanded such an intense subcultural following. A really amazing book.

procured from: Blue Bicycle Books, a used book store in Charleston, SC, while on vacay with my mom. (Check out their awesome YALLfest, a YA festival—get it, YA + y’all, because it’s the South; get it, get it?!) We sat reading in the park, killing time before dinner, and this very polite homeless gentleman ambled over to us and asked what I was reading. When I showed him the cover, he said, “Oh, yes, the war for the oaks. I was in that war.” Indeed, sir.

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