Tag Archives: Fantasy

Modern Day Selkies

The Visitors

 Author: Simon Sylvester
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 368 pages

When I first heard about this book, I knew it included so many aspects that I love in books: an atmospheric and foggy feel, a mystery, a coming-of-age story with a female narrator, a modern day story touched by mythology, selkies, a remote island in northern Scotland. Official blurbs were throwing out lots of comparisons to Neil Gaiman and Tana French.

And the good news? I predictably really liked this book.

Flora lives with her mother, stepfather, and baby brother on the remote island of Bancree. She’s in her final year of school, and all she cares about is graduating and getting off the island. She doesn’t quite fit in at home or at school. Then, several things happen. A strange man and his daughter, Ailsa, move into an abandoned house. And men around the area, often on the fringes of the community, begin disappearing.

As Flora begins the school year, she’s drawn into a school project researching selkies. She finds a macabre book about selkies and begins collecting selkie stories from several sources, including her grandfather and a sennachie, or storyteller, who lives in a hut near the sea. And she befriends Ailsa, another girl who doesn’t quite fit in, and finds out she and her father have been moving from place to place across the Scottish coast. Motivated by his own loss, Ailsa’s father has devoted his life to tracing a string of strange disappearances, much like the disappearances that are now happening in Bancree.

The book isn’t perfect. It’s slow to start (a bit too much rumination over breaking up with the boyfriend) and gets a bit overdramatic for my taste at the end.

That being said, The Visitors is well-written, atmospheric, and evokes a sad, lonely feel for life on what feels like the edge of the world. Flora was a great narrator. The story is a mystery, but it didn’t feel like a traditional mystery story throughout. Flora doesn’t set out to solve it, like a Scottish Nancy Drew. For most of the book, it feels more like a strange backdrop, until events draw Flora in. Also, the selkie elements were wonderfully woven in. The book is sprinkled with different selkie myths that are told to Flora, and these tales were some of my favorite parts. Selkie myths are so interesting to me–stories of people torn between the land and the sea, the way love and loss are intimately braided together.

Final disclaimer: I won this book from a GoodReads Giveaway (thanks!) in return for an honest review.

The Real Boy

Title: The Real Boy
Author: Anne Ursu
Rating: 4 Stars
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Length: 352 pages

Synopsis

Oscar is a magician’s hand. He happiest gathering herbs from the ancient Barrow, reading books snuck from Caleb’s library during the night, or working in the cellar, surrounded by cats while preparing various magical herbs for Caleb. He doesn’t remember life before becoming a hand, and he doesn’t quite get his fellow human beings. When an accident forces Oscar to work in the shop, two things happen. One, he realizes he doesn’t work and think like everyone else. Two, he makes a friend in the healer’s apprentice, Callie.
The “perfect” children from the nearby city begin falling ill, while something dangerous lurks in the forest, attacking things with magic. With the magician and healer disappearing for large amounts of time, Oscar and Callie have to find a way to help the ill children and figure out what exactly is going wrong. 

Review

I really enjoyed The Real Boy. For a one-off, middle grade novel, Ursu’s Alethia is richly developed, with magic oozing from its pores (or in this case, the soil). It has a full history and developed society. Oscar and Callie were delightful main characters. And perhaps this is just because I was reading the book while traveling, but I found it hard to predict where the story was going, which I loved.
One of the major themes running through the book is Oscar trying to figure out why he is different from anyone else. He struggles to read people, is anxious in their company, and would rather read about the different properties and uses for herbs. After finding an unusual doll halfway through the book, Oscar starts to worry whether he is even human. Thankfully, he has Callie to help him puzzle it out. In return for teaching her how to use herbal remedies, Callie teaches him how to read and understand people.
During the book, I noticed Oscar had several characteristics that can be found on the autism spectrum, and I wondered if this was intentional on Ursu’s part. I looked into it, and it was very much intensional. Ursu’s son has Asperger’s, and she wanted to write a hero that her son would see is like him.
What I really appreciated about Ursu’s story is the nuance she uses with the subject. Yes, autism is a part of it, but Oscar is so well-developed that he is much more than that autism box some might want to put him into. I can’t really explain how well Ursu deals with this, so I’d encourage you to read her touching thoughts about her son, Oscar, and writing the book on Read, Write, Reflect. Here’s a taste:

I didn’t want Oscar to triumph in the end despite his autism or because of his autism; I wanted him to triumph because of who he is– an exceptionally brave, loving boy. I wanted him to know that he had the power to survive and triumph no matter what the world throws at him. I want every kid to know that. -Anne Ursu

While I caught the allusions to autism, I’m ashamed that I completely missed the numerous allusions to fairy tales throughout the book–specifically The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Pinocchio. I didn’t realize how much Ursu was weaving in older, familiar stories until I read another review that pointed this out. The allusions are everywhere, so now I really want to reread with this in mind!

The book is also really well-written and beautifully illustrated. Also of note is that the main characters are all people of color, but like the autism element, it’s quietly part of their characters without being a defining characteristic or an afterthought.

Ursu is also the author of Breadcrumbs, which has been on my to-read list for awhile now, and The Real Boy was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award this year. If you enjoy middle grade fiction or classic fantasy, I’d definitely recommend this book. And if you know a kid who enjoys fantasy, definitely hand this one to them.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane


http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/images/TheOceanattheEndoftheLane_Hardcover_1359996597.jpg
I actually listened to the audiobook of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read by the author, Neil Gaiman. I had read the blurb on the back cover but was still not expecting the story that I actually got.  I’m also still unsure as to how I feel about the book or if I even liked it. The story unfolds with the narrator looking back on a childhood adventure as an adult. In this adventure, he and his neighbor down the lane, Lettie Hempstock, try to send a spirit back who is stirring up trouble, especially for the narrator. This spirit is in the form of Ursula Monkton, the new family babysitter. I can identify with a child’s dislike of a babysitter and seeing her as a sort of monster, so that bit of fantasy definitely appealed to me. I enjoyed the scenes with the Hempstock family as I particularly liked Lettie’s mother and grandmother as characters. The end was quite sad, but it was an ending that suited the story well. Gaiman’s books and fantasies are always so different, but yet very imaginative. This is definitely a story that no one else has written.
On a side note, this book was in the adult fiction section but I would consider it more of a YA book minus the dodgy sexual encounter between Ursula Monkton and the narrator’s father. I think that is part of the reason why I liked it more than American Gods. I just tend to like Gaiman’s younger narrators better.

American Gods


http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/American+Gods/
Sonya has risen from her library school grave (aka graduated) and will actually have time to review books now!! 🙂 With that out of the way, let’s hear about American Gods:
I would have given American Gods 2 stars, but the last 100 pages were much better so 2.5 it is. I don’t want to say I can’t like this book because I think in a different context I would. I started this book during the break between summer and fall classes thinking it would make for a nice relaxing read. However, American Gods is a fairly hefty novel in terms of content, so I think if I had been in a mood for something deep, I would have liked it more. What I really wanted was something fluffy, and I thought American Gods would be a fast-paced mystery-sci fi novel. It wasn’t. Since its also character-focused it moves less quickly; Gaiman takes his time developing the characters. What I really wanted, though, was a fast-paced fantasy novel! I mean the cover has a highway with lightning on it! 
American Gods was recommended to me by Nox and Zelda as being one of Gaiman’s best. I loved The Graveyard Book and Coraline, so I thought I might delve into some adult fiction, and American Godscame highly recommended. Plus, Gaiman’s concept for the book seems intriguing and original. The concept of gods as real manifestations was interesting let alone the concept of “American” gods such as media, the internet, and television. The beginning caught my attention but after Shadow and Wednesday set off to rope more gods into Wednesday’s plan, I just lost interest. The vignettes about how the gods came to America that are scattered throughout I found distracting. The last 100 pages or so were actually quite good, but I often found myself counting how many pages to the end of the chapter and to the end of the book. I just wanted to be done with it so I could go back to reading Gone with the Wind (which is wonderful!). Perhaps I might try a different adult novel by Gaiman and see if it goes better. Any recommendations?!

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black‘ is the new novel by Diane Setterfield, author of ‘The Thirteenth Tale‘. The story opens with the incident around which the entire plots twists. While his three friends watch, William Bellman makes a perfect shot with his catapult, striking and killing a rook in a faraway tree. While his friends are impressed, the day is mostly forgotten and William grows. William’s work ethic, problem-solving attitude, people skills, and ability to learn things quickly serves him well, and he becomes an extraordinarily successful businessman and industrialist. He also falls in love and has a family.

However, as his star rises, there always seems to be a rook around. People around him start dying, and at all the funerals Bellman attends, there is a strange man in black watching. Eventually, tragedy strikes closer to home, and Bellman makes a deal with ‘Black’. Professionally, his success continues, but things are never the same after that.

The official blurb for the book calls ‘Bellman & Black’ a “heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line.” While the book was well-written, it was less eerie than I wanted. I expected an atmospheric book, with a slightly gothic feel (along the lines of Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Erin Morgenstern). I did not feel any “ratcheting tension” at all. The story was slow-moving and quotidian. Setterfield scattered references to rooks in the background of Bellman’s life, watching him, but it was obvious from the beginning where the story was going. There was no sense of mystery, and the supernatural was barely present.

‘Bellman & Black’ was very character-driven, particularly by the main character, William Bellman. I found Will a bit dull. Most of the book was devoted to his business decisions–becoming head of the mill, arranging for food for his workers, constructing his mourning emporium, doing paperwork, setting business goals. There was too much detail about his work life, and he didn’t have an interesting character to carry the business details.

Yet, I loved the last 20 pages. In the last 20 pages, the atmosphere, the emotion, the mystery that was missing for the book finally appeared. Had the entire book been written like the end, it would have lived up to its description. In fact, I think ‘Bellman & Black’ might have worked better as a short story or novella.

I’ve only heard wonderful things about Setterfield’s first book, ‘The Thirteenth Tale,’ and I still intend to go back and read it someday. ‘Bellman & Black’ might be a good book for people who like fantasy or supernatural without a lot of gothic embellishment and flowery language. People interested slow-growing family dramas may also be interested as well.

2.5 stars.

I received an ARC of Bellman & Black through NetGalley. Bellman & Black will be released on November 5th, 2013.

Medieval X-men


Graceling takes place in a traditional fantasy world where some people have been marked with heterochromia showing that they have a “grace” or power. When Katsa, our lead, discovered her grace she was only 8 years old. She killed a cousin who had….let’s go with intensions towards her. A grace for killing is rare and very valuable so she was trained in the household of her king to be a weapon that he wielded against traitors and any others who dare disobey him. As she comes into her own, she realizes that what her king wishes isn’t just and, along with his spymaster, create the Council that ranges throughout the kingdoms working for good. It’s while performing a mission for the council that she meets Prince Po, who is also graced. Po’s grace is a major plot point, so I don’t know how much I can actually talk about their relationship. Just know that he’s amazing, and I love him.

 
Katsa is a girl I can identify with – anti-social, stubborn. I loved that she doesn’t change her opinions based on what others think and that her ultimate goal isn’t to fall in love and get married. It’s refreshing in a YA book geared towards girls. Po’s character is a brilliant counterpoint to Katsa, he’s gregarious, very independent and although he helps Katsa become more outgoing, he does it on her terms. The romance in this book (because what would a YA book be without a little romance) is paced very well, it isn’t insta-love that happens to often. It develops slowly and through friendship. 
This book was so good, I want to recommend it to everyone I know! I’ll admit, the last 20 pages or so were a bit of a letdown, which is why I give it 4.5 rather than 5 stars. Ultimately, though, it was a great read.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So, if you haven’t heard yet (how’s life under that rock?), Neil Gaiman published a new book last month—‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Both of us, Zelda and Madeleine, loved the book.

Zelda: I have no negative things to say except it ended too soon. I read the inside flap description but that doesn’t do the book justice.

Madeleine: I usually read a lot about a book before it comes out—the official description, the blurbs, and maybe a few reviews. When Gaiman first announced the book, there was no description, just the beautiful cover. As the publication date approached, I liked not knowing what to expect, so I avoided all descriptions and reviews. It was a good choice—I went into it without preformed opinions and was blown away by the story.

Zelda: The only thing that could have made this better is if Neil Gaiman read it to me himself.

Madeleine: Neil Gaiman read a bit of it to me! Well, me and a couple hundred other people. I was very lucky to get to see him when he stopped for a reading in Minnesota. Here’s a blurry picture from my phone that proves how close I was (third row).

Madeleine: I almost felt bad going—he had been up until 3 AM the night before signing things. Here I am promoting author abuse by attending his readings. But he was very gracious about everything. The evening as a whole was wonderful. And, you know, I proceeded to contribute to author abuse by getting my copy signed.

Zelda: You mentioned the cover earlier. Let us discuss the cover for a moment. Gorgeous. Just stunning. I love the title, the font…everything.

Madeleine: Did you know? There’s a picture on the back of the book of a child standing on a drainpipe—that’s a real picture of our esteemed author. I’ve heard that the book is a bit autobiographical. I can definitely see the unnamed narrator as a young Neil—bookish, thoughtful and aware, and able to see the supernatural in everyday life.

Zelda: I’ll admit, I cried a little bit before I even really knew the characters. For such a short book I was surprised at how much I cared about the characters and for how well developed they were.

Madeleine: At the reading, Gaiman talked a bit about how the book came about. He usually chooses to write his books, and plans them out. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ started out as a short story for his wife. He couldn’t tell where the story was going, but kept writing. He finished and looked at this word count and realized he had written a novel. I wonder if the characters and the story felt so real and organic, because they weren’t planned out, but came from some subconscious pool (or is it an ocean?) of story and myth.

Zelda: Gaiman has always impressed me but this was so creative and engaging that he brought himself to a whole new level. This was better than I thought it would be and I just want to tell everyone I see to read it. Maybe I am gushing too much and now someone will read this and then be disappointed, but I can’t help it.

Madeleine: I agree.  ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ may be my favorite book by Neil Gaiman yet. It’s a simple story, but it’s dark and beautiful and evocative.

Zelda: Just go read it. All I can say is you won’t regret it.