Completed: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: Many Waters by Madeleine L'EngleMany Waters
Madeleine L’Engle
(1986, US)

Dennys raised his face to the stars, and their light fell against his cheeks like dew. They chimed at him softly. Do not seek to comprehend. All shall be well. Wait. Patience. Wait. You do not always have to do something. Wait. Chapter 12

There were over two decades between the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and Many Waters, the fourth book in the loose “Time Quintet.” And in a way, it feels it. The magic that I felt with Wrinkle and its second sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seems to be gone.

The ties between Many Waters and the earlier books are by way of the Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, who compared to the rest of the Murry family, are “normal” and more skeptical than their siblings: Meg and Charles Wallace may believe in unicorns, but they don’t. And yet it is these two who, whether through accident or divine intervention, find themselves in a pre-flood world, sharing a tent with (Biblical) Noah’s father, Lamech, and befriend Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and his daughter, Yalith. The Genesis story doesn’t give names to the women, nor does it tell us if Noah had daughters–or any other living family, for that matter–and so this becomes an interesting exploration of a familiar story: what is the story of the unnamed women? What would it have been like for Noah and his sons and their wives to know that others they loved and cared for would die in a devastating flood? What if Noah had a daughter?

It is a strange book, in a way. One part Bible story retelling, one part fantasy, one part sci-fi time-travel – I’m not sure what to make of it. There seems a disconnect between fleshing out the story of Noah and his family, pre-flood, while also introducing unicorns and manticore of later European story-telling and adding in time-traveling boys from centuries later.

Additionally, while the earlier novels seem to focus on the emotional growth of the main characters–learning to defeat darkness by overcoming their own flaws or learning to love and share love–here, it seems that the twins’ story is more about their sexual awakening rather than any emotional growth. Indeed, the sexuality seems so frank, that I would be inclined to classify this as YA, while still thinking of the earlier novels as mid-grade books. Though, to be fair, I first read this in elementary school and anything that might have been more “grown up” went straight over my head!

I was a bit disappointed in this novel compared to the earlier books–I was hoping for more of the magical world I found in A Wrinkle in Time. I still have one book left in the series, but knowing that it was written after this last one, I admit, I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation – will it be a return to form, or will the magic be gone?

Completed: All the Crooked Saints

The first miracle was this: making the darkness visible.

Sadness is a little like darkness. They both begin in the same way. A tiny, thin pool of uneasiness settles in the bottom of the gut. Sadness simmers fast and boils hard and then billows up and out, filling first the stomach, then heart, then lungs, then legs, then arms, then up into the throat, then pressing against eardrums, then swelling against skull and eventually spilling out of eyes in a hissing release. Darkness, though, grows like a cave formation. Slow drips from the uneasiness harden over the surface of a slick knob of pain. Over time, the darkness crusts in unpredictable layers, growing at such a pace that one doesn’t notice it has filled every cavern under the skin until movement becomes difficult or even impossible.

Darkness never boils over. Darkness remains inside. (Ch. 4)

Cover: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie StiefvaterAll the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
US, 2017

When I first heard about All the Crooked Saints, I didn’t think I would rush out to read it when it came out; something about the description failed to grab me. But as it grew closer to publication date, and seeing more about it online, I decided to place a hold at the library and a short time after its release I had it in my hands. It turned out, for various reasons, to be the perfect book at just that time.

Set in 1960s Colorado, All the Crooked Saints is the story of the Soria family, some of whose members can perform the miracle of giving physical shape to another’s darkness. That person must then complete the hard work of overcoming the darkness for themselves, and a Soria must never help—for then their own darkness will be made manifest, and a Soria’s darkness is said to be greater than any other’s.

Although it is not a very long book (around 300 pages if I recall correctly), it is even lighter on plot, with a story spanning only a few short days. But with a wide and varied cast of characters, it is more intent on their inner lives and the desolate, but beautiful, landscape that surrounds them. Each character carries some sort of “darkness,”—either of their own making or of external forces (or a combination of both)—whether or not it has been made manifest for all to see. Just as the physical form of the darkness prevents the pilgrim from leaving the confines of the Soria compound, so their previous internal darkness prevented them from leaving some hinderance behind, from moving forward. Although at times the point seemed overly-direct, All the Crooked Saints is Steifvater’s metaphor for how she feels we should all approach our own inner demons, with hard work that ultimately only we can solve, not anyone around us, a message no less true for its directness. And ultimately it is also a story about hope, something that is so easy to lose when all of the news and social media around us seem to want to inspire us to despair instead.

Her dress was wet, and so was her skin. This was because, despite the porch roof, it was raining on her. Rain originated from nowhere and spattered on her hair and face and shoulders and clothing, then ran off the stairs and formed a fast-running rivulet into the brush. Every part of her dress was covered with monarch butterflies, their orange-and-black stained-glass wings likewise soaked. They clung to her, unable to do anything but slowly move their wings or climb across the fabric. (Ch 3)

Unlike her previous novels, All the Crooked Saints departs from Stiefvater’s beloved Celtic mythology in favor of Mexican folklore, and also sets aside her more familiar fantasy techniques for the realm of magical realism, stretching and straining the bounds of reality in such a matter-of-fact way, that even the more surprising of the miracles seem natural. The previous Stiefvater fiction I’ve read has always remained so grounded in the familiar world, however, that this doesn’t feel so great of a departure, and at times, it seemed to me less “magical realism” and more “tall tale” – prompting me to wonder, what the bounds are of each? A line of investigation, if my library pile weren’t pointedly reminding me of other obligations, I would follow up on sooner rather than later.

Completed: The Scorprio Races

Cover - Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater
2011, U.S.

“Fifty years ago, it was a man they killed up there, just like every year before. The man who will not ride.”

“Why?” I demanded.

Her voice is bored; there’s a real answer, possibly, but she’s not interested in knowing it. “Because men like to kill things. Good thing they stopped. We’d run out of men.”

“Because,” cuts in a voice that I recognize instantly, “if you feed the island blood before the race, maybe she won’t take as much during it.”

This wasn’t the title that I had in mind when I decided to participate in this year’s Once Upon a Time challenge, but it was the one that somehow managed to make its way home with me from the library–and more importantly, get read. I’ve read several of Stiefvater’s books now (the first three books in the Raven Cycle plus this), and she seems to write just the sort of thing I can’t resist. I saw a list–I don’t remember where now–of books from she read growing up that she recommended to her fans for when they run out of her books to read. So many of them–The Dark is Rising series, Arthurian mythology, among others–were stories I either loved growing up or have (belatedly) discovered since. No wonder I am drawn to these.

The Scorpio Races introduced me to a myth I was not previously familiar with (reminding me I still want to read more Celtic mythology), that of the water horse, or capall uisce (or glashtin, capall uisge, cabyll ushtey, aughisky, each uisge, or kepie according to which mythology/language is being referenced), a flesh-eating November-associated, ocean horse. In Stiefvater’s version, the island men race these dangerous creatures each November–and more than one man is almost certain to die. This race is the background for the novel, which focuses on two young people, Sean, a multi-year champion of the races who seems to be one of the only to understand the wild horses, and Kate (or “Puck”), who, out of desperation enters the race–the first woman to do so, a grave challenge to convention, but also a grave risk to her life. Although I suppose I could say that the story is largely plot-based it also focuses much on the characters, specifically Sean and Puck, who both narrate the story. They both have desires and dreams, and it is really their chase after these that forms the heart of the novel; the climatic race is just the means by which they hope to achieve them.

As with the other Stiefvater novels I’ve read, I was completely pulled in by the story–by the magic, of her words, of the horses, of the setting. The Thisby of the novel reminded me of the descriptions of the remote Shetland islands in Ann Clevees’ Raven Black. As I turned the last pages, I found I was reluctant to leave Thisby–and its dangerous, magical horses–behind.

Once Upon a Time IX Logo

Completed: Treasure Island

First, a reminder to all participants in the Classic Children’s Literature event: don’t forget to link your posts up on the main page so we can all find them! Business over…

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson
1883, Scotland
Treasure Island Title Page

More than any previous year, this January’s children’s classics reading have been for me about reading books I’ve long been meaning to get to. When I was browsing my shelves looking for the next thing, I came across “my” copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It has been in the family a long time–perhaps as many as one hundred years–having passed from my great-uncle to his younger sister–my grandma, to my mom and now me (somehow–I’m actually not sure why it’s on my shelves and not my brother’s but I suspect linear feet available had something to do with it).

I don’t really know how well Treasure Island is generally known. It seems fairly. There was a Muppet version after all. But the actual book–I don’t know? I perhaps wonder this because even though I should know the story–I distinctly remember my mom reading it to my younger brother and I on our first beach vacation when we were quite little (third grade and kindergarten)–how little did I recall!

I was surprised at how much time Stevenson spends in England, setting up the story with the adventure of the obtaining of the treasure map. And it is proof right from the start that this is a true adventure novel–although so much time (the whole of Part I) is spent in England, the pages turn just as fast as during the later adventures on Treasure Island itself. I was also slightly surprised to find how little I remembered of the island-side adventures. They spent so much time on land! I didn’t remember that. Nor did I remember how much time Jim Hawkins, the primary narrator and the boy (I’m guessing early teens) who first obtains the treasure map from the chest of a dead seaman (pirate!) who stayed at his father’s inn, is away from his friends, the financier Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey.

But what really struck me most coming away from this is a sense of moral ambiguity to the novel. True enough, the pirates’ self-defeat thanks in no small part to copious quantities of rum could seemingly provide an example for the temperance society, and the failure of their dastardly plot could be a moral in and of itself. (Good guys win, bad guys lose.) But there’s the sly Long John Silver–surely the most memorable character of the lot–who not only moves amongst sides as the wind blows, but also manages his own survival at the end. His motivations are plain enough, but his outcome is not the stuff of children’s lessons. This is an adventure story, not a morality tale.

More interestingly to me though, is the storyline centered on Jim Hawkins. He is always on the side of the loyal crew, so there is no ambiguity there, but he is a reckless, impulsive boy. He abandons duty and his friends, not once but twice, and though he risks his life both times–and nearly dies twice on the second adventure–because his actions ultimately prove helpful to the safety of his friends he is not reprimanded but rather rises in their esteem. It is as if to say obedience is not as important as the ultimate outcome. In contrast, I am more accustomed to the story where disobedience (of a good or moral instruction, not of a bad instruction) leads to its own punishment, usually some tragic occurrence that might otherwise have been prevented had the child/youth done as they were told. Although I suppose it could be argued that some tragedy does result from Hawkins’s second departure, because it ultimately works for the benefit of the loyal crew, its effect is mitigated.

As an adventure it is quite fun–well paced, with twists and turns aplenty. It seems it would be a fun film. I should search out one of the adaptations–any recommendations?

(Completed): A Series of Posts in One

I’ve had a fairly good reading year to date. I haven’t quite managed to get everything read I wanted (especially in anticipated time frames), but I’ve read books I hadn’t planned on as well as some I really wanted to get through. Unfortunately, my blogging activity: not so great. That leaves me with books I don’t remember well enough to write full posts on. (Well, to be fair, I may not have had enough to say on one or two of these in the first place. After all, I’ve managed a full post on Quiet, and I read that one in May.) And a few weeks back (when I actually started writing this) I reached a point when I felt I couldn’t read any more until  So I decided to just clear the deck and write up some brief thoughts here, for my own records if nothing else.  Presented in order of completion:

The Memoirs of Sherlock HolmesThe Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1894, Scotland

Alas, I don’t recall much of my thoughts on this Sherlock Holmes collection. I do remember that I enjoyed it more than I did the similar The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but I think that is more likely due to reading mood than any real difference between the two collections. One thing I found: these stories are just the perfect length for reading at lunch at work. In fact, I probably read more of this book on lunch breaks than any other book this year!

There were two stories I did find memorable: the infamous “The Final Problem” (of course) and “The Yellow Face,” which I noted offered a view of the restrictive life of women in the Victorian era: the client comes to Holmes concerned over what his wife is up to because she wasn’t home when he returned. However, it surprised me in the end, for a completely different social reason. I can’t say why without giving away the end (which I am reluctant to do for a mystery). Suffice it to say, not quite what I expected from a story from the 19th century.

Up next in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which will hopefully be read for this year’s edition of R.I.P.

This book qualifies as a Classics Club selection, as one of my 2013 TBR Challenge selections, and as part of my Mysteries & Detective Fiction project.

outsilentplanetOut of the Silent Planet
C. S. Lewis
1938, Britain

I find myself forced to admit that I find it rather easy to forget that I read Out of the Silent Planet this summer. And that I needed to post on it. So, yes, not really my favorite Lewis. For one thing, it was far more work than I had really expected–trying to picture the environment, keep up with the made-up words. I don’t know if that’s a failing of the book or the reader (I don’t often read books with extensive world-building). That said, I will likely finish out the trilogy at some point.

“Yes,” said Oyarsa, ” but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.” (Ch. 20)

This is Lewis’s science fiction. Of course, it is also Lewis, so there is underpinning theology which shapes things, and which, I suspect, is what ultimately causes it to deviate from the expected. On the one hand, it is science fiction in the most expected sense, I think: space flight, alien planet, extraterrestrial beings. But what else we expect–that other is dangerous to man, that man is at the top of the totem pole–that is not necessarily so. Lewis really seems to flip some of the science fiction tropes around*–as well as act as a sort of commentary on British colonialism. (I think. It seems…) Although mention is made of “white man’s burden” and it is clear that villains Weston and Divine want to take the traditional colonizer’s/explorer’s route of raping and plundering a new world, main-character Ransom’s interactions with the “natives” are so radically different. While there may be some hint at the concept of “noble savage” in the inspiration of the three different groups of Malacandra, I think what Lewis really presents is an alternate Earth, one where the Fall (of man) hasn’t happened: Malacandra shows us what might have been. Thus, the hnau are friendly, open, welcoming. They are not innocent, i.e., they have knowledge that evil and darkness exists (something Ransom seems not to recognize at first, as he attempts to shield them from knowledge that there is evil on his home planet), but they are good. I think Lewis’s theology is more subtle here than in the Narnia novels, but it is still present. Indeed, this reminds me more of Tolkien’s Silmarillion than Narnia. (Also, I thought the last chapter, the one that could almost have been left off, the best part.)

*Legitimate question: would Lewis have been writing this before some of the standard SF tropes existed?
The-Raven-BoysThe Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
2012, U.S.

I believe I mentioned earlier this summer that I’ve been experimenting with listening to audiobooks while driving home from work. I know many people love audiobooks for their commutes, but I seem to have a great difficulty with attention paying when listening to books. Which is odd given that my dad read to my brother and I for many years–if we made it through The Lord of the Rings why can’t I listen to a professionally produced audiobook without frequent rewindings as my attention constantly wanders to other things? I’ve found that “easier” books or rereads work a bit better, so I took advantage of a summer series of free YA offerings through audiobooksync.com. I’ve only listened to a couple so far, but it was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys which really grabbed my attention–so much so that I stopped listening to the audiobook and picked up a paper copy at the library. You can throw your “but audiobooks are real books” at me all you like; I simply can’t listen well enough to stick with an audio version of something I’m enjoying so much. Of course, this means I was next hit with the unfortunate reality that The Raven Boys is the first of a (length unknown to me) series, and the second book didn’t come put until mid-September. Ah yes. I don’t mind waits, it’s remembering the earlier book(s) in the meantime that’s the problem.

The Raven Boys qualifies, I think, as a contemporary fantasy. Maybe. I’m vague on definitions. It’s set in the U.S. south, Virginia specifically, in the present day. The main characters are all high-school students, most of whom attend an elite private school, and all of whom are on a quest for a mythical ley-line, with a few added psychics thrown in for good measure. There is much mention of a Welsh king, Glendower. I am rather reminded of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which is perhaps the best comparison I know for the type of fantasy this is. (I am rather under-read in fantasy and definite terminology is beyond me.) Oddly though, while reading I was actually more reminded of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are set in the south, with…unusual…high school students as the main characters, both have important scenes in the woods. And both give the name “Blue” to the main female character. (Is that a southern name then? Or just a “quirky” girl’s name name?) There’s perhaps not really any reason to compare the two, but I couldn’t help making the connection. It did make me think that perhaps I ought read more U.S. southern lit, as I seem to be fond of it… Also, perhaps mythologies and legends from the British Isles.

I actually don’t have much else to say beyond that I really enjoyed it–I think for both the characters and the atmosphere–I kept listening to Loreena McKennitt’s Celtic influenced music while reading, which seemed completely appropriate. (What? Doesn’t everybody match their playlist to their reading?)

In terms of atmosphere, this seems appropriate for seasonal R.I.P. reading, but as I read it this summer, I’m not including it on my list. Also, if audiobooks are your sort of thing, I thought it very well narrated.

Phew. All caught up. Now I can return to reading guilt-free. Let’s just not let this happen again, shall we?