Archive for the ‘Robin McKinley’ Category

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley ~ 1982. This edition: Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2002. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-130975-X. 272 pages.

Orphaned misfit tomboy rather unwillingly travels to a new home, finds herself, falls in love and is fallen in love with, saves a kingdom. There we have it in a nutshell.

Embellishments include a rather good invented world based recognizably on colonial Great Britain and one of its more troublesome hot-place colonies, wonderfully psychic horses, stellar swordplay (our heroine is a natural, of course), giant domesticated cheetah-like cats (I want one!), not-quite-human bad guys, and a fair bit of magic.

Also a strong silent type who just happens to be a king, and who does he fall for?

Yup. You guessed it.

Okay, this sounds a bit dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be, because this is a very decent example of its genre, a fast-moving bildungsroman incorporating a truly generous number of fantasy-fiction tropes, with undoubted inspiration from those who went this way before, most obviously perhaps our old friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s the back cover blurb from my Firebird edition, which hits all the high points:

Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Free Hillfolk. When Corlath, the Hillfolk King, sees her for the first time, he is shaken—for he can tell that she is something more than she appears to be. He will soon realize what Harry has never guessed: She is to become Harimad-sol, King’s Rider, and carry the Blue Sword, Gonturan, which no woman has wielded since the legendary Lady Aerin, generations past…

Damar is well imagined, and I am happy to report that McKinley develops it in much more detail in another, even better novel, the prequel to The Blue Sword (though published after it, in 1984): The Hero and the Crown. Lots more girl power. And horses. And there also be dragons.

Also in several short stories contained in the 1994 collect The Knot in the Grain.

Good stuff.

The Blue Sword picked up a seriously decent award early on, being designated a Newbery Honor Book in 1983 (The Hero and the Crown subsequently won the Newbery Medal in 1985), and a couple of ALA citations, one  for Notable Book, and another for Best Book for Young Adults.

This was McKinley’s second published novel, after 1978’s Beauty, and in common with a lot of her early work it is for the most part nice and tight and well-edited; sadly the same cannot be said for some of her later efforts, which suffer from over embellishment and goosey-loosey plot structure. (Sunshine, you’re the gorgeously vampirish exception. Shadows, I’m looking right at you.)

My rating: a good strong 8/10, because I’ve read it quite a number of time over the years (though I was out of the target YA age group when it was first published, and so missed reading it in my teen years) and I still like it a lot, crowded with predictable fantasy stereotype as it is.

Undemanding and engaging escape reading, as so many of the better “youth” novels are. Picking out those familiar fantasy-lit motifs and seeing how the author makes them her own can be a lot of fun.

 

Read Full Post »

Beauty by Robin McKinley ~ 1978. This edition: Harper Collins, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-024149-0. 247 pages.

Robin McKinley’s first published novel, targeted at the pre-teen/teen readership of forty years ago.  (Can she really have been writing for that long? Golly!)

Surely we all know the outline of this fairytale:

  • rich shipping merchant loses his fleet in a storm
  • selfish children all except one daughter are peeved at new poverty
  • word comes that one of the merchant’s ships has survived
  • children all request rich gifts except good daughter who askes merely for rose
  • father, returning home without rose (it’s winter), is lost in blizzard and stumbles upon mysterious unpeopled castle where food and fire and yes, a blooming rose garden, appear by magic
  • father plucks rose and is confronted by horrific beast demanding penance
  • father trots home with rose and bad news and good daughter offers herself as sacrifice to beast to save father

Need I go on?

McKinley takes the traditional French fairy tale of La Belle et la Bête and twists it a little here and there to fit her own particular ethos – for example, the scenario in which the presumably doomed Beauty leaves behind a loving family flies in the face of the usual “selfish sisters” setup – but it is essentially the traditional story retold, with the additional romantic fillip of a triple wedding at the end (Beauty, her sister, and their widowed father all finding their One True Loves), plus horses.

Yes, horses.

Or, perhaps more accurately, one horse in particular, Beauty’s steed Greatheart, a massive warhorse stallion who was hand-raised by Beauty and thus imprinted on her to the point where he refuses to eat in her absence. He is noble, majestic, tireless, utterly obedient etcetera, and I am sure would affect the susceptible average thirteen year old reader like catnip affects a half-grown kitten. Pure intoxication.

This Beauty is a clever-sweet, trope-ridden novel. The heroine is the stock tomboy type who thinks she’s utterly homely – “Beauty” is a self-chosen (and eventually ironic) nickname because she doesn’t care for the stolid “Honour” which her mother christened her with – but of course she blossoms into loveliness just when it counts the most.  There is enough brooding romance to get the reader all warmed up, but nothing explicit enough to have it whisked away to the adult section of the library.

I first read Beauty a decade or so ago when I had my own pre-teen reader in residence. We shared the opinion that it was a nice enough story but a bit too perfectly peopled – there are zero villains, except for the nebulous non-human magician who works the original enchantment turning Man to Beast –  and even rather goopy here and there.

Nothing happened this time round to change my opinion.

Damning with faint praise? Yes, I suppose I am.

That said, it’s not that bad. Some parts are, in fact, excellent.

I would happily present this to a young reader, say between the ages of eleven and fifteenish, who is romantically inclined and fond of horses. And, much as I hate to use gender-based recommendations, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is likely to appeal the most to girls.

And of course to Robin McKinley fans of any age, and all those open to whiling away a few hours with a blatantly charming re-worked fairytale.

My rating: 7/10.

 

 

Read Full Post »

shadows robin mckinleyShadows by Robin McKinley ~ 2013. This edition: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-399-16579-5. 356 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I wasn’t going to talk about this book, but then I thought, yes, I have to, because I need to add it to my just-published Most Disappointing Reads of 2013 list. Which is utterly depressing, because I wanted it to be at least good enough to bring back some of my admiration for this can-be-marvelous writer. This is the woman who crafted The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and Beauty (the first one) and, yes, Sunshine, all of which are gorgeous young adult works with cross-generational appeal set in meticulously detailed alternate worlds.

Shadows tries to get there too, but along the way it crashes and burns, and not in a spectacular blaze but just with a damp, smoky fizzle. What a sloppy book. I am most unhappy about it. So there may be spoilers coming below, because I’m feeling sulky and disappointed and cranky.

From the flyleaf:

The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.

It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.

Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. It’s not only that he’s from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows that follow him around? And why is her dog not bothered by them?

Newworld is all about science – you’re expected to give up fairy tales as soon as you’re old enough to read them for yourself – and magic is illegal. In Newworld the magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago – mostly. Maggie’s best friend Jill has some foresight, and Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage…

So Maggie despises her new stepfather, and shuns his every good-natured attempt to make friends. He’s a weirdly dressed, odd-looking immigrant with a funny accent from a pseudo-Balkan country in Oldworld, where magic is still practised, and even though he has to have been certified “clean” to be allowed to immigrate to Newworld, those multi-legged, wavering, ever-changing, elusive shadows which no one but Maggie seems to be aware of put her off in a huge way. And no matter how happy Val makes Maggie’s widowed mother, Maggie finds it totally, like, pathetic.

Maggie rolls her eyes at the grown-ups in her life and putters along doing typical teenage girl things. Like struggling with algebra, and dodging creepy teachers, and hanging with her friends, and making eyes at the hot new guy at the local pizza joint. Not to mention making super-intricate origami, working at the local animal shelter, and training her amazing-super-fabulous border collie, and monologuing on in über-detail about all of the above.

The first person narration in this gushing fairy tale is so breathless and run-on and stream-of-consciousness discuss-every-nuance (except the really important stuff which might clue the reader in to what the heck the implications actually are of cobeys and silverbugs and what the government guys do with people who practise magic) that when big bad stuff starts to happen I was pretty jaded already. (See, the writing style is catching!)

So anyway, our heroine is a super duper animal lover with amazing communicative abilities regarding the four-legged creatures of her world, which is convenient when she needs to start figuring out the canine elements of Val’s shadows, which suddenly want to get up close and personal with her, and the werewolf tendencies of her old school chum Takahiro.

With the help of her little group of human friends and the imported Oldworld shadows and a whole bunch of animal pals, not to mention her magical algebra book (which is yet another thing never explained at all which I found deeply annoying), Maggie knits up a few bulges of magic trying to break through into Newworld, rescues Val (who is suddenly a good guy, all “creepiness” forgiven) from the bad government guys who have seized him and chained him up in an abandoned army base conveniently staffed only by a few friendly neighbourhood watch-type guards, and they all make it to the family safe haven (“mysteriously” called “Haven”) where everything will be sure to be sorted out, because wow! – Val and Mom and the aunties are all still chock full of magical powers which they’ve cleverly masked from the Newworld government scanners.  Oh, and Maggie finds love. Cute, cuddly, teenage love. Blush, blush.

I can only speculate that this is aimed strictly at the teen girl market, though the family teen girl whose Christmas present this was quit part way through in disgust. “Confusing, and not in a good way. Too much super-girl with the awesome dog training powers – we get it already. And the slang is so contrived and annoying. This is unrelatable. Where’s my new Maggie Stiefvater?”

I plugged through to the end, and though it picked up steam for a bit in the middle, it got tiresome again well before then end, and all I could think was, “Oh, Robin McKinley. Why?”

And where was your editorial advisor when you sent in this apparent first draft which made it into print?

If tightened up this could have been much, much better. In this reader’s opinion. Because I know what Robin McKinley can do; the proof is on the favourites bookshelf.

Read Full Post »

Installment 3 in the 2013 Round-Up takes a melancholy look at some books which just didn’t do it for me.

Still to come, Installment 4 highlighting some books which really hit the spot: Personal Favourites of 2013.

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way. A complicated and vaguely incestuous (cousins all over each other) picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence. The period details weren’t enough to make up for the unsavoury plot and stylistic deficits.

sea jade phyllis a whitney 0012. Phyllis A. Whitney’s Gosh-Awful Bodice Rippers

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

Just to prove that I sometimes show desperately poor judgement in my reading choices, I willingly read not one, not two, but three books by the very prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney this year. One of these, Seven Tears for Apollo, was reasonably decent, but these other two were absolute stinkers.

Sea Jade was a desperately gothic romance set in post-Civil War New England. Here’s our heroine.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

Breathless, gushing, suddenly orphaned Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. As soon as she seeks refuge with her late father’s old friend Captain Bascombe, she’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with his widowed son. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

Points in favour were a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella  was salvaged very slightly by its nicely described setting, that of the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Shell collecting, jewel thieves, love triangles, heaving bosoms all round. A throbbingly broody love interest named Kingdon should have tipped me off, but I squelched those misgivings down, because I so wanted this to be better than it turned out to be. More clues to its sheer over-the-top-ness which I willfully ignored can be found on the front flyleaf:

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

Much less gushing and emotional than Phyllis A. Whitney’s tortured heroines is this home-grown Canadian gal. Deborah Blair, a young librarian from Montreal, disembarks from a train at a remote way station in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise. The first thing she does is when the train pulls away is to strip off her city clothes, change into country duds, and pitch her suitcase and dress suit into the lake. Then she sets off on the 9-mile hike to the mountain holiday camp where she has secretly booked herself a holiday.

Oh, hurray! Tell me more, I thought. But sadly that was about as good as it got. Deborah is fleeing from both an overbearing mother and a rotten, already-married lover, and both track her down to her mountain hideaway, but not before she has found enough self-fulfillment among the lofty peaks and has gained a certain amount of self confidence due to the appreciative embraces of several of her fellow (male) guests to tell them both (mother and lover) to go take a hike.

Not a horrible book at all, and it had some good things to say about female self determination, but clunky styling, the plainest of prose, and an increasingly awkward plot kept it from reaching significant heights. A keeper because of its vintage appeal and enthusiastically described Alberta setting, but disappointing because it could have been so much better with tighter editing, an expanded vocabulary, and less wooden characterizations.

 unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry rachel joyce4. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

This recent bestseller started off with some promise. Recently retired Harold, stuck aimlessly at home with his sour wife, receives a letter from an old colleague which tells him that she is terminally ill. Harold hems and haws and eventually writes a rather pathetic letter of condolence. He sets off to walk to the mail box to send the letter, but is overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk to see the doomed Queenie and deliver his message in person. While he’s walking, she can’t die, is his sudden superstitious thought. The catch is that she is ensconced in a nursing home some 600 miles away. But he trudges along in his light summer jacket and golf shoes, for days and days and days, compelled by an inner urge to make at least this one thing right in his rather gone-wrong life.

Sadly, very soon into Harold’s walk, the plot went all mawkish and droopy and all directions of highly unlikely as meaningful encounters with troubled but helpful people start to occur in quick succession, until at last an assortment of odd pedestrians start walking along with Harold in some sort of copy-cat pilgrimage having nothing to do with poor dying Queenie.

I’m all into magical reality if it’s convincingly well done, but this one demanded more of my suspension of disbelief than I could possibly give.  And the Big Sad Secret which was revealed at the end was so terribly boring, and the “life affirming” ending was so stereotyped that I was tempted to give the thing the toss-across-the-room treatment. It was only saved by the fact that it was a library book. Sorry about my rude dismissal, those of you who loved this one, but my dislike for the way this deteriorated from its early promise is savage and sincere.

And checking out the one-star reviews on Goodreads showed that while I am part of  a serious minority, I was not alone in my annoyed dislike. Long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize? Was it really?! Oh. My. Gosh. Though I see (I checked) that it didn’t get to short-list status. Thank you, gods of literature, for that small mercy.

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

I hate it when I quite like an author but then he/she turns out not just one or two but a whole string of sub-par throw-away books. Pearl S. Buck is a classic case of this, and I have long had a love-hate relationship with her work. When she’s good, she very, very good, but when she gets sloppy, she’s dire. Guess which category this novel – long novella(?) – falls into?

It has an interesting premise, but the characters are all so smug and unlikeable that any sympathy for their situation I might have had soon evaporated.  Here’s the plot. An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. The woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, complete with faithful hired man. Communication is sporadic with China; years pass quietly. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The (mature teenage) son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. The woman vapors about, meddles in son’s romantic affairs. She continually demonstrates extreme snobbism, and not-so-secretly rejoices that son’s fiancé is orphaned so she (the mother) will not have to interact with them. During all of this not one but two prospective suitors to the mother materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???!

By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared. Meh. A very carelessly put together book, from a writer who can do much better.

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

Those of you who are aware of my strong infatuation with the glorious Margery Sharp will be surprised to see her on the Most Disappointing list, but sadly, this book let me down. It’s not rotten, but it’s not up to par either. The plot – never admittedly a very strong point with this author – seems more befuddled than usual, and the characters did not engender any sort of a sympathetic response in my readerly heart. I didn’t really like any one of them, but neither could I work up a strong feeling of dislike. There they just kind of were, moving about randomly in fictional limbo.

The plot description sounds better than the story turns out to be. Mr and Mrs Prelude are in a plane crash; Mrs Prelude walks away, but Mr Prelude perishes. Or does he? Convinced that she has possibly made a horrible mistake when viewing her husband’s body, Mrs Prelude theorizes that perhaps he is still alone, wandering in the Swiss mountains. The 16-year-old Prelude daughter decides to go and investigate for herself. A rather limp farce which doesn’t, like the ill-fated plane, quite make its destination.

OK, I’ll repeat, it’s not a horrid book, and there are quite a number of wickedly funny moments. It’s a keeper, and I fully intend to re-read it and try to drum up some more affection for its good elements, but at this point I’d hate to recommend it as any sort of prime example of this accomplished author’s greater body of work.

rochester's wife hc dj d.e. stevenson7. Rochester’s Wife  

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

Here’s another writer whom I like quite a lot, but who sometimes lets me down. I don’t read these sorts of books for their hyper-realism – they are “cozies”, after all – but one does require some standard of verisimilitude. In Rochester’s Wife, with its strong reliance on insanity as a key plot point, one can’t help but feel that the author didn’t do her research.

A young doctor decides to settle down in England after travelling about the world. There is much romance, none of it particularly appealing to read about, all forbidden love and rather limp yearnings. The already-referred-to episode of insanity is handled in a very bizarre manner by the author as well as the several doctors in the case. Even in 1940 I am sure the British medical establishment was more capable of treating psychoses in more effective ways than they appear to do here! One of the weakest of this author’s books I’ve read to date.

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

Well, while I’m on something of a roll panning tales by authors I really, truly like, let’s spend a few minutes with Mary Stewart. I’ve read quite a few of her romantic-suspense novels this year, and have found my responses to be mixed. While I really do sympathise with her very capable and likeable heroines, and enjoy her detailed descriptions of settings, the de rigueur action sequences of many of the books, described in frame-by-frame photographic detail, drive me slightly mad. Panic-stricken girl in high heels etcetera manages to dodge ex-secret service trained killer etcetera while negotiating crumbling cliff/tiled castle roof/squelching Scottish bog/etcetera. Yup. Of course.

Well, those sequences are really the whole point of the books, aren’t they? The menace keeps building until something has to give. And in most of the books I’ve read I’ve happily played along, rolling my eyes but taking it as part of the package deal. But these two pushed past my tolerance level for willing suspension of disbelief.

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

In Wildfire at Midnight, a gorgeous London model, separated from her husband, is maneuvered by her parents into taking a holiday on the Isle of Skye, ostensibly to escape the chaos of the Coronation festivities. Immediately upon arrival, who should lovely Gianetta meet but her estranged husband, who is ostensibly on Skye for a mountain climbing holiday. The two keep their prior acquaintanceship a secret from their fellow guests, which makes things quite awkward when a series of grisly murders puts the holiday-makers and rock-climbers at the remote country inn under strong suspicion.

Gianetta (or Janet, as she prefers to be called) shows no common sense at all, continually wandering about either all by herself or with one or another of the chief suspects. One day she goes for a walk at just the wrong time…

Bizarre and unlikely motive for the killings, continual stupidity of the heroine, and unlikeable love interest rather ruined this one for me, even before the mountain crag/quivering bog/Scottish mist chase scene.

Salvaged by gorgeous descriptions of the settings and atmospheres of London and Skye, and the period verisimilitude of the characters crowding around the radio every evening in order to follow both the progress of Coronation festivities and Edmund Hillary’s attempt to climb Mount Everest, of particular interest to all of the rock climbers in the story. Nicely done, those bits.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

With my panning of Thunder on the Right I’m in good company. This was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

So what’s this one all about? Let’s see if I can sum it up briefly. A gorgeous young lady is in France and hopes to have a reunion with her older, recently-widowed cousin, who is apparently undergoing a retreat in a nunnery prefatory to taking vows. When the heroine arrives at said nunnery, she is told her cousin is dead and has been buried in the garden. “Something” tells the heroine that this is untrue, and that her cousin is alive. Luckily there is a handsome and rather brooding young man handy to aid the heroine in her search for the truth – and, by golly! – he is conveniently an old flame of the heroine’s, there in a remote corner of France by sheerest authorial hand-of-God. Evil nuns, a handsome local boy on a rampant stallion, a wicked smuggler, escaping criminals and much too much coincidence unite in making this one my own least favourite of Mary Stewart’s improbable (but usually highly enjoyable) romantic-suspense novels.

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

I became interested in this book due to my prior discovery of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel A Lamp is Heavy, concerning a young nurse’s experiences as probationer in a North American city teaching hospital in the early 1940s. I was pleased to find out that Sheila Mackay Russell was an Albertan nurse/writer, who had a modest success with A Lamp is Heavy, and who went on to publish another novel, The Living Earth, also with a nurse as a main character. With some trouble I managed to acquire a copy of The Living Earth, and settled down to a happily anticipated read.

The story started out quite well, with a young nurse travelling by train to her posting in a remote northern Alberta community, “Mud Creek”. On the train is a fellow traveller, another young woman heading for the same community, to her posting as a school teacher. The two set up house together, and proceed to have all sorts of rather sordid experiences. Both attract rather unsavory lovers (married, alcoholic, manic-depressive, abusive etcetera) and much heart-rending ensues.

This novel is of the hyper-realistic genre, and it could have been quite decent but for its rather awkward phrasing throughout, and its insistence on dragging out every single episode to the utmost of its interest level and then a little bit beyond. It’s also dreadfully bleak. And melodramatic. Bleakly melodramatic, in fact! I am not surprised that there is no third novel from this writer, though The Living Earth went through a number of printings which argues a certain success. She did produce a number of short stories which were printed in the Canadian women’s periodical Chateleine, according to one of this blog’s readers.

I never did write a review of this novel, because it so deeply disappointed me, despite its author’s undoubted good intentions of creating a true-to-life dramatic novel with a regional setting. I think that her motivation was praiseworthy, but sadly it didn’t quite come off. Possibly of interest to anyone studying womens’ experiences in northern Alberta in the 1940s/50s, but beware the fictional elements, which seemed to me to be many.

I could not find any other reviews of this now-obscure Canadian novel.

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

And here we have a truly Canadian memoir, this time by the popular C.B.C. radio personality and ex-Moxy Früvous drummer, Jian Ghomeshi. I had such wonderfully high hopes for this book, as I usually enjoy Jian’s interviewing style on his weekday pop culture talk-and-music program on the C.B.C., “Q.” He’s an interesting-sounding personality himself, and his frequent references to his own background as a child of Iranian immigrant parents growing up in Ontario in the 70s and 80s make him both relatable and slightly exotic, a public persona he nourishes with obvious care.

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

It wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that this turned out to be.  Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

Much as I hate to do this, I need to add a “bonus” to this list.

Shadows is the recently published “kind of like Sunshine, but for teens” fantasy by the iconic writer, and I had high hopes for it. Sounded good in the pre-publication discussions, and the early reviews were mostly favorable, though in retrospect I realize there were quite a few “buts” in some of those reviews.

17-year-old Maggie lives in a world where magic is forbidden, and when it sporadically shows up it is immediately squelched by squads of specially trained soldiers. People with magic in their genes are “cleaned” and re-released into the population; science takes care of everything in this world, thank you very much.

So when it becomes apparent that there is a massive outbreak of the magic bulges called cobeys threatening to overflow into Newworld, Maggie is shocked to discover that she has some latent powers which work to contain the bad vibes.

The author doesn’t bother explaining why magic is so nasty, and what will happen if it breaks through. She tells us it’s a really bad thing, and leaves it at that. But suddenly all of the “good” characters start showing varying degrees of magic powers which are obviously going to save the day. From, umm, something.

Extra Disappointing points for the annoying first person narrating heroine and her endless rambling on about how wonderful she is to understand all the nice little animals she loves so very much and how thick the adults in her life are and how hard algebra is and how amazing her origami skills are and how cute and clever her pop culture Japanese slang is.

Please forgive me, those of you who liked this book. I’m a long-time McKinley fan too, and I hate to slam her work, but this one wasn’t quite ready to see the light of day, in my opinion.

 

 

Read Full Post »

the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.

*****

Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

Read Full Post »

a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

Read Full Post »

Sunshine by Robin McKinley ~ 2003. This edition: Penguin Speak, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-14-241110-0. 405 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Points lost because it tends to ramble; points added because the author unapologetically lets herself go on rambling! And because the vampires perish messily and satisfactorily in sunlight. My son and I, both McKinley aficionados, like to refer to this one as the “anti-Twilight” – no sparkling vampires here, though Sunshine’s heroine gets all silly about her undead crush occasionally, which we agreed was one of our our biggest objections to Twilight – Bella’s sheer stupidity regarding the worst choice ever for boyfriend material. (That, and the terrible writing. And the sparkling.) But, as usual, I digress.

Ah, Robin McKinley. Something of a comfort read author for me, ever since I first read the Damar stories, The Blue Sword(1982) and The Hero and the Crown(1985) quite a few years ago. I have lost track of the number of times I have now read these two books, and I’ve also read everything else she’s ever produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the lone exception of her 2010 novel, Pegasus. I might be losing a bit of my enthusiasm for McKinley’s more recent stuff; her editors are letting her spread herself out a bit too much, the drawback to being such a huge bestseller-producer;  too many times quantity becomes confused with quality, when what they really need to do is refine, cut, and tighten things up. (Someday I will share my opinions on J.K. Rowling and the later Harry Potter books…)

The internet abounds in reviews of all of McKinley’s works; Sunshine is no exception. If you want to see a various range of opinions, just check out the Goodreads page: Goodreads – Sunshine by Robin McKinley  Over 2000 reviews! So I don’t think I need to add to this in any substantial way.

McKinley creates an interesting alternative world to Earth as we know it; she uses much of what we are already familiar with and tweaks it just enough to keep us paying attention – a technique she uses in all of her novels. Her heroine is a bit of a loner and a social misfit – no surprises here – and she also owes some unsuspected abilities to her ancestral bloodlines, which no one has seen fit to tell her about, leaving her to discover her powers for herself. Again, very much a McKinley trademark. The setting is almost dystopian, but people have adapted to the new, post-apocalyptic normal, and go about their business for the most part cheerfully and optimisically, which is something else I like about this tale.

The first time I read Sunshine I was totally engrossed – it was a “stay up till it’s finished” enterprise; this week’s reading was my third, and I am now seeing flaws and tweakable bits here and there, but all in all the story is holding its own.

A heads-up to those familiar with McKinley’s earlier “young adult” novels. Sunshine has lots of sex, some of it graphic. Probably best for the older teenage crowd, and of course McKinley’s legions of adult fans. Oh, and lots of blood. And chocolate! Kind of a weird book, in retrospect. But I’m still a fan.

The cover at the top is from the latest edition, obviously aimed at the teen girl market. I much prefer the original cover art, which I’ve included here as well.

Read Full Post »