Scarborough Fair

22 Mar

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

The cover is gorgeousssssssss

 

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Remember me to one who lives there,

She once was a true love of mine.

Don’t be lulled by the innocent first verse of Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of Scarborough Fair. If you actually look at the lyrics, a picture appears of (presumably) a man asking three impossible tasks of a woman in order for her to be his “true love.” This is the premise of Nancy Werlin’s novel, Impossible.

Lucy Scarborough’s life is pretty normal for a seventeen year-old – loving parents, her best friend Zach, high school, a prom date. Never mind the occaisional reappearance of her crazy birth mother, or the handsome stranger taking a particular interest in her life. But on prom night, everything comes crashing down. The handsome stranger is in fact the man from the song, and he has laid a curse on the entire line of Scarborough girls, bound to attempt the three impossible tasks of the ballad or go insane at eighteen.

Pregnant and facing the curse’s threatening deadline, Lucy draws on the strength of her foster parents and Zach, as well as the wonders of the internet to face off with an evil that has been waiting generations for her.

I was surprisingly impressed with this novel – excited to read it initially (thank you Borders closing sale), put-off when it wasn’t what I expected (no synopsis on the back cover or jacket flap), but sucked in all the same: I blasted through the majority of it in a five-hour marathon session at a coffee shop. Werlin skillfully blends the mythical frame of the story with its thoroughly modern setting – Weather.com, duct tape, and MINI Coopers are all sprinkled in the text. Sometimes references to the evil villain, an elfin prince named Padraig Seeley (a name choice which is just a shade or eight too heavy-handed, in my opinion), can feel a little disjointed or ridiculous, but that’s to be expected I think.

This book was a little like watching SVU or House on TV – you can look at the clock and know that if you’re only 25 minutes in, they haven’t really figured it out yet. Impossible is a quest story involving three tasks over 564 pages, so when they solve the first task at page 210, you know it’s gonna be a while for the next two.

Nevertheless, the book jogs along at a good clip, though the ending was a huge cop-out, especially after it had done such a superb job avoiding cliché previously. I don’t want to include the problem passage because it will give away the ending, but it made me want to gag, for realsies.

Part of the storyline runs a bit like Breaking Dawn – Lucy gets unexpectedly pregnant, but though she is not even eighteen, she decides (irrationally, in my opinion) to keep the baby and forms an instant bond to it (her). However, Werlin slips in several instances of really decent writing that saves this book and Lucy from any further comparison to she-who-shall-not-be-named. Take for instance this passage near the ending:

There had also been some terrible, terrible hours with Dawn screaming and fussy and Lucy getting just the merest glimpse of how hard it was going to be, taking care of a baby, and of how the adults had all been right that, under normal circumstances, marriage and a baby would possibly not have been the right choice at this time in life.

Thank you. THANK YOU NANCY WERLIN.

Thus, though I had some doubts, Impossible rates an AJ on the PSA. Even if it wasn’t perhaps my most favorite book, Werlin threads girl-power messages all through it. At one point we meet Zach’s mother, who disapproves of Lucy, but remembers “the girl she had sat down at age twelve for a long talk on how important it was for girls to express themselves strongly and not be too quiet and shy.” And while there is a big plotline dealing with Lucy being in love, there is a big emphasis on it being a relationship between independent equals who genuinely care for each other.

So well done to Impossible, an inventive re-imagining of an old tale and a National Book Award Finalist

Babylonne

28 Feb

Sorry for my absence the past two weeks – life has a way of running away with me! But I’m back, and on track with a new historical fiction book for y’all to check out. Babylonne, by Catherine Jinks takes place in early thirteenth century Toulouse – which at that time was a separate country from France.  Toulousians follow the Cathar faith and are persecuted by the constantly invading and Catholic French. Enter Babylonne, bastard daughter of a Catholic priest (from a previous series by Jinks) and a Good Woman of Cathar.

Poor Babylonne has lived with her cruel aunt and grandmother for sixteen years, bearing the brunt of their scorn at her shameful birth. Facing a forced marriage to an old, disgusting lout, Babylonne runs away to join the fight against the French – only to be intercepted by a Catholic priest who claims to have known her father. Journeying together though the war-torn countryside, Babylonne finds her beliefs thrown upside down as she witnesses the brutality of warfare but also the redeeming power of human compassion.

Watching her transition from hardscrabble, jaded, and yet still naïve girl to mature young woman is inevitable yet also heartening. Babylonne has had a hard path to walk, no matter which way you spin it – her mother was martyred shortly after Babylonne’s birth when the French took Lavaur, her remaining family abused her, and her faith and country are being slowly stamped out.

However, she is still a sassy, intelligent, and intrepid character who faces it all down with a fistful of pepper (literally) and a pair of scissors. Even when she finds several essential truths about herself to be false, she is never cowed, never frozen, never gives up. She meets heretics from both religious camps, sees both the heroism and horror of warfare, and still manages to think her own thoughts on it all. That, I think, is her best quality – she always has an opinion!

This is aided by the fact that the story is told through the very close first person; so close in fact that you get passages like this:

I’d better run the other way. Off you go, Babylonne. One, two, three, go!

I’d better head for the—

“Haah!”

Oh no.

“Thieving whore!” (Where did he—? How did he—? It’s as if he sprang out of the ground!) “Give me that chicken!”

You want this chicken?

Fine.

“Yowch!” It hits him full in the face.

Personally, I find this style to be slightly too close, as it were. It’s distracting and almost, well… campy. Just a little slapstick, you know? The exclamations, the fragmented narration – but that’s just me. While it certainly gives you an intimate glimpse into how Babylonne’s mind works, I don’t believe that anyone thinks directly at themself like that, as if directing a separate person.

Other than that, however, Jinks’ depiction of feudal France is visceral and detailed. The food, the clothing, the disgusting (by current standards) conditions, and bizarre medical beliefs. As a historical piece, this story works beautifully, and Jinks almost seems to delight in grossing you out!

Nevertheless, Babylonne rates a JG on the PSA. It is the last book in The Pagan Chronicles, the previous four books of which feature the adventures of Babylonne’s father, Pagan Kidrouk, during the last of the Crusades.

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter

7 Feb

Obviously an awesome book if Trina Schart Hyman does the cover art...

So I didn’t realize that I never posted about this book! Astrid Lindgren essentially made my childhood – I was Pippi Longstocking for Halloween at least twice, and have a huge collection of her stories/shows/movies, plus have been to the museum in Stockholm. However, of equal awesomeness is another of Lindgren’s female characters, Ronia, of Ronia the Robber’s Daughter.

Ronia is the only child of robber chieftan Matt, and thus will one day rule the robber band in their run-down castle, regardless of her gender. One day, she encounters a boy playing in the castle, and discovers that he is Birk, son of rival robber chieftain Borka (whose robbers have taken up residence in the other side of the castle) and thus her enemy. However, after a series of mishaps, she and Birk bond unintentionally, and begin to see the idiocy of their fathers’ feud. Eventually, rather than see Birk be killed for saving Ronia, the two children run away to live in the woods together.

Okay, so Ronia is clearly awesome for a number of diverse reasons. Firstly, she’s a cool little girl who is set to inherit a robber band. Secondly, she has an underlying sense of right and wrong beyond the adults around her – for example, when Borka’s robbers (including Birk) are starving during winter, she constantly smuggles Birk enough food to feed the whole band, because she would not save Birk at the expense of his family, though she doesn’t like them.

Eventually, when the feud becomes ridiculous, Ronia realizes that either she and Birk must stop being friends, or they must leave their families. Thus, they decide to leave the castle and live in the woods – which eventually leads to both of their families reconciling and everyone coming together in peace at the end, a la Romeo and Juliet but without the romance or the death.

And lastly, Ronia and Birk survive for over a year on their own in the forest. Living in a cave, hunting and growing their food, lasting the snowy winter. Ronia is between eight or ten, and Birk between ten and twelve — take that, Survivor. Even when it’s tough, they would rather die in the wilderness than give up their friendship. Okay, it seems drastic, but also very noble, and they survive in the end anyway. The children teach the adults the moral lesson at the end — typical of Lindgren!

Furthermore, Lindgren’s handling of Ronia and Birk’s relationship is deft – they fight (a lot) and act like normal kids, but they also have this very deep bond. They make themselves blood siblings, and hold that tie over their ties to their actual families. There is a definite emphasis on their relationship as brother and sister – this isn’t some pre-teen fluff where the possibility is there, if not addressed. Of note is a particularly sweet scene in which Ronia and Birk meet in a secret tunnel in the castle, and Ronia checks Birk’s hair for lice the same way her mother does to her.

In addition (again, this is very typical of Lindgren), Ronia is very do-it-yourself. She’s active, outdoorsy, and obviously fully-capable of taking care of herself. She has her own adventures, and is notorious for her Spring Yell. And gosh darnit, when she sees a problem, she does something about it!

A shot of Ronia and Birk from the movie

This is a short book and quick read, and obviously meant for younger readers (though slightly older than Pippi’s audience). However, I think it’s a great story regardless, and Ronia rates an AJ on the PSA. The book was made into a very successful movie (in Europe at least) in the 80’s, as well as a musical in Germany (yeah, I don’t know about that one either).

 

What ho? A feminist bitchfight?

3 Feb

My friend M brought to my attention a round of interesting issues and books going on in both the YA world and feminist circles. Seeing as this blog is a teensy bit of both, I thought I’d bring it to your attention for both the discussion factor and the booklist 🙂

So, the infamous feminist magazine Bitch recently posted a list of 100 YA books every feminist should read (see the article here). While any sort of ultimate list like that is bound to stir a lot of controversy over inclusion or exclusion, several books incited so much debate that Bitch revised their list and removed Tender Morsels, Sisters Red, and Living Dead Girl – replacing them with the more innocuous but no less awesome Howl’s Moving Castle, The Blue Sword, and Tomorrow, When the War Began (see post here). Now whether or not you think those books should have been taken off the list – though I have not read any of the three offenders (be sure they will appear on the blog soon) I have read the protesting comments and I think the reasoning is not enough to remove them, but more on that later – actually doing it is going to spark even more controversy.

However, back to earlier, my friend M pointed me to this succinct riposte by YA author Karen Healy, here. This distills a lot of the issues inimical to the debate, and is worth a read. I’ll post my thoughts on removing books from a feminist list tomorrow perhaps, when it isn’t my bedtime 🙂

Whichever way you fall on the debate, both Bitch and Karen Healy offer up long and great lists of YA books with awesome chicks in the driver’s seat. Check ’em out, or just check Pickychick out in a couple weeks because we’re on the trail!

Don’t run away, just hold still

1 Feb

WARNING: THIS POST IS RATED R FOR MATURE THEMES.

So I seem to be pathologically incapable of reading those sappy teen books – when I grab general fiction it always seems to be about trauma. I picked up this week’s book, hold still, intending to compare it to Elizabeth Scott’s Love You, Hate You, Miss You from earlier in the blog. Yet what initially seemed like a sappy and clichéd look at teen suicide developed into a compelling story that kept me rooted in Coffee to the People for two hours more than I intended.

hold still, by Nina LaCour and illustrated by Mia Nolting tells the story of Caitlin, a high-schooler whose best friend Ingrid committed suicide at the end of the last school year. Nothing can jerk Caitlin out of her numbness until she discovers Ingrid’s journal stuffed under her bed. And from there the plot would seem predictable – Caitlin battles her way back to a place of peace while discovering the twisted sickness of her best friend. And yet NOT!

At first hold still seemed like a pretty shallow treatment of the plotline, but maybe fifty or so pages in I began to see that LaCour was really serious and turning out some great stuff. Caitlin knows she isn’t to blame for Ingrid’s death (this is a common trope in teen-lit that I was happy to avoid) and Ingrid didn’t come from a broken home or some terrible trauma. She was just a normal girl who was sick.

The brief glimpses of Ingrid that travel to us through her journal pages are incredibly poignant and well-crafted, and Caitlin’s understanding of her is incredibly mature, especially considering her position. At one point she remarks that “maybe she knew she could act like nothing had changed; maybe she got that good at pretending. Or maybe she thought that I would have noticed, and was disappointed when I didn’t.”

There are no apologies for or from Ingrid, even when Caitlin eventually finds her suicide note. She really was ill, but not the kind of gruesome illness that would “explain” (if that word can even been used in this context) her suicide. Ingrid is never demonized, and even when she is in the darkest despair there is a stark simplicity to her actions – of particular note is the scene in which she loses her virginity in a public park to some guys she didn’t even really know, just to hurt, and even then it doesn’t hurt in the way she wants it to.

Despite a sappy sideplot in which Caitlin builds a tree house, and the conventional boy and quirky new best friend who help her from her depression, this is a terrifically written book. There are a bunch of levels on which this functions for a multitude of characters, and the web of interaction is one of the most interesting points of the story. Thus, hold still rates an AJ on the PSA.

Personally, I think the moment in which LaCour most triumphs is a brief scene in which Caitlin comes across a minor character, a rude but popular boy sitting alone at a party looking surly.

“Life is shit,” he tells me.

I nod. “Maybe.”

His face is red with anger or embarrassment, I can’t tell which. I glance at the portrait, then back to his face when I feel him watching me.

“But not all the time,” I say. “I don’t think all the time.”

 

Closed Monday

30 Jan

Will return Tuesday AM.

Man or Elske

24 Jan

It wasn’t until I was doing research for today’s post that I realized how many of Cynthia Voigt’s books I have read. Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, The Callendar Papers, and the focus of this post, Elske. I originally picked up Elske about seven years ago because the cover illustration is Vermeer’s Head of a Girl. I re-read it for the blog because I remembered liking it, but was honestly surprised by how much I still enjoyed it this time around! However, it is a particularly adult novel for the YA genre. There are multiple references to graphic violence and rape, and it is probably not actually meant for a younger audience.

Elske takes place in the fictional Kingdom, which seems to be in the vicinity of the 14th century. The titular character has been raised among the Volkaric, a barbaric people to the North infamous for their brutality. She escapes her fate as a Death Maiden – destined to be sacrificed on the funeral pyre of the Volkking – and finds her way to a position as the maidservant of a deposed Queen, Beriel. Together, the young women set out to reclaim Beriel’s throne and save her country from invasion by the Volkaric hordes.

For all her barbaric upbringing, Elske is a true renaissance woman – as she describes herself: “I speak both Norther and Souther. I read and write in both tongues. I can figure with numbers. I know how to care for babies, and children, and something about cooking. I can snare small animals and skin prey of any size, dig over soil, plant it and harvest a crop. I can serve at table. I can launder clothing. I can mend with a needle and thread.” She is also so no-nonsense and clear-thinking that she makes stereotypical YA heroines look like melodramatic whiners. She faces each problem matter-of-factly and cuts easily to the heart of it.

There is also Elske’s mistress, Beriel, Crown Princess of the Kingdom. Her own family has taken brutal measures to ensure she never claims the crown, including repeated rape to impregnate her with an illegitimate child. But Beriel’s single-minded determination to gain her rightful throne holds her through the horror, despair, and long odds. Together, the pair of young women manage to reclaim an entire country from a usurping tyrant.

But this is not to say that either woman occupies the WW role that it would be so easy to cast them in. Beriel runs ripshod over anyone in her way (including Elske a time or two) and Elske is so matter-of-fact that she verges occasionally on utilitarian. In particular Elske’s ruminations on how to make sure Beriel’s illegitimate child is never discovered are both practical and chilling – though she wants to keep the newborn alive, she has considered the best way to quietly kill it if it shows signs of crying while she hides it.

At the end of the story, both Elske and Beriel find husbands, but instead of this seeming to be a typical YA ending reinstating either patriarchal rule or the chick-lit trope, in particular Elske’s man of choice is her equal and helpmeet. For example, while she plans to free a friend from Beriel’s guard, her paramour doesn’t caution her against it, or do it for her. Instead he slips her a blade “so we are both armed.” Without needing to overtly state it, Voigt crafts a mutually respectful relationship of equals.

However, the most perfect partnership is between Elske and Beriel, two independent young women making their way in a world ruled by men. Take for example this quote after their first meeting:

“She held her right hand out to Elske, as if they were two merchants closing on a sale, and she bowed her head to Elske, as if they were two swordsmen ending a match, and she looked Elske in the eye, as if they were Wolfer captains, about to risk their lives in battle.”

You see this co-opting of male position and language? They are bound by respect and honor, a female relationship crafted along traditionally masculine lines, and as the epilogue will tell you, they and their lines bring about a golden age in the Kingdom.