The Grey Horse by R.A. MacAvoy

It’s a typical day in Carraroe: grey, soggy, and windy…but green. Anrai O Reachtaire1 is walking back from delivering back to its owner a horse he’s trained. A bit out of puff—he’s no spring chicken—he pauses to investigate an unfamiliar grey horse, standing loose up atop a rocky outcrop. Despite the horse’s lack of any tack or gear, Anrai ends up attempting to ride the creature, though it turns out that the horse is in fact the one with an agenda.

He’s a puca, in this case one which takes the form of a grey horse, and he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the local shipping magnate, herself no kin to the magnate but rather half fay as a result of her mother’s misguided love affair. In proper mythological style, Ruari give Anrai the ride of his life, tricky but without real malice, and delivers him safely to the doorstep where Anrai’s wife, Aine, has been keeping the pig’s trotters and mash warm on the back of the stove. Here, Ruari explains that he needs, not money or a job as such but rather the umbrella of Anrai’s respectability in order to persuade the object of his desire that he is a worthy husband of her.

This first thread of the book follows this puca as he establishes himself in the human society and woos his Lady Love, but given the time and place, it should come as no surprise to readers that there’s a considerable political (for the sake of brevity) subcurrent. Ireland at the time was a land of absentee English landlords, many of whom rarely if ever set foot on their estates; the local laird, however, is one Blondell who pays at least lip service to the lands which produce his income, and indeed genuinely believes that he does have an affection for his tenants which is reciprocated3.

The primary story arc culminates with the steeplechase between the English rider and English Thoroughbred stallion, and the Irish rider and “of unspecified ancestry” stallion; at the race’s end, Anrai and the foolish English stallion have both killed themselves with the effort of the race. After tying up the threads more or less as one would expect (Maire and Ruari marry, Seosamh and Eibhlin get what they deserve…) we get an epilogue, set fifty-odd years later during World War II, with an agent of the Inland Revenue Service coming to track down the MacEibhir family as they have not paid their taxes for several years running. The investigation comes to naught, as so far as the agent can tell, the family (father, mother and three sons) have vanished without a trace; it is no fault of his own that perhaps “into thin air” might have been a better description…

If you prefer modern writing styles, or fantasies that involve medieval settings and lots of swords, this is not for you. If you like horses but think that a pleasant afternoon involves climbing aboard a pre-groomed pony for a pleasant trot around a pre-groomed trail, this is not for you. If you like gentle romance, but think that love is only for the young, and beautiful and fortunate…also not for you. (The English, human or equine, don’t come off terribly well either; they’re pretty much across the board foolish at best and at worst, neurasthenic, nervy, over-bred, and tending to bad habits thereby, such as cribbing and attempting to be friendly with the people whom they subjugated a generation or so before.)

If, however, you think that love ought to be for a lifetime, and that a proper afternoon with horses involves getting sodden, bog-spattered and coated with hair and sweat..definitely for you2. Keep in mind, however, that despite being a romance and a fairy story, this isn’t entirely a romantic tale. Set in the late nineteenth century, “decimated” is still a fairly accurate way to describe the land when the book is set. As with Tea With the Black Dragon, there is an elderly couple, for whom love still blooms despite their hardships, but here there is considerably more political subtext here than in MacAvoy’s previous books. The population is still noticeably reduced from the starvation and emigration resulting from the potato blight, and anti-English feeling is running high, to say the least, among the locals. There’s a fair bit of sub-plot involving the political machinations of the local populace.

Ultimately, I suspect that this will be no more than mildly entertaining “beach and bathtub” reading for a good many people, but it may prompt a few readers to delve deeper into Irish mythology than Riverdance or deeper into its history than “The Troubles”. If you liked MacAvoy’s writing style, start with Tea With the Black Dragon or her Damiano trilogy.

1I apologize: I’m going to butcher the spelling…
2Certainly I appreciate horses that are allowed to behave like horses. None of this “Noble Beast” stuff. They sweat. They snort. They have neuroses. And so on.
3Stop laughing. I’m sure the white landlords thought the same of their sharecroppers in the United States.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Arctic and Antarctic exploration isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with all our modern equipment, from motor oil designed to continue lubrication in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to nutritionally complete, long-lasting foodstuffs. However, at least those modern explorers and scientists know that, should they be lost in the frozen wastelands of the Polar Regions, their remains will be located and returned to surviving (and mourning!) family members. This was not always so in the Golden Age of Exploration…and that’s at the heart of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England in search of the Northwest Passage, a theory propounded by geographers and scientists of the day to the effect that there was a navigable passage up and over the top of what is now Canada1, and a geographic phenomenon most earnestly sought by the economic forces of the day for a variety of reasons2. No one from this expedition was ever seen again in their homeland. Their last confirmed position was near Beechy Island, though they almost certainly made it to King William’s (Is)Land.

In theory, Franklin and his backers did everything right. The commander of the expedition and the two men captaining the ships had considerable years of experience in polar exploration between them, not to mention maritime skills gained through a lifetime. The ships used, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been taken down to the Antarctic by James Ross a few years previously, and had in the interim been reinforced with iron sheathing and cross-grained wood planking to resist crushing in the pack ice, outfitted with steam engines and rudders that could be retracted into iron-sheathed protective wells to avoid being themselves being crushed in the shifting ice. The expedition brought three years’ worth of canned, dried and salted provisions for what was intended to be no more than a two year long expedition, not to mention each ship had a library of over 1,000 volumes with which it was presumed the crew could amuse themselves during the inevitable periods of being trapped in the ice.

Only of course it didn’t work out, and we’ll never be quite sure why. There are a few plausible real-world issues that contributed to the loss of both ships and all the men. All the problems that plagued previous expeditions worried at the heels of this one: inadequately equipped for a hostile climate, inadequate clothing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate transport, and so on. In this particular expedition’s case, however, their food and water supplies were almost certainly (and quite literally) stacked against them; not only were the supplies of drinking water piped through lead conduits, the canned food had been prepared in haste by a supplier himself inadequately prepared to provide such a large order, and the modern guess is that as a result, the cans were not only poorly sealed (with lead welding, yet), they were also contaminated with silent botulism.

Dan Simmons has put forth a theory of his own: a supernatural creature, inexplicable and unstoppable, that is prowling around the ships in the dark. All the crews of the two ships know is that it is vengeful and is somehow related to the mutely tongueless Inuit woman they found on the ice, with a similarly voiceless older Inuit man. As that second winter, the first off King William Sound, progresses, the creature encroaches further, the ice presses closer and the darkness is increasingly oppressive….and I’ll stop there. Gotta leave some suspense for anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to.

The short version of my take on the novel is that Simmons could have left out the supernatural/religious element entirely, and it wouldn’t have adversely or even appreciably affected the novel3. Aren’t prowling polar bears enough? I don’t mind supernatural elements inserted into what would be otherwise a prosaically mundane work, if it’s done well and is made a critical component of the new work; I loved Simmons’ Drood. Even the suggestion that some of the crew members might have joined up with the local Inuit is not entirely implausible. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the cleverer and more open-minded crew members to realize “Hey, if we make nice with this group of people that is not only surviving but thriving where we are dying, maybe we too will survive?”

That said, I’d still heartily recommend the novel to anyone interested in reading a well-written description of what it might have been like on that doomed expedition. Just skip the bits about the phantom whatever-it-is. Having read non-fiction about the Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration over the years, not least Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North, Simmons did get the historical part right, so far as I can tell. Even today, we have no real idea what precisely happened to Franklin’s expedition, though I believe modern scientists have found some traces of the Erebus and the Terror, but now as then, the basic assumption is “missing, presumed dead”.

1In fairness, there is a sea route twiddling through the islands scattered north of continental Canada. In the main, however, it is not navigable by anything larger than an umiak for more than about thirty seconds during a heat wave in August.
2While there was a certain element of the “Because it’s there.” drive that motivated all those European expeditions up Everest, seeking a trade route more convenient that slogging all the way down around Tierra del Fuego served as a more pragmatic reason. Of course, the Panama and Suez canals have obviated much of that…
3It’s not Simmons’ fault that I can’t help wondering why the British Navy kept giving their ships names like Erebus, Hecla, Fury and Terror. You’re going to the polar regions for Pete’s sake. Wouldn’t names like Tranquility or Tahiti been more cheering?

Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, by Tanith Lee

Just as a disclaimer at the beginning, Lee’s stories aren’t all based on the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk tales—the ballet Swan Lake is based (so far as I can tell) on several Russian folk tales, and Beauty and the Beast is French, first set down by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve—but in the main, she’s selected fairly well-known tales:

Original story/Tanith Lee’s tale:
     1. The Pied Piper/The Paid Piper
     2. Snow White/Red as Blood
     3. Rapunzel/The Golden Rope
     4. The Frog Prince/The Princess and her Future
     5. Sleeping Beauty/Thorns
     6. Cinderella/When the Clock Strikes
     7. Little Red Riding Hood/Wolfland
     8. Swan Lake/Black as Ink
     9. Beauty and the Beast/Beauty

There are hints of Hans Christian Anderson in some of the religious symbolism, and Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Chambers in the horror/supernatural aspects herein, but all filtered through a modern feminist sensibility and bedded in a vocabulary much lusher than the originals on which Lee’s based her tales. (Many of the fairy tales are disappointingly sparse in their terse setting down of the plotline.) Additionally, the stories diverge from the originals in their settings in locale and period; they’re arranged chronologically, according to Lee’s settings, from “The Paid Piper” set in Asia in the first (or last) century B.C. stretching forward to “Beauty”, set in an unspecified but fairly distant future and an unnamed but northern country.

In “The Paid Piper”, the titular character steals not the living children of Hamelin, but the as yet unborn in the town of Lime Tree, where the rat god Raur is worshiped. In “Red as Blood”, Snow White is the daughter of a witch, and her father has married a Christian woman, who drives out the evil witchcraft in her stepdaughter by arranging for her to be confirmed in this new religion. In “The Golden Rope”, Rapunzel is taken down to her betrothed in Hell…which is not the Hell her captor believes it to be but a beautiful haven for her. “Thorns” is a fairly straightforward take on “Sleeping Beauty”, until the prince realizes that despite having woken the princess, she and her court are still dreaming of their own time a century before. Well, think about it: would you really want to marry someone from 1913, who’d slept through the intervening century? Imagine explaining World Wars, mustard gas and nuclear weapons, iPads and flying to the moon! “When the Clock Strikes” always reminded me of “The King in Yellow” and “The Red Masque”, though it’s intended as a retelling of “Cinderella”, in which it is ‘Ashella’ who is the evil servant of the Nether Regions, and her stepmother and stepsisters truly good people who are ashamed that they cannot reach out to the girl who appears a mad simpleton. “Black as Ink” is a fairly straightforward (at least for this book) retelling of “Swan Lake”, in which the swan may is transformed into a beautiful and unaging girl, who must learn human ways but upon whom the human mannerisms rest uneasily

As with many collections of short stories, readers will inevitably prefer some stories to others; I’ve never been crazy about Lee’s take on Swan Lake, not least because I wasn’t familiar with the ballet when I first read the book. Of the seven, I’m inclined to like the two longest, “Wolfland” and “Beauty”. In “Wolfland”, a variant on “Red Riding Hood” (complete with red cape), the grandmother who lives within the deep dark woods is not threatened by the Big Bad Wolf…she IS the wolf; she has become a werewolf, with the aid of a liqueur derived from the yellow flower that grows only in these woods, in order to preserve herself from her brutally abusive husband. She recognizes in her granddaughter Lisel the one to replace her as mistress of the chateau and the wolves in the woods. “Beauty” is interesting in that it has a futuristic setting, combining the world of folk lore with that of science fiction; the Beast is one of an alien race, which came bearing benign gifts, and left members of its race on Earth. Unlike other tellings, it is not the Beast who transforms literally into human shape, but Beauty, here Estar, who finds that she is a figurative Beast.

What to read next? This time, I’ve got a suggestion, other than the obvious collections of Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm Brothers and Perrault. Angela Carter, specifically her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories. She’s the only author who, I think combines the fairy tale ambiance with modernization and feminism that is…twisted or kinky is too strong and too suggestive in a variety of ways, and indirect too subtle. Updating, perhaps.

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

Nhamo is a barely prepubescent orphan, living with her Aunt Chipo in a village in Mozambique which holds to the traditional culture of the area; her mother is dead, killed by leopards, and her father fled before Nhamo’s birth after he killed a man called Gore Mtoko–only her Abuya (grandmother) remembers Nhamo’s father clearly. Chipo does not much care for Nhamo, the child of the prettiest sister, preferring her own daughter to her niece. The two cousins get on reasonably well despite this, and they both do the many chores needed; Nhamo is no true Cinderella. After an epidemic of cholera runs through the village, leaving the surviving villagers weak despite intervention from the local nganga (doctor), they contact the local muvuki to determine if the continuing illness is due to witchcraft rather than aftereffects of cholera.

The muvuki determines that the spirit of the man Nhamo’s father killed is demanding restitution. “Abuya” claims she has already done so, with two cows, but this was not enough for the spirit. Aunt Chipo appears to channel the spirit of the dead man, claiming that only the marriage of Nhamo to his surviving brother will remove the haunting and leave the village in peace. Abuya, knowing that said brother is a cruel man and a bad husband, sends Nhamo off to search for her father and his family to escape this marriage. Nhamo takes the boat of the local fisher, dead in the cholera epidemic, and as many supplies as she can carry, and sets off upriver for Zimbabwe. Needless to say, the trip is arduous and terrifying for a girl who’s never been alone away from home before; she’s always been surrounded by family and in familiar areas–but she perseveres, even settling for a time on an island midway across Lake Cahora Bassa to refit her boat and grow more supplies. Upon crossing into Zimbabwe, she is taken in by a small scientific community studying the effects of the tsetse fly, who are reluctant to send her back once they find out why she fled. They do, however, send her on to her father’s family, once they’re locate, with the promise to take her back if that proves unsuitable.

After a struggle, she does settle in with her father’s family–her father is long dead–even going to school, but retains the option of going back to the scientists who took her in.

Who’d like to read this? Possibly kids who liked Island of the Blue Dolphins but wondered what happened next, or wished it had a happy ending. (Karana’s fate was mixed, I’m sorry to say) Unfortunately, it’s the kind of book that gets assigned in classes, as a result of its Deep Meaningful Exploration of women’s rights in developing nations, and about a spunky girl who breaks ties with everything she knows to do what’s right by outside standards.

Overall, I’d call it a better introduction to the culture for “foreign ghosts” than her other book about this part of Africa, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, as she left out the science fiction aspects and concentrated on the culture. Farmer seems to have done a sensitive sympathetic job of creating a character belonging to a culture with which she does at least have a passing familiarity–she lived in Mozambique and Zimbabwe for several years–but I wouldn’t mind seeing more books by authors who are Mozambican themselves.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

What I’ve read of Gaiman’s work–I haven’t gotten around to The Sandman–is pretty dark; a man is sucked into the nightmare world of London Below, a little girl must rescue her real parents from the ghoulish button-eyed Other Mother, and The Graveyard Book is no exception. It begins with the brutal murder of four of the five members of a family, and the narrow escape of the youngest, a toddler boy.

The toddler wanders into a graveyard now converted into a nature preserve near his home, where he is taken in by a middle-aged childless couple, the Owens…who are ghosts. (This is a graveyard, after all.) The permanent inhabitants of the graveyard confer, advised by Silas on events outside the cemetery, and the “Lady In Grey” suggests they keep him until the world outside their boundaries is safe once again for him. As he doesn’t know his own name, he’s called Nobody Owens, Bod for short. The Owens provide what under the circumstances might be called a stable loving home environment, a vampire Silas supplies Bod’s physical needs, the many ghost children–people died young in past centuries–provide friendship, and the inhabitants of the graveyard something approximating a village. How is a child Bod’s age to know that there’s anything untoward about this? The world itself is strange to young children, and “imaginary” creatures quite as real as daylight things; how is a three-year-old to know he ought to be afraid of ghosts, when they’re proffering comfort? So he isn’t.

Bod has a few forays into the outside world and contact with the living. He befriends a little girl, Scarlett, who is eventually convinced by her mother that Bod is only her imaginary friend and the adventures with him inside the graveyard only nightmares. Bod attempts attending school, but is bullied into revealing himself. He tries to purchase a headstone from a pawnbroker for a woman buried as a witch (because she was, though not the kind the people feared). Overall, though, it’s more or less a description of growing up in a graveyard, and what one might need to learn there: Fading, Dream Walking and Haunting. At least until the Man Jack who killed his parents discovered that the youngest and last member of that family whose members he was assigned to kill all is yet alive, and comes for him. Bod releases the Sleer, something approximating the archetypal Boogeyman Under the Barrow, which offs Jack.

The book ends as Bod goes out into the world of the living, having outgrown the world within the graveyard as children usually do outgrow their ability to see monsters in the closet, under the bed or hiding in culverts.

As with many fantasies, if you stop to think about it, the plot unravels a bit. Ghosts are uncorporeal: how could they do the necessary physical things for a child, such as put on sticking plasters or teach him to tie his shoes? If Bod cannot leave the graveyard at all (and Silas only at night), how does Bod manage routine medical attention, such as vaccinations administered or cavities filled? How does he bathe? Here I will digress somewhat into Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next book, The Well of Lost Plots, in which Our Protagonist, a woman from what we would consider ‘reality’ seeks refuge in the world of fiction: the people within that world are mystified by her ability to smell and to distinguish between speakers in dialogue without identifiers, and she equally by the lack of breakfasts or needing to change vacuum cleaner bags and absence of illnesses between the minor, such as colds, and the swiftly fatal.

If you stop to think too hard about most fiction, you start to spot holes like this everywhere. Mundane stuff doesn’t come up in fiction unless it furthers the plot–remember Chekhov’s gun?–but we’ll just have to take it as given that people in novels DO dull routine tasks, such as fill their car’s gas tank, wait to get prescriptions filled, clean house and so on. That said, I can understand if people don’t like Gaiman’s work; that’s fine. I can also understand if you like some books by Gaiman, or any given author, but not others; that’s true of many authors! Maybe you like the Underground stations in Neverwhere, or the noir air of American Gods, or the illustrations in The Sandman.

Gaiman hints at many of the details in The Graveyard Book; he never specifies that Silas is a vampire or Miss Lupescu is a werewolf–there’s no sucking blood or transforming under the full moon. He never goes into much detail about the Jacks’ social/business networking techniques (for lack of a better fantasy term), and overall the book’s more than slightly episodic, a collection of short stories rather than a unified novel; there’s no overarching plot or theme other than Bod’s life in the cemetery, and eventual departure. Fans of Gaiman’s work will like it, as will (I think) children who prefer stories about things that go bump under the coffin than sweetly cotton-candyish books.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My dear and unfortunate successor,
To you I suggest that you keep firmly in mind that this is a first novel by an ambitiously literary author.

This is a story within a story within a story, all concerning a series of historians (and before “historian” was a career or job description, soldiers and monks) who have searched for the truth about Dracula. The framing story is that of the ostensible author of the book, a seventeen year old innocent who has always believed herself to be the daughter of a widowed diplomat, Paul, based in Amsterdam1. She discovers in her father’s library a mysterious packet of letters tucked in with a book containing only a woodcut illustration of a rococo stylized dragon. When she presses her father for details, he becomes atypically and unaccountably evasive, but under pressure he reveals the story behind what his daughter’s found: twenty years earlier when he was finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, his thesis advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances, leaving only splatterings of blood in his office. Partway through this story, Paul disappears without any word to the unnamed narrator, who goes in search of her father as best a fundless over protected girl can manage, with the help of an eagerly puppyish young Oxford undergraduate.

Paul tracks down his vanished advisor, as he suspects there to be something more than merely abduction behind this; just the night before his disappearance, Rossi had shown Paul his own copy of a book identical in all essential regards to the one Paul has himself just found upon his carrel desk. The quest leads Paul through the hallowed halls of Oxford’s colleges to Budapest and the wilds of Hungary, which are very much behind the Iron Curtain in 1952, accompanied by a ferociously capable determined Hungarian scholar of the female gender. Along the way, Paul reads the packet of letters and research which Rossi left for him, which turns out to be Rossi’s own search along the same academic and geographic lines as Paul’s own. The two end up at what turns out to be the tomb of Rossi himself, now a vampire presumably at the hand, or rather tooth, of Dracul himself; they are obliged to bring this unlife to an end. After doing so, they remove themselves to marry, with the blessing of Helen’s mother…who just to complete the story in appropriate romance fashion turns out to be Rossi’s abandoned lover, left pregnant with Helen.

There was, of course, a very real Vlad Tepes, and he wasn’t a very nice man, to put it mildly; let’s just say he came by his nickname “the Impaler” quite legitimately. Was he a vampire in the modern sense? I’m as sure as any non-historian 500 years later that the answer to that’s a pretty firm NO. Sorry. But aren’t folk tales about things that go bump in the night fun, in a hair raising sort of way? While it’s true legends and folk tales about ghouls and undead were old when Tepes was alive, the “vampire” legends don’t always resemble the vampire tales upon which Stoker based Dracula, upon which Kostova is so firmly basing this novel–sorry!–although that is not to say that we’d particularly want to meet the subjects of those tales either! Propaganda denouncing one’s political opponents aren’t anything new to the American political scene either.

Unlike Simmons’ Drood, Kostova’s novel reads like pretty much exactly what it is: the first novel of someone with the potential to become a good author. Overall, it reads like a modern take on Dracula–a hunt for the Ultimate King of All Vampires–with a leavening of the sort of conspiracy theory which Dan Brown fans will appreciate: not one but two centuries’ old secret societies in opposition to one another, who must remain hidden to outsiders. Recommended for people who love long though padded books about the history of vampires.

The Guardian review
The New York Times Review

1we are only left to guess whether this is intended to be Kostova herself

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Told as an old woman’s recalling her childhood and youth, Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan provides a tantalizing glimpse into nineteenth century rural China–the story takes place, in the main, in isolated rural communities in Hunan–but no more than a sampling.

Lily has outlived all of her family members, and at eighty is considerably older than the norm; much is made of the fact that, at that time, forty was a respectable age and sixty was more than could be expected. As such, she has nothing to do but recall the years of her childhood and marriage. At seven, she was matched with Snow Flower in a “laotong” relationship. This was a formalized version of what modern readers might call best friends forever, but with stronger connotations of support; the two girls so introduced would remain bosom friends for life, an important concern in a time and place when women had very few rights, legally or socially. Lily and Snow Flower are introduced at age seven, when they begin the footbinding process; the two have never met, and their families are not acquainted.

It is clear from the beginning that Snow Flower is the better educated, and when they plan visits, she always comes to Lily’s home rather than Lily to hers. Lily and her family assume that Snow Flower’s family does not want the crude mannerless child of a peasant, albeit a wealthy family, besmirching their pristine scholars’ home. It is later revealed that the family is instead poor but proud; while Snow Flower’s great-grandfather was a prestigious court scholar, the family has since fallen on hard times, and Snow Flower was too embarrassed to let Lily see her home. To compound the relationship’s complexity, as Snow Flower’s family cannot afford to provide a dowry sufficient for the husband of a stature equal to theirs, she is to learn practical skills from Lily in order to improve her chances of a better match based on her own merits and ability to work rather than the sumptuousness of the dowry she brings.

Despite the concealment underlying their relationship, Lily does come to love Snow Flower, and the two teach each other skills that will stand them in good stead later. After the two marry, they begin to drift apart despite surviving the deprivations of civil and political unrest–being forced to live in the open on a mountaintop in northern China, among other things–and when the two are in their early thirties, Lily misinterprets Snow Flower’s motivations for joining the “old same” relationship” and cuts off communication. It is not until Snow Flower is on her deathbed that the two have the conversation they should have had decades ago, though Lily spends the next fifty years despising herself for so misunderstanding her friend.

While technically the novel was well written, the plotting and characterization left me cold; See tells us that the two girls are devoted “old sames” (the equivalent of BFFs in mid-nineteenth century China) but does not demonstrate this friendship and devotion other than in a few PG13 scenes of extreme girl on girl canoodling. It doesn’t help that See is quite coy about describing sexual issues, to the point of referring to female genitalia as “between my legs” or some such, and connubial relationships between husband and wife (how’s that for coy?) as “bed business”. I feel I’m left with no real insight into the laotong relationship generally or that of Lily and Snow Flower specifically, much less the role that Nu shu writing played in women’s lives at the time and in that location. I’m left with the impression that See concentrated on the shocking (to Westerners) or unpleasant aspects of Chinese culture at the time, such as footbinding and domineering mothers in law at the expense of providing cultural background to what I thought were the central points of the book, predominantly Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship and secondarily the nu shu writing and communication. But then I already knew what footbinding entailed!

I’d be interested to hear/read what culturally Chinese readers thought of the book or those with a background in Chinese history. (I’ll sheepishly admit that I am not the one and haven’t much of the other. I just read a lot.) Basically, it strikes me as chicklit; the Asian setting makes it a bit more intriguing to those of us with sparse knowledge of the country in question, but we’re not talking anything in depth here. I’ll avoid accusations of cultural appropriation, as See does have some Chinese ancestry, but Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reminds me strongly of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as (so far as I know) the two novels were inspired by stories the author had been told by older family members about a society and a time alien to the listener/author.

What to read next? Well, See’s written a number of other novels, similarly set in China. If it’s the specific country readers find appealing, Ha Jin has written several works of fiction set in China, both novels and short stories. I suspect that Gail Tsukiyama’s writing style is closer to See’s, though her novels are set largely in Japan. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is another possibility.

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

Gotta love a pragmatic novel about the first days and weeks in the life of a vampire newbie.

Our heroine Jody didn’t plan on becoming a vampire. She didn’t ask to become a vampire. Nope. She just wakes up one evening, lying squashed under a tipped-over dumpster wondering what the [expletive] happened and why one hand has a second degree burn. After flipping the filled dumpster off and staggering back to her last known residence, the apartment of her shackup job, whose head she dents upon losing her temper at his refusal to sympathize with her situation, she puts two and two together and figures out approximately what happened.

Thankfully, the vampire who “turned” her left her a packet of several thousand dollars cash in addition to leaving her hand exposed so she’d realize the consequences of exposure to sunlight. Jody creeps off to a local cheap motel and attempts to sort out her life as best she can. Chief among her problems is that she can no longer do her job and will have difficulty finding another (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t retrieve her car from the impound lot (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t rent an apartment on her own (because she can’t go out during daylight hours), she can’t check books out of the library with which to research her “condition” (because she can’t go out during daylight hours)…among many of the other issues that you and I manage for granted. Thankfully, she meets a young man from rural Indiana, Tommy Flood, who is working the night shift stocking a Safeway in San Francisco while sorting out his life as a fiction writer. He agrees to serve as her minion in regards tasks which must be conducted during daylight hours in return for having his housing expenditures covered, research services at the local public library and a bit of freelance bloodsucking services.

She, he and several of his third shift coworkers at the Safeway end up investigating the vampire who made Jody what she is when they realize that his Incredibly Luxurious Very Well Automated Yacht is currently docked at a local marina…a few sub plots later, Jody and Tommy end up back together with a hook sufficient for a couple of sequel novels but not large/tempting enough to convince me to read said sequelae.

Hopefully, this will have convinced fans of Christopher Moore’s writing overall to read the novel if they haven’t already. This isn’t a well developed vampire novel, complete with brilliant plotting, dialogue, characterization or sophisticated adaptation of the vampire folklore and literature from previous fiction and folklore. It’s an amusing bit of mind candy, on a par with the cozy mystery series I so adore, but not the sort of thing that ends up getting included in college literature classes.

As I said some years ago, pre-Twilight rave fanfic, while I enjoy vampire novels as a subset of fantasy, I have a few issues with the extant vampire literature, and I have even more vitriolic issues with the current fiction. As I mentioned lo these many years ago in LiveJournal:

My chief complaint about the vampire literature I’ve read is that authors duck out of explaining a few crucial issues: how do you explain not being able to go out during daylight hours? This isn’t such a huge problem for vampires of independent means, but what if they have to work for a living? Also, especially in this day of government issued identification, how does one explain away the whole immortality/eternal youth thing? Can you imagine the reaction of the average clerk in a Department of Motor Vehicles office or passport branch should someone show up and say “I was born in 1437, may I get a drivers’ license?”

It strikes me that many of their problems could be solved if enough vampires congregated in the same community, since the isolation and forced secrecy compound the problems. Think “Salem’s Lot” except without the King-esque overtones–just people trying to live in peace…who just happen to be immortal nightdwellers. Prejudice wouldn’t be a factor if the vampires comprised a significant portion of the community, since unlike many other groups discriminated against, one trifles with vampires only at the risk of one’s own life. (Unfortunately, unlike the groups most often discriminated against in the United States, vampirism WOULD affect one’s ability to hold a job.) Banks and government offices might be a bit put out at having to extend their hours, but once everybody got over the whole fangs and blood thing, I can only imagine that any business with a second and third shift would be overwhelmingly delighted at having a built in pool of employees for same, whether hospitals, police and fire services, 24 hour restaurants.

For the time being, I’ll take Christopher Moore’s take on vampirism over most of the modern fiction. And the 20th century and 19th century fiction. Heck, all of the fiction.

Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy

James Li thinks his life is pretty much settled in Chicago; he’s finishing high school and working in his family’s restaurant. His Paupau (grandmother) has been training him since he was eleven; he does not know why, other than it has something to do with the yellow dragon which appeared on his back at that time. It appears to be a tattoo, and all he does know is that Paupau does not want him to let anyone see it, other than his family, which makes gym class awkward and dating beyond a chaste kiss or two right out of the question. At seventeen, his Paupau has him touch a map of the United States and sends him to the location he has selected all unknowing: Santo del Vado Viejo, AZ.

The story officially begins, aside from a prologue when Jay is eleven, in the town of Santo del Vado Viejo. Gangs are rife, though the one prevalent in the area where Jay ends up is The Presidio Kings, headed by El Tigre (keep an eye on him: the name is no accident). The first we see of Jay in the body of the novel is a flash of blue jeans as he skins up a tree to avoid the gang members close on his heels. The girl eating a quick snack between customers at her uncle’s Mexican (what else?) restaurant heads off the gang members with the pretense that she hasn’t seen “a Chink”, then heads inside to make the obviously hungry boy, of whom she’s had the merest glimpse, a burrito and side dish of tortilla chips and salsa. She takes him under her wing and into the Hispanic community in Santo del Vado Viejo. Despite being of an alien culture, in a number of respects ranging from urban/rural to Chinese/Hispanic, Jay carves a niche for himself both in the human world and in the spirit world of this region, here called “el entre” or “Azatlan”. Despite having been trained by his paupau for several years, he has no real understanding of what he is or the reasons underlying her training; it is only until he becomes enraged over the senseless killings in the alien town in Arizona that his powers as a yellow dragon are released…and he must learn not only what those powers are but how best to channel them to guard and guide and improve this community which has become his to protect. And finish school, because that’s important too.

Overall I like the book, and suspect that many of my issues with the book are due to no longer being in the target demographic, either in age or in literary experience; it’s a bit stiltedly moralizing, and de Lint’s messages (Gangs are bad, finishing school is good) are a bit patently obvious to me as an adult reader. As with The Little Country, I may not be five-star enthralled with it myself but can wholeheartedly recommend it to people just beginning in the urban fantasy genre. I appreciate the mashup of Chinese and Hispanic and Native American mythologies; de Lint touched on this concept in Forests of the Heart, which combined Irish mythology derived from immigrants and Native American mythology from the locals with a certain amount of Hispanic/Mexican mythos. I appreciate the leavening of humor he includes; all too often, authors take themselves Extremely Terribly Seriously, but de Lint tosses a jackalope into the mix. I’m not suggesting that the book itself shouldn’t be considered and analyzed as part of YA literature, rather that it should be taken with a grain of levity. There is a bit of joy in even the direst and solemnest of situations, after all.

As with The Mystery of Grace, however, I do admire how de Lint managed to differentiate dialogue in English and that in other languages1 than in the technique he used in Forests of the Heart2 by including it in caret marks rather than quotation marks. This is a vast improvement over having the character repeat dialogue in English and in [other language]…but would respectfully suggest that if he’s going to include dialogue in multiple non-English languages, finding some way of indicating a switch between additional languages might be an improvement.

The Painted Boy is clearly de Lint’s–I recognize several of the tropes now after reading Forests of the Heart, The Mystery of Grace and The Little Country. Unfortunately, it’s not quite long enough for de Lint to explore fully any of the traditions he’s included in the book’s minority/non-white mythologies, and I can only hope the dribs and drabs of what he includes here and elsewhere inspire readers to find out more about the various cultures. He’s a decent writer; although I don’t like his style as much as Siobhan Dowd’s that may be a matter of personal taste more than comparative talent. De Lint’s more inclined to write dialogue interspersed with brief action scenes while Dowd gets into her characters’ heads a bit more, and I tend to prefer books with a bit more characterization. De Lint isn’t deficient in this area if one considers The Painted Boy a YA novel…at least not compared to the other YA books published recently which I’ve read. Which is better? That’s the wrong question. Which do you like to read?

1well, more specifically a more graceful way of differentiating between dialog originally in the language in which he is writing and dialog in another language.
2having the characters repeat what they say in [other language] and then in English is dreadfully stilted

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer/author and old book aficionado Margaret Lea receives a letter from Vida Winter, a prolific and adored (from a literary output standpoint) author who’s known for telling conflicting tales about her own youth to those who’ve pressed her for details. Winter, surprisingly, wants Lea to write her biography. Lea debates whether she wishes to do this, as she is not much enamored of modern fiction, child of an antiquarian book dealer that she is, and wonders if she’ll be able to write a suitable biography of someone she knows little about.

Warning: spoilers below.

The novel’s title derives from a famous misprint harking back to Winter’s beginnings as an author, when her publisher brought out a collection of short stories entitled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, discovered to have only twelve tales after the first edition was printed and distributed. The publisher hastily recalled them, and reissued the collection under a corrected title. Lea’s father, however, has a copy of the original first edition in his shop, and she reads it, becoming progressively more enthralled. She contacts Winter and agrees to do the biography; this involves going to Winter’s house as the latter is ailing. As Winter has a history of telling interviewers a different story about her childhood and upbringing, Lea insists on three facts that she can prove (or disprove) at the beginning, and the novel continues from there. The bulk of the story alternates between “now”, that of Lea’s background and her research into the facts which Winter has provided, and “then”, or the story that Winter is telling–as she tells it, we enter into the tale and experience it with her.

There are several layers to the story. The framing story is that of Margaret Lea, child of an antiquarian book seller and a mother who seems not to be able to care much for her. There is a secret in Lea’s childhood–she had a conjoined twin who died when the two were separated shortly after birth, but did not realize it until she found the two birth certificates in her father’s box of papers. The story within a story is that of Vida Winter, and is that of twins so inseparable that they have a language of their own, so strangely temperamental and with such lackadaisically disinterested mother and uncle that they run wild, their physical needs provided haphazardly by the servants who remain after the disruptive adolescence of the uncle and the strange behavior of his nieces.

A governess is provided by the estate, in an attempt to bring the girls to some kind of normalcy after years of running wild. She makes a strict beginning, calling the children once for meals, then locking the larder to prevent food pilferage after the household has gone to bed. She cleans the house, starting with her own room, and expanding out into the rest of the house and takes over much of the cooking from “Missus”, after the cook/housekeeper proves to be not only nearly blind and deaf but also somewhat confused. Things appear to be going well, although Adeline and Emmeline do not ever grow to normalcy under her tutelage, until the governess is caught in a compromising position with the doctor who was working with her to study the twins. After the “disappearance”1 of the uncle, who, despite being more than slightly mentally incompetent himself, was at least capable of producing a legal signature periodically for the lawyers and thus continue the funding for the estate, however inadequate, our narrator pulls herself together and approaches the family lawyers to arrange taking over that duty herself. We have a bit of foreshadowing of the denouement of the book at this point; the girls have not been out in society enough that the lawyer can distinguish between them. He has to guess at the identity of the girl before him arranging the family legal affairs.

Our narrator comes out into society as she matures, though the presumed death of her twin and the demolition through conflagration of the familial manor rather forces the issue. Nevertheless, she remains something of a mystery to her fans, refusing most interviews and giving out conflicting information when cornered. As Lea becomes more familiar with the house in which Winter is living, she notices that there is a woman who resembles her hostess lurking about the shadows, occasionally capering about behind drawn curtains; eventually, it is revealed that this is Emmeline, who survived the fire and has been living, in a manner of speaking, in her own rooms in the household without interacting with the outside world. She is badly burned as a result of the fire which destroyed the manor, and never very prone to interacting with others to begin with.

There is a twist ending–since when is there ever not a twist in Gothic Novels such as this? No, it’s not a mad relative hidden in the attic; while there are certainly a number of mentally interesting family members, we’ve met all the crucial family members in the course of the book, though we may not realize we have at the time. The secret is that there are not two, but three girls living in the household, the twins and their cousin, an illegitimate child of the “disappeared” uncle, who resembles the twins closely enough that no outsider guesses the existence of the third child….guess who the narrator of the tale is? and therefore, who the burned skeletal remains in the remnant of the mansion? As the book ends, Winter and Emmeline die, and Lea returns home, ending her book with the classic Gothic trope to the effect that she cannot ever publish the real story.

It’s a fascinating novel, well told and better written than a good many of the books I’ve read in the last year. I’d hesitate to call it brilliant, though I finished it in an afternoon. It’s a Gothic thriller, one step above bodice ripper romances and several steps below books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Castle of Otranto. I’d suggest reading the Brontes for starters, and follow that with The Turn of the Screw; when you get all the jokes in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, come back and read this. You’ll probably appreciate it more.