The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.

Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.

‘Til Death Do Us Part, by Amanda Quick***-****

tildeathdousI was looking for good historical fiction and ran across this novel, which is also a mystery and romance. It’s a little different from much of what I read, and reminds me a bit of Victoria Holt, whose work I read voraciously as a teenager and younger woman. I received the DRC courtesy of Net Galley and Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public April 19, 2016.

Calista Langley is a spinster, which is what unmarried women were called a century ago. She runs salons in her home for the purpose of intellectual discussion, a chance for men and women to get to know one another in a socially acceptable setting before they commence the courting ritual. But Langley has a stalker. A man has been using a long-disused dumbwaiter to hoist himself up to her bedroom, where he can watch her in the shadows. He leaves grim mementos mori—associated with death—on her pillow for her to find. Her initials are etched in them, a particularly chilling detail. We know fairly early who it is that is doing this, but Calista herself does not know.

“This is what it had come to—a life lived on the razor edge of fear. The sense of being watched all the time and the ghastly gifts were playing havoc with her nerves…Her intuition was screaming at her, warning her that whoever was sending her the gifts was growing more obsessed and more dangerous with each passing day. But how did one fight a demon that lurked in the shadows?”

At about the same time, Trent Hastings has come to see her, convinced that she is corrupting his sister Eudora, a client and frequent guest at the salons held in Calista’s home.

The overall tone of the story is a trifle melodramatic for my taste right now, but if you had given me this book thirty or thirty-five years ago, I would have worn it out re-reading it and then passed it on to my friends. The romantic scenes are steamy yet tasteful . Quick can raise our interest to a higher level just building up to a kiss than many of the writers of erotica are able to do with everyone’s clothes on the ground and explicit information left, right, and center.

In fact, though I often make a point of letting my readers know when a book will be objectionable to conservative Christian readers, in this case I feel confident in saying you should be fine here. The language never gets hotter than an occasional “damnation!”

One thing that was especially interesting to me was the minute detail given to Victorian funeral customs and the odd accessories that were popular then. It never occurred to me, for example, that anyone would spend good money on a tear-catcher, but some folks did. For the more practical purchasers, the coffin bell is a handy way to let everyone know that you’re not dead after all, and would like out of this box, please!

All told, this was a fun, accessible read. I rate it 4 stars as a YA novel, and 3.5 stars rounded up for general audiences.

Nirvana, by J.R. Stewart****

NirvanaNew rating and review based on updated DRC:

Larissa Kenders is a musician living in a post-apocalyptic world; her lover Andrew is missing. This newly revised young adult novel is a winner, and it will be published  November 10. Thank you to Blue Moon Press, Net Galley, and Adam Mawer at DigiWriting Book Marketing Agency for including me on the second spin. It was time well spent.

The problem on Earth began when the bees began to die. How can anyone grow food, flowers, or anything else if pollen can’t be transferred? And indeed, how does pollen get from one plant to another without the bees? Corporate giant Hexagon has created an alternate world, and humans are dependent upon the company for their sustenance. Nirvana is a virtual world that workers can visit, for a hefty price, on their days off. The question Larissa has, then, is whether the Andrew she sees in Nirvana is the virtual Andrew of her memories, or whether he may in fact still be living, hiding out from those that may wish him gone.

Various topics are explored, from alienation and the question of whom to trust—one that will resonate with teenage readers—as well as environmental issues such as GMOs, and more futuristic philosophical questions. Edward Snowden comes up, and why should he not, in a story in which many researchers have uploaded their brains to the Cloud so that their work will remain once they are gone?

I was one of a handful of reviewers that read the first draft of this book. I reported that it was dreadful because it lacked character development. This new and vastly improved version creates a Larissa Kenders that is believable, a character to whom we can bond. The remaining stereotypes, such as the jealous female that is our main villain, along with the preponderance of males rather than the usual fifty percent of the population, are problems that are so rife within the genres of science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to hang the whole problem on this one writer, who has created a truly original and interesting plot .

Teachers considering its classroom use should be forewarned that there are a couple of sexual situations; the porn industry, a pet project of one of the villains, also gets multiple mentions. I should emphasize that this reviewer sees no problem with today’s teenagers reading the book, since most of them have seen far more explicit material on their own. But those that teach in school districts so conservative that the villagers bring everything but flaming torches to the school board meeting may want the information ahead of time prior to going out of pocket for a classroom set.

In revising his story, Stewart has plucked victory from the ashes; a job well done.