This is such a good book.
I don’t remember how I managed to notice it; unless I am being even more clueless than usual, which I admit is entirely possible, I don’t think it’s been waved around and shouted about much over here, which is a pity—do the British really think a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south isn’t of interest? But it isn’t a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south, although it’s certainly that too—it’s a novel about what it is to be human. Which is what all the best novels are about, including—and I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating—the ones featuring fuzzy blue eight-legged methane-breathers. Or a Louisiana sugar-cane plantation a hundred and fifty years ago, run by slave labour.
Thirteen-year-old Sophie’s parents have split up (very shocking in 1960 middle-class America) and her mother is taking her back to her family’s old home for the summer to get her out of the way. Sophie’s mother’s family were very grand a hundred years ago, and the house where Sophie’s grandmother and aunt still live is on a remnant of the old plantation. Sophie is miserable; she’d already been outcast by her friends because of the divorce, and the back of beyond in the bayou is nearly the worst fate she can think of. She explores the overgrown—and reputedly haunted—maze that had been part of the Big House’s garden in the plantation’s day. And there she meets . . . a Creature. “There’s no question that there’s strange things around Oak River,” says Sophie’s Aunt Enid, “and if they’re not ghosts, then they’re something mighty like.”
“I warn you,” says the Creature to Sophie, “I mighty powerful juju. I sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, betwixt was and will be, betwixt here and there. . . . ”
But Sophie, reckless in her unhappiness, and having perhaps reread E Nesbit and Edward Eager a little too often, wishes for an adventure. “Adventures just come along natural with going back in time,” says the Creature.
And Sophie discovers that she’s back a hundred years. When her ancestors, the Fairchilds, were plantation owners. And what had been her bedroom in 1960 is the bedroom of the daughter of the family in 1860. Who is understandably dismayed by the strange girl in it. But Sophie, with her frizzy hair and her dark summer tan, is mistaken for a runaway slave. And the only reason she isn’t flogged and dragged away in chains is because she is obviously a member of the family—she has the famous Fairchild nose. She is, it is decided by Miss Liza’s parents, the daughter of Miss Liza’s rackety uncle—and one of his slaves.
Which makes Sophie a slave. Which is not the sort of adventure she had in mind.
The plantation world is brought superbly to life, as are the people in it. One of the things I found particularly effective is sheltered, white-girl 1960 Sophie having no idea what it means to be a slave: that just meeting someone’s eyes because they’re speaking to you is uppity, that any answer at all may be the wrong answer, that it is perfectly acceptable to be expected to wait on table when you are half-sick with hunger yourself, that it is perfectly acceptable to be sent on another errand, and another errand after that when you’re exhausted—because you aren’t really human. And that the white overseer is always right even when he’s wrong, and that a black slave doesn’t know more even when he does—because he’s a slave.
And what this grotesque imbalance of power does to both sides of this criminally bad bargain.
There are so many neat, tucked-away little details in this book, of plot, character and serendipity, none of which I can tell you—but I can tell you to look out for them. I’ve discovered one or two more just glancing through it now to get the names and quotations right—and many of these apparently casual bits and pieces come together beautifully for the climax and denouement.
Give yourself a treat: read it.
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* I read a book over supper last night.^ It was thrilling. I always used to read over meals unless Story in Progress was giving me an unusually ferocious time; but in the last six and a half years if I’m not wrestling with a recalcitrant Story I’m mostly writing the blog at night. Hey. More book recs on the new blog system. Yessssssss.
^ I was also up way too late as a result. Sigh. Well, no system is perfect.
I darned a sock this morning. I’m trying to remember the last time I darned a frelling sock.* There are advantages to staying home all the time.** At the moment I’m actually reading*** books faster than I’m buying them. This won’t last. But I have TWO NEW BOOK RECS to add to the list just in this last week, and you will remember I am a Very Cranky Reader. I periodically have fantasies of doing a book rec a week for the blog. That would press pretty hard on my fundamental CRANKINESS—two rec-able titles in seven days is perhaps not unheard of but supremely unlikely—but it might be an interesting experiment.
After the monsoon, the Nor’easter. We had a no-nonsense hard frost last night, according to my minimum-maximum thermometer down to 28°(F) and the tropical jungle is all huddled anxiously on the Winter Table indoors. And it’s slithery outdoors. I hadn’t tried to go to my monks last night after I got a last-minute email from Alfrick saying that there was no contemplation before the night prayer, which was furthermore early . . . but this morning I was booted, spurred and caffeinated to bolt for Sunday [Anglican] Mass at the monks’, but by the time I had to leave it was still below freezing and I didn’t like the look of the roads. At. All. So I didn’t go. And I didn’t go to St Margaret’s tonight either for the same reason.† I’m beginning to feel like an eremite.
But I darned a sock.††
What with the last fortnight’s undesirable adventures, I’ve kind of lost track of where I am rattling through forum comments. So if I’ve responded to any of these already I hope I’m saying more or less the same things. This may be boring for you, but anything else would be very disconcerting to me.
Tall, thin, spiky shadow? Like, um, rose bushes? Rosebushes that SALUTE? Well, maybe there’s a breeze in there.
No, no, it’s the hob. It’s got to be the hob.
But what’s the hob going to do? They’re not warriors, are they? Maybe it could trip somebody, er, something, er, whatever is coming.
I think rose-bushes of apparently supernatural origin can probably do whatever they put their pointy little minds to. I wouldn’t trust Rose Manor’s own roses—the ones that can survive anything, even Cold Valley winters, and who eat children and small dogs when they can get them—not to have an agenda. And hobs . . . now I know I said something like this before . . . hobs protect their homes. That’s what they’re for. That’s what they do.
|bethanynash wrote on Sat, 07 December 2013 22:18|
|I hadn’t even considered the idea that the tall spiky shadow could be the hob… what does a hob look like? Is the hob tall? Would a hob salute?|
I think we’re in anything-can-happen territory here.
Yep. Got it in one. For a storyteller like me the fun is in taking a tradition or a fairy tale or a bit of folklore . . . and giving it a pink feather boa and a pair of All Stars, so to speak. Again, as I keep saying, I don’t do this deliberately, but when a story—or a hob or a dragon or a vampire or whatever—speaks to me, speaks to me rather than some other storyteller, it’s because THEY WANT THE BOA.
I learned a new word: “deliquescing”!
It’s a good one, isn’t it? It’s been one of My Words for some time. Vellicating, however, I’d forgotten about, till I saw it somewhere recently and thought, oh! I should use that!—especially since I’m twitchy myself.
What I’m wondering is, how will this experience affect Kes’ next volume of ‘Flowerhair’? As in, personal experience (blood, the sheer physicality and awfulness of violent death, which is expressed so well here) informing her writing.
We-ell . . . your life and your fiction have a strange relationship to each other. It’s as I’ve ranted in other contexts: yes, readers know a lot about me, the author of the story, but they don’t know what they know. I’ve never written about being a military brat, living five years in Japan where I clearly did not belong, and then coming back to America and finding that it wasn’t home any more . . . anywhere but here in the blog. But my particular experience of being an outsider—most authors feel like outsiders in one form or another, I think; it helps channel the storytelling—entirely informs my writing. But you can’t tell from my stories that I lived five years in Japan when I was a kid.
And . . . my own experience of extreme situations is that the last thing I want to do is stuff them in my fiction†††—which is what Kes says: nightmares that she doesn’t put in her stories. Flowerhair might retire and . . . er . . . open a florist’s. ‡
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* Your average cotton-with-a-little-spandex or equivalent isn’t worth the bother unless they’re really favourite socks, especially since they’re probably going thin all over at the same time. But nice heavy socks, like the wool oversocks I wear this time of year—they deserve respect, and darning when necessary.^ I used to have a darning basket but it got kind of intimidating.
^ Not least in my case when I find some wool socks I can bear to wear, even over one or two pairs of cotton socks+, I want to keep them as long as possible.
+ Yes. My shoe size goes up in the winter.
** Somewhat depending on how you feel about things like darning socks. Or washing the kitchen floor which I did a couple of days ago.^ I actually kind of like all that fussy domestic stuff. It’s the time it takes I object to. And as I have said frequently, if I have an urge to tidy I’m unlike to waste it on the mere house^^: I’ll go out in the garden and thrash around there. Unless, of course, it’s zero degrees out there. In which case I may wash the kitchen floor.
^ You’d never know it. I have three dogs. Sigh.
^^ The house with three dogs
*** This includes throwing some of them violently across the room and then picking them up and putting them in the ‘Oxfam’ bag. Hey, they have been processed, and they’re now ready to depart my living space.
† Driving is always kind of a marginal activity for me, because of the ME. And although Peter stopped driving several years ago, he blocks the cold wind of reality in other ways. With him mostly out of action I’m feeling even less heroic (and more cold) than usual.
†† Life in the very very slow lane: I’ve forgotten how to do fiddly daily shopping—partly because Peter likes doing it^ and partly because I grew up in a culture that does once a week mega-shops. So I went to mini-grocery number one for lettuce and Peter’s GUARDIAN, and they had the lettuce but not the GUARDIAN. So I heaved a deep sigh, but I’ve already failed Peter once in the newspaper category this week, and a GUARDIAN man can only read the TIMES so often before he starts throwing silverware at the wall, and I walked to the far end of town^^ to mini-grocery number two where I bought the last Sunday GUARDIAN^^^ . . . but it wouldn’t have done me any good to go there first because they didn’t have any lettuce. Store managers get together to plan this kind of thing, right?
^ Takes all kinds
^^ Which takes about thirty seconds. It is, however, uphill going home.
^^^ Which is to say OBSERVER, for those of you who care. I have no idea why the Sunday GUARDIAN is called the OBSERVER.
††† Maybe in a decade or two. Or three.
‡ . . . although I doubt it.
I seem to need a night semi-off.* So I thought I’d give you a book rec. I should do this more often. All this frelling reading should be GOOD for something, shouldn’t it?
I read this quite recently—on Astarte. On the Kindle app on my iPad. There have been various outbursts on the forum about the far greater desirability of old-fashioned hard-copy books with ink and pages and covers you open and close over and against the virtual screen pages you swipe with a finger on your e-reader of choice. Most of us acknowledge, more or less reluctantly, that e-readers have their place, however, especially the carrying your entire library with you in one slim electronic package aspect. When the next 7,000 flights are cancelled at Heathrow/O’Hare/Kuala Lumpur/Mars Central at least you have plenty to read.**
There’s another reason for e-readers as most of you know although it’s not so much discussed. I think it unsettles us Luddites. Which is that sometimes an e-book version is the only one available. And then you’re very glad to have it.
I don’t remember when I first started tripping over intriguing references to ALCHEMY OF STONE. It finally got on my amazon wish list when it was merely out of stock, and I wasted some time looking around for it elsewhere while waiting for it to come back into stock. I think there was a spell there when it wasn’t available anyway, anyhow—except for £3,612,007 on eBay—so when I accidentally discovered, some time later, that it was available on Kindle, I grabbed it.
There’s a certain justice to reading it as an e-book however; the central character is an automaton named Mattie. She was created by a clever, but damaged both physically and morally, human man; and given by him partial autonomy. Their society is divided into Mechanics and Alchemists. He is a Mechanic; he grants her freedom to study alchemy, become an alchemist, live apart from him and stop ministering to his whims—much; but he retains the key that winds her heart. That keeps her alive. Or ‘alive’.
Of course the basic story tension is between Mattie, who is far more human than Loharri is, even if he is the one made of flesh and she is the one made of springs and clockwork—by him. But it’s also about the balance, or lack of it, in their society. The status quo is unravelling as the book opens, and things start going badly wrong. . . .
There is so much to like in this book, starting with the gargoyles on page one, who come to Mattie for alchemical help. Mattie herself is a spectacular piece of story-telling; you never for a moment forget she’s not human and yet every reference to ‘the bronzed wheel-bearings of her joints squeak their mechanical greeting’ or ‘Her frame clicks as she leans forward. . . . Her dress is low-cut, and . . . there is a small transparent window in her chest, where a clockwork heart is ticking along steadily’ or ‘She extended her hand, the slender copper springs of her fingers grasping a phial of blue glass’ only makes her more human.
And I liked this book a lot. Sedia writes so well. Real style is far rarer than one might wish it were. Than I wish it were. Now, truth in advertising: this is not the most cheerful and optimistic book you’ll ever read. But I prefer to read the ambiguous ending as hopeful.
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* Probably because we’ve had bad news about someone close to us and it casts a long shadow. . . . Dear bleeding Christ on the cross dying for our sins why is life LIKE THIS?
** Although a back-up battery and a universal^ mains charger would be a good plan.
^ I guarantee that when they start laying power cables in the red dirt of Mars your travelling mains charger/power adapter will need another lobe. Every frelling country on Earth seems to have its own unique idea about electricity delivery. Think of the rampant pioneering possibilities of an entire fresh planet.
That would be graphic book rec, or if you prefer fabulous comic book rec.*
. . . Oh heavens, how do I try to tell you what a hoot it is, and how adorable? Especially when my head is going bang bang bang as the inevitable result of two and a half hours in a dentist’s chair today.** Well I can start by saying that it’s perfect reading for lying on a sofa with an assortment of hellcritters and a sore head***.
A charming young Victorian woman, whose famous father is an archaeologist, wants to go for a walk in Kensington Park, but has no chaperon. Being an enterprising sort, she fishes one of her father’s mummies out of his sarcophagus, dresses him in tails and a top hat, and drags him outdoors. They listen to Mozart. They take tea.
They fall in love.†
One warning: the plot, such as it is, is very, very, very ridiculous, and for pity’s sake don’t expect consistency or for all the loose flapping bits to be tied up before the end. Once you’ve got your seatbelt on—and your rational intellect sent off to read Schopenhauer†††—you’ll be fine. But I spent the first several pages going, Wha’? Wha’? I don’t read much illustrated storytelling and am not used to the tropes. It’s okay, I went back and reread the beginning. But I hope you won’t have to.
I loved the drawing—Queen Victoria alone is worth the price of admission‡—and the text is full of divine one-liners. I usually figure that anything in the first few pages doesn’t count as a spoiler but in a very short graphic novel, um. However . . . our mummy gets drunk on his tea: ‘ . . . I’ve had neither food nor drink in thirty-two centuries . . .’ While he’s sleeping it off he dreams of his children, and they guess he wants to marry the pretty lady. Maybe her father won’t agree to it, he says. Why wouldn’t the lady’s father agree? they ask. ‘Because I’m dead and it’s just not done,’ he replies.
A word here also for the translator, Alexis Siegel, who must have had a hell of a time in both the good and the bad way.
Go for it.
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* I’ve never quite become friendly with the ‘graphic novel’ or, since they’re not always fiction, ‘graphic literature’ terminology. Having spent my entire professional life being whacked around by one or another genre label^ I feel that graphic literature sounds like an attempt to civilise something that at its best is often enthusiastically and energetically uncivilised.^^ But I admit I don’t know fiddlesticks about that corner of the publishing world, so I may be tilting at non-existent windmills about this.
^ When are you going to write/have you ever written a real book?
^^ A bit like F&SF, for example. Or what the Victorians did to fairy tales when they decided to dumb them down for kids.
** Yes. Shorter than predicted. He didn’t finish. Moan.
*** Even if the need to keep the youngest of the party firmly trapped in place was not ideal in these circumstances
† Well of course.
†† Well of course.
Schopenhauer at one point uses the example that in case of a child’s death a woman with a lesser intellectual capacity will suffer less than a woman with a developed intellect.
The point being that the analysis and understanding of death and its consequences enhances the pain far beyond the mere acute animalistic pain. Thus the higher evolved the intellect the more the suffering. . . .
I’m afraid this chiefly makes me want to climb in my trusty time machine and race back through the centuries so that I can rip Schopenhauer’s head off and give it back to him on a platter with an apple in its mouth. Of all the . . .
And just by the way I observe that it’s apparently only the woman who grieves? Presumably there had been a dad involved in this situation? Presumably men are pure intellect and don’t stoop to mere weak mortal grief at all? Grrrrrrrr.
Note that I hated Philosophy 101 in college. Just for reasons like these. My [male] professors weren’t overly fond of me either.
‡ Although once I got my seatbelt on, the one place I was thrown out of the story again was by reference to Queen Victoria’s corgis. It’s not Queen Victoria who has corgis.^
^ Okay, it’s a joke, fine. Don’t joke about DOGS.
‡‡ And it’s totally cool to have a book rec about a thirty-two-hundred-year-old mummy named Imhotep on Halloween. Eat your heart out, Boris Karloff. Or Arnold Vosloo, for that matter.
I need something more nearly resembling a night off than my usual shortish Wednesday. So I thought I’d give you someone else’s story.
Someone tweeted me this a few days ago and I was avoiding work* or something and clicked through to read it. I really liked it. Don’t let the typos at the beginning put you off—as they nearly put me off—these things do happen, especially when you’re attempting to perform your proofreading late at night and you just want to hang the freller and go to bed.**
I like the way she’s taken a fairly ordinary things-that-go-bump-in-the-night story arc and made it real through her characters. I like the way the characters aren’t quite what you’re expecting. I like the seamlessness with which she makes her characters not quite what you’re expecting***.
There are more stories where this one came from on her web site, and she’s got a book for sale on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/City-Ghosts-Stories-Betsy-Phillips/dp/145369983X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382572476&sr=8-1&keywords=Betsy+Phillips+A+City+of+Ghosts
I haven’t bought it yet but the ebook is CHEEEEEEEAP and I’m sure I’ll decide it’s wasteful not to buy it.
. . . And just in case you need a Silly Animal Video:
Although my informant says it’s gone viral so you may have seen it already. I do feel that the human in question is a trifle naïve to have put that cat gym next to the door and then be surprised at the result. . . .
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** Ask me how I know this.
*** I may also be extra-disposed to like stories with porcelain-faced dolls in them at the moment because I’m reading ALCHEMY OF STONE.