Friday, September 11, 2015
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is probably not a book I would have ever picked up off the shelves. I don't usually like modern literature, because it seems to be either full of unlikable, neurotic characters, or it is so obviously engineered to tug at your heartstrings, full of artificial emotions. But this book was chosen by our book club (as part of our library's book club recommended books), so I read it. And I'm glad I did!
It is set in the 80's (which is important to the story), and the narrator is 14-year-old June Elbus. June is a misfit - a bit of a history nerd, who fantasizes about living in the middle ages. Her older sister, Greta, is the "pretty one" and is a budding stage star who seemingly has everything together. June's uncle is the famous artist, Finn Weiss, and he is dying of AIDS. Finn is not just June's uncle - he is her godfather, and basically her only real friend.
After Finn's death, June is bereft and having difficulty coping. Her mother wants her to "get over it" and get on with life, but June just can't seem to. Then she ends up meeting the mysterious stranger who was at Finn's funeral, but who was denied entrance. She becomes friends with him, and learns more about Finn, and about her family and herself.
Having the book set at the time when AIDS was just becoming known in the mainstream, and at a time when homosexuality was not as openly accepted, allows the story to have sharper emotional arcs. The fear of AIDS and the denigration of gays add to the already fragile family dynamic and to June's difficulties in handling what is happening.
This book has many themes: it's partly a coming-of-age story, but it also deals extremely well with the highs and lows of having a sister. The relationships between June and Greta is handled exquisitely. No one can love you and simultaneously hate you like a sister - and the author nails this. The character of June is also outstanding. Her fears, her hopes, her emotions are all quite true to life, without being too whiny, as many teen protagonists end up being. This ability to portray teen life (both outward and inward) is one of the many strengths of this book.
And, despite the fact that it deals with AIDS, and fear and prejudice against gays, it never falls into the trap of being preachy, nor is it ever maudlin. Because the characters seem so real, the events that transpire never feel contrived. It really captures what it feels like to be 14 and trying to navigate a big, scary world. June Elbus is a strong, believable, and likable character, and her story is one that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Not CJ's best book, by any means. It wasn't terrible, but it was pretty ordinary, which for CJ is kind of shocking. Granted, this was fairly early in her career, so I'll make allowances, but for fans of hers, be warned: this doesn't meet her usual writing standards.
A rusalka is a ghost, from Slavic/Russian folklore, of a woman who died violently in the water - accidental drowning, suicide or murder. This spirit haunts the woods near where she died, drawing energy by killing unsuspecting people who happen by. This book is a very long fairy tale about one such spirit.
The book is set in what would appear to be Medieval Russia. It begins in a small village, where we see a young ne'er-do-well, Pyeter, get in a fight with the husband of a woman he's seduced. The man dies during the fight (without being touched by Pyeter) and the village authorities are called out. Pyeter was wounded in the fight, and hides in the stable of the local inn. He is discovered there by Sasha, the young stable boy, who has a bad habit of wishing things about people and having those wishes come true. For whatever reason, Sasha decides to help Pyeter, and they end up running away together. They eventually stumble across the home of an old man, who saves Pyeter's life by healing him with magic. The old man, Uulamets, is a wizard, you see. He tricks the young men into helping him resurrect his dead daughter, Eveshka, who is a rusalka.
The first part of the story moves along rather well, though the character development of the two young men is fairly sketchy, especially that of Sasha. Once they join forces with Uulmamets and begin trying to rescue Eveshka, the rest of the book is mostly arguments. Pyeter & Sasha argue. Sasha and Uulamets argue. Eveshka and Uulamets argue. All four of them argue. This goes on and on and on, for the rest of the book. There are encounters with other magical creatures from Slavic/Russian folklore, but these don't overshadow the incessant bickering among the characters. Even the final battle seemed to be just a blip between arguments.
The magic in this world is never fully defined - it seems to be along the lines of simply wishing and believing things, though Uulamets uses potions and spells, as well. People seem to be born with the ability to use magic, and those that are recognized as such can be taught by wizards. But clearly, wizards and magic are not thought of in a positive light by the mundanes, since Sasha was so ostracized and criticized for his 'wishing' abilities. Otherwise, one would think he would have been sent to a wizard as an apprentice.
Another nit to pick: CJ massively overuses the phrase "with which" and its similar cousins. Every other page, and sometimes twice on the same page, we get something along the lines of:
She wanted them safe. Which notion far from reassured him.
...Upon which thought...
...After which decision...
Used sparingly, there is nothing wrong with these phrases. But they are used dozens of times in this book - and often enough that they are jarring interruptions to the flow of the story.
Between the unending arguments and the awkward phrasing, this book needed the hand of a very good editor. Sadly, it didn't benefit from such. As the first in a trilogy, it doesn't spur me to want to read the rest of the books, though I may give them a try - someday.