The Slump

Wise words from Dr. Seuss.

Wise words from Dr. Seuss.

I am in a horrible reading slump. All voracious readers experience this from time to time. Life gets busy, work gets hard and all of a sudden reading time turns into binge watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix. When you (by which I obviously mean me) are in a reading slump everything in the to be read pile seems wrong and there’s nothing you want to check out from the library. You start salivating over books that haven’t even been published yet, knowing full well in your heart that there are literally millions of perfectly good already-published books out there, many of which you already own because you cannot resist used book stores.

Is this ringing true with anyone around here? Of course it is. The internet is full of memes that express what happens when the bookish experience a slump. Lots of whining around, like the entirety of this post so far, is what it amounts to. Fear not, I plan to stop soon, because what a lifetime of being a reader has taught me is that there’s only one tried-and-true way to get over a reading slump:

Read your faves again.

It just so happens that I have been in a reading slump as of late (could you tell?) which fortuitously corresponds with Nicole Brinkley’s suggestion on Twitter that we re-read some favorites in June. Full disclosure: I having been in such a slump that I haven’t actually done this yet, but I pulled out a pile today and here’s my picks for #junerereads that might help jump start my passion for reading again:

Books that might inspire me to write (because as luck would have it I also have writer’s block):

Harry Potter (1-7), by J.K. Rowling. Look, you all know everything there is to know about Harry Potter, so I’m not even going to say anything here, other than that I haven’t reread any of these books for years. I’m really interested in them from a craft perspective as I head into the second half of my WIP.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray. These books are so strange and completely creepy. It’s been a long time since I revisited Gemma Doyle and her friends at Spence Academy. Again, from a craft perspective, these books are incredibly captivating and the spooky factor is something worth looking at again.

A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy—jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Books I love to revisit time and again:

Wise Child and Juniper, by Monica Furlong. These are some of my absolute favorite books of all time. They’re a perfect example of historical fantasy. I have probably read them both dozens of times each. I didn’t even know that Furlong wrote a third book, Colman, but I picked it up at the used book store a few months ago, so maybe re-reading Wise Child and Juniper might help me get out of the slump.

In a remote Scottish village, nine-year-old Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, a healer and sorceress. Then Wise Child’s mother, Maeve, a black witch, reappears. In choosing between Maeve and Juniper, Wise Child discovers the extent of her supernatural powers—and her true loyalties.

The Darkangel Trilogy, by Meredith Ann Pierce. I try to write a post about this series every few months because I love it so much and everyone I recommend it to ends up loving it as well, but my words always fall flat. Maybe if I re-read them I’ll finally write that post!

Aeriel is kidnapped by the darkangel, a black-winged vampyre of astounding beauty and youth. In his castle keep, she serves his 13 wives, wraiths whose souls he stole. She must kill him before his next marriage and comes into full power, but is captivated by his magnificent beauty and inner spark of goodness. Will she choose to save humanity or his soul?

The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. Seriously, have you read any Pern books? They’re incredibly re-readable. Dragons, time travel, a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Pern books are comforting classics and it might feel great to revisit them.

Join Lessa, sole remnant of a noble house, as she comes of age and dares to reclaim her birthright–and battles to save Pern from the deadly silver threadfall that threatens devastation of the planet

Books I’d like to recommend:

There are some books I read and enjoyed before we started Coven Book Club that I probably would have recommended at the time. I like to write my recommendations right after I read something (or reread it as the case may be), so I’d like to revisit these books to consider writing recommendations:

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. Everybody I know who’s read this book loves it, but I find that not everyone’s heard of it.

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. We’ve talked over doing this for a Coven Read a few times and it’s been a while since I read it, but I was blown away by it the first time I read it.

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman. I love this book, and I’ve read it a few times, but I know that I’d like to write a recommendation for it soon, as well as hosting a live tweet of the film (which is nothing like the book).

When the beautiful and precocious sisters Sally and Gillian Owens are orphaned at a young age, they are taken to a small Massachusetts town to be raised by their eccentric aunts, who happen to dwell in the darkest, eeriest house in town. As they become more aware of their aunts’ mysterious and sometimes frightening powers — and as their own powers begin to surface — the sisters grow determined to escape their strange upbringing by blending into “normal” society.

Wish me luck, all. A reading slump is no joke, but hopefully with my pile of #junerereads I’ll be back on track before I know it. What books are your favorite rereads? Or does anybody have any other ideas about how I might get out of this slump?


A Story of Strangeness

I have tr18166936ied to write this recommendation in a number of ways. Telling too much about the plot will ruin your experience as a reader; I think the summaries in all the usual places give too much away. Yet, I know you’ll want to know something about the book I’m recommending — that’s why you’re here, after all. It’s not enough to say: “here is The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Go read.”

If you’re as shallow as me, maybe that gorgeous cover is enough to draw you in, if not, I shall try to help. Let me begin where Ava does, because I don’t think it will hurt you to know a few things. First, Ava Lavender is the narrator of the story and she takes pains to tell you that the tale she’ll tell has been well researched, though perhaps biased, as it is about her own family. In trying to understand herself and the events that occurred the year she turned sixteen, she has to go back to the beginning, starting with her great grandparents’ immigration to America from France.

Ava takes us on a  transatlantic, transcontinental journey through time to tell us how the story of her strange and beautiful family came to shape the events of her life. In the prologue, Ava reveals that she wants to explain the consequences of being a girl born with a set of feathered wings. She says,

To many I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth — deep down, I always did.

 

I was just a girl.

Walton’s ability as a storyteller is strong. Every snippet of a promise those opening words make is fulfilled. After I finished the novel, I was impressed with the way each part of the story clicked into place, solving the mystery the prologue lays out. Though the backstory of Ava’s family takes almost a full half of the book before getting to the real action, it’s never pointless. Every bit of the story Ava tells is used. Each piece of information given adds up to one climactic and devastating moment.

And that moment shocked me. The nature of Walton’s storytelling and the voice she gives Ava doesn’t quite jive with the intensity of the horrific climax. This seems intentional. Ava, being a sixteen year old girl at the time of this event didn’t see it coming, but careful readers will know. The signs are there. Still, let me say this, if tragic, incidental violence bothers you, this might not be the book for you. But the violence is not gratuitous. In fact, as I look at it now, it fits. Tragically, horrifically, it fits.

Ultimately, this is a story about femininity. It’s about the ways in which women are mothers, wives, lovers, friends, sisters and children. It’s about the way that strangeness in a woman often evokes fear, mistrust and sometimes violence. This is a story about powerful love and acceptance. It’s about listening to yourself and keeping good watch. It’s a reminder that pain can lead to love and renewal. It’s a powerful testament to women’s resilience.

I’d recommend this book to lovers of magical realism. Fans of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake* and Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic will find a new favorite in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, reader, teacher and lover of tea and a fat cat named Winnie. Find her on twitter or her website.

*If you’d like to read a recommendation for Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, we’ve got one right here.



New Fairy Tale Retellings: Echo, Nightbird, Monstrous

Last week I recommended my favorite YA epic fantasy books published this month. Now I will share with you a few of my favorite new releases in another subgenre of fantasy/science fiction: fairy tale retellings.

You would think by now that reading classic fairy tales and their many adaptations and retellings would get old. But, amazingly enough, many writers have used familiar fairy tale elements to create surprisingly inventive and complex narratives. Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, and MarcyKate Connolly’s Monstrous employ fairy tales in their narratives in very diverse ways.

Echo, a breathtaking novel of interconnected stories, begins with an original fairy tale involving a magical harmonica that unites two boys and a girl growing up before and during World War II. They live in different worlds, strangers to one another, but they all experience prejudice and share a love of music.

The first story features Friedrich, an aspiring conductor who is called “Monster Boy” because of his birthmark and labeled an undesirable in Nazi Germany. In the second story, set in Pennsylvania, Mike and his brother desperately try to escape from an orphanage and their musical talent may be their best hope. In the final story, which takes place in California, Ivy struggles with her school system’s segregation of Mexicans (including those American-born like her) and discrimination against Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor bombing. By uniting these individual stories, Echo not only emphasizes their common experiences of injustice but their love of music—an enduring source of hope and resilience during dark times.

Nightbird, which will be released in March, also employs magical realism and is a fairy tale set in contemporary times. In 12-year-old Twig’s small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, a winged monster is rumored to come out at night and is believed to be responsible for strange incidents of theft and graffiti. Twig is a keen observer of what goes on in the town, but she also stays separate, and Nightbird fuses fairy tale elements with everyday life to bring more meaning to her isolation. She is not just a lonely and awkward 12-year-old who has difficulty making friends and feeling normal. A family secret—more specifically, a witch’s ancient curse—keeps her and her mother in self-imposed isolation. That is until Twig befriends their new neighbors who have ties to her family secret, and she starts to believe that breaking the curse is possible.

Monstrous also features a magical creature that humans fear and a curse the characters struggle to overcome. Fairy tale fantasy combines with a Frankenstein motif, as Kymera is brought back to life by her father, but without her original human body and memories of her previous life. A year ago she was killed, along with her mother, by the evil wizard who abducts and murders girls, using their young blood as a powerful ingredient in his magic spells. After many experiments joining his daughter’s human parts with multiple animal parts, her father has finally succeeded in recreating her as a hybrid with patchwork skin, cat eyes, claws, wings, and a barbed tail.

Monstrous’ fantasy world mirrors Kymera’s beloved volume of fairy tales, which she and her father read together during their seclusion in a hidden cottage outside of the city of Bryre. Her father wants to keep them safe from the evil wizard’s magic and from humans who would feel threatened by her appearance. Humans would see her as a monster, he explains, and not as his perfect creation and their salvation.

The wizard has cursed Bryre with a spreading deadly briar and a disease that sickens girls who he imprisons before using them for his dark magic spells. Bryre’s salvation depends on Kymera: her hybrid form is ideal for rescuing the girls from the wizard’s prison and bringing them to her father who cures and protects them. Her rescue missions become more complicated, however, as memories of her former life slowly resurface and her friendships with a mysterious boy and a rare dragon cause her to question what she believes to be true.

Although written for middle grade and young adult readers, I recommend these books for all ages—especially if you like fairy tale retellings. I love how they apply fairy tale magic to universal experiences of loneliness, prejudice, and finding hope and love in a damaged world. Older readers may find plot twists predictable, but I hope that doesn’t prevent anyone from picking up these enchanting reads. I also recommend Bird and Beastkeeper if you are looking for comparable books.

Perhaps what I love most about these novels and about many fairy tale retellings is that so-called monsters (who are alienated, judged, feared, and threatened because they are different in appearance or status from people considered normal and acceptable) demonstrate extraordinary humanity and don’t stop fighting for justice.

If you want a sense of just how many YA fairy tale retellings there are, check out this wonderful infographic.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and the publishers for providing her with advanced readers copies in exchange for her honest reviews.