Sunday, 28 July 2019

Review: 'The Toll' by Cherie Priest

I was first intrigued by this novel's premise, the idea of a dark secret hidden in the swamp. Growing up in northern Europe, I am horrible unfamiliar with American swamps so they always sound mystical to me. They also sound like a place where I could absolutely not thrive. So of course I had to explore this Southern Gothic horror novel. Thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 7/9/2019
Publisher: Tor Books; MacMillan -Tor/Forge
From Cherie Priest, the author of The Family Plot and Maplecroft, comes The Toll, a tense, dark, and scary treat for modern fans of the traditionally strange and macabre.
Take a road trip into a Southern gothic horror novel. 
Titus and Melanie Bell are on their honeymoon and have reservations in the Okefenokee Swamp cabins for a canoeing trip. But shortly before they reach their destination, the road narrows into a rickety bridge with old stone pilings, with room for only one car. 
Much later, Titus wakes up lying in the middle of the road, no bridge in sight. Melanie is missing. When he calls the police, they tell him there is no such bridge on Route 177 . . 
Most of my focus when it comes to studying or just reading literature has been on English literature, as in books written in the United Kingdom. As such, Southern Gothic is really unfamiliar to me. Doing some research into it, I discovered that many of the aspects I enjoyed about The Toll were elements of the Southern Gothic genre. The presence of horrific thoughts, grotesque characters and a deep sense of alienation, as well as, of course, a dark sense of humour. The genre looks at the dark tragedy behind the idyllic pastoral ideal, as well as the Freudian idea of the repressed. It is a very potent genre, one that has given us authors like Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Tennessee Williams.

The Toll starts with Cameron, observing his two god-mothers gardening. They're fascinating little women, and he is a very bored teenager. The plot of The Toll starts with Titus and Melanie Bell, fresh off their wedding, heading into the Okefenokee Swamp. Their bickering is just on the wrong side of constant, with some real angry undertones. They drive up to a suspicious bridge and before he knows it, Titus wakes up outside his car, having lost both time and his new wife. The rest of the novel takes place over the following few days as Titus encounters various inhabitants of Staywater in the search of his wife. The storylines of both Cameron and Titus are told alongside each other, but only entwine towards the ends. I would have loved to see more of the swamp, although the novel only truly moved there towards the end of the book. Overall, The Toll is an atmospheric tale that perhaps could have dug a little bit deeper.

I hadn't read anything by Cherie Priest before, although The Family Plot is on my list. The Toll is an interesting story but there is a lot going on with it. In general, the characterization is pretty on point. Cameron sounds like a seventeen year old boy, which means that at times he is very self-involved and annoying. His godmothers are lovely old women who are definitely hiding things. At times their sassiness is a little bit too much feeling more contrived than realistic, but I liked them anyway. Titus is a little harder to suss out as he is not really likable. At times the plot feels rushed, with not as much time spent on exploring motivations as just having them go through the steps. SOme really interesting ideas were underdeveloped, which was a shame. Sometimes The Toll really grabbed my attention and at other times I had to focus to stay interested. I wanted to like the novel more than I did, in the end, but there were some undeniably strong moments in this novel. 

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Toll excels when it focuses on its folklore elements and lets the swamp do its work. The other elements of Priest's novel don't always work, but it does make for an interesting read. I'd recommend it to those wanting to dive into the Southern Gothic genre.

Review: 'The Big Book of Classic Fantasy' by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I adore Fantasy, no ifs or buts about it. My first introduction to Fantasy were fairy tales, which showed me the magic of the everyday as well as the possibilities of the extraordinary. From there I moved to The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A  lot of the Fantasy I consumed was very European and very Western, and it is only in the past few years I've been able to expand on it through books like Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. I have loved expanding my Fantasy horizons and The Big Book of Classic Fantasy was a great way of digging deeper into the diverse roots of my favourite genre. Thanks to Knopf Doubledat, Vintage and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date:7/2/2019
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Vintage

Unearth the enchanting origins of fantasy fiction with a collection of tales as vast as the tallest tower and as mysterious as the dark depths of the forest. 
Fantasy stories have always been with us. They illuminate the odd and the uncanny, the wondrous and the fantastic: all the things we know are lurking just out of sight—on the other side of the looking-glass, beyond the music of the impossibly haunting violin, through the twisted trees of the ancient woods. Other worlds, talking animals, fairies, goblins, demons, tricksters, and mystics: these are the elements that populate a rich literary tradition that spans the globe. A work composed both of careful scholarship and fantastic fun, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is essential reading for anyone who’s never forgotten the stories that first inspired feelings of astonishment and wonder.
*Stories by pillars of the genre like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, L. Frank Baum, Robert E. Howard, and J. R. R. Tolkien*Fantastical offerings from literary giants including Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Vladimir Nabokov, Hermann Hesse, and W.E.B. Du Bois*Rare treasures from Asian, Eastern European, Scandinavian, and Native American traditions*New translations, including fourteen stories never before in English
Collections of any genre are tricky. What, and perhaps more importantly who, do you include. How do you organize it? Do you go chronologically or thematically? Do you introduce each story or do you let them speak for themselves? In the end, no single collection can encompass an entire genre or reflect all its nuances. However, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy does a brilliant job at showing just how wide the Fantasy genre is. Covering the time period from the 1800s to World War II, the Big Book gives its readers both the usual suspects and some rather unexpected ones. I was not looking for Franz Kafka in a Fantasy collection, and yet his story fits in perfectly with the other ones. The Big Book does contain many stories never  before translated into English and a few non-Western stories, but not as many as I would have liked. However, overall the collection shows how all-encompassing the Fantasy genre is and just how much variety it has to offer to its readers.

It's hard to pick a favourite story but there were a few key standouts for me. One of my absolute favourites was 'Furnica, or The Queen of Ants', which first appeared in 1893 and is written by Pauline Elisabeth Ottilie Luise Zu Wied, the Queen Consort (!) of Romania. I discovered a whole new author for me to be fascinated by and the story itself is a tragic story about 'love and responsibility'. Another favourite was 'The Ensouled Violin' by Helena Blavatsky, inspired by a nightmare and full of music, body horror and black magic. It's a stunning story that is also slighty terrifying. Another story I wanted to highlight was 'The Kingdom of Cards' by Rabindranath Tagore. I had already put down Tagore as someone I wanted to read, so his short story popped up at the perfect time. It's a great, absurdist tale that comments on the pitfalls of bureaucracy while telling a great story. There are a great number of literary gems in The Big Book and i loved discovering one after the other.

Every story in the Big Book is prefaced by a short introduction. What this does is separate one story from the other, preventing them from bleeding into each other, while also giving readers an idea of whom they're reading. This is especially useful for some of the lesser known stories and also gives the Big Book something of a didactic feel. I personally love that, but it may not be for everyone. This collection might not contain what many readers expect when they think of Fantasy. The pages aren't covered with dragons and knights and fairies and ogres. The Big Book shows the different directions people can take with this genre, the depth of topics it can explore and the varied emotions it can arouse in its readers.

I give this collection..

4 Universes!

I loved reading The Big Book of Classic Fantasy. The VanderMeers did an amazing job at collecting a variety of different stories and different authors. For anyone wanting to explore the Fantasy produced in the previous century, the Big Book is definitely a good start.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

‘Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun’ by Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

How was I ever supposed to pass this novel by? Below I will go into a little bit more detail about why a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth would have drawn me in straight away, but let’s just say that I adore it wholeheartedly. This actually meant that I went into the reading of it almost fearfully. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? How would this affect the way I saw the film? Would it at all? So many questions, and yet del Toro and Funke were safe hands to place myself in. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.

Pub. Date: 7/2/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
You shouldn't come in here. You could get lost. It has happened before. I'll tell you the story one day, if you want to hear it. 
In fairy tales, there are men and there are wolves, there are beasts and dead parents, there are girls and forests. 
Ofelia knows all this, like any young woman with a head full of stories. And she sees right away what the Capitán is, in his immaculate uniform, boots and gloves, smiling: a wolf. 
But nothing can prepare her for the fevered reality of the Capitán's eerie house, in the midst of a dense forest which conceals many things: half-remembered stories of lost babies; renegade resistance fighters hiding from the army; a labyrinth; beasts and fairies. 
There is no one to keep Ofelia safe as the labyrinth beckons her into her own story, where the monstrous and the human are inextricable, where myths pulse with living blood ...

Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the first movies I discovered on my own and for myself. I read about it in an article in, I believe, The Spiegel, and then convinced my German granddad to buy the DVD when I visited him shortly after. So there we were, both lovers of literature and fairy tales, and we were utterly swept away by the sheer beauty of del Toro’s film. We were also shocked by the violence of the Capin, oddly fascinated yet disgusted by the Pale Man, and heartbroken at the end. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film I have never stopped loving and have found new appreciation for again and again. Meanwhile Cornelia Funke was a big part of my childhood from the moment Inkheart landed in my lap. My father read it to me as I was young in what became a very meta experience. As he read to me of characters being read to life, Funke’s story was brought to life for me. It was perhaps the first novel to make me think of books and characters as things that were real and that could affect your life. Together, del Toro and Funke’s works have played major roles in shaping how I look at stories, so the coming together of the two in this adaptation of Pan’s Labyrinth is simply too much.

Pan's Labyrinth is a story about magic and childhood, about loss and pain, about love and hate. Ofelia is cast adrift in a new surrounding, a mill engulfed by a forest. Her father has died and her mother has married the Capin, a fear-inspiring and cruel man. Ofelia's only escapes are fairy tales, until a fairy takes her to a labyrinth, where a faun explains to her that she is a princess and must complete three tasks to regain her place in her underground kingdom. Magic and reality begin to collide, as everything around Ofelia unravels. This novel is not just a retelling of the film, it is a broadening of the whole experience. del Toro's film is focused largely on Ofelia, although we do get some insight into the inner lives of the adult characters. This novel delves into their personalities much more, showing us the fragility of Carmen, Ofelia's mother, the steel that runs through Mercedes, and the mercilessness of the Capitán. It also provides the labyrinth and Ofelia's origin with more background and I loved discovering this new aspect of the story. It brings an even more legendary feel to a movie that is already steeped in lore. In the end, both on its own and in addition to the film, Pan's Labyrinth is a great read.

Pan's Labyrinth is a retelling that celebrates its new medium and invites new readers to its story. Although the film is definitely R-Rated, the novel leans more towards the YA genre. Its writing is generally simple but evocative, with the dialogue kept to a minimum and relying mostly on showing rather than telling. Part of the reason why Pan's Labyrinth is such a beautiful and meaningful story is that it is very fantastical and yet incredibly grounded. del Toro and Funke find a great balance between highlighting the magic of the natural world, the precociousness of a child, and the horror of the human world. It all comes together into a story that transports the reader. At times Pan's Labyrinth feels a bit like a fable, as del Toro and Funke don't shy away from putting the moral right there on the page. However, it doesn't overwhelm the novel and rather adds to its fairy tale-esque feel. There are also some beautiful phrases in this novel, many in relation to magic, love and storytelling. One that stood out to me early on in the novel is below:
'The letters were like footprints in the snow, a wide white landscape untouched by pain, unharmed by memories too dark to keep, too sweet to let go of.'
Stories such as these transport the reader, showing them a path that may lead through pain and hardship but also leads to the sweet things. I simply adored del Toro and Funke's Pan's Labyrinth.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

It should have come as no surprise that I would love the novelization of Pan's Labyrinth since I adored the movie. del Toro and Funke expand beautifully upon the existing story, adding new layers to both the characters and the narrative itself. Anyone who has loved the film or is looking for an enchanting and engrossing fantasy novel, this is the read for you!

Review: 'Silver in the Woods' by Emily Tesh

What first drew me to Silver in the Wood was its stunning cover, the trees and the wood intertwining to form a man’s face. I have always loved trees and wild woods. They contain history, in a way, and their quiet fortitude is rather inspiring at times. So of course I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the Wild man of the woods. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 6/18/2019

Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge,
"A true story of the woods, of the fae, and of the heart. Deep and green and wonderful.”—New York Times bestselling author Naomi Novik 
There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads. 
When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart. 
Praise for Emily Tesh's Silver in the Wood:"A wildly evocative and enchanting story of old forests, forgotten gods, and new love. Just magnificent."—Jenn Lyons, author of The Ruin of Kings

Silver in the Woods is more like  a folk tale than  a novella. The setting is quite precise and yet vague enough that it could be any wood. It sometimes felt as if I was reading a story I knew but which was being presented to me in a completely new way. Some aspects of the story reminded me of the Green Man archetype in folktales, a symbol of growth and rebirth, but also a symbol that closely ties man and nature together. Us humans aren’t separate from nature, we are of it, and Silver in the Woods couldn’t make this clearer. There is a love for nature that runs through Tesh’s writing that sometimes reminded me of how Tolkien’s passion for trees shone through in The Lord of the Rings. Whereas Christianity and other religions of the Book set man against nature, our earlier religions saw us as one with it, and so both Tobias, Henry and everyone else who comes in touch with the woods remains, in a way, a part of it.

Silver in the Woods follows Tobias Finch, the Wild Man of Greenhollow, who was once a man but is now something else. The caretaker of the woods, perhaps? Its spirit, somehow? It’s not entirely made clear by Tesh and I prefer it that way. Tobias’ quiet life is shaken up by the arrival of Henry Silver, the new lord of Greenhollow Hall who is absolutely fascinated with the woods and with folklore. Henry brings some human joy to Tobias’ life, but he also draws the attention of the old ghosts that haunt the Greenhollow woods. In Silver in the Woods magic and folklore are always just under the surface. The woods are a place of life, death, worship and depravity. They are a place where you can both find and lose yourself, face your fears and discover new ones. Tesh captures the beautiful duality of the woods in Silver in the Woods and they form the perfect background for the tentative romance and self-discovery her characters go through.

Although the cover was the first thing that drew my eye to Silver in the Woods, it was also the Naomi Novik’s enthusiastic endorsement that convinced me. I adored her novel Spinning Silver, which brought a fascinating twist to the Rumpelstiltskin tale. Similarly to Novik, Emily Tesh crafts some wonderful imagery in Silver in the Woods. There are some stunning phrases throughout the novella that truly transported me and captured some of the timelessness of nature and storytelling.  Although Silver in the Woods is quite a gentle novel, it doesn’t shy away from laying bare the cruelty and greed of humanity. It asks us how we use our power, what we’re willing to sacrifice, and how far we’ll go to win back what we’ve lost. Tesh doesn’t get too moralizing, but it is quite clear what she thinks herself.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

Silver in the Woods is a beautiful tale that will whisk its reader away. With stunning nature descriptions and lovely interactions between characters, Silver in the Woods is a sadly short but very rewarding read. I’d recommend this to anyone with a love of woods and a passion for folklore.