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Monday, October 16, 2017


Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy (based on Russian fairy/folk tales)
Publisher:  Del Rey 
     The Bear and the Nightingale (6/2017)
     The Girl in the Tower (12/2017)

This first entry in my ongoing review of the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY begins with a brief overview of the series world-building followed by the publisher's blurb for The Bear and the Nightingale along with my review. I will add to this post as the remaining novels are published.

    The first thing you need to know is that Arden uses many Russian terms in her storytelling. Luckily for the reader, she includes a glossary to explain each one of them. Whenever I use any of those Russian words in this post, I will highlight it in orange. Whew, what a relief it was to find that glossary at the end of book one! 

     The series is set in the 14th century in northern Russia and focuses on the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich. Pyotr is a boyar—a member of the aristocracy  second in rank only to a prince—but he lives the same humble life style as his tenants. Arden includes extensive descriptions of the natural features of Pyotr's lands, particularly the forest, which is the favorite place for his youngest daughter, Vasilisa (aka Vasya) to wander. 

     Vasya is the heroine of the series—at least that is the case in the first novel, which follows her from her birth to her teen-age years. But Pyotr also provides a large group of richly developed secondary characters, both human and mythical/magical, with whom Vasya interacts. In fact, magic plays a major role in the series in the form of various creatures, including helpful spirits and guardians, evil demons, and even the dreaded upyry (Russian vampires). Although most of the villagers believe that these mythical creatures exist only in an invisible form, Vasya alone can actually see them and interact with them, a fact that she tries to keep hidden from her family and neighbors for fear of being labeled a witch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd jobs imaginable from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont. For more information, click HERE to go to the "About" page on Arden's web site.

     Click HERE to read an online interview on the Unbound Worlds website in which Arden answers questions about Russian literature and The Bear and the Nightingale

                      NOVEL 1: The Bear and the Nightingale                   
   A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

     At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

     After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout and city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

     And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

     As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.   

    The book begins in the depths of the Russian winter. Here is the opening sentence: "It was late winter in northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage." 

     As the family members huddle around the huge oven trying to keep warm, Dunya, the children's elderly nurse, tells them the tale of Frost, who is both an evil demon (called Morozko) and the god of death (called Karachun). Dunya's story is a folktale in which a villainous stepmother hates her husband's young daughter, Marfa, so much that she wishes her dead. After mistreating Marfa badly, the stepmother forces her husband to take Marfa deep into the snowy woods and leave her as an offering to Morozko, hoping that the girl will freeze to death. But Marfa charms Frost and he sends her home with many rich gifts. The stepmother is enraged and jealous so she insists that her husband take her own daughter, Liza, out into the woods and leave her in the snow, just as he did with Marfa. But Liza is rude to Frost so he leaves her to freeze to death. When the husband goes to retrieve Liza and brings back her frozen corpse, the wife drops dead with grief. This story comprises the entire first chapter, and you can be sure that it plays a huge part in the overall plot of the novel. You'll see it coming when Pyotr's wife, Marina, dies in childbirth early in the story only to be replaced a number of chapters later by a very unlikable stepmother.

     We soon learn that Vasya, the child who survived the birth that killed her mother, has inherited "the sight" from her mother's side of the family. In this rural, isolated countryside, people leave offerings of food and drink to the spirits or guardians of various places (for example, the hearth, the stable, the woods, the lake). But Vasya is the only one who can actually see those spirits and converse with them. By the time she realizes that people don't know who she is talking to when she speaks aloud to the spirits, most of the villagers believe that she is a witch (which, actually, she is). Vasya loves the forest and spends much of her childhood running off to talk with the spirits who live there, including the leshy (woodland spirit and protector of animals) and the rusalka (female water nymph).

     The story takes us through the seasons, with Arden providing enchanting descriptions of the natural changes of the land and life styles as the weather transitions from frigid to warm to hot and back to cold. She describes the many changes in the fields and forest as the years and the seasons pass and how those changes affect the lives of Pyotr Vladimirovich's family. 

     Arden divides the story into three parts. The first part introduces Pyotr's family, their complicated history, and the importance of the ancient spirits to the daily life of his people. Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family are impressive, particularly the relationships among Vasya and her siblings: three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their differences, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     The second part adds complications to their peaceful life when Pyotr and his two oldest sons go off to Moscow, and he returns with a deeply unstable new wife named Anna. Soon thereafter, another new arrival adds even more turmoil: an arrogant new priest named Konstantin. Tension begins building as soon as they arrive when Anna immediately takes a deep dislike to Vasya. Then the priest begins to preach against the ancient spirits in emotional, hellfire-and-brimstone sermons calculated to frighten them into turning all of their attentions to the single God to whom he prays. Vasya refuses to join the other villagers in bowing only to Konstantin's God. She sees that the ancient spirits are fading away from neglect and that the crops are failing and the storms are destroying the land, so she speaks out against the priest's fear-mongering: "I am only a country girl...I have never seen...angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful...that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before."

     Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Frost learns that a demon that he bound a century ago has awakened and is on the verge of breaking free. In the final section of the book, magic plays a much bigger role as Arden accelerates the action, amps up the suspense, and resolves most of the conflicts. Although there are some light-hearted moments in the first two sections, it is in the final section that Arden adds several truly funny moments (mostly in the form of snarky dialogue) to the drama and violence of the major showdown that brings the book to a close.

     This book doesn't exactly have an HEA ending. It's not sad (well, except that a few characters don't make it through to the end), but for Vasya, it's more like a question mark—a what's-coming-next kind of ending.

     Arden does a magnificent job of weaving together Russian folklore with the everyday elements of life in feudal Russia. Her descriptive language allows the reader to feel the cold and the rain, to smell the earth in the spring and summer fields, and to hear the leaves blowing in the wind. Here is a lovely description of the coming of fall: "Fall came at last to lay cool fingers on the summer-dry grass; the light went from gold to gray and the clouds grew damp and soft."

     Also impressive are Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family, particularly Vasya and her siblings, three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their difference, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     I confess that I am not a big fan of fairy-tale fantasies set in ancient times, but this book drew me in immediately with its fantastical plot, layered characters, and slowly building suspense. Vasya is a terrific heroine—an independent young women in a culture that does not reward free-thinking females.

     Click HERE to read excerpts on Arden's web site with comments from the author. Click HERE to read or listen to excerpts on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. Click HERE for a reading guide to the novel on the publisher's web site.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NEW DYSTOPIAN NOVEL: Jesús Carrasco's "Out in the Open"

Author: Jesús Carrasco  
Translator (from Spanish): Margaret Jull Costa
Plot Type: Dark Dystopian Fantasy 
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House LLC)
Publication Dates: Original Spanish text: 2013; English translation: 2017

     Jesus Carrasco was born in Badajoz, Spain, and now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016. Out in the Open is his debut novel. It was a bestseller in Spain, has been published in twenty-five languages, and is the winner of many international awards, including an English PEN award.

     Margaret Jull Costa has been translating Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American fiction—including authors like Javier Marias—for more than twenty years.

     A searing dystopian vision of a young boy's flight through an unnamed, savaged country, searching for sanctuary and redemption—a debut novel from one of Europe's bestselling literary stars.

     A young boy has fled his home. He’s pursued by dangerous forces. What lies before him is an infinite, arid plain, one he must cross in order to escape those from whom he’s fleeing. One night on the road, he meets an old goatherd, a man who lives simply but righteously, and from that moment on, their paths intertwine.

     Out in the Open
 tells the story of this journey through a drought-stricken country ruled by violence. A world where names and dates don’t matter, where morals have drained away with the water. In this landscape the boy—not yet a lost cause—has the chance to choose hope and bravery, or to live forever mired in the cycle of violence in which he was raised. Carrasco has masterfully created a high stakes world, a dystopian tale of life and death, right and wrong, terror and salvation.

    Contrary to the title, the opening scene centers on a young boy who is hiding in a place that is anything but open: "From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of fire-scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped apace. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. ... He sensed that the men were getting very close now and so he lay utterly still. He heard his name proliferating among the trees like drops of rain falling onto a sheet of water." As he lies in his hole, he thinks about his father and "the black flower of his family's betrayal [that] still gnawed at his stomach." So...what do we know about this young boy, who is perhaps eight or ten years of age? All of the men in the village, including the sheriff, are searching for him, because he has "caused an incident," an incident that somehow involves duplicity by his family. All this nameless boy can think about is escaping to a safe place—turning his back on the village and the olive grove and heading north into the unknown plain, certain that his carefully collected horde of food and water will be enough to propel him into a new life.

     What could this little boy possibly have done to cause this massive search? The boy assures us that he "hadn't killed anyone, he hadn't stolen, he hadn't taken the name of God in vain," so what did he do? Carrasco doesn't tell us exactly what happened until much later in the story, leaving only sickening hints—forcing the reader to make his or her own dark guesses as to who or what the boy has escaped from and what will happen to him if/when he is caught by his primary pursuer. 
In an interview, Carrasco says, "When I wrote the novel I tried to create an incomplete psychological profile of the boy. Not just because he was a 'personality in progress' but because I wanted to attract the reader to the characters by giving them a sort of mystery. When I read I'm always tempted to fill in with my own experience of life what is suggested but not said, I think we all do. When the blank says 'fear,' it is more suggestive when the reader fills the blank with their own fear instead of a neat description of what the writer thinks that the character feels."

This is how the old man
looks as he rides his
donkey, which is loaded
with panniers (saddle

bags) filled with his 
     Once the boy escapes from his hole and makes his way into the desolate, tinder-dry, drought-ridden countryside, Carrasco draws the reader into the boy's mind as he trudges for miles with the sun beating relentlessly down on his unprotected body. That night, after his meager provisions have been eaten and drunk, he comes upon an aged goatherd who catches him when he tries to steal some food. Instead of punishing the boy, the goatherd shares his food and water, and after some initial distrust, the boy, the goatherd, and his animals continue to make their way north. "The old man and the donkey were at the front, the dog chasing madly after them, and last of all came the goats, leaving behind a slipstream of dung like the tail of a comet." The boy is still somewhat distrustful of the goatherd because he is sure that a reward for his capture has been posted, and the goatherd is desperately poor, but he truly has no choice but to team up with this monosyllabic old man if he is to survive. 

A rope lighter
   Note: The goatherd habitually uses a rope lighter  (encendedor de mecha) to light his cigarettes as well as the campfire. Click HERE to see a video of how a rope lighter works. It's pretty neat.

     The next chapters follow the group of animals and the two humans as they move slowly across an arid, dusty, rocky plain pocked with bone-dry stream beds. Although some have criticized this section of the book for being too slow, I found it fascinating to watch the primitive but principled goatherd begin to mentor the boy, almost as if the old man is readying the boy to take his place when the time comes. This part of the book is truly a coming-of-age process for a youngster who has never been beyond the boundaries of his own village and who has always relied on his family for sustenance and shelter. Now, he has only himself—and the goatherd—to keep him alive. Carrasco's writing is filled with the meticulous details of surviving in this unforgiving landscape (which is based on Carrasco's childhood in a drought-ridden area of Spain).

     Comparisons can be made between the boy's search for safety and Don Quixote's quest for chivalry. In an on-line interview, Carrasco makes the following statement on this subject: "There are many parallels between the books. Both are, in some way, travel books, unfolding in the same landscape, and danger is a substantial part of the plot. The difference is that while Don Quixote seeks danger, the boy in this novel, flees from it. In my opinion the need for safety that the boy feels is actually finally fulfilled by the encounter with the goatherd. It is, anyway, a psychological safety, which has been sourced from a newly acquired feeling of autonomy. For the first time in his early life, he feels that it is himself who is in charge of is own life. It is good to be aware that life is not cocooned in safety and that it finally ends." The book has also been compared to Cormac MacCarthy's The Road.

     Eventually, of course, the boy's pursuers catch up with him in a horrific scene set in the ruins of an ancient castle. From that point on, suspense builds at a compelling rate as we root for the boy and his savior to emerge from this virtual nightmare alive. "The elements had pushed him far beyond what he knew and didn't know about life. It had taken him to the very edge of death...." The boy struggles to understand the goatherd's motivations for helping him. He wonders why the old man has put himself at high risk and has suffered extreme pain and hardship just to help him escape from his pursuers.

     After many trials and tribulations, the boy "had been guilty of meting out violence, exactly as he had seen those around him do, and now he was demanding his share of impunity." But when the boy wants to leave an enemy for dead, the goatherd reminds him, "He, too, is a child of God."  From this old man the boy eventually learns the importance of compassion to the human soul. 

     Although there are a number of extremely violent scenes in the second half of the book, Carrasco takes a Hitchcockian approach to them, never giving us the full graphic details, but instead relying on shadows, sounds, and smells to communicate the horrors. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Carrasco uses his storytelling as a means of forcing his audience to project their worst fears and anxieties—to place the reader just outside the scene as a silent, powerless observer. 

     In one brief scene the boy's most feared pursuer meticulously collects a variety of food, leisurely eats his meal, and then uses his knife to open a handful of walnuts, carefully scooping out the whole nutmeats. As the terrified boy watches, the man holds "one half of a nutshell in each hand. Then holding each half between two fingers, he put them together so that they fitted perfectly like a brain with four hemispheres." He looks at the boy and says, "It's important to do things properly. ... And you haven't." When read in full context, this little vignette will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from novel on its page. You can click on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

Saturday, October 7, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Diana Rowland's WHITE TRASH ZOMBIE SERIES by adding a review of White Trash Zombie Unchained, the sixth (and probably the FINAL) novel in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, October 2, 2017

UPDATE! Charlaine Harris--renewal for "MIdnight Texas" TV show

Charlaine Harris just posted on Facebook that the renewal of the television version of Midnight, Texas, is hanging in the balance. She asks supporters to make their opinions known at @MidnightTexas on Facebook.

Click HERE to go directly to Harris's Facebook page. 

Click HERE to go to NBC's Midnight Texas page where you can watch the full season, including the big finale.

Although I wasn't overjoyed with all aspects of the show, by the end I had made peace with most of my complaints, particularly about the lousy casting of a few of the characters (particularly, Joe the fallen angel). 

Once a book falls into the hands of TV executives, it is always going to become a very different product than the one we read on the printed page. That happened with True Blood, just as it happened with Midnight. Thankfully, the producers of True Blood did a much better job and stayed relatively true to Harris's character development and story lines.

I'm just grateful that the Midnight series was better cast and plotted than the dreadful Aurora Teagarden series on the Hallmark channel, which is filled with sappy, air-headed characters and drips with saccharine-sweet drivel that is far removed from Harris's wry, dry wit.