Review: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

My TBR spreadsheet entry for Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot just said TAM LIN WITH SISTERS, which, I mean, if y’all have been around for a little while, you’ll know that I am about Tam Lin retellings. In this one, sisters Imogen and Marin have won prestigious Melete residencies, which will allow them to work on their art (Imogen writes, Marin dances) with top-of-their-field mentors for a year. This is the first time the two of them have lived in the same place since Imogen fled their abusive mother’s house to attend boarding school as a teenager.

Roses and Rot

At first, Melete seems beautiful and perfect, if perhaps a bit strange in its architecture and atmosphere, but since the reader knows that All Is Not As It Appears, there’s moments when you think, Okay, okay, get going with the creepy shit already. But in general, Howard creates a wonderfully creepy atmosphere of the type that maintains plausible deniability: Artist weirdness, or magic? Deeply sinister signs that the whole shebang is controlled by semi-malevolent dark creatures, or creative people producing art that maybe makes you uncomfortable sometimes?

This makes for a slightly slow beginning, which I find is the nature of Tam Lin stories in general (why?) — lots of going back and forth between Carterhaugh and her father’s house before Janet gets to the fireworks factory — and it’s still satisfying from an emotional perspective to watch Imogen try to figure out who she is as a sister and a writer. When she begins to realize what she will have to sacrifice to save Marin, this emotional groundwork serves us in good stead. Howard made me feel all the emotions around creating art, fighting through imposter syndrome, being a sister, and being a daughter.

Here comes my one minor complaint, and it’s a spoilery one, so strap in: The concern is that Marin’s emotional fragility — born of years of emotional abuse from their mother — will make it impossible to survive her seven years in Faerie and make it out to win her prize of international renown. Imogen, therefore, has to either stop her from winning the Top Artist Prize basically, or — once Marin has won it, because of course — want Marin more than Faerie does.

This is all fine. Howard then goes for another twist of the knife, making a rule that if Imogen does stop the Faerie ritual from proceeding, all the fame and talent will come to her, instead of to Marin. Thus there’s no way for Imogen to do this thing without it appearing to be for selfish reasons; I.e., without it appearing to confirm the jealousy their mother has for years been assuring Marin that Imogen feels. After the ritual, though, Marin sees that it was all for her own good, and she and Imogen are fine.

Both of these things felt facile to me in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t. Howard grapples frequently with the scars — physical and emotional — the girls’ mother’s abuse has left on them, and it’s done with great respect and deftness. The thing about Imogen maybe getting all the glory doesn’t make plot sense and feels thrown in, plus even when Imogen makes that tough decision, there aren’t any repercussions for her relationship with Marin. Granted that I am a noted aftermath junkie, but I’d have liked to have seen some hard consequences for Imogen’s decision, and perhaps an ending where she and Marin have to rebuilt their trust.

As I said, it’s a minor complaint, and overall I thought this book was terrific, putting me in mind of Elizabeth Hand at her best and spookiest. Much recommended for the fall season!

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Epiphany

Tell me if I missed yours!

Winter Rose, Patricia McKillip

I simply cannot get on with Patricia McKillip.  I don’t know what it is about her books that displease me.  The writing is lovely, her characters are likeable, the plots are interesting – and still, every single time I pick up one of her books, I end up stewing in displeasure and finally asking myself, Jenny, why are you torturing yourself like this?  Just put the damn book down and read something else.

Winter Rose is a retelling of Tam Lin.  I love that story!  As previously mentioned, I am reading a bunch of retellings of that story.  And there was nothing wrong with this book.  Rois is a clever and inquisitive heroine, trying to find out what kind of a curse Corbet Lynn is under, and whether his father killed his grandfather, and why he’s come back to rebuild his family estate.  I was interested in knowing all of these things!  I was interested in Rois’s demure sister Laurel, happily engaged yet strangely drawn to Corbet.  At least, I was for a while.  Then after a while, I didn’t care enough to finish the book, or even to read the end.

Riddle me this: Nobody was boring, but I got bored.

War for the Oaks, Emma Bull

I read somewhere (who knows?) that War for the Oaks is a retelling of Tam Lin.  I’m on a mad craze to read all the retellings of Tam Lin that I can find, which is brilliant because Fire and Hemlock is waiting for me at the end.  Also, I am interested in reading a whole bunch of retellings of one story, because I am thinking of doing an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”, and I am curious to see how people do it.  War for the Oaks isn’t a retelling of Tam Lin, but it’s fun and I enjoyed it.

It’s about a talented musician called Eddi who becomes entangled with the Seelie court.  They want to do battle with the Unseelie court, but they can’t do it properly unless they have a mortal around, because that’s the only circumstance in which the Seelie and Unseelie people can be killed.  Once they’ve decided to do this, they set a phouka to guard Eddi until the battle arrives, so that the Unseelie court doesn’t kill her in advance of the battle.  It’s all fun and games until – well, no, it’s never fun and games.  There are many unpleasantnesses.  (I mean, it’s fun for me.  It’s not fun for its protagonists, at least not mostly.)

I was in the mood for something fun with phoukas and brownies and the Sidhe.  I can’t do with a constant diet of them, but it’s a nice thing to read on a Sunday afternoon, when it’s too hot to go outside but just about right to pull open the shades and open up the window.  Lovely.

The Queen of Spells, Dahlov Ipcar

Blast.  I wrote a nice, thoughtful review of this book, and then it somehow got lost when I reviewed Death: The High Cost of Living.  Bother bother bother.  Suffice it to say – The Queen of Spells is a retelling of “Tam Lin”, which is such a great story that I have checked out or reserved five different adaptations of it, to decide which one is best (apart from, obviously, Fire and Hemlock).  The Queen of Spells is not best.  The sequence where Janet is hanging onto Tom as he turns into all sorts of things is trippy and nifty and interesting, but the rest of it is plodding and predictable.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

Recommended by: I vaguely recall seeing the title and author of this book inside an IM window, so I’m going to go ahead and say that somebody told me about this book, but I don’t actually remember.  Anyway it’s a reread.  I’m giving it four stars because I enjoy it so much.  It maybe doesn’t deserve it.  I have lost all perspective.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty pleasure.  If you are an intellectual snob at whatever level, this book will appeal to you; but if you feel quite guilty about being such a snob, you might find that you can’t enjoy it.  However, although I feel faintly guilty about being an intellectual snob, I don’t feel guilty enough to deny that there is a part of me that wishes that everyone around me had read all the same books I have.  Think how nice that would be.

This is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin” set in a college where everyone has read all the same books everyone else has (lucky them), and they are always quoting Keats and Hamlet at each other.  Which I believe I would find rather trying.  But!  But, but, but!  The heroine (Janet) goes out with a chap called Nick who sets T.S. Eliot poems to (good) music of his own devising; and that I would not find trying in the slightest.  Though I believe he does Wallace Stevens as well, and I hate Wallace Stevens.  Hate him.  Hate.  Hate.  Hate.

Well, anyway, I am fond of the story of Tam Lin.  I like how Janet goes where she’s not meant to and tells all the knights at home to go away and rescues her true love with much fortitude and does not seem to feel terribly anxious about the whole affair.  I like my Fairport Convention song of “Tam Lin”, which is one of the few songs that I almost always put on CDs of songs to sing in my car — it’s a very good car-singing song, much like “O Valencia” and “Sheila Take a Bow”, and I never skip over it when it comes up on shuffle.  I like Fire and Hemlock absolutely vastly, enough to buy the pretty bubble-cover copy when I was in the UK even though I already had a copy at home, and I will review it here when next I reread it.  So I was disposed to like this, as I already knew the story was going to be brilliant.

Tam Lin is not an ordinary kind of fairy-tale retelling, as it spends a lot of time on college-related (but not Faerie-Queene-related) things like what courses people are taking and what they are all about, and why Janet’s roommate is so impossibly tedious that she hasn’t even read “The Hunting of the Snark”, that ridiculous girl! (so you see what I mean about intellectual snobbery)  This (the college things, not the Snark things) is actually rather diverting, and there are just enough mysterious events that you mostly remember there’s a plot going on, in addition to all the romance and reading of books.

I found this book rather unputdownable the first time I read it, particularly as the end drew near, to the extent that I did something I never, ever, ever do at university, which is I read it during my Christian and Byzantine art class, under my desk, even though I was sitting up in the front row in plain view of my professor.  This time, having acquired it through PaperbackSwap, I’ve been reading quite at my leisure, during commercial breaks while watching Guiding Light and House, under my desk during my CLST class (yes, yes, but I don’t sit in the front and it’s not necessary for me to take notes in this one anyway), while I munch on my mid-day quesadilla, and so forth.  It is still friendly and pleasant.  If it had not come up at an opportune time on PaperbackSwap, I might well have bothered to spend money in order to obtain a used copy.

I would say ultimately that it isn’t as pulled-together a book as it might be.  Fair enough, as “Tam Lin” isn’t an awfully pulled-together ballad, but still there were some plot kinks that aren’t well explained, things that don’t iron out nicely once everything sorts out at the end.  Good fun nevertheless.  I wouldn’t peddle this book to others, but I do enjoy it myself.

P.S. I really hate Wallace Stevens.  I really, really do.

P.P.S. Whenever I read “Tam Lin”, I sort of wish my name were Janet.  But then I suppose very few people would sing “Tam Lin” to me, whereas hordes of people would sing “PLANET SCHMANET JANET” to me.  In fact I know this to be true because I have a friend called Janet and I have always said PLANET SCHMANET JANET to her and never “Tam Lin” one single bit.  So.

P.P.P.S. Sometimes when I feel that words or phrases I like are being underused (such as “cross” to mean angry and “upset” to mean “tipped over”), I work them into my everyday conversation, thus returning them to (my) everyday life.  I have long felt that I would love to bring back the exhortative form “Do you” (“Do you ask Mumsy whether we may pour ketchup into the back of the piano.”), which the Robin character uses sometimes in this book, but I know that it would just make life difficult for my auditors.  And, in fairness, if someone used it to me, I imagine I would be perplexed too, as it has fallen out of general usage and I would not be expecting someone to use it.  Oh well.