Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: Summerkin by Sarah Prineas

Unlike Winterling, I did not read Summerkin in a single day…but it was close. This is a fantastic follow-up to Sarah Prineas’ stellar start to her new trilogy. For those who need a refresher, check out the review and summary of Winterling. I reread my own summary and found it helpful, and it made me excited to read this book!

Fer (short for Jennifer in the human world and Gwyneffar in the faerie world) has defeated the evil Mor and is the accepted Lady of the Summerlands. Or is she? She receives a note from the “Old Ones” who demand her presence in their stronghold in order to compete in a competition which will determine who will rule over the Summerlands. One small hitch—Fer has a problem with “ruling” in the traditional way, with the land's inhabitants all swearing oaths of fealty to the Lady of the land. “It’s wrong,” she insists. To which most other people in the land respond, “It’s the way things are done.” Will she be able to be a true Lady and not “rule” the way they want her to?

And what of her puck friend, Rook? Well, he is a puck after all. The whole goal and purpose of his existence is to make trouble and look after himself and his brother pucks. But something about Fer gets to him. Maybe it’s the fact that she saved his life three times—a number of extreme power in the land. Maybe it’s that she insists on trusting him and claiming him as a friend. Whatever “it” is, it’s going to be tested when Rook accompanies her to the Old One’s dwelling and attempts to make mischief according to his brother pucks’ plan.

And there’s plenty of mischief—and not all attributable to Rook. Another contestant, Arenthial seems like he’s out to win no matter what the cost. He and Lich and Gnar are all contestants from other lands who desire to turn the Summerlands into their own ideal playground. But there is something deeply sinister about Arenthial in particular.

As in the Winterling, Fer’s compassion and helpfulness stand out in the story. She helps her competitors, Lich and Gnar, when they are ill, even though it means “losing” certain contests. Even though she feels that she already is the Lady of the Summerlands, her desire to help and her compassion win over her desire to prove (by winning the contests) her claim to the throne of the Summerlands.

Fer is not perfect, but she is a loveable, admirable character, who still struggles to understand and to get things right. Prineas has polished off a fun, imaginative sequel to Winterling, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book when it comes out! 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kate Miller 32: Maud, Not Anne

A peek into L. M. Montgomery's life proved to be more fascinating and inspiring than Kate expected.

32. Maud, not Anne (May 2013) 

Silver Brook
            Kate stepped inside Silver Brook and instantly felt at home. The little entrance had a door to the gift shop to one side, and a doorway leading to rooms full of history and imagination. But there, by the entrance, was a desk with a middle-aged woman with a blonde bob, a large display of L. M. Montgomery’s entire set of works, and an enormous and beautiful old fashioned wood stove that Kate coveted briefly before she considered the hassle of smoke and cleaning.
            Pam (the blonde woman) was, in fact, the great granddaughter of L. M. Montgomery’s aunt and uncle who had owned Silver Brook. She still lived in part of the house and showed the rest to guests and visitors as they came. Kate had always imagined things about Anne’s author, but here was a bit of real history, with a story-telling family member to boot! Kate and Mister quickly learned to think of L. M. Montgomery as Maud, not Lucy. Lucy was the name of Maud’s grandmother, who she lived with for most of her growing up years, and Maud had no desire to follow in her footsteps. Maud, Pam assured them, always said that she was not like the Anne of her stories. “Anne was much more spunky,” Pam said, “though they certainly shared their love of nature.”
            Pam described Maud’s life and Kate was surprised by how “normal” it seemed for that time in history. She had lost her mother as a baby. Her father had left to find work and ended up remarrying (very normal situation back then.) She lived with her extremely strict grandparents, and struggled against a society that scoffed at the idea of a woman author and gossiped about her strange habits of wandering in the woods. She spent most summers at Silver Brook, and the aunt and uncle there were her only encouragement to keep writing.
Maud's room
Pam pointed to the displays of books and described some of the true elements of Maud’s stories, suddenly illuminating Kate’s understanding as she picked out truth from fiction. And far from cheapening the effect of the stories, Kate was even more delighted and entranced. How clever and fun and imaginative this young lady must have been as she haphazardly (it seemed) incorporated various places, events, people, and imaginings into her fictional stories, weaving them all together with dreams of girls and boys who seemed so real to her that they almost took on a life of their own! Suddenly Maud became a real person—not just the author of Anne.
Kate liked to write. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t long to write stories, and she attributed part of that longing to a deep love of Anne of Green Gables, who had her own literary struggles. As a child, she had committed Anne’s same blunder of trying to write about things far beyond her knowledge or experience. Her parents had told her (as Mr. Harrison had told Anne) that she should write about things she knew…but, also like Anne, she had protested that such writings would be interesting to no one but herself. But in seeing the reality of Maud’s success—how she wrote about what she knew and loved and experienced—this renewed Kate’s desire to write, and inspired her to continue searching for those golden nuggets in her own life, worthy of capturing in story form.

Maud's quilt, which she finished after four years,
just as crazy quilts were going out of style...
Of all the “Anne’s Country” things that Kate got to see on Prince Edward Island, Silver Brook was her favorite. She and Kelsey and Mister wandered over the house and read the signs and newspaper clippings long after James had taken the children out to play on the swing set overlooking the “Lake of Shining Waters.” And still, after they came back down to the warmth of the wood stove, they chatted long with Pam, asking her questions and learning more about Maud’s life and the dynamic between her and her various relatives. And truly, Maud had a sad life, filled with loss and sorrow and depression. Kate was sorry for her, even while being inspired. Maud’s success spurred Kate on to her aspirations, and her trials reminded Kate that she had no desire to ever be famous. 

The enchanted bookcase 
one of the delightful, true elements of the story

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

            This book is delightful. The Snow Child as a title and concept comes from a Russian fairy tale, but Ivey’s novel is not a simple remake of old folklore. Just like the Alaskan snow, the snow-child legend swirls and lands in the story, only to swirl again and land somewhere else—somewhere completely unexpected.
            As in the Russian tale, there is an old couple who desire a child, and they make a little girl out of snow. But the details of the circumstance are so bare and raw and wild that there is no way (in the reader’s mind) that this story could really be kin to the fairy tale.
Alaska homesteading in the 1920s was no joke. (I was just hearing stories today from a dear lady friend about their homestead in the 1980s and having no running water for over five years…) The 1920s were a whole different ballgame. The land is wild and untamed. The job options were a) farming or b) mining. Both could cripple a young man and send him back east after a few years of making a go of it. If you were really resourceful and didn’t mind the vagrant lifestyle, you could even try option c) trapping. But that meant even fewer comforts and more dangers than were already plentiful in a homestead or mining town.
One of my favorite parts about this book is the descriptions of Alaska. Being an Alaskan, born and raised, I genuinely appreciate how Mabel (one of the protagonists) first struggles with the harshness, cold, and darkness of winter…and then the light, warmth, and buggy-ness of summer… and then falls in love with it. There were many times when I read a paragraph and thought to myself, Yes! That’s exactly right. Ivey conjures up the very images that I dwell on when I’m sitting in my dark living room in Northern Virginia, hovering over the air conditioner and trying to imagine that I’m back home. The tart smell of wild cranberries at dusk in autumn. The unearthly colors of a winter sunset. The first smell of dirt during breakup. Living in Alaska has gotten easier over the last 100 years, but the land has not changed a bit. I can attest, what Ivey writes is what it is like. It is wild, and cares nothing for you. And because of that, you love it all the more.
But the story is also delightful and drew me on to finish the book quickly. The big question: Is Faina (Fah-ee-nah) a snow fairy—like the one in Mabel’s childhood fairy book? Or is Faina a little orphan girl, whose father Jack buried (Jack being Mabel’s husband) and who has an uncanny ability to survive in the wild? It’s a tricky question, and part of the answer is in the question: what do Jack and Mabel need her to be?
By the last part of the book, I was fully convinced that Faina is a real person, with real origin and skill, and a very unusual life. She comes to a sad and mysterious end—leaving the question of death or disappearance open for the reader’s musing. I personally prefer the explanation that, in her illness, she deliriously wandered into the woods in the snowstorm and died there—this also completing her life’s resemblance to the snow-child of the fairytale. But as I said, the explanation is left to the reader’s imagination. The story is sad and hard in many parts, but there is much beauty and growth and change as well.

Joy and sorrow—they are the themes of the book, and they are inextricably intertwined. They are in the land, in the long winters and the wild animals and the necessity of killing for survival, and also in the bountiful yield of the land in the summer. They are in Jack and Mabel, in a stillborn child lost long ago, and also in the revitalizing of their marriage and their joy in one another, and in their discovering that they do have a child where they least expected. And they are in Faina, who thrives in her strength and love of nature and winter, and submits to the sorrow of what one might call “captivity”. Though the submission was not sorrowful to her; she made her own decision confidently and with love. The ending, too, is full of both sorrow and joy, making it a great book, well worthy of a read. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Kate Miller 31: Green Gables and Charlottetown

31. Green Gables and Charlottetown (May 2013)
            Kate was excited and apprehensive about visiting the famed Green Gables. It had held a sacred spot in her imagination for so long that she was wary of introducing actual fact into her idyllic image. They drove along the red roads, past sedate farms and an occasional tea room to Cavendish—also known in P.E.I. tour books as “Anne Country.” Kate saw the nearly empty parking lot by the Green Gables homestead and was grateful that they came before the real tourist rush. And she was still thankful, even when it meant that Green Gables itself was closed, and visitors could only walk around the grounds and see things from the outside.
            This turned out to be exactly what Kate wanted. She wandered around the barn and the house. She looked at the flower garden and across a little stream to the “Haunted Wood”, which had enough dead and scraggly trees to indeed look haunted! It gave her a little thrill to think that, though some of the plants and trees had grown and died off since the time that L. M. Montgomery had written her Anne stories, the contour of the land was the same, the buildings and the pasture were the same, and the roads still led to the same places.
a fun way home
            The group followed a walking tour from Green Gables, through the Haunted Wood, and to the site of the house where Montgomery lived with her grandparents. The path to the house (which had been torn down after the Montgomerys were annoyed with too many visitors) was still there and covered with gnarled and twisted tree trunks. Kate imagined walking home that way—no driveway, no garage, not even space for a carriage. Just a path to skip along and duck through and then, all of a sudden, your home!
            They didn’t complete the entire walking tour (it being rather long for the children, who were already requesting rides.) But on the way back, Kate and Mister strolled a short way down Lover’s Lane. Kate could tell that it would be a beautiful leafy pathway through the woods, but there were few leaves out, and it only seemed slightly more romantic than the Haunted Wood.
hitching rides
            When they spent a day in Charlottetown, Kate realized that there was a whole Anne of Green Gables subculture that she never suspected. There were Anne of Green Gables Souvenir stores and a chain of Anne of Green Gables Chocolates shops. Kate was excited to see the Anne of Green Gables Musical, or Anne and Gilbert, another musical—but they were only playing over the summer months, and the first performances were starting the week after they left the island. There were Anne of Green Gables outfits for sale in all sizes. But when Kate actually looked at them, she laughed to herself: How ironic that these are the little girl dresses that Anne hated in the books, instead of the long skirted, lacy bloused things she had when she was older!
            At the chocolate shop, there were straw hats with red braids attached so that anyone could look like Anne! They tried some of the famous “cow chips”, which were potato chips dipped in milk chocolate. (Surprisingly addictive, Kate thought, and then laughed when she saw the very phrase printed on a package.) And in spite of their chocolate treats, they still had room to sample the world-famous Cows ice cream. It was thick and creamy, and everything that ice cream ought to be. And Kate found out later, when they were able to tour the Cows Creamery Factory in Charlottetown that the ice cream had a much lower percentage of air whipped into it, which makes it denser, like gelato. Yummmm
at the Cows Creamery tour
            At the end of the day, Kate reflected that, growing up, Anne had been personal friend, playmate, and role-model. Here in Prince Edward Island, she had all sort of different identities. She was a name brand, a spokeswoman for women’s rights, a symbol of freedom, a business, and only rarely did the little girl with the spunky, talkative personality come through. It was as if someone had taken a dear friend and plastered their name all over various candies, posters, recipe books, clothes, and foods. But Kate still loved seeing the sites and (even more) the land of the island, so as to know all the better where her friend and the author had lived and dreamed for themselves. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Kate Miller 30: A First Birthday

Here's the equation: (one-year-old boy) + (just about anything) = Surprise!

30. A First Birthday (May 2013)
            Most parents (and relatives) think that the babies in their family are extraordinary. And it often seems true—after all, how can such miniature human beings be “ordinary” as we so often think of it? But one thing was certain, biased or no, no one could say that James Wills Jr. was ordinary. He had many of the “normal” baby characteristics—cute, cuddly, demanding, starting to walk. But he was extraordinarily large—larger than some of the 2-year-olds that Kate knew, and stronger than some of the 3-year olds! (But less coordinated.)
            James Jr. was all boy. He constantly wore a red robot fleece that delighted him. He threw things on the floor to hear the crash. And when there was nothing to throw, he banged the table or floor with his hands to make noise. He pulled his sisters’ hair, knowing it would make them squawk. And in general, things existed either for making noise or putting in his mouth.
            Kate loved to watch little James and think about how her own son would be only a year and a few months younger. It seemed like a large gap at first, the difference between a baby and a toddler being so great. But even after three or four years, she knew they would be close enough in age to play together. As long as we can live close enough to travel and play together! Kate thought with a sigh. It was the big question—two years out, since Mister had that long to finish his degree, but the question of where they would settle and what options (if any) they might have in 2015 was a question that often seeped into Kate’s everyday life and colored her thoughts and decisions. She watched James Jr. try to maul his sisters’ puzzle and put the pieces into his mouth. She felt all sorts of conflicting hopes, but settled on one that she knew she could stand by: I hope they can play together a lot and be good friends.
            That evening, the Wills-Miller clan had a birthday party. James Jr. was officially one year old. In celebration, they had a small, simple, but raucous party in the little cabin in Prince Edward Island. There were just a few presents, and some large, sweet muffins instead of cake or cupcakes. But there was a one-year old getting the presents and eating the muffin, and who needs more party than that?
            With some help from his mother and sisters, James Jr. tore into tissue paper to find a beautiful new book about penguins, which he promptly tried to stuff in his mouth. In another package he found a small set of wooden trains and tracks, which he whacked on the table and threw on the floor, laughing all the while at the loud noise he was able to make. Another bag was full of magnetic balls and bars, should he be of the more engineering mindset. These too, he banged on the table and threw on the floor. And yet, when he encountered a soft crinkly Pooh toy, his face broke into a delighted grin, and he reached to gently feel it. And last but not least, there was a plush red lobster—the perfect memorial of a first birthday in Prince Edward Island.
            Kate loved seeing young James and his sisters as they encountered new things—things that were so familiar to her, sometimes it was easy to forget how magical they could be at first sight. She remembered a little girl at their church in D.C., sitting on her father’s shoulders and pointing with wonder up into the sky. “Daddy!” she asked, “what are all those dots?” He looked up, curious at first, and then smiling at his daughter’s new discovery, “Those are stars, baby.”
Kate watched her nephew discover new sounds and textures and movement. The sound was a banging on the table. The movement was a flailing arm. And the texture was a sweet, soft, muffin. As his daddy brought him his birthday dessert, he greeted it with a broad grin and clapping hands. The first handful, he shoved in his mouth. Finding it good, the next handful he scattered abroad to the peasants who were serving him. The third handful, he dropped on the table and smashed with open palms in a quick drumming motion, a sacrifice to the birthday god.

Kate laughed hard. It looked like so much fun.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Kate Miller 29: Road Trip 2

In which we actually, finally, make it to our cottage in Prince Edward Island...

29. Road Trip Part 2 (May 2013)
            It was late afternoon by the time the car was ready to go, and no one wanted to delay the departure in order to get some early dinner. Why not just get it on the way? Mister suggested ordering takeout pizza an hour down the road. The plan was heartily approved, and a place duly found and called. About forty-five minutes later though, Kate and Mister exchanged uneasy glances.
            They called up to the front seat, “Have you seen any signs for Biddeford? Maybe Alfred St.?”
            “No-oo,” came the uncertain response. “Could we have passed it already?”
            Kate and Mister kept a weather eye out for the anticipated pizza exit, but a few minutes later it became clear that they were well past it. Kate thought forlornly of the abandoned pizza behind them. If only they had internet, they could look up another place and try again…time to call a friend! But Kelsey’s mom was unavailable. And Mister tried his tech-savvy brother and cousin, also to no avail. Finally, Kelsey’s sister graciously looked up a phone number, address, and directions from the interstate for them. And by the time they got there, it was the best, most delicious pizza Kate had ever tasted. She knew in theory that this wasn’t true, but it was satisfying to the tips of her fingers and the point of her nose in a way that made her simultaneously want to slowly savor each bite and devour an entire piece all at once.
            After dinner, Kate took a shift driving. This was her favorite part of the day, with the evening sun painting the sky with soft but striking colors. It didn’t take long to get out into tree country, and Kate felt a cool peace sliding over her soul. She grinned happily at Mister. “I love these trees,” she said, quietly, in the way that she always did when she was dreadfully understating something. “It’s just like being home.”
            The sky grew darker and the road grew slower and narrower, but Kate still loved the open expanse of sky and trees. Then a sleepy voice piped up from the back. “Mommy? I have to go potty.” Kate did too. She promised to pull over at the first gas station. But another ten miles down the road and there was no gas station! Eventually, Kate just pulled off into a clearing. She grabbed a tissue or two and did her business at the edge of the wood. Little Rose, who had requested the stop, had never (in her short time of being potty trained) gone potty without a potty! The ordeal was too trying—or exciting—and she could get nothing out.
            The trees of Maine blurred into the trees of Canada, when all of a sudden, there appeared a large clearing and a massive, intimidating cold steel structure. They were at the border to New Brunswick! James, who was driving at the time, handed over everyone’s passports. The Canadian patrol was stiff and brisk as he asked the standard questions.
            “Where are you going?” (Prince Edward Island)
            “How long are you staying?” (Nine days)
            “Are you all coming from Oregon?” (Pause…No, from Boston. Well, five of us from Boston, and two from DC)
            Strange look. “But the Oregon license plate?” (Going through law school. I’m a student in Boston and my brother-in-law is a graduate student in Virginia.)
            “Okay. Any explosives, weapons, chemicals?” (Looking around… Nope)
            Once the group was past the checkpoint, Kelsey whacked her husband’s leg. “What were doing looking if you weren’t sure whether or not we had guns or explosives?”
            James merely grinned and said what any such accused husband could: “I don’t know.”
            Many hours later, James pulled onto a bumpy dirt road, jarring Kate fully out of her half sleep. She opened her eyes, and only moments later they pulled onto the grassy turf in front of a cute little cottage. Kelsey started unbuckling her sleeping daughters. “We’re here in Prince Edward Island!” she exclaimed quietly. Young Kate opened her eyes, grinned a sleepy grin, and looked around.
             “Where’s Anne?” she asked.