Recent Reading: a genre potpourri

1. Romance

Wow. People. “Turning Up the Heat” by Laura Florand? Just, wow. It’s this little novella, which I yesterday because I wanted something short but good and because it’s supposed to come before THE CHOCOLATE ROSE, which I want to read relatively soon.

So, okay, “Turning Up the Heat.” It draws the best portrait ever of a woman who gives herself away until she finds she has nothing. Which, I know, sounds all grim and depressing and Literary, and also totally like the modern stereotype of The Woman Who Lives For Her Family, so dreadful and tedious and oh, God, just spare me.

But it’s not, because a) this is really the portrait of a woman who gives herself away until she almost vanishes, even though her husband isn’t trying to be a taker. That’s critical because horrible parasitic relationships are not fun to read about. Also because b) her husband also gives himself away until he has nothing, even though she has no idea. And most of all because, of course, c) all this works out in the end. As it better, in any romance story worth the genre, if I understand romance at all. If you want grim pointless tragedy, there’s literary over there, right?

Let me just add, normally any relationship that would be fine if only the people involved would TALK TO EACH OTHER drives me absolutely mad. Even though this is certainly a textbook case of such a relationship, it is fine! This is another example of pure skill in storytelling rescuing a situation I normally find intensely frustrating. Florand is just that good at drawing characters you can absolutely believe in and sympathize with. Part of it is the use of backstory, part of it is the way she shows us both protagonists’ point of view and really gets us to see how they are operating at cross purposes, part of it is evocative writing.

The moment stretched, breakable or buildable. Like molten sugar that could be formed into anything wonderful, as long as you didn’t let it chill too much and drop it, shattering everywhere.

Yeah, like that.

Okay, moving on!

2. YA (MG?) fantasy set in India

So, I’ve never heard of Suzanne Fisher Staples before. I think I picked up this book, SHIVA’S FIRE, at a library sale. It’s a bit younger than I would have really preferred, but very nice for all that. It’s actually an interesting contrast to some other YA fantasy with non-European settings that I think got more buzz (or that I heard about more, at least), but that I didn’t find very impressive.

The structure of the story is interesting and unusual. Parvati, a girl of twelve or fourteen, is the main character, but the first several chapters are primarily from her mother’s point of view. This is because the story starts on the day of Parvati’s birth and then takes in her early childhood before the pace slows and we begin to have a little more time to enjoy watching Parvati go off to a special school for gifted dancers. This passage pretty much sums up Parvati’s childhood and describes a major source of conflict in the story:

Parvati grew to be a child of sunny disposition, great charm and cleverness, and excellent health. Her mother took delight in her. Because of the terrible circumstances in which Parvati was born, people continued to regard mother and daughter with fear and suspicion, and the village children were not allowed to play with Parvati. . . . But Parvati was content to entertain herself. As soon as she was able to stand, she played at dancing, holding up one leg until her thigh was parallel to the ground, just as she had observed the Shiva Nataraja statue’s leg.

The “terrible circumstances” involved massive monsoons and tornadoes, and the total destruction of the village – the village only very slowly recovers, this is not something that we see in chapter one and by chapter four we can’t tell there was ever a problem. No. Total destruction. I’m not kidding. There’s no question but that this is a deliberate evocation of Shiva as destroyer-of-worlds, and the event has a huge impact on the whole story.

The story itself is fairly simple, and some plot threads that were introduced were only superficially related to the main story (and, in one fairly important case, never really resolved). The love interest seemed to me to be unnecessary, inserted basically because hey, doesn’t every story have to have at least a thread of romance?

I may be reading romances these days, but I do think it’s a shame that it’s so impossible today to write a YA story that doesn’t include a romance, no matter how much you have to strain to get it in there. (This is just a general comment; I don’t want to imply that this is a big problem with this story; the romance is not seriously obtrusive, only unnecessary and a bit out of place.) Parvati herself is a rather simply-drawn protagonist – I wouldn’t say any of the characters are very, you know, layered. That’s why this story reads young to me.

Nevertheless, I see from the inside flap that SHIVA’S FIRE was a Junior Library Guild selection, which I know is a fairly big deal because my agent told me so after THE FLOATING ISLANDS was selected. And you know why SHIVA’S FIRE was a selection? Because of the beautifully evoked setting and culture, that’s why. I don’t think I’ve ever seen India better drawn than it is in this book. From the first lines, we get a lovely sense of place:

Meenakshi arose early the day Parvati was born, for the infant in her womb had not allowed her to sleep during the night. Tiny knees and elbows thumped Meenakshi’s sides in an odd, slow rhythm: tai-taiya-tai, tai-taiya-tai.

She did not know her daughter would arrive amid a change in the course of natural events, that fish would swim among the stars and birds would soar beneath the waters.

Meenakshi yawned and tied her sari around her swollen middle. She moved quietly to let her husband, Sundar, and their sons sleep while she went to the temple to offer prayers. Flies buzzed lazily in the leaden heat, and a trickle of perspiration rolled down the side of her face.

On a metal tray, she arranged a coconut, bananas and a champakam blossom with a fragrance as delicate as the pink at the base of each white petal. She laid another blossom at the fee of the statue of the dancing Shiva, which Sundar had carved of sandalwood and placed in a niche in the wall.

There’s truly exquisite detail throughout – the clothes, the food, daily life in the village, the train journey experienced as a poor person, the school where Parvati trains as a dancer, the train journey experienced as a wealthy person, the maharaja’s palace. It’s definitely the beauty of the setting that made this book for me. And the writing itself is nice, smoothly lending itself to the story without making itself obtrusive. I definitely think this book ought to be in every middle-school library that’s looking to include diverse settings; it makes a beautiful counterpoint to what I expect is an abundant supply of contemporary American settings and sparkly vampires.

3) YA secondary-world fantasy

THE PIRATE’S WISH by Cassandra Rose Clarke. Very nice! I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the slangy voice of the protagonist, Ananna, contrasted with the much more formal style of the assassin-love-interest (Naji). Excellent writing throughout, great descriptions — not obtrusive long descriptive passages, but always smoothly handled so that you hardly notice how deftly Clarke is drawing you a picture.

So, did mythological manticores really eat people, specifically young men, as their preferred diet? I do think I remember the thing about three rows of teeth. I definitely enjoyed the manticores in this story. Amazing how you can actually sympathize with the poor manticore, forced to eat nasty fish instead of young male crewmen. Poor baby.

The kingdom of fish was a little much for me, though.

More important than the manticores, Naji’s angst over having been scarred was less of a thing than I feared it might be, though I was prepared for some angst given the first book. I liked the way Clarke handled this developing relationship, especially the way Naji found out Ananna was in love with him very early in the book — I was afraid it would be something he wouldn’t discover till the end, and the reader would have to suffer through horrible misunderstandings because of that. We certainly do see misunderstandings, but not as contrived as that would have been.

Of the Strange Chemistry titles I’ve read so far, Clarke’s are my favorite. There are still lots of Strange Chem titles I haven’t read, though. Interesting how different they are: Pantomime is more ambitious, larger in scope, older in tone, I would even say rather literary in tone. Zenn Scarlett, in contrast, is much, much younger in tone and plot than I expected; to me it read very Middle Grade — I’m keeping an eye out for a twelve-year-old kid to give it to. Clarke’s duology is just plain charming and, to me, seems to hit the happy medium of YA squarely on the head.

And, okay, this is long enough, so later for:

4. Contemporary adult fantasy

5. Horror

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: a genre potpourri”

  1. Isn’t it funny which books end up staying with you? Shiva’s Fire was like that for me, to the point that when I found it in a used bookstore a year ago, I wasted no time in buying it. I read it when I was very young and it never really left me. I agree that it is an incredibly simple story, one that would be too simple for older readers. But the dreaminess of the atmosphere, and Parvati’s dancing…it is just a book I really, truly love, and I think its influence shows up in a lot of the stories I play with.

  2. I think the books you fall in love with when you’re young are going to be the ones that leave the biggest mark on you as a reader. This one was beautiful and, yes, dreamy is a good word.

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