Review: Roar

This was the year I joined all of the book clubs. My Facebook book club is still going strong (to be fair, I joined that one in 2016); this year, I’ve been tagging along with the reads for my friend’s Austin-based feminist sci-fi book club and I just recently joined a vaguely YA-ish book club on Discord. Roar was the first book I read for that one (though far from the actual club’s first book).

The cover of Cora Carmack's "Roar." A Caucasian woman with bright white hair, a white dress, and knives strapped to her back stands on a small, rocky hillock with her back to the viewer, facing a stormy purple sky.
Image courtesy Tor Teen

Author: Cora Carmack

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.0 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A princess born without any apparent magical storm affinity that will protect her kingdom runs away on the eve of her marriage to take those powers from storms by force so she can save her kingdom.

Recommended audience: Fantasy and romance fans

In-depth thoughts: Considering that this is a book put out by Tor Teen, explicitly and specifically marketed as a YA fantasy novel, and that I’m a woman in my thirties, I know full well that I’m not part of the target demographic for this book. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that this didn’t really appeal to my fantasy snob sensibilities.

Putting aside my own personal dislike for how the fantasy elements were handled (or more specifically, for how the fantasy elements were abandoned in favor of an over-the-top romance), Roar is the kind of fast-paced, easily digested, plot-driven story that works well when you want to practice reading in a foreign language. My own preference for these in Swedish are a series of Turkish cozy mysteries featuring a drag queen/badass martial artist/super hacker, so you know. To each their own!

In fact, Roar might work better than your average contemporary YA fantasy fare: I will credit Cormack with not suffering from Ridiculous Fantasy Name Syndrome in her writing. In a native language, such naming conventions (“Princess Alysia of the kingdom Pherylovia”) can be annoying; in a foreign language it can become an impediment. Beyond that, since the magic is all based on storms and weather—something that we actually experience in the real world—there isn’t much fussing with special words (or regular words used in non-standard ways) to describe magic and spells and so on. So, even this book was very much Not For Me, I wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to people who like this sort of thing, or who want to practice their English.

Review: Gösta Berling’s Saga

It’s a little presumptuous of me to sit down and review Selma Lagerlöf’s legendary debut novel more than 100 years after the fact, but since I want to keep a fairly accurate public record of the books I read, here we are!

 Like so many bookworms, I have a tendency to acquire  books faster than I read them. I try to make a concerted effort to focus on my book backlog whenever I can; I have a long-standing goal every year to read a certain number of books that I’ve owned for over a year. I picked up Gösta Berling’s Saga in 2008 at the very earliest and probably 2010 at the latest, so this one definitely counts. Good ol’ Dover Thrift Editions!
The Dover Thrift Edition of Gösta Berling's Saga
Image courtesy Dover

 Author: Selma Lagerlöf

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Silent film buffs; people interested in Swedish literature (who can’t read the original Swedish)
In-depth thoughts: This edition is a translation from 1894 (with a few chapters being a little later, 1918); there have since been two subsequent translations, one in the 1960s and another in 2009. I don’t know if it’s entirely the age of the translations that sometimes make this a hard slog so much as the age of the work. I don’t see why anyone who can read Swedish would prefer this edition over the original, or why anyone who prefers English to Swedish would choose this one over the later translations (except for comparison’s sake). My wallet loves Dover Thrift Editions, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this one as an introduction to Lagerlöf.
Outside the language, there are other challenges: there’s a huge cast of characters and the structure is more episodic than purely narrative so chapters can feel clunky and disconnected compared to how novels are written today. (I feel like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils holds together a little better, even if it has a similar episodic structure.) Still, once you get into it, it’s still worth reading over 100 years later. Unsurprisingly for a very feminist and pro-woman, pro-women’s rights author, there are a lot of women in this large cast of characters, well developed beyond witches, damsels, and bimbos. They do some awful things, and they also do some heroic things. Of course, most of these women have a tendency to fall in love with Gösta, but then again, he’s the hero.
 My personal favorite is the ostensible antagonist, Fru Samzelius. While she spends much of the book outcast from her farm and home, pitted against the cavaliers, she begins and ends the story with competence and dignity, and always does things on her own terms.
Doktor Glas, from around the same time period, has seen a modern re-imagining from the perspective of the antagonist, Reverend Gregorious. I want someone to do the same for Margarita Samzelius. She deserves her own book even more than Reverend Gregorious does.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius in the silent movie adaptation of Gösta Berling's Saga. Distraught and disheveled, dressed in piecemeal fur rags, she carries a torch, ready to burn her own home to the ground rather than hand it over to her enemies.
Gerda Lundqvist as Fru Samzelius.

Something like this just seems ripe for the miniseries pickings, to be honest. The episodic chapters would work just fine as standalone episodes, so the scripts would basically write themselves. Come on, Netflix!

Review: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I always get more reading done during vacations than any other time of the year. American English, Italian Chocolate was the first book I knocked off my TBR pile. The next one was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which I started on the plane to Copenhagen and finished in the Hideout Cafe in Austin while I waited to meet my host and his girlfriend.

Image courtesy Vintage Classics

Author: Italo Calvino

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.54 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: Weary travelers at a castle and a tavern are rendered unable to speak, and so use a Tarot deck to share their stories.

Recommended audience: Those interested in modernist literature; those interested in Tarot cards; fans of Italo Calvino.

In-depth thoughts: I picked The Castle of Crossed Destinies up for two reasons. First, the Tarot deck conceit seemed like it would be relevant for a current writing project of mine and I wanted to see how Calvino handled it. The second reason was my troubled relationship with Calvino. I hated Invisible Cities but loved If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, so I wondered where on the spectrum this third book would fall. The answer is “somewhere in the middle,” so now I don’t know if Calvino is an author I hate, love, or am just apathetic about.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a contemporary version of something like The Decameron. There is no overarching plot or action; instead, it is a collection of fables and short stories. Some of them are original; some of them (if I understand Calvino’s epilogue properly) are myths and legends that he “retold” through a given sequence of Tarot cards. This isn’t what I was expecting or hoping for; I went in expecting something like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, only with Tarot instead of I Ching and without the alternate history elements.

Putting that disappointment aside, I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I didn’t hate it the way I hated Invisible Cities, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’m not glad that I’m read it, but I’m not annoyed, either.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.