Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making


Rating:   9-tails

There’s a marvelous used bookstore in Nashville that could overwhelm you with the sheer volume of books, music, movies, and even legos if you didn’t know where “your” section is. On one particular day, I walked into McKay’s, made a beeline for the MG section, and scanned each and every title for something that inspired me to read. I had been listless. No books I had tickled my fancy for several weeks. It’s not often I don’t want to read. Even in Edinburgh during my masters, I read for fun, despite the required two books a week. So, I roamed the bookshelves until I landed on Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland for short), and I knew I had a winner.

I’m a sucker for fairies and faeries, whimsical folklore, and everything in between. In short, enchantment. Valente delivered just that in Fairyland, where September discovers a new world like only a child could—by invitation from a Green Wind and a Leopard.

September’s adventures are nothing short of bewitching and even a little terrifying if one were only a child and whisked away to a completely different world, where “all traffic travels widdershins” and “you may in no fashion cross the borders of the Worsted Wood, or you [could possibly perish].” She meets several people (Or are they fairies? Creatures?) and makes friends along the way that all contribute to her growth throughout the story. One thing is certain, September comes out of the story changed. While her character growth is obvious, she still maintains some of the aspects that we loved about her in the first place. Even if her childhood innocence is a little dimmer after what she experiences, she still approaches the world with wonderment, and that is something I love and admire.

Valente’s style reminds me of Victorian literature with a contemporary flair. From the way the sentences flow from one to another, and how the ideas are expressed, it’s clear she gave the story careful consideration. Her chapter titles and descriptions is a nice touch in that it recalls an older time when you were given a glimpse into what happens, ie. “Exeunt on a Leopard; In Which a Girl Named September Is Spirited Off by Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.” While I love all of this, my one concern is that younger children will not understand everything that is happening. Which is why I would suggest a parent reading it with them, or at least being around to answer questions. However, if the child is anything like me, she or he might just skip it and move along because the novel is too good to set down. That’s the great thing about Fairyland. No matter how much or how little of the nuanced writing you understand, you can still enjoy the story.

Fairyland hastens you away on a Green Wind with September, giving you the chance to meet wyverns, witches, and spriggans. Valente’s writing enchants you and leaves you wanting to read the second installment in the series. 9 tails

Kelly Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet

13455485*Parts of this review appeared on the blog Taking the Waters, where I discuss the writing life and my adoration of 18th-century literature. It has been amended to fit my rating system, but otherwise, the sentiments are the same!

Rating:      9-tails

I like to give anecdotes for each book review, but I don’t remember finding this book. I can, though, say I got for $1, which is all you really need to know. On to the review!

In Iron Hearted Violet, Princess Violet and her best friend, a livery boy by the name of Demetrius, are in for a world of trouble after they decide to explore the castle. As with every adventure that two mischievous kids go on, mayhem and the end of the world are inevitable results. Violet, Demetrius, and an ancient dragon have to defeat the evil that awakens after they find a secret passage.

Iron Hearted Violet is one of the more lyrical MG books I’ve ever read. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the author is a poet, not that lyrical writing only comes from poets or that all poets are lyrical. Barnhill whisks you away into this world with sentences that flow together, like you’re floating down a lazy river at a waterpark. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story and not notice the sun setting and that your eyes are straining to read the print in the dim light of dusk. With a novel that places a lot of emphasis on storytelling and stories being living beings, it only makes sense that the writing for Iron Hearted Violet would beat with a hypnotic rhythm to lull us into that part of our minds that devour books and tales.

The ending was quite different from other MG books in that there wasn’t a big resolution. It resolved the problem at hand, but threw in a twist that left things open. There was still a sense of life moving on, going forward to a new adventure. If you watched Psych and saw the ending, you’d see what I mean in visual form.

Another part of Iron Hearted Violet I liked was Demetrius. He’s the best friend everyone should have. I constantly found myself saying, “Oh Demetrius, you’re so cool!” And I don’t mean “cool” in the “I’m Danny Zucko sense,” but he was just…awesome. He was always there for Violet, recognizing her when no one else did, and believing in her. Who doesn’t want a best friend who’s there for you and takes your verbal beatings when you’re hurt? Obviously, don’t be mean and start yelling at people. But a friend who understands when you’re hurting is priceless. Demetrius was probably my favorite character. Violet was great, too, but I think what he brought to the other characters was deserving of applause.

This book did have its faults, and the most frustrating one for me was the overuse of “beloved” and “my darling.” I understand the point of it. It is polite for the society in which the characters live, but when I read it about every other page, I started to get annoyed. Anyway, it’s easy to slip into a habit and repeat yourself without knowing because we write in bursts. We don’t sit and write an entire novel at once. When repeating a sentence or phrase to foreshadow or for effect, it’s very easy to cross that line where it then becomes a hindrance to the story. That happened to me with Iron Hearted Violet, but I was able to just skip them, or let them pass with a roll of my eyes.

A moving tale that shows you how to live and love without patronizing the reader makes Iron Hearted Violet a must-read.  9 Tails

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling

9780152063962*Parts of this review appeared on the blog Taking the Waters, where I discuss the writing life and my adoration of 18th-century literature. It has been amended to fit my rating system, but otherwise, the sentiments are the same!

Rating:     6-tails

It took me months to find Kristin Cashore’s Graceling in stock anywhere. I used to see it all the time, but when I finally decided my urge to read it wouldn’t be abated, it wasn’t there. Luckily, my perseverance paid off, and I found it sitting on a shelf at one of the five (yes, five) local Half Price Books. I bought that sucker without a moment’s hesitation. When I want to read something, I will not be stopped! On to the actual review part…

Graceling is a YA novel best described by the blurb on the back cover:

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po’s friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…

Well, this is something new. A protagonist who’s an assassin. I tend to love protagonists because they’re great people, but what was Katsa going to be? When the blurb has me asking questions and wondering what would happen, it automatically moves up in my to-read list.

Katsa was an interesting character for the most part. You think she’s a cold-hearted assassin at first, but within a few pages, you realize that she’s not and would rather be anything other than the king’s thug. That leaves her with a choice: Continue to do the king, her uncle’s, bidding? Or make her own way in the world no matter what the king might do? We can all guess what she chooses, and that’s what makes this book get moving. Graceling sets out to explore Katsa’s development as a person from a somewhat reluctant assassin to a hero.

As you can imagine, romantic feelings develop between two of the characters because it wouldn’t be a YA novel, otherwise. (If you do know of a YA novel that doesn’t capitalize on teenagers’ raging hormones, please let me know what it is!) The romance was developed better than most, which is one of my all-time pet peeves. I love a good romance, but oftentimes, the characters are suddenly in love, and I don’t know why. I don’t like that. I want an explanation. I want enough character development to make it believable, and Cashore did that better than most.

The part of Graceling that really got to me was the climax and ending. This book is a whopping 471 pages, pretty lengthy for a YA novel. The beginning 410 pages geared me up for an epic climax and denouement that would leave me breathless. But after the 410 pages, the climax came and went like a small breeze you hardly feel, and I was disappointed. The ending wasn’t much better. So I ask, “How could a book that started off so well and even had a fast-paced middle, which is often where books fall flat, lose its steam when it was so close to the end?” My answer: I have no clue. I still don’t understand why the plot fizzled out, and I still feel disappointed. If you’re anything like me, you invest a lot in a book’s characters and the trials and tribulations that are thrown at them. You want the characters you like to succeed and the one’s you hate to fail miserably, floundering in a cesspool of their own creation. And you want it all to happen after building up considerable tension and making the protagonist use every effort they have to overcome the baddies. But in Graceling, the tension was there, and I was ready for something larger than life, and it didn’t happen. It came quickly and ended even more quickly. A matter of a few pages and the baddy was defeated without much effort from our protagonist.

That’s too bad really. Katsa had a lot going for her in the beginning. She seemed like a wise assassin and yet naïve in normal things, like boys. They mystified her, and to me, that is pretty realistic for a lot of teenage girls. For the most part, I liked her. I liked how she was a more complicated character than you sometimes find in YA novels, but I think that set me up for disappointment when it was all said and done.

Graceling should be on your list of books to read but be prepared to be let down by some aspects, especially the last 61 pages. Maybe you won’t be able to make it that far if you have a short attention span, but I say give it a go and see what happens. The worst that could happen is you waste a couple of hours reading before you realize that it’s not your cup of tea. Don’t worry. It won’t kill you. But you’ll be one step closer to discovering what exactly you do like in a book than you were before.

Katsa’s development as a character brings this story to life and is the driving force behind it. However, the plot fizzles out in the end, leaving you wondering how such a strong character could be dealt such a flat ending.  6 tails

A Nine-Tailed Fox and Books: The Beginning of a Lifelong Friendship

A gumiho (literally “nine-tailed fox”) in Korean mythology are foxes that have lived for a thousand years and have the ability to shape-shift. This shape-shifting usually takes the form of a woman. While the fox alters shape, something fox-like always remains, whether it’s the shape of the ears, or the nine-tails etc. Its appearance changes, but its nature is the same. In the Korean drama My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, the writers explain that when a gumiho cries, it rains on a sunny day. They call this fox rain, better known as a sunshower. Fox Rain Review comes from this mythology, both the ancient and the reinvention of it by the Hong sisters for their drama.

Like gumihos, books last for hundreds and thousands of years. Though they change their shape and their appearance, they remain the same—a story of change, growing up, decisions, anything. Stories transform our lives from the moment we pick up our first boardbook, or when our parents act out a tale. Fox Rain Review’s goal is to bring more books to the masses. The more books the better. The focus will be on middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA), the years when children tend to decide whether or not they want or like to read. I want everyone, young and old, to appreciate a good, imaginative tale because MG and YA novels are not just for those ages. They can transport anyone away from their hectic life and into another, maybe even more magical one. We all need an escape every so often, don’t you think?

All reviews will be honest and awarded a number of tails, 1-9. Nine being the highest. The views expressed are mine and not subject to influence (unless you count my mood at the time of reading!). While I will give them a rating, I suggest using it only as a guideline and still read the books that sound interesting to you. After all, people have different opinions, and you might think it’s the bee’s knees!

If you have any questions or comments, my email address can be found in the contact section. I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my ability, even if all you want is to chat about the latest MG or YA craze!

Happy reading and dreaming!