Review: folklore and magic to love, and YA that disappoints

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. 5/5
This is the exhilarating and beautiful conclusion to Arden’s Russian trilogy. Beginning with death and ending with resurrection, it is at its heart a romance in the oldest sense of the word, and a story about a girl and a horse. When Vasya, a young woman gifted with the ability to see and communicate with the old pagan spirits of Russia, is condemned to death by a conflicted and zealous priest egged on by a chaos demon, it appears that the new religion of Christianity will cause the old spirits to become extinct. But Vasya throws herself into unknown lands, magic, and war to find a way to allow both faiths continue. This is an epic full of beautifully worked language and images that still retains a sense of humanity and humor among the characters, as mythic as they often are. And I love these books for the relationships between Vasya and the horses with whom she can speak. Her stallion Solovey is a rare treasure in literature about horses. This entire series is on my permanent list of fantasy I recommend to anyone seeking magic in history, history in magic, and the beauty of folklore.

Glow : Book I, Potency by Aubrey Hadley. 1/5
This is the most amazingly bad thing I have read in a long time. In the author’s attempt to write YA, they create inexplicably bizarre characters whose actions make no sense, a plot line that borrows from the worst of 1950s low-budget, low-creativity sci-fi, and dialogue that is pedantic and expository to a ridiculous degree: dialogue that tells…and tells…and tells, instead of writing anything that shows. If this had been satire, it might have been funny. But since it’s not, it’s just bad.

Review: another winner

Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt. 5/5

A great rollicking Western about a gang of outlaw women and their exploits in the 1870s. Led by a freed slave and an Englishwoman with a knack for training horses, this group gets revenge for one of its leaders, runs a ranch, helps out the nearest town, hides and saves abused folks, and lives life to the fullest. People get shot; people die; people get saved; people find love. A wonderful book all around. This will especially appeal to women and girls looking for representation in a historical setting, anyone interested in the “wild west,” and readers who love a well-told adventure story with complex and interesting characters.

Review: Salt by Hannah Moskowitz

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz. 5/5

This is a terrific and fast-paced novella telling the story of four orphaned siblings sailing the oceans in search of monsters to kill and information about their parents. Each character is well-drawn and strongly individual and true to life, the descriptions of the sea-monster hunts are exciting, and the whole thing is perfectly paced. I loved it. It’s a great book for anyone 12 and up, folks who love adventure stories, who wanted a little more excitement in Swallows and Amazons, who like cryptozoology, who like sailing, and who want a fresh and interesting bunch of characters.

Libretto writing: Melisande and Poison Ivy

I’ve been working on adapting Saki (H. H. Munro)’s short story “Tobermory” as a (darkly) comic libretto. In one scene, a character sings the rather lugubrious song “Melisande, In the Wood,” in which composer Alma Goetz set text by Ethel Clifford.

Cover page of sheet music for "Melisande in the Woods"

The piece was published in 1902 and was apparently very popular. Victor put  out a recording of it in 1924 featuring singer Edmund Goulding and pianist Clara Novello Davies. I can’t find that particular recording, but you can hear Essie Ackland singing it on an HMV recording from 1929 on YouTube; there are a few other recordings of it there as well.

However, the song and words are still under UK copyright, so for my adaptation of “Tobermory” I needed to write something to replace it. The composer asked for something very similar in form and style. I wrote three new texts: the first was very much in keeping with the original:

“Melisande, in the Cave”
Look down, look down beneath the stone, Melisande,
and search for your cast-off ring.
With your eyes for tears and your mouth for song
and your fear-clipped little wings.

Bend down, bend down beneath the stone, Melisande,
do you see the ring you rejected?
Only you can know your own truths, Melisande,
and why you alone are disaffected.
Disaffected, suspected, Melisande,
so disaffected.

Breathe deep, breathe deep of the stone, Melisande,
of the still air and the wet breathe deep.
One day you will lie amid stone, Melisande,
and your husband and child will weep.

For the second, I tried to capture a bit of Saki’s language from other stories written around the same time as “Tobermory.”

“Melisande of the Green”
Melisande, Melisande, I can see your tears:
you are a feral girl, full of wildness and fears.
Melisande, Melisande, you speak so few words:
you are a forest cat, preying on little birds.

Woman of the woods, sister of the stream,
you confound us, Melisande.
Walking in the castle, long hair afloat,
have we all just been conned?
Are you a goblin or werewolf, mythic?
You confuse us, Melisande

Melisande, Melisande, lady of the green,
you have hidden depths, natural powers, all unseen.
Melisande, Melisande, the marsh and field
bend to your touch as your magic is revealed.

As I wrote this second text, I began to think of Melisande as a kind of proto-Poison Ivy.

Ivy is shown wrapped with ivy and other green leaves.
Poison Ivy

She’s got the long hair and comes from a botanically rich environment and causes conflict between men. Maybe she’s also related to Swamp Thing, being “of the green.”

My third text was entirely satirical, imagining Melisande among  the Victorian or Edwardian society ladies of Saki’s story, out of her depth trying to furnish Golaud’s dreary castle:

“Melisande, in the Drawing Room”
Do sit, do sit down, dear Melisande
and take some tea with sugar.
With your trembling pinkies and blinking eyes,
you look quite snookered!

Do tell, do tell us all, Melisande,
did you make a terrible bargain?
You are new to society, Melisande, quite new,
Perhaps you were confused by the jargon?
It is easy to be taken in, Melisande,
cheated, cheated.

Do drink, do drink some sherry, Melisande.
We all do when it’s bleak.
It has happened before, dear Melisande,
someone’s always selling fake antiques.

The composer liked the very close mimicking of the first song, so that’s what we’ll use in the opera. The second and third texts are available if anyone wants to set them or use them for anything–contact me for details! I’d actually love to write a suite of texts for songs that intertwine comic heroes and villains with well-known operatic or other musical tropes.

Reviews: Death and Hell

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. 4/5
I really liked this slow-paced, somewhat wandering but frequently enchanting tale that takes place in a small English town with borders on the land of death. A child is found in the river, apparently dead, and brought to a pub, where she seemingly comes back to life. She does not speak, and she could be one of several children gone missing in recent years. As the story of the child’s true identity unfolds, so do the related tales of the publican and her family, a local aristocratic couple, a mixed-race family, and the myth of the river’s ferryman. Beautifully written.

The Penguin Book of Hell by Scott G. Bruce. 4/5
A great compendium of writing on hell and hellish places from ancient Greece and Rome through early and later Christianity, as well as the more literal hells of the Shoah and other genocides. The excerpted texts are presented with backgrounds about their authors and time periods, and offer fascinating information about how people have conceptualized hell in different social, political, and geographical contexts.

Reviews: Two to Miss

The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees. 1/5
Written with a Gothic sensibility and lush and formal language, this book is like a lovechild of The Virgin Suicides, Hans Christian Anderson, and every banal YA about Girls With Powers who are also, unfortunately, not very intelligent. Characters are described to the nth degree, everyone is Mysterious and Dark, dreaming is waking and waking is dreaming and visions are reality and reality is—who cares? I suppose this was intended to be “darkly beautiful” with intrigue and secrets at every turn, full of magical animals and magical people and non-magical people and some kind of ideas of what is Just and Fair, but it’s a hot, boring mess.

The Crate by Deborah Vadas Levison. 1/5
If ever a book needed a developmental edit, it’s this one. The author attempts to tell the story of how traumatic it was–or wasn’t, maybe? for her family to find out that one of their hired handymen had killed his partner and left her in a crate under the deck of their country house. Along the way, the author tries to connect this trauma with her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust. It doesn’t work, and the author comes off as naive, privileged, and not terribly bright. The other figures in the book–her husband, her brother, her kids, and even her parents–are all one-note creations and the story itself is surrounded by badly out-of-chronology anecdotes that confuse the timeline and are totally irrelevant. This might have made a good magazine article, pared down to its essentials and written well, but as a book it’s not worth the time it takes to slog through it.

Reviews: a miscellany

There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly. 5/5
This is a great children’s book about an observant and clever little boy who is kidnapped and must rely on his wits to save himself. It’s about the power of watching and listening, and of knowledge and knowing how and when to trust someone. Author Golightly creates a unique and true voice in young Pepper, one that I think many kids and parents will find relatable and honest. And while the book serves to teach a lesson, it’s never pedantic or preachy–it’s an adventure story that will help children learn to protect themselves.

Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry. 4/5
At the beginning of this book, the author discusses her connections with and similarities to Lorraine Hansberry, and intimates that this will be a personal kind of biography. And while it is beautifully written and well-conceived as a biography, I never felt the connections Perry suggests are present. Instead, it’s a good introduction to Hansberry and her closest friends and a few of her lovers, and it’s a pleasant read, meandering from moment to moment in Hansberry’s life. It emphasizes her social justice concerns and work, but it tells us that she was passionate rather than letting her own words do that work. It tells us that she was young and gifted and black, but quotes her own words only fleetingly. It’s an excellent book, but that introduction promised so much more.

The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred. 2/5
I wanted to like this book. It’s elegantly written and has some very interesting ideas about the nature of self and life and death, and makes use of historically-relevant metaphorical figures. But it is dull, and it is repetitive, and all of the elegance and metaphor in the world can’t help it move along a little faster and in a way that makes any of the characters seem anything but cardboard.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi. 1/5
In this book, a group of incredibly wealthy and powerful young people–and some of their poorer friends, some of whom are actually the wealthy folks’ slaves, gather together–or are forced to–in order to pull off a heist that will return one of said wealthy young people to the ranks of even more wealthy and powerful people. Everyone is young and gorgeous and magically talented and wears fabulous clothes and entertains in grand and whimsical and decadent places and ways and what a bunch of incredibly horrible snobs, who believe that your bloodlines make you better than other people and who use people in horrible ways to attain recognition of said bloodlines and what an utter waste of paper and ink.

Essay 3 for NewMusicBox: Setting the Scene with Sound: (Re)Scoring the Silent Film

The third of my four essays on music for silent film is now up at NewMusicBox!  In this essay, I discuss how music influences the perception of film. As an example, I use a scene from Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General, which has been scored by multiple performers and groups and thus offers a great selection of different approaches. This essay is condensed and extracted from a larger article I’m working on in which I examine the visual and aural aspects of Civil War nostalgia both during the 1920s and today in relation to the film’s scoring and marketing.