The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

51jim7NTY8LI haven’t read much Byatt since I finished my thesis last spring, and I didn’t realize how much I missed her writing. This was somewhat different (for me, at least) from her other works that I’ve read, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It spans social and political changes over a rather large period of time, centering primarily on the Wellwood family and others that have entered their social circles at some point or another. The large cast of characters could make it a bit difficult to remember who was who at some points, but overall I think I enjoyed all of them – they all had their roles to play in the big picture.

Now, my thesis was on her use of fairy tales and fairy tale elements – if she’d written this novel a few years ago, I probably could have centered the whole thesis on it! Fairy tales are vital to this story. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories in Victorian (and later, Edwardian) England, and her fairy stories and themes almost define her family.

I especially loved her portrayal of women in this novel. Olive’s children (and their childhood playmates) are growing up in a time when it is becoming accepted for “respectable” women to hold “real” jobs – but often at the cost of any romantic desires or chances of marriage. Dorothy (who wants to pursue the career of a doctor/surgeon) is perhaps the most affected by the double standard, observing that although there are female doctors with husbands, those are few and far between. Griselda and Florence grapple with this decision as well. One can pursue a career, but by the time her studies are through in her late 20’s, she would be considered something of an old maid. One of my favorite passages in the novel that sums this struggle up nicely comes on page 495:

“Florence was in a turmoil. She had promised herself to Geraint, and she was now promising herself to years of study. She did not think Newnham College would care for married students. She wished to disturb her father, at some ferocious girlish level, and felt – she was not really thinking – that the engagement would do that.
And yet – like Griselda, she did want to think. And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex.”

Byatt has always done a wonderful job of exploring the roles that women play in various situations, past and present. This novel is no exception.

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

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Great story, fantastic premise. It really got going at the end, and I had a hard time putting it down. The whole alternate mythology of the unicorns was very well done – I found myself wondering if I’d be laughing at images of killer unicorns, but Peterfreund really makes them frightening and horrible creatures (even little Bonegrinder).

There were a couple of things that bothered me, though. I’m older than the target audience, so that may have something to do with it, but I thought the whole virginity thing could get a bit preachy. If you look more closely at the whole “hunters must be virgins” thing, and the powers that hunters have, it has some interesting implications. We see what happens to girls who aren’t hunters: vulnerable to attack, lessened physical abilities, etc. So, (and perhaps I’m looking too far into this, but I can’t help but look for this kind of stuff) as soon as you lose your virginity, you lose your strength and power as a woman. You can no longer fight for yourself. Hunters (virgins) do not need men, do not need to be protected.

Then there was Astrid’s character. She was a bit too wishy-washy for me. One minute she’s on the phone begging her mom to let her come home, even willing to sleep with a guy she barely knows to get out of her “duty” (another interesting facet of the virginity thing) whereas two months ago she had zero intention of going all the way. And then all of the sudden, she’s off enjoying the rush she gets with hunting.

Now what I had some serious issues with was her mother. At the beginning, yeah she’s a bit kooky, but then again it turns out all her stories about unicorns are true. Okay, that’s fine. When she doesn’t let Astrid come home, it’s a bit mean, but she’s a mother living vicariously through her daughter. Happens all the time. Doesn’t make it right, but not uncommon. And then, she comes to be the temporary donna while Neil is away. And we discover that she is, apparently, absolutely psycho. Sure, you can be a bit more rigorous in the training. But having no problems with the other girls dying so Astrid (aka she herself) can get the glory? Mocking Phil, her own niece, being downright cruel, and TORTURING her own daughter to get a promise out of her???? Really?? This lady has some serious mental health issues! And even that doesn’t tip Astrid off. On the next page, she’s defending her by saying that they’ve become better hunters since Lilith became the donna (hmm, her name is Lilith as well. How interesting). And then we’re supposed to be ok with all of it because she grieves when she thinks Astrid is dead. I mean, yes, she’s your mother, but after what she did, you should probably disown her and stay as far away from her as you can.

Ok, I’m done with my rantings. It would have been 4 stars if it weren’t for these problems with characterization, etc. It had a great story, turned out not to be as predictable as I thought it would be, and really drew me in. A great twist on a myth, that, for the most part, was executed very well. It ended a bit abruptly with some loose ends, which I think points to a sequel. I may not go rushing out to get it, but I’ll absolutely read it.

Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall

510Fv8Xm8GLThis novel was ok, but I felt a little let down – I was expecting much better from an author shortlisted for the Booker, although maybe my expectations were part of the problem.

It started off well, and the concept of the dystopian society she creates is intriguing and a bit frightening. Some of the events and ideas, like the contraceptive coils, make you think about where society may be heading. Overall, Hall writes well, but I found myself a little bored with her descriptions. There are scenes where she definitely suffers from telling-instead-of-showing-syndrome. I just couldn’t really bring myself to care very much about the protagonist, Sister, or really any of the other characters.

The ending was pretty anti-climactic, and felt like a cop-out – you’ll see what I mean when you get there. Overall it wasn’t very powerful, which is something I would expect from a dystopian novel like this. I anticipated something really thought-provoking that would have me lying awake the next three nights thinking about it, but this one just didn’t do it. It starts off strong, but loses is punch along the way.