West of the Moon by Margi Preus: I’m struggling with whether to call this one fantasy or not. It’s clearly in conversation with fairy tales, sometimes literally, and Astri uses “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” to make sense of the world. But when it comes down to it, nothing that’s strictly fantastical happens, which makes me feel like it’s not exactly fantasy.
I’ve put the cart before the horse a bit: West of the Moon is the story of Astri, a young Norwegian girl who at the beginning of the story is essentially sold to a goatman by her aunt and uncle. Preus has a deft hand with a phrase and I loved the way the fairy tales were woven into the story, as Astri both draws on them to give her courage and frequently points out when they’re nothing like real life. I also liked the fact that the Astri’s major relationship is with her sister Greta, and the nuanced ways the antagonists are shown. And the theme of emigration to America and they way that’s also woven into Astri’s personal journey really helped ground the story in its time period.
At the same time, I liked it without absolutely loving it. Astri is occasionally a prickly person, which is nice to see in a middle grade book, and I generally loved her voice and narration. But for me it never tipped over from enjoyment into complete book-love. There was nothing wrong that I can point to, except that at a few points it seemed shallow where it should have been deep, but that’s unsatisfyingly vague even to me. All that to say, you may well love this one. Leila did, and so did Betsy Bird.
My Real Children by Jo Walton: I loooved Among Others, Walton’s Hugo-winning 2011 book. My Real Children is her first book after Among Others and I was a bit nervous about it because of that. Now that I’ve read it, I’m left with the most mixed of mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the premise! It sounds a bit gimmicky, but in Walton’s hands it’s not; it’s beautiful and dreadful and heartbreaking. And whether she’s Pat or Tricia/Trish, Pat herself is real and vibrant.
On the other hand, I struggled a lot with the middle section. I actually stopped reading for awhile, until I read Ana’s review. There were a couple of reasons for this, but it boils down to the fact that I couldn’t quite shake the sense that I was reading a treatise instead of a novel. Tricia’s life=terrible, Pat’s life=great. It turns out that if I had read just a few pages further, this becomes much more complicated, and it’s that sense of complication that carried me through to, as Ana says, the Rorschach test of the ending.
On the third hand, Walton’s writing is so wonderful! It’s this understated mastery of the voice of her character, and these quiet “wait, what did that say?” moments which disrupt our sense of knowing what’s going to happen. Neither Trish nor Pat live in exactly our world, and I really appreciated the little details that make that clear.
On the fourth hand, I had a personal reaction which is very much personal: I felt a bit preached at. Not enough to stop reading entirely, a la Handmaid’s Tale, but enough to feel like I was slogging a bit, even when things picked up in the second half of the book. I think some readers might find the same aspect of the book validating, a rallying call. For me, I had a hard time not reading the trajectory of both Trish and Pat’s lives as the replacing of one “right way to be a woman” with another. This is not a fair reading, exactly. Walton’s a much better writer than that, and things are more complicated. But it’s that sense that–oh, how do I put it exactly? In the sympathetic characters in this book, there’s no one who looks like me? I’m still not saying what I mean. I’m not quite sure how to say it, or exactly what I do mean. But it was a strong enough feeling that it created a bit of distance which kept me from completely engaging with the story in the way I wanted to.
But, as I said, that’s a very personal reaction. And in the end, I’m glad this book exists, and I’m glad I read it.