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Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

roses and rotI won’t pretend that this is in any true sense a review, or that it’s unbiased and objective. Roses and Rot is a book that I do actually know was not written literally and specifically for me, but I don’t entirely believe that’s the truth. It combines so many elements that are not only Relevant to my Interests, but really, really important to me. And it does them well. The prose throughout is a joy to read, and there’s just enough, but not too much, meta-self-awareness to make the story shine. It is maybe not utterly perfect–it’s clearly written by someone who often writes short stories and this usually works and once or twice becomes a little too apparent in a way I can’t quite articulate. Nonetheless, it will absolutely be a favorite book for this year/forever.

I suspected I would love this book when I got to page 16 and this bit:

“Even though I hadn’t said so, I knew exactly the thing I had come to Melete to write–a novel told in stories, told in interweaving fairy tales, about the girls who get lost in the woods, and how it is that they come to be there, and whether or not they can save themselves. About the stories that lead them into the dark places of the forest, of their lives, and then become the maps by which they find their way out. I had known for a while that this was something I wanted to do, a story I needed to tell.”

Fairy tales are woven throughout this book, the ones Imogen knows–and she does know them; I grew up reading the complete Grimms and The Fairy Ring and Andrew Lang and Pepper and Salt and so often people say they love fairy tales and they just mean Beauty and the Beast. Imogen knows them. And she takes their elements and writes them again, fresh and beautiful. Fairy tales are not exactly morality tales in this story. They’re what Imogen calls them above: maps to find your way, stories that lead you through.

I knew I would love this book when I reached page 18 and recognized myself:

“So you learned the power in silence, and in secrets. Maybe you still look over your shoulder, but at least you got away. And after all, if you’d had a childhood that was different, one that didn’t always feel like walking on knives, maybe you would never have found your voice. If you hadn’t been forced to swallow your words, you would never have learned the power in speaking them. This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.”

This is a book about surviving, and escaping, and living afterwards. It’s about finding ever after in a shape that’s real. It spoke so many things that I recognized, deep down, as true. They were things I needed to hear; they were things that helped because it meant someone else had felt them too.

But it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves. Some of them are true and some of them aren’t. Some are mostly true, but we can only see it from our own angle. Part of what Imogen has to learn over the course of the book is how to see stories from someone else’s point of view.

Often that point of view is her sister, Marin. They have a complex, tangled, relationship that is nonetheless the most important in the story. I always want stories about sisters, and this one gave me a version that didn’t have easy answers, and yet was entirely satisfying. Marin and Imogen are kind of mirror images of each other; dark and light, dancer and writer, praised and hurt. But it’s not that simple, and Howard also presents women who are vivid and complicated, who both engage with tropes and resist them.

Furthermore, I often find books that talk about writing from the perspective of a writer to be either unbearably overwrought or else so heavy-handed that I feel like they’re wink-wink-nudge-nudging me. Roses and Rot was neither; it gave a sense of Imogen as really a writer, in the way she approaches the craft as well as the art.

AND THEN, as if all of this was not enough, THEN–oh, I suppose this is a middling sized spoiler–I reached a certain point and started to say, “Wait. Wait. Is this book going where I think it’s going?” IT WAS. As if fairy tales, and surviving and sisters and writing weren’t already enough to make me love this book, it turned into a Tam Lin retelling where Imogen has to save Marin.

Tam Lin, in case you have not already gathered this, is probably in my top 2 fairy tales and a retelling centered on sisters is all I didn’t know I wanted. I can say that it ties back into the theme of Imogen escaping and leaving Marin behind, that it’s the task she has to complete to leave the forest, but that’s all too rational for my actual experience. I might have shrieked a little bit.

Also, I will mention, it contains both properly scary fairies AND a really insightful bit about the relationship of fairy tales and properly scary fairies. As if I still needed to be charmed.

So, like I said, I can’t be in any way objective about this book. It wasn’t a book I enjoyed; it was a book I needed. Like An Inheritance of Ashes last year, it was a book that made me feel recognized and seen. It is in its own way a map out of the forest.

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Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

tam linTam Lin was the first book I read in my ReReadathon efforts, and I’m very glad that I did. As you may be able to tell, I’m really interested in retellings of Tam Lin. Dean’s version is one that I’ve read and really, really liked. But unlike Fire and Hemlock or The Perilous Gard, which I’ve read over and over, I’d only read Dean’s Tam Lin once. It was clearly time to change that. And it paid off, since I would now put this retelling in my top three, along with the two I just mentioned.

Dean’s Tam Lin is an interesting beast in that the title is pretty clear about what’s going to happen. No coyness here. And yet, for most of the book, the focus is firmly on Janet’s college experience. She goes to class, she wrestles with her advisor, she makes friends, she thinks deeply about things, she grows up. It is almost incidental that her advisor has dried herbs outside her door and that something is clearly Not Right with the Classics department at Blackstock College. And in fact, part of what I really liked about the book was the fact that this college life is so well drawn. It just so happens that there are several other books about colleges that I really enjoy(Gaudy Night and A College of Magic spring to mind), and I loved Janet’s ruminations on life, on friendship.

It also occurred to me that this book would be an excellent one to hand to New Adult fans who are willing to consider a fantasy that takes place in the early 1970s. I think it really captures the best of what I understand NA to be–the examination of this time of life that is both fundamentally important for a lot of people, and eternally fleeting. You make friends, you live four years together, and then you scatter. So much of what Janet thinks and feels about college, about academia–both its joys and agonies, and about life really rang true to me.

So it’s only gradually that the college side of the book gives way to the fairy tale side. There are hints of it from the beginning, in the Blackstock ghost, in Melinda Wolfe’s herbs, in the way Robin and Nick talk. There’s enough that, even without the title, the reader would easily suspect that something is up. But very little page time is actually spent on the plot of the song. I suspect this might frustrate some readers, but I personally found it very powerful. Fairy tales, and I am including ballads like “Tam Lin” in this, usually don’t contain personalities exactly, or motivations. Dean has countered that by spending most of the book building up characters and motivations so that by the time the plot happens, it feels almost inevitable.

There’s also the fact that a heavy strand of the story is Janet’s friendship with her two roommates, Molly and Tina. This relationship is, in its own way, just as important as any of the romantic relationships. They don’t always get on together, but this only contributes to the depth of the depiction. Of course you don’t always get on with your friends, even the true ones, even the ones you keep. And the three girls are very different–part of the arc of Janet’s character is her coming to appreciate Tina, who is not her kind of person, whereas Molly is. And yet, almost from the beginning of the book I couldn’t imagine them without each other. I love good depictions of female friendships (as some of you PROBABLY know), and this certainly falls into that category.

Moreover, I appreciated the fact that the fairy parts were left mysterious. We don’t really learn how or why things happen; in fact, after I finished I realized that I’m not even sure if several characters were fairies, or humans, or what. But, since I often feel that fairies and fairyland get overexplained in books, I thought this was MARVELOUS.

What I think it comes down to in the end is the feeling I got, the same feeling that I got when reading Jo Walton’s Among Others: this is a familiar country, these people are my people. I didn’t so much identify with Janet as place her in the realm of someone I would be friends with (if only she wasn’t fictional). She thinks the way I tend to, in half remembered quotations. She reads the books I read. I don’t always agree with her, but I am always glad to hear what she says.

Basically, as far as I’m concerned, Tam Lin is a wonderful college story, and a wonderful fairy story. And the ways in which the two overlap make for a book that has both freshness and depth. In case it’s not clear, I love it.

Quotes from Tam Lin that I shared on Tumblr

While I ultimately ended up really disagreeing with it, this is a very interesting take on the book, with lots of interesting comments.

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