Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

20893402Title: Gretel and the Dark

Author: Eliza Granville

Rating: 4 stars

Gretel and the Dark is a maddening book. It is so tense and original and dark…until it is not. The writing is superb, the characters deft and unsettling, but ultimately I found myself very frustrated with the experience of reading it.

In 1899 in Vienna, a mysterious woman ends up at the home of Dr. Josef Breuer. She claims to be a machine sent to kill a “monster.” Captivated, Josef and his servant Benjamin try to unravel “Lillie’s” secrets, putting them all in danger.

In the 1940s in Ravensbruck, a girl named Krysta navigates an increasingly threatening world by retreating into the fairy tales her old nurse used to spin for her. Initially a spoiled, wild, motherless child, Krysta eventually finds herself an inmate of the “zoo,” where everything changes for her.

These two disparate stories connect in an interesting way. When I first started to figure out what Granville was doing, I got a little shiver down my spine. But it ended up being the biggest failure of an otherwise extraordinary book. Perhaps it all comes down to reader expectations. I wanted a full-on sci-fi concept novel. I wanted a satisfying but impossible moment where Lillie dispatches the “monster” (I’m not going to tell you who he is, but think for a minute and you should be able to figure it out.) Instead I got….metaphor and stories. Gorgeous metaphor and beautiful stories, but it felt to me like this was a book that didn’t go far enough, just didn’t get weird enough when it comes down to it. And then came the last five pages, a final nail in the coffin.

The ending is not bad. It’s just not…right. I won’t get too deep into it, except to say that Krysta, the disturbed and damaged girl whose unusual voice was such a treat throughout her sections, changes dramatically without any actual development in the last five pages, and things are wrapped up very sentimentally and neat.

Authors, I implore you. Give me ambiguity. Leave me unsatisfied because you refused to answer a question, not because you wrapped things up with a tidy bow that lays your narrative flat. If I could cut the last section out of this book, leave it forever open-ended and the weird element entirely unanswerable, I think this would have been a beyond-five-star book for me.

Because it was insanely, ridiculously well written. Granville weaves together a number of fairy tales, digging at their unsettling and disturbing roots. The Pied Piper is here, but so are Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Match Girl, and the Frog Prince, and probably plenty of others I could not unpick. This is a slow book, a language-lover’s book, on the sentence level up there as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is a shame that it fails to stick the landing, but if you are a fairy-tale person, or one for skewed, dark historical fantasy, or just a lover of words, I think you find something to enjoy.

A necessary trigger warning: though the author refers to it exclusively through allusion and metaphor, this book does include the rape of a child. It’s highly unsettling but important.

And one final note. I didn’t know much about the plot or setting when I picked up Gretel and the Dark, but it ended up being the second book I have read this month featuring Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. It’s one of those weird coincidences, but I can tell you this much. My brain does not ever want to go there ever, ever again.

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June Round Up

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Lots and lots to talk about this month; June was insane. Let’s get down to it.

Reading

I finished 10 books in June. But most of them I actually started in May, so I don’t feel like it was that many. (I definitely am working on too many books at once right now, I should stick to one at a time.)

Reading Diversity

4 of the books I read were by male authors. One was a book in translation. Two featured QUILTBAG characters. 1 was nonfiction, and 1 was a reread.

Writing

It feels like I spent most of this month working on edits for a short story coming out in Strange Horizons soon (more on that later…insert flailing gif in the meantime.) Thing is that I didn’t, but it just feels that way.

I also…drumroll please…finished the Novel of Doom! 66,000 words, which is on the short side, but hey, it’s a crummy first draft. The exciting thing for me is that I was able to make myself sit down and do it. It took just about a year, though not in actual writing time–for a number of months there, I had the whole project shelved. (This was the novel I thought I was going to be able to write during my recovery, when I was sitting at home from work with “nothing to do.” Hah.)

Next comes revision and finding readers and seeing what I can make of this whole thing, but first it’s sitting in a dark drawer for a month, and I’m going to work on some other projects. Got some short stories I’m excited about that are brewing, and I want to keep working on Novel 2.

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TV Junkie

Orphan Black. Aaaaaaaah.

There were some tottering steps this season (there usually are with Orphan Black). I wish they had focused a bit more on the psychology behind the Castor clones, how their self-aware upbringing made them different from Leda, instead of pretty much immediately going out and killing them all. And Cosima’s lesbian dramah…yeah, I’ll pass, thanks. But all in all it was an exciting ride with tons of the great character moments that are the reason I watch it in the first place. (I love especially when they throw together two characters I never would have thought of interacting. Like Helena and Donnie. My favorite moments of the back half of the season were their shenanigans. And what he did for her in the finale…oh my gosh that was adorable.)

I’ve also been watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Which has really been interesting because I know I’ve read the book, I’ve been carting it around with each move for years, and yet…I don’t remember a damn thing about it.

Sometimes I Go to the Movies

Spy was really funny. Like, I-spent-more-time-doubled-over-in-my-seat-laughing-than-actually-looking-at-the-screen funny. (Ok…not quite. But almost.) It was a lot cruder than I expected it to be, but it was great watching Melissa McCarthy be a total badass. And Jason Statham was ridiculous, which was awesome cause I’m so used to him playing the straight man. Just altogether a great movie.

Mix Tape

June was bonkers good for new music.

First of all: Floooooooooorence. New Florence + the Machine albums automatically go on my favorites list by now. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is no exception.

Of Monsters and Men have a new album too. I still listen to their debut all the time, it never gets old. I actually don’t know much about the band, but they make quality music that always puts me in a writing mood, to boot.

And wtf, there’s a new Desaparecidos album? Is summer 2015 the season of unexpected sequels? I had no idea that this album even existed until I stumbled across a review…my 18-year-old self is super happy about it. Without getting into the politics or anything…something in me just loves to hear Conor Oberst scream.

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Oh, and one more thing

For my birthday, my mom and I went to see Newsies at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Newsies, man. Me and Newsies have a history. If I could only watch one movie for the rest of my life, that objectively terrible film would be it, even though I could literally do a shot-for-shot one-woman remake if it came down to it. So I was so excited to see it come to town, and come to town right by my birthday, too. I managed to score front row orchestra tickets. It was spectacular. And even though they changed most of the songs and the story and it didn’t feel as familiar as I thought, it was a great experience. The dancing alone was incredible and worth the ticket. Yay, Newsies!

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Top Ten Tuesday: Best of the Year (so far)

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far In 2015.

I’ve had good luck with books so far this year. Looking at my Goodreads reviews, if I took all of my five and four star ratings into account I’d have many more than ten (current read total for this year as of this writing: 70 books. Eep.) So this is completely unscientific. It includes five star books, a few four stars, and a few books I liked that I didn’t put on Goodreads for one reason or another.

128136301. Holly Black- The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Holy schmaow is this book good. It totally revitalized the vampire genre for me. (I probably shouldn’t say this as I am writing a vampire novel as we speak, but man have I been sick of vampires recently.) Coldtown is scary and visceral and just a really, really, really great read.

2. Mary Renault- The Persian Boy

I’ve been really into stories of the Bronze Age/Ancient Greece this year, and this book is probably 98% of the reason why. This story of Alexander the Great and his eunuch Bagoas is one of the most romantic things I have ever read.

3. Elizabeth Wein- Code Name Verity /Rose Under Fire 

Yes I’m counting them as one book to get more books on this list. Sue me. These WWII historicals punch a huge hole in my emotions. I’ve always felt sort of distant from WWII when I read about it before, but with these two novels it felt like I was right there, with all the pain that entails. They were wrenching but gorgeously written.

4. Emily St. John Mandel- Station Eleven

This book has no right to be so good. No right. It’s elegiac and wandering and there’s not much story beyond “The world ended. Let’s talk about Shakespeare.” And yet. It completely knocked me to my knees.

5. Jo Graham- Black Ships

More Bronze Age. More Ancient Greece, with bonus Egypt. Inspired by the Aenied, the story of the Sybil is evocative and enthralling. I loved the characters and the writings.

222940616. Charlotte Gordon- Romantic Outlaws

This in-depth biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is my favorite nonfiction read of the year so far. Absolutely fascinating, and a must-read for anyone interested in the Romantics, women in literature, and feminism in general.

7. Courtney Milan- Trade Me

Milan does a contemporary billionaire romance that skewers expectations. I already am pretty sure I’m going to like the sequels more (If I’m right about Adam…oh, I hope I’m right about Adam), but this was a great read.

8. Rufi Thorpe- The Girls From Corona Del Mar

I was in physical pain when I finished this book. It just really resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

9. Tessa Dare- Romancing the Duke/Say Yes to the Marquess

And now for some much-needed fluff. Tessa Dare is my new fave romance writer. Each book I like a little bit more (I’m starting now on her Spindle Cove books.) Say Yes to the Marquess features wooing-by-wedding-planning. Romancing the Duke features historical LARPing. So much fluff. SO MUCH FLUFF. They’re both super cute though of course the side characters are my favorites instead of the heroes (they always are. This is a problem with me and romance novels.)

10. Eliza Granville- Gretel and the Dark

Frustrating and intriguing and spooky and dark and beautiful all rolled into one.

So that’s January to June, 2015. I have a pretty good idea which of these will be sticking around until the end of the year, too.

What are your best reads so far?

 

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#LoveWins!

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I honestly didn’t think I’d see a day where my country would legalize gay marriage across all fifty states. That we have finally, officially, recognized that you cannot legislate love. I am so happy that all of my friends, straight and gay, can now be with the ones they love and make that commitment, if they choose. And in a year that has been so dark and rough for America, it was a much-needed positive step.

So in honor of the SCOTUS ruling, I wanted to put together a little list of some of my favorite QUILTBAG* characters in literature.

As a straight woman, I have a certain, somewhat voyeuristic love of gay men that is not exactly uncommon, but can certainly be seen as problematic. In many cases, the characters on this list fall into the stereotype of the Tragic Homosexual. Reader mileage will vary. While some of these stories did not end well, perhaps the future will bring happier tales celebrating love in all its forms.

*acronyms abound, of course. I choose to use QUILTBAG because it includes Asexuality, which is often ignored or glossed over, and it is overall a more memorable and inclusive term. I also use “queer” as an umbrella term, because that works for me, although I know some people object to it.

000pq8zr1. Seregil and Alec- The Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling

aka my babies I love them so much. I’m not sure exactly what it is about these two characters, alone or together, that resonates with me, but I do know they are very important to me, not just because of their sexuality.

2. Sammy Clay- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I haven’t read this book in years, but oh God, the World’s Fair, I cry just thinking about it.

3. Robert Frobisher- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My favorite version of the soul.

4. Lisbeth Salander The Milennium series by Stieg Larsson

I like that Lisbeth’s relationship with Miriam is actually integral to the plot and her character arc, it isn’t just thrown in there to make her the cool bisexual hacker chick.

5. Nijiri- The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

I have a lot of feelings for Nijiri. On the one hand, I’m very sad for him. But on the other hand, I’m actually really thankful to Jemisin for writing a belief system where people who take vows of celibacy actually take those vows seriously. Too often in fiction you see the holy/celibate characters who just kind of throw around their words and treat their vows as completely meaningless

6. Clovis- The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee

Clovis is 100% stereotype, the gay best friend you’ve seen in a million romcoms, and I don’t care because he’s the best damn character in that (wonderful) (fantastic) book (which I am gearing up to talk about in another post).

7. Maurice Hall- Maurice by E.M. Forester

I think I’ve talked about Maurice before. I love that book (and the movie), particularly because it has a happy ending. Sure, if you think far beyond the last page things get implausible for a number of reasons, but who cares? Maurice and Scudder get to be happy.

8. Tamir/Tobin- The Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling

Here is how obtuse I am (alternatively, how hard it can be to see something when it’s not a fight you face): I did not recognize Tamir as trans until this year, when I read someone else commenting about it. As a baby, Tamir’s soul is literally put into a differently-gendered body, and she struggles with that both before and after she knows the truth, and yet I never recognized it as a trans narrative. To be fair, this might be because I first read it when I was sixteen, and I didn’t know a single thing about trans issues, and the book came from that section under the big old FANTASY sign. To date, she’s the only trans protagonist I can think of that I’ve come across in literature.

So that’s a small sampling of characters. As you can see, there seems to be a dearth of women on this list. I know I have read fiction featuring lesbians and other queer women, but it’s not something that comes to the forefront of my mind.

If I included examples of queer characters from short fiction, this list might never end. There are a lot of fantastic, layered queer characters in short speculative fiction these days. I think the field is all the richer for it.

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Short Story Sunday: “Elephants and Corpses”

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First line: “Bodies are only beautiful when they aren’t yours.”

Elephants and Corpses” by Kameron Hurley, published by Tor.com.

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Unpopular Opinions Tag

I recently saw this tag over at A Kernel of Nonsense. I don’t think I’ve ever done a tagged post on this blog, but I’ve been feeling kind of grumpy about my unpopular opinions lately, so this seemed perfect! All in good fun.

A book or series that everyone seemed to hate but you loved:

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I can easily do the opposite of this, but this way ’round it’s difficult. Looking at my goodreads feed, it seems that Fr0g Music has a pretty low overall rating (3.12), but I loved it. The characters were frustrating, the writing was dark, and it just kind of resonated with me.

A love triangle that didn’t end the way you wanted it to:

I avoid love triangles like the plague. In fact, most series with love triangles I don’t even finish. In series that I have finished, I’m generally all in favor of the way the author goes (because you can almost always tell it from the beginning anyway–love triangles are cheap tension builders).

So. Um. Unpopular opinion being that I hate love triangles?

A book genre you hardly ever reach for:

New Adult. The single New Adult book I read knowingly was teeeeeeeeerible, and I know you shouldn’t judge an entire genre on one example, but honestly to me the entire genre seems to be a way to excuse bad writing and ridiculous plots. They don’t fit YA markets presumably because of sexual content and age of the protagonists, but really it’s because the writing is bad, and they don’t fit into mainstream adult fiction because, again, the writing is bad. 

A popular or beloved character you did not like:

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Celaena Sardothien.

Ugh I hated Throne of Glass so damn much. I feel like I’m the only person in the world that did. But God. Celaena was the WORST. “I’m the greatest assassin the world has ever seen.” “I’m gonna stay awake all night pouting about boys and playing with a puppy, cause it’s not like my life is on the line here or anything.”

She was so annoying and not in a fun-to-read way, plus she was bad at her job. Her job that was the entire premise of the book! Should have left her in that damn salt mine.

A popular author you just can’t enjoy:

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Leigh Bardugo. I gave Shadow and Bone a 3-star review initially, but it’s one of those books that’s really soured for me since I read it, mostly because people praise that series so. damn. much. and the more I think about it the more it grates on me. The writing was mediocre at best and I don’t understand the big deal.

A popular trope you’re tired of:

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The I’m-not-like-other-girls superiority of certain YA heroines. Female friendship is enormously important and valuable, and I feel like this trope teaches girls that to be exceptional they must be “the cool girl”– perfectly feminine and pretty and desirable to men, but also disdainful of that very femininity and constantly tearing other women down.

 

A popular series you have no interest in reading:

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Harry Potter. *dodges projectiles*

A TV show/movie that was better than the book:

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I’m going to go with The Hunger Games series.

I know!

Look, I love those books, even though they ushered in the era of first-person-present-tense that I want to burn to the ground. But I really love the movies because they get us outside of Katniss’s head, and make the dystopian world of Panem feel a little bit less ridiculous and contrived. They give depth and space to the other characters that the books really lack. And I feel like the acting/costuming/design/score, all of it, really ties together well.

So, what are your unpopular bookish opinions? Feel free to join in the tag.

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Short Story Sunday: “The Myth of Rain”

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First line: “Female spotted owls have a call that doesn’t sound like it should come from a bird of prey. It’s high-pitched and unrealistic, like a squeaky toy that’s being squeezed just a little bit too hard.”

The Myth of Rain” by Seanan McGuire, published by Lightspeed. 21

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Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Books On My TBR For Summer 2015. As usual, this list could be entirely populated by books on my last TBR lists that I haven’t gotten to. But at least I have some of these actually checked out of the library and others sitting on my nook. I am determined to get through all of these by September…okay, maybe seventy percent of them.

233988241. A Study in Death– Anna Lee Huber [I really enjoy this series and always look forward to a new addition.]

2. Phantom– Jo Nesbo [I am soooooo close to finishing the Harry Hole series. Or at least, all the current books. I don’t know if there will be more.]

3. Two Serpents Rise– Max Gladstone [Finally, an ebook sale. Thank you, Tor! Now please drop Full Fathom Five a few dollars.]

4. Gretel and the Dark– Eliza Granville [a book in my “library drawer” to read at lunchtime: I have very little idea what it’s actually about, but something about the cover caught me.]

5. The Tropic of Serpents- Marie Brennan [I just discovered the Memoirs of Lady Trent and I am in love.]

6. Dark Triumph– Robin LaFevers [One of those sequels that’s been sitting around on my nook for a while. I will get to it. I will!]

7. The Grace of Kings– Ken Liu [As soon as it’s available at the library!]

8. The Mirror Empire– Kameron Hurley [I just read a short story by Hurley and it inspired me to work on the book which has been sitting around for a while.]

9. Ancillary Sword– Ann Leckie [oh look at that another sequel I’ve let drop by the wayside.]

10. Thud!- Terry Pratchett [I haven’t read Sir Terry for about a decade. It’s unfortunate that his death is what made me turn back to Discworld, but sometimes that’s how the world works.]

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Short Story Sunday: “Beatification of the Second Fall”

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First line: “I am four when the door at the top of the stairs is opened to me for the first time.”

Beatification of the Second Fall” by Sean Robinson, published in Apex Magazine.

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Top Ten Tuesday: New Books

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases For the Rest of 2015.

The Fifth Season The Fifth Season The Fifth Season…oh wait, there are other books coming out? Oh, yeah, I guess so.

132069001. The Fifth Season– N. K. Jemisin (Aug. 4) For some reason I thought this book was going to come out last year, so I feel like I’ve been waiting for it for a long time.

2. Winter– Marissa Meyer (Nov. 10) My greedy little hands want this book yesterday.

3. Carry On– Rainbow Rowell (Oct. 6) In which Rowell writes a m/m novel based on a fanfic based on a fake series of novels she created based on Harry Potter. Just try to digest that.

4. Ancillary Mercy– Ann Leckie (Oct. 22) Of course, I still have to read Ancillary Sword. 

5. A Study in Death- Anna Lee Huber (Jul 7) I love this mystery series.

6. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg- Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Oct. 27) That. Cover. 9780062415837_p0_v1_s260x420

 

7. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation- Bill Nye (Sept. 8) Bill Nye is a luminary of scientific literacy, something that seems in increasing danger these days. This is going to be a must-read.

8. Slade House– David Mitchell (Oct. 27) I’ve not seen a lot of information about this, but I think it’s a companion piece to The Bone Clocks? This is where I have to admit that I still haven’t read The Bone Clocks. Eeep.

9. The Princess and the Pony– Kate Beaton (Jun. 30) Kate Beaton! Fat ponies! I’m planning on getting this picture book for a baby as an excuse to read it myself.

10. Go Set a Watchman– Harper Lee (Jul. 14) Am I apprehensive about this book? Completely. Am I grossed out by some of the icky ethical issues surrounding its surprise publication? Yes. Am I still going to read it? You bet your ass I am.

What are you excited about for the rest of the year?

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