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Margo Lanagan – Tender Morsels

September 11, 2009

103. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (2008)

Read By: Anne Flosnik and Michael Page
Length: 14h 19m (448 pages)

Genre: Fantasy; ostensibly Young Adult, although I wouldn’t give it to anyone younger than 15-16 or so.

Started: 17 August 2009
Finished: 23 August 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? Nymeth has mentioned that it’s in the running for her favorite read of the year, and her recommendations rarely lead me astray.

(Unrelated, but interesting: Nymeth is also one of the people I “know” who shows up in my Top 50 Similar Libraries on LibraryThing – along with Memory, Meghan, and Rhinoa – so even the computers think we’ve got similar tastes in books. :)

The real world can be
quite nasty and dark, but we
all have to live there.

“You are pure-hearted and lovely, and you have never done a moment’s wrong. But you are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart.”

Summary: Liga Longfield has had to endure more suffering than most 15-year-olds can even begin to imagine: her father keeps her shut away in their cabin in the woods and subjects her to the most horrific physical and sexual abuse. The rest of the world seems no better; after she is gang-raped and impregnated by a group of local boys, she runs away, fleeing with her elder daughter (by her father), and intent on killing herself and the child before either can endure any more misery.

Before she can go through with it, she is saved by a glowing moon-bab and sent to her personal heaven, where she can raise her daughters Branza and Urdda in complete peace and safety. However, her isolated heaven cannot last forever… A local mud-witch has accidentally sent a greedy dwarven man into Liga’s heaven, and that rash act has weakened the boundaries between fantasy and reality, allowing the occasional interchange between the worlds – most often during the Bear Day festival, when men dressed in bear-skins run through the town, pawing at whatever women they can find and celebrating the return of spring. Even with these incursions, Liga’s content to stay put, although her daughters secretly yearn for the wider world. But after living so long in the blissful safety of heaven, how will any of them be able to handle the harsh truths of reality?

Review: I loved almost everything about this book, with one big exception. I’ll start with the good stuff: First, I absolutely love good fairy tale retellings, particularly ones that recognize the more disturbing aspects lurking in most stories. And, if I wanted a retelling that comes at a familiar story from a completely new (and dark) angle, I don’t think I could have done much better than Tender Morsels. The bones of the Snow White & Rose Red story are there, but they’re fleshed out in a way that’s thoroughly original and yet still manages to maintain an other-worldly fairy tale feeling.

The message of the story, too, is one that I haven’t seen addressed in fantasy often – or at least not this well. The real world is depicted as so brutally horrible that you can’t fault Liga for retreating into her heaven, but the reader is slowly drawn out and convinced of the benefits of living in the real world, even when it’s a world in which most people have to struggle to achieve a happiness that they may never find. The writing and the language used throughout is gorgeous; lyrical and lovely and completely in line with the magical-yet-real folktale feeling of the worlds it was creating.

The *one* thing that kept this book from being excellent was the length, and the pacing. Stories have a kind of inherent rhythm and pace (and I’d argue this is particularly true of fairy tales.) Read enough of them, and you start to be able to pick out where you are in the story, and roughly how much should be left before the end. During Tender Morsels, however, when we reached the point where I was thinking “Okay, this is about halfway through the story”, I was only on disc 4 of 12. And, similarly, we reached the point where I was figuring we were closing in on the end… and it was only disc 9. From there, multiple places where the book could have ended satisfactorily flew past, but instead it stopped abruptly with a scene which didn’t feel like a proper conclusion. I think an editing knife could also have been taken to some parts in the middle to improve the flow – for example, the third Bear Day plotline could easily have been sacrificed without affecting the main story at all.

I also had a minor problem with the point-of-view jumps. Not with the multiple POV format itself; I think that actually added to the story. My problem was mostly with the audiobook production and readers, who would go from one character’s POV straight into another without any demarcation or change of voice, which often wound up being rather confusing.

In any case, while the off-putting rhythm and pacing problems were enough for me to dock this book some points in the final analysis, I never stopped listening, and I was always completely absorbed by the story, even if I never quite got a handle on where it was going. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book is most emphatically NOT for everyone. Particularly in the early chapters, it is brutally and intensely dark – we’re talking incest, physical abuse, forced abortion, gang rape, some implied-if-not-explicit bestiality, etc. If any of that stuff is an automatic deal-breaker for you, then you’re best off passing this one by. For those who can deal with the nastiness, though, there’s a disturbingly beautiful, fascinatingly complex, and lyrically written story here that shouldn’t be missed by fans of fantasy and fairy-tales.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bean Bag Books, Books and Other Thoughts, Books I Done Read, A Comfy Chair and a Good Book, E. M. Reads, Eva’s Book Addiction, My Favourite Books, Neth Space, Never Jam Today, Page 247, Reading Rants!, Stephanie’s Confessions of a Bookaholic, Things Mean a Lot, Vulpes Libris, YA Fabulous!, YAnnabe
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: There are plenty would call her a slut for it.

Cover Thoughts: I love it – the somewhat bleak palette; the man just barely visible inside the bear; the green, budding, living trees inside the girl to contrast to the dead, harsh thorns out in the real world – all gorgeous.

I also really like the cover treatment of the paperback… it brings out the Snow White & Rose Red aspect a lot more, although the girls are the wrong coloring for Branza and Urdda. But I really like the shadow-y bear back in the trees, contrasting with the golden sunlight… is the bear peaceful and protective, or stalking and menacing? Are the girls skipping alongside, or running away? Very evocative.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2009 12:42 am

    I completely agree about the length/pacing and the point of view issues.

    It really was gorgeous writing, though.

    Speaking of top 50 similar libraries on LibraryThing, have you seen the “compare” feature on Goodreads? I just joined Goodreads in January and just exporting from LT into GR to get everything in sync. But basically, you visit someone’s profile in GR and you can compare to find out how similar your taste is so you know whether you’re likely to like a book they like.

    Anyway, thought you might have fun with that feature…I liked looking up everyone and seeing who was most similar to me. :)

  2. September 11, 2009 2:09 am

    I’ve heard a lot of great things about this book, and I need to move the book up my TBR pile! Both covers are lovely IMO, though I think the last one portray more in a childlike way.

  3. September 11, 2009 4:58 am

    I noticed that on librarything too :D I’m glad you enjoyed it despite the few problems you had with it!

  4. September 11, 2009 8:09 am

    I think I would be better reading this one (rather than listening to it) if I decide to give it a try.

  5. September 11, 2009 8:58 am

    I have gotten so much less able to read books with sexual abuse & rape in them. I keep reminding myself that if I’d had this problem when I was younger, I’d never have finished The Color Purple or Deerskin – but still.

    I do love fairy tale retellings though, and everyone says this book is so good…Ack. I’m torn!

  6. September 11, 2009 11:55 am

    This book looks very interesting. The cover alone makes me want to read it…so it is going on my TBR pile.

    Have you ever read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? There were like five times that I thought that I was near the end of the book, but I wasn’t. It just kept going and going and going. It’s like the author couldn’t part with the characters.

  7. September 11, 2009 6:04 pm

    This is so funny because I clicked on your blog and saw the book picture before reading anything and I thought, “hmmm, that looks like a Nymeth book!” Ah, good call on my part!

    And it sounds great! Apparently *real* fairy tales were actually quite brutal and dark, but they were cleaned up for the children’s market by Grimm and Anderson, among others. I would love to read something closer to the real thing!

    Thanks for the review!

  8. September 12, 2009 10:59 am

    That’s such a great review! I keep seeing positive reviews of this one, from book bloggers I trust, so I feel I might have to read it at some point. Thanks! :)

  9. September 12, 2009 11:15 am

    I really love the second cover of this book you included — the colors and whatnot are gorgeous.

    It’s interesting you had issues with pacing with the audio book — do you think they’d have been as apparent while reading? That’s something I wonder about with audio books, whether I’d respond to the book differently if I were reading it rather than listening.

  10. September 12, 2009 2:02 pm

    I keep taking this book out from the library and not finding time to read it! Have to really get to it one of these days!

  11. September 12, 2009 3:30 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this one. I agree that it young-adult is too broad an age range and am careful when I suggest it.

    I loved the treatment of Snow White and Rose Red and Lanagan’s ability with language. I really like her short stories.

  12. September 13, 2009 11:02 am

    This is definitely one I would pass on. Thanks for the review and the warning for those of us who choose not to read about those tough topics.

  13. September 14, 2009 3:58 pm

    You hit the nail on the head.

    Only, in my case Lanagan never totally brought me round to the belief that her in-the-book real world was a good exchange for poor Liga’s fantasy–though the fantasy turned out to be no better. Except for the Rose Red character’s education at the end, I felt like I had been ushered into a house that was gradually revealed to have no exits, with both reality and unreality as prisons for the characters who inhabited them. Did you get that impression at all?

    I was especially unsettled by the gradual sympathy we were supposed to develop for the mud witch. “Oh, she’s a hardened, self-justifying egoist, but she’s all right, really.” (If she had a change of heart, it seemed more a matter of sentimentality and neediness than a moral development .) Also the threatening misogyny of the the dwarf being presented as grimly humorous rather than monstrous. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to have sympathy for those characters, I just didn’t feel Lanagan actually presented a complete case for it.

    A really disturbing book, which may be a sign of how good it is!

  14. September 15, 2009 8:07 am

    Despite its disturbing content, this has been on my wishlist for a while. I often force myself to read about difficult issues because I don’t want to wear rose-colored glasses all the time. I like happy stories but I also want to be able to sympathize with people whose suffering is unimaginable. Sometimes those books move me the most.

    I have so many book bloggers on my LT list! It’s actually quite amusing. I have to click on more to get to you, but you’re on there, we have tons of books in common. =)

  15. September 29, 2009 6:49 am

    Great review! I really need to either finish this book (or restart it.) When I first picked it up I read straight through to the middle, then for whatever reason I set it aside. Now I only have small snippets of reading time and this book feels too much like the kind I need to dedicate a whole day to.

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