Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

You know the drill by now, right? I like exploring fairy tales and folklore and unique takes on them.  So the wise publicist who sent me Summer and Bird was clearly paying attention (or I got lucky).

Plot summation:

When their parents disappear in the middle of the night, young sisters Summer and Bird set off on a quest to find them. A cryptic picture message from their mother leads them to a familiar gate in the woods, but comfortable sights quickly give way to a new world entirely—Down—one inhabited by talking birds and the evil Puppeteer queen. Summer and Bird are quickly separated, and their divided hearts lead them each in a very different direction in the quest to find their parents, vanquish the Puppeteer, lead the birds back to their Green Home, and discover the identity of the true bird queen

Despite its seemingly being a good fit for me, I struggled with this book for a few reasons. In spite of some weaknesses, that likely vary by reader taste importance, I admire the creativity and writing of this debut work.

First, I was very distracted and ended up reading it in small snippets at night before bed. This often prevents me from really getting into the rhythm of a story; losing myself in the world the author is trying to create. So the criticisms that follow may be partly my fault.

Another reason is the book’s very feminine nature. A mother and her two daughter’s dominate the story and it is really focused on these relationships. Much of the focus is on the complex and emotional internal lives of these girls and their mother and I will admit as a guy I had a hard time getting into it.

And perhaps related, I would have preferred a little more action and a little less angst and internal turmoil. The writing is frequently beautiful and the author’s willingness to not sugarcoat things and portray the deep and tragic aspects of life is commendable.  But at points the book just drags.  I think the focus on the internal emotions and family interplay make it hard to develop a pace that pulls the reader forward.  And the characters seem oddly one-dimensional at times – somehow too internalized with not enough sense of how they live and interact in physical reality (whatever that may mean in “Down”).

I have a feeling some readers will enjoy the mythical world building, the gauzy but tragic fairy tale while others will want more action and pace; a sense of movement and tension.

To give you a sense of this, here are two very different takes on the novel.

Publishers Weekly:

With a fairy tale–tinged sadness reminiscent of Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, Catmull’s debut is a melancholy quest fantasy with no trophy at the end; instead, Summer finds the most somber of adult realities. The book’s greatest strength lies in Catmull’s ability to articulate the disorientation and sense of injustice that accompany loss.

VOYA:

A rich cast of talking birds and bird people populate this aviarian tale. With imagery that is part Swan Lake, part Irish selkie, Catmull’s first novel is an interesting contribution to contemporary mythology. Despite the lush backdrop and intricate otherworld fantasy, however, Catmull’s characters remain rather flat, their motivations somewhat unclear as the story stretches slowly on. Too long and unnecessarily complicated, this book is beautiful to look at and has some lovely magical moments within, but it is doubtful that it is going to fly with the average teen reader.

All of that said, it is an incredibly imaginative story full of great descriptions and interesting (even if not fully developed) characters. It has the feel of folklore and mythology with all of the emotion and meaning that can convey. It really delves into and reflects family dynamics and dysfunction within a fantastic setting. I just think it gets a little bogged down in the emotions of Summer and Bird and the pace and punch of the novel suffer.

For rather obvious reasons, I think this will appeal to girls and their mothers more than father’s and sons but still a promising debut.

About Kevin Holtsberry

Kevin works in communications and public affairs. He tries to squeeze in as much reading (and blogging) as he can between work, family and watching sports.

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