The Uncertain Places Paperback – June 15, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Library Journal, starred review
Exemplary . . . Goldstein is one of fantasy’s most reliable practitioners, and a new novel from her is always a cause for celebration.”
San Francisco Chronicle
The Uncertain Places continued to surprise me at every page and, as a writer, filled me with raw, disgraceful envy: Boy I wish I’d thought of this one.”
Peter S. Beagle, author of A Fine & Private Place and Sleight of Hand
Lisa Goldstein is back and at the top of her game.”
The arrival of a new Goldstein fantasy is a major cause for rejoicing. And The Uncertain Places does not disappoint.”
Has it really been nine years since The Alchemist’s Door, Lisa Goldstein’s last book under her own byline? It’s been a long wait, but The Uncertain Places is one of those delightful books that are worth the wait. It combines all the things that I like best about Goldstein’s work: great, believable characters; a well-defined setting (this time it’s 1970s Berkeley); and subtle magic that plays by the rules.”
Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction
"It’s an interesting question that Goldstein poses, and there is no easy answer to be found. What constitutes a happy ever after’ for one person may bring misery to another. Perhaps the stories of one continent cannot survive transplantation to another without being somehow changed in the process. No matter how carefully hidden away they might be, sooner or later, as the territory is charted, they’re brought into the light of day. It’s what happens then that Goldstein has so intriguingly explored in this deeply absorbing novel."
Goldstein’s complex and ingenious plot transplants the forest realm of European folktale, where witches grant wishes with strings attached and you’d better be careful which frog you kiss, into the sun-drenched hills of Northern California in the 1970s and beyond.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
This entrancing book perfectly captures the subconscious logic of fairy talesyou’ll find yourself believing it all and wishing you could go to these places yourself, with all their wonders and perils.”
Tim Powers, author of The Stress of Her Regard and The Bible Repairman and Other Stories
It’s fitting that a spider is the symbol of the elf-struck family in this book, because Lisa Goldstein’s prose is more than a little like a spider’s web: so deceptively simple that you could take it for granted until the angle of light changes and its full beauty is suddenly revealed...a tale as tangling, tricksy, and enchanted as the Fair Folk themselves.”
Tad Williams, author of Tailchaser’s Song
From Lisa Goldstein, one of our most subtle and enduring writers, comes this exquisite interweaving of fairy tale and modern life. The Uncertain Places demonstrates that love and the stuff of legends are sometimes indistinguishable and share the same dark bed.”
A gripping story that twists with compelling dream logic; Goldstein’s fairy-tale family radiate believable unreality, and the faerie realm contained herein evinces the perfect mix of terror and attraction. Start reading this at your peril; once I did, I couldn’t stop until I was done.”
Cory Doctorow, author of Content and Context
Goldstein fearlessly rubs the dreamlike logic of fairy tales up against stark realism, and each one makes the other more real.”
It’s an engaging look at Northern California in the ’70s by way of the Brothers Grimm...a shrewd and satisfying venture down the crooked paths and unpredictable byways of the Otherworld.”
Patricia A. McKillip, author of Wonders of the Invisible World
It’s all about family values: ancient legacies, young love, dumb luck, and home cooking. And no one understands better than Lisa Goldstein that terror is a dish best served cold.”
Terry Bisson, author of Greetings and Other Stories and Number Don’t Lie
Warning: This book contains graphic scenes of nonconsensual housekeeping.”
Goldstein is in fine form with a darkly compelling modern fairy tale.”
"Lisa Goldstein is the perfect, born storyteller."
Diana Wynne Jones
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"`Very poorly,' the woodsman said. `My family and I have not eaten for three days, and if I do not find food for them soon I fear we will all die.'
"`I can help you,' the main said. `But you must promise to give me the first thing you see when you return home today.'"
All long-time readers of fairy tales are familiar with stories that begin like this, or similar to this, and they all involve people who are down on their luck who are mysteriously offered a great boon. The boon isn't free because it involves a bargain that may change the lives a family throughout time forever.
Just stories, of course, with morals in them about getting something for nothing, being too quick to give away something not clearly specified, and trusting anything that happens at crossroads, boundaries and other undertain places.
In Lisa Goldstein's wonderful contemporary fantasy "The Uncertain Places," protagonist Will Taylor looks back on the events that occurred after his college roommate Ben introduced him to Livvy Feierabend in 1971. Will is smitten with Livvy; Ben is smitten with Livvy's sister Maddie. Livvy and Maddie live with their mother Sylvie and younger sister Rose in an odd and rambling house in the Napa Valley.
Will notices on his first trip to Napa that Sylvie is rather scattered. On subsequent visits, it becomes more and more obvious that the house and the family are, in ways that cannot be pinned down, also scattered as though they aren't quite living in the here and now, or that if they are present in the here and now, that the line between the family's house and vineyard on one hand and their secrets on the other hand is not altogether well defined.
Will and Ben slowly discover that stories they always believed were "just stories" might be more than that. How exactly did the Brothers Grimm come by old fairytales about woodsmen and witches in their famlous books of "Children's Tales" published in multiple editions beginning in 1812? Growing up, the Feierabend sisters were not allowed to read fairytales. How odd. But Will finds out why, and that "why" has to do with the kinds of fortune and fate that befall those who find themselves confronted by friendly helpers in the uncertain places.
The consequences of decisions made in such places are forever. There's good fortune, to be sure. But it comes at a price, one that Will doesn't want Livvy to pay. All of this happened in California during the rather abnormal times of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Will narrates the events that followed the weekend when he became smitten with Livvy Feierabend as though he's telling a fairytale that contains fairy tales.
Will's telling of the story is one of the novel's greatest strengths, but also a lingering weakness. Looking back, as he is, Will places Ben, Livvy, Rose, Maddie and Sylvie into the world of "once upon a time," and this adds to the ephemeral nature of "The Uncertain Places." The Feierabend sisters' world is vague in all the secret ways magic and boundary areas are vague, and that makes them all the more plausible and delightful.
The flasback structure of the novel also blurs the impact of the story because there periods of normal reality in between the odd events Will is telling us about. Readers who are more accustomed to constantly forward-moving plot might say, "get back to the story." While these gaps filled with normacy are not large, they are somewhat distracting.
Nonetheless, the novel sparkles like stars and faerie lights in the woods and old secrets on the cusp of revelation, and is highly recommended for all lovers of fantasy whose ancestors didn't make long-term bargains with those they met in uncertain places.
By the end though, sometimes the fairy tale bits were a bit stale, were thrown in sort of gratuitously rather than as advancing the story, or were used as a deus ex machina. Similarly sometimes the narrator was oddly fixated on doing a certain thing in a way that felt forced (for the sake of moving the story) rather than true to character. Generally the second half of the book (after the initial story arc over Livvy is resolved) was a bit weaker.
Nonetheless, I found the good well outweighed the bad, and I would recommend this as one of the better contemporary fantasy novels that I've read over the past few years.
So why 4 stars instead of 5? It drags a bit. It needed a little tightening, but other than that, it was wonderful.
And what the heck was the frog's fourth secret?!?!?
Top international reviews
I make no apology for reasserting my belief that Goldstein deserves as much acclaim as the likes of Crowley, Powers and Gaiman. Re-telling fairytales in fantasy is common, reminding us why we need fairytales less so, and doing that within a clever, charming and joyful story quite rare.