Audio Review: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

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November 16, 2012 by Heidi

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan book coverTitle: Tender Morsels [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Margo Lanagan [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Young Adult, Retelling, Fantasy
Published: June 1st, 2009 by Brilliance Audio
Format: Audiobook; 14 hrs, 11 min; Read by Michael Page and Anne Flosnik
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, given to her by natural magic in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters, gentle Branza and curious Urdda, grow up in this soft world, protected from the violence, predation, and village prejudice that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever.

Magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side? This is a tale of journeys and transformations. From girl to witch to woman. From boy to beast to man. From hell to heaven to . . . reality. Building her tale on a mythic scaffolding, Margo Lanagan asks timeless questions about what it is to be human. She explores the evil and the sweetness in the world and reveals the essential magic of learning to live with both.

Chosen as a 2009 Michael L. Printz honor book

I fell utterly in love this year with Margo Lanagan’s most recent book, The Brides of Rollrock Islandand since then have been wanting to try some of her older work.  I was aware after reading a number of reviews that Brides was easily considered her most accessible work.  I knew going in that Tender Morsels was going to be dark, jarring, and possibly hard to stomach.  It was all of these things, but it was also rich with observations about the human condition, our ability to hurt, and our ability to heal.  The fact that there are those who will never redeem themselves, and others who will never compromise who they are.

Tender Morsels is, at its core, a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red.  It has been awarded a Printz honor, is categorized as YA, and yet, I have to admit I would be extremely hesitant to put this in the hands of any but the most mature teens.  Tender Morsels involves gang rape, incest, and bestiality.  These facets are not alluded to or glossed over for the reader to deduce, they are described in a harsh and blatant manner that is intended to twist any reader’s stomach with feelings of rage and despair at the unjust world.  Tender Morsels is never a comfortable book–a reader should not go in looking for a charmingly dark fairy tale retelling, they should go in expecting to be slapped in the face with the harsh realities of human nature and an exploration of our animal tendencies.

Tender Morsels is a story told through points of view that flow freely from character to character.  I believe there were in total seven points of view including Liga and her daughters (our Snow White and Rose Red equivalents), along with the four men who travel in some form between the known world and Liga’s heaven.  The utilization of various character’s viewpoints is something Lanagan excels at.  Because she is unafraid to present the earnest mentality of each character, it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.  Who is the victim, who is taking advantage, and who is merely going after their goals.  I adore her fearlessness when it comes to making readers feel for characters we want so ardently to despise.  She also most brilliantly backs off of these perspectives when we come to a point in the book where we know this character can no longer hold even our mildest sympathies.

Through Tender Morsels, Lanagan has also proven to me that she is adept at utilizing another of my favorite story telling elements–setting as character.  I loved Rollrock Island in Brides, but I’ve also started to think that islands are easy to personify.  Here Lanagan proves her ability to weave character into setting by creating a juxtoposition between the personalities of the village in the real world, and the same village in Liga’s Heaven.  In Liga’s Heaven, all unniceties are removed.  All those Liga felt intimidated by, or fearful of, all those who at some point caused her pain are gone.  However, this also sucked the intense joys and kindliness out of the village.  The village of Liga’s Heaven becomes but a shadow to that of the real world, which is much more boisterous and bursting with personalities both rough and wonderful.

The audio narration for Tender Morsels was very well done, with the male PoV chapters being narrated by Michael Page, and the female by Anne Flosnik.  I enjoyed their accents, and their story telling abilities, and I’ll honestly admit that being captive to some of the more horrendous scenes on audio was perhaps less painful than if I had been reading.  It kept me from being able to skip anything, and yet it gave my mind the ability to split itself and focus on whatever task was at hand while listening.  I do recommend the audio, but not so enthusiastically that I would insist it were an improvement on the book itself.

Tender Morsels is a complex and heart wrenching look at humanity.  There is no message that good things happen to good people, or that the bad will always get their comeuppance.  No, it is merely a reflection of reality.  There are those who will always be victims, others who look always to take advantage, and those who will lead very good and fortunate lives.  It shows the value of hard work and determination, but also the reality that those blessings we receive in life do not always look quite like the ones we would have chosen.  The world is unfair, and while Tender Morsels is an achingly difficult book to read, it is also a true one–and that is something I very much appreciate.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I’m really interested to see how Margo Lanagan’s short stories compare to her full length novels–if she still works with the same themes, and what kind of depth she is able to get in a small page count.  I’ll probably be looking to read either Red Spikes or Black Juice next.

Recommended for:  This is one of those books that is really hard to judge who would and would not like it due to the intensity of many scenes.  Heck, I’m not sure I can really say I liked it.  I loved elements that Lanagan used, and I appreciate what the book did and how it made me think, but did I like it?  Not really, but it’s a good book.  If you feel you may be able to stomach the harsh elements mentioned, I do urge you to give this one a shot.  It won’t be easy or fun, but it will give you something new.

Get a second opinion:
The Reclusive Reader – “Only those that can appreciate beauty in contrast to feeling extreme discomfort, stomach reading about carnal, gross acts, and at times, witnessing devastating scenes, do I tentatively recommend this book to.”
The Book Smugglers – “The book is unquestionably powerful and well-written, but certain facets of the story left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Tatiana (from The Readventurer) on Goodreads – “I personally found Tender Morsels a memorable book, the type of read that lingers in the back of your mind for a long time. But can I wholeheartedly recommend it to a teenager or even an adult? I am not sure…”

I’ve also reviewed:
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

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22 comments »

  1. Reynje says:

    This is a brilliant review, Heidi. I still haven’t written one, after reading this book months ago. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that I can equally love and hate a book so much. I do think that Margo Lanagan is an incredible writer. I have a copy of Yellow Cake that I’m hoping to dive into soon.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Reynje! Yeah, I honestly didn’t know when I finished it whether I was going to actually write a review or not because it is one of those books that’s so hard to really articulate on. I completely agree–I hated it and really loved it at the same time. I like that she made me so uncomfortable, but not as one of those authors who writes shocking things just to shock.

  2. Did you follow the controversy after this was first included in, then deleted from the Bitch Magazine list of YA books for feminist readers? I think it was the Book Smugglers’s review that set it off—not the Book Smugglers themselves, I don’t think, but someone referencing their review—and Bitch pulled it, then admitted they hadn’t even read it in the first place.

    Obviously, I’ve been meaning to read it ever since.

    (Understandably, many authors were upset—that a book the list editors hadn’t read was deemed problematic based on one comment referencing one review—and it didn’t help that more or less the same thing happened to Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, which I have since read, and possibly one other book that I’m forgetting.)

    • Heidi says:

      I did not! I was too busy with grad school at that point in time, and was somewhat oblivious to the larger book community. I honestly didn’t even hear of this book until earlier this year. It’s a very interesting book, I agree largely with The Book Smuggler’s review about the beauty of the writing and the horror of the emotional exploitation. Honestly this book has tons of room for controversy, so I am not at all surprised.

  3. WOW. This sounds like a fascinating book, but I’m not ashamed to say that it would NOT be one for me. Although I can definitely see the Truth in the message, it’s not something that I would want to read for myself. I would like to read The Brides of Rollingrock Island, though. And I like this cover. It’s intriguing that it got a Prinz honor.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, it is intriguing to me too. I feel like it’s somewhat underread despite the award, because if it were more widely read I’m sure we’d hear about people putting in ban requests for it frequently. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that this book isn’t for you, I like really dark stuff, and this was an incredibly hard book for me to get through. My buddy Alyssa loved Snow White and Rose Red and will read any retelling she can get her hand on, and she cannot get through this one.

      I hope you do read Brides though! It may have been my favorite 2012 read thus far.

  4. I feel so ashamed to say I still haven’t read anything by Margo Lanagan! *sigh* I need to get to Brides soon…REALLY soon! Gosh, I honestly don’t think Tender Morsels is my kind of story, but I know it’s one I’ll pick up for sure. I love that Lanagan exposes such brutalities of humanity and throughout all the suffering she puts her characters through, that there IS an ultimate message. More than anything, I’m intrigued to get a taste of this woman’s writing skill. It seems utterly remarkable and I’m so glad you reviewed this one, Heidi! It’s yet another one that’s been sitting on my TBR Shelf for far too long… Fantastic review, dear! :)

    • Heidi says:

      You do need to read Brides! I loved it so so much. Her writing is beautiful, regardless of the fact that in this book it’s also extremely hard to stomach. I’d really recommend for everyone to start with Brides before braving some of her older work.

  5. Hmmm I think I’ll be skipping this one. As you know, I tried to read it a few times, back in my days when I wouldn’t fathom placing it on my DNF shelf! After you said that it is a retelling of SW&RR I was literally “Oh, poop.” but after reading your lovely review, I think I’ll stick with Brides and skip this one. Thanks for a good insight, I trust your judgement!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Alyssa! I really think you’re better off skipping this one given your repeated failed attempts to read it in the past. I know you love Snow White and Rose Red, but this one is different enough that you shouldn’t feel like you’re missing out.

  6. VeganYANerds says:

    Wonderful review, Heidi. I’ve gone to borrow this book so many times, and listened to Margo read from it earlier this year, but I am not sure if this is for me. However, this is such a stunning review.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Mandee! Oh, I’d love to meet Margo and hear her read! But yes, I totally understand that this is not a book for many readers.

  7. Yes, I know exactly what you mean about this book. I remember finishing it and thinking…wow, that was a brilliant book. But did I like it? Not really, to be honest. Her books have a tendency to linger in my mind for months and months afterward though. Her books are art, and they don’t have to be likable. Great review Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! They are, completely. Honestly I think Brides has creeped its way to the top of my 2012 favorites list simply because I can’t get it out of my head months later–more so that any other 2012 release I’ve read. I like that she can have that affect on me, even if it’s something I don’t like.

  8. Well you know I’m intrigued by this.

    • Heidi says:

      I was so excited when you said you’d picked this one up from the library. I’m really interested to see how you take it…it’s disturbing, but I think you’ll make it through.

  9. I did have a friend recommend this as a powerful and moving fairy-tale retelling. But after hearing just how graphic the story is…well I’m not sure how much I’ll enjoy it. I’ll probably read it anyway, but it sounds like it should be one of those books that you need to be in just the right mood to read. And that’s interesting you found graphic scenes more bearable via audio – I think having to listen to someone retell a graphic scene out loud would make me even more uncomfortable! I appreciate the honest review and think that for now I’ll start with The Brides of Rollrock Island.

    • Heidi says:

      Oooh, I really hope that you do start with Brides, Amanda, judging by a lot of the other books you’ve enjoyed this year I think you’d really like it. I suppose I would say this is a powerful and moving book, but not in the way I’d ever normally use those words. You do certainly need to be in the right kind of mood to get through this. You also make a good point about the tough scenes via audio–they were somehow fine for me, but I often find romantic scenes too incredibly cheesy to bear via audio. 😛

  10. I’ve had a copy of this sitting on my shelves for AGES, but I’ve never quite been in the right mood to pick it up. My curiosity has intensified over time, so I’ll definitely have to get to it one of these days.

    • Heidi says:

      I really hope you do, Allison! I think this is one So worth giving some time to, no matter your reaction in the end. I know I was totally sucked in by its beautiful cover, and after reading Brides my curiosity just intensified.

  11. After I saw her a few weeks back, I became determined to read something of hers. I think I’ll start with the short stories or Rollrock but I have a feeling I’ll really like this one as I like the darker ones. I also think I might give the audio a try since you liked it. I tend to like the dual guy/gal narrations. I think the audios are harder to listen to, actually, in those more horrendous scenes, because I can’t skip.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! You really need to read some Lanagan, especially Rollrock.

      I did like the audio for this one though, it’s really well done–but I can see what you mean about not being able to skip, and there is a lot of dark here. I’m really interested to see what you think of this when you do try it. I’m so emotionally torn on it, but that certainly makes it one of the most impactful reads I’ve read in a long time.

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