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Yesterday's book (The Menagerie) was one I happily recommended to nine-year olds wanting fantasy fun; today book I can also recommend whole-heartedly, but it is very different...one I think that has as much cross-over appeal to adult readers as it does to the YA readers to whom it is marketed.Fearless
, by Cornelia Funke (Little, Brown, April 2, 2013, YA), is the sequel to Reckless (my review
), which told how Jacob, a boy from our world who became a treasure-hunter in a mirrorworld where fairy tales are true, sacrificed himself to save his younger brother. And now Jacob, waiting for the fairy curse to strike that will end his life, is on the greatest treasure hunt of his life, this time looking for the last thing he hopes can save him. It is a weapon crafted by an evil witch king long ago, full of powerful (and potentially horrible) magic...and Jacob isn't the only one hunting for it. Pitted against him every step of the way is another treasure hunter, one of the stone-skinned Goyl, and their race across an alternate Europe of magic come true might well kill them both.
Fortunately, and heart-rendingly, for Jacob, he is not alone--Fox, the shapeshifting girl who almost broke my heart in the first book, is with him, and here in this book they both have come to understand that their love for each other is the bedrock of their lives. But Jacob is dying...and so desperate fear tempers their relationship. They have saved each other countless times before, but now they are stretched so painfully thin by this most horrible quest that hope would seem impossible, if the alternative was not so unthinkable.
Note: The relationship between Jacob and Fox is so real, so immediate, so beautiful, and so rooted in their complex pasts that I can't think of any other romance that comes close (except that of Eugenides and Irene, in Megan Whalen Turner's books). But it is not a physical romance (understandable, given the circumstances) so those looking for swoonish kisses should look elsewhere.
Unfortunately for Jacob's opponent, the Goyl Nerron, not all travelling companions are a good thing. Nerron is saddled with a nasty teenaged prince, along with his ass of a tutor, and a bodyguard--an inhuman Waterman, with motivations of his own, and their internal power struggles add a somewhat grimly diverting second layer of conflict to the story. Despite the handicaps who travel with him, Nerron pushes Jacob and Fox at every turn....but fascinatingly, though he seems at first to be the ostensible "bad guy" opponent of the piece, and though up to the last minute the suspense is killer, he is still nuanced, and even sympathetic....
So what we have, to summarize, is killer characters in a killer story. Added to that are episodes of fairy tale-ness that made bright vivid pictures in my mind--for instance, the book includes one of the most memorable Bluebeard retellings ever.
That being said, this isn't a fast read of magical zipping-ness. The pages turned slowly, not because I wasn't interested, but because I was so absorbed, even when I wasn't in places where I wanted to be. Those place weren't the dark scary exciting bits, of which there were many, and which I did enjoy, but rather those times when the burning ache of Fox's and Jacob's desperation surfaces. Though they must be fearless, they can't help but fear.
So no, not happy escapist fun. Not a book that kids would necessarily appreciate, though many teens might. I mysef found it a darn good book (mainly because I love Fox so very much!). I think it has stuck in my mind so firmly that, although I can imagine re-reading it, I won't need to for a long while.
Here's another review, at In Bed With Books
disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher for review
Unlocking the Spell
, by E.D. Baker (Bloomsbury, October 2012, ages 8-11), is the sequel to The Wide-Awake Princess, in which the titular princess, Annie, is the only one who doesn't fall asleep when her big sister falls under the magic curse ala Sleeping Beauty. It's up to Annie, the only person in all the kingdoms who magic has no effect on, to find a prince to come kiss her sister...which she does, with all sorts of fairy-tale mash-up adventures along the way.
However, the prince that Annie comes up with has one little issue--he's a bear. A prince enchanted into bear form, true, but still a bear.
So Annie, her sister, the bear, and Liam (Annie's friend from her first adventure) set out to find the dwarf who worked this malicious magic. And what follows is a pretty entertaining, though somewhat dizzying, whirl of a journey through fairy tale snippet after snippet--from Puss in Boots to the Three Little Pigs, to the Bremen Town musicians to Snow White and many, many, more....and in all these encounters, Annie's gift (?) of magic-suppression plays a part.
So basically it's a show-case of fractured-fairy tale set pieces, amusingly woven into a pretty coherent whole, but it's somewhat light on the character development (although Annie does wonder about the relationship between Liam and herself....). Annie's spoiled and ultra-beautiful sister, for instance, never becomes much more interesting or agreeable than she was at the beginning, despite all the shared adventures and dangers. So for younger readers who want fairy tale fun, it's great; for older readers, it might not have quite enough depth.
disclaimer: this one was received from the publisher ages ago, and has been languishing in my home far too long...
Read the rest of this post
Way back in 2005, Wendy Mass published the first in her Twice Upon a Time series--Rapunzel: the One With All the Hair. The second book, Sleeping Beauty: the One Who Took a Really Long Nap, followed in 2006. And then Mass left fairy tales for the next few years (though she didn't leave off magic). This year Mass returned to Twice Upon a Time, with Beauty and the Beast: the Only One Who Didn't Run Away (Scholastic, middle-grade, June 2012).
And, um, it didn't work for me. Not in a horribly negative way--I have no hostile feelings at all toward it. I didn't mind reading it, and was diverted--all the things I like about the story as it exists in my mind (the bookish little sister who cares about important things, the Beast with a backstory--likable, even lovable, under the fur, the castle with books) are there. A younger reader might well enjoy it lots, what with its likable heroine, and its mix of humor and a serious, life-or-death, story.
But it felt a bit off to me. For one thing, Beauty doesn't arrive at the castle until page 212 of 282 pages, so Beauty and the Beast getting to know each other is a lot less important than it often is, and since that is my favorite part of the story, it was a disappointment. And what comes before The Meeting doesn't make up for it. Before we get there, we have lots of kind of inconsequential stuff, along with two main sub stories (told in the alternative perspectives of Beauty and the Beast), to wit:
1. A quest adventure that Beauty has on her own, the point of which doesn't become at all clear until quite close to the end of the book (and even when it's clear it doesn't seem like much point). It was a really implausible sort of quest too, involving a girl who is kind of fairy-like wanting to find something her mother lost years ago, and it doesn't have much umph to it and it beats me why anyone thought that Beauty, just cause she didn't have much else better to do and was reasonably bright and spunky, and had travelled a little, would be the perfect travelling companion for this mysterious little girl. But the baker's apprentice is going too, and pleasant, intelligent young bakers with no skills beyond baking are awfully useful on quests (?).
2. The story of how the Beast came to be a Beast, and how his invisible parents and older brother and him in Beast form all live together in the castle hoping for a girl to come marry him. This part made more sense, although the logistical details of the invisible family (they were keeping their presence secret) bothered me, and the older brother was incredibly annoying and the parents not much better.
So those two stories get the reader to page 212, when the Meeting happens, and then Beauty, being really special, manages to fall in love with the Beast at an unrealistic speed (though they share a keen interest in alchemy, which is nice for them). This disappointed me, because I like people to fall in love with slow, inexorable subtly. And then the bad witch who cursed the beast gets what she deserves.
In both these substories, the tone felt unbalanced to me--there was considerable humor, of an almost teetering on farce type, but then the reader was asked to take the story seriously regardless. Perhaps if the Beast hadn't been named Riley I would have liked it more, but Riley seems to me so 21st-century a name that from the moment I read it (page 6) I was distrustful, and it underscored the disjuncture I felt between the book's "relatable fun" and its moments of "serious historical fantasy." (The cover makes me similarly uneasy--that dress looks much more modern than I think it should, suggesting a contemporary romance).
In short, this re-telling didn't hang together in a cohesive way, but felt like piece-work, kind of randomly joined at the seams. Of course, for this fairy tale, Beauty
, by Robin McKinley, set so very high a re-telling bar that nothing else really comes close for me....
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: a New English Version
, by Philip Pullman (Viking Adult, November 12, 2012).
This is the first time I've ever written in a happy spirit about a book I haven't finished, and I feel absolutely no shame at all about not having read to the end! I'm in no rush to hurry up and read it cover to cover--instead, I'm enjoying revisiting all my old friends, reading my favorite stories out loud to my children, and relishing Pullman's fresh and friendly story-telling.
He is an author who isn't afraid to translate "pisspot" (Piß
put) as "pisspot," one who isn't afraid to let the players in the stories speak with contractions (though he plays it fairly straight--he doesn't use a specifically local speech, or the repetitive formulae of oral storytelling, as Alan Garner, for instance, does in his retellings). And my children are enjoying the experience very much as well, much more so than the stiffer versions in my own childhood Grimm.
I didn't have enough enough books as a child living overseas, so I was forced to re-read those (relatively) few books I had and that included Grimm. Though I would periodically force myself to read straight through, I had my favorites, of course--The Golden Bird, Jorinda and Joringel, The Goose Girl...stories I knew pretty much by heart.
Reading Pullman's retellings was like coming home to find the walls of my house repainted--fresh and bright and like new again, with the added bonus of some new rooms that I'd never been in before.
This isn't a book specifically for children--there are no illustrations, no sanitization--though many children will enjoy reading it; instead there is lots of fascinating commentary on the stories. This isn't one to put on the kids' bookshelf, in their room upstairs, but it's one that I'd shelve happily in the living room library, and not be at all ashamed of adult visitors seeing it there!
Giveaway: To win your own copy of this one, leave a comment (with a way to get a hold of you if you don't have contact info. on your own blog) by next Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 11:59pm. (US and Canada)
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
What if Snow White wasn't a princess, but just a girl, named Snow in Summer, loved by her papa and mama and growing up good and beautiful in the mountains of West Virginia in the mid-20th century? And what if her mama died, and her papa was so grief stricken he couldn't spare a thought for his little girl anymore...but was ensnared by the magic of a wicked woman, who became the poor child's evil stepmother?Snow in Summer
, by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2011) is that story, and these twists of time and place and character make for a fascinating retelling. It's a dark one, starting off right away in sadness with the death of Summer's mother, and working its way slowly and inexorably into horror, as Summer's evil stepmother cuts the girl off from the rest of the community, punishes her horribly, and finally, plans to kill her. For the stepmother's magic is dark indeed, and it's a greedy, hungry magic that feeds on young life....
Summer herself is aware that things are horribly wrong, but can't seem to find any way out of the maze of cruelty that's been woven around her. It's not until she runs for her life that she finds a refugee--in the home of a family of small German immigrant brothers-- and that isn't until page 195.
It wasn't one I loved. I found Summer a somewhat distant, unemotional narrator, and I never connected quite enough with her to care all that much. On top of that, I couldn't help but feel that the last bit of the book was rushed (we don't get enough time to really get to know the Seven Dwarf equivalents), and the romance at the end (not even a romance) was unsatisfactorily tacked on. But I did appreciate the freshness of Jane Yolen's reworking, and can recommend it to fans of fairy tales on that basis--it made a lovely change from the faux medieval that's so ubiquitous in retellings (though I think I'll always love those medievally ones best!).
Those looking for fairy tale retellings with pretty dresses should look elsewhere (they will find the pretty cover has deceived them), but older middle-school kids (seventh graders or so) who are almost ready to move on to darkish, more Young Adult books may well enjoy it.
Note on age: The lust (verging on attempted rape) of the teenaged boy who has been charged with killing Summer pushes this, in my mind, out of the range of younger readers.
A sample of other reviews: Semicolon
, Leaf's Reviews
, and Book Aunt
Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: the True Tale of Sleeping Beauty
, by Jane Yolen (Philomel, middle grade, Nov. 2012), has a somewhat misleading title. It is actually the tale of the family of fairies who came to the christining, and how the princess ended up falling into her enchanted sleep. And more particularly, it's the tale of the youngest daughter of this family, young Gorse.
Gorse was left home sick when the rest of her family--aunts, siblings, and parents (no uncles--they were humans and didn't stick around long, but Gorse's father is an elf, and stayed), troop off to the castle to fulfil their part in a bargain made with the human king long ago. The fairies swore an oath to do the bidding of the royal family, and bestowing Christening magic on the baby princess is part of the bargain.
But Gorse--thoughtful, brave, impetuous, and somewhat sickly--is horrified when she realizes she's been left home alone. Will she (and perhaps all her family) explode into light if the family oath isn't fulfilled because she isn't there? So off she goes by herself to the castle....only to fall into an underground maze. There a prince of the Unseely fairy court (Orybon), along with his sworn companion (Grey), and a clan of cave trolls (called "the McGargles" by the two fairy dudes) are were trapped underground by an imprisoning spell cast long ago (the trolls were innocent, unlucky, bystanders). Orybon could be free any time--all he has to do is truly repent the wickedness that he's being punished for, and then Grey and the McGargles would be free too. But repentance isn't actually on Orybon's agenda--he'd rather coerce Gorse into using her family's gift of magical shouting to batter a way through the locked gate to the upper world....
Not surprisingly, Gorse manages to save those who deserve saving, and makes it to the Christening, in time to see her mother cunningly work magic that will free her own family from their bondage to the human royals.
Surprisingly, Grey, once restored to the upper world, reverts to the age he was when he was first imprisoned--now he's a boy again, just a bit older than Gorse. And so, with this rather squicky implication that love will blossom despite the age weirdness, we leave them to their magic...
A few quick pluses--An imaginative look at a part of the Sleeping Beauty story that I've never seen looked at before. Plucky, intelligent, well-read heroine. Really cool magical book delivery system in which Gorse's father can reach into a magical book delivery slot and pull out random books, allowing Gorse to quote Through the Looking Glass.
My less plus-like thoughts: I just never do truly fall for Jane Yolen's books--they just never seem to me to fully deliver numinous enchantment, characters I can take to my heart, and truly gripping stories (and I do recognize that this is my issue--plenty of readers seem to love her just fine). In this case I was put off by how long it took for the story to actually start--there are seventy six pages of backstory in which Gorse is born, grows older, hears family stories, and tells things to the reader. Then she falls into the pit, and the pace picks up, albeit in a somewhat choppy fashion.
However, though the story now becomes genuinely interesting reading, the pit has its own problems. Although the relationship between Orybon and Grey was fraught with all sorts of dynamics (which is the sort of thing I appreciate), I can't really call it a masterpiece of subtle character building. And I know that I might be over-reacting, but I really didn't care for the patronizing, almost neo-Imperialist way the cave trolls are presented, both with the ridiculous name and the whole sense that I got of them as an exploited indigenous people, in an --isn't it nice that they can care about their families even though they are less than human-- way.
And finally, I was squicked out by Grey suddenly getting younger and loosing memories of what happened underground (which basically erases all of the character development that had happened in his life) and becoming a potential love interest for a girl who started things young enough to be his daughter.
I didn't mind reading it once, but I won't be reading it again.
Other reviews:The Book BrownieKirkus
and the Upper Hudson Library system has gathered the School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, and Booklist reviews here
The Goddess Test, by Aimee Carter (Harlequin Teen, YA, 2011) is, essentially, Hades and Persephone meets Beauty and the Beast (the first Robin McKinley version, which is my personal B. and B. benchmark!). Since I like both, and since Carter's spin on the story was pleasingly interesting, I found it a nice read, although one that I enjoyed more while I was actually reading it, than while thinking about it afterward.
The Persephone/Beauty character in this case is a teenaged girl named Kate. Her mom wanted to come back to her home town to live the last little while she has left before she dies....and so Kate has to try to be cheerful about their dingy new house and starting a new school. When, of course, cheerful is the last thing Kate feels, in as much as her beloved mother won't be there much longer.
But! When Kate is lured onto the grounds of a mysterious estate by high school queen bee Ava, she meets a strange, dark, brooding man named Henry, who seems to have power over death itself. And so Kate makes a bargain with Henry. He will keep her mother alive while she spends the winter with him in his sumptuous manor with rooms full of clothes etc., beautiful gardens, horse, and lots of tasty snacks. There are two catches. She must marry him, and she must try to pass the seven tests that no other girl ever lived long enough to complete.
If she wins, she's a goddess. If she looses (but manages to stay alive), she's an ordinary girl again, and Henry is the one who fades away...
Although I did find this a pleasantly diverting read, once I hit the end, and started thinking about it, it fell apart. For one thing, I never quite suspended my disbelief about the romance side of things--Kate sort of passively fell into her situation, and her one real emotional preoccupation (understandably) is with her mother. More than that, the whole being married to the god of the dead who you really don't know all that well, who makes squirrely bargains with you without clearly explaining the consequences, and who's still in love with his dead ex-wife (Persephone), is in general not something I'd like for my own daughter (if I had one). I wasn't exactly rooting for it to end up all rosy and happy, and indeed, Carter doesn't insult the reader by making it a happy ever after ending (which I appreciated).
My main complaint is that the Greek gods and goddess play parts in the story, but they are Greek gods and goddesses seen through a blurry lens. If you are more than passingly familiar with Greek mythology, you may well find this annoying; I was profoundly disappointed. For instance, Carter took tremendous liberties with Hera. Hera's trademark characteristic is marital loyalty, which goes out the window here in a way that almost spoiled the whole book for me. She also takes liberties with the underworld, which I can sympathize with--it must have been tricky, but the result is a mishmash of various religions with the underworld of Greek myth and it never quite make sense. (I was also thrown by the fact that I got to the end of the book, encountered a character named Walter who I presume must have been mentioned, but of whom I had No Memory....but could easily be my fault and not the author's. If someone can tell me who Walter is, I'd appreciate it--I flipped through the book, but didn't see him...).
I'd did enjoy this one, and I'll be reading the next one (Goddess Interrupted, coming out at the end of March), but since I am assuming the sphere of action is going to move beyond the manor house of Hades, and the other gods will have
So there I was browsing in my local used book store with about forty dollars of trade-in credit to spend, and I saw on the shelf a signed first edition copy of Haunted Waters, by Mary Pope Osborne (Candlewick, 1994, YA, 153 pages), a retelling of the story of Undine. My eyes lit up, and I pounced on it....because I WAS CONFUSED. I though this was a rare book by Elizabeth Marie Pope (author of The Perilous Gard), and I was ever so so happy...
Still not knowing what I had done, I began reading. Right at the beginning, in a short prologue, we are told that the sea king has delivered his niece to a human family, to liven up the merfolk gene pool. So when a medieval knight, lost in a demonic wood, meets an improbable fisherfolk family--kind old man, insane old woman, and beautiful but mysterious girl who swims really well--we can guess who this girl is! Especially since her name is Undine.
A storm of supernatural strength kicks up, forcing the knight to stay with the fisher family. For no good reason (other than animal attraction) he falls for Undine (since she is virtually monosyllabic it can't be for her wits, although in fairness, since she's apparently never seen another person in her whole life (evil demonic spirits don't count) she hasn't had much chance to develop that part of her personality). The Undine falls for him too (for even less clear a reason--she was getting tired of swimming all day, I guess, and having demonic spirits looking through the windows), and a handy priest washes ashore who marries them.
The knight, however, hasn't thought things through all that well viz the demons that lurk around the girl and her general mysteriousness, and she hasn't thought things out either (although how would she know that not everyone likes swimming as much as she does? But still I would have liked her to be a tad more aggressive in trying to find out answers, instead of being all mysterious and inarticulate) and things don't go well.
And as I read all this, I kept waiting for the fine writing of Elizabeth Marie Pope--for the characters to leap of the page and become people I cared about, and it didn't come. Instead I got what felt like overly careful writing, and overly conscious story-telling, all from the point of view of Lord Huldbrand, who never became a particularly sympathetic character. Here's a random example of the prose style:
"Lonely music wafted from a shepherd's flute. I looked back at Undine. She clutched her shawl and stared at the barley field. Did the rippling silver-gold grain remind her of her ocean waves? Was she yearning for the sound of the fisherman's pipe? For a terrible moment, I regretted having stolen her from her old life.
Then the fisherman's words came back to me. He had begged me to take Undine far away from the inhuman force haunting their shore. Revived by the memory of his charge, I began leading my horse through the swelling fields." (page 56)
In a nutshell, it's a doomed relationship: Huldbrand needs to talk to Undine more than he does; she needs to try to answer him.
In a second nutshell, it's all very medieval fantasy Gothic, but without enough emotional heft behind the gothic-ness to make it work for me.
In a third nutshell, I wish it had been an Elizabeth Marie Pope book instead.
Just sneaking in one quick review before I plunge into the 48 hour reading challenge...
I am an avid reader both of Katherine Langrish's books (such as The Shadow Hunt), and her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (which is a rich feast for fairy tale lovers). So when I saw that she had a new book out in 2011--Forsaken--, which is a retelling of Matthew Arnold's poem, The Forsaken Merman (which is sad and lovely) I added it to my mental tbr list...and on impulse, I ordered if from the Book Depository last month (cause it's not out in the US). And it came, and I read it, and found it good. But I am not the intended audience, and so this one isn't one I can evaluate on the basis of whether or not it worked for me.
Forsaken is part of the Rivets series, from publisher Franklin Watts. These are books that are "Perfect for readers who want to enjoy a book by a bestselling author, but who lack the stamina for a full-length novel," with a reading age of 8-9 years, and an interest range of 8-14 years. What we would call in the US "high-low." It's a really, really hard category of book for me to review--I'm not lacking in reading stamina myself, and I'm not an educator of struggling readers. So as an individual, such books will never be best beloved to me (because of being too short!), and I have to make a slight effort to judge them on whether or not they succeed in telling a compelling story in a condensed, clear, manner.
On to the book.
Forsaken tells of the daughter of the Mer King and the human woman who gave up the land to live with him beneath the sea. This woman is unique among the merfolk, not just because she has legs, but because she has an immortal soul. Though she loves her husband and children, one day the call of the church becomes to strong for her to bear, and she returns to land. It was to be just a holiday...but she doesn't return.
And her baby is crying and starving, and her ten-year old daughter, Mara, cannot stand it. So she goes in search of her mother, up the noxious river, onto dry land, and into the church itself. It is a painful journey
"Hand over hand I pulled myself uphill, digging my elbows into the sharp white gravel. My fingers bled and my eyes filled with stinging grey dust. My delicate tail fins became tattered and curled" (page 27).
And so Mara's mother is faced with a choice--does she jeopardize her soul, and return to the sea, or deny her family, and stay on land?
It is a tightly told little story with a big emontional punch. Mara is a forthright narrator, and her pain comes through clearly. The conflict facing Mara's mother is likewise addressed directly. It's rare to see a character in a fantasy book for younger readers confronting a fundamental religious dilemma, and those who believe in a loving God will appreciate her final choice.
So there's the story, and the question is--does this succeed in being one that will hold the interest of a reader up to fourteen years old? I think, for the most part, that it would--it's thought-provoking and compelling, and it's easy to empathize with Mara's painful journey onto dry land. My one reservation is that Mara is only ten years old, which I think would off-put readers older than that. However, I'd give this one in
I'm a bit late to the party viz Enchanted, by Aletha Kontis. It's been out for a while, and has been reviewed lots. However, the thing with having Lists, as I do, is that there they are, needing to be added to, and Enchanted is a must-have on my Fairy Tale retelling list (and some day I'll review Grave Mercy for my Historical Fantasy list, and Silver Phoenix for my multicultural list....)
There is Sunday, a girl whose family is just riddled with magic. She is the seventh daughter of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, coming last after Monday et al. Each sister, in accordance with the rhyme, is the embodiment of the qualities for the child born on that day (Monday's child is full of grace, Tuesday's child is fair of face, Wednesday's child, which is me, and I resent it, is full of woe, etc.). Sunday gets to be bonny and giving, blithe and gay...which seems to guarantee a pretty happy life.
Except that Sunday has grown up in the shadow of her sisters' magic, not mention the exploits of her brother, Jack--pretty much the Jack of all the Jack stories--and he ended up mysteriously dying (or so they think), and Sunday's mother is cold and un-nurturing, and Tuesday got shoes that danced her to death, and so it's not exactly all sunshine and flowers in Sunday's family.
So Sunday goes off by herself, to write stories in the woods. And she meets an enchanted frog, and they become dear friends...and then he's a prince, and there are balls, and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are referenced...
But the former frog, now Prince, has secrets he isn't telling Sunday (like the fact that he was her frog friend), and in fact he has secrets he can't remember himself (cause of enchantments) and MAGIC and FAIRYTALES just burst out all over the place, like the beans planted outside the Woodcutter family cottage.
Will the ex-frog Prince and Sunday find a happily ever after? Will Sunday's sisters have satisfactory fates (too late for poor Tuesday)? Just what is the family secret that is at the root of all this magic? And how many fairy tale elements does one book really need?
Well, in this case, as long as the reader is prepared to go with the flow, the exuberance of fairy tales works just fine. I confess I was bewildered at times, as were the main characters, but it was fun. (On a personal note, "full of woe" turns out to be an interesting fate, which pleased me).
Sunday was a fine character, perhaps because we get to meet her before all the goings on really get going. The ex-frog Prince never gets to be quite a real character, in large part because he's lost a chunk of his memory, and he himself doesn't seem all that certain about who he is (and did he really spend time on Thursday's pirate ship? That little vignette seemed to come out of no-where, and may well have been a dream). There were moments of unexpected depth, particular with regard to Sunday's mother, and the nature of family relationships, that helped balance the whirl of enchantments, making this more than a light divertissement of a read.
So all in all, I enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone 12 and up wanting a magic-filled entertainment with lovely dress-making scenes (always an added bonus!)
(If you found my summary confusing, and I feel that it might be, but like I said, I wasn't entirely certain at the time just what was happening, and retrospect hasn't lent clarity to the view all that noticeably, feel free to go read
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends, January 2012) counts both for my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list, and my fairy tale retelling list, so even though it might well have reached review saturation point by now, here it is.
In a far future earth, there is peace between the small number of terrestrial goverements that share the globe. On the bad side, there's a horrible sickness sweeping the land, and the dictator of the Lunar people (the moon was colonized generations ago) has formulated evil schemes that will take her down to earth in a bid to extend her power in a terrible fashion.
That's the big picture.
The smaller picture is that of a teenaged girl, named Cinder, who lives with her de facto step mother (not nice) and two step-stepsisters (one nice, one not), and who is the wage earner of this family. She's a repairer of futuristic mechanical things, a crafter and tinkerer. She's also a cyborg, with a robotic leg and hand being the most obvious non-human components of her make up. Unfortunately for Cinder, cyborgs are despised out caste people in her society (the reasons why this is so never became clear to me, but regardless, there it is).
So when Cinder meets the Prince of the neo-China where she lives (he needs a special robot surreptitiously repaired), she doesn't want him to know what she truly is...and it turns out that she doesn't know who she truly is either (although it's easy for the reader to guess), and suddenly her life is in danger, the Lunar dictator has arrived and wants to marry the prince, and he (charmed by her, despite the fact that he never seems to see her at her best, and the fact that they never get to actually Talk much) wants her to go to a rather special ball with him.
This being the first book of the series, it ends with people still dying of the sickness, Cinder still in danger, and the Evil Plot still un-foiled. But I'll be happy to have more of the story to read! I especially loved the fact that Cinder is a girl who defies gender stereotypes--her personal fixation during the book is the repair of a very antique car....she'd never actually wear the sort of shoe shown on the cover. So in short, Cinder was Fun, in a really enjoyable reading sense--good for light vacationing, when one can keep turning the pages, absorbed in the story despite never quite believing all of it!
viz multicultural sci fi/fantasy--Cinder herself is not from this neo-China (she was a foundling in Europe), but the prince most certainly is, and that's the setting. This neo-China-ness is not made much of, but its an integral part of the world-making. It's also a pleasant change to read a sci-fi fairy tale retelling!
Note on age of reader--this is one of those books that can be read comfortably either at the upper end of middle grade (which is to say that there's no sex, and the relationship between Cinder and the prince isn't the be all and end all point) and on into YA.
The Brixen Witch, by Stacy DeKeyser (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 26, 2012, middle grade) is a fresh and fun re-telling of the story of the Pied Piper, told from the point of view of the one boy who was not ensnared by the spell of the music that lured the other village children into a mysterious cave.
Rudi, and all the other villagers of Brixen, have known all their lives that the mountain looming above them is home to a fearful witch of great power. But Rudi is one of the few who has a chance to learn of her power directly. When he brings home a golden coin he found in the high meadow, his grandmother warns him to return it to the witch immediately--or else he will feel her wrath. So the next day he tries to take it back, but it is lost in a rockslide.
All that winter Rudi is haunted by nightmares...and then spring bring brings trouble to the whole village. A plague of rats destroys the peace and prosperity of the village, and the price the mysterious stranger charges to solve the problem is one golden coin (undreamed of wealth to the villagers).
It's clear to Rudi and his grandmother that this stranger is in league with the witch, and that Rudi must find the lost coin. But the deadline passes before he, and the music of the stranger's violin lures all the village children up and away, into the mountain.
To save them, Rudi must confront the Brixen Witch...and he finds that witches are not always what they seem to be....
This is a satisfying re-telling, adding new twists to an old story to make a seemless whole. The magic of the witch is clearly present from the beginning, though the quotidian details of village life, and mundane attempts to kill rats (which I confess was one of my favorite parts of the book--I now know lots more about historic rat hunting, and found it interesting! plus bonus ferrets!), give a solid grounding to the story. The thought-provoking twist at the end, when Rudi meets the witch, lifts the story to the truly magical.
The straight-forward storytelling, and focus on Rudi, an ordinary boy forced to step outside the safe world of childhood, makes this an excellent choice for younger "middle grade" kids, of nine or ten. It's not one for the reader who wants wild and whacky magic with Slayings and Spells and a kid who has great powers (that kid might find this one slow), but more for the kid who likes fantasy stories that one could imagine really happening.
If I were a fourth or fifth grade teacher, doing a unit on fairy tale retellings, this is one I'd most definitely be offering those kids (boys or girls) who aren't drawn to pretty dresses (and who like ferrets, though they don't actually get that much page time)! And I'd be pretty stuck to think of any others--perhaps The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, and the Sisters Grimm series. (Can you think of any other boy-friendly fairy tale retellings?)
So all in all, a nice read for me as a grown up, and one that I think fills in fine style a pretty empty niche for the target audience.
disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the author.
Circle of Cranes, by Annette LeBox (Dial, April, 2012, upper middle grade), is the story of an orphaned Chinese girl, 13 year old Suyin. Her father died, and her mother disappeared when she was little, and her paternal grandfather was so angry at this that he forbid any of the women in the village to teach Suyin any of the embroidery for which her mother was famous. So she has grown up passed from one family to another, and deprived of the heritage of her Miao ancestors--the women from this minority group define themselves in large part by their skill with the needle.
But Suyin is blessed with a preternatural skill for languages. And so, when a clearly untrustworthy human trafficker offers passage to America for one of the villagers--at a steep price--Suyin, who speaks English, is chosen to go. The expectation is that American dollars will flow back to the village, paying of the dept and bringing prosperity.
Suyin does not want to go. How can she leave her beloved cranes, the birds with whom she feels a strange kinship, birds that she has actually visited and spoken with in their own dream-like land? They had promised that someday she might be one of them--a crane woman, able to fly--but how can this dream come true in America?
The voyage is hellish--children packed for weeks in the hold of a derelict vessel. And instead of being the promised Golden Land, New York is a land of sweatshops and virtual slavery for the children, a place where brutal enforcers deal with any attempt to rebel, or escape. Suyin, who cannot sew, earns only a pittance in the garment making sweatshop, and her future seems bleak indeed.
But the cranes have not abandoned her. Indeed, they are pinning their own hopes on her. For the Queen of the Cranes was Suyin's mother, who disappeared years ago, and without her, there is no future for the clan. If Suyin can prove herself worthy (and if she can learn to sew, for the cranes, like the Miao women, pass down wisdom and beauty through their stitchery), there is hope.
Except that it is hard to be worthy when being ground down by the miseries of a life of brutal labor.
But cranes teach her embroidery, and messages written in the secret language of women, passed down through the generations, and hidden in plain sight in the stitches, brings comfort and wisdom. And finally Suyin finds the courage to speak up in public about the plight of the garment workers....and it all resolves to a happy ending.
Circle of Cranes is two stories. There is the realistic story, of the horrible working conditions faced by illegal immigrants--they work in fear of the government, in fear of their bosses, and with little hope. Prostitution is the only clear alternative for these young girls. Then there is the fantasy story, a reimagining of the story of the Crane Wife (the story of a woman torn between life as a bird and her human family is Japanese, not so much Chinese, but the author's endnote says has "roots in many Asian cultures"). Each is vivid and compelling in its own right, with the realistic elements being a grippingly eye-opening story, and the fantasy elements making a magical counterpoint.
It didn't, however, work perfectly for me. Though I was fascinated, especially by the details of the embroidery, the contrast between the two aspects of the book was great, so much so that I was not always convinced by the magical reality of it as a whole! I have to confess that a personal prejudice of my own came into play--I really get creeped out when a human person starts to sprout feathers (Suyin only has one feather, and it falls out quickly, but still). But that is just me. And the tidy resolution, in which the human identities of the crane women were revealed, seemed a bit much (all the important women in Suyin's life seem to be crane women...).
But in any event, this is one I'd give to the young (11 to 13 year old) lover of fairy tale retellings, for whom the magic of the cranes might well ring true, and whose heart might be deeply moved by Suyin's horrible experience in New York. It might especially appeal to those who want a lovely, magical daydream to lift them out of quotidian, possibly unpleasant, reality....
Final though: I think this is my favorite cover of the year so far. Isn't it beautiful?
I have always appreciated the story of the two sisters who are rewarded/punished for their behavior with flower and jewels, or reptiles and amphibians, coming from their mouths when they speak. It was a very unambiguous story--the good child is rewarded, the bad child punished. End of story. Clearly spraying those around you with flowers and jewels is better than drooling toads.Once Upon a Toad
Or maybe not.
, by Heather Vogel Frederick is a retelling of this fairytale, set very much in the present day, but with a magic that makes no concession to modernity! It's the story of two girls--stepsisters--who loathe each other. One of whom, Cat, is blessed (?) with a fairy godmother, her Great Aunt Abyssinia, who leaps in to set things right (?). Suddenly Cat finds herself speaking toads, and her mean girl stepsister, Olivia, speaks in diamonds and flowers (the species of flower changing depending on her mood, which I thought was a nice touch).
Of course, this being the 21st century, a secret branch of the government becomes keenly interested when Olivia's gift becomes public knowledge (Cat manages to maintain a charade of laryngitis). And diamonds, being diamonds, attract the interest of would-be profiteers....When Cat and Olivia's mutual little brother is kidnapped by these bad guys, the two girls head off to find Great Aunt Abyssinia, desperate to get him back, and to have their "gifts" rescinded.
It's an entertaining retelling, nicely fractured and reassembled into a coherent adventure. There are Issues dealt with--coming to terms with family relationships that are forced on you, learning to get along with, and even appreciate, people very different from yourself --but though these issues are very clearly present, even underlined, they don't take over the story (much). This is a fantasy that might well appeal to middle school girls who would generally prefer realism, and who think they don't like magic. And for those who do like magic, the contemporary setting makes a nice change. Not necessarily a deep or powerfully moving change (it's not subtle or profound enough for that), but fun nonetheless.
In honor of Once Upon a Time Week, here's a (slightly expanded) reprise of a book I wrote a quick review of, that got buried in a post that was full of other books.
Fairest of All, A Tale of the Wicked Queen, by Serena Valentino (Disney Press, 2009, 250 pages). Valentino pulls off quite an accomplishment with this book--she tells the story of Snow White from the "evil" stepmother's point of view, making the Queen a sympathetic character. For the Queen was not always evil--once she was the young bride of the king, finding in her love for him and his little girl happiness that had escaped her growing up under the shadow of a truly evil father. But her father, even though ostensibly dead, still casts a shadow over her life, lingering in the sinister magic mirror that haunts her. The mirror's twisted messages to her, combined with the malevolent doings of three old women, distant cousins of the king, gradually drive the queen to madness and cruelty toward her beloved step-daughter.
She is as much a victim as Snow White, caught in an evil magic not of her own making, and her story is a compelling one, full of vivid imagery and tense emotional drama.
The cover, I think, is rather horrid. It does the book an injustice--although plenty dark toward the end, much of the book is not so black as the cover would suggest, and the Queen is, as I said, a sympathetic character. I would have chosen a cover showing her in a beautiful dress, in a brightly lit room, with the mirror front and center. Recommended highly to fans of fairy tale retellings.
(review copy received as part of my involvement with the Cybils Awards last year)
Here's a book that fans of fairy tale retellings will want to put on their wants list: Cloaked in Red, by Vivian Vande Velde (Marshall Cavendish, October 1, 2010, YA, 128 pages), a collection of short and snappy re-takes of the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Vivian Vande Velde has Issues with Little Red Riding Hood. From the introductory Author's Note:
"There are different versions, but they all start with a mother who sends her daughter into the woods, where there is not only a wolf, but a talking, cross-dressing wolf. We are never told Little Red Riding Hood's age, but her actions clearly show that she is much too young, or too dimwitted, to be allowed out of the house alone.
But apparently Little Red's mom hasn't noticed this."
(I am strongly tempted to keep typing quote after quote from this deliciously snarky dissection of LRR...but will resist. Just one more....)
"I don't like to criticize anyone's family, but I'm guessing these people are not what you'd call close. Little Red doesn't realize a wolf has substituted himself for her grandmother. I only met my grandmother three times in my entire life, but like to think I would have noticed if someone claiming to be my grandmother had fur, fangs, and a tail.
But Little Red, instead of becoming suspicious, becomes rude."
So anyway. Vande Velde goes on to tell eight Little Red stories of her own imagining, taking girl, cloak, granny, wood cutter and wolf and twisting them in fascinatingly twisted ways. Different perspectives are offered-- granny's point of view, the wolf's point of view, and even, most intriguingly, the red cloak's take on things! A wide range of alternate circumstances--magical, economic, and personal--are thrown into the mix. And for fans of paranormal stories, there's even a werewolf...
The result is a collection of tasty stories, each with its own distinct flavor. Many I delighted in, others simply liked just fine, and I wish there had been more. It's clear that Vande Velde had great fun writing these, and I had great fun reading them!
Note on age: this is being marked as 12 and up, and I'm not sure why. Although some of the themes are "older" -- the relationship problems of a granny, for instance, and a rather strange story of thwarted motherhood-- there wasn't anything "older" in an explicitly described way (there's just one kiss, on page 46- "My, what firm lips you have!"). I am planning on passing it on to a ten year old girl of my acquaintance, and I'm putting middle grade in my labels, as well as YA.
Reckless, by Cornelia Funke (2010, Little Brown, upper middle grade onwards, 394 pages, illustrated by the author)
"Once upon a time, there was boy who set out to learn the meaning of fear..."
After his father's disappearance, Jacob Reckless made a habit of creeping into his study, searching for answers. One night, when he was twelve, he found a piece of paper: "The mirror will open only for he who cannot see himself." And with that cryptic clue to guide him, Jacob passes through his father's mirror into another realm. A place where fairy tales are real.
Fast forward twelve years, during which Jacob has explored the mirror world obsessively, neglecting his mother and little brother, W
ill. The mirror world has become enmired in a war between humans and the Goyl, stone-skinned subterranean people who are bent on claiming the upper lands as their dominion. For the first time, Will has followed Jacob through the mirror, and disaster has struck. Will has been injured by a Goyl, and is slowly turning into one of them himself, the stone spreading through his skin.
Now Jacob must desperately quest through all the dangers of the twisted tales of the mirror world, looking for a way to save his little brother. Accompanying the two brothers are Fox, a shapeshifting girl who has been Jacob's companion for years (who is waiting for him to notice that she is more than just his friend, the fox, but also a girl who loves him), and Will's girlfriend Clara, who made her way through the mirror to find him. Together they face a frightening panoply of magic and mayhem in a world where death is no fairy tale at all.
"I know why you're here." Clara's voice sounded distant, as though she were speaking not about him but about herself. "This world doesn't frighten you half as much as the other one. You have nothing and nobody to lose here. Except Fox, and she clearly worries more about you than you do about her. You've left all that could frighten you in the other world. But then Will came here and brought it all with him." (page 208).
Despite the ostensibly already grown-up age of the central characters, this is a book about growing-up, about how the relationships of brothers and friends, and perceptions of oneself, change in terrifying ways as adulthood is entered. Jacob might be 24 on paper, but the young man in the mirror world is more an avatar of oldness exploring a fantasy world than a convincing adult--his character is still very much that of the reckless adolescent, confused by his emotional responses to the questions posed by growing up. Although sex lurks in the background (it's never explicitly or centrally part of the story), for Jacob it is still the hormonally charged lust of the adolescent--he has yet to learn love (oh poor For. I felt for her so very much).
And the lands behind the mirror, built of fractured fairy tales, are full of metaphors that reflect this. The younger brother, turning into unloving stone, who his older brother can no longer protect. The tomboy girl (Fox), who now wants to be seen as someone else. The fairy tales share this theme--there was no instant true love that could save the sleeping beauty here in this place, and the gingerbread houses lie empty. The way to the Red Fairy, with all her magically irresistible sex appeal, lies through the lands of the unicorns, who gore and trample anyone who looks at them. The mirror world itself is rushing away from its own childhood--new inventions and technology (many of them introduced by Jacob's father) are changing things rapidly.
This reliance on metaph
In The Explosionist (my review), Jenny Davidson introduced Sophie, a plucky young Scottish girl living in an alternate version of the 1930s--a world in which Scotland and Scandinavia are allied against the rest of Europe, and in which the threat of a second world war is looming. In that book, Sophie found herself embroiled in a chaotic mystery involving terrorist bombings, a murdered medium, and her own growing abilities to communicate with the dead.
Sophie escaped from Scotland concealed in a false-bottomed trunk. When Invisible Things (Harper Collins, 2010), begins, she is in Copenhagen, living over the laboratories and offices of Denmark's top physicists, in an apartment shared with her more than just a good friend, Mikael, and (dampeningly) Mikael's mother. Sophie is fascinated by the physics going on beneath her feet (as it were), especially since her parents were killed working on a top secret project of their own. It was a project of interest not only to the reclusive, ancient, genius Alfred Nobel, but to all the governments of Europe...a project that could change the course of history.
As the threat of war grows, so does the mystery surrounding Sophie's parents, and the danger to Sophie and Michael themselves. At the heart of the mystery is a strange woman named Elsa Blix, who seems to hold, from her command center on the island of Svalbard far to the north, the fate of both Sophie, and maybe all of Europe, in her cold hands....
Invisible Things is a delight for those who enjoy generous doses of physics in their fairy tale retellings! For the inspiration of this book is Hans Christian Anderson's story of the Snow Queen--the story of a malevolent, beautiful witch who took a boy and turned him into ice, and of the brave girl who set off into the frozen north to save him. But this fairy tale is firmly rooted in particles and politics, and the focus stays tightly fixed on the character of Sophie--she's not a fairy-tale avatar, but a 16 year old girl trying to figure out who she is, and who she might want to be. I am very fond of thoughtful, introspective Sophie, and it was lovely to spend more time with her!
The first two thirds of the book are slow and detailed. For those interested in the what ifs of alternate histories, physics (I loved this aspect of the book, and was thrilled, for instance, to meet Lise Meitner) and lavish descriptions of deserts (although Sophie's desert choices were not the ones I would have made!), and for those who enjoy erudite storytelling of a decidedly non-colloquial sort, its enjoyable reading. This first part of the book contrasts with the more frenetic pace of events when the even tenor of Sophie's life was shattered--war comes, Mikael is gone, and she must find him. But Sophie's quest felt rushed to me, and seemed to end rather abruptly, and I kept waiting in vain for Sophie's supernatural gifts (which I felt added greatly to The Explosionist) to play a part in this book.
In short, I liked this one just fine, and read it very happily, but The Explosionist I love! You don't have to have read The Explosinist first
Being a person with utterly unrealistic expectations, I took with me to my library booksale a bag of books to read. It didn't happen...although we did sell a fair number of books (but oh goodness, this was the booksale in which we had all the library's adult fiction discards to sell, and boy are they a drag on the market...)
But anyway, when I came home, shattered, I choose what proved to be the perfect book for pleasant unwinding-ness--Cloaked, by Alex Flinn (2011, Harper Collins, YA, 337 pages). It tells of the adventures of a young cobbler named Johnny, who is struggling to keep the family shoe repair business, based in a posh Miami hotel, afloat. With his father no longer in the picture, he and his mother are poor but worthy....and it is his worthiness that attracts the attention of the fabulously wealthy, and very hot, visiting princess. She enlists him (with the promise of marriage, and the concomitant solution to his financial problems) in a quest to find her brother, who's been turned into a toad by an evil witch.
With the help of his best buddy, Meg (who's got a few secrets up her sleeve) Johnny is off to the Florida Keys, in an adventure full of fairy tale riffs--six enchanted swans, a fox with a past, two greedy giants, a wish-granting fish, and more. Fortunately, the princess gave Johnny a magic cloak, and other helpful magics turn up, but still, it's touch and go for the toad...(and Johnny and Meg! Not to mention the six enchanted swans).
Fun and frolicsome stuff. I enjoyed meeting the familiar fairy tales in their new Floridian guise (the swan story, especially). Johnny did disappoint me by not following the fox's advice (since I know that story (the one with the golden bird), I knew he was making Bad Choices), and he was a tad "clueless teenage boy-ish" with regard to girls. But he meant well, and gets points for talking things over with his mother before setting off (I hope my boys will trust me enough to do the same). He also gets points for his serious interest in shoe design and the craft of cobbling (I like Craft Elements in my fantasy).
It's a vignettish kind of book. Flinn introduces lots of different fairy tales here, and the story moves briskly from one to the next. The downside of this is a scattering of emotional umph, but the upside is a humorous and diverting lightness. In short, this book was just the sort of diversion I needed, and I read it cover to cover in a (more or less, but I take what I can get) single sitting.
Especially recommended for the kid who loved Sarah Beth Durst's Into the Wild when they were two years younger, who now wants a more contemporary romance feel with their fairy tales.
(but the cover is wrong. It looks sort of Darkly Romancy, and it isn't; there are bits of bright young love, but no raw and tortured angst. And I kept expecting, based on the thorns, that Sleeping Beauty was going to turn up, but she didn't, and I don't recall any thorns at all).
My Unfair Godmother, by Janette Rallison (Bloomsbury, 2011, YA, 320 pages)
Tansy's beloved father, the one who taught her to love books, drove away one day when she was in fifth grade. When she's seventeen, she's forced to go live with him, his new wife, and her step-brother, and she's determined to give him no satisfaction whatsoever. Not only is she refusing to read anything, but she's going out with the worst boy she could find--a loutish vandal named Bo. And because of him, she's just been picked up by the police for vandalizing town hall...even though she was an innocent bystander.
Enter Tansy's fairy godmother, come to grant her three wishes and make everything hunky dory. Sadly for Tansy, though, Chrysanthemum Everstar is only a "fair" godmother--and she's more concerned about her toe nail polish and her job moonlighting as a Tooth Fairy than she is about Tansy. So her wish granting goes more than a little bit awry...and before Tansy knows what's happening, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are wrecking havoc in her home town.
Tansy's second wish has to be used to send them back, but she still has her third--and what can go wrong with wanting the ability to make gold? Plenty.
Now Tansy is stuck in the middle ages, stuck trying to spin straw into gold for bad King John. Her family (and their house) came back into the past with her, as did the cute police chief's son, Hudson. Her fairy godmother is utterly useless--sure, the beautiful dresses she magics for Tansy when she makes her brief appearances are beautiful, but having a pretty dress is beside the point when you've made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin that's rapidly turning sour....
If Edward Eager (Half Magic et seq.) were to have written a contemporary YA book with a bit of romance, something like this might have been the result. It has the same zany, humours insanity that happens when magic goes a bit askew...Those wishing to learn about the reign of King John won't find a particularly accurate portrayal of the past, but Rallison's take on the Rumpelstiltskin story should delight fans of fractured fairy tales. And there's enough underpinning of serious thought about how people make the stories of their own lives to keep this from being just fun fluff.
Today is the official release date of My Unfair Godmother (although it's been on bookstore shelves for a couple of days), and Rallison is giving a copy away at her blog. If you are looking for a fast, funny, read, do go enter!
This is Chrysanthemum Everstar's second appearance in print--her first book is My Fair Godmother. That one is a lot of fun too, and doesn't have to be read before this one.
(review copy received from the publisher)
A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 2011, middle grade, 226 pages)
12-year-old Elodie's heart is set on become a mansioner--an actress--in the city of Two Castles. But when she gets off the boat that had brought her from her home, she is dismayed to find that she is too poor to pay the fee to become an apprentice. In a stroke of good luck (although Elodie isn't sure of this at first), she is instead taken under the wing of the town's resident dragon.
Meenore, the dragon, is the town's detective (self-appointed), as well as a prosaic seller of toasted cheese in the market, and IT (the gender of dragons is a private matter) wants Elodie as an assistant. IT is all set to hone her powers of observation and deduction. But before Elodie can be accustomed to life in the dragon's lair, a full-blown mystery erupts.
Count Jonty Um, the kindly (but feared) ogre who lives in one of the two castles and who befriended Elodie, asks for Meenore's assistance in finding his missing dog. But the dog is just the tip of the iceberg--soon Jonty Um becomes the victim of attempted murder, and, transformed into a mouse by the power of cat persuasion (shades of Puss in Boots), goes missing. And then, when a poisoner strikes the greedy king, Elodie (a handy scapegoat) finds herself the chief suspect....
It will take all her intelligence and all her skills as an actress (and considerable help from the dragon) to solve the mystery.
It's rare to see a fantasy novel that centers around an engaging mystery, and this focus made A Tale of Two Castles fresh and engaging. It's clever, and it's fun, and the characters (especially the dragon) are interesting as all get out! I can't speak to the quality of the mystery qua mystery--I'm bad at Clues, and I (blushes) read the ending half-way through. I did, however, think that the Badness of the main Bad character was too unforshadowed and unexplained. Not a lot of depth there.
But I do rather like the message that Levine's story sends. The distrust the townsfolk feel for the ogre is a serious matter that in large part drives the plot, but this issue is left for the reader to reflect on without it being heavily underlined. And Elodie's own initial feelings for both ogre and dragon are full of the fear of the unknown and different; by the end, they have both become her firm friends. (My mind kept reading the ogre's name, Jonty Um, as gentilhomme, so I felt friendly toward him from the beginning--I wonder if Levine had that in mind!)
This is a lovely sort of book to give the younger middle grade reader (there's no romance, just a crush Elodie has on a handsome roguish type), but, as I said, I enjoyed it just fine myself. It doesn't back a big emotional punch, but it was fun. Fans of fairy tale re-imaginings will enjoy the elements of Puss in Boots that Levine incorporates--it's not exactly a retelling of that story, but considerable bits of it can be found here.
Entwined, by Heather Dixon (Greenwillow, mg/ya, 472 pages)
The Twelve Dancing Princesses is pretty much the It fairy tale of the last few years--I can think of at least four others that have recently been published.* (Kate at Book Aunt wrote in her review of this one that she can think of five....there may well be more! But Entwined brought enough that was fresh and new and interesting to make it an enjoyable read, lighthearted but with a satisfying build-up to the Darkness-to-be-Overcome-ness at the end.
Here's what I liked:
Dixon was clearly interested in just how and why the spell on the princesses were cast, and builds up to it nicely. There's a mystery behind it all, one that the Lead Princess (Azalea) must solve, before it is too late. Fortunately she has wits and spunk, and isn't afraid to use them. I liked getting to know the princesses before whole dancing thing got going.
The character of the Brave Soldier who follows the Princesses and solves everything etc. is here, but in this case, although he is a worthy man, he is definitely several rungs below Azalea and her sisters in terms of saving things, and there's not automatic guarantee he's going to end up with a princess (again, it's up to her!)
I've said it before, but 12 sisters really is too many to properly characterize each one. Dixon makes a noble effort, thought, and does convey the strong sibling bonds between them. Their father is also interestingly complex, and his relationship with his daughters (such as it is) brings in a bit of emotional depth.
Finally, I enjoyed the brightness of the story-telling. The sentences are on the shorter side, the vocabulary relatively simple, and there were moments that made me chuckle. There was also a set of very endearing magical sugar tongs...The language ("oh, stuff it!" says one sister), and the food (lemon tarts, for instance) and the Christmas ball (which sits a little uneasily beside the enchantments, but whatever) added something of a jolly Edwardian feel to the book**, which I enjoyed (especially as it is a jolliness that, as is fitting, is balanced by moments of bleakness, both emotional and viz the Conflict with Evil!).
In short, a book that's just dandy for the middle grade crowd, and a pleasant light read for the older crowd.
That being said, it is not a book for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right mood for it. If you are unsure whether you are in the right mood or not, or what that right mood might be, read Eva's thoughts on the first six pages (at Eva's Book Addiction) and see if you nod in sad agreement with her or not.
*Bother. I could think of four other 12 D.P. retellings when I started this post, and now can only remember three....Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George, The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, and Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier.
**I think I would have picked up on the Edwardian feel without having read Kate's review first, but just in case I wouldn't have, Kate said this first.
A True Princess, by Diane Zahler (Harper Collins, 2011, middle grade, 182 pages)
As far back as she can remember, Lilia has never had a good night's sleep. Because of this, and because of a tendency to day dream, she adds little value to the household of the farmer who took her in when she she was found as a baby, floating down the river in a curious basket.
But the farmer's own two children (Kai, close in age to ten or eleven year old Lilia, and Karina, who's five years older) love her, and so, when the farmer's new wife decides to send Lilia to work for the brutal miller, the three children run away together, on a quest to find Lilia's true family.
Their journey takes them into a mysterious woods, where the fairy king holds court, and there, through an unfortunate mischance, Kai attracts the attention of the king's daughter. And there in the enchanted woods he will remain, unless Lilia can find the lost cloak clasp of the leader of the Wild Hunt, hidden somewhere in the castle of the human king.
Lilia and Karina happily have no trouble getting work as servants in the castle. There the king and queen are trying to find a true princess to marry the prince...and fortunately for all concerned, Karina is beautiful enough so that he falls in love with her, and Lilia is lucky enough to have friends of her own--the royal falcons--who help her in her time of need, and all ends happily with a true princess being found, Kai being freed, and Karina's beauty winning her the prince.
It is a pleasant fairy tale retelling, one that should please nine and ten year old lovers of princess tales very much. That target audience will doubtless be pleased as all get out by the romance and fortuitous happenstances and happy ending, and enjoy the elements of the fairy tale, and added fantastical elements like the Wild Hunt, the household elf, and the mysterious falcons.
It's not so much one for grown-up readers, though. I thought Zahler did a good job making the inherently absurd princess and the pea story into something readable (although the royal sleep pickiness wasn't exactly explained). The element of the Snow Queen--the human boy needing to be rescued from enchantment--worked less well, mainly because the fairy princess was simply spoiled and petulant, and not a force of numinously terrifying power.
What bothered me most, however, was that the prince--so kind, helpful, and friendly--was never asked for help in finding the lost clasp. It would have made things a lot simpler ! And it was awfully convenient that Karina was so beautiful that she attracted the prince's attentions (although she seemed like a nice person, too, in a not particularly fleshed out way).
So--yes for the young reader, but not one that I'll add to my own collection.
Princess of the Wild Swans, by Diane Zahler (HarperCollins, 2012), is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales--The Wild Swans (which is just about the only Hans Christian Anderson story I actively enjoyed, as opposed to reading with kind of sick fascination). It's the story of a princess who must save her brothers when they are transformed into swans by their evil stepmother. I found Zahler's version very pleasant indeed.
12 year old Meriel is the youngest child of king whose land is peaceful and prosperous, and she's had a happy life running a little wild, trying to get her five older brothers to pay attention to her, and ignoring her tutor. But when the king brings home one day a beautiful new wife, everything changes. Meriel intuitively distrusts the new queen, and small snippets of observation cause her feelings of foreboding to grow. For one thing, the queen didn't know about the five brothers...and is not at all happy that they exist. Meriel can't confide in her father, who is strangely besotted. Her fears prove justified when her stepmother transforms her brothers in swans.
Fortunately for Meriel (and the swan brothers) the evil stepmother is not the only witch in the neighborhood. With the help of one brother's sweetheart, who's half a witch, Meriel learns how she can break the spell. She must make her brothers shirts from stinging nettles. For one who has never done a day's hard work in their life, this is a daunting task. To make it worse, she must not speak until the transformation is broken.
A race against time ensues, as Meriel struggles to finish the shirts before winter comes, and before the queen suspects what she is doing. But soon it becomes clear that it is not only Meriel's brothers who are at risk. The queen is plotting to open wide the gates between the mortal and fairy realms. Already sinister creatures are crossing over. If Meriel can't break the queen's enchantment, her whole country will be lost...
The biggest change Zahler makes in her retelling is that the princess doesn't have to marry, whether she wants to or not, a prince who is besotted by her mute beauty, ending in the princess almost being burned at the stake by the prince's paranoid mother. This is a good change! Keeping the focus on the evil stepmother, without introducing complications, lets Zahler tell a tighter story, and removing the whole weird marriage element lets it stay nicely middle grade (there's a bit of hinting at a romance-to-be for Meriel, but it never directly manifests itself). It was also a wise move to cut six of the original brothers. Five is plenty.
The whole story is set in and around the castle, and this gives it a rather homey feel. Instead of grand questy-ness, we get to meet brave commoners, and Meriel gains a new understanding of life outside the castle walls. The evil machinations of the bad queen play out nicely as an intrusion into the ordinary world, and the final struggle is grippingly fraught (but not so fraught as to horrify a sensitive young reader). It's easy to guess that Good will triumph over Evil, but it's rather refreshing to see that there's a price to be paid (in this case, Meriel's difficult and painful labor).
I finished the book well-satisfied that Zahler had done the story justice. I enjoyed her previous retellings--The Thirteenth Princess (12 Dancing Princess--