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FTF Comic Book: Bill Willingham – Fables

This is not a review of the comic book series, or at least not all of it, because I haven’t finished reading it yet. As I write this, the very last few issues are being published, ending the series with #150. My final opinion will depend very much on stories yet to come, but because I am so in love with what I have read so far, I wanted to share with you just a few reasons to pick up Fables.

fables animal farmFABLES
created by Bill Willingham

Published by: Vertigo, 2002-2015
Issues: #1 – 150
Editions: single issues, TPB, deluxe HC
Artists: Mark Buckingham, etc.
Covers by: James Jean (up to issue #81)
João Ruas (since issue #82)

 

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What’s this all about?

In the same vein as best-selling “fractured-fairy-tales” such as Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is Bill Willingham’s runaway hit graphic novel series FABLES. No longer just children’s tales, Willingham has created a new world for these beloved fables…one that exists within our own.When a savage creature known only as the Adversary conquered the fabled lands of legends and fairy tales, all of the infamous inhabitants of folklore were forced into exile. Disguised among the normal citizens of modern-day New York, these magical characters created their own secret society-within an exclusive luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side-called Fabletown. But when Snow White’s party-girl sister, Rose Red, is apparently murdered, it is up to Bigby, Fabletown’s sheriff, and a reformed and pardoned Big Bad Wolf, to determine if the culprit is Bluebeard, Rose’s ex-lover and notorious wife killer, or Jack, her current live-in boyfriend and former beanstalk-climber.

Where do I start?

That was the first question I asked myself when faced with a ton of comic books, different formats, spin-off and crossover series, computer games, and even more stuff. The biggest help I found on the internet was this post by The Written Word, titled So You Want to Read Fables. The beginning is pretty straight forward but keep an eye on the issue you’re reading. At a certain point, you’ll have to jump into the Jack of Fables spin-off in order to avoid spoilers . Most recently, I read about a crossover episode between Fables and The Unwritten. As I’m not nearly far enough ahead in the series to have reached that particular issue, I’ll worry about that when I get to it.

fables issue 53The next big question is: Do you buy the trade paperbacks or the (super shiny) deluxe editions? Because I like pretty books with pretty covers, I went for the deluxe hardcovers. Let me tell you, they are gorgeous! There are some differences compared to the trade paperbacks, such as little flashback stories, prose stories, or even  1001 Nights of Snowfall, the Arabian Nights of Fables. These are all contained in the deluxe editions at points in the story that Bill Willingham thought suitable. If you buy the paperbacks, some of these will have to be bought separately. Wikipedia has a list of which physical book contains which issues so you can make a nice comparison between the paperbacks and the hardcovers and see what works best for you. As far as my own experience goes, either way of reading them is fine. But it does make a difference whether you hold a big, sturdy hardcover in your hands, with glossy paper, high quality printing and just all around prettiness. If you’re not the kind of person who re-reads comic books or you don’t want to spend that much money, the paperbacks are probably the better choice.

Is it worth it?

Hell yes! The first story arc (and the first half of the deluxe edition #1) called Legends in Exile, didn’t strike me right away as something I needed to read. But once all the characters are introduced in their urban setting, I fell into it. Once I got to know the Fables that can’t be integrated into mundy (read: muggle) society in Animal Farm, I got more and more intrigued. Seeing that not all is well in Fabletown society makes things way more interesting than just following a bunch of characters hiding who they really are.

My love for Sheriff Bigby Wolf knows no bounds, the tension between him and Snow White alone makes this worthwile. Plus, I started really digging the drawing style. It’s not all beautiful or brightly colored but it’s just perfect for the stories it’s telling. The covers, on the other hand, are always stunning!

fables covers

But what really made me go out and buy all the Fables that are currently available in hardcover (plus the entire Jack of Fables spin-off series) was the way seemingly unimportant side characters show unexpected depth in random places. Boy Blue, for example, was a likable guy who is always around, but only when I read The Last Castle did I truly appreciate him as a character. The same goes for Flycatcher – the Fables version of the Frog Prince. Boy, did those two rip my heart out!

Also interesting is the passing of time. While some issues follow up on what has happened before, others jump ahead a year or two in time. The flashbacks and POV switches add another layer of depth to the world. Whereas most of the plot happens in New York, the Fables chosen exile after the Adversary took over their Homelands, we do get glimpses of these fairy tale realms that used to be the characters’ home. Things that seem simple at first turn out to be much more complex and complicated after a while.

reynard fox esquire

Fables contains a world that is bigger than the sum of its parts. I may have come in for the fairy-tales-living-among-us-mundies but I stayed for the people I’ve grown to know and love. Once you know Jack, you’ll laugh at his idiotic schemes. When it becomes clear just how in love Bigby is with Snow, you’ll yearn for the two of them to work out their issues. You’ll rejoice when Rose Red finally finds her place in the world, and you’ll laugh at Flycatcher with tears in your eyes.

My love for Fables took a while to grow but now it is steady and strong and here to stay.

There’s other Fables stuff out there?

I’m only a Fables baby but thanks to the Steam Summer Sale, I went ahead and bought myself The Wolf Among Us, a prequel to the entire comic book series (no prior knowledge needed, no spoilers for the comic books) and have played it a few times since. I will be gushing about that game in a separate post within the next few days. But let it be said here that it is absolutely worth its price.

fairest issueApart from the crossover with The Unwritten (which is on my wishlist now), the women of Fables got their own spin-off series, called Fairest. It’s still ongoing and seeing as Lauren Beukes wrote for it, there is no question I will buy and eat it up.

Some other much shorter spin-offs include Cinderella: From Fabletown, With Love and Cinderella: Fables are Forever as well as Werewolves of the Heartland, a  graphic novel following – unsurprisingly – Bigby Wolf. 2009 also saw the publication of the first illustrated Fables prose novel, called Peter and Max. One look at the cover gives you a clue as to whose story it tells.  1001 Nights of Snowfall is contained in the deluxe editions but not in the paperbacks. It’s not vital to the overall story but trust me when I say you don’t want to miss it.

1001nights of snowfall

If all of that spinning off and prequelling turns your head, there’s a handy Fables Encyclopedia.

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FTF Radar – Upcoming Fairy Tale Retellings

Getting excited about upcoming books is a thing of beauty, if you ask me. Staring at the cover and wondering what the author has in store for you is one part of the pleasure. The other is finally getting your copy in the mail and moving to the couch with a blanket and the book with an invisible “do not disturb” sign over your head. For the fairy tale fans out there, here are a few books coming out this year or early next year that we can all look forward to together.

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R.C. Lewis – Stitching Snow

14th October 2014

stitching snowI am so excited because I have a review copy of this on my Kobo and I can’t wait to get started. The plot sounds a lot like someone was trying to hop on Marissa Meyer’s bandwagon, what with sci-fi mixed with fairy tales, but I’ll give this a fair shot. If you’d asked me a while ago, I would have said my favorite fairy tale was The Snow Queen, but I seem to be reading a lot more Snow White retellings than any others. So maybe my subconscious is telling me something here…

Princess Snow is missing.

Her home planet is filled with violence and corruption at the hands of King Matthias and his wife as they attempt to punish her captors. The king will stop at nothing to get his beloved daughter back—but that’s assuming she wants to return at all.

Essie has grown used to being cold. Temperatures on the planet Thanda are always sub-zero, and she fills her days with coding and repairs for the seven loyal drones that run the local mines.

When a mysterious young man named Dane crash-lands near her home, Essie agrees to help the pilot repair his ship. But soon she realizes that Dane’s arrival was far from accidental, and she’s pulled into the heart of a war she’s risked everything to avoid. With the galaxy’s future—and her own—in jeopardy, Essie must choose who to trust in a fiery fight for survival.

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Claire Legrand – Winterspell

30th September 2014

winterspellIT’S THE NUTCRACKER! Now there’s a story that I never particularly liked in book-form. But, oh, how I loved the animated movie set to Tchaikovsky’s music. I watched it over and over and over, to the point that my old tape is broken and nearly unwatchable. Seeing how I don’t love the original by Hoffman, I have very high hopes for any retelling. And with this cover, I’m already half sold.

The clock chimes midnight, a curse breaks, and a girl meets a prince . . . but what follows is not all sweetness and sugarplums.

New York City, 1899. Clara Stole, the mayor’s ever-proper daughter, leads a double life. Since her mother’s murder, she has secretly trained in self-defense with the mysterious Drosselmeyer.

Then, on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes.

Her home is destroyed, her father abducted–by beings distinctly not human. To find him, Clara journeys to the war-ravaged land of Cane. Her only companion is the dethroned prince Nicholas, bound by a wicked curse. If they’re to survive, Clara has no choice but to trust him, but his haunted eyes burn with secrets–and a need she can’t define. With the dangerous, seductive faery queen Anise hunting them, Clara soon realizes she won’t leave Cane unscathed–if she leaves at all.

Inspired by The Nutcracker, Winterspell is a dark, timeless fairy tale about love and war, longing and loneliness, and a girl who must learn to live without fear.

divider1Alethea Kontis – Dearest

3rd February 2015

dearest*squee* Alethea Kontis has stolen my heart with the Woodcutter family. Friday, the quite, caring, loving sister is a perfect fit for retelling The Wild Swans and The Goose Girl (The Wild Geese?). I shouldn’t have gobbled up the first two books so quickly because now I have to wait soooo long.

In her third book about the delightful Woodcutter sisters, Alethea Kontis masterfully weaves “The Wild Swans,” “The Goose Girl,” and a few other fine-feathered fairy tales into a magical, romantic companion novel to Enchanted and Hero.

Readers met the Woodcutter sisters (named after the days of the week) in Enchanted and Hero. In this delightful third book, Alethea Kontis weaves together some fine-feathered fairy tales to focus on Friday Woodcutter, the kind and loving seamstress. When Friday stumbles upon seven sleeping brothers in her sister Sunday’s palace, she takes one look at Tristan and knows he’s her future. But the brothers are cursed to be swans by day. Can Friday’s unique magic somehow break the spell?

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princess of thorns9th December 2014

This blurb contains some deal breakers (using Game of Thrones’ fame as bait, romantic adventure, warrior princess, ugh) but it also caught my attention with certain buzz words (girls dressing up as boys, sisters saving their brothers, hell yes!) so I’m approaching this neutrally and hoping for a great novel.

Game of Thrones meets the Grimm’s fairy tales in this twisted, fast-paced romantic fantasy-adventure about Sleeping Beauty’s daughter, a warrior princess who must fight to reclaim her throne.

Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?

It seems that fairy tales are alive and kicking because there are a ton more retellings coming out next year. I thought I’d keep the list short and only add books that come out in the near-ish future. Expect another post like this around the end of the year – 2015 looks to be an excellent year for the fairy tale retelling.

 

 

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FTF Graphic Novel Review: Emily Carroll – Through the Woods

I picked up this short story collection on a whim when I was visiting my grandmother (how Red Riding Hood of me) and checked out the local bookstore. For a place whose English language section now stores nothing but bestsellers, naturally this new, creepy-looking book caught my eye. You can even get a taste online. The short story “His face all red” is on Emily Carroll’s home page, for free. I urge you to buy the book before you try the story because you’ll be wanting a lot more from where that came from.

through the woodsTHROUGH THE WOODS
by Emily Carroll

Published by: Margaret K. McElderry, 2014
Hardcover: 208 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was little I used to read before I slept at night.

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  • Bluebeard (sort of)
  • Red Riding Hood (sort of)

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Synopsis

A fantastically dark and timeless graphic debut, for fans of Grimm Tales, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and the works of Neil Gaiman

‘It came from the woods. Most strange things do.’
Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.
These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.
Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there…

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This was such a lucky buy. The cover stood out next to the mainstream paperbacks – the crass black, white, and red is the first eye catcher. When you open the book and leaf through it to see what the images are like, you’ll be stunned by the amazing and creative full color drawings that await you. I especially liked the two-page spreads with words flowing all over the pages, almost being part of the picture, the font type changing according to the story’s mood. The book was amazing even before I’d started reading it.

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A few minutes later, I got home, the book in my bag, waiting eagerly to be devoured. I will admit that I read these short stories during the day and was very happy about the sun light and twittering birds outside. Reading this in darkness (well, comparative darkness… you’ll still need a lamp in order to see the pages) would have been more like watching a horror movie. And I know that my fridge always makes particularly strange noises after I’ve seen a horror movie. Even more so if I’m alone in the house. To say nothing of the cat, who seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m already on edge. Thanks to the sunlight, I was fine, the cat was oblivious, and the fridge made no more than the usual noise.

The tales in Through the Woods may not exactly be fairy tale retellings, although they are certainly fairytale-esque in nature. You can see glimpses of Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood in them, and if you look carefully, I’m sure many other fairy tales that feature woods would fit the bill. In tone, they are absolutely creepy, and I mean that in the best way possible. As graphic novels (or short stories) go, the author only has that much space to use for written words. The grunt of the work has to be done by the images. And Emily Carroll combines the two to create this magnificent, scary, yet somehow beautiful reading experience. When I finished the book, I wished there had been more stories. A good 400 or 500 pages more would have suited me fine.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite story because they each have elements that push all my fairy tale buttons. Terrible things happen to women and children (there’s a definition of fairy tales for you) and these stories don’t exactly end well. Some don’t even end at all. They leave you on the kind of cliffhanger I remember from the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. A big revelation right at the end, the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. We all know that our own imagination can create the most terrifying endings of them all. Emily Carroll does well in leaving a bit of work for her readers – it adds to the creep-factor. But like I said, it’s a really good kind of creepy. The kind that makes you want to go and tell your friends.

through the woods red riding hood

The blurb recommends this to fans of Neil Gaiman, and I see where that comparison comes from. There is a sense of the weird about Carroll’s monsters and a scariness that does remind me of some of Gaiman’s villains. I have had a middling relationship with his books but I can’t say anything bad about his villains. They are weird and cruel and creepy – they always evoke strong emotions, whether it’s repulsion or fear. And that’s similar to the feeling you get with this graphic short story collection. Add to that the fact that you can never be sure who the villains are or whether the monsters are evil or just misunderstood, and you’ve got a thrillride of black-white-and-red goodness ahead of you.

Reading Through the Woods  is an immersive experience that is worth its price. It’s such a quick read that I’m sure I’ll revisit these stories in the not too distant future. It’s the perfect blend of horror and fairy tales – not that the two are exactly far apart – and if it does nothing else for you, it gets you in the perfect mood for more. Nothing is quite as it seems in Through the Woods and even the more genre-savvy readers will be surprised occasionally. What if Bluebeard had a good reason for killing his wives? What if wolves are the last thing you should worry about when entering the woods? Emily Carroll takes well-known tropes and spins them around to give you a creepy reading experience, filled with wonder and imagination. I can’t wait to read her next book!

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

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Other tales by Emily Carroll:

  • The Prince & The Sea
    A retelling of The Little Mermaid, with an added twist and lovely creepy images. Plus, the story is told in verse.
  • The Hare’s Bride
    This has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it but, again, turns what we know of the story up on its head. It’s a very short comic but I liked the clever protagonist and the creepy villain. There is no Disneyfication going on here…
  • Anu-Anulan and Yir’s daughter
    This reads like a tale out of mythology but is actually the result of a world-building project. I love the imagery! It’s not a horror story but instead a beautiful love story about a woman and a goddess.
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FTF Book Review: Lisa Jensen – Alias Hook

I will never tire of Peter Pan and the spin-offs, sequels, prequels, alternate stories, and whatever else it has inspired. The Neverland is a special place and fertile ground for the imagination. Some writers have made brilliant new stories of J.M. Barrie’s play, others riff on the Disney version of Peter Pan. Lisa Jensen gives a voice to the unsung hero of the story, Captain Hook. Let’s be honest. We all have a soft spot for that dark and sinister man, right?

alias hook newALIAS HOOK
by Lisa Jensen

Published by: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014 (2013)
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10
Review copy provided by the publisher (thank you!)

First sentence: Second star to the right of what?

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  • Peter Pan

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“Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile who drags him down to a watery grave. But it was not yet my time to die. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy, with that infernal, eternal boy.”
Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain.
With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their neverending game. Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a beautifully and romantically written adult fairy tale.

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Hook is trapped in the Neverland. The cultured and correct but lonely man yearns for nothing more but to finally die. Whether it’s at the hands of the tyrannical boy Peter Pan or through some other means, doesn’t really matter to him. But then he stumbles across a woman – a grown woman – in the Neverland…

Lisa Jensen takes her sweet, sweet time telling the story of how Hook got his life back. There is magic involved, and a prophecy (naturally), Hook needs to come-of-age in a way, despite his immortality and his eternal war with the eternal child. I could sum up the plot in one sentence or I could do it like the author and talk and talk and talk without getting to the point. Lisa Jensen’s strength is her use of language – she writes flowery prose with tons of description, an introspective, thoughtful protagonist, but very little action. I have nothing against a book that moves slowly, that demands to be savored rather than devoured in one quick bite. But the need for plot, for a reason for this story to be told, is still there. And this is where I was disappointed a bit.

Alias Hook started out well enough. It slogged along a bit until Stella Parrish showed up and turned Hook’s head with her modern (comparatively) speech, manners, and ideas. I loved, loved, loved the scene where the two banter over a bottle of wine and I really wish there had been more scenes like it. This book is also supposedly a romance. But apart from the abovementioned snappy banter, there is very little to go on. Hook falls in love with Stella, to a large part because Stella doesn’t mind his missing hand, his scars, or his dark past. Once they are together however, it gets sappy as hell and I rolled my eyes frequently.

alias hook audio coverI can forgive cheesiness for the sake of good old Captain Hook becoming a little more human, a little less cold-hearted. But what I can’t forgive is the very thin plot. We find out why Hook is in the Neverland in the first place, and then, through convenient intervention by fairies, the Indians, and the mermaids are shown the signs of an ancient prophecy that will finally set Hook free – if he reads the signs right and does the right thing at the right time. That’s it. There isn’t much more to it, I’m sad to say. The rest of the nearly 400 pages is filled with description and inner monologue and rehashing of the same things we read in the beginning of the book.

I did like certain aspects of the world-building, however. Pan’s tyrannical rule, for example, is shown through small details, such as his dislike of roses. The Neverland accomodates the boy in everything he wishes, so there are no roses. Another cool spin on the original is the mermaids, the only creatures that Pan is afraid of. We only touch the surface of their story but I was really hooked whenever the mermaids showed up. They did what I always hope for in a fairy tale retelling – they added something new to a well-known and beloved story.

The fact that it took me weeks and weeks to finish the book, reading in small increments only, speaks to its readability. It is not a difficult story to follow but the prose is so thick, so luscious that it can be overwhelming if you read too much of it in one go. This was by no means a bad book, just one that had quite a few flaws. A tighter and faster moving plot and more layered side-characters would have been a good place to start. Nonetheless, I had fun in this Neverland adventure. Recommended to readers with patience or a deep, deep love of Peter Pan.

RATING: 6/10 – Good

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#Diversiverse – A More Diverse Universe 2014

I’m still reading fairy tales for this month’s reading theme, but you know me well enough by now to understand I can’t just walk by a reading challenge. BookLust is hosting this year’s Diversiverse challenge. The rules are really, really simple:

Read one book by an author of color and review it.

diversiverse 2014
There you have it. Easy, right? Being somewhat of a Hermione Granger at heart, of course I plan on reading more than just one book. Here are a few books from my TBR pile that would qualify:

  • Karen Lord – The Best of All Possible Worlds
  • Intisar Khanani – Thorn
  • N.K. Jemisin – The Shadowed Sun
  • Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox
  • Hiromi Goto – Half World
  • Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
  • Fuyumi Ono – Sea of Shadows

Now I won’t be able to read all of these in September but I’ll try to read as many as possible. I’ve only been actively looking out for authors of color within my favorite genres for a year or so, and I’m astounded at how much my TBR has grown. The books above are really just a little teaser of what’s hiding in my bookshelves. So saying “there is no SFF written by authors of color” doesn’t hold up. I’ll also mention that all my listed books are written by women. So don’t anybody say “women (of color) don’t write X” – because they do. And that’s that.

Anyway, I can’t wait to get started on some of these books. Just finishing up a few more fairy tale retellings and them I’m ready to go. (Also, I cheated and already started The Best of All Possible Worlds because I have no discipline.)

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FTF – My favorite fairy tale adaptations (movies)

When it comes to movies, fairy tale retellings are probably the genre in which I watch most diversely. As a child, I didn’t care much whether I watched a dubbed version, where the movie was made, or how bad the special effects were. The Czech and Finnish movies I loved then are still enjoyable now (dubbed or with subtitles) and despite having watched every new fairy tale adaptation I could get my hands on, some of my favorites are still old movies that I only own on VHS cassette.

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The Little Mermaid (1975, Czechoslovakia)little mermaid

This is the first version of the Little Mermaid I ever saw which kept the original ending. I was a child and only knew the Disney version up until then, so I fully expected a happy ending. Apart from killing herself at the end and turning into seafoam, a lot of the story before that was changed. The merpeople have their own culture and rituals, the little mermaid’s mother died young but nobody will tell her how… it’s intriguing and very pretty to look at.

To this day, I can not understand why the little mermaid found that particular prince so swoonworthy (look at that hair) but there were so many little details that make this movie worthwile. If you remember that the price for getting a pair of legs isn’t just her loss of voice but also constant pain, you’ll appreciate the scene when she walks down the beach to wash her feet, leaving bloody footprints in the sand.

little mermaid and prince

Unlike the Disney version, this is not a musical, but music plays a part. The little mermaid is revered as the most beautiful singer and shows off her talent right in the beginning. The songs she sings are melancholy and dark and almost a harbinger of things to come. I’ve only ever heard them sung by the German voice actress who dubbed the movie but I’m sure we can track down the original somewhere on the internet.

Another thing worth mentioning is how much time the movie spends under the sea. The actors are obviously not under actual water but their flowy robes and dresses, their insane hair gives the impression of it. It’s an altogether magical movie with an appropriately sad ending. But as it’s the only one I know that follows Hans Christian Andersen’s story line so faithfully, it will forever remain a favorite.

little mermaid and her father

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Perinbaba  (1985 , Chzechoslovakia)perinbaba movie
(The Feather Fairy, Frau Holle)

“Frau Holle” or, the Feather Fairy if you like, shakes out her pillows and so makes it snow on Earth. This movie has little in common with the fairy tale except there is an old woman sitting on a mountain, making the weather. In the fairy tale, two sisters (one good, one evil) each visit Frau Holle and do household chores. The good sister is rewarded with gold, the evil one with tar… there’s the Grimm brothers for you.

In this Czech adaptation, a boy is the protagonist and Perinbaba is only Frau Holle in that she can make snow, rainbows, wind, etc.  Jakub, her helping hand, doesn’t want to stay on top of a mountain with her, even if it makes him immortal. He wants to go down to earth, grow old and die, with a wife by his side. He defies death, Frau Hippe (another old woman, with a scithe) on several occasions and wins the heart of the young Elisabeth. She lives like Cinderella with her stepmother and stepsister and Jakub helps her break out of that life.

perinbaba

There are bits of this movie I hate with the fire of a thousand volcanoes. The stepmother and sister are so obviously evil schemers that it pains me how bild Elisabeth’s father is to all of this. Said father is also incredibly dumb and fickle. Jakub helps around the house and seems to be good at everything he does – so Elisabeth’s father praises him and thinks of marrying one of his daughters to him. One day, Elisabeth’s peacocks are found dead in the shed and Jakub was supposed to watch them. Instead of – like a normal person – being mad and disappointed, Elisabeth’s father immediately switches sides and now hates Jakub. Go figure.

perinbaba elisabethBut what I really love about this movie are two things: One is the music. Sure, the music that is played is clearly not played by the characters pretending to play the flute, but hey, we’ll suspend our disbelief. The second is the whole Perinbaba mythology. Jakub was saved by her and helps her out making snow (which means jumping on a gigantic bedsheet that looks like a bouncy castle). When he explores their home and steps on a balcony, he immediately ages. So the spell of immortality only lasts inside Perinbaba’s home. In order to get down to the world, he fills a bed sheet with air and uses it like a balloon.

Do not think too much about the intricacies of real life when you watch this movie. Just enjoy it for its simplicity and its lovely ideas about life. After all, who would want to make snow for all eternity when they can have a full life with friends and family down on earth – even if it means eventually dying.perinbaba balloon

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Lumikuningatar (1986, Finland)snow queen finland
(The Snow Queen)

I have an old VHS cassette of this movie from when my grandmother recorded it for me from TV. The tape is nearly unwatchable now, it jumps, the sound is messed up, the quality ghastly. But I went so far as to watch the entire thing on youtube in Finnish. And what I realised is an important plus for this movie.

Language doesn’t matter all too much here. When Gerda goes on her journey to find Kai, she meets all sorts of strange characters and stumbles into dark and dangerous places. Of course she talks to those characters and they may tell her important information in return, but even if you don’t understand a word they’re saying you will still get the idea of what’s going on. And you can enjoy the two most stunning aspects of the movie: the music and the visuals.

The soundtrack is absolutely magical! There are few movies that, at the same time remind me so much of my childhood that it hurts, and inspire me so strongly to go out and make something new. The Snow Queen soundtrack is like that.

kerttu gerda

As for the look of this movie, it is something straight out of a fairy tale. Not only are their bright, oversaturated colors, you get scenes with human statues painted all in gold, witches with tin man guards in front of her house, the snow queen with her green crown… and in the middle of it all, Gerda in her yellow dress. Also worth mentioning are the strange dream sequences that may not actually be dreams. Gerda clearly wants to be a ballerina, she dances on the beach with Kai just before he leaves with the Snow Queen. The ballett scenes exist to show Gerda’s progress from a little outcast girl whose clothes and shoes don’t match those of the other dancers, to a stronger girl who saved her friend and fits right in. I don’t quite know what to make of these scenes but they are beautiful to look at.

snow queen ballerinas

Every second of this movie is atmospheric, at times sinister, at times just gorgeous, but always intense. As my experience with youtube goes to show (I only wanted to hear what it sounds like in Finnish), you get sucked into this colorful world and can’t leave until Kai is safe and Gerda’s adventure finished.

 

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Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998, USA)Everafterposter

This might just be my favorite fairy tale movie, even though I can’t put my finger on why. I have watched it over and over and over again, sometimes twice in a row, and I still am not tired of it.
Drew Barrymore is adorable, Dougray Scott (generally not my type) sweeps me off my feet every time. They threw in DaVinci and French royalty that speaks English, gypsies that play rock-paper-scissors and all sorts of other shenanigans. But the romance is beautiful in every way and veers from the insta-love that fairy tales are so prone to.

Danielle de Barbarac loses her father as a young girl and is left with her stepmother and stepsisters – so far, so faithful to Cinderella. She also reads books by the fireplace which leaves her covered in soot. There is also a prince that the stepsisters are trying to catch but who falls in love with Danielle. The fairy tale is there, it’s intact, but it’s the surroundings that make Ever After so wonderful. Danielle doesn’t dream of catching a prince, or even just a husband. She has made her own family with the house servants and she’s going to protect them no matter what. The scene where the servants are reunited and group hug in the garden still brings tears to my eyes. Other than the prince, Danielle also has strong ideas about politics.

Which leads me to Henry, a young prince who wants to be anything but. He enjoys his wealth and easy life but being married off to some Spanish princess crosses his line. What’s so lovely about Danielle and Henry together is that they teach one another more about the world, their perspectives are so different but, in coming together, create something new. They grow and learn and mature because of each other – no wonder they fall in love.

ever after just breathe

The side characters may not get many lines but they all feel like real, well-rounded people. Danielle’s relationship with her stepmother tears me apart every time. That young girl just wants to be loved and gets nothing but scorn and hatred in return. The ending is all the more satisfying for it. And the movie doesn’t even need the slightest bit of magic to shine.

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Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997, USA)snow white tale of terror

I seem to be the only person in the world who loves this movie to bits. Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen is brilliant when she goes from believably caring wife to crazy murderous witch. But what I always liked best about this horror movie was Lilli’s (Snow White) time with the “dwarves”. They aren’t particularly deep characters but at least the do get a back story. And – go ahead, push all my buttons – Snow White falls in love with one of them, not the handsome prince.

But let’s start at the beginning. This movie really belongs to Sigourney Weaver as the evil witch, and doesn’t even focus so much on Snow White. The first time I watched it, it really felt like a horror movie. When Frederick Hoffman marries another woman, Lilli is cautious and not too thrilled. Soon after that her nursemaid is killed in front of her – chocked to death by an invisible spell – right after she touched the queen’s mirror. What follows is straight up Snow White, with Lilli running off into the forest and the huntsman (the queen’s mute brother) trying to kill her.

What really kicks off the story for me is Lilli’s meeting with the dwarves. They aren’t really dwarves but they live in the shadows, work in the mines, and make do with what they have. During those scenes, we get an idea for the first time of what is wrong with the kingdom as a whole. While the beginning was set only in the castle and focused on what is essentially royalty, the politics of the country weren’t very clear. They still aren’t when Lilli meets the dwarves but at least there are hints here and there that not all is well with the world.

snow white terror

The evil witch tries to kill Lilli on several occasions but what’s really interesting is her obsession with having a child. She lost her first son in childbirth and is now turning to magic to revive him. It’s creepy on so many levels and involves stealing her husband’s sperm. After that you get what you expect. Poisoned apple, old crone, glass coffin, the whole shebang. I don’t think I’ll spoil anything if I say Lilli does wake up, but it’s not through a kiss.

This isn’t by far a perfect movie but considering how dark fairy tales are, I love that someone decided to make a straight-up horror film about it. It’s not just cleaning the dwarves’ house while singing with forest animals, there is very little fun involved here. But the atmosphere of the movie keeps drawing me in and I will never apologizse for loving it.

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La belle et la bête (2014, France)belle et la bete
(Beauty and the Beast)

I just got the DVD a week ago and I watched it twice in a row. That alone should tell you that it’s a pretty movie. I say pretty because the visuals outdo the story. In creating a backstory for Belle’s father and brothers, the entire family gains more depth, but there is far less time for Belle and the Beast’s development as a couple. However, the castle and landscape shots are so stunning that I had the urge to hit pause and look at all the loving detail for a while. I did enjoy the Beast’s backstory. It departs from what we know from Disney and gives us a tortured, sad, lonely man who was never truly evil, just careless with the things he loved.belle

Belle and her sisters are a fairy tale cliché if I ever saw one. While they are greedy and vain, Belle is content with the little things in life. She loves having her father around and tending the garden. After the family lost everything and Belle’s father stumbles home from the city, he comes across the Beast’s castle and the Beast offers him a bargain. He may take the rose he cut but he has to send his youngest daughter – or the entire family dies.

belle castle gardens

Belle runs off to save her family and is awaited by a gorgeous castle and the most beautiful dresses you can imagine. She dines with the Beast every evening but at night, she is plagued by visions of the past. It is through these visions that we get to see the Beast’s backstory, how he came to be a monster. I was so surprised when I saw the German singer/actress Yvonne Catterfeld as the princess – she does such an excellent job! Since Black Swan everybody knows Vincent Cassel. He may not have the looks of your average fairy tale prince, but he plays his part incredibly well. My favorite scene is the one on the frozen lake – there were some serious tingles happening there.

Because of the long introduction to Belle’s family, some aspects of the castle were left unexplored. Sure, Belle wanders around and in the process offers us some of the most visually stunning shots of the movie. But the castle bristles with magic and small, beagle-like creatures, that I would have liked to see more of. It also could have used more dialogue, especially between Belle and the Beast. I can see how Belle’s regard for him grew as she learned about his past, but in the present, they don’t really share an awful lot of time.

belle ballroom belle in the castle
The entire story is told to two children by their mother. I don’t know why the director tried to make a secret out of the mother’s identity. It is clearly Belle’s voice and so we know that she gets her happily ever after. This is a fairy tale, people. We know how it ends.

This may not be the best fairy tale adaptation I’ve ever seen but it sure is gorgeous to look at and creates a new myth for the beast and how to break his spell. Recommended.

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Blancanieves (2012, Spain)blancanieves

My heart bleeds! As fairy tale adaptations and retellings go, the last years have been a long string of disappointments with the exception of Blancanieves, which absolutely blew me away. I saved the most heartbreaking for last and it’s a silent movie, too!

I believe this movie is best enjoyed knowing almost nothing about it, so I’m keeping the gushing to a minimum. This is Snow White told through the eyes of a bullfighter’s daughter in the 1920s. From the very beginning, I was enthralled by the black and white pictures, the music, and especially the actors. Carmen’s relationship to her father is heartbreaking and brings some of the most painful and the most beautiful moments of the entire movie.

blancanieves and father

The evil witch in this case is a jealous stepmother who wants nothing but money and fame but cares little about her disabled husband or her stepdaughter. Because she reveres her father, Carmen practices to become a bullfighter too. She joins a troupe of bullfighting dwarves and there is a little bit of romance between her and Rafita – although it may be one-sided.

blancanieves carmen y rafita

The ending just tore my heart out and trampled all over it. You all need to go watch this movie right now. This is what a fairy tale adaptation should be like. The old tale is still recognisable underneath, but new layers are added to everything, and the characters are brought to life in all their painful glory. I think I’m going to watch it again right now. Hand me some tissues, will you?

blancanieves carmen

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FTF Book Review: Genevieve Valentine – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Genevieve Valentine managed to become one of my top ten authors of all time with just one book. Mechanique was so close to perfection that from the moment I finished reading, I wanted to pick it up again. Short stories by the same author had a similar effect and this second novel of hers was no different.

girls at the kingfisher clubTHE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB
by Genevieve Valentine

Published by: Atria Books, 2014
Hardcover: 277 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.

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  • The Twelve Dancing Princesses

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From award-winning author Genevieve Valentine, a “gorgeous and bewitching” (Scott Westerfeld) reimagining of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan.

Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s townhouse to await the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off.

The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must weigh in the balance not only the demands of her father and eleven sisters, but those she must make of herself.

With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, joining the leagues of such Jazz Age depicters as Amor Towles and Paula McClain, and penning a dazzling tale about love, sisterhood, and freedom.

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Review

This will be a difficult review to write because as much as I adore Genevieve Valentine’s writing style – and it is quite unlike anything else I’ve read – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club had a very tough time competing with Mechanique. Excepting Cat Valente, no other book has hit me as hard in recent years as that steampunk extravaganza. And yet, a fairy tale retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Roaring Twenties? That sounded wonderful.

With a retelling of this particular fairy tale, the hardest part must and will always be bringing twelve – I repeat: twelve! – characters to life and giving them distinct personalities. One or the other will always have to be a little more vague, or else you need a 1500 page novel to introduce them all. Not so Genevieve Valentine. Her prose is precise and streamlined and, maybe because of that, always hits the mark. Every word is carefully chosen for the biggest effect. It is her careful word choice (and the little remarks she throws into the story within parentheses) that make her characters feel real in almost no time at all.

Jo – The General – is the strict eldest daughter of the bunch, the one who keeps the Hamilton girls together, who organises their bi-nightly outings, who makes sure nobody gets left behind. In many ways, she functions as the girls’ mother figure, but she dances on the edge of resembling her father more – and she struggles with the knowledge that she might, someday in a terrible world where everything goes wrong, become like him. For Jo, the number one concern will always be Lou, her closest sister. The relationship between the two is so beautiful and heartbreaking and as much about what’s not said as about what is. Lou knows Jo and Jo knows Lou – and so they converse without words, even without glances. It is a pleasure to read about them.

girls at the kingfisher club

The younger the girls get, the less we learn about them. But Valentine made sure to give them all a personality, even if it has little time to shine. With two pairs of twins, one sister who is a lesbian, one whose beauty far surpasses that of anyone else, and some who just really, really love to dance, you’ve got twelve heads who each dream of one thing: freedom.

The threat of being discovered always lingers in the background, and their ruthless father makes sure they know just how little he cares about them as people. He never forgave his late wife for not giving him a son and marrying off his numerous daughters, one by one to the highest bidder, seems like a deal worth making. So for a long time, this is also a depressing story. Twelve girls, locked up and forbidden to be themselves. All the more amazing when they do break out of their life.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they can flee from their oppressive father. Because what happens afterwards is not exactly a horseride into the sunset with their fairy tale prince. What comes after is hard work, learning who they are, finding a place in the world. And for Jo, it means letting go, giving the girls room to find themselves, to stop being The General. The emotional weight of certain scenes is astounding and the ending left me half laughing with happiness, and half sobbing with uncertainty.

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is about dancing girls, sure. But it is also an emotional journey, a coming-of-age story, a tale of amazing women finding where they belong. And I heartily recommend everybody pick it up. And once you’re done, do yourself a favor and read Mechanique.

RATING: 8/10  – Excellent

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Second opinions:

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FTF Book Review: Alethea Kontis – Hero

After Enchanted did to me what its title promised (if more with the Woodcutter family than with the romance) I couldn’t keep my hands off the second book in the series.

heroHERO
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Harcourt Books, 2013
Hardcover: 304 pages
Series: The Woodcutter Sisters #2
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “Oh, hooray! It’s you!” The airy voice burbled like the brook, but there were no women in Peregrine’s traveling party save the one he currently pursued, the bright-eyed temptress who haunted his every thought.

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Fairy Tales Retold

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Synopsis

Rough and tumble Saturday Woodcutter thinks she’s the only one of her sisters without any magic — until the day she accidentally conjures an ocean in the backyard. With her sword in tow, Saturday sets sail on a pirate ship, only to find herself kidnapped and whisked off to the top of the world. Is Saturday powerful enough to kill the mountain witch who holds her captive and save the world from sure destruction? And, as she wonders grumpily, “Did romance have to be part of the adventure?” As in Enchanted, readers will revel in the fragments of fairy tales that embellish this action-packed story of adventure and, yes, romance.

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Review

Saturday Woodcutter is the “normal” one – or so she thinks. Why she would get that idea, after magically changing her axe into a sword, is anyone’s guess. Now that her youngest sister is married to the prince and has left home, she is the last of the sisters to remain home with their mother, father and brothers. As in the first novel, Trix – the litte adopted changeling – stole my heart with everything he did. Alethea Kontis has often spoken of a novella in the making, chronicling the events that Trix encounters while Saturday is off hero-ing.

It is when Thursday arrives on her pirate ship that Saturday embarks on her hero’s journey. And that’s when it gets really interesting. Just like the first novel in the Woodcutter series, the story is told from two perspectives: Saturday’s and Peregrine’s.

Now Peregrine is a character to my liking. He has been cursed by a young witch to take her place and work for her mother, so she herself can roam the kingdoms and have fun. This means that Peregrine is changed from a duke into someone who looks like a young girl (although he keeps his penis, as he tells us early on). However, he is now stuck in an androgynous body pretending to be a girl which takes some getting used to.

hero cover detail

There was this one moment when the characters themselves realise that here are a cross-dressing duke (Peregrine) who is thought to be the witch’s daughter, and a short-haired, muscly, tall girl (Saturday) who gets confused for her legendary brother Jack and I cannot tell you how awesome that scene was. Peregrine wears skirts and looks rather feminine, thanks to the curse. Saturday, chopping wood all day and generally enjoying fighting lessons over the traditionally feminine pastimes, has a stronger build that makes it easy to think she may be a boy.

I loved how Alethea Kontis incorporated this exploration of gender roles into her otherwise lighthearted novel. In their respective POV chapters, however, we do get to see that both are suffering in their own way by the expectations of others and how their own physical appearance strays from “the norm”. But Peregrine and Saturday take each other the way they are. No matter Saturday’s muscular build, no matter Peregrine’s wearing skirts and dresses. That is not what defines them as people and it doesn’t mean they are not beautiful.

However – hair and clothing aside – when these two collide, disaster is imminent. But so is incredible fun, hilarity, and tons and tons of bickering. Have I mentioned how much I love bickering couples? When they can’t decide whether to kiss or punch each other, that’s exactly when I fall into the story and want to punch them myself. And then make them kiss.
Their romance is more humerous and also more difficult than that of Sunday and her frog prince. Peregrine may be cursed to work for the witch but he is betrothed to a young girl who’s waiting for him at home. And Saturday’s general aversion to romance does its own part.

The plot was a little weaker than in Enchanted, which may be due to the fact that it focuses so heavily on only two people and one setting. Saturday is removed from the rest of her family for most of the novel. And while she is saving the world, helped by Peregrine, his ever-changing manticore friend, and the occasional surprising creature, the driving force behind the story is, for a long while, the romance. Like in Enchanted, I thoroughly enjoyed finding out about Peregrine’s past, how he came to be trapped with the witch at the Top of the World. And just like in Enchanted I was rather surprised at how easily Saturday fell in love. It takes longer than three days but then, Saturday was much less inclined towards romance than her younger sister Sunday. So I’m not sure the romantic aspect holds up. And yet again, I find myself excusing these flaws because the books are so damn enjoyable.

I alhero pb coverso liked that the author chose to retell (part of) a lesser known fairy tale. If you know the Norwegian fairy tale in question – “The Master Maid” – certain scenes will be even more amusing, as Saturday struggles with the household chores given by the evil witch. I did not know the tale prior to reading this and I’m always happy when people introduce me to new fairy and folk tales. The second fairy tale used for Hero is “Petronella” (another one I had to look up first) which was written in the 1970s as a feminist antidote to classical fairy tale princesses. The two lesser known tales go surprisingly well together and I for my part have already ordered a used copy of The Practical Princess and other Liberating Fairy Tales by Jay Williams which contains the abovementioned “Petronella”.

Hero may not have hit home as hard as its predecessor but the consequences of Saturday’s actions leave a lot of room for the upcoming books. I cannot wait to find out what Friday has been up to during the events of Hero. In Dearest, Friday is part of a retelling of “The Six Swans” which not only suits her character but also makes me insanely excited for the book to finally come out. Is it 2015 yet?

RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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The Woodcutter Sisters:

  1. Enchanted
  2. Hero
  3. Dearest

woodcutter sisters series

Websites of Interest:

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Shannon Hale – The Goose Girl

After reading a few more recent fairy tale retellings, I thought I’d go back to the “classics” of the sub-genre. I have yet to read a negative opinion on Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, a retelling said to be very faithful to the original.

goose girl1THE GOOSE GIRL
by Shannon Hale

Published by: Bloomsbury Books, 2003
Paperback: 383 pages
Series: The Books of Bayern #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open here eyes for three days.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • The Goose Girl

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Synopsis

Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, spends the first years of her life under her aunt’s guidance learning to communicate with animals. As she grows up, Ani develops the skills of animal speech, but is never comfortable speaking with people, so when her silver-tongued lady-in-waiting leads a mutiny during Ani’s journey to be married in a foreign land, Ani is helpless and cannot persuade anyone to assist her. Becoming a goose girl for the king, Ani eventually uses her own special, nearly magical powers to find her way to her true destiny. Shannon Hale has woven an incredible, original and magical tale of a girl who must find her own unusual talents before she can become queen of the people she has made her own.

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Review

The Goose Girl was never my favorite fairy tale as a child but there was this one scene that has stuck with me until now and that still sends shivers down my spine. Falada, the princess’ loyal horse (or rather his head) mounted on the wall in the passage that she has to cross every day when walking her geese. People always worry that movies or books are not suitable for children, but honestly, when I was little it made me sad, no more than that. I was reading a fairy tale, after all, and knew that the bad guys would get theirs eventually. Now as an adult, my heart seems to be more raw and I am quite shocked at the cruelty and brutality this fairy tale contains.

As many reviewers of Shannon Hale’s book have said, it is incredibly loyal to the “original” (I never feel comfortable talking about an original fairy tale because their whole point is that there isn’t one official version) and merely wove some backstory around the existing tale. The first thing I noticed and loved about this book was that Ani isn’t a typical fairy tale princess. She isn’t confident in her role, she doesn’t know how to talk to people, how to lead, how to stand strong when others look to her for guidance. She is just a young introverted girl who seeks her mother’s approval and her lady-in-waiting’s friendship. This made it easy to like Ani and a pleasure to watch her grow.

But Shannon Hale makes sure the main villains, namely Ani’s lady-in-waiting Selia and her guard boyfriend Ungolad, get believable backgrounds and agency. Selia even raises some points that make her seem less evil and more misguided.

‘Royalty is not a right, Captain. The willingness of the people to follow a ruler is what gives her power. Here, in this place, by this people, I have been chosen.’

And so she has. During their journey to Bayern, where Ani is supposed to marry the prince, Selia and some of the guards lead a mutiny that kills almost everyone. Ani escapes and follows them to Bayern, only to find out Selia has taken her place at court. This is where the next reason for loving this book comes in. Naturally, my very first urge was to scream at Ani to go and tell someone the truth! Somebody would believe her, surely she could prove she is the real princess somehow. To my utter delight and astonishment, Ani does just that. Or she tries, at least. By adding these small scenes of Ani making rational, intelligent decisions, the author not only gives us a heroine we can root for but also a very believable reason for why she becomes the goose girl. Because nobody believes her! Additionally, Ungolad and his men are on the lookout for a young girl with yellow hair and, let me tell you, they don’t plan to throw her a party.

In her new job as goose girl, Ani makes real friends for the first time in her life. Outstanding among them is Enna, who I’m delighted to hear is the protagonist of the second book Enna Burning. Instead of the false friendship, the intrigues and manipulations she knows from Selia, Ani finds a true friend who stands by her and who believes what she says no matter how strange it sounds.

However, Ani’s transition from the luxury of being royalty to living the life of a servant happened a little too smoothly, even though she did hate political chit chat over afternoon tea and other royal appointments. I imagine if you are used to frequent baths, other people washing your clothes and preparing your food, suddenly having to do all of this yourself – or not being able to do it at all (the baths for example) – would lead to at least some unhappiness. But Ani, maybe because she really isn’t the queenly type, takes to it and learns to love her new life.

Her decision to bring justice to Selia and reveal that she is the real princess is more political than emotional. Bayern politics were a little black and white (servants poor, royalty bad) but Ani’s good heart shines through when, for the first time, she realises that her position gives her power to change things for the less fortunate. Seeing how her new friends struggle to make ends meet, how unfair certain laws or rules are, she wants to make the world better.

goose girl1

Other than my first few FTF books this month, The Goose Girl doesn’t focus on the romance. Neither does it happen in such a rush. Ani – or Isi, as she calls herself as the goose girl – has a tender little romance with a member of the royal guard. Giving up that love for marrying the prince shows even more how she has grown as a human being, and above all as a princess. Her responsibility towards her new people outweighs what she feels is a personal crush – after all, one of these things can make life better for many, while the other would just make her happy.

Here is the part where I nag a little. I adored the romance. It was believable and grew from interest to affection to love. So far, so good. However, the twist at the end was obvious from miles away. I might have preferred an ending where the heroine doesn’t get everything she wants. Where her decision to save a kingdom really demands that she give up something else. Ani grows immensely as a person, develops confidence and even pride, sacrifices a romance for the sake of helping others. Only to end up with everything she wanted anyway.

I admit I completely forgot how, in the fairy tale, the princess manages to convince the king that she is indeed herself. All the more fun reading the ending, with the added suspense of not knowing how Ani will save herself from the cruel punishment reserved for traitors. That scene was very well done and required some quick thinking from people other than Ani. Once again, her friendships and budding love make it clear that she isn’t alone in the world anymore.

The Goose Girl is a quiet, slow-moving book that puts its focus on characters and their growth. Magic may help, but it is smart thinking and loyal friends that make Ani succeed and that make this novel so satisfying in the end.

RATING: 7/10 – Very good

divider1The Books of Bayern:

  1. The Goose Girl
  2. Enna Burning
  3. River Secrets
  4. Forest Born

books of bayer

 

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FTF Book Review: Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

Every year, I think I’m insane when I sign up for too many reading challenges. But it is exactly these challenges that lead me to books that I might otherwise have missed, that make me discover authors that become favorites. Helen Oyeyemi is such an author. Her latest novel fit beautifully into some of my reading challenges, as well as my theme of the month. And it was so good, I already put all her other books on my soon-to-read list.

boy snow birdBOY, SNOW, BIRD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead, 2014
Hardcover: 308 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • Snow White

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Synopsis

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

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Review

I had never read anything by Helen Oyeyemi before so this book hit me right in the feels without warning. There is so much beauty in this story, I hardly know where to start. Boy Novak flees from her abusive father and runs away to make a life for herself. She marries a wealthy man, Arturo Whitman, who has the most beautiful daughter anyone has ever seen. Snow, with her sleek hair and white skin, is everybody’s darling. When Boy is pregnant with her first child, she starts both fearing and resenting Snow for taking up her grandparents’ attention, for drawing away from her own unborn child. When Bird, their baby girl, is born, Boy sends Snow away and manages to keep her away for years and years. Bird grows up without having ever seen her own sister. Until one day she discovers a letter…

The novel is structured in three parts. The first and last are told from Boy’s perspective, the second one from Bird’s. In some genius way, Helen Oyeyemi managed to make every single character believable and likeable. I fell in love with Boy on the first page, when she runs away from her rat-catcher father whose punishments were highly original but all the more disturbing.

The easier Boy’s life gets, the more focus she puts on beauty, on her own looks, the more she worries about what she will look like when she is old. She even spins a tale with her best friend (an aspiring journalist) about a magician – ostensibly – but really about women and beauty. Boy doesn’t scream her views and fears at you but they are undeniably there, visible just beneath everything she says and does. It makes for an intriguing character, to say the least.

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During Bird’s part of the novel, I got really sucked in and didn’t put the book down until I finished. Because Bird, of course, is born with darker skin. The Whitmans are really African Americans with very light skin, passing for white. The moral implications of their actions are discussed but neither condemned nor praised. The author leaves it up to her readers to make up their own minds. My mind didn’t take long making up. If you have the choice between living a life as an equal, fairly treated, full person and a life where you tell the truth about your family lineage but where you aren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants, buy in certain shops, go to certain places at all – I know what I would choose. But the discussion point is valid. Skin color is part of what makes the Whitmans themselves, and they have a dark-skinned sister hidden away to remind them – and they gave up that cultural identity for a more comfortable life.

In one of her letters to Bird, Snow writes about the part of the family that doesn’t pass for white:

Great-aunt Effie is like that. She thinks there are treasures that were within her reach, but her skin stole them from her. She shinks she could have been somebody. But she is somebody.

Have I mentioned at all that Bird and Snow develop a friendship via letters? When Bird finds a letter adressed to her (hidden away by her mother), she writes Snow on a whim, trying to get to know her far-away sister. She has seen pictures of Snow’s otherworldly beauty, of course, but instead of being jealous (Bird is very pretty herself) she asks intelligent questions. Like what is it like to be seen first and foremost as something beautiful? Did Snow sometimes wish she looked more average? And does Snow also sometimes not show up in mirrors?

Mirrors, while not as front and center as in the fairy tale, are important throughout the story and especially during a revelation at the end. I don’t spoil books so you can read on safely. Mirrors play a part, but I could never, ever have foreseen that ending.

I realise this review is getting long already but I haven’t even told you about the gorgeous, gorgeous writing yet. Helen Oyeyemi is an economical writer. She doesn’t embellish her sentences with a million little flourishes. Instead she finds the right words, puts them together, and they just work.

Possibly the most beautiful thing in this book were its characters. I said before that I liked Boy, Snow, and Bird – they are vastly different people with very different dreams and hopes and problems. But they each have agency. Something so many (even good) authors fail at, is writing good dialogue. Either we get the kind where every line spoken is of the utmost importance for the plot, or we get the sort of dialogue where people just talk and talk without saying much. Helen Oyeyemi finds the middle path. People sometimes just ramble, make up crazy stories with their friends, but within these ramblings they say something about themselves. Like Boy’s made-up story about the magician, it is not just a yarn spun with a friend, it is also a cloak she can put over her feelings so she doesn’t feel naked.

Boy’s decision to run away from home (“home” includes a childhood best friend she truly loves) and marry someone to be safe from her father reveals so much about her. As does her choice to bring Snow back home after years of separation, for the sake of her daughter Bird.

A week later Dad made another trip to Boston and brought me back a gift from Snow – a small, square, white birdcage with a broken door. I hung the cage from the ceiling and watched it swing, and I was happy.

Needless to say, I loved Boy, Snow, Bird with the passion of a thousand fangirls. I want a sequel and a movie and a ton of fanart. How many times can you read a fairy tale retelling of Snow White and fall in love with the princess and the evil queen at the same time, after all?

RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

divider1If you want to dress like your favorite book cover, here’s an outfit to go with Boy, Snow, Bird (via styleblazer.com)

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