If you like fairy tales or retellings, there is a good chance you’ve heard of Misty the Book Rat. She has thing for everything fairy tale-esque and hosts an annual Fairy Tale Fortnight – two weeks of reading fairy tales, retellings, or anything else to do with fairy tales. This year, I was lucky enough to be chosen as an active participant (rather than just read a retelling for myself). I highly recommend you check out Misty’s youtube channel. She’s one of those people who inspire passion for a book you’ve never even heard of before.
Published in: Tor, 1999
Series: Sevenwaters #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Three children lay on the rocks at the water’s edge.
Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.
But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift – by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.
When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…
Mythology in all its shapes and forms intrigues me. As do fairy tales. A combination of the two usually guarantees that I will go out and buy a book, and almost none came as highly recommended as Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series. A retelling of The Six Swans set in Ireland and involving a romance as well as the horrible task our heroine has to complete in order to save her brothers – there is so much potential there, I simply couldn not resist. The execution of the tale was well done but didn’t sweep me off my feet.
Sorcha tells her story in detail. Very much detail. To say this is a slow book would be an understatement. That said, I quite like slow books. I love how they focus on characters instead of action, how deep they let us get into the protagonist’s head. But despite the first person narrative, there was always some distance between me and Sorcha. Maybe it was the flowery language or the very drawn-out scenes but it was never one of those books for me that I could crawl into and dissapear in for a while. One scene especially made me cringe, not just because it was a terrible experience for Sorcha but because I felt that the scene was simply added for shock value and to give Sorcha more personality. Her wild spirit and determination to save her brothers no matter what, would have been quite enough.
As the protagonist struggles to break the curse, she has to remain completely mute. On the one hand, that is an intriguing idea, on the other hand, it is difficult to keep a story moving when the heroine never speaks. She has to let her actions speak for her. But Sorcha’s actions are just as predefined as is her silence. She collects starwort, spins it into thread, weaves the thread into fabric and sews shirts. Of course, she has to collect food and clean herself, but in reality, her everyday life is just not very interesting to read about. Then again, it wasn’t boring, either, especially in the second half. Juliet Marillier walks a fine line between thrilling and boring and somehow manages to just make it good enough to keep reading.
At a certain point, another level of conflict is added when Sorcha has to deal with the Britons, the sworn enemies of her own people. The Briton characters were my favorites in the entire book. I never really warmed to most of Sorcha’s brothers and Sorcha herself didn’t really grow any more interesting than she was at the very beginning, for all the ordeals she has to suffer through. Simon, Red, even Sir Richard, or Margery, managed to leap off the page and make me care. Whether it was because I wanted them to be happy and help Sorcha in her task, or whether it was because they were absolutely despicable, they were real to me and evoked real emotion. And yes, there were definitely butterflies and silly girl giggles involved when it came to a certain character.
One thing the author does magnificently well is the fact that I was never really sure if Sorcha would manage to break the curse. This is a fairy tale and as such should end in a happily ever after. But the stakes were so high and Sorcha was faced with more and more difficulties along the way, that for a long time, I was conviced this would end badly. The ending could not have been better. I won’t spoil it, but let me say that it is neither happily ever after nor is it completely bad. That bittersweet part in between struck a chord with me and was one of my favorite bits of the book.
In the end, I wasn’t impressed enough to continue with the series right away. I will, eventually. This is a recommendation, despite some misgivings, because while I was never so in love that I hugged the book to my chest and danced around the living room (yeah, that happens sometimes), it was also not bad. I am somewhat torn about how to rate this because I believe the quality of the writing should be rated higher than this. However, my rating is based on a scale of my personal enjoyment and I don’t really see myself re-reading this novel.
THE GOOD: Great beginning, great last third, some fantastic characters and a beautiful, very subtle romance.
THE BAD: A protagonist who is never more than somewhat interesting, a very drawn-out middle part, and not enough mythology for my taste.
THE VERDICT: A great retelling of The Six Swans, full of atmosphere, conflict, and an incredibly enduring girl. The beginning and the end were wonderful and despite some slow and one unnecessary bit, I recommend it to people who like character-intense books and, of course, fairy tales.
RATING: 7/10 – Very good
The Sevenwaters Series:
Peter Pan has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in school. I had known (and disliked) the overly sweetened Disney version before I ever picked up the book and maybe it is because of this that the book touched me the way it did. I can’t get enough of this children’s adventure story, nestled within which lies a dark tragedy of a boy. Retellings, sequels, prequels, and spin-offs have been on my radar ever since. And because I’m currently reading The Annotated Peter Pan by Maria Tatar, I felt like looking at Neverland from a different perspective.
Published by: Reginetta Press, 2009
ebook: 293 pages
Series: Hook & Jill #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: When she woke, she was the woman in the bed on the ship in the sea, and she used to be Wendy Darling, who dreamt in the bed in the nursery of Number 14.
In this startling new vision of a cultural classic, Wendy intends to live happily ever after with Peter Pan. But Time, like this tale, behaves in a most unsettling way. As Wendy mothers the Lost Boys in Neverland, they thrive on adventure. She struggles to keep her boys safe from the Island’s many hazards, but she finds a more subtle threat encroaching from an unexpected quarter… The children are growing up, and only Peter knows the punishment.
Yet in the inky edges of the Island, the tales Wendy tells to the Lost Boys come true. Captain Hook is real, and even the Wonderful Boy can’t defend his Wendy against this menace. Hook is a master manipulator, devising vengeance for his maiming. Insidious and seductive, Hook has his reasons for tempting Wendy to grow up. Revenge is only the first.
I love Peter Pan. James Barrie’s original children’s story is perfection to me but I am not at all averse to reinterpretations, retellings or darker versions of Neverland. Régis Loisel’s comic book series Peter Pan is one of my favorite stories ever, and this Andrea Jones series promised to deliver something similar. Wendy grows up – which of course is against Peter’s rules – and becomes partial to Captain Hook. The title and the blurb both led me to expect a sort of dark romance between the well-mannered yet ruthless pirate captain and the innocent girl. That’s pretty much what I got, but I still can’t decide whether I loved or hated the book.
The first thing I noticed was the language. I will not make presumptions about what the author intended, I can only state how I perceived her writing. The style came over as if she was trying very hard to sound poetic. It ended up clunky, at times even pretentious, and out of character. Because there is not much plot so speak of, the focus lies on the characters and their development. Wendy secretly wants to have a romance, her very own love story, with Peter Pan – a thing, of course, that he can and will never give her, because that is on the threshold to grown-up territory. Wendy’s inner turmoil was intriguing to read, even though the style got in the way of itself a bit. As the story progresses, we get to see other characters’ viewpoints, most intriguing among them Hook. It was for him that I kept reading. Andrea Jones’ Hook is menacing, sinister, and sexy all at the same time. I found myself wanting Wendy to go to him.
Which leads me to the characters. Their development begins slowly and is well-done. We start out with well-known characters who I personally found believable. Peter is selfish and arrogant and adventurous, Wendy caring and prudent, Tinker Bell moody. Hook’s plotting will eventually draw Wendy over to his side and explore her sexuality as well as her will to make her own decisions.
The reason I am so torn about this is because despite my misgivings about the writing style, I was (for lack of a better word) hooked. I didn’t want to put the book away, I wanted to find out where all this build-up would lead. In the end, the pay-off fell a little short of my expectations. Some of the dialogue, especially towards the end, put me off, some storylines were just dropped (maybe to be picked up again in the next book?), and the last third of the book was full of logical mistakes and strange time and point-of-view jumps that made it both confusing and annoying. For example, Wendy – at one point – points a pistol at somebody’s head and fires. This person (I won’t spoil) falls down and I assumed they were dead. A bullet to the head from about a meter away will do that to you, right? The scene stops there, we follow another character for a couple of pages, and when we return, the person who just got shot gets up like nothing happened. The Neverland is a universe of magic, so I’m fine with people miraculously surviving lethal wounds, but it wasn’t even adressed! Nobody wondered how Wendy’s shot didn’t seem to have any effect, nobody even mentioned it. I went back and re-read that bit, sure I must have missed a paragraph, but no. It’s just never explained or even alluded to.
As this is an alternate Neverland sort of sequel, I didn’t expect things to be the same as in Barrie’s original play. But there were some details that rankled. Peter Pan can only remain an eternal child because he forgets things extremely fast. Even if his body were to never age, if he remembered all his adventures, his Lost Boys and his fairies, he would still mature on the inside. It is precisely his lack of memory that allows him to stay a boy forever. In this book, Peter remembered a surprising amount of details that made for interesting stand-offs in the end but didn’t feel like Peter Pan to me. In fact, and I assume that was the author’s intent, I found myself rooting for Hook instead of Peter.
This is certainly a book full of atmosphere, of character development and of discovering that you want to grow up. When I say growing up, I mean that to include sex. There is a fair bit of sexy time but never graphic, usually alluded to or described metaphorically. If I’m completely honest, I think Andrea Jones would make quite a good vaginal fantasy writer. She kept it classy, however, and while I wouldn’t necessarily give this book to children, I believe the sexy bits could be glossed over easily.
What did I think? I was quickly sucked into this dark, yet recognisable version of Neverland and couldn’t wait to watch Wendy succumb to Hook’s charms. There are many good ideas and fantastic characters in this book, some of whose transformations were pleasantly surprising. That said, I found it to be overlong and unnecessarily drawn out. The ending, while satisfying in a way, lost a lot of atmosphere. I’d recommend this to fans of Peter Pan who want a dark and sexy twist on the beloved story and who don’t mind a slow-moving plot.
The Good: Character depth and development, surprisingly sexy yet subtle scenes, a villain to root for.
The Bad: Sometimes clunky, overly wanna-be poetic writing, logical mistakes, occasionally strange dialogue.
The Verdict: As a hardcore Pan fan, I wouldn’t want to have missed this. Even though I’m not a romance reader, I find myself wanting more Hook & Jill time and less repetition of people’s thoughts and feelings. Still, this is a good novel of an alternate Neverland, peopled by characters who dare to grow up.
Rating: 6,5/10 – Quite good
- Hook & Jill
- Other Oceans
I’m participating in the Worlds Without End reading challenge of 2013. Last year, it was all about the Science Fiction Grand Masters, this year it is about Women of Genre Fiction – and I must say, I already picked up a few books that I had planned to read but that probably would have been forgotten for another year or two were it not for this challenge. There are great recommendations on their site (and you can track your progress on all the lists or award winners you’re reading). I am so happy to have discovered Margo Lanagan, an amazing writer that I won’t soon forget.
Published by: Ember, 2010 (2008)
ebook: 464 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: There are plenty would call her a slut for it.
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?
I grew up on fairy tales. They were my very first contact with stories. I used to listen to Grimms’ fairy tales on cassette (yeah, I’m old enough for that) and I knew them all by heart – and would tell them to my entire family – by the age of four. Snow White and Rose Red was never my favorite but I still associate strong memories and vivid pictures with the tale. Margo Lanagan put quite a twisted spin on the old story and completely blew me away.
The story opens on a dark scene. Liga, a girl of only 13 years, lives with her father, a dominant and moody man, who controls her entire life. It takes about two pages to figure out what is actually going on in that little hut where he keeps his daughter, away from the village. While never saying it out loud, we get the idea that Liga is being raped by her father on a regular basis. When we meet her, she is already broken, body and soul, and there seems no way out of her vicious cycle. This dark opening was as surprising as it was fascinating. It made me severely uncomfortable and yet left me in awe for the writer’s talent for evoking emotion.
Not all is bad in Liga’s life. After years of terror and ordeal, she has two daughters and can finally make a calm life for herself. Branza, the shy and serene one, and Urdda, excited and curious, grow up happy and loving each other and their mother dearly. In their happy little haven, everything is well, until the threshold to the real world starts to blur and bears start appearing. The girls befriend the bears but at least Urdda longs to find that other place where her animal friend has come from.
This is a tale of three amazing women, their suffering and how they each eventually heal. Darkness permeates the entire book and while the beginning was certainly among the most terrifying and disturbing things I have ever read, there is always some beauty to it. Margo Lanagan’s language is clear and sinister and evocative. She retells the old and well-known fairytale and keeps many of its key moments intact. At the same time, she breathes new life into it. Liga, Branza, and Urdda’s life in the forest may be a quiet part but it is never boring.
I love when authors who write for young people trust their readers to be smart. Margo Lanagan doesn’t always spell everything out for you, but her characters and powerful imagery stand for themselves. She also doesn’t shrink back from exploring darker themes in a YA novel. A young girl’s budding sexuality, rape, allusions to beastiality, and more rape – it is not a happy book when you start reading. But it turns into a beautiful tale if you stick with it. And the ending was as melancholy as it was perfect.
THE GOOD: A dark twist on an old fairytale, told in beautiful language and with three fantastic women to root for.
THE BAD: The slower middle-part may not be for everyone, as I’m sure many people will object to (or not want to stomach) the darker scenes.
THE VERDICT: This is what I’ve always hoped for in a fairy tale retelling. Strong, many-layered protagonists, magic around every corner, and a price to pay for every spell.
RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect
Why did I pick this book up? It certainly wasn’t because of the cover. I may be shallow when it comes to a book’s fashion sense, but really, if the story interests me, I don’t care. So this ugly specimen entered my hallowed halls of reading because the SF Squeecast made me. These guys truly deserve their Hugo and I love their podcast to bits. Such good recommendations!
by Sharon Shinn
Published by: Penguin US, 2002
ebook: 384 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: You would think that if someone commissioned your conception, paid for your gestation, and claimed you immediately after your harvesting, she would love you with her whole heart; but you would be wrong.
Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mind—and a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn’s life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastone—whose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.
Any retelling of Jane Eyre is walking the plank by default. Charlotte Bronte’s original story is not only universally beloved but also one of my very favorite books ever. I have read it many times, listened to it on audiobook, watched pretty much all the movie and TV adaptations (The BBC’s version from 2006 is the best), and generally never seem to tire of the tale. Setting the story in a science fiction universe, with interstellar travel a routine, every house equipped with a PhysiChamber to fix any diseases its residents may have, and people being grown in gen-tanks, there is still (or again) a huge gap between the classes. Not every resident of the galaxy is automatically a citizen, and citizenship comes in different levels.
So… a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, huh? Having just finished this book, let me say that while I enjoyed reading it very much, I am also left a bit underwhelmed. Sharon Shinn stays very close to the original and we almost get a scene-by-scene retelling, simply set on the planet Fieldstar. However, since Thorrastone Park – this alternate Thornfield Hall – is built “inspired by” old English estate manors, the setting doesn’t really have much impact on the story. Jenna works as a technician, taking care that the force field that creates a breathable atmosphere, doesn’t break down. She still spends a lot of time with Mr. Ravenbeck’s ward, Ameletta, and even teaches her a thing or two about nuclear reactors. However, apart from traveling in hovercars instead of carriages, there really wasn’t much to set this story apart from the original.
Maybe I am being unfair. If I had read this without knowing (and loving) Jane Eyre, I probably would have adored this book. But knowing the original, and knowing it quite well, I couldn’t help but compare. On every single page. I found myself waiting for certain scenes to happen, wondering how Sharon Shinn would translate them into a universe with space travel, women working “manly” jobs, wearing men’s clothes, etc. In the end, while I found the romance believable and I really enjoyed what the author did with the games Ravenbeck and his guests play, it didn’t really work for me.
The characters, at least, are true to themselves. They are clearly recognisable as their 19th century counterparts and I cared deeply for Jenna and Ravenbeck. The one new character that is introduced feels, while equally likable, a little misplaced. What this book did for me was show just how perfect Jane Eyre is. Not only is it a gripping story of love and class division, but it is also beautifully constructed. Every puzzle piece sits in its place and if you change one thing, you’d really have to change all the others to make it work. I believe that’s why Shinn was so careful, didn’t really change anything.
Apart from one long ride on a space ship, the science fiction element fell short for me as well. I haven’t read a lot of hard sci-fi (I can’t remember any, at least) but I really would have enjoyed more descriptions of Jenna’s work as a technician. Give me all the details about the gadgets and cables she has to take care of.
In conclusion, this was a book worth reading and it showed that the author knows her craft. She evoked emotions in me, made me care about the characters, and even made Jenna tell her story to us, her “reeders”.
THE GOOD: Come on, it’s Jane Eyre!
THE BAD: Not enough science fiction, really just an almost exact retelling with no new twists.
THE VERDICT: A good book retelling one of the most beautiful stories ever. Just not what I was expecting or hoping for.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 Quite good
I admit I came across Wicked when I was looking for the next musical to watch. It was the music samples online that drew me into the story and brought me first to the novel, then to the musical. And I recommend both most warmly, even though the book will probably not be liked by a younger audience.
published: HarperCollins 1995
copy: trade paperback
series: The Wicked Years #1
my rating: 8/10
first sentence: From the crumpled bed the wife said, “I think today’s the day. Look how low I’ve gone.”
When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil? Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
First, let me say how brilliant I find the origin of the Wicked Witch’s name. Elphaba is made up of the original Oz author’s initials, L. Frank Baum –> LFB plus a few vowels to make it pronouncable. We don’t actually get to meed her for a while as the story starts out with her parents, most remarkably her slightly nymphomaniac mother. It was very early on that I realized I was not reading a cute children’s retelling of the Wizard of Oz but a novel for adults that deals with sexuality, moral issues and politics. All that serious business does not diminish how much fun this book is, though. Do not be scared!
When I read this, it became one of the books that demanded all my attention and made me put all other current reads aside (even Pern had to make way for Elphaba). The writing style, while definitely not easy, has a nice flow to it and makes Oz come to life in a way that Baum’s version pales in comparison. Don’t hate me but I never really warmed to the original story. Reading about how the villain became who she is when Dorothy meets her didn’t just show the Wicked Witch of the West in a new light, it gave the entire world of Oz a personality. What’s cute and fluffy in the original turns out to be brutal, political conflict, prejudice and sheer stupidity by the population that Elphaba is trying to fight.
We meet Elphaba when she is born and follow the green-skinned girl throughout her career at Shizz University where she is trying to make her fellow students think for themselves and see the world for what it is – a place where evil is afoot. Gregory Maguire cleverly introduces Elphaba to us thorugh numerous side characters’ eyes. I quickly came to love Boq, the Munchkinlander, who is nothing like in the musical (where they made him a little dumb and submissive). Glinda – formerly Galinda – also gets quite some stage time and shows us what she thinks of Elphaba. My all-time favorite character in this book is probably Nanny. What a cool person!
I would say the characters are this novel’s greatest strength but that would devalue that everything else is very strong as well. Maguire managed to create issues that a non-Ozian can relate to. Elphaba speaks up for Animal rights (as opposed to animal rights) – meaning Animals with a soul, who can talk and behave like humans. Oz is not a playground for little kids, it’s a political battlefield. Her main quest, if you want to call it that, is to find the source of evil. With all that going on, we have to remember it’s not easy being green and having a sister without arms…
We do find out how Elphaba turns into the Wicked Witch, even though personally I’d never have called her truly evil. There are a lot of questions left unanswered which will probably be resolved in the sequels. A nice little extra: Every part of the novel starts with a beautiful black and white illustration that I found myself going back to while reading.
Gregory Maguire was a big discovery for me. The man has some talent. He spun a vivid tale around L. Frank Baum’s childrens’ story and brought it to life more than the classic ever could. I warmly recommend this book to anyone who’s wondered about where evil comes from or – like me – who always though that Dorothy was uncool.
THE GOOD: Vivid writing, amazing setting and characters, challenging yet beautiful style.
THE BAD: It may not look it but the book is actually quite long. It took me a while to get through and I see how some people will find the style daunting.
THE VERDICT: An utterly gripping tale that brings Oz to life and draws you into a whole new version of the beloved childrens’ classic.
RATING: 8/10 eight excellent Munchkinlanders
- Son of a Witch
- A Lion Among Men
- Out of Oz
A FEW WORDS ON THE MUSICAL:
While the follow the same characters, the stories told in this novel and its musical adaptation are vastly different. The musical is fluffy and cute and simply hilarious. It features some of the most memorably music I’ve ever heard and is suitable for people of all ages. There is nothing as dark and gritty as in the book but I love both for having their own merits. Each version makes the story its own.
I listened to the soundtrack while writing this review and am feeling a familiar tug to go back and explore Gregory Maguire’s Oz some more. Good thing the rest of the series is already waiting on my Everest-like TBR pile.
Fairy tale retellings have been a priority this month. But I must say, most of the ones I ended up reading were big disappointments. However, I don’t give up easily so I kept trying. And among the bad or badly written ones, I did find a gem or another. This little book was charming in so many ways and retells Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Snow Queen” (a personal favorite of mine). Plus, who can resist these adorable illustrations? I love the style and will look for more books illustrated by Erin McGuire.
published: Haper Collins, 2011
artwork: Erin McGuire
my rating: 7/10
first sentence: It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.
Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.
Hazel Anderson doesn’t fit in. It took her a while to find out why but wherever she goes, she’s the odd one out. Whether it’s her dark brown skin, her big brown eyes and deep black hair or whether it’s the fact that her head is always in the clouds and she has trouble concentrating in her new school. The only bright side is her neighbor and best friend Jack. With him, she can pretend they’re superheros playing baseball (Batman is oddly lousy compared to the others) and make up stories about the “shrieking shack”.
The shrieking shack, in fact, is only one of the many references and hints tot works of children’s literature. Hazel loves Harry Potter and Narnia, Hobbits and fairy tales, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (that made me smirk in particular), adventure stories and comic books. This love for fantasy was part of her appeal as a protagonist – at least for me. I remember my school days when nothing in the classroom was as interesting as the view out of the window (dreary as it was) where I could imagine I saw a dragon flying behind that cloud and a forest sprite dancing in the trees… Hazel is immediately likable, despite or maybe because of her lack of social skills. As an 11-year-old she desperately wishes she had quippy answers to everything or knew what to say about Jack’s mother who is “sick with sadness”. But the right words never seem to come to her and Jack is the only one who makes her belong.
This book is very much a story in two parts. The first is firmly grounded in reality. We meet an awkward but wonderful little girl with one true friend and otherwise not many things to make her happy. Being adopted and now minus one father is not the only problem Hazel has to deal with. Her best friend’s mother suffers from depression which weighs all of them down. Hazel’s mother wants her daughter to make friends with other people and to receive fewer calls from the school about Hazel’s behaviour and lack of attention.
Yes, this is a fairy tale retelling but in the first half, the only magic is in Hazel’s head. A very read, very daunting world awaits the characters and any kind of warmth Hazel can find comes from books and movies.
In the second part, the true fairy tale begins. Magic is everywhere and the structure of the novel switches to our well-known fairy tale style. Hazel walks through this enchanted wood to get her friend Jack back. On her journey, she meets many fearsome creatures and scary people, friends and people in need, strange birds and living nightmares. I won’t tell you about the ending – if you know The Snow Queen you can guess anyway – but I thought it was really well done. Maybe a bit too easy but there was a key moment that almost made my eyes a teeny tiny bit moist…
As fairy tale retellings go, this was one of the better ones. The language is beautiful and at times even poetic but still straight-forward enough for children to understand and appreciate. Maybe some people will disagree with me on this but at least one of the characters in this story seems to be of the same opinion:
“Marty,” Adelaide’s mother warned, “you’ll give them nightmares.”
“Come on, Lizzie.” He shook his head dismissively. “Kids can handle a lot more than you think they can. It’s when they get to be grown up that you have to start worrying.”
Catherynne M. Valente wrote a nice piece about grown-ups underestimating children and thinking that if a book contains too many “big words” it is not appropriate for smaller kids. But it is exactly for those big words that children should be encouraged to read these books. How else are they going to learn anything new? At an age when pretty much everything is a little bit new to them. Read the wonderful full article here: Too Smart for Kids. A Promise to the Readers of Fairyland
THE GOOD: A story of loss and letting go, of the magic inside all of us and what true friendship means. Beautifully written with a very likable heroine and a bittersweet tone to it.
THE BAD: I found the actual fairy tale part of the story less appealing than the beginning. This is a matter of personal taste, however, as the book was written very well throughout.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to young children, may there parents read along with them, enjoy a beautiful tale (and have a pair of ballet shoes at the ready for their little girls)
RATING: 7/10 A very good book with an extra half-point for the illustrations
This was going to be my last try at fairy tale retellings for this month. June is not even halfway over but with only one good novel and one fantastic comic book (which I’d read before), there was simply too much disappointment. And as much as I enjoy pointing out just why I hated a book, I’d much rather read books that I enjoy. And then this little alternate Alice in Wonderland comes along and actually makes it worth my while. It’s not outstanding but I spent a few very enjoyable hours with this book.
published: Dial, 2006
series: Looking Glass Wars #1
my rating: 5/10
first sentence: Everyone thought she had made it up, and she had tolerated more taunting and teasing from other children, more lectures and punishments from grown-ups, than any eleven-year-old should have to bear.
The Myth: Alice was an ordinary girl who stepped through the looking glass and entered a fairy-tale world invented by Lewis Carroll in his famous storybook. The Truth: Wonderland is real. Alyss Heart is the heir to the throne, until her murderous aunt Redd steals the crown and kills Alyss’ parents. To escape Redd, Alyss and her bodyguard, Hatter Madigan, must flee to our world through the Pool of Tears. But in the pool, Alyss and Hatter are separated. Lost and alone in Victorian London, Alyss is befriended by an aspiring author to whom she tells the violent, heartbreaking story of her young life. Yet he gets the story all wrong. Hatter Madigan knows the truth only too well, and he is searching every corner of our world to find the lost princess and return her to Wonderland so she may battle Redd for her rightful place as the Queen of Hearts.
up to become the Queen of Wonderland. Surrounded by the many wonders of this land of imagination, she was celebrating her seventh birthday, when her evil aunt Redd attacked the Heart Palace, killing many and usurping the throne. Alyss ends up in London where her vivid imagination gets her into more trouble than she expected.
It is ironic, really, how important imagination is in the story. Because Frank Beddor doesn’t leave much open for his readers’ imagination. He tells us everything, explains every little detail and spells out anything that might be doubtful. This is a big pet peeve of mine because I think even little children can handle a little mystery and have their own minds to make up. Authors who believe they have to explain everything are, in my opinion, underestimating readings – be they teenagers, smaller children, or adults.
The fact that I enjoyed this book despite my misgivings speaks for Beddor. While I always knew exactly who did what and why and there was no mystery left do discover, the story offers some neat ideas. Alyss, at the beginning a seven-year-old somewhat spoiled princess, behaves like a proper child her age. She’s selfish and easily bored, she wants to play with her best friend Dodge and not study how to become a queen. As she grows older, her character goes through a similar growth. Stern and determined to get her revenge, to get her queendom back, there is little left of the carefree child who only wanted to escape her lessons in favor of some childish fun.
This book – as any version of Carroll’s Wonderland should, really – offers a bunch of new words, creatures and ideas. Spirit Danes, for example, look like the front part of dogs but with the backsides of a seal… at least that’s how my brain imagined them and I found it wonderfully quirky and absurd and just went with it. Whether it’s tarty tarts, the Heart Crystal, or the awesome mechanical card deck soldiers, they lent a new layer to goold old Wonderland. That said, the beautiful concept art over on the LGW homepage did as much, if not more, to make these creatures come to life in my head. The pictures make the story feel epic and like a mix between Victorian absurdist literature and Sci-Fi.
Frank Beddor clearly tried to bring the war part of the Looking Glass Wars to life. Unfortunately, I have possibly never read fight scenes that were quite as boring as the ones in this book. The main characters are always ridiculously safe and any conflict that appears is resolved too easily for my taste. In fact, the closer I got to the end, the more obvious it became that there are some great ideas in this story that were badly executed. The frequent use of comic book sound words got on my nerves pretty quickly. “Kerboosh”, “plang”, and “thwip thwip thwip” are nice in comics but, come one! For my part, I would have loved to see what a different writer could have done with the premise. I’m not sure if I’ll be back for another adventure in Wonderland. A story is supposed to get better and more interesting towards the end, not the other way around.
THE GOOD: Very interesting ideas, a quickly-moving plot and even a little romance that I found convincing and refreshingly subtle.
THE BAD: The style reminds me of books for very small children. Everything is spelled out, nothing left for the imagination. In certain scenes the bad writing becomes painfully obvious and left me sadly detached from the story.
THE VERDIC: An ok book. I don’t consider it a waste of time but it didn’t leave me wanting more either.
RATING: 5/10 Meh
- The Looking Glass Wars
- Seeing Redd
- Fantasy Book Addict (4,5/10)
This was a surprise. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, this strong-minded little book, decided to pick me up, sweep me off my feet and provide me with reading pleasure non-stop. So people do still write good YA fantasy books. I do have some reservations about certain aspects but overall this was an enjoyable read.
published: Feiwel & Friends, 2012
series: The Lunar Chronicles #1
my rating: 6/10
first sentence: The screw through cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle.
Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.
I’m torn. On the one hand, this book was a fast-paced, fun read that exceeded my expectations by far. On the other hand, I am really, really pissed that the big revelation at the end is not only blatantly obvious but that it’s obvious from a very early moment on. I think it was on page 38 or so that I rolled my eyes and thought: “Oh, how very well concealed this “hint” is. I’m sure Cinder has nothing to do with that little aside about a certain person who died but whose body was never found”. Anybody with the attention span of a butterfly will know what I mean but – for the sake of those who maybe didn’t read that carefully and missed it – I won’t spoil it here. It did ruin the book for me, though.
Now that I’ve got that off my back, let me say that this story starts out with some great ideas that mix surprisingly well. A cyborg heroine who is also a mechanic, what’s not to love? And the author isn’t cheap. That is not all she offers. There is also people living on the moon, a pandemic plaguing the whole planet Earth and no cure in sight, and androids all over the place. Oh yes, there also happens to be a handsome and charming prince who invites Cinder to the ball…
Towards the middle, the author loses herself a little and the plot drifts. This middle bit could have used some editing as it didn’t further the plot very much. It does pick up again in the last third and the book is fast-paced throughout. I would even go so far as to call it very hard to put down.
My biggest problem with the plot was probably this obivous revelation I’ve mentioned. It is obvious to the reader, it is even obvious to some of the characters. Only our poor, self-conscious heroine refuses to see it until the information is served on a silver platter. For a girl who otherwise seems smart and quick, that is just really, really dumb and cost her many a sympathy point. It’s really sad when you have a potentially kick-ass heroine who keeps making bad choices. The prince drops off a faulty android which contains some vital information and Cinder decides it’s more important to build a car for herself than to fix that android. She trusts people far too easily but keeps secrets from the prince, who – if not the brightest bulb on the christmas tree – is at his worst a confused young man with a good heart.
Most of the characters are kept vague, the stepsister and stepmother are appropriately evil and self-obsessed, the prince charming and incredibly bland. There wasn’t much of a love story, which suited me just fine. If I can’t fall in love with a character, I don’t really see why the protagonist should. And other than Cinder, nobody seems to be a three-dimensional, believable person. That’s okay, though, as this is sort of a fairy tale, and I for my part, can forgive it.
While there are some great ideas in this book, many of them remain sadly unexplored. The plot takes place in New Beijing, a setting that was so little realised that it could have been any other place – I didn’t feel that Chinese touch at all. In fact, the way people talked and behaved, the decriptions of the city, reminded me very much of your generic western setting. Except for the palace which is built like ancient Chinese palaces, there is nothing to set this place apart.
The same goes for Cinder being a cyborg. Apart from having a mechanical foot and hand, she also has some pretty awesome gimmicks. A retina overlay informs her when somebody is lying, downloads the latest news from the net and we learn that a large part of her internal organs are also wired. I loved this idea and the possibilities it offers. However, we see too little of those, at least for my taste.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read with only a few hints at the original Cinderella tale, most of which were taking with a grain of salt. Cinder does not care if she has a pretty dress to wear and doesn’t even want to go to the ball. She does have a loathsome stepmother, though, and I particularly liked the idea of the lost “glass slipper”. I will be reading the second book in the Lunar Chronicles and as YA books go, this is one of the better ones. But I wasn’t overwhelmed and hope we get a second volume that is both better than this book and doesn’t end with such a cliffhanger.
THE GOOD: Great ideas and a fresh take on Cinderella. A fast-paced, fun read.
THE BAD: Oblivious main character, world-building was lacking, I would have liked more depth overall.
THE VERDICT: I would recommend this book for fans of dystopian YA novels and fairy tales alike. It’s fun, it’s quick, and it’s got a cyborg Cinderella!
RATING: 6/10 Quite good read
The Lunar Chronicles:
Okay, my first fairytale month book was not great. That doesn’t mean anything, right? There’s plenty more out there and while the McKinley hype didn’t convince me personally, I’m not giving up on fairy tale retellings (or McKinley, for that matter) just yet.
published: David Fickling, 2011 (1978)
my rating: 3,5/10
first sentence: I was the youngest of three daughters.
The author loses herself in descriptions of the castle, the gardens, the forks on the table, literally every single detail. There are authors who can pull that off – Tolkien’s descriptions of landscapes never really bothered me – but here, where the plot is nothing new, I felt the author should at least bring something new to the table. And she simply didn’t.
Reading Beauty felt a lot like watching a boring version of the Disney movie (granted, the book was published first) without singing or fun or a good love story. If you tackle a well-known fairy tale, the only way to make it interesting to readers is to give them something they don’t expect. Here, everything is as expected. The only parts that were slightly more interesting to me, were Beauty’s sisters stories. I actually hoped Grace would end up happily ever after.
The characters are practically cardboard. But that is also not surprising. Most fairy tales don’t have a lot of character variety, after all. But at least the Beast should have shown more temper, not been so damn nice all the time, and maybe talked more to his “guest”. The few conversations they do have don’t really teach us anything new about either character. It is usually just the Beast proposing and Beauty refusing him. Wearing pretty dresses, riding her horse and walking around the castle, reading books, does not make for a page turner.
I liked the introduction well enough, the writing style is enchanting, the idea of Beauty actually being very plain ingtriguing. It takes very long until the Beast appears, though and then, McKinley does nothing but describe interior decoration to us. Beauty wanders through the endless corridors of the Beast’s castle and looks at each candlestick in minute detail – which makes up pretty much the complete middle third of the book. The few glimpses of plot in between did not keep me intersted.
I was ready to drop the book and start my luck with something else, when Grace’s story became more important again. As I said, I cared about Beauty’s sisters (perfect as they are) and wanted to see them happy. So I raced through the last third of this novel to get my happy ending. The breaking of the curse and the Beast’s transformation are done so quickly that there was no way for me to build up any emotion. I did come to care for the characters, in the end, but not enough to want more by McKinley.
This reminded me a lot of the Walt Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Magical, invisible servants, blankets that tuck you in themselves, doors that open as if by magic… and a protagonist who loves books. I’m assuming Disney was borrowing heavily from McKinley’s reimagined fairy tale. Unfortunately for me, this made the story not only 100% predictable, it also made it look bad. Because, let’s be honest, Disney did a much better job. And offered a bunch of sing-along music that I still love.
THE GOOD: Appropriate, magical writing style, characters often stand for one particular quality – very reminiscent of old fairy tales.
THE BAD: Very, very boring at times. How a child is going to push through this, I don’t know. I was tempted to lem the book. Ending feels rushed.
THE VERDICT: A story that very likely inspired Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – Disney did it much better, however, and I recommend the movie over this book any time.
RATING: 3,5/10 Didn’t like it, but it had potential