Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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Monthly Wrap-Up: May 2013

This is my first day back from a week-long holiday and I am drowning in unwritten reviews, half-finished books, and general catching up on Stuff That Happened On the Internet. It’s good to be back! May turned out to be a meager month when it comes to reading, mostly because I started watching Battlestar Galactica and – if you’ve seen the show you will understand this – there was no way I would spend a minute of my free time doing anything other than watching BSG. My Gods, I loved that show. Four season and a movie were over way too fast and I already kind of feel the urge to start over again.

But let’s talk books. Here is what little I managed to read in May 2013:

THE BEST

midnight robber1Nalo Hopkinson – Midnight Robber   8,5/10

After hearing only good things about Nalo Hopkinson, I randomly picked one of her books and was pretty much blown away. Writing this now in June, the themes and language still reverberate and it’s hard to get the book out of my mind. Tan-Tan was a fantastic protagonist and I can’t wait to discover more of Hopkinson’s books. She is immensely gifted, her writing feels fresh and different and utterly fascinating. Please sir, can I have some more?

Catherynne M. Valente – Six-Gun Snow White   8,5/10six gun snow white

By now I know there is no going wrong with Cat Valente. I particularly love this book because it is signed (yay) and beautifully made. The story, while short, pushed all the right buttons and transported a well-known fairytale into a Wild West setting. The pictures she paints with her prose are nothing short of magical and if I weren’t extremely careful with my books, I would have underlined pretty much every other paragraph. Totally worth its 30 Euro price, and then some.

fly by nightFrances Hardinge – Fly By Night  7,5/10

Frances Hardinge has given me hope that YA and children’s fiction has not completely gone to shit. Everything about this book was original. The language, while easy enough to understand, was challenging at times (that’s how you teach people new things, after all, and not just children!), the setting and characters were fully fleshed-out and different from anything I have read in a children’s book before. Hardinge is another author that went right to my must-read-more-of-that list.

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THE WORST

Seeing as I only read four books, the chances were pretty low to come across a terrible one. And I didn’t. Nothing bad in May, other than not reading enough in general.

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THE REST

re Visions: AliceSullivan, Kate (ed.) – (re) Visions: Alice  5/10

A small short story collection set around the original Alice in Wonderland. As with any collection, I didn’t like every story. There was a broad range of  styles and quality. If you want to read about a noir version of Wonderland, meet old friends from Wonderland in real-life London, or see how one person can flee into her own Wonderland because real life deals her nothing but trouble, you may well find something to like in here. The collection also includes Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which was by far the most fun of the stories represented. All in all, the collection left me with a feeling of “meh” but the first short story still sticks in my mind as a lot of fun and very close to Carroll’s nonsensical writingn style.

dividerBooks that followed me to June

Margo Lanagan – The Brides of Rollrock Island (Sea Hearts)
I expected something as breathtaking as Tender Morsels but even a week of holiday and unlimited reading time didn’t make me finish this book. The narrative switches too much between characters and reads more like a short story collection than a novel. I am also missing some of the magic that, in my mind, should be present whenever selkies are involved. That said, the writing is beautiful and some characters’ arcs are truly touching. Maybe the ending will sweep me off my feet (though I doubt it).

Chazan, Ching, Thomas, Young – (re) Visions: Alice

Let me be honest with you. I’ve always preferred Through the Looking Glass to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Even so, it is rare that I can resist anything with a bit of Alice in it. There were two reasons why I requested a review copy of this book via NetGalley. Number one was the beautiful cover. It drew me in and made me read the blurb. Number two was just that blurb. The little descriptions of the four short stories all included some buzz word that made me go “ooh”. Let’s see how I ended up liking this small volume.

re Visions: Alice(re) Visions: Alice
by Kaye Chazan, Amanda Ching, Hilary Thomas, C.A. Young
& Lewis Carroll

Published by: Candlemark & Gleam, 2011
ISBN: 1936460052
ebook: 219 pages

My rating: 5/10

First sentence: The boy has managed, so far, to displace himself four meters off the ground.

In 1865, Alice went on an adventure to Wonderland. Today, four modern authors follow her down the rabbit hole…

This is the first in a planned series in the (re)Visions line, which is devoted to exploring the lasting legacy of classic works of speculative fiction on our genres and on our lives. In each book in the series, four authors will tackle a classic work of imaginative fiction, and give it their own spin; along with each of these novellas will also be the original work.

dividerI read few to no anthologies or short story collections (a fault I am trying to remedy at the moment) and it may be because I feel the need to read the stories in order and not skip any of them. Reading short stories online (at Clarkesworld, etc.) has brought me enormous amounts of pleasure, though, so I thought I’d give this little collection a try. After all, not much can go wrong when you know you’re getting spins on a favorite classic, right? Well…

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I won’t say much about this. It is Alice as we know and love her, and if I ever do write a review on that book, it will get its own post. This was very nice beginning for the anthology, of course, and gave me an excuse to re-read it. Luckily, I can continue in my Annotated Alice which includes Through the Looking Glass. That one is definitely worth its own review…

I will talk about each of the four contained novellas separately, as they were all written by a different author.

Kaye Chazan – What Aelister Found Here

Blurb: It is 1888, and Aelister has never felt at home, not even in his own skin. Now that he’s been expelled from school, he sees no reason to stick around his house in Warwickshire, so he runs away to another world altogether: London. The city is a maze of heat and rain, where a murderer stalks the streets of Whitechapel and a Crown Prince flouts his mother’s laws, and Aelister soon finds himself dealt into a series of deadly games—ones that put his life, and far more, on the line. And while London may not be the wonderland Aelister expected to find, he is far from the only person in the city looking for that very place.

Now this is what I was hoping for. The story opens on our practical boy-protagonist in avery Alice-like style. The witty prose and clever asides were totally up my alley and reminded me very much of Victorian prose. There are references to Alice and they are very neatly incorporated into the real-world setting. While the main story has pacing problems as soon as Aelister arrives in London, it picks up once a very peculiar game of chess starts. I enjoyed how Jack the Ripper was mixed into this strange little tale, but the end came extremely abrubtly and was somewhat anticlimactic. The Alice-elements are subdued, you will recognize a lot of characters from the original. Altogether, a story that I enjoyed more for its whimsical tone and its practical protagonist than for its connection to the original Alice. Recommended. Rating: 6,5/10

Amanda Ching – House of Cards

Blurb: There’s Alice, who fell down a rabbit hole and had an adventure. Then there’s the Queen of Hearts, who loses her temper quite frequently. But before that, there was Mary Ann, a servant pressed past patience, past duty. As all three hurtle toward an inevitable meeting, a creature has broken from its coffin and is even now tunneling to meet them. When the deck is stacked like this, even the strongest foundation could crumble.

This story featured surprisingly many characters for such a short piece and the climax was probably supposed to be when it all comes together and the separate storylines make sense as a whole. But the story as such failed to grab my attention and I mostly just read on because I wanted to get to the next story. The Queen of Hearts as well as some other known characters do show up but mostly to spout nonsense. And not the brilliant kind of nonsense Lewis Carroll gave us, just plain nonsense without much humor. Except for the occasional badam-tish line that made me roll my eyes rather than smile. I was hoping for some fantasy elements but even that bubble was burst. I’ll give the writer props for the idea but I think it would have needed more characterisation and depth to work. Rating: 3,5/10

Hilary Thomas – Knave

Blurb: In the city they call Wonderland, the Queen calls the shots. If she doesn’t like the way you’re playing the game, she’ll give you the axe. Permanently. Jack Knave is an investigator, a man of many talents, an occasional blade for The Crown; and he’s the best at what he does. He knows every face in the city, every move they make, every connection. Except one.When a mysterious woman shows up in town, Jack is sure she’s not just here for the tourism. But the more he digs, the less he knows. Finding the answers means getting close to her, but she’s not the only one with secrets. Somebody’s been stealing from the Queen, and it looks like Jack’s taking the fall. Alice could seal his fate with a word—or not. With no options left, and the odds stacked against him, Jack must make a desperate gamble to survive. Whether his luck holds out or he’s left out to dry, one thing’s for certain: he can’t afford to lose his head.

Jack Knave lives in the city of Wonderland and the arrival of a certain dame named Alice turns things upside down. This is Wonderland goes noir. I was surprised by how much that genre mash-up appealed to me. But an idea alone does not make a good story. Characters may have names that sound like they are from Wonderland (Jimmy Cheshire, Jack Knave, The Queen, Kingsley, Alice) but they are walking stereotypes. I don’t read noir fiction but I have seen a few movies that fit the description. There is nothing new or original about this story. There also happens to be no magic whatsoever and the big reveal (if, indeed, it is supposed to be a big reveal) was painfully predictable. All of that said, I enjoyed the story more than “House of Cards”. The prose wasn’t a revelation but easy enough to read and the plot was fast-paced and had a nice flow to it. Probably not a story I will remember for long, but enjoyable, nonetheless. Recommended with reservations. Rating: 5,5/10

C.A. Young – The World in a Thimble

Blurb: Toby Fitzsimmons hates the creepy sculpture of Alice on display in his gallery, but when it drops him into Wonderland for real, he’s not prepared for what he finds. From real living furniture to scoutmasters and cowboys to coyotes who really do go everywhere, Toby finds himself in a Wonderland that’s more deadly, and much more American, than the one he remembers reading about as a boy. At the heart of it all is the Catmistress, who rules over the city’s dark alleys and knows the secret of the Cheshire trick. In this strange new world, Toby will need all the help he can get to find his way home. Before that, though, he’ll have to find a way to keep from losing himself. Wonderland, it seems, changes everything it touches. And then there’s the thing in the sewers…

This time around, the story starts in a modern day setting with gallery owner Toby, who spends his time as a punching bag for Hambrick, a man whose collection he’s showing in said gallery. With a little help from the Alice sculpture on display, he falls into Wonderland. I was insanely happy to actually read a story that took me to Wonderland and showed me some of its marvels. There are flying coyotes (who can talk, of course), cats who know the Cheshire Trick, depressed fountains, and bottles that say “drink me”. It could have been so nice. But the writing is clumsy at best, the characters – including Toby – are very flat, and the storyline is predictable. I did enjoy the craziness of Wonderland and its inhabitants but the description dumps and the characters left me rather unimpressed. Rating: 5/10

Overall, the first story was my favorite because it hit the tone of the original most closely and, while not showing us actual Wonderland, gave well-known characters a new personality. It had atmosphere and a good plot. I liked “Knave” second best, despite its stereotypical characters and predictable plotline. At least the idea was original and the execution okay. As a collection, I didn’t love it and wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But if you love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and want to see its characters wearing new cloaks, this might be right for you.

RATING: 5/10  –  Meh