2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

Holy smokes, where have all these months disappeared to? I could swear it was July a week ago, but here we are, at the beginning of October (speaking of which, I have to find me some witchy reads for Halloween). The summer months have probably been my best reading months in years, if not ever! I participated in the NEWTs Readathon which meant I first had to catch up on the OWLs readathon. Both of these were crazy months where I got a lot of reading done. I’m happy to announce that among the many books I read were also a few retellings.

What I’ve Read

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker was one of the group reads for this readathon and I absolutely loved it! From the very beginning, this quiet tale of a Golem and a Jinni grabbed me. I enjoyed following them as they found their footing in a new world, within new cultures, and as they became friends. But while this is mostly a quiet story with lots of focus on characters, there is quite an epic ending. I cannot recommend this enough. The language is beautiful, the characters are so engaging, and the story itself had me close to tears several times.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread was quite a different experience. It may not be a precise retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but it uses many of the fairy tale’s motifs. Gingerbread is the most obvious ones, but there are also breadcrumbs, houses in forests, and friendships that last through the ages. Most of all, it is the story of a mother and daughter, of how the mother grew to be who she is, why the daughter has turned into who she is and how their past connects them as much as their present. The family relations in this tale get surprisingly complex, but once I found my way into this rather strange story, I was enjoying myself a lot. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea. If you like magical realism (randomly talking dolls, anyone?) then definitely try it, though.

I also finally read The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. It was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for, expect shorter and with less depth. We follow the story of Loki, from his brith as an Asgardian god to his demise – all narrated by himself, in the arrogant, hilarious manner you’d expect. I loved the narration, the silly nicknames he gave the other gods, the tricks he played on them and especially his relationship with Thor. In fact, I loved it so much that I would have liked more of the same. More chapters of Loki’s exploits, his travels with Thor, his trickery and cleverness. But Harris tells a proper story that leads straight to the end of Asgard. From a proper critic’s standpoint I would probably command her for writing a proper beginning and end, but as I read this simply for enjoyment, I felt a little let down by how things ended. Not that it came as a surprise but it was slightly anticlimactic. However, I will very likely pick up the sequel.

I also read The Ice Puzzle by Catherynne M. Valente – a retelling or reimagining of The Snow Queen from the point of view of different cultures. As this is one of Valente’s earlier works, it pretty much has no plot but tons of gorgeous language and beautiful imagery. This novella was like falling into a dream. Things don’t always make sense, you don’t know who all of the characters are, but you just roll with it. And what unfolds is snippets of a Snow Queen, of a young girl trying to save a boy, of mirror shards and pieces of ice stuck in an eye. I didn’t love this as much as I do Valente’s other work, but it was definitely a new kind of retelling for me.

I finally finished The Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch. This was a great book but unfortunately, I started reading it at a bad time. You have to be in the right mood for this in order to fully appreciate it. I put the book away for several months and when I picked it back up, I was exactly as excited as I should have been from the start. It is the conclusion to Vasya’s story. It brings together the elements from the first and second book beautifully and even mixes a lot of real historical events and people into Vasya’s fictional story. Once I got into the atmosphere  of this book again, I loved every page. The Bear and the Nightingale is still my favorite of the trilogy but this was definitely a worthy ending.

Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places landed on my TBR pile because it won a Mythopoeic Award – a goldmine for retellings of myths, fairytales, and altogether books that I like. Reading it was a strange experience. While I read it, I was quite engaged, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted the characters to figure out how to break the fairy curse at the heart of this story. But whenever I put the book down, I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. I also felt that the most interesting characters weren’t featured enough. Instead, the story is told from one POV, and he was one of the least interesting people in this book. It was a fun read with many nods to fairy tales and fairies in general, but now that I’ve thought about it for a while, I’d rate it only okay.

My favorite retelling of the last few months and probably the whole year was Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. It retells East of the Sun and West of the Moon with a few changes and one mind-blowing twist. Instead of a polar bear, Echo, our protagonist, has to live with a white wolf in an enchanted castle. The castle itself feels like a character – there are so many rooms to discover and so much magic hidden inside of it. And it has a library… a magical library. Need I say more? I also loved that this story manages to take the heroine’s really, really stupid decision from the original fairy tale and make it feel sensible. The villain was fantastic, the last third of the book went by in a blur of action and adventure, and because I was rooting so much for Echo, that twist at the end completely wrecked me. I’m not ging to say any more about it, just please pick up this book if you like fairy tale retellings. It is a true gem!

And another highly recommended book, this time for graphic novel fans: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples. This is Snow White from the stepmother’s perspective, except Snow White isn’t the fairy tale princess we know. Without spoiling, I’ll only say that the roles of villain and heroine are flipped in a very original way. It has all the things you know from the original tale – poisoned apples, mirrors, skin as white as snow – but the way Gaiman turned the story on its head, nothing should work but everything does. All the beats of the original tale fit perfectly into this new version. This is a short comic book but it’s also surprisingly dark. The artwork is gorgeous (if you’re into the style, obviously) and had me so impressed I read the book two times in a row.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow
    Although this doesn’t fit into any of the slots left on my bingo card, I have started this story featuring Aztect gods. I have been buying Moreno-García’s book for a while, but this is the first one I’m finally going to pick up.
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning
    This is a Jane Eyre retelling set in space. Since I’ve already read The Lunar Chronicles, my options for this bingo slot are slim, but I quite look forward to this. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a while so I’m quite interested in how this author deals with the story and makes it work in a futuristic setting.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now. A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red plus Swan Lake sounds too good to miss. Since it features sisters – with all the love and rivalry that comes with it – I am even more intrigued. And I’ve also never read anything by McLemore but she keeps being recommended, so it’s about time I found out if I like her writing.

General Thoughts

I did not realise I’d read that many retellings. To be honest, I didn’t focus on this challenge at all during the last three months, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me how many retellings crept into my reading. With The Golem and the Jinni I got my first bingo on the Bingo Card, but I’m still planning to fill the entire card so there are still some books left for me to discover. The prompts are getting harder and harder to fulfill. While I do own some books that fit into the remaining categories, I’m not particularly in the mood for some of them at the moment. We’ll see how it goes but I am more motivated than ever to actually pull off my crazy plan.

In all honesty, at the beginning of the year, I thought my goal of reading books for all the prompts was way too ambitious but I like big goals. 🙂 I would have been fine with a single bingo, but now that I’m this close to finishing the entire card, there’s no way I’m stopping.

How’s your reading going? Are you (still) participating in this challenge? Which books can you recommend for my missing bingo slots – I’d really appreciate your recommendations!

A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

An Icy Fairy Tale: T. Kingfisher – The Raven and the Reindeer

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading one of T. Kingfisher’s retold fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll have already bought all the rest. But just in case you don’t know the brilliant mind and practical heroines of T. Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger), then let me tell you why you should absolutely give her a try.

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2017
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?
A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, not so much because of the setting or the idea of having a piece of magical glass mirror stuck in your heart or eye, but because it was the one fairy tale I read as a kid where the girl goes out on a proper quest, where she meets witches and robbers, and has to be incredibly brave to save her friend. I also discovered a Finnish movie version that was, to me, utterly perfect. The musical score still breaks my heart and the imagery pops up in my mind whenever someone mentions The Snow Queen. So I’m invested in this story!

I have loved everything T. Kingfisher has written, so I was quite surprised when the beginning of this book didn’t really grab me. It read like a proper fairy tale – but like the bad parts of a fairy tale. Descriptions of plot, characters that are little more than names with maybe one attribute to them, and nothing to create any kind of immersion. The beginning read like the raw material out of which great fairy tale retellings are grown. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, to be told how cold it is in the North, why Gerta loved Kay so much that she’d be willing to go out into the world and save him. And because I trust T. Kingfisher, I kept reading. And I was rewarded.

Although the beginning does drag a little if you don’t want to read a story told just like a fairy tale, it gets better and better the longer Gerta has been on her journey. The stops she makes and the people she meets start to feel less and less like little episodes and more like parts of a whole, bigger story. And by a certain point, we were right back in that well-beloved Kingfisher fairy tale territory that I had hoped for. It just took a little longer this time than in The Seventh Bride or Bryony and Roses.

Gerta does meet some characters from the original fairy tale, but they aren’t exactly the same as you’d expect. She also meets new characters, such as a raven and a reindeer (I know, bit surprise). The way these Nordic myths were incorporated into the reimagined fairy tale was probably my favorite part. I grew to love both raven and reindeer so much that I was sad when the story was over. The reindeer especially offers something new to discover even for crazy fairy tale lovers such as myself – for us, a straight forward retelling can sometimes feel a bit boring because we know everything that’s going to happen. So I always look for the parts that the author added, maybe took from other fairy tales, from myth, from history, or even from pure imagination, to keep me hooked. T. Kingfisher succeeded in that.

But there is another twist on the original tale here, one which most blurbs and synopsis will tell you beforehand, and which I don’t consider a spoiler either. On her travels, Gerta meets a Robber Girl, and in this version, the Robber Girl gets a personality and a mind of her own. And she may just fall in love with our protagonist a little bit… As Kay isn’t all that great to begin with (flying off with the Snow Queen, leaving his Gerta behind. I mean, how cold is that [pun a little intended]), I found it absolutely wonderful and refreshing to see Gerta figure out her own life without the need for Kay. Oh, she’s an amazing friend and definitely wants to save him, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be his girlfriend. Instead, she discovers what she values in people, she sees what it’s like when someone sticks by your side through the bad times as well as the good, and she learns to just love whom she loves.

If you’ve picked up this book and didn’t like the beginning, I urge you to push through it to get to the good bits. Because they are so good they make it all worthwile. I started reading this with a lot of disappointment, thinking Kingfisher had lost her deft hand at rewriting fairy tales with feminist twists, clever heroines, and believable romances. But a little patience did the trick and I was rewarded with another lovely, heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery, magic, and love. And reindeer! Never forget the reindeer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

A Perfect Fairy Tale: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North

As someone who reads a lot of fairy tale retellings, it’s become hard for books to blow my mind and truly enchant me. Not only do I know the fairy tale by heart but I’ve also read many versions, updates, twists, and retellings of it – so to discover a book that manages to be original while honoring its fairy tale basis is something special. Joanna Ruth Meyer has not only done that, but she’s added some amazing twists that actually left me gasping.

ECHO NORTH
by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Published by: Page Street Publishing, 2019
Hardcover: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I was called Echo for my mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me.

Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.
In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

When Echo was born, her mother died, leaving her only with her beloved father and brother and a thirst for knowledge. She grows up loved and happy, but at the age of seven, an encounter with a white wolf leaves one side of her face hideously scarred. From that day on, she becomes an outcast in her villages, can’t make any friends, and has people stare at her and avoid her. Things don’t get better when Echo’s father decides to get married again – to a greedy, superficial woman who demands more riches than the family can  afford. And then Echo’s father doesn’t return from a trip to the city, so she goes looking for him and finds… a while wolf.

From there, things follow the story of the fairy tale not exactly, but at least recognisably. Echo promises to live with the wolf for one year in order to save her father’s life. They sleep in the same room, and the one thing she is forbidden to do is light a candle in the night and look upon the sleeping wolf. But Joanna Ruth Meyer has added so many layers, so many ideas to this time spent with the wolf. Instead of a castle, they live in a magical house under a hill, with ever-changing rooms filled with both wonders and terrors. Discovering these rooms was so much fun, but best of all was the Library of Mirrors (I want one and I don’t care if it’s impossible)!

The idea of stepping into stories and living them, rather than just reading them on a page, will appeal to any book nerd. So you can imagine my joy when Echo discovered just such a marvel in the enchanted house. But she’s also the kind of character who doesn’t just sit around all day, living fictional people’s stories (not that that’s a bad thing… ahem) – she knows something is up, she knows the wolf is under some kind of curse, and she is determined to figure everything out and save him. Then there are the people she meets in books – a girl who becomes her friend, and a boy named Hal who may become even more than that. But he is also surrounded by mystery, so Echo has a lot of secrets to solve. Meanwhile, the house is starting to unravel, becomes more and more dangerous, and Echo and the wolf have their hands full just staying alive.

What made this book so special for me were a few small-ish things that added up to an amazing experience. First of all, Echo’s being scarred and always feeling like and outsider made her a great protagonist to follow. Like most young girls, she dreams of being beautiful, of being accepted, yet she knows that her scars will always scare people away. She is a resourceful, smart protagonist who desperately wants to help people even though people in general haven’t been very kind to her. If you know the fairy tale, you also know that the heroine does something incredibly stupid – I loved how Meyer solved that problem and made Echo’s decision to do that stupid thing feel not stupid at all. In this version of the tale, it made perfect sense and it didn’t make me think less of Echo.

The other thing that makes this retelling stand out is the underlying mythology Meyer came up with. While in the original, the wolf is a bear and the evil Queen is a Troll Queen, here everything is just different enough to keep people like me intrigued and guessing. If this is not the dumb Troll Queen from the fairy tale, what powers might she wield? How smart might she be and how much more difficult could she make it for Echo to save her wolf? The winds also make appearances, although not as literally as in the fairy tale. I was also delighted at the way they were incorporated into the story, especially the North Wind, who even gets a back story of his own.

As for the romance, it may not have given me butterflies, but it was the steadily building kind of romance that happens between the lines. By the end, I was invested in the relationship, although I don’t quite know when that happened. Speaking of the end – holy shit, there is a twist I did not see coming and that alone makes the book worthwile! The author really doesn’t go easy on her protagonist and just when you think she’s managed to save her wolf, when things start looking good, a knife is twisted in your heart.

If you couldn’t tell, I adored this book. The characters, the plot, especially the world building were all fantastically done. If I had to pick anything I didn’t like 100% it was the language. There were a few phrases that the author kept repeating, such as descriptions of the house’s features or people’s looks. But compared to everything else, that’s a tiny nitpick which didn’t diminish my reading pleasure at all. I am so excited to see what Meyer comes up with next and if it will be just as wonderful as Echo North.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Frogged Up Fairy Tale: Nancy Springer – Fair Peril

I bought this book when I saw that it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award – an award that picks books just to my liking. Sometimes, I prefer the nominees to the winners, but in general, it’s a literary award I trust. Well, I was bound to come across a not-so-good book eventually and it appears that Nancy Springer’s “feminist” retelling of the Frog Prince was it.

FAIR PERIL
by Nancy Springer

Published by: Avon Books, 1996
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: “Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman,” Buffy Murphy declaimed to the trees, “whose slime-loving, shigella-kissing, bung hole of a husband dumped her themonth after their twentieth wedding anniversary.”

Divorced, overweight Buffy Murphy is not a happy camper. One April afternoon, she walks into the woods . . . and meets a talking bullfrog. He asks her to kiss him so he can transform back into his princely self. This being modern-day Pennsylvania, Buffy figures she’s better off with a talking amphibian than a cheating husband, so she takes him home. The fun really starts when her rebellious teenage daughter, Emily, kisses him.
Suddenly, Emily and her handsome prince have vanished into the land of Fair Peril, an enchanted realm that can only be accessed through a portal in the local mall. Aided by a gay librarian named LeeVon and hindered by her fairy-godmother-in-law, Fay, Buffy shuttles back and forth between the real world and Fair Peril. Does Emily really want to be rescued, or does she just need someone to love her? It’s up to Buffy to figure out the key to reclaiming her daughter—and maybe herself, as well.

Buffy is a middle-aged woman who has just been left by her husband of 20 years because he found someone younger and prettier. So Buffy is bitter. Very bitter. So bitter, in fact, that I disliked her from the first moment. When she comes across a talking frog, she is only about half as shocked as she should be and takes it home. This enchanted frog, Prince Adamus, wants her to kiss him so he can become human again. But Buffy won’t hear of it. Instead, she prefers to continue wallowing in self-pity, shoving unhealthy crap into herself, complaining that she got fat  (reading about her eating habits, I wonder how that happened), and hating men.

Although the embittered comments become less frequent as the book progresses, I found it really horrible just how man-hating this story started out. According to Buffy, pretty much all men are the same. The way she thinks of them, they are less than human, they all act only on their urges, women are prized objects (also not humans) to them, and her husband left her only because she got fat and had a mind of her own… Honestly, if Buffy’s personality was the way it was described in this book during her marriage, I can’t even fault the guy for leaving. Holy shit, I wouldn’t want to live with someone that toxic and negative.

My reading of this story is that Buffy is an overdrawn character on purpose. Because all the other characters, without exception, are also overdrawn bad stereotypes. Buffy’s ex-husband is a despicable low-life whose only reaction to his daughter missing (with an older boy, no less) is “well, I like them young, too”. Emily, the daughter in question is shown as a vapid young thing who cares only about shopping and looking pretty. Prince Adamus has slightly more personality. Of course, he is an arrogant fairy tale prince who also thinks he is entitled to any woman’s love just because. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the new trophy wife. She is young and pretty and only married the guy for his money. She even says that outright at one point.

The only character I really liked was Buffy’s gay friend LeeVon. Not only was he kind and multi-layered and simply a good friend, he also developed throughout the story, even though he’s not the main chracter. To be fair, Emily also shows that there’s more to her than a credit card and fashion style, but not much more. While Buffy definitely grows into a slightly more bearable person by the end, I never really liked her. People who are hateful and bitter because their own actions have consequencees they don’t like are just not my cup of tea. I know such people exist in real life and I’m sure they don’t have it easy, but they are not the sort of people I surround myself with if I can help it.

So despite disliking almost all the characters, I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to see how Nancy Springer tackles the Frog Prince fairy tale. About halfway through the book is where it gets really magical. Buffy, Emily, LeeVon and occasionally even Buffy’s ex-husband Prentis enter the realm of Fair Peril, a world that exists side by side with ours but definitely doesn’t adhere to our rules of physics (or any other rules). I quite liked how Fair Peril and our world overlapped, I liked the feeling that magic was wild and didn’t follow rules. So no magic system, nothing that you can make sense of, just untamed imagination.

The writing style was sadly also not for me. The author sometimes described things, then turned Buffy’s inner dialogue into weird rhymes or lines that could have been lifted out of nursery songs… it felt strangely childish and out of place and made Buffy seem like a really silly person even though I think I was supposed to take her seriously. I also found the reactions to a talking frog (at a certain point a very oversized frog) incredibly weird. Emily is shocked when she first sees Adamus and hears him talk – so far, so understandable. But she gets over that impossibility really quickly and just goes with it. Other characters who eventually meet a frog, talking, oversized, sometimes even clothed, also react way too mildly for my taste. On the other hand, Buffy lands herself in an institution for (dumb that she is) telling a police officer that she is looking for her talking frog who is a prince in disguise…
Add to the list of things that don’t make sense Emily’s age. I think she is described as being 16-ish. A teenager with her own car has to be at least 16, but then she has a birthday party where she behaves more like a 10-year-old. But her behaviour changes so drastically with every scene she’s in that it was impossible to place her, age-wise. That kind of ruins the growth she goes through because I never had a clear image of who she was before.

This was supposed to be a feminist retelling of a fairy tale but not only did I hate all the women and most men in this story, I don’t think it’s a feminist thing to paint all people of a certain gender as their worst stereotype. It also didn’t help that Buffy clearly hated herself as much as she hated men. I don’t know how many times she mentioned how fat she was, how “unlovely” her legs were, how her outfits are shit, how she looks bad, etc. etc. Having low self-confidence is one thing, but constantly putting yourself down for things you can easily change (don’t like your legs unshaved? Go shave them! Want to lose a little bit of weight? Try not eating three microwaved, fatty meals every day! Hate your clothes? Go get yourself something that makes you feel pretty, for gods sake!). Buffy is in this spiral of self-hate and generally despises her situation but she’s not willing to do anything to better her situation. It’s like needing to pee but not being willing to get up and go to the bathroom, instead just sitting there, whining to everyone that you really have to pee and how unfair the world is for not beaming you to a toilet… That’s a stupid analogy, but I hope you know what I mean.

The story itself does get better in the second half and the ending is even halfway decent, putting more focus on the mother-daughter relationship than on kissing frogs or hating men. But I have to say, this really put me off picking up other books by Nancy Springer. I give every author at least a second chance, but judging by this book, Springer’s chance will not come any time soon.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

2019 Retellings Challenge – Second Quarter Update

Another quarter year has gone by and, like every year, I wonder how it happened so fast. Summer is here, I already went on holiday in lovely Tuscany, and of course I spent many days reading on the beach. The Hugo finalists have taken much of my reading time, so I haven’t read as many retellins as I would have liked, but I am still excited for this challenge (visit Tracy at cornerfolds for more info) and I plan to finish the entire bingo card this year.

What I’ve Read

For “Middle-Eastern Myth” on the bingo card, I finally read S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and I loved it. The setting and characters were wonderful, especially the complex political intricacies that Nahri and the readers have to learn about. I loved that there is so much more going on than first appears. Also, I have a super soft spot for Dara.

Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never was a group read and while I thought it was well done, I wasn’t exactly blown away. A very slow, character-focused book that retells Hook’s side of Peter Pan’s story, it takes a rapid turn at the end, with characters changing their entire personality in a matter of seconds, just for the sake of a dramatic ending. I liked parts of, but very much disliked others, so all things considered, it was okay, but not great.

I fully expected to love Circe by Madeline Miller and I was not disappointed. While it took me a while to warm to Circe herself, once she grew up a bit and I liked her, I was all aflame for her story. You meet many well-known characters from Greek myths and you especially get to see the women’s stories in a different light. Although quite different from The Song of Achilles, this was another excellent retelling of a Greek myth!

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales just fell into my hands one day at the book shop. This gorgeous looking little book is filled with poetry, short stories, and illustrations, all based on fairy tales. As with any collections, there were stories I liked better than others. But it bothered me how very obvious and on the nose the author was with her message. I fully support the message that you should love yourself the way you are, that women shouldn’t be princesses waiting to be saved by a strong prince, the message of empowerment and female friendship – it’s all there and it’s all things I totally love and want to see more of in fiction. But the execution felt like someone preaching with a raised finger and I really don’t enjoy being preached to. So this was also only a good read, not a great one.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni
    June’s group read on Goodreads and a book I’ve been meaning to read forever! I’m a quarter of the way in and I absolutely love it.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread
    I adore Oyeyemi’s style and my favorite book of hers was another retelling (Boy, Snow, Bird), so I’m very excited for this new one.
  • Joanne Harris – The Gospel of Loki
    I hope this book wins the poll for July group read but if it doesn’t, I’ll probably read it anyway.
  • Ellen Datlow (ed.) – Mad Hatters and March Hares
    For the Wonderland bingo square, I might just go with this anthology. It features some of my favorite authors and short stories are usually quick reads. Even if there are a lot of them.

General Thoughts

By now, it’s become a little harder finding books to fit on the bingo card. For example, I already read my Middle-Eastern myth book (The City of Brass), so I’m lucky the group read, The Golem and the Jinni, also fits into the “award-winning” square.
This quarter, my reading has really been focused more on the Hugo Awards than this challenge. Once Hugo voting is over (by the end of July), I can put my attention back to this challenge and also finally reading some of the new releases from 2019 which I’ve been buying. I swear those books look at me sadly just to make me feel guilty that I haven’t picked them up yet!

But I’m still enjoying this challenge and the more I read, the more I appreciate Tracy’s reading prompts. Some of them are vague enough that you can read many things (like the “Brothers Grimm” prompt) and some are more specific and make you go hunt for books which you may otherwise not have read, especially if you’ve already read the most obvious choice (“a retelling set in space” –> Marissa Meyer’s Cinder). The Goodreads group reads also push books onto me which I either wouldn’t have read or which I’ve been putting off for way too long. So I’m still very happy with the challenge and with my progress. I expect to catch up much more quickly once I’m done with the Hugo Award nominated books and stories.

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

The fairy tale continues: Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The first complete book I read in 2018 (I did finish the last few chapters of Hogfather this year, but that doesn’t count) lets me begin this year with hope. Not that I expected anything less from Katherine Arden after the gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale but middle books in a trilogy are usually a challenge for authors. How to keep the plot moving and characters developing without going too far, how to save enough story for the final instalment without making the second part boring? Well, Arden definitely has an answer to those questions and the answer is this book.

THE GIRL IN THE TOWER
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 363 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Girl in the Tower opens not long after The Bear and the Nightingale ends, although it immediately shows the readers more of the world and more of its characters. The attentive reader will remember that some of Vasya’s siblings were sent away or left their forest home to pursue other ways. Olga has become a princess and a mother, Sasha is a man of god. And Vasya… well, Vasya chose adventure over a confined life in a convent or in some minor lord’s bed. With her fantastic horse Solovey, she rides out into the world, without much of a plan but with fierce determination not to be caged.

The changing viewpoints of this book give a good picture of the state of affairs in Rus’ – taxes waiting to be collected, a looming war, bandits who leave villages burned down and steal Russian girls. As Vasya finds it makes things much, much simpler, she is dressed like a man with her long hair hidden away as she stumbles into all of this. As Vasilii Petrovich, she meets her siblings again and even gains favor with the Prince of Moscow. But navigating court is no easy feat even when you’re not trying to disguise your gender. Although it’s an old trope, it is one I can never get enough of. After all, who doesn’t love a good girl-disguised-as-a-boy story?

But although the trope has been used many times by many authors, in this particular setting, it becomes so much more obvious why Vasya would choose to do this. Okay, it kind of just happens because she’s practical and doesn’t like what the world holds in store for women, but once she arrives in Moscow, the differences between men and women are so stark that I wonder why not more women would pretend to be men, if only to have the simple freedom of stepping outside a building when they wished to see the sky.

In Moscow, Vasya also meets her niece, Marya, for the first time, and the connection between the two made me so very happy, despite all the danger that constantly surrounds them. As family reunions go, this was a bittersweet one but the love these siblings have for each other was tangible on every page. Never mind the secrets between them, the difference in  how they choose to live their lives (or the way they have to live the lives chosen for them, in Olga’s case), there is a true sense of family there, and the way Marya and Vasya strike up a friendship out of the blue made that all the clearer.

Morozko makes a few appearences as well, to my utter delight. I admit I have been hoping for a romantic development here and I am not ashamed of my fangirling! He still holds a lot of secrets that Vasya, and us poor readers, don’t quite know yet, but there are glimpses of humanity in this immortal being, as well as hints to the past and where Vasya’s family came from. Not all questions are answered – this is only book 2, after all – but there were enough hints for me to have closed to book satisfied. Morozko isn’t the only mythological creature in this book. Rest assured, there are domovoi and even more famous personalities to be met.

While this book was much more action-packed than the first, with a faster pace, more focus on politics and social structures, I still loved every bit of it. Arden’s style is as beautiful as ever and her characters as multi-faceted. I particularly enjoyed any description of Vasya riding or dealing with horses and literally any interaction between her and Morozko. Even without stating a thing outright, you can still read the characters’ emotions between the lines, in the description of their body language, a twitch or a sigh. It was just pure joy to read!

Katherine Arden has published her two novels at remarkable pace (two in one year!) and the next one is supposed to be published in August of this year. That’s really fast, especially considering the quality of these books. Whether the publication date is fixed or gets pushed back a litte, I have already pre-ordered my copy of The Winter of the Witch and am waiting more than eagerly to find out how this gorgeous story concludes.

MY RATING: 8,5/10

Second opinions:

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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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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