Tag Archives: fairy tales

Dancing, Princesses, and Magic: Vernon and Valentine

girls at the kingfisherof-mice-and-magic

I have said quite a bit about how much I loved Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine when I first read it. I am happy to say that rereading it only added more depth and appreciation for what Valentine is doing here. Jo is one of the most wonderful, heartbreaking characters I can think of, and I’m still amazed by how well the other characters are done, even the most minor ones.

Thanks to a comment from Kate in librarian book club, I really noticed the fairy-tale-ness this time through. Even though Valentine is playing fast and loose with the specifics, she also hearkens back to fairy tales in some really interesting ways. Sometimes this happens in the choice of language, which is deceptively simple and detached while actually full of emotional punches. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”)

There’s also their father’s detachment and unkindness, which is present in the original fairy tale (you cannot convince me that king was a good parent). It transplants surprisingly well to this setting, because Valentine is partly making a point about rich men who view their daughters as objects that they own. Another one of those devastating sentences: “He was always most terrible when he was trying to seem kind.”

One of the things you notice in fairy tales are the rules that the hero or heroine has to follow to survive. Sometimes these seem arbitrary, but they actually aren’t. In this book, Jo’s the one that sets the rules (which, interestingly, are given their own section as if to highlight their importance):

Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.

The fact that it’s Jo setting the rules is important, I think, because Jo isn’t the usual fairy tale heroine. She’s sharp and angry and distrustful. Unlike her sisters, she’s not quite a Princess; she’s a General. I noticed this partly in a pivotal moment, when Jo is speaking to her father. Valentine’s choice of language underscores both the fairy tale echo and Jo’s liminal place in it: “Then it was silent, and when Jo spoke it gave her words the gravity of a curse. ‘They’re gone,’ she said, ‘and you’ll never see them again.'”

Because the other strand in this book is learning how to be free when you haven’t been, when your soul has grown around something dark and twisted. “I’m my father’s daughter,” Jo thinks at one point, and it’s true–but it’s not all of her. She has to relearn “how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone.” She has to learn how to be a sister, and not a General. This strand hits me right in every single one of my feels. Her fears and struggles and desires are achingly familiar to me.

What’s interesting is how much of these same themes and feelings are present in Of Mice and Magic. Unlike GATKC, where we’re immersed in Jo’s point of view, OMM is told from an outsider’s perspective. Harriet, a hamster princess and adventurer, is the one who rescues the mouse princesses from their father. But like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters love to dance “more than anything in the world.” And like the Hamilton sisters, the mouse sisters stand together against their father’s rage (“but still none of them said a word”).

I’m fascinated by the fact that Vernon manages to tell a pretty complex story about abusive parents and winning your freedom which is also totally appropriate for its audience, which neither talks down to children nor gives them more than they can handle. The mouse king’s selfishness and anger is shown clearly, but the emphasis is on the bonds between the sisters and Harriet’s resourcefulness in setting them free.

It all pays off when the mouse king is left in the ruins of his castle and the sisters escape to the world and freedom. The scene ends with, “and not a single one of the princesses looked back.” It’s a line that would be equally at home in GATKC, and that also resonates deeply.

I appreciated the way Vernon also shows Harriet, another princess, who rescues them and that the story gives us many different ways to be a princess. It’s not that Harriet’s way is the only right one. The mice will have to learn their own paths. To point out the obvious subtext, we’re not being told that there is one right way to be a girl. We all have to find our ways.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and I’m really pleased to have both of these lovely retellings to recommend. Although they’re certainly different in terms of setting and tone, their strengths and similarities in terms of theme make both books powerful separately and together.

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Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

roses and rotI won’t pretend that this is in any true sense a review, or that it’s unbiased and objective. Roses and Rot is a book that I do actually know was not written literally and specifically for me, but I don’t entirely believe that’s the truth. It combines so many elements that are not only Relevant to my Interests, but really, really important to me. And it does them well. The prose throughout is a joy to read, and there’s just enough, but not too much, meta-self-awareness to make the story shine. It is maybe not utterly perfect–it’s clearly written by someone who often writes short stories and this usually works and once or twice becomes a little too apparent in a way I can’t quite articulate. Nonetheless, it will absolutely be a favorite book for this year/forever.

I suspected I would love this book when I got to page 16 and this bit:

“Even though I hadn’t said so, I knew exactly the thing I had come to Melete to write–a novel told in stories, told in interweaving fairy tales, about the girls who get lost in the woods, and how it is that they come to be there, and whether or not they can save themselves. About the stories that lead them into the dark places of the forest, of their lives, and then become the maps by which they find their way out. I had known for a while that this was something I wanted to do, a story I needed to tell.”

Fairy tales are woven throughout this book, the ones Imogen knows–and she does know them; I grew up reading the complete Grimms and The Fairy Ring and Andrew Lang and Pepper and Salt and so often people say they love fairy tales and they just mean Beauty and the Beast. Imogen knows them. And she takes their elements and writes them again, fresh and beautiful. Fairy tales are not exactly morality tales in this story. They’re what Imogen calls them above: maps to find your way, stories that lead you through.

I knew I would love this book when I reached page 18 and recognized myself:

“So you learned the power in silence, and in secrets. Maybe you still look over your shoulder, but at least you got away. And after all, if you’d had a childhood that was different, one that didn’t always feel like walking on knives, maybe you would never have found your voice. If you hadn’t been forced to swallow your words, you would never have learned the power in speaking them. This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.”

This is a book about surviving, and escaping, and living afterwards. It’s about finding ever after in a shape that’s real. It spoke so many things that I recognized, deep down, as true. They were things I needed to hear; they were things that helped because it meant someone else had felt them too.

But it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves. Some of them are true and some of them aren’t. Some are mostly true, but we can only see it from our own angle. Part of what Imogen has to learn over the course of the book is how to see stories from someone else’s point of view.

Often that point of view is her sister, Marin. They have a complex, tangled, relationship that is nonetheless the most important in the story. I always want stories about sisters, and this one gave me a version that didn’t have easy answers, and yet was entirely satisfying. Marin and Imogen are kind of mirror images of each other; dark and light, dancer and writer, praised and hurt. But it’s not that simple, and Howard also presents women who are vivid and complicated, who both engage with tropes and resist them.

Furthermore, I often find books that talk about writing from the perspective of a writer to be either unbearably overwrought or else so heavy-handed that I feel like they’re wink-wink-nudge-nudging me. Roses and Rot was neither; it gave a sense of Imogen as really a writer, in the way she approaches the craft as well as the art.

AND THEN, as if all of this was not enough, THEN–oh, I suppose this is a middling sized spoiler–I reached a certain point and started to say, “Wait. Wait. Is this book going where I think it’s going?” IT WAS. As if fairy tales, and surviving and sisters and writing weren’t already enough to make me love this book, it turned into a Tam Lin retelling where Imogen has to save Marin.

Tam Lin, in case you have not already gathered this, is probably in my top 2 fairy tales and a retelling centered on sisters is all I didn’t know I wanted. I can say that it ties back into the theme of Imogen escaping and leaving Marin behind, that it’s the task she has to complete to leave the forest, but that’s all too rational for my actual experience. I might have shrieked a little bit.

Also, I will mention, it contains both properly scary fairies AND a really insightful bit about the relationship of fairy tales and properly scary fairies. As if I still needed to be charmed.

So, like I said, I can’t be in any way objective about this book. It wasn’t a book I enjoyed; it was a book I needed. Like An Inheritance of Ashes last year, it was a book that made me feel recognized and seen. It is in its own way a map out of the forest.

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Witch Week: A new take on old stories

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors hosted at Emerald City Book Review. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Folktales and fairy tales are an enormous part of my internal landscape–it’s almost impossible to overstate how important they’ve been to me since childhood. My mom had a huge Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I read all of it at least twice. Later, I grew to love modern retellings, starting with Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

Most often, I tend to like the retellings that thoughtfully examine the original story rather than reversing it completely. But I’ve also found some retellings that come at the story slantwise. These don’t so much destroy the original as remake it. I’m going to talk a bit today about three novels and one short story that I think do this and that I love.

winter princegirls at the kingfisherbone gap

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: This is Wein’s debut book, and it’s a retelling of the Arthurian legend from Mordred/Medraut’s point of view. But it has more in common with Rosemary Sutcliff than with Merlin; it’s dark and twisty and shows a world that’s full of texture and vibrant personalities. For me, it both humanizes Medraut and also still gives us the kingly Arthur of the myths. I am slightly overcome by how much I love this book just thinking about it now. Also, it gives us Goewin, and I LOVE Goewin.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales ever of all time ever. It’s set in the 1920s and it includes no magic whatsoever, but it keeps the structure and heart of the story, while at the same time using it as a way to talk about family and fathers and abuse and love. I’ve been going on about this one since I read it and I want everyone in the world to try it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: This is a 2015 YA which has been getting a lot of attention and rightly so–it’s a stunning, complex look at the dark side of the Persephone/Beauty and the Beast story. I truly love both the myth and fairy tale, and many of the newer stories that have echoed them. But I also truly loved this story, which reminds us of the possible darkness inherent within those stories. Roza, the heroine of this story, is a wonderful character in her own right as well.

The Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan: I’m a big fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s work in general, but this short story is one of my all time favorite things she’s written. One of the things I love most about it is that, as a friend pointed out, Mede is a name that has echoes in Greek mythology. But is it Andromeda or Medea? We never know; we never quite find out. While SRB doesn’t directly quote any one myth, the whole story feels like it has echoes and beats that evoke them.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Fairy Tale Retellings

top-ten-tuesday
This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

CastleBehindThorns-hc-cthrough the woodsbone gapgirls at the kingfisher

Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell: A middle-grade retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” which sounds a bit odd but in practice is lovely. It’s not tied strongly to the source material, and the themes of forgiveness and remaking are dealt with really nicely.

Beauty and Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley: McKinley writes about or around the Beauty & the Beast story in almost all of her books, but these two are the most explicit retelling. I love them both, in different ways. Perhaps this way: Beauty I love with the part of me that read it in middle school and fell in love with fantasy; Rose Daughter I love with the part of me that rejoices in ambiguity and tension.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine: I think many girls my age remember Ella Enchanted fondly. I know I absolutely loved this Cinderella retelling. Ella is so complicated and stubborn, and I was very taken by the romance at the time. I haven’t re-read this in years, but it still has a special place in my heart.

Ash by Malinda Lo: When I first read this one, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it, but as I’ve re-read it, I really have come to appreciate the way Lo approaches the Cinderella story and works with the source material while also creating a new story.

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale: Based on a little known fairy tale, “Maid Maleen,” Hale transports the setting to a version of Mongolia. This has always been one of my favorite books by Shannon Hale, and I especially appreciate that the main character isn’t the princess, but the maid.

White Cat by Holly Black: When I first read White Cat, I didn’t even realize it was a fairy tale retelling, although I had read the “White Cat” fairy tale several times. (Even though the echoes are pretty obvious if you’re looking.) Set in the modern world, except one where magic is real and outlawed, I love this book a LOT. (I also like the sequels.)

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll is clearly conversing with fairy tales, although she doesn’t seem to base her stories on any specific tale, aside from “Little Red Riding Hood”. This is a deliciously terrifying graphic novel and I highly recommend it.

The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand: Florand’s books almost always have fairy tale echoes in them, which is part of the charm. Oddly enough, The Chocolate Kiss is one where the echoes aren’t tied to a specific story. But I love the way Florand uses the metaphor of princesses and witches throughout this one. And basically I want to live in the Maison de Sorcieres.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: Bone Gap is “Beauty and the Beast” and Persephone with the dark parts pointed out. While I totally believe it’s possible to tell a happy & feminist retelling of both of these, Ruby takes a hard look at the implications of the stories. I loved this book SO MUCH and I think what it’s doing with fairy tales and myths is fascinating and even necessary.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: A 1920s-set version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. Like Bone Gap, Girls looks at the darkness inherent in the original story. And yet, it’s also fundamentally a story about sisters saving each other; about finding your way through the dark places and winning. I love it.

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Recent Reading: Maguire and Marks

egg & spoonEgg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire: Karyn Silverman kept mentioning Egg & Spoon as one where she thought the historical Russian angle was well done. Having finally read it, I agree! I liked especially the way the characters interacted with with faith–the way they prayed and interceded with saints read as exactly right to me. (Something I wouldn’t necessarily expect from a non-Orthodox author!) And I also liked how Maguire wove in Russian fairytales, both in obvious and not-quite-so-obvious ways. I’d be curious to know how someone who didn’t grow up with the originals or (in my own case) Bilibin’s retellings reacts to that part of the story but it worked really well for me.

My enjoyment of the book wavered a bit based on how I was feeling about the narrator; intrusive narrators are not really my thing. On the other hand, I was engaged enough to not completely mind it, which I suppose is a good sign.I did like the relationship between the two girls quite a bit, the way Cat and Elena both have a lot of growing up to do, even if at first glance it seems like Elena is the wise and mature one. I thought Maguire also did a good job of showing the inequalities of Russian society at the time without condemning the ordinary people involved, and without a ton of overexplaining.

And Baba Yaga grated on me a bit at first, but eventually I settled down, mostly because her place as a figure not bound by time became more apparent. All in all, I liked and appreciated this one a lot. I would recommend it for historical–not so much accuracy as feeling. At the same time, if you’re not a fan of intrusive narrators, or breaking the fourth wall, this one may not be for you.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Candlewick Press; upper mg/YA

between sikBetween Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks: Between Silk and Cyanide was mentioned by a reader on my post about Noor Inayat Khan, since Marks worked with her and talks about her in his book. It’s a memoir of his time as a cryptographer and code-breaker for the SOE during World War II. Marks is an engaging writer, who I suspect could talk great piffle–his style actually reminded me a bit of Beverly Nichols. At the same time, he’s quite acutely aware of the realities of the struggle he’s engaged in. There were times I laughed, but other times that were completely heartbreaking (perhaps partly because I already knew a bit about some of the SOE agents and their fates–he talks quite a bit about both Noor and Violette Szabo who clearly both made strong impressions).

So this was an informative and interesting book, although I continue to not understand anything about codes. At the same time, I found myself wishing that I were reading it with a history of the SOE at hand, because it’s so much Marks’s story, filtered through his point of view. It’s a delightful, compelling point of view, certainly, and I found myself thinking about the apparent similarities between the creative writing process and the cryptographic one. And it’s not that I doubted Marks’s achievements, but rather that his experience is a bit, as he confesses a few times, insular. It’s not even a flaw as such, because it does exactly what it sets out to do: Leo Marks gives his experience in the SOE. All the same, I would like to balance it with an overview of the same time and situation.

As a side note, Marks was the son of one of the founders of Marks & Co., better known perhaps as 84 Charing Cross Road, and in fact centers a lot of his experience with and love for codes on the bookstore. It’s a source of income, of status (because so many of his superiors with whom he did battle were also customers), and inspiration.

Book source: public library
Book information: 1998, Free Press; adult non-fiction

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Recent Reading: 9-9-2014

west of the moonWest of the Moon by Margi Preus: I’m struggling with whether to call this one fantasy or not. It’s clearly in conversation with fairy tales, sometimes literally, and Astri uses “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” to make sense of the world. But when it comes down to it, nothing that’s strictly fantastical happens, which makes me feel like it’s not exactly fantasy.

I’ve put the cart before the horse a bit: West of the Moon is the story of Astri, a young Norwegian girl who at the beginning of the story is essentially sold to a goatman by her aunt and uncle. Preus has a deft hand with a phrase and I loved the way the fairy tales were woven into the story, as Astri both draws on them to give her courage and frequently points out when they’re nothing like real life. I also liked the fact that the Astri’s major relationship is with her sister Greta, and the nuanced ways the antagonists are shown. And the theme of emigration to America and they way that’s also woven into Astri’s personal journey really helped ground the story in its time period.

At the same time, I liked it without absolutely loving it. Astri is occasionally a prickly person, which is nice to see in a middle grade book, and I generally loved her voice and narration. But for me it never tipped over from enjoyment into complete book-love. There was nothing wrong that I can point to, except that at a few points it seemed shallow where it should have been deep, but that’s unsatisfyingly vague even to me. All that to say, you may well love this one. Leila did, and so did Betsy Bird.

my real childrenMy Real Children by Jo Walton: I loooved Among Others, Walton’s Hugo-winning 2011 book. My Real Children is her first book after Among Others and I was a bit nervous about it because of that. Now that I’ve read it, I’m left with the most mixed of mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the premise! It sounds a bit gimmicky, but in Walton’s hands it’s not; it’s beautiful and dreadful and heartbreaking. And whether she’s Pat or Tricia/Trish, Pat herself is real and vibrant.

On the other hand, I struggled a lot with the middle section. I actually stopped reading for awhile, until I read Ana’s review. There were a couple of reasons for this, but it boils down to the fact that I couldn’t quite shake the sense that I was reading a treatise instead of a novel. Tricia’s life=terrible, Pat’s life=great. It turns out that if I had read just a few pages further, this becomes much more complicated, and it’s that sense of complication that carried me through to, as Ana says, the Rorschach test of the ending.

On the third hand, Walton’s writing is so wonderful! It’s this understated mastery of the voice of her character, and these quiet “wait, what did that say?” moments which disrupt our sense of knowing what’s going to happen. Neither Trish nor Pat live in exactly our world, and I really appreciated the little details that make that clear.

On the fourth hand, I had a personal reaction which is very much personal: I felt a bit preached at. Not enough to stop reading entirely, a la Handmaid’s Tale, but enough to feel like I was slogging a bit, even when things picked up in the second half of the book. I think some readers might find the same aspect of the book validating, a rallying call. For me, I had a hard time not reading the trajectory of both Trish and Pat’s lives as the replacing of one “right way to be a woman” with another. This is not a fair reading, exactly. Walton’s a much better writer than that, and things are more complicated. But it’s that sense that–oh, how do I put it exactly? In the sympathetic characters in this book, there’s no one who looks like me? I’m still not saying what I mean. I’m not quite sure how to say it, or exactly what I do mean. But it was a strong enough feeling that it created a bit of distance which kept me from completely engaging with the story in the way I wanted to.

But, as I said, that’s a very personal reaction. And in the end, I’m glad this book exists, and I’m glad I read it.

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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

girls at the kingfisherThis is the story of twelve sisters, but mostly it is the story of Jo.

This is the story of twelve sisters who escape from their home to go dancing until dawn.

They have to escape, because they’re not allowed out, because their mother is dead and their father’s kindness is more terrifying than anything else.

They can escape because Jo organizes it. She is the General; she never dances; she is her father’s daughter.

This is a story about hard choices, about love, about saving yourself, and about saving each other.

I didn’t think at a certain point that this story could end with any kind of happiness. And it’s true that I’m crying now, because there are parts of it that hurt. But there’s hope, too, and unlikely victories. Halfway through the book, I knew I couldn’t stop reading until the end.

One of the things I love is how clearly this is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, without being tied to its source. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorite fairy tales partly because it is so clearly about sisters; that the relationship between the twelve girls is more important than any of the others. And, in all its prickly, fraught, wonderful glory, that’s exactly what we see here. It’s the center that the book is written around. I recognized sisterhood, which both is and is not friendship.

And I loved Jo. She is also prickly and hard and sometimes even cruel. But she’s completely real and compelling and also heartbreaking. Her loneliness at certain points was almost palpable. I ached for her to have a happy ending, more than any of the other girls, and I didn’t know how she possibly could.

And the voice is pitch-perfect, both the bits of 20s slang and the calm-on-the-surface narration that goes down smoothly and then burns. (“It frightened her how deep her sobs could reach, as if someone was pulling sorrow from her bones.”) There’s just enough distance to keep us worried, to keep us wondering.

There’s a depth and richness to this book that makes me want to talk about it for ages. The settings–the house, the different nightclubs, the way the girls interact with each space. The tension between the freedom the girls find dancing and the careful negotiation of the men they dance with. The blatant corruption of the city and how Jo has to find her way in it. The fact that no one turns into a caricature, even the unkind characters, and so there’s no easy way out.

And I loved that the story isn’t bitter. It’s not a manifesto. It’s too clear-sighted for that, too aware of complexities. Instead it has layers upon layers (the way the girls’ father deals with them (that moment when he realizes he has to face all twelve (that moment when he’s caught in his own trap) and how Jo and Tom maneuver him into that) how all his plans backfire on him because people are stronger and smarter and braver than you expect them to be), and each one adds another shade to the picture.

All of my recent favorite stories, the ones I keep thinking about and thinking about, have these common themes: bravery and resistance. Rose Under Fire (that moments when the lights go out), The Goblin Emperor (Maia choosing kindness again and again), heck, Captain America (when the tech says no, knowing he might get killed). It’s here too: the courage to escape, the choice to go out into the dark night and dance and dance and dance.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Atria Books; pubb’d adult but great YA crossover material

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers
Ana @ Things Mean A Lot

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