Fairy Tales · Fantasy

Beauty, Poison, and Charm

by: Sarah Pinborough (no image because it’s three books.)

This is a 3-books series I picked up at the library – actually I picked up the first one and then went back for the next two – and read over the Christmas holidays.  They’re retellings of fairy tales, and while at first glance, I thought they were stand-alones, they’re actually a series that do go in a specific order.  I luckily picked up the first one first and then figured out the order by reading the blurbs.  They don’t actually have an order listed and they were all published in the same year – but they go, in order: Beauty, Poison, then Charm.

I really enjoyed them.  They are incredibly quick reads, all three books are very short, and they’re written in true fairy tale format, so, until the third book, there’s relatively little in terms of complex characters or anything but the most simplistic character developments.  They’re also written fairly simplistically (probably late-elementary to middle school level), but they are definitely adult material; if your kiddos read these be prepared for some awkward questions about sex and violence – both separately and combined for pleasure.

Each book retells one of the major Western fairy tales: Beauty is”Sleeping Beauty”, Poison is “Snow White”, and Charm is “Cinderella.”  There are other, equally well-known fairy tales woven throughout. It was fun to piece together which fairy tales were being told and how they all connected to each other, so I won’t spoil any more of them.

The books follow the adventures of an unnamed huntsman, whose job it is to keep an unnamed prince alive as he’s set out on a “please grow the eff up” adventure by his parents.  Pinborough is really selective about who gets named in this story and who is referred to solely by their profession.  It’s interesting to think about as you read, especially since there’s a deliberate gendered element to the names.

Pinborough is also selective about which characters are developed and how.  Fairy tales written in the classic style can definitely get away with flat characters – a wicked witch just needs to be a wicked witch; a brave prince need only be brave and charming – and Pinborough lets some characters stand just as they are meant to be.  Others, however, are developed more and the development of the character directly reflects both their complacency in, and understanding of, the fairy tale in which they play a role in.

Pinborough uses the characters to criticize and deconstruct the notion of a happy ending and to argue that agency in our lives comes from not perfect character or great beauty, but from a complex and flawed character tempered by life experiences. (Or, if you’re male and royal, from privilege you were born with and do not necessarily deserve.)  Indeed, the most likable character is also the one whose flaws I both related to and was sympathetic of – a very teenaged Cinderella.  Cinderella is, Ella Enchanted aside, my least favorite princess, so I loved that this rewriting forced her out of the “passive, good girl get rewarded” and into someone who was quite real and faced with the choice and consequences of active or passive behavior.

The ideas of true love and romantic relationships are also briefly, but critically, examined.  I won’t go into those notions because it could very easily spoil the book, but Pinborough takes a rather feminist (and much appreciated) lens to the gendered aspect at play here, examining what it means to be a woman, who cannot inherit the throne and must depend on a man for survival, looking for love.

You’re probably waiting for me to get to the sex stuff but honestly, though it was relevant to the plot and thematically connected to the agency of the characters, there wasn’t all that much of it.  When it was there, however it was explicit and, in Beauty, for lack of better word, depraved, in a very intentional way.

Though quite short, and quite simply written, I really enjoyed these novels.  They’re dark and adult, but quick reads and you could easily read them without getting into gender or character analysis.  (That’s my idea of a good time, but yours could be just enjoying the plot line!) There were quite a few twists throughout; they were foreshadowed well enough that I predicted about half of them and with the other half went, “Oh, duh! that makes sense!”

If you’re looking for a quick read that is a little dark and a little twisted*, if you like fairy tales, or if you want a book with some meat for feminist analysis, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for a cast of relatable characters, happy endings, or prefer prose that’s distinctly adult in style, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

*I did want to mention that I think this is a hard style to find; this series is very quick and easy to read, but it is not light, fluffy, or appropriate for children.
Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Children's · Classics

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy

hairy maclary
by: Dame Lynley Dodd

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy is a classic Kiwi children’s book (I’m in New Zealand for a couple of years) and my writing professor read it to the class as an example of great children’s writing.

It’s a really fun, really cute book!  I’m going to go ahead and spoil the entire book, my apologies! It tells the story of Hairy Maclary, who walks through town and meets all of his friends, then runs into a mean tomcat and runs back home. The rhyming scheme is excellent – on par with Dr Seuss but without any made-up words.  The pictures are fantastic and I loved the descriptions of the dogs Hairy meets on his walk – I think my favorite was “Muffin McLay like a bundle of hay”- Muffin is a big fluffy Old English Sheepdog.

It’s the type of book that is best read out loud, and I can just hear a little kid piping in at the parts they love best, enthusiastically filling in the end of a rhyming couplet. It also lends itself to lots of different voices – one for each dog described, and a very scary one for the Scarface Tom, the meanest tom in town. I bought a copy for my best friend, who has an almost-two-year old and an almost-born baby.  (Her mom’s a children’s librarian so there’s some stiff competition in the books department.  I’m relatively sure they won’t have this one, though!)

If this book has one tiny little fault, I would say the conflict isn’t very exciting; they see the big tomcat and just run away in fright and that’s the climax of the story. However, it certainly doesn’t diminish from the joy of reading this book out load.

Anyways, this is an adorable kids’ book, perfect for the 4 and under crowd in your life. If you find a copy and you have some kids who love being read to (or you’re just a big fan of picture books yourself!) I definitely recommend getting a copy!

Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

Mambo in Chinatown

mambo in chinatown
by: Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card.  I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention.  Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.

Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money.  She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things.  One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it.  Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.

I greatly enjoyed this novel.  It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience.  She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel.  I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.

Charlie herself is a really wonderful character.  She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable.  Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with.  I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.

I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor.  And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western.  I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.

The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable.  Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all.  But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel.  The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.

Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.