Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce

I have a strong but mostly theoretical affection for stories about fairies. I say “mostly theoretical” because I do not often find myself pleased by books that deal with these topics. Of books that bother about The Faerie Realm, the reigning champion is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which manages the necessary but apparently really difficult task of making the world of faerie interesting, creepy, and specific. Other books I have loved that have Faerie Realms in them (like Fire & Hemlock) tend to shunt the faerie realms off to the side and just hint at what’s going on in them, and that is probably for the best. But hope springs eternal, which is why I put a library hold on Some Kind of Fairy Tale approximately ten seconds after reading Alyce’s review of it.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is about a girl called Tara who has just come back after twenty years away, in which no word was heard from her and her family all assumed that she must be dead. Now she is back, looking very very young for a supposedly thirty-five-year-old woman, and claiming that she went to another world for six months — just six months, she swears, but twenty years have gone by. Bewildered and angry, her family struggles to adjust to her sudden presence in their lives, and to find a way to deal with the story she’s telling about her absence.

I had gripes with the way the book worked itself out (more on that later), but I found it captivating as a whole. I would be on the subway reading it, and suddenly out of nowhere we’d be at my stop, and I’d notice at the last second and have to scrabble all my stuff together in a big hurry in order to make it off the train. What I found so absorbing about the book was that the main thrust of the plot was not any big fuss about the fairy realm and what it all means that fairies might exist, but just the characters trying to settle down into a new normal after experiencing cataclysms. The emotions of everyone involved rang very true — how Tara’s older brother would feel seeing her again after all these years; how her parents, in terror of losing her a second time, would insist that nobody challenge her (apparent) lies; how her ex-boyfriend, who was suspected of having killed her, would struggle with old feelings and come to confront what he had made of his life since her departure. Joyce resisted the temptation to write these sections in broad dramatic strokes, and it just paid off beautifully.

The portrayal of the faerie realm wasn’t my favorite. You see Tara struggling with feelings that the human world is pale and primitive by comparison with the place where she has been for the last six months, but you don’t really see the unpale unprimitive stuff she misses so greatly. Instead there’s a (spoilers) fake death-match, fairies having promiscuous sex all over the place, and this weird lake orgasm thing that I don’t even know what the hell. It’s not particularly connected to the rest of the book, and it doesn’t come off strange and otherworldly. It’s just — there.

I loved that Joyce gave us the possibility that Tara was lying or manufacturing memories — not being sure whom to believe is my fave — but I’d have liked it better (and I’d have liked the very end of the book much better) if it had remained a little ambiguous. If there had been evidence against Tara’s story the way there was significant evidence for. The only thing counting against what she says are the chapters of gobbledygook psychoanalysis by her shrink, and those chapters aren’t insightful enough to be convincing (not sure whether they were meant to be). Having a couple of good reasons not to believe her would have made choosing to believe her a more exciting reading choice.

There’s also this subplot where Tara’s teenage nephew, Jack, accidentally kills his old neighbor’s cat and then spends most of the book trying to figure out how to make it up to her/keep her from finding out. I loved this subplot. It was thematically connected to the plot in interesting ways, and I wish Joyce hadn’t felt the need to connect it explicitly for me. To have a character suddenly be like, “That incident with Jack and the cat got me thinking about the parallels between his situation and yours, Tara” (that’s not a quote, I’m exaggerating), was disappointing. I am a smart lady. I can make connections on my own.

The resolution of the plot was solid and felt inevitable when it came. Mostly it worked great for me, even if it did hit a few of its emotional beats a little too hard to make sure I really really got what was happening. Joyce also added a small denouement involving Tara’s niece Zoe, who plays the guitar — again, didn’t need to be quite as explicit as it was about what was happening, but it was a fitting little coda and a nice way to close the book.

Thumbs up from me, with the caveat that I do have an inclination in favor of fairy stories.

Other reviews include At Home with Books (linked above, yes, but let’s do it again!), In Which Our Hero (um, that is an awesome blog title?), The Speculative Scotsman, Book’d Out, and Books and Needlepoint.

Review: A Long, Long Sleep, Anna Sheehan

In a way, I did this to myself. I should know by now that I do not like, and have never liked, science fictiony retellings of fairy tales. There’s just something about it that feels very deeply weird. Magic is magic and science is science, and — and — you know? It feels jarring. So I was setting myself up for disappointment in this, my first attempt to discern whether all Candlewick authors are as good as Patrick Ness and Melina Marchetta.

(Also because Patrick Ness and Melina Marchetta are really awesome.)

Rose Fitzroy wakes up after sixty years in stasis to find that the whole world has changed. Humanity has been through plague and pain and terror, and everyone Rose ever knew — her mother and father, her boyfriend Xavier — is long dead. Rose herself is rolling in money and utterly isolated; though the grandson of one of her parents’ former colleagues befriends her, she still feels conspicuous and out of place at school. And an illegal robot Inferius* is on a mission to destroy her.

I read — unfortunately for this book! — another young adult novel over the summer in which the heroine is unreliable because she has been made to feel worthless and trouble by the adults in her life; and the heroine of that book, although she could perceive no value in herself, was still an interesting and dynamic protagonist. So I know now that this trick is an attainable one, and that Sheehan just does not know how to do it. When Rose does something insane that arises from believing herself worthless, it doesn’t feel earned. When she doesn’t tell her foster parents that she was attacked by a killer robot Inferius**, it’s supposed to illustrate, I guess, how little she values and trusts herself? And I get that Sheehan is trying to show that Rose has had a job done on her head. It’s just done with a broad brush.

So obviously I wished for a different protagonist. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I would have been happy with a different protagonist from this same book set in this same world. As I was reading, I felt like there was such a good book contained within this one and trying to get out. Rose makes friends with a cyborg guy*** called Otto, and his backstory? Should totally have been the front story. I’m going to tell it to you so you can support me on this:

Otto and his brothers and sisters are a genetic experiment; they are fully sentient beings, but as far as the government is concerned they’re objects. Many of them died when Otto was younger (this is an example of the genetic experiment’s failures). There are all these legal questions about their personhood in the world, and most of them are dead, etc. Then the girl who will legally own them when she reaches the age of 18 wakes up from sixty years in stasis, and Otto becomes friends with her.

I mean, that is the story.

Come on. That’s the story. I want to write that story. I’m sad that’s not the story Sheehan was interested in telling and that as a consequence I had to sit through so much of people in the story going “But Rose, you’re so great and caring!” and Rose going “No no! I’m not! I’m terrible! What? Great and caring? Me?”

(Social Sister and my mumsy are rolling their eyes all the way out of their heads right now, but I hope they find this parenthetical aside sufficient evidence of self-awareness on my part. I KNOW OKAY?)

Well, this post is just all over the place. This is what always happens when the thesis of my review is “I wish this had been a different book with a different protagonist/premise/themes to explore/all of the above.” The instinct to rearrange and fix what’s already in there is, one optimistically presumes, proof that I chose the right profession.

Everyone else has already read this book; their reviews here. Sorry I’m slow on the uptake.

*Not its official name
**Still not what it’s really called; but since we’re on the subject, can we can about how excited we are about J. K. Rowling’s new book coming out this month? YAY.
***Not what the book calls him but we have been living in this world, y’all. We know what a cyborg is.

Review: Habibi, Craig Thompson

Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyynnnnnnnnggggg. Come on, dude.

Is what I was saying throughout most of Habibi. I wanted to be saying what I was saying throughout most of Thompson’s previous book, Blankets, which was nothing actually because I was so breathless from the beauty of the story and the illustrations. I wanted that to be the case with Habibi, and occasionally it was, like when the characters were telling each other stories from Muslim traditions. Craig Thompson never didn’t succeed at making his stories beautiful. If he had stuck to this, we’d be having a very different review right now.

Let me back up. Described by Thompson as a fairy tale, Habibi is set in the fictional country of Wanatolia, an Arabian Nightsy place complete with harems and sultans and deserts. Dodola is raising a small boy named Zam, whom she rescued from slavers, on an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert. This is all very nice for Zam, up to a point (that point being the point at which he discovers how Dodola procures rations for them both), but then Dodola is taken away to be part of the sultan’s harem, and then a bunch of depressing stuff happens to both of them, and eventually (spoilers) they are reunited.

Basically, the book starts out lovely, but then gets super rapey. I do not like super rapey books. And here’s what it is: If your book is about real life, and you are careful, you can have a super rapey book. I might not want to read it, but I am far less likely to say “Come on dude” to you. If your book is a fairy tale and it’s super rapey, then that tends to fall into the realm of the unnecessary (as a rule! not always!). If you’re going to show sexual abuse, be prepared to deal with the emotional consequences for your characters. Don’t toss it in there because you need your characters to undergo many trials. When you do it that way, it makes me feel icky. It’s not that I’m trying to hide from the fact that rape is a real thing, it’s that I need books to treat it like a real thing, and give it the weight it deserves.

Leaving out the questionable way Thompson deals with rape in this book, the misery the characters go through was just too much misery. It was too much misery in too episodic and haphazard a way. They bounced from one miserable life to another miserable life, steady being miserable, that shorthand thing of making characters sympathetic by inflicting misery on them. There’s something to be said for putting your characters through hell, and I’m all for it, I really am, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as the next geeky girl, but you still have to make them recognizable people whose experiences change them. I didn’t feel anything for Dodola and Zam, I just sort of wanted the book to be over.

Boo. I was so excited for this book and I ended up not liking it at all and sort of wanting to give Craig Thompson the look of squinty-eyed wrath at which my family excels. I wish it had been one huge long book of stories from Muslim tradition. That would have been gorgeous and exciting and wonderful. Instead it was occasionally gorgeous and exciting and wonderful, but overwhelmingly unawesome. I’m going to go reread Blankets and make myself love Craig Thompson again.

But don’t take my word for it!

The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim

Oh Bruno Bettelheim, you silly bunny.  So many things about your book annoyed me until I flipped to your about-the-author and looked at your dates.  Turns out, there is some excuse for your dated Freudian psychology: you were born in 1903!  After I knew that, so many things about you still annoyed me.  I like for writers to use the phrases “oedipal conflict” and “oral incorporative stage” sparingly, if at all.  Your dates are no excuse!  I would have found it even more annoying if I had not suddenly remembered this (warning for language); and then every time Bettelheim said something Freudian, I thought of Robert DeNiro and smiled.

Bruno Bettelheim says very little of value that I haven’t already heard out of Max Lüthi.  Most of the book is intended to persuade modern parents that fairy tales are good for their children because they provide the children with safe outlets for expressing their darkest emotions.  I do not require to be persuaded of this and thus became (unfair of me really) impatient with Bettelheim for continuing to try and persuade me.  I wanted to be all I ALREADY AGREE WITH YOU DUDE!  I wanted him to say new and exciting things that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and he didn’t really do that.

Moreover, I do not know that Bettelheim is right in trying to find one-to-one correspondences between every aspect of the story under discussion and every aspect of a child’s Freudian development.  “The Goose Girl” helps to guide children from the early oedipal stage to the next higher one; “Hansel and Gretel” helps them to overcome and sublimate their primitive incorporative desires, and so on like that.  His notion was that these stories have evolved over many generations in such a way as to reflect children at different stages in their development.  I am not completely convinced.

And then there was this:

Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction [the wolf inviting her into bed] Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced. In neither case is she a suitable figure to identify with.  With these details Little Red Riding Hood is changed from a naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother’s warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen women.

Bruno, Bruno.  I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.  I’m returning you to the library and reading Marina Warner instead.  I believe that she will not anger me but will indeed have insightful remarks to make about gender, and I further believe that she will not be using the phrase “fallen woman” unironically.  I trust Marina Warner that way.

The Uses of Enchantment was my eighth (if I’ve counted them up right) and final read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as it ends tomorrow, and I won’t be reading Marina Warner before then because I am too busy with Sea of Poppies.  I was totally successful at this challenge and read more books for it than I anticipated I would.  Some of them surprised me by being wonderful, and some I wanted to love but did not.  You know how that goes.

Other people what read Bruno Bettelheim:

Tales from the Reading Room
books i done read

Did I miss yours?  Tell me and I will add a link!

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Luthi

By astonishing coincidence, I find myself needing to research fairy tales right in the middle of the Once Upon a Time Challenge (about which, if anyone is wondering, I have never forgotten at all but have kept it uppermost in my mind at all times).  Max Lüthi has written a book that provides an insightful and very readable overview of the conventions of the European fairy tale.  As a starting place for my research into fairy tales (I am going to research the crap out of fairy tales, y’all), I could hardly have picked a better book.

Lüthi talks about the conventions of fairy tales and what they mean to us.  I spent the entire book shrieking “OH YEAH! THAT IS TOTALLY TRUE!” because Lüthi writes about patterns in fairy tales, mainly Grimm’s.  I read Grimm’s fairy tales like mad when I was a little girl, way more than Lang’s, so Lüthi was writing about all the stories I read, in the versions that I read them.

For instance, I have previously remarked upon stories that violate ontological boundaries.  Fairy tales do this all the time, with talking animals and like that, but Lüthi points out that while we may be surprised by this, the characters aren’t.  An animal walks up and starts talking to our fairy tale protagonists, and the protagonists are perfectly chill about it.  One of Lüthi’s lovely, concise observations: “[In fairy tales], everything can enter into relationship with everything else…[they] free people from their natural context.”

Or, oh, this was good, Luthi notes that relationships and feelings are externalized rather than explained in emotional terms.  Relationships and connections between characters are tangible: a princess will slip something into her lover’s pocket before he leaves.  A girl who walks a long way in search of something or someone will wear through three pairs of iron shoes, her weariness represented rather than described.  True story, right?  That kind of thing happens all the time in fairy tales. Tangibles.  Love ‘em.

As I have a troubled relationship with time, I appreciated this the most:

The fairy tale conquers time by ignoring it.  Part of the power which it has to delight the reader derives from this triumph over time and the passage of time….[these stories] remove us from the time continuum and make us feel that there is another way of viewing and experiencing life, that behind all birth and death there is another world, resplendent, imperishable, and incorruptible.

I took copious notes on this book, with a pen that I am trying to use up its ink because I can’t bear to throw a gel pen away.  It’s the most obnoxious color of pen ever, this terrible orangey dark coral, but the pen’s a Uni-ball Signo with a 0.5mm nib.  I can’t throw that pen away.  I have a finite number of pens, and anyway, it’s got a 0.5mm nib!  But it’s the ugliest damn color ever, and the day this thing runs out of ink is going to be a happy, happy day for me.

Review: Peter and Max, Bill Willingham

I won Peter and Max from Cecelia of adventures of cecelia bedelia – thank you!  I was having a terrible day, and when I got home I had not one, BUT TWO packages on my doorstep.  One was Peter and Max, and the other was a package of two books and a bookmark from Jeane.  It was amazing.  It caused my day to stop being terrible, and be awesome instead.  (True story.)

If you haven’t read Fables, you should really do that.  In fact, go do that now, and when you have finished, you may come back and we can discuss how we are going to cast the television show they will eventually make of this graphic novel series.  I already have cast most of the parts in my head, but I am not satisfied with some of them, and I am willing to negotiate.  (Don’t you wish the lovely and talented Enver Gjokaj were taller?)

Peter and Max is a prose story, with occasional illustrations by Steve Leialoha, about Peter Piper and his brother, Max, who you pretty quickly figure out is the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  The story goes between the past, exploring Max and Peter’s relationship and Max’s descent into evil, and the present, as Peter tries to find and stop Max.  There are rats and thieves, and (spoiler, sort of!) Bo Peep is an assassin, and the pipes fight, which is cooler than it sounds.

When, about twenty pages in, I flipped back and read the end, and I thought: Well, that’s going to be an anticlimax.  All the build-up to the Final Battle Against Max and it’s not – let’s just say it’s not quite as Gandalf-and-the-Balrog-or-Harry-and-Voldemort-epic as maybe I was expecting from how scared everyone sounded about Max being back in town.  However, when I read through the book, and got to it properly, I found it was not an anticlimax at all.  Action-wise, I was right, it’s anticlimactic; but as far as the emotional journey of the book goes, I think it works just perfectly.

I think if I had to pick one thing about the Fables series that I do not love, it’s how everybody acts tough all the time.  I mean everybody acts tough, every single character, which I guess you are meant to put down to their all having lived so long?  But when I read the dialogue – and it’s more noticeable in a novel than in the comics – the characters all sound a bit the same.  I liked Peter and Max, but the flaws of the comics were present in the novel, and in the novel they jumped out at me more.  I suppose because I didn’t have the pretty drawings to distract me?

Other reviews:

adventures of cecelia bedelia (thanks again!!)
Stainless Steel Droppings
Vasilly
Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist
The Written World
with Tales of a Capricious Reader
Largehearted Boy

Tell me if I missed yours!

The Coachman Rat, David Henry Wilson

Ah, yes, it’s time for another twisted and disturbing retelling of the Pied Piper, courtesy of the animal-loving Jeane.  I can’t decide whether this is more disturbing or What Happened in Hamelin – I feel like the latter, because of all the little children – but this is still fairly disturbing.  In a good way!  I liked it!

DogEar ReadingChallenge

The Coachman Rat is all about Cinderella’s rat.  On the night of Cinderella’s ball (she’s called Amadea here), an ordinary rat is transformed into a coachman; and at midnight, as she runs away, he is turned back into a rat.  Now, however, he can only speak the human language.  He is cast out from his family, displayed as a novelty, studied by a scientist, and eventually educated.  All he can think of is finding Amadea’s fairy godmother (“the woman of light”, he calls her), to beg her to change him back into a man.

I know, that’s Cinderella, not the Pied Piper.  It’s both!  The Pied Piper comes into it later.  Not in a nice way.  As Robert seeks to become human, he learns more and more about the ugliness in humans.  (Spoilers!)  A revolutionary uses him in a plot to bring down the Prince and Princess – their happily ever after turns into a nightmare when he is beheaded and she is burned as a witch.  Robert, restored to manhood just at the moment of her death, vows revenge for the death of the Princess.

Not a very triumph-of-the-human-spirit-y book, but I liked it.  Robert becomes neither human nor rat – he says – but in reality he is becoming the worst of human and rat to destroy his enemy.