Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland Series

Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland Series

I am reading like a maniac, trying to get through as many of my books as possible before I have to leave them all at my mother’s house while I traipse off to Peru for a while. I can’t take them with me, so I’m spending time with them, much as I’m spending time with my dog and my friends. All things I’m having to say goodbye to for a few months or years.

My most recent project is getting through all four of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books that are out. I don’t know if there will be more. I have not reached the end of the fourth book.

I raved about the first book, once upon a time. You can read about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making here. It still holds up as one of my favorite books for middle-grade readers. It is a lovely work with so much spunk–a modern fairy tale founded in classic folklore. In this post, I am talking up books 2-4.

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Book 2: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Am I the only one who loves these excessively long titles? I love it when I recommend these books to people and they always get a bit of a shock at how long the titles are. That’s sort of how these books are from start to finish. The plot of this novel arises from something that happens in the first book. It is a somewhat small event, one that ultimately gets lost among all the adventures September has throughout Circumnavigated. Upon her return to Fairyland in the second book, however, she realizes that what she thought was nothing is actually a very big something.

The characters in this one are a little different from those in the first. September once again meets Saturday and A-through-L, but there’s something different about them…There is also a whole new set of adventures and cast of characters that September meets. Her foe, Halloween the Hollow Queen, leads the shadows of Fairyland-Below. From the sound of it, she is actually a good queen, and her subjects love her very much, but she is causing trouble for Fairyland-Above, and September simply can’t let that happen. September herself is thirteen years old in this book, with a brand new heart that has her feeling all sorts of complicated things she doesn’t understand. It makes for a very confusing adventure for September, but it is one which I’m sure readers will enjoy as much as the first. She handles the transition into the teen years with grace and courage.

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Book 3: The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon In Two takes place entirely on the Moon! It is not the Moon we know, however. It is made of pearl and is home to all sorts of fabulous and diverse sea life. A yeti has the residents of the Moon living in fear, and September must do her best to stop his nefarious plot. On top of the yeti problem, September discovers that A-through-L has a bit of a curse on him, and must find away to save him before he disappears. There is also a beautiful little element of romance in this novel, between now 14-year-old September and one of her Fairyland cohorts. In this book more than any of the others, I think, Valente plays with the concepts of space, distance, and time, and with the way we perceive them. Several characters appear to September and her questing party from various other points in their timeline. It is mind-bending and fun.

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Book 4: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. I haven’t finished this one yet, so I can’t tell you a lot about it. I can say that it follows a different character than the previous three (though I believe September will appear eventually)–Hawthorn, a young troll who is swept out of Fairyland and into Chicago as a Changeling by the Red Wind. Once there, settled with a nice, Normal family, he does not remember why he feels so different. And different he is. At six he can write beautiful calligraphy, and knows words quite beyond the vocabulary of a normal six-year-old. He destroys his toys because he feels that they should talk to them, and they do not. He also believes that he is actually a wombat and a warrior. Those of us familiar with folklore know that the lives of Changelings are often unpleasant, and this one seems to continue that theory, though in a much less cruel and miserable way.  Poor Hawthorn is just very confused, and he must learn how to become a Normal human, when in truth he is anything but. From page one the novel displays heart and a robust love of humor, lore, and story. Valente’s characterization is once more picture perfect. I really just love this author. I love that she’s doing something a little different with novel 4, and that she is completely, unabashedly true to her style and her world.

I highly recommend this whole series for readers of all ages. Fans of Lewis Carroll and Lemony Snicket, I think, will enjoy these sometimes-dark and always-whimsical novels.

 

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

I’ve been on a middle-grade chapter book kick, and I’ve really struck gold with the three that I’ve read so far. It’s a fantastic time to be a kid, or a lover of children’s literature. There are so many good books coming out every day, it’s almost impossible to keep up. I was fortunate enough to read three absolutely wonderful books in a row.

#1: Monstrous by MaryKate Connolly

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This is a novel about Kymera, a little monster girl created in a lab for a very special purpose. She has a stinging tale, patchwork skin, and eyes that can switch back and forth between human and cat (for seeing in the dark). She lives with her father deep in the forests outside of the town of Bryre, and only enters the city at night after everyone is asleep. Though she is not allowed to have any friends, she meets a boy named Ren and is unable to resist his companionship. But both Ren and Kymera have deep secrets, and it tests their friendship and their trust for one another. When the town of Bryre faces danger, it’s up to them to reconcile their mistrust and work together to save their home.

This is an absolutely darling story. It’s fairly dark because it combines taboo science with wicked magic, but ultimately it tells a story about love, acceptance, family, and heroism in unexpected places. I recommend this book highly, as I think it’s a fairly unique story that combines the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein with the magical elements of beloved fairy tales. It’s a page-turner, sure to keep readers young and old engaged.

#2: Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume

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Julia barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Julia was seven years old. Now twelve, she faces a rapidly shifting world, as her grandmother, who is also her guardian, passes away, and her family’s debts are called in. Her aunt sells their ancestral home and most of their possessions, and Julia and her Aunt Constance set off on a road trip across the United States, following the rumors of Julia’s mother. With all of their remaining worldly possessions packed into their car (silver candlesticks, Oriental carpets, and some steamer trunks, to name a few practical travel essentials), they visit Greenwich Village in New York City, consult a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, go hunting in the dusty Texas desert, and continue all the way to California. Julia documents some of her adventures with her Brownie camera, which she carries everywhere.

I can’t stress enough how adorable this story is. Julia faces her changing circumstances with a positive attitude and a sense of adventure that one can’t help but love her for. She drags her camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything she sees (some of which are on display in the chapters of the book!). Most importantly, she learns lessons about finding family wherever she can, and about accepting herself and her slightly quirky personality. This is a truly lovely book that reminds me a bit of Matilda, but with its own sassy personality. Plus it encourages kids to travel, and that is incredibly important.

#3: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

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I picked up this book on a whim and I am so happy I did. That is sometimes the best way to find a book. As a bookseller, a lot of books get buzz, and I just don’t have time to read all of them. Nightbird is a book that deserves the time. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn’t put it down.

Twig lives in Sidwell, Massachusetts, which is a town with many secrets. Her mother doesn’t socialize, and though she is the most beautiful woman in town, she is also the saddest. Her mother bakes pies, which draw tourists from miles around, and Twig and her mother live in the orchard from which they harvest the fruit for the pies. Rumors and local legends say that a monster inhabits Sidwell, and Twig knows more about that than she lets on to outsiders. Like Kymera in Monstrous, Twig is not allowed to have friends. Her mother worries that their family secrets will emerge if she does. But when two girls close to her age move into the cottage beside their orchard (a cottage rumored to have once belonged to a witch), Twig is unable to refrain from becoming best friends with the younger sister.

Anything I try to say about this book will likely sound hyperbolic. I really thought that it was delightfully beautiful. It is rich with the joys and the headaches that local traditions and folklore can bring to a small town, and there are elements of hidden magic existing beside the everyday things people see with their eyes. The secrets that come out eventually have the potential to be disastrous, but Twig learns that people can be surprisingly generous, accepting, and loving.

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I highly recommend all three of these beautiful novels. These characters are strong and wonderfully themselves, and they make fantastic protagonists and role models for young girls (or boys!). Read these to your children, buy them for your classroom, or read them for yourselves!

12.28–Wicked

12.28–Wicked

I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it.  I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:

Not as pretty

Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years.  For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW).  In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City.  From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate.  She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics.  By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.

I remembered virtually nothing about this novel.  In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.

It’s pretty fabulous

Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are.  For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz.  The novel, conversely, is not.  For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical.  There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting.  Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political.  There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand.  There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.”  In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close.  No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.

Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time.  I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative.  But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer.  The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life.  Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!

Still, as I said, it is a masterful work.  Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful.  It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency.  Maguire also creates wonderful characters.  Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity.  She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her.  She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage.  The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining.  They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other.  Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.

I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical.  Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line.  But where the musical is fun, the novel is important.  It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today.  If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!

Or she’ll get you


12.17–A Clash of Kings

12.17–A Clash of Kings

This novel, in case you don’t know, is the second in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  By no means as interesting as the first, much of it feels rather like filler.  It takes a very long while for the events to get moving. For a novel that’s 969 pages long, reading through 400 pages in which mostly nothing happens is pretty difficult.  Still, the events of the latter half of the novel make pushing through the first part worth it, and I very much look forward to starting the next novel.

As ever, the story of the Seven Kingdoms is told from multiple third-person points of view, following a large number of different characters.  One of the most frustrating things about this series is the sheer number of characters (I believe I read somewhere that throughout the series of five books so far there are over 1,000 named characters).  Their names are unusual and some of them are very similar, making it extremely difficult to keep track of everyone.  At times I only followed the story based on some vague concept of a person’s character–this man is bad, this woman is benevolent, this man can’t be trusted, this one can be bought for gold–instead of attempting to memorize all the names. It helps to read the appendix at the back, and keep referring to it as the novel progresses.

I will say this for Martin: with his main players he takes a great deal of care, crafting them into multi-faceted, many-sided characters.  My favorite in this novel is Tyrion Lannister, a witty man whose lack of brawn has turned him into a clever schemer–the man who really controls the country, though from the shadows so that no one knows it. Arya, my favorite in the last book, lost most of her spunk for this one, though she gained it back at the end to reclaim her place in my heart. Sansa, whom I hated in the first novel, certainly earns the reader’s sympathy in this one, as her mad betrothed, Joffrey, abuses her horribly, both emotionally and physically.  Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are both evil to the core–Joffrey a spoiled, mad child who has been given a crown, and Cersei the mother who will do anything to protect her son and see him hold on to the Iron Throne.  Each of these characters, and the others, evoke specific emotions within the reader, and once the chapter ends and we don’t know how soon we’ll see them again, there is a little bit of disappointment.  I’ve considered skipping ahead to the next chapter belonging to a character I’m particularly interested in, but I know that by the time the novel gets around to that next chapter, so many things have changed that nothing will make sense.

The plot moves swiftly and the fortunes of characters change in a flash.  In this novel, as in its predecessor and presumably its sequels, nothing is certain–life or death, good or evil, victory or defeat.  Even when it looks as if a battle can have only one outcome, Martin surprises us with some new trickery.  With five kings vying for one throne, and two more self-styled monarchs eyeing the throne from a distance, there is no well-defined line in the sand, no clear hero for which to cheer.  In this, Martin creates realism far beyond what most authors will do.  These people could be walking around in an alternate universe, where fate does not always favor the noble or the good.  Though the world he created is very thorough, complete with topography, geography, history, religion, language, culture, and the previously spoken-of characters, it is this ability of his to not give us the happy ending we want that truly brings the story to life and makes it believable.

Though I did not enjoy this novel nearly as much as the first, I still had difficulty putting it down, especially the nearer I drew to the end.  The simmering pot of the Seven Kingdoms explodes into a boil, and it gets to be a very exciting read.