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.

Fell_Beneath

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.

Soared_Above

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!

12.37–Ask the Passengers

12.37–Ask the Passengers

The benefit of working in a bookstore is that there are books lying around (duh). Everywhere.  Not just the ones on the shelves available for purchase. Oh no.  There are also the innumerable ARCs stacked everywhere.  One could drown in them.  Though the novel I write about today was actually released in October, I read an old, battered copy of the uncorrected proof that I found lying around in the kid’s section of the store.

Ask the Passengers is stunning.  I read it cover to cover Thursday night, completely determined to finish it that night. It’s not that it’s the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read.  It isn’t really suspenseful at all.  It tells the story of Astrid–a seventeen year old girl in a small, conservative town who is coming to an understanding with herself about her sexuality.  Though she is attracted to and then later in love with a girl, she is not certain that she is gay for a good long while. Or, rather, she is not willing to admit to herself and to others that she is gay.

Lest my readers think that this is “yet another preachy book about the plight of gays in America,” (sadly, there are people who are tired of this issue) and indeed the world–it is not.  Yes, this is a major part of the plot. But Astrid, like every kid searching for his or her identity, faces multiple crises.  She must deal with her mother’s lack of love and her father’s apathy.  She faces the lies of her best friend. She gets busted for underage drinking.  On top of this, she is “outed” before she is ready to admit her sexuality to herself, much less to others.  The rumors, snark, and ill-will that follow in the wake of a certain incident are heartbreaking to read–doubly so because there are people who endure that and worse in real life.

Astrid is a fantastic character.  She is witty and fun, but her sadness tints everything she does.  She is creative, and very smart.  She names Socrates “Frank” because she doesn’t like him having only one name, and he becomes her conscience as she navigates the choppy waters of her personal and family life.  What is best, though, is her ability to overcome.  She is a person who literally sends love to everyone, even when they are upsetting her. Or she sends it to strangers. The quirk of the book–because there has to be one–is that she reclines on the picnic table in her backyard and sends love to passengers in passing airplanes.  What is interesting is that the author includes one- or two-page blurbs written from random passengers’ points-of-view.  Many times they can feel the love that Astrid sends and it influences a great change in their life. Very, very cool.

It is a beautiful book about a teenager who isn’t afraid to see herself as a person and stand up for her right to be so.  She overcomes the judgement and ridicule of others. Though it doesn’t go away–just like in reality–she manages to live her life in a proud and dignified way, unbowed by the cruelty of others.  I really think A. S. King did a fantastic job with this one.


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


12.24–Bossypants

12.24–Bossypants

This autobiography by Tina Fey was a really quick read, and quite funny, though I didn’t laugh as hard as I’d hoped I would based on what I’d heard from others about it.  It was my book club book for this month, and I had to read it really quickly because I left it until the last minute.  This was no problem, because it reads well and it’s really interesting, despite the fact that it is way out of the realm of what I normally read.

Fey writes briefly about her life growing up, which is basically the same story of adolescents everywhere, with the exception of her being knifed in the face by a vagrant in an alley when she was little.  On that note, has anyone else notice she had a scar on her face? She talks a lot about it in the book, but I’d never noticed it before she mentioned anything. The majority of the book, however, is about her life in show business (more specifically sketch comedy), and it’s fascinating! From her stint as a writer and then actor on SNL to her creation of 30 Rock, she gives anecdotes about her fellow writers or actors and the text includes some of the original scripts for sketches or episodes.  For instance, she goes into a lot of detail about her impressions of Sarah Palin, and how hard she worked to make it accurate and funny.  And despite it being generally goofy in tone, she does address an issue that is obviously close to her heart: the treatment of women in show business. I liked that it wasn’t just a book about how awesome and interesting her life is. She also expresses the hope that someday women can find their way in comedy without the prejudice that seems to be caused by oblivious men.

The other great thing about the book is how incredible Tina Fey it sounds.  While reading it, I could see/hear her delivering a punchline at the end of each paragraph, almost as if I were watching her on TV. It made for very entertaining reading!

Truth be told there isn’t much to say about the book.  For the most part she makes it feel like fluff reading, despite the fact that the story told is that of a young woman finding her way in a primarily male-dominated industry without having to show her tits (yeah, I said it), and also learning to balance home life with dream career. It’s cute, it’s informative, it’s funny, and I enjoyed it as a break from all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately.  I’ve read my biography for the year!


12.23–Entwined

12.23–Entwined

Entwined by Heather Dixon is an absolutely beautiful rendition of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale.  I was skeptical at first, mostly because I’m skeptical of a lot of YA these days.  There is a huge amount of it being released, and not a lot of it is well-written.  Heather Dixon, however, is an author that promises and then delivers. I cannot wait for more of her work!

I was surprised by how many people I’ve talked to that don’t know the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The basic plot of the original fairy tale is: there are twelve princesses who sneak out of their room every night into a magical fairy land and dance until dawn.  The King is very perplexed by the mystery of their worn-out dancing slippers, which were new the morning before, and decrees that the man who can find out where they go every night may have the hand of the eldest princess.  The premise behind this novel is very similar to this, though it has been fleshed out to create a full-blooded story.  For instance, Dixon answers the question of why the princesses have to sneak out and dance, rather than simply dancing in their palace.  She’s also created a lot of history and backstory for her fictitious kingdom, and her characters sparkle (Figuratively. Used to be we could say that and everyone would know they didn’t literally sparkle, but thanks to Stephanie Meyer…).  And to add an element of darkness, there is an evil enchanter lurking in the fairy pavilion where they go to dance.  His name is Mr. Keeper, and he likes to keep things.

In this story, we get to know each princess, though the heroine is the eldest, Azalea.  Each sister has a unique personality: Azalea is maternal and feels responsible for her younger siblings. Bramble is fiery, temperamental, and wild. Clover is beautiful, sweet, and shy. You get the idea. But I like that Dixon made an attempt to make each of these twelve girls unique. Twelve is a lot of personalities to invent! Especially when you take into account that they are not the only characters in the novel.

Mr. Keeper is delightfully evil.  In the beginning he is dashing and charming, with a slightly sexy, dangerous air.  As the novel progresses, he reveals his true colors, and his true identity–neither of which, I’ll confess, I predicted.  I mean, I knew he was the bad guy, but I didn’t know he was that bad.

And then, of course, there are the relationships between the characters.  This is something that is always really important to me. The relationship between Azalea and her sisters is fiercely loyal and yet sweet.  The relationship between the girls and their father is strained and heartbreaking, though eventually his attitude toward them begins to thaw.  And the romance! It’s all so sweet! And innocent. I just love an innocent, slow-blooming romance in which both parties don’t even realize that they’ve fallen in love until some great event leads them to realize they cannot live without each other.

There were inconsistencies in Dixon’s writing. For instance, about three-quarters of the way through the book, she started italicizing words for emphasis a lot more than she did in the previous quarters.  It was bizarre and a little off-putting.  Still, the plot was fantastic, especially toward the end, so it didn’t really take away from the overall story much.  I think Dixon has a really stellar novel here, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of reading it. Like Peri, for instance :) Enjoy!


12.21–The Princess Bride

12.21–The Princess Bride

After years of wanting to read this book, I finally got around to it! Sadly, it was the e-reader version I bought when I was going to Ireland and planning on not buying books/lugging books in my backpack (which I did anyway).  This was the first real e-book I’d ever read, and it really took away from the reading experience. I cannot stand them! It also took me five months because I didn’t want to pick up my stupid phone and “read.”

Anyway, the book was pretty good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would.  I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this because a lot of people love the book as well as the film. Since everyone has seen the movie at least 500 times, I won’t go too deeply into the synopsis.  Everything that happened in the film happened in the book, though obviously in much more detail.  A few include:

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The dialogue in the book is fairly close to that of the film.  You get a lot more backstory on all the characters though. Much more on Inigo, for instance. The reader is privy to the death of his father.

Mawage

This guy was actually written with that hilarious speech impediment that we all love to imitate.

Here is the kiss that blew all other kisses away.  Don’t you just love them?

Ok, enough of that.  The novel is a lot more political than the film. Goldman writes as if he has simply abridged the narrative of the famous S. Morgenstern, the Florinese author who wrote The Princess Bride as a political and social satire. This gets really confusing at times.  Of course, the reader figures Goldman’s asides are also fictional, but he is extremely convincing, mostly because he tells anecdotes from his own life and the events leading up to his decision to abridge the old text.  He screws with reality  throughout the book and it frustrated me at times. It did, however, make it memorable.

I was really impressed that the movie was so close to the novel. I suppose that’s because Goldman worked on the movie too.  But the dialogue, especially the most famous lines, were almost exactly the same.  It gave the novel the same whimsy and frivolity of the movie.  The story, too, is the same we know and love, though more in-depth histories and rivalries of Florin and Guilder are present.

If Goldman had ended it with the escape of Westley, Buttercup, Inigo, and Fezzik from Prince Humperdink, it would have been the perfect ending.  However, there is the epilogue, or sequel (I’m not sure which), called “Buttercup’s Baby.” It’s a stupid name, for one.  Secondly, the plot is ridiculous. It plays with time entirely too much.  And it goes virtually nowhere. Also, there’s a pseudo-sex-scene between Westley and Buttercup and it sort of shatters their image of youthful and pure romance.

In the end, I did enjoy it, simply due to its similarities to the film that I adore.  But there are things that distracted from the story itself and I really wished they hadn’t been there.  While it was a clever way to write the novel, and I’ll admit I’ve never seen anything like it before, it was still fairly irritating at times.  I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but only because I felt guilty for rating it any lower. However, no matter the weird narrative, The Princess Bride will always hold a special place in my heart.