Mini-Vacation and GIVEAWAY

May 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm (Giveaway) (, , , , )

So I’m actually away from my computer this entire weekend because one of my big brothers is graduating with a Very Important Degree and we’re going up to see him be all important and stuff. (Don’t let the sleepy grammar fool you- I’m ridiculously proud of him)

To make up for my absence, I’m giving away an AMAZING book!

I got an ARC for Christopher Healy’s fabulous The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and just about hurt myself laughing. Despite having the ARC, I had to go ahead and buy the finished book anyway, for two reasons: one, I love to support the authors of books I love; and two: because I had to have the interior illustrations. They’re wonderful! They’re funny and pitch-perfect and only add to the atmosphere of this fantastic story.

So now I’m passing on that ARC! You too can laugh yourself into pained incoherence with the adventures and misadventures of Princes Gustav, Frederick, Liam, and Duncan! Trust me, you WANT this book.

And all you have to do is answer a question: who do you think got the shortest end of the stick in fairy tales?

For my part, I always felt bad for the Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney one). She tries so hard and gives up so much, every step hurts like knives underfoot, but in the end she still can’t get the guy she’s risked everything to be with. In her case, you really can die from a broken heart, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with her, it’s not the prince hated her, it just…didn’t work. Her story brings tears to my eyes every time.

So who do you think got the short end of the stick? Tell me below and you’ll be entered to win- that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to follow me here or on twitter, you don’t have to like my facebook page, just comment. (Of course, if you WANTED to do those things, I’d love you and give you virtual cookies, but it’s optional). Open to US residents only, and you can comment through Saturday, 2 June 2012.

Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy

May 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Ever wondered what comes after the happily-ever-after? For the four Princes Charming (or is it Prince Charmings?), it’s the realization that no one knows your name because they’re much more interested in the lady. But when one of those ladies goes off in search of adventure, what begins as a missing bard quickly grows into a heroic (and not-so-heroic) quest involving bandits, bounty hunters, giants, dragons, and a grumpy witch with serious issues. Buckle up, lovelies! It’s one crazy ride.

This book should come with a warning printed on it: do not attempt to eat or drink while reading. My keyboard will never be the same.

This book has such a fantastic sense of fun, a humor that infuses every sentence. Its pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek narration (think Lemony Snicket without the bite) has a levity that keeps the story floating along effortlessly. You will hurt yourself laughing with this one, whether it’s sniggers over Sir Bertram the Dainty, giggles over well-meaning but rather inept Frederic, or full-on belly shakers over the Bandit King. This could be a dangerous book to read in public- depends on how you feel about people staring at you, or if you feel uncomfortable losing all composure in front of people. It’s a fantastic story to read aloud with kids. Honestly, I think my friends and I would get a kick of out reading it out loud together if we were in the same area code.

The four princes are all distinct, fitting certain stereotypes but embodying them so fully that they step beyond them. They have varying degrees of frustration with the Prince Charming label (and the lack of publicity for their exploits that comes with it), and all four of them grow and learn along the way. But initially? These four princes couldn’t be more different. There’s prissy Frederic, who’s never been on an adventure in his life and considers his greatest talent to be his ability to coordinate his stylish clothing. He’s never ridden a horse (too dangerous!), slept outdoors (too messy!), or even lifted a sword (too risky!). There’s Prince Gustav, unlucky in most of what he attempts. He’s very brave but he’s uh…well, let’s call him impulsive. He’s huge and prickly and never stops to think before he runs into danger- or gets run over by danger. Then there’s Prince Liam, a real hero with a number of great deeds to his credit- who possibly woke up the wrong princess and needs to get away. Their fourth compatriot is Prince Duncan, who names all the animals and trusts to his luck to see him through. Together, these four function about as well as if you’d hog-tied all of them.

But they each bring something valuable to the table, even if it takes them a while to realize it. Much of the story is caught up in them bumbling around, getting in each other’s (and their own) way, but every step is also building towards that moment when they finally understand what it is to be an actual team.

Of course, there’s also the four ladies. Only half of them are princesses as of yet. There’s Ella, of Cinderella fame, now freed from her life of servitude to her step-family by virtue of being Frederic’s fiancee. It took a lot of guts to go the ball against orders, to seize opportunity when it arose, and that kind of girl doesn’t do well taking picnics day after day after day. So what’s a brave, curious, resourceful girl to do? Well, if you’re Ella, the answer is to run off in search of a missing bard. There’s also Rapunzel, whose rescue was somewhat compromised by her needing to rescue her rescuer. It’s in her nature to help people, which doesn’t much help prickly Gustav. There’s Snow White, sweet and a little odd, well-equipped for her wacky husband but just needing a few hours of peace and quiet. And then there’s Briar Rose, who probably should have been left asleep for another prince to deal with. She’s mean and spoiled and arrogant, hateful and cruel, and determined to get her own way no matter how much misery she causes. Actually, the more misery she causes the happier she is. While the focus is on the four princes, the four ladies are hardly by-standers. Each of them has a place in the story as well, some as rescue and some as…well, distraction is probably for the best for some.

But these are by no means the only characters. We meet the evil witch (who didn’t start out that way, you know), the giant in her service (who could really use a good pair of shoes), a dragon, a Bandit King with a temper (who’s a bit of a psychopath), three grumpy dwarves (are dwarves ever anything else?), a very clever little sister (because little sisters just rock), a morose bounty hunter, sixteen older brothers, five missing bards, a tavern of dangerous men, and a motley assortment of parents as idiosyncratic as their children.

It’s a fast-paced story, taking us back and forth across the lands while never letting us feel bored or battered by repetition. The foreshadowing is done in beautiful sarcasm (the prologue gives you a long description of where you’ll find the princes in Chapter 20), and sometimes the things we’re told in asides are at least as interesting as what we’re told that’s to the point.

This is a book you set aside time for, after you’ve eaten, when you’ve no thirst, with your kids or friends around you to share in it with you. Just make sure you avoid anyone you don’t want to see you laughing hysterically.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, out in stores now. Don’t miss this!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Enchanted, by Alethea Kontis

April 25, 2012 at 9:38 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Words have power, be they names or stories, and no one knows this better than Sunday Woodcutter, seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. But what starts as an unlikely friendship with a frog becomes a great deal more when curses cross and stories twist, and not only Sunday but all her sisters will have great destinies to fulfill to save their kingdom from an evil without a name.

So I have this thing for fairy tales. Liiiiike really have a thing for fairy tales. So I saw the cover and thought oh, cool, Princess and the Frog, that chould be fun.

This book blew me away. It is so much more than a single fairy tale, so much more than any fairy tales, and yet somehow it’s everything that every fairy tale could ever be. Seriously, I could gush for days and still not be able to relate how much I loved this book. I devoured it, and having to clock back in for work was painful. I wanted to blow off everything so I could keep reading.

Sunday is an amazing character, joyful and brooding and open and strong. She has a destiny given her by her name but also a burning desire to be more than that, to make a life outside of a name and a fate. She’s a storyteller, but she’s one that knows the power of words, so she’s cautious with them. For all that, there’s an unfettered merriment and love in her, love for all her family members (no matter how crotchety). Everything she feels, she feels intensely, with no filter between who she is and who she seems to be. She’s refreshing, and while she’s not someone who races out to save the day, neither does she stand around and wait to be rescued.

I absolutely fell in love with our frog prince. He starts out as someone with the potential to have great strength- if he can find it. He’s one of those rare people who has the chance to start completely over, but that redemption has a price he may not be able to pay. More to the point, he may have to sacrifice that redemption for something far greater. Determined to be a man worthy of Sunday’s love, despite the history between their families, he has to acquire a lifetime of memories and skills in just a few days’ time. There’s so much he doesn’t know, some he may never know. He doesn’t have to seek adventure because it’s waiting for him right at home.

Most of this cast is phenomonal. In a family of extraordinary people, extraordinary starts to feel rather normal, so they accept things as commonplace that would otherwise be mind-boggling. Why wouldn’t Sunday fall in love with a frog? After all, eldest son Jack Jr was a dog for a time, and brother Trix is a changeling. Each character has a different destiny but each twines through the others. They’re not a loose collection of people in a house; they’re a family. Each is distinct and well-drawn, and like sister Wednesday’s poetry, sometimes the truths lie more in the shadows and the spaces between.

And the fairy tales. Oh, the fairy tales. This isn’t a single fairy tale, but rather a tapestry that weaves through so many. Just a sampling of the stories included: Princess and the Frog, Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. But there are so many others, sometimes pillars of the story and sometimes fleeting glimpses that make us smile even as we’re too absorbed in the book to look away.

This book is as enchanting as the title suggests. Beautifully paced, gorgeously painted, this book is simply not to be missed. Enchanted, by Alethea Kontis, out 8 May 2012.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Shadow of the Bear, by Regina Doman

September 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a widow and her two daughters. One cold winter night, a Bear came to their door.
And they let him in.

I love fairy tales. I’ve said that before and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again, but I absolutely love fairy tales, and more specifically I love retellings of them. I find it fascinating how many different ways there are to tell the same stories, all the different aspects that go into staying faithful to the original tales and yet still becoming unique stories in their own right.

My sister pointed me to Shadow of the Bear, and we cracked up because we know the guy whose face is on the cover. I think it was curiosity that pushed us to actually get the book and read it- and possible the desire to bring it up for laugh value the next time we see him- but once we started reading the book, that changed. A lot.

On the surface, the story is an updated telling of Snow White and Rose Red. It’s kind of a neglected little sister to the other Snow White story (you know, the one with the dwarves and the evil queen/stepmother) but I actually like it a lot more. It’s a story of courtesy and greed, of friendship and loyalty, of the bonds between siblings, and- of course- true love.

Instead of a quaint cottage on the edge of a forest, we have a small brownstone in New York City. Blanche and Rose Brier and their mother Jean move there after the death of Mr. Brier, leaving behind their farm community and their homeschooling for the busy streets of the city, education at St. Catherine’s, and- for Jean- work in an emergency room to support her girls. Rose, the younger of the girls, takes well to shared schooling and city life, outgoing and flamboyant and at ease in any setting. Blanche is a worrier, practical and shy and uncomfortable in her own skin, silent and mostly unnoticed in public.

Enter Bear, a large, rather shaggy young man with dredlocks who, contrary to a rather imposing appearance, assists their mother with her dropped groceries. They invite him in to thaw out his frozen feet and a slow, tentative friendship forms. The tentativeness comes mostly from Blanche, who recognizes Bear as someone who hangs around the drug dealers at her school, and Bear readily admits that he was once in juvie for possession. Still, over the course of the winter nights and his regular visits, Blanche starts to wonder if there might not be more to him than dreds and a record.

It isn’t precisely safe to be Bear’s friend, however, something of which he is keenly aware and his younger brother is quick to remind him. When an evening out threatens the girls, he starts to distance himself from them for their own well-being, and even Blanche isn’t sure whether she should be relieved or not.

There are several mysteries that weave through the book, Bear’s true identity the least of them. There’s also his brother Fish, as slippery and hard to pin down as his name implies, the murder of their mentor Father Michael Raymond, and the disappearance of valuable church property. Through these run the threads of family life, of school hazards and the adjustment to life in the city and the wonders and dangers that life offers.

Here’s what sets it aside from most other retellings: Regina Doman is a Catholic writer, and that comes through the story in lovely and unexpected ways. It’s never a sermon, not a point on conversion, but it unfolds through the story, through the characters, and allows for some very interesting thoughts. I’m not personally Catholic so in many ways some of the aspects were like looking into a new world, one of structure but also of comfort. For the girls, especially for Blanche, religion is a way to look out on an otherwise terrifying world, a source of strength and grace in difficult times. For the brothers, it’s a way to make sense of a hard, cruel world, a world where a beloved mother dies and a father disowns them, where their mentor can be murdered within his own church. It’s what got them through juvie and it’s what continues to carry them through their quest to find the identity of the murderer.

It’s not a simple thing, but it’s an elegant one, a nature that supports the story and allows it to unfold. We see the best and worst of mankind, the despair of losing against an encroaching darkness of the human soul, but also the supreme hope and redemption that gives us the promise of better times.

Religion, especially in fiction, can be a chancy thing, largely because it’s a highly personal and easily misinterpreted thing. It’s a polarizing issue and people respond to it with a great deal of passion. That passion often translates to anger or outrage. Here it’s offered with a gentle hand, used to support the story and characters in view of a certain outlook on life, but never used as a bludgeon. It never attempts to step outside the story or become separate from it, an inextricable part of the characters but an offering rather a smack to face.

These characters offer a lot to fall in love with. Bright and bold Rose, unafraid of the world even when she should be, gutsy and resourceful and entirely too trusting; timid and careful Blanche, afraid she’ll let life pass her by but too scared to reach out and take hold of it; Bear, wounded and bone-sweet, careful of others even as he’s relentlessly driven by his quest; sarcastic, flippant, and hard-to-know Fish, good as distancing himself from others but not so skilled at connecting with them. They’re very real characters, mixed with virtues and flaws, people who’ve been damaged in their own ways and finding their own roads to overcoming and incorporating those scars.

And the best news? If you love this book, there are more: Black as Night, Waking Rose, The Midnight Dancers, and Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyber Thieves, hopefully with more to come in the future.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale

May 24, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Princess Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, was born with a word on her tongue and a duty that never weighed comfortably on her shoulders. Far more so than people, she understands the birds of the air, the old stories in which every created thing has a language, and her horse Falada. Uncomfortable with strangers and royal tasks, Ani nonetheless tries her best to live up to the standard of her mother, a beautiful woman with the gift of people-speaking (the ability to sway others to her thought simply through her speech). Then the queen makes a decision that will send Ani far away from everything and everyone she knows, into a strange new world of danger and deception where the crown princess with a word on her tongue will have to find the strength to save two nations.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because the Grimm brothers told us a very similar version. Many of the pieces are present and familiar: the princess sent to be queen of a foreign land, the horse she speaks with, the treacherous serving maid, and the titular disguise as a goose girl. Don’t mistake this for a simple retelling, though. The world is richly painted, a place of real people and real problems wound through the more mystical aspects of lost languages.Ani’s journey is more than just princess to goose girl to hero; it’s also a journey of self-discovery, of strengths and weaknesses and dreams, of finding the courage to do what is right rather than what is easy. It’s learning to trust others despite fear of betrayal, it’s learning to trust oneself, but most of all, it’s about learning who we really are apart from anyone else’s defintions of us.

It’s a fairy tale, in all the best ways.

It’s a slow start. Our time in Kildenree and our initial time in the Forest progress gradually to let the world unfold around us. We learn a lot about why Ani probably isn’t the best choice to succeed her mother to the throne of Kildenree, despite her birthright, we learn how incredibly isolated Ani is from everyone else- not just because of her gifts- and just how uncomfortable she is within her own skin. She’s uncertain, self-conscious, and keenly aware of all the ways she doesn’t measure up to her mother’s expectations. It doesn’t become less painful with time, either. Every new comparison and perceived failing wounds just as deeply as the one before. She relies on her friendship with her horse Falada, with whom she can speak because she was there at his birth to say back to him the first word on his tongue, and on her father’s understanding and love. Her father may be king, but it’s very clear that he doesn’t rule Kildenree, and his sense of being little more than an accessory helps comfort her.

Because of that uncertainty, as well as her isolation, Ani is hopelessly naive. We as the reader know what’s going to happen in the Forest long before she does. (Which, if I’m honest, can be a little irritating at points- her innocence is sweet but also rather frustrating, mainly because it illuminates just how little she understands people) It’s in the tail end of her time in the Forest that she starts to realize her own naivete, and for me, that was when she started to get interesting. She’s so used to being served that it doesn’t even occur to her that not everyone lives that way, that if she’s in a bed, chances are pretty good there’s someone who’s going without their own bed right then. Within the poverty of the Forest, her eyes start to open to the way so many other people have to live.

When she arriives in the capital city of Bayern- the larger, more aggressive and powerful nation whose prince she was sent to marry- she finds that her former lady-in-waiting has assumed her name and position. Like Kildenree’s queen, Selia has the gift of people-speaking, and Ani knows there’s no way she’ll be able to convince anyone of the truth with Selia dripping lies so much more convincingly in their ears. The way back through the Forest is a journey of weeks and months, not one she can make on her own, and she has no coin to buy passage with a caravan- and, gradually, she realizes that she has nothing truly waiting for her back in Kildenree anyway. Her father is dead, her horse is missing, her mother is disappointed in her, and her younger brother has taken her place as heir to the throne. So, in a decision that takes equal parts cowardice and courage, she finds a position as a goose girl to the king’s flock.

As a goose girl, she’s simply Isi, a rather backwards girl who sounds like she’s from the Forest and doesn’t know anything about tending geese but slowly, patiently, learns their language. Geese aren’t the only things she learns to read. She’s finally in a pisition where she has to interact with people. She learns about kindness and support that hide beneath a gruff exterior, about steadiness and loyalty that hide within a mischievous smile. She even learns about love.

She also learns some more difficult lessons, about the hardships people endure, about the struggle to make a living, and the prejudices that keep people apart. All her life she’s lived as a noble and never seen what went into creating that life; now she sees the other side, is one of the people who work and work hard for a pittance. Most of her fellow animal keepers are Forest Born and not even considered proper citizens of Bayern. Except for festival days, they’re not allowed to go into taverns with the city-folk or celebrate with them, and the boys are not allowed the symbols of Bayern men. Criminals are executed and hung on display and city-men take upon themselves the role of Peacekeepers because the king’s soldiers can’t be bothered to protect those who live there.

This is where I fell in love with the story. I was enjoying it before, as one always enjoys a good fairy tale, but suddenly there was so much more depth to it. Isi- Ani- was born a princess, but now she’s in a position to learn what that really means. Her fellow animal keepers don’t care about the yellow princess (as they call Selia the imposter). They don’t care that she’s a princess, they don’t care that she’s to marry their prince. They just think she’s a stuck-up twit. They view their nobility and royalty with wry irreverence occasionally tinged with respect, but for the most part, they simply accept that it doesn’t matter. They have their hands full just trying to survive.

And she learns, carefully, slowly, to trust, to read people with some measure of success. Brash and fiery Enna, with her impish smile and sass and her talent for pranks, proves to be someone she can rely on with everything she is. Enna protects her but doesn’t smother her, doesn’t try to keep her separate from things. Finn is quiet but reliable, a strength like a deep pool. Even Conrad, prickly and self-conscious and prone to sulking, is real and rounded, not just a name and a face but a fully developed person. Selia sometimes falls prey to caricature but everything she does makes sense in a slightly twisted, self-justifying way. Geric is sweet and sincere, if a bit awkward, with a deep core of honor that translates to doing hard, painful things in the name of what is right.

There’s so much more to this book, but every time I read it, I’m captivated by the journey Ani/Isi makes. She progresses from a girl who is, let’s admit it, fairly useless in the broader scope of things, and grows into someone tempered by pain and experience, someone who can lead, wants to lead, and someone who will champion the people no one else sees. We should all be so lucky to grow so well. It’s not without its pains and its falls, and certainly it’s not an easy journey to take, but it’s one filled with such richess of character, or the joy in quiet moments and simple things, that we’re all better for understanding it.

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, first of the Books of Bayern.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Book Review: Entwined, by Heather Dixon

May 8, 2011 at 11:51 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Mourning carries with it a lot of sacrifices: no trips to the gardens, no sunlight, no clocks, no colors. No dancing. After their mother’s death and their father’s sudden departure for war, the twelve princesses of Eathesbury just want something to be normal and bright, like the dances their mother loved and taught them. Then they find the secret passage. It leads from their room to a beautiful gazebo with an invisible orchestra, and a strange man dressed all in black who calls himself Mr. Keeper. He invites the princesses to come there each night and dance to their hearts’ content but- as Princess Royale Azalea is about to learn- such gestures always have a price. The Keeper likes to keep things, and what he wants may just destroy everything.

I’ve mentioned several times that Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales, so I was both excited and nervous for this one to come out. I think it’s that way whenever a variation on something I love comes out. You want it so badly to be good, but there’s that niggling little fear that it won’t be, or that you might be disappointed.

Tell you what, though, I was not at all disappointed. I love this book.

Eathesbury is a very small, rather poor kingdom with a surplus of princesses and a royal family run on very strict rules (complete with subsections and headings). The princesses also have a wonderful collective imagination for Scandals, which they thoroughly enjoy and give elaborate names. This is a very hands-on sort of royalty; they have to be, because they can’t afford the extra help most of the time. They mend their dresses and worry about finances and what they eat is entirely dependant upon how much it costs to make it. That’s not something we see too often in stories about royalty. There’s a sort of expectation that everything is coming up filthy rich for anyone with a crown, but when the older princesses have genuine cause to worry about who might marry them given the rather pitiful size of their dowries, it lends a much deeper shadow to their need to find a place to dance where they won’t be caught.

Our main character is Azalea, Princess Royale and Heir Apparent of Eathesbury, and at the start of the story, just sixteen and old enough for her first ball. Due to her mother’s lingering illness, she’s also playing hostess and trying to keep her younger sisters from causing a Scandal like last year. She swears to her mother that she’ll look after her sisters, something she struggles with through the book but steps into admirably. What renders that difficult is the King. After the queen’s death, the King (or Sir, as they only ever call him) withdraws very suddenly from his daughters and breaks his own strict rules in order to avoid them, then departs for war without even saying goodbye. Lost in a sea of black clothing and covered windows, facing a full year of mourning inside the crumbling palace without even a way to keep the time, the only way the sisters keep their spirits up is by sneaking in the dancing their mother loved. Unfortunately they keep getting caught.

There are times when the need to dance seems almost frivolous, a concern that should be passing against a greater grief, but the need for that distraction is very real. It isn’t just something that they enjoy doing, it’s something that genuinely makes them happy, something that ties them to the mother they love, the mother they’ve lost. Their joy in finding the secret passageway and the pavilion through a forest that rains pearls instead of water is palpable. Even if Mr. Keeper is rather odd, the gazebo promises to be the one bright thing in their lives.

Each sister is distinct from the others, even if that occasionally lends itself to types (the prickly one, the sweet one, the smart one, etc). Azalea is, of course, the sister we see the most, and I love how we get to see her struggle and grow. There’s never a point where she really has everything under control. She has eleven younger sisters looking to her and nowhere to turn to for help, and she doesn’t always know what to do. Sometimes she does the wrong thing. She tries, though, and she does her best by them, and when it doesn’t quite work out she looks for a way to mend it (such as teaching them to mend their own dancing slippers so they can use them again and again). She’s also very aware of what it means to be the Princess Royale- that Parliament will choose her husband and she’ll have little to no say in it, because her husband will be the next king. Bramble is prickly and impulsive with a sharp tongue and a fiery temper, but everything she does, she does with passion. She holds nothing back. Clover (if you ever forget which sister is next, just go down the alphabet) is sweet and shy and lovely, the most beautiful of all the sisters and rather plagued by it, but she has a deeply hidden core of strength. Delphinium is dramatic and prone to fake-faints, while Eve always has her nose stuck in a book. Flora and Goldenrod, the twins, are a little less defined, as is Hollyhock, but the youngest four pick up the distinctions again. Ivy, who’s always hungry. Jessamine, who’s shy and quiet and almost never speaks. Kale, who bites (which cracks me up), and newborn Lily, whose distinction is that she’s still an infant.

(I have to admit, it amuses me somewhat that every retelling I’ve seen groups the princesses’ names in certain ways. Alphabetical, all flowers, all the same letter to start the names, etc. I’m not even sure why I get a kick out of it, just that I do.)

More than a story of magic and history, this is at its heart a story about family, and all the complicated emotions that come with it. It isn’t just about the sisters, it’s also about their father and the struggles that arise from everyone needed a different way to deal with things. There’s also an element of flexibility there, the importance of being able to rewrite your opinions of a person rather than clinging to them in a way that can cause injury to many. It’s about promises and oaths, and about protection. While the King is gone, the girls cling steadfastly to their pain and hurt and sense of abandonment, and continue to do so at first when he returns. Slowly, however, that has to change, whether for small concessions made to either side or for the small things being learned or understood. The King is never less than a stern figure, someone with strict rules, someone who’s not particularly good with affection- or at least not the appearance of it- but someone who, after too long trying to manage a grief that overwhelms him, is trying to reforge those connections.

And, of course, it’s a story about romance. We see quite a few gentlemen come through the palace in the guise of answering the riddle about where the princesses go each night. Most of them are only passing, funny in what makes them distinct, but those who are a steady presence are so incredibly different. Lord Teddie is a hoot. I adore him, even as being around him in person would probably make me want to kill him, but he’s so heartfelt and genuine and sincere. Fairweller, the Prime Minister, is dark and dour and stiff but with an unexpectedly sly sense of humor. Dry as dust, just like the rest of him, but as the reader we get to see the humor that Azalea in her stiff dislike of him misses. Mr. Bradford is sweet and patient and kind, with a crooked smile and perpeptually rumpled hair, who takes very well to being pelted with potatoes and being threatened at dinner. He’s forthright and a little awkward, uncertain about which path to take.

And then there’s Keeper. The first time we meet Keeper, he forces a river to rise up and keep the girls near the underground pavilion, then spins them a sad, beautiful story about being trapped. I know they need to dance, know they need the escape of just one thing going right, but you know that part of you that watches tv and wonders why no one ever calls the cops? Or waits for back up? That part of me kept watching their interactions and wondering why they kept going back. Keeper is elegant and enigmatic, but he’s also deeply, sincerely creepy. I have to admit, when he tells them the story of the girl he loved, I would have run for the exit and never returned.

I think my favorite piece of this book, aside from the very Victorian setting, is the way small bits of magic still exist. Specifically, the tea set. I love the tea set, the way it bullies people into drinking or the way the sugar teeth snap at anyone who tries to take too many cubes. It’s something small, a leftover from a time when magic was much more of a presence, as well as much more of a danger, but it very clearly illustrates how magic clings.

Entwined, by Heather Dixon, out in stores now and an absolutely lovely book that slowly unfurls to a ripping ending. Love it.

Want to win a copy? Leave a comment here for a chance to win! Open through Friday, May 13th 2011.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Read What You Write (+ Giveaway!)

May 2, 2011 at 9:00 am (General, Writing) (, , , , , )

I don’t mean the act of actually going back and re-reading what you’ve written; I mean this in a more general way: read the type of stuff you want to write. Nothing really functions in isolation. If you want to write mysteries, you need to read mysteries, see how they work, and how to write twists and and clues and reveals and motives and false leads and all that. What works? What things do different authors do that really amaze you as both a reader and writer? And how do they do them? What doesn’t work? Sometimes we guess things too easily, or the resolution doesn’t make sense even after the explanations. By reading mysteries off the shelves, you can start identifying the patterns of the genre, the things that all mysteries- no matter their actual content, style, or overall impact- seem to have in common. You’ll see what separates the books that are shelved as mystery from the books that have mystery elements, as well as what separates a detective novel from a cozy.

The same rule applies no matter what it is you want to write. Want to write science-fiction? Read the sci-fi writers. Do you gravitate more towards hard or soft sci-fi? Don’t know the difference? Read up on it and you will, and you’ll also know where your book belongs. Want to write fantasy? There’s a lot of different sub-genres of fantasy. Do you want urban fantasy? High fantasy? Epic fantasy? (Which, yes, is different from high fantasy). If you’re writing for teens, READ TEEN BOOKS. Don’t be this guy, who looks to adult books to try to figure out teens. Read these things for yourself. See what’s out there.There’s an element of courtesy in this, too: after all, the people who write those books are the people you want to call your colleagues someday.

Mostly, though, it’s practical. You want to know where on the shelf your book belongs. You don’t want to write to trends, but you do want to know what’s out there. You want to see what people like- what YOU like. If you want to work on your voice, read books with really great voice. Pick them apart, take notes, see what really makes that voice so astonishing, and incorporate what you learn into your writing exercises. Need help with your pacing? Look for a book that does this really well and pick it apart. The more you read, the more books you’ll find that can help you figure out your own way to do things.

Take fairy tales, for instance. Fairy tales are public domain, one of the many reasons there are so many retellings and reimaginings of them. If you’re planning to write a fairy tale retelling, you definitely want to read the other ones out there. You want yours to stand out, but you still want to keep some elements true to the original story. So. Look to the other retellings. What are the elements they keep in common? In the same vein, what are the things they change to make the story their own? To make it unique? You can have a great idea and write all the way through it only to find out that almost the same story is already sitting on the shelves. It SUCKS- but it happens. So see what’s out there.

Writing a retelling of Cinderella? Take a look at some of the retellings out there:
Princess of Glass, by Jessica Day George
Cindy Ella, by Robin Palmer
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine
The Amaranth Enchantment, by Julie Berry
Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Ash, by Malinda Lo
Palmer’s version is contemporary, set in our day, our kind of world. George’s is essentially a historical fiction, set in an eighteenth century variation of Europe. The others are different levels of fantasy. Each one looks at it in a different way. Berry has her Cinderella figure pick up the shoe. Levine answers a question I always had- why did Cinderella stay and slave away for her wretched step-family? Well, that’s easy- because she’s cursed with obedience.

One of my absolute favorite fairy tales of all time is the twelve dancing princesses, and in the past couple of years, there have been three fantastic retellings:
Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George (actually the book that precedes Princess of Glass
Entwined, by Heather Dixon
The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler
Zahler’s version is told by the youngest princess, relegated to the kitchens after her father’s disappointment at yet another girl, and so she looks for help in rescuing her sisters from their fate. George places us in baroque Germany, while Dixon gives us a pseudo-Regency world of magic similar to England. In each one, the reasons for the sisters to dance are different, as are the solutions.

How about Sleeping Beauty? Soooo many Sleeping Beauty stories out there, but check out how different these are:
Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card, with an olde Russian princess and even older magics mixing with the modern world.
A Kiss in Time, by Alex Flinn, has an old kingdom waking up to our modern world, with a king VERY unhappy about his daughter’s rescuer
A Long, Long Sleep, by Anna Sheehan, has our Sleeping Beauty waking up from a chemical-induced coma to take the crown of an unstable, interstellar empire (forthcoming in August)
The Wide-Awake Princess, by E.D. Baker is actually from the point of view of our Sleeping Beauty’s sister, immune to the curse and out to find the right prince to rescue her sister. There are several fairy tales woven through this one which make it a fun read, kind of like looking back at a yearbook and naming as many people as you can remember.
Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen, weaves the traditional elements of the story of La Belle au Bois Dormant with the horrors of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the Resistance.
Healer’s Apprentice, by Melanie Dickerson, takes us back to pre-Reformation Germany and a dark curse that threatens the union between two great families.

So many different fairy tales, so many different retellings, but every single one of them makes itself unique in some way when put against other variations of the same tale. If you’re getting ready to do a version of Beauty and the Beast, check out either version by Robin McKinley, or the stories by Alex Flinn, Holly Black, and Mercedes Lackey. Little Red Ridinghood has surged in popularity recently, like the version by Jackson Pearce that has Little Red whomping on the Big Bad Wolf as a professional werewolf hunter with more than a few scars. Is this a complete list? By no means. There are a ton of them out there, all of them distinct from each other.

So I think it’s time for another giveaway! And there are two, count them TWO, prizes!*

To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment. That’s it. You get an extra point if you follow the blog, and another extra point if you follow me on Twitter (@dothutchison). Make sure in your comment that you leave your email address so I can contact you if you win, and your Twitter handle so I can connect that extra point to you.

PRIZE PACK ONE: paperback editions of Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball and Princess of Glass. ** To enter for this one, tell me what your favorite fairy tale is and why.

PRIZE PACK TWO: hardback of Heather Dixon’s beautiful Entwined. To enter for this one, tell me what fairy tale you would love to retell, and how you’d do it.

And that’s it! Three great books, two prize packs, and only one comment needed to enter, plus those extra chances. You can enter for both prizes with one comment, just include both answers, or if you’d rather answer only one, that’s okay too!Contest is open for entries now through Friday the 13th!

Until next time~
Cheers!

*- US only, sorry; postage is expensive.

**-The paperback for this doesn’t actually come out until June 21st, so the winner will have the option of getting the first book and a gift card for the second, or receving the first book now and the second when it comes out.

May 14 am: Okay, all, contest is closed! I will announce winners this evening and send out the appropriate emails (I just have to do that pesky thing called working for a living first). Tune in tonight for results!

May 14 pm: And now that the mandatory labor is done, I can announce THE WINNERS! Thanks to random.org, all the extra points were added up and popped in to the randomizer, and we have TWO WINNERS.

PRIZE PACK ONE: for paperback copies of Jessica Day George’s Princess books, we have Nikki!

PRIZE PACK TWO: for Heather Dixon’s Entwined, we have alittleteteatete!

I’ve sent the e-mails out, so thank you everyone for participating! There’ll be more giveaways in the future, and in the meantime, lots of book reviews and chatter, so stay tuned. Cheers!

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Book Review: Princess series, by Jessica Day George

March 21, 2011 at 9:17 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Fairy tales have been told and retold, adapted to different places and times, even different worlds, but every now and then, we’re lucky enough to stumble upon versions that are truly fantastic, that take the original fairy tale, respect it in every eay, and yet somehow manage to make it their own. Jessica Day George‘s Princess series falls into this category.

In Princess of the Midnight Ball, we’re introduced to a young soldier named Galen Werner, a bit adrift after the war that has defined his life finally ends. In search of work, he ventures to the capital of Westfalin, where his uncle is the head gardener of the extravagant Queen’s Garden. It seems, however, that all is not well within the palace. Every night, despite being locked into their rooms, the twelve princesses emerge in the morning with their dancing slippers worn straight through. The king’s offer to marry one of his daughters to whoever solves the mystery brings princes in from all across the Ionian continent. Then the deaths begin, and Galen finds himself pitted against an ancient magic to protect the princesses he serves and, in one case, loves.

In its sequel, Princess of Glass, ties between the Ionian countries have been strained by the deaths of so many princes, even after the mystery has been solved and Westfalin formally absolved of any guilt in the deaths. To foster accord and peace, a grand exchange of royal children is planned to arrange fresh marriages, friendships, and treaties. Poppy, sarcastic and sharp with less tact and more unladylike habits than her father could wish, is sent to Breton to stay with her mother’s cousins. Though she loathes dancing after the nightly terror of dancing for the King Under Stone, she may have to take to the dance floor to help solve the mystery of a hapless maid with beautiful glass slippers and the dark spells that make every male fall in love with her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been one of my favorite stories, and Cinderella of course is a classic, but Jessica Day George makes these stories uniquely hers. The details of life in this more or less Renaissance Europe are beautiful and the characters very real. Though we all know basically how the stories end, we’re still holding our breaths to make sure everything will turn out right for the characters we’ve come to love and cheer for.

Different version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses have different reasons for why the princesses dance all night every night. In some, they’re under a spell to make them cold and indifferent. In some, they’re simply selfish. In others, there’s a wager, in others it’s all fun and games, and in yet others it’s a punishment. I love that in this version, they’re paying the debt of someone else’s bad bargain. They feel each new burden most keenly, but their strength in supporting each other, in seeing the debt paid, is inspiring. The bruise-like colors of the world of King Under Stone are haunting, withering, so it’s a joy to be able to see the brighter pockets- like bouquets of flowers with knitted ties.

And the part of me that was in heaven working in a craft store keeps giggling and clapping her hands at how essential knitting is to both stories in these re-imaginings- complete with knitting patterns in the back.

In this version of Cinderella, there’s no wicked stepmother or ugly stepsisters. Instead, there’s a darkly benevolent godmother who dotes on a rich girl turned disaster maid and offers her the chance to win the hand of the visiting prince of Danelaw. Glass is so often used as a symbol of clarity and truth; I love that here we get to see its opposite, that it can distort, that we can see only what we wish to see. The physical similarities of the three girls, the way they can stand as reflections of each other, should create confusion, but instead serves to bring their personalities into greater relief.

A little while ago, Jessica Day George hinted on Twitter that she was working on a chapter of Princess of the Something Something and I just about died. Even without knowing which sister (personally I’m hoping for Daisy in Venenzia) or which fairy tale (so many to wonder about!), I got so excited I could hardly see straight. No word on release date- I’d gues 2012 at the earliest- but just the fact that there will be more makes me a very happy kitty.

If you love fairy tales but haven’t read these books, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. They’re available in ebook and hardcover; Princess of the Midnight Ball is also available in paperback, with Princess of Glass to follow this summer. Do not miss out on these wonderful re-imaginings.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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