Book Review: Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

August 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feathers in her hair.
But the girl with the crow feathers didn’t belong to anyone.
As Neverland teeters on the brink of massive changes, as the magic slowly fades from the world and all the unexplored corners are discovered, Tiger Lily is poised on the cusp of growing up- or not. This will be the summer that deciedes, as Englanders come to Neverland’s shores, as the Lost Boys pelt through the woods, as the pirates engage their relentless hunts, as the Sky Eaters follow the rhythms of the earth and the seasons.
All children grow up, except one.
And that isn’t Peter Pan.

This book is absolutely brilliant, in so many unexpected ways, not the least of which is the narrative concept as a whole. We’re given a first-person narration with a third-person perspective, which gives us both intimacy and distance from our main characters. Our narrator is Tink (as in Tinker Bell, yes that Tinker Bell), and she looks on with the relentless fascination of an outsider. Her inability to directly communicate with the other characters keeps her from directly influencing the action. She contributes in small ways, she is a part of things, but not in the same way a speaking character would. She’s practically an insect, easy to ignore or bat away or even not notice. It’s unique- but it’s also brilliant, because Tink gives us a far better picture of Tiger Lily than Tiger Lily herself would- the same with Peter, for that matter.

Tiger Lily is a fascinating character, largely because she’s both personable and unknowable. She builds high walls around herself, she isn’t honest with herself and therefore she’s incapable of being completely honest with others, and yet she has moments where she’s intensely vulnerable, endearing, and even sweet. These moments are few and far between, but they add into an incredibly complex character bound by shifting loyalties in a time of great change, both in her setting and in her own life. Just as Tink is an outsider to the main action of the story, Tiger Lily is an outsider to every group of which she’s a part. She doesn’t belong with the other Sky Eater girls- she isn’t soft and domestically skilled like they are- but neither is she welcomed by the boys, who feel threatened by her hunting and forestry skills. Despite being thoroughly welcomed by the Lost Boys, she isn’t one of them either, and no matter how much she runs with them, she never becomes one of them. She’s always Other. Even in other, temporary, alliances, she’s always set apart. Even with her closest friends, she lacks the same qualities that mark Pine Sap and Moon Eye as similar. It isn’t that she’s unfeeling, but more that she doesn’t always know what to do with those feelings. They’re as alien to her as she is to others.

This is largely Tiger Lily’s story, but she’s not the one telling us, and I love that, love that Tink gives us an honesty of which Tiger Lily is incapable. Not that Tiger Lily would deliberately obfusticate, but rather that she can’t see things clearly enough to give us the real story.

The characters in this book are stunningly, intricately drawn, filled with equal measures savagery and grace. Peter is a wild thing, a mercurial creature of fancies and shifting moods, of vindictiveness and kindness, a childlike delight at odds with a merciless, dispassionate killer. His attitudes and whims snap through extremes, leaving everyone else scrambling to catch up, often with no rhyme or reason to the change. The Lost Boys are alternately savages following the worst of the bunch and endearing, sweet children desperate for a touch of softness and familiarity. We don’t see many of the pirates, but those we do are drawn with a surprisingly sensitive hand. Captain Hook, especially, emerges not as the ineffectual fop of Disney’s…thing, nor does he have the tightly contained barbarity hidden beneath a thin layer of ultra-civility and class with a brutal ability for emotional manipulation that we see in Dustin Hoffman and Jason Isaacs’ portrayals in Hook (1991) and Peter Pan (2003) respectively. This Hook is a broken man whose savagery and uneducated intelligence put him above the others he draws to his banner, but is ultimately burdened beneath the weight of his own failures and inadequacies. He’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. Smee, who is usally just shy of a bumbling idiot, becomes an unexpectedly (but thoroughly) creepy individual capable of giving you nightmares. Pine Sap and Moon Eye, Tiger Lily’s friends within the Sky Eaters, are soft and patient, their deep strengths hidden beneath visible frailties.

Perhaps the most surprising and most sympathetically drawn character is that of Tik Tok, the Sky Eaters shaman and Tiger Lily’s adopted father. In blunt terms, Tik Tok is either a hermaphrodite or a non-operative transexual. In more genuine terms, he was born to both genders, equal parts man and woman in a single mind, soul, and body. He wears his hair long and luxuriantly braided, loves fanciful dresses and decorations, but he’s also a wise man with a keen sensitivity to the human condition, a healer with a gentle touch and an endless patience, a father who loves his daughter beyond words or limits, someone with a boundless curiosity for the world beyond and a deep satisfaction in the world immediately around him. Tik Tok is an incredible character, standing fully on his own but also drawing a striking parallel to the infant girl he found under a tiger lily blossom and kept for his own. Tik Tok straddles genders in the same way Tiger Lily straddles loyalties. Male and Female, Sky Eater and Lost Boy, the two parts are always innate but in direct opposition. As long as those elements are in balance, Tik Tok and Tiger Lily are okay, but as soon as those elements shift, once they fracture, so too does the whole person. What happens with those slip-faults is heartbreaking.

This is a Neverland equal parts savagery and beauty, where the exquisite lives side by side with the menacing, and often hand in hand. Mermaids may be lovely but they’re deadly. Lost Boys may be sweet, but they can kill. It’s a land that’s still untamed, a tiny corner of the world that hasn’t yet been colonized, that still holds wonders, but it’s a desperate beauty with a lot of rough edges. Within all those vibrant colors are a lot of shadows, and a lot of dark things thrive there. Wendy, when she eventually comes- not by fairy dust but by an Englander missionary vessel- is a vivid spot of white in an otherwise multi-color world. She’s clean and soft in a world that’s anything but, but she has a different kind of Otherness than Tiger Lily. Where Tiger Lily is frequently in competition- both with Peter and the boys- defeating them at many of their own games, Wendy simply cheers them on and doesn’t try to play. Tiger Lily accepts her world as it is, even when it’s painful, but Wendy simply expects her surroundings to conform to her desires, because she’s never known anything different. Peter is the one who holds Tiger Lily’s heart, but Wendy is the one who breaks it.

This is a deeply sad book, where even the moments of joy are shadowed by the lingering darkness, but ultimately redemptive in how we choose to define hope. In a land where one stops growing older when they’re caught up in a Significant Event, this is a beautiful story about growing up with all its sharp edges and ugly truths. This may be a book to read slowly, but it’s definitely not one to be missed.

Until next time~

Permalink 4 Comments

Book Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund

June 20, 2012 at 7:40 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Four years ago, Elliot North’s world turned upside down when her best friend Kai left to find his fortunes elsewhere. Left behind to care for her family’s crumbling estates, Elliot’s life is a daily battle against her cruel, feckless father and self-indulgent older sister as she struggles to grow enough food to keep them solvent and feed all their tenants. The Luddite lords, scornful of the genetic experiments and technology that led to much of the human race being broken to the mental level of six-year-olds, care for the Reduced, but a new generation is breaking free of those restraints into a society that doesn’t know how to define them. When Kai suddenly returns as the rich, successful Captain Malakai Wentforth, the Cloud Fleet is a way for Elliot to save her tenants and her lands- if he doesn’t finish shattering her heart first.

I adore Jane Austen in a way that I never expected to when I was younger. In middle school and most of high school, I thought she was synonymous with everything that could possibly be wrong with required reading, something that had to be deathly dull and uninteresting and of absolutely no relevance to anything. Senior year, we had to read Pride and Prejudice over winter break, and I fell in love. (Colin Firth in tight pants didn’t hurt) That started my Jane Austen kick, and when I got to Persuasion, I fell hard for this slow, poignant unfolding of a love gone horribly wrong and the painful, stuttering chance for redemption.

When I found out about a YA retelling, I was both giddy and terrified.

After reading, I can say the verdict came down fully on the side of giddy.

It’s rich and atmospheric, with a beautifully claustrophobic setting that brings the pain and desperation of this shattered relationship into sharp relief. Within any story the setting would be amazing. The history of the Reduction and the gradual evolution away from that wholesale devestation creates a three-part society filled with conflict and responsibility. The delicate compromises made by the Luddites in order to keep their farms and lands functioning serve as stark contrast to the Posts’ willingness to adapt or invent technologies, but also show how finite their resources are, which makes extravagance painful to see. The nature of a society in such a severe rate of change is gorgeous.

Elliot is an amazing character, strong and resourceful, someone who genuinely cares about so much more than herself. I’m not sure if she’s more indicative or symptomatic of the changing times and sensibilities, but she’s caught between the Luddite Protocols by which she’s been raised- the same Protocols that instruct her to care for those who whose bloodlines have been devestated by the Reduction- and the drive to try new things in order to better care for those same people. She’s hard-working, willing (and able) to put the needs of others ahead of her own desires, and having made the decision to do just that four years ago, she faces the painful consequences every single day. Part of what makes her so fascinating- and so eminently likable- is how strong those conflicts are within her. She tries to take the high road- doesn’t always succeed- and tries desperately to reconcile the constant pain of Kai’s departure and his return as the very different Malakai with the knowledge of just how much she’s needed on the North estates. She made the right decision but that doesn’t make it easier to live with the consequences. She’s placed in the not-so-unique position faced by every teen when the tough choices come due. Elliot is a hero for a generation.

Kai is a little more problematic. His bitterness upon his return is completely understandable. His rage, his hurt, they make sense, but the way he constantly insults Elliot, the way he consistently and purposefully stomps on her when she’s down, it makes it hard to even like him, much less swoon for him. Except- oh, except- the chapters are interspersed with years of letters between Kai and Elliot as children, full of beautiful innocence and friendship that gradually evolves not only into a true friendship, but also shows how quickly and completely children can lose than innocence in a society so patently unequal. Kai becomes likable- even lovable- through the letters, and in the quieter moments when he’s startled or his guard is down, the moments where he genuinely sees Elliot, rather than the monster he’s created through four years of bitterness and hurt feelings. In those moments, he’s amazing. (and changing his name from Wentworth to Wentforth makes me geekily happy more than it probably should)

Most of the side characters are beautifully realized, given life and breath outside of the originals. In a retelling, there’s a difference between faithful and slavish, and this definitely comes out to the better of that line. Elliot’s older sister Tatiana is a wonderful amalgam of the oldest and youngest Elliot sisters from the original, with the additional virtue of having a few moments of genuine sympathy. She’s not a likable character- nor is she ever truly meant to be- but that we feel for her at any point is a superb bit of writing. The Posts are as richly varied as the Luddites, and with varying degrees of innovation (no pun intended) and daring. Most of them aren’t the first generation of Posts, but that gives many of them a sense of recklessness that goes hand in hand with the daring experiments carried out by their ancestors. Andromeda is cautious and prickly and protective- in some ways a more extreme version of Elliot’s own protectiveness- while her brother is gloomy and sorrow-burdened at times, at other times almost manic. The Innovations are a wonderful blend of Austen’s Crofts and, in the case of Mrs. Innovation, something new and terrifying and reassuring. Ro, a Reduced girl born the same day as Kai and Elliot, is sweet and sincere, with remarkable leaps of understanding that mark her as special without making her less than (or more than) Reduced. It gives her grace without taking away the reality of what she is. Dee, a Post woman who serves as the North’s foreman, is practical and compassionate, a wonderful mother figure for the motherless Elliot without ever feeling like she’s trying to replace anyone. She’s willing to give Elliot the hard truths, to puncture comforting illusions or beliefs in the name of helping Elliot become a stronger and better person. The neighbors are lively and intelligent, a good example of moderation in both Post and Luddite thinking. The wholly original character of the Boatwright, Elliot’s maternal grandfather, was gorgeous and moving.

The only side character I truly found problematic was Elliot’s father, Baron North. He’s cruel and menacing, but given that we never actually see him carry through any of his horrible threats- nor are even told of times previous to that, other than the burning, that he did so- the menace becomes almost comical in nature, like a punch clown who just snaps back up into place without a true reaction.

Within this shifting society, the setting poses more questions than it answers, but that’s actually okay- most of those questions are things we haven’t figured out for ourselves yet, so it seems like cheating to create a falsely simple solution and feed it through the characters. They’re not simple questions, and they’re ones that have been plaguing us for a long time. I really like that those questions- some practical, some ethical, some a little more esoteric- are explored without being sacrificed in the name of tidiness.

On its own or as a retelling, this is an amazing book with all the wonder, pain, and fragile hope of the original while taking a brave new world and a distinctly YA cast that makes this, in a word, unforgettable.

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund, absolutely not to be missed.

Until next time~

Permalink Leave a Comment

Book Review: The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris

May 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Raised in a forest by the hermit Trevisant, Terence has grown up outside of the concerns of men. But one day, a strange green face leads him through the trees to stumble on a young knight named Gawain, and nothing in Terence’s life will ever be the same. He joins Gawain on his journey to Camelot and King Arthur’s court, and beyond that on a great quest that leads through this world and the Other. On his adventures, Terence will learn a lot about courage, strength, beauty, and the best and worst that man has to offer.

I can’t even guess how many times I’ve read this book. I must have been ten or eleven the first time I checked it out from the library, and I’ve read it over and over and over, several times a year, because this is one of the books that changed me as both a reader and a writer. In fact, this book spawned my first fanfic.

Which, let’s face it, I am so SO glad I never put up online because it was awful.

But this is a book I talk about all the time, a book I really wish more people knew, and I realized I hadn’t ever actually talked about why.

As a kid, I grew up on stories of knights and damsels and quests, on the golden age of King Arthur, and all of that. I remember more than a few afternoon “quests” where I hunted down the evil Mordred to slay him before he could take down the great king. That being said, though, I didn’t actually know too many of the stories. I knew about Tristan and Isolde, about Lancelot and Guinevere, about Sir Kai and the Round Table. I’ll admit that my first knowledge of Sir Kai came from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.

And then this book.

Even the narration made it different than any other books I’d ever read. This is a story, told in the tradition of the bards and minstrels that weave so well through the setting, so it’s not afraid to play with the poetry of its descriptions. It doesn’t go overboard like most of the bards it gently pokes fun of. The thing that made me absolutely fall in love was the honesty of the emotions. It’s not like the characters don’t have filters, because they do- they know what is or is not appropriate to say in court, for example, and they know how to be polite (i.e. lie)- but they’re not afraid to be honest and cmofortable in their emotions. These are men and boys who cry when they feel sad.

It seems like a little thing, right? Males crying?

But keep in mind how old I was when I first read it. Ten was the age when boys and girls were really getting separated. Girls could fall on the playground and bawl their eyes out, but boys were supposed to get over it with nothing more than a sniffle. It was reinforced in classes, at the playground, at parties: girls were allowed to cry and boys weren’t. And I HATED that. Mainly because I hated crying and got irritated by adults telling me “It’s okay to cry” whenever I skinned my knee but my boy friends were told “you’re okay, you’re fine”.

And there was this book where these amazing things were happening, and people were getting injured or insulted, people were learning these incredibly painful things, they were getting their hearts stomped on- and these men were allowed to cry without there being anything shameful about it. I was hooked.

But it was so much more than that.

Their adventures were amazing, ranging from the Huge- fighting a war for the sovereignty of all England- to the Small- helping two people in love find happiness. But every step along the way gave something to learn. It’s not a moralistic story, but at the same time it’s full of valuable life lessons that made me look at things in a new way.

And the characters!

Terence is sweet and innocent, loyal, open to learning new things, and rendered entirely wide-eyed by this wide world from which he’s always been sheltered. He starts out a very young fourteen, but though only a few months pass, his experiences make him mature in thoroughly expected and lovely ways. Gawain starts out as a teacher but along the course of their journey becomes a friend, even a brother. He’s sometimes grouchy and overbearing, but he’s young, and he learns even more than he teaches. He learns that being a knight is much more than a title and a shiny suit of armor, and that chivalry isn’t just a word. The friendship that forms between the two is wonderful and inspiring. Arthur is the king you’d give anything to follow, wise and compassionate, a true leader of men who’s able to put the well-being of his people before his own personal happiness. There’s Tor, hungry to improve himself, and Plogrun, the grouchy, overbearing, opininiated squire he obtains. There’s characters you love to love, others you love to hate, and some you kind of can’t help but cheer for, even when you’d really rather not.

The setting is comfortable and casual. We’re in the early middle ages, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t strain or force the point. The historical details are effortlessly dropped in- clothing and food and weapons and armor, even bigger picture world events (in a general sort of way)- but they’re never done in such a way as to sidetrack us from the story.

And the story continues. One of the things I love about the series that follows is that it doesn’t always directly follow Terence and Gawain. We’re introduced to a wonderful, wide cast of characters that weave in and out of the story, that we revisit at times, like a reunion with old friends. I was heartbroken when this series ended, but also so gloriously happy because it was brilliantly done. I reread these books every year, usually more than once.

This is an amazing story to read on your own, with family, with a classroom, a gorgeous balance of humor, sorrow, adventure, triumph, setbacks, and just plain fun.

The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, one of my favorite books of all time.

Until next time~

Permalink 2 Comments

Book Review: Masque of the Red Death, by Bethany Griffin

March 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm (Book Reviews, Giveaway) (, , , , , )

Araby Worth just wants to forget.
Forget her dead twin brother and all the things he’ll never do, forget the plague that devestates the city, forget the pain and the misery and all the things that used to be true. For the rich of the city, the answer is the Debauchery Club and others like it, where drugs and drink and dubious pleasures can be had merely for the asking, and for a few precious moments she can simply forget.
But there are some who don’t want her to forget. There’s Will, the doorman at the club, drawn to glittery girls with unnaturally colored hair, who wants to show Araby the good that’s worth living for. And there’s Elliot, the prince’s nephew, who looks to her- the daughter of the scientist who’s made the only significant advances against the plague- for help in staging a revolution. In a city where life is fragile and fleeting, where contamination can help at any point, wracked between the murderous impulses of a crazy prince and the rioting forces of a rogue reverend, Araby has to decide for herself if there are things worth dying for.
And the harder choice- are there things worth living for?

If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it draws its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name. And if I may say, rather does it justice.

It’s a captivating world of extremes. The city and country are never named, there are never any dates given, so it could be anywhere that has a deep harbor and swamp. We get a definite Victorian sense- the basic level of technology, the clothing, some of the remnant attitudes- but it lends flavor rather than nailing us down into a specific mindset. It gives us a city entirely isolated from everything else, nearly floating in time and space and becoming something entirely defined by the plague. In a world where death is imminent, there’s still a huge divide between the rich and the poor. The poor are more susceptible to the disease from hunger and privation, from more constant exposure. The rich are locked away in clean towers, and if the foods aren’t the imported luxuries they were before, they have more than enough. The rich have easy access to the masks developed by Dr. Worth; though not foolproof, the porcelain half-masks significantly reduce the risk of exposure. Where the poor struggle to earn another day, another week, another meal for their children, the rich go play in the clubs where decadence and decay coexist.

It is an incredibly tribute to the skill of the writing that we have so much interest in characters that are generally unsympathetic. For a great deal of the book, Araby is simply adrift. All she wants is oblivion, so she goes along with what she’s told, goes places she doesn’t have a particular interest in going, because as far as she’s concerned her life ended the day her twin brother Finn died. She made a vow that she wouldn’t do anything he wouldn’t get to do, but every day she’s still alive breaks that. She’s cold, inside and out, and the prickly return of warmth is genuinely painful. Despite that, she has a deep goodness to her as well. Even when she tries not to care, even when she can be callous about a starving child’s potential to survive, she does care. She doesn’t think there’s much of a difference she can make, but what small things she can, she does. Small things, like trying to get a mask for a child who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford one. Handing out apples, sending a care package of food.

Her course over the story is captivating, as she slowly emerges from a cage she’s constructed for herself. It’s a terrifying prospect, and she comes into a world where nothing is certain and she doesn’t have any idea who to trust. There’s a core of strength that always had the potential to be there but this is the first time she’s had to rely on it- the first time she’s had to decide to use it.

Elliot, nephew to insane Prince Prospero and older brother to Araby’s best friend April, is a destructive force of nature, even as he’s a large part of the impetus that forces Araby to grow. He’s damaged, perhaps even broken, vacillating between extremes of personality that make it difficult to trust him. He can be ruthless, even admits he shouldn’t be trusted, but there’s something painfully vulnerable about him that’s…endearing is the wrong word, but I think compelling would be apt. He’s dangerous to everyone and everything around him, reckless and intense and not nearly steady enough to place faith in him as the leader of a revolution. That he’s ultimately well-intentioned isn’t exaggerating the truth- that he’s capable of carrying out these intentions without dragging everyone to hell is more in question.

For all that Will is a better person, he’s just as dangerous in his own way. Where Elliot forces Araby to act, Will forces her to feel, and with the ice that coated her heart after her brother’s death, that may be more painful. He’s guardian to two younger siblings- easily my favorite characters of the book- and has the sense and maturity to acknowledge that the allure of glittery girls is too often without substance. His hope that Araby might prove to be more is part of what pushes her to become more. He’s earnest and open- except when he isn’t. For all that he’s willing to speak of, there’s more that he doesn’t mention. His openness is deceptive, but his warmth isn’t.

The politics of the city are both murky and restless. Prince Prospero rules from a castle three hours from the plague-ridden city, but there’s little doubt that his word is both law and death. There’s also no doubt that he is absolutely insane. Araby’s family plays a delicate dance in serving the prince but keeping a safe distance from him, a manuever far more involved than Araby’s ever realized. Prospero makes it a point to control all the scientists of the city, and thus control in some measure access to preventative measures. But there’s another power rising in the city, more sinister than Elliot’s attempts at revolution. Reverend Malcontent appeals to the frightened masses, the panic stretching into terror as more and more come to feel that science has failed them. Religion has been a lost art long enough that Malcontent proposes his own, and he has a large share of followers that are more than willing to shed blood to bring about their vision of grace.

This is an amazing book, moody and dark and atmospheric, full of choice and life in a world of death and despair, and it’s one you don’t want to miss. Release was moved up to 24 April 2012, so put it on your calendars!

And in the meantime, I’ve got an ARC up for grabs. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments: what classic book or story would you love to see in a YA retelling? For example, I’d love to see a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid, complete with tragic ending.Added 3.23.12- ARC will also be accompanied by fun swag from Bethany Griffin! In light of this, entries will be extended through 3 April 2012.

Until next time~

Permalink 18 Comments

Book Review: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

If I really like a book, chances are fairly high that I will reread it at least once a year. If I really love a book, chances are extremely high that I will reread it several times in a year. These are the books that I can pick up at any time, from any point in the book, and simply lose myself in the familiar pages.

I was super-stressed this past week. There was a lot that was up in the air and I’m not necessarily the best with up-in-the-airness. I like to have all my ducks in a row, to have things settled, and to know exactly where things (and people) stand. I’m fine with the fact that all these things will change with circumstances, but I still like knowing that things are settled. This was not a week of being settled or knowing where things stood. This was a week of high stress, scattered thoughts, highs and lows, and just a ton of things going on from a variety of fronts. So, lacking the focus to do anything productive, equally lacking the mental ability to tackle a new book, I turned to one of my stand-bys.

This weekend, I reread Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and loved just as much as I do every other time. For anyone who’s never heard of this Newbery Honor Winner:

A gift given by a demented fairy never amounts to much good, to which Ella can atest. When she cried through her first hour of life, the fairy Lucinda gave her the “gift” of obedience; Ella has to obey a direct order, no matter what it is. But Ella isn’t about to let that run her life. This spirited girl throws herself head-first into a world of mercenary fathers, finishing school tyrants, dangers of the road, horrid step-familys, dear friends, and a chance for true love that might come at a terrible cost, all with an indefagitable spirit and charm that no curse can ever break.

I honestly can’t remember the first time I read this book, just that I fell in love with it then. It was probably the beginning of my deep and abiding love for fairy tale retellings and I remember thinking that is was so clever! It actually answered one of my long-term issues with the story of Cinderella: why does the she stay and slave for the step-family? If she’s simply accepting that this is her lot in life, it makes me think she’s passive and boring and why would I bother with that? And if she’s spunky and feisty, why doesn’t she just go off and do her own thing? This book actually gives answers to that question, and does so ingeniously.

Ella is an amazing character. She’s self-aware, honest about her faults but also of her virtues, and she looks at the world through open eyes. She’s practical, sometimes a little petty, wonderfully imaginative, and genuinely good hearted. Most of all, she’s strong-spirited. Her life has been shaped by the curse but she doesn’t let it define her. Or rather, she doesn’t let it run her. In everything she does, every person she encounters, the curse is a danger and a risk, but she works around that. She plays games with its limitations, testing it for loopholes or managing to frustrate the true intentions of the person giving the order. She constantly seeks for a way to break it. But she lives her life. She makes friends, she learns languages, and when forced to do something, she grimly gets through it and uses that experience down the road. She’s funny, a little silly, and painfully brave. And sometimes holds grudges. In other words, she’s very real, the kind of character who steps off the page and when I finish the book I’m always a little surprised that there isn’t a living breathing Ella sitting right next to me.

Most of the additional characters are well-rounded and dynamic, full of shades that make it difficult to say (for most) that they’re either good or evil. The charming prince can be stiff, formal, and unforgiving. But he also slides down stair rails, delights in someone who can make him laugh, and does unthinking kind deeds. Hattie, the elder step-sister, is a miserable little shrew and her mother, Dame Olga, a fatter and shriller version obsessed with money and clothing, but Olive, the younger step-sister, is charmingly simple. Stupid, yes, undeniably so, but there’s actually something a little sweet in her vapidity. She may be greedy but unlike her mother and sister, she isn’t cruel, either; she just lacks the mental capacity (and environment) to encourage her to better herself. Mandy, Ella’s cook and fairy-godmother, both delights and frustrates Ella. Mandy is bossy, straight-forward, protective, bold, loving, and refuses to practice Big Magics, leaving that sort of thing to the foolish Lucinda. She’s also intensely loyal and maybe a little vindictive. Even Ella’s father, Sir Peter, has flashes of promise within his stony parts. He’s greedy, manipulative, stubborn, with a large potential for violence, and doesn’t hesitate to cheat, swindle, or downright steal, nor does he think twice about auctioning his daughter off to the highest bidder, but there are times- tiny moments, just a spark gone before you can really see it too clearly- where you see the man Ella’s mother fell in love with. When he actually shows pride in his daughter, or delight in her company, without an ulterior motive.

This book is also just plain fun to read. Ella narrates, with the same spirit with which she approaches everything else. There are points where you’re actually laughing out loud at her wit and humor, but her pared down honesty also translates the griefs and disappointments. When she’s hungry, there’s a sharp climb in the amount of food-related descriptions. Then there are the languages. In addition to her native Kyrrian, Ella also has samplings of Gnomish, Ogrese, Giant(ese?), and Ayorthan, each of which has distinct rules and appearances and some of which are so bizarre you can’t help but laugh when you see them on the page.

This is a book that has gotten me through house-fires, first heartaches, school stresses, horrid co-workers or roommates, ill health, crap paychecks, sick cats, and so much. It is a delight to read and a joy to reread, and remains the foundation of my rereading library.

Until next time~

Permalink Leave a Comment

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~

*- 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, 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!

Permalink 16 Comments