Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

Reckless Cornelia FunkeAfter his father’s disappearance, Jacob Reckless is looking for answers and an escape from his life, his mother’s grief, and his brother’s neediness. He finds escape, and maybe a chance at answers, in a magic mirror he finds in his father’s study. Through the mirror is a medieval world full of the stories on which Jacob had been raised—there are witches who eat children, princesses with golden balls or eternal sleep, magical transformations, and treasure galore.

Twelve years later, Jacob is a treasure-hunter of renown with a fox companion and a stash of helpful magical items, and the world is at war: the Goyl, an angry, stone-skinned race are slowly defeating the human empire, due to a combination of better engineering, better tactics, and magic that lets the scratch of a Goyl’s stone claws slowly transform a human into a Goyl, body and mind. The human memories and consciousness dies as the body is transformed. And Jacob’s brother, Will, has followed him behind the mirror and fallen victim to a Goyl’s claw. There’s nothing to be done but go a-questing for something, anything, that might save Will from ceasing to be Will.

The exposition is a bit jerky, jumping between perspectives and characters too quickly to allow the reader to really get pulled into the story as early as I would have liked. Once the initial setup is complete, however, Reckless is a smooth, well-written—and well-translated—ride. It’s most-exciting for its world-building; it invents a new world and new stories, but also integrates familiar fairy tales in pleasantly dark, creepy ways.

The characters are well-developed and realistic. Unusual for a kid’s book, the main characters are in their early- to mid-twenties, and that’s accurate for their emotional development—they’re still dealing with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and jealousy, but they are dealing with them as adults, who are generally comfortable with who they are and their place in the world. I’m generally in favor of adults reading children’s books, but this goes beyond that; it’s really an all-ages book, like my recollections of The Hobbit—an adventure story not grounded in a particular stage of life. I love the exploration of the world and of the self that one generally finds in middle grade and young adult books, respectively; but this is good, too.

September 2010

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Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke

Curse Dark as GoldThe short version of the summary: Rumpelstiltskin in eighteenth century, early Industrial Revolution England. The medium-length version of the summary: Charlotte and her younger sister Rosie are struggling to keep their family’s mill running and pay of the debts he ran up before he died, and a series of accidents only makes it worse. Sensible Charlotte refuses to listen to the villager’s talk of a curse, even through the mill has a history of accidents and none of the millers has had a son live to inherit the mill.

It’s exceedingly well-written and -characterized. In particular, Charlotte’s romantic relationship is believable, though odd for a modern reader; the pace of courtship is vastly different than what we’re accustomed to, and I think that was more blatant in this than in much historical fiction. Also, refreshingly, the romance is imperfect; they disagree, they shut each other out, they do the wrong thing when trying to do the right thing. They’re human, and we see where they’re coming from and can understand why they make the mistakes they do.

And the villains? Unclear of motivation at the start, bits and pieces fall together until, by the end, they are just as real as the heroine. The characters are also not divided neatly into hero and villain; there are people who are pretty nasty but do no particular harm, and others who are desperate or confused more than malicious, yet manage to do significant harm.

The fantasy/fairy tale elements are woven deftly into the mundane that defines so much of Charlotte’s world. The portrayal of village life in particular, with its belief in curses and hex-marks living quietly alongside the church, brings everything together such that the historical fantasy feels simple and almost self-evident.

I read a copy checked out from the New York Public Library.

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A Curse Dark as Gold ~ Elizabeth C. Bunce

Goose Girl Shannon HaleMy first exposure to this particular fairy tale was only a few months ago, when I was reading Troll’s-Eye View – a collection of short stories told from the villains’ points of view. The Goose Girl tells the story from a more traditional perspective, but with plenty of personality anyway.

Ani never fit in as a princess. Even as a baby, she was odd; only her aunt, herself an outsider, could make sense of her. Confident and comfortable when talking to swans and other birds—her aunt had taught her their language—she is nearly paralyzed with anxiety when interacting with most humans. However, she respects her position as Crown Princess and, with a lady in waiting who is much more skilled with people than she is, she watches and studies her mother and governance. But then she’s packed off to the neighboring country, separated from her own by mountains and woods that few pass, to be married off to a prince she knows nothing about. In true fairy tale form, a betrayal and reversal occur, sending the lady in waiting to the palace and the princess to the goose pasture.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales can predict the overall story arc fairly early in the novel, even if they have limited exposure to this particular story. It’s Ani who makes it special. The early descriptions of her panic in the face of socialization are a painfully accurate portrait of anxiety. Her disillusionment, as she realizes that her status does not guarantee her loyalty from everyone, paves the way for her evolution over the rest of the book: becoming comfortable in her skin for the first time, making friends for the first time, learning to trust again—this time not blind trust based on class, but earned trust based on shared experiences and friendship—and even learning how to lead.

The world Hale created is rich and interesting, with plenty of unplumbed depth. Unplumbed in this book, anyway; she has since written three more books (Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born) set in the same world. Likewise, the supporting characters have personalities of their own, which I look forward to exploring in Hale’s later books.

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The Goose Girl ~ Shannon Hale
My review of Enna Burning
My review of Rapunzel’s Revenge

Ash Malinda Lo Lesbian Cinderella RetellingA Cinderella variant haunted by echoes of science clashing with belief and new religions clashing with old ones, Ash tells the story of a young woman untethered, trying to find a place in the world. First Ash returns, again and again, to the grave of her mother; then she shelters in the protection of a handsome fairy; later, she falls for a confident huntress and gets some confidence and agency for herself.

Ash is told in a gentle, largely expository style, fittingly reminiscent of oral tradition. The pacing is unusual; fairly slow, it thoroughly develops Ash and Sidhean, the fairy, before introducing Kaisa, the huntress. Between those two factors, it took a while to draw me in, but once it caught me I was caught but good. Ash’s slow emotional transitions are dealt with beautifully, one set of emotions fading—but not disappearing—as another rises up. The differences between Ash’s relationships with Sidhean and Kaisa are well drawn and a fascinating reflection of the differences in their personalities and statuses, his bitterness contrasting with her caution. Though the romance is important, it’s less central than in many Cinderella variants; the focus is more on Ash coming into her own, something she does slowly and believably, with a few natural stumbles on the way. Likewise, though it builds to a lesbian relationship, the fact that it’s queer is less central than in many GLBT books. For the most part, it’s treated as perfectly natural and obvious that there would be same-sex relationships. In fact, one of the few parts of the book that didn’t work for me was a few pages of Ash being confused and awkward because of the suggestion that her feelings for Kaisa could be romantic and/or sexual. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful, unusual book, and a pleasant reprieve from heavy LGBT-related books and new stories.

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Ash ~ Malinda Lo

baby be-bop francesca lia blockBackground information: Baby Bebop is a prequel to Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, now only in print in the compilation Dangerous Angels. A group in Wisconsin is currently suing for the right to publicly burn their local public library‘s copy of Baby Be-Bop. Let’s read it instead, shall we?

Dirk has always known that he’s gay, but he’s never told anyone: not his loving grandmother, nor her gay best friends, nor the young man he falls in love with when they’re teenagers. Full of self-loathing and afraid of anyone guessing, he defends himself with leather, punk music, and black hair-dye. He still gets himself beat up, and in the resulting semi-conscious state he gets a visit from some of his ancestors, telling their stories of love and life.

Francesca Lia Block specializes in an odd sort of Los Angeles flowers-and-fairies dreamy quasi-fantasy, and this is no exception. Plot-wise, there isn’t much to it, but it’s a beautiful book. It does tiptoe into sappiness, but in many ways its more of a love letter to gay teenagers than it is a novel; and love letters are allowed to be sappy.

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Baby Be-Bop ~ Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books ~ Francesca Lia Block