Selkie Girl

2752371Laurie Brooks.  Selkie Girl.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Rating:  3 out of 5 Chosen One stories

Of course I thought this would be right up my alley.  I first encountered this story as a one-act play years ago, and it was cool seeing it fleshed out into novel form.  The story is about Ellen/Elin Jean, the thirteen/sixteen-year-old daughter of a selkie and a human crofter who lives in the Orkney Islands (in the novel it’s narrowed down to Shapinsay Island), who doesn’t know why she was born with webbed hands that the other island youth make fun of constantly.  In the book, her father is much crueler and angrier about this condition, and barely lets Elin Jean leave the house, whereas in the play he’s the one who wants her to dance at the Midsummer festival with him in front of their whole town.  But that night she finds something that changes everything, and takes off on a journey to discover her heritage and her destiny (the novel turns this into a Chosen One story, similar to Isabel of the Whales).

Things I liked:

  • The details of Elin Jean’s life on Shapinsay, like the rock she calls Odin’s Throne, where she sits and watches the sea; the way she says “Giddy God!” and prays to St. Magnus; and the way her mother calls her “Peedie Buddo.”
  • The selkies’ folktale about Britta and Dane, which explains the origin of selkies.
  • The way the story explains the origin of the legendary Clan McCodrun.

 

Things I didn’t:

This section contains SPOILERS.  The non-spoilery gist is that there’s an unnecessary scene and several major character inconsistencies in the second half of the book.

 

  • The short appearance of the sea trows, small goblin-like creatures that almost eat Elin Jean soon after she turns into a seal.  This scene felt unnecessary.  The story didn’t need the introduction of another magical species.  They’re not like the Tylwyth Teg in Home From the Sea, who are part of the larger community of magical beings in the UK, and who contribute to important moments in the story; the sea trows just pop in for that one scene and are never mentioned again.
  • The scene in which Elin Jean (I’m going to call her EJ from now on) meets Tam again, months after having ditched him for the sea, is important because it’s the moment she learns about her father’s vengeance on the seals via more frequent culls, which leads EJ to realize what her Chosen One destiny is.

That’s all well and good.  The problem is, this scene comes after EJ’s disastrous escapade with a popular clique of young selkies.  Her protector Arnfin is furious that he failed to keep tabs on her, so you’d think he’d be way more careful of protecting the Chosen One after that – especially from humans, whom he’s explicitly warned her to stay away from and who were the source of the major danger during her escapade.  Yet he hangs back and allows EJ to get up close to a human she explicitly admits she isn’t sure of re: his attitude toward seals.  This should’ve raised a big red flag for Arnfin, but it doesn’t.

  • After EJ and her mother disappear into the sea, EJ’s father loses it.  He’s especially devastated to lose EJ, which leads him to take revenge on the seals for calling her away.  And yet, when EJ comes back to him, he doesn’t try to hold onto her like he did before she disappeared; as I said, he used to barely let her out of the house, let alone to the beach, but now he doesn’t care if she goes for long walks by the sea.  He also doesn’t care if she hangs out with Tam every day, despite having bad-mouthed him before as an unsuitable match.  It turns out he doesn’t care about having her back after all, and instead keeps moaning for her to call her mother back to him.
  • But then, when he does see his wife again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, and she leaves her sealskin lying in a pile on the sand, where he can easily steal it again (seriously, Margaret? Seriously?), he doesn’t bother, for some reason.  It seems, like with EJ, he doesn’t really care about getting his wife back after all.

 

This was an ok story.  I liked its portrayal of selkie culture, and the way it explains the origin of selkies, but the issues in the second half of the book really threw off my groove.

 

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, selkies | Leave a comment

Friendship to the Max!

lumberjanes_coverNoelle Stevenson, et al.  Lumberjanes.  Los Angeles: Boom! Studios, 2014-present.

Rating:  4.75 out of 5 punk rock mermaids

Lately, I’ve been hooked on the Lumberjanes comics by Noelle Stevenson (of Nimona fame) et al.  Boom! Studios calls it “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Gravity Falls,” a series focused on five adventure-attracting teens attending a summer camp “for hardcore lady-types” in the middle of a supernatural-entity-filled forest.

There’s April – the one with super strength who cares most about earning all the badges, and is obsessed with mermaids;

Jo – the science genius who can invent anything on a dime, and April’s best friend since childhood;

Mal – the punk one who was almost part of a band back home, is afraid of water but will deal with it for her friends, and is totes in love with Molly;

Molly – the raccoon-hat-wearing archery master who is totes in love with Mal;

Ripley – the adorably out of control one who leaps first and asks questions later, and loves unicorns and glitter;

and Jen – their practical, put-upon cabin counselor who just wants to lead a normal, well-behaved bunch of ladies who follow the rules and don’t constantly get into dangerous supernatural hijinks.Lumberjanes 4

The camp is led by Rosie the riveter, who knows perfectly well what goes on in these woods and trusts the campers to handle it without her interference (most of the time).  There’s also the mysterious Bear Woman who occasionally jumps in to save the girls or lead them through a dinosaur-filled parallel dimension or grumble about how Rosie runs the camp.

My favorite things:

  • Last year, BookRiot had a post on creative swears in speculative fiction, a stylistic technique that can add to a story’s world-building.  Well, Lumberjanes definitely has one of the best examples of creative exclamations that fit with the story’s themes.  At this camp that builds strong female leaders, the characters use the names of strong, influential women in their exclamations.  Like:

Lumberjanes 7

and

Lumberjanes

  • The badges – at this camp, you earn badges like Jail Break, Pungeon Master (for the well-timed and witty use of word-play), Knot On Your Life, and Space Jamborie.  It’s another addition to the word-building, fitting into the humor of the Lumberjanes experience.
  • Mal and Molly – they are the stinking cutest couple ever.
  • The selkies – Issues 21-24 contain a story arc about our five protagonists’ run-in with a group of selkies who steal a counselor’s ship and accuse her of stealing a sealskin.  I especially liked the character Monday, who has the same punk look as Mal, rather than the traditional look of a selkie.
  • The mermaids – again with the punk theme, this is a modern, rock-music-loving pod of lake merpeople who know how to throw an awesome party.

To nitpick a little, there are a few moments that don’t make sense, like when a Greek goddess somehow doesn’t know anything about the astrology associated with her, or (slight spoiler alert) when the story seems to go surprisingly dark as a side character gets blood-splatteringly smashed into a wall by a mythical monster, only to show up a little later with nothing more than a broken arm.  If you’re going to go dark, you might as well be consistent about it; otherwise, stick with the lighthearted tone of the rest of the story.

Anyhoo, if you’re a fan of Gravity Falls like me, and are looking for an awesome, funny, butt-kicking-female-centered comic series, I highly recommend Lumberjanes.

 

Posted in comics, fantasy, favorites, humor, LGBTQIA, mermaids, selkies | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

911xmhn92brlJ.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  New York: Arther A. Levine Books, 2016.

Rating:  2 out of 5 illegal Time Turners

Sooo…yeah.  There’s going to be a lot of nitpicking in this post.  Consider yourself warned.

I wanted to like this story so much more.  Like everyone else, I was looking forward to a new Harry Potter book, even though I was disappointed it wouldn’t be in the typical novel form.  It’s still officially the eighth Harry Potter book, and that’s worth celebrating.  If I lived in the Chicago area, I totally would’ve wanted to partake in one of these amazing cauldron cakes at Lezbrarian’s HP release party!

But I didn’t like the story.  The plot was full of issues, and overall it felt like someone’s fanfiction rather than a canon Harry Potter story.  And there was barely a “cursed child” in it!

But before I get to the grumbling and nitpicking, here are some things I did like:

  • This bit with Ron in the modified recap of the Deathly Hallows Epilogue, in which he does a got-your-nose trick for young Lily Potter:  “His hand is empty.  It’s a lame trick.  Everyone enjoys its lameness.
  • The Trolley Witch.  She’s slightly fleshed out this story, with a bit of backstory and personality beyond just calling out “Anything from the trolley, dears?”  She’s actually kind of badass.
  • That Hermione kept her maiden name, so Rose and Hugo are Granger-Weasleys.
  • Even though Rowling has said that she kind of regrets pairing Hermione with Ron in the Epilogue, she didn’t let that affect their chemistry throughout this story.  I totally said an internal “Aww” when Ron said he wanted to renew their marriage.
  • This description of the time travel:  “And time stops.  And then it turns over, thinks a bit, and begins spooling backwards, slow at first . . .

And now…

. . .

SPOILERS AHEAD

. . .

. . .

Of course Albus Potter gets sorted into Slytherin, and of course he becomes best friends with Scorpius Malfoy, and of course Harry isn’t thrilled about this, and of course it becomes a forbidden friendship, and of course Voldemort and Belatrix got it on behind the scenes in Deathly Hallows and had a secret child together.  This all feels like fanfic material to me.

You know what didn’t make total sense?

  • I can see Harry not being thrilled that his son is best friends with a Malfoy, even though it seems like he and Draco have come to an understanding by the end of Deathly Hallows.  But he made that big speech about it being totally cool if Albus gets into Slytherin, and yet it’s implied later that he is kind of bothered by it.  Though, maybe that develops from Albus’ negative attitude and insistence that he must be a disappointing son for ending up in Slytherin.
  • And then Harry turns the rest of the 180 and decides to believe the rumors about Scorpius being Voldemort’s son, despite his earlier assurances to Draco that the Ministry doesn’t believe that ridiculousness.  Because clearly that’s what Bane’s vague prediction meant, right?  It must be Scorpius who’s the “dark cloud” around Albus.  I mean, I guess it fits with Harry’s tendency, when he was a teen, to latch onto a belief/”evidence” and not question it.  Like when he believed Sirius Black was actually being tortured and dragged his friends into a raid on the Ministry, or when he believed Draco was a Death Eater and took it upon himself to spy on him throughout Half-Blood Prince (and, ok, he was right about that one).  But you’d think he would have grown more careful about these sorts of things as an adult.
  • Once he’s latched onto the Voldemort’s son rumor, Harry is a total jerk to Professor McGonagall, threatening to bring the Ministry down on Hogwarts if she doesn’t help him keep Albus and Scorpius apart.  I guess it does remind me of teen Harry being a jerk to Lupin, also supposedly for a good cause, but again, I’d have thought Harry would have grown beyond that kind of behavior.  And his apology after he realizes he’s been an awful prat is pretty rushed.  Hi Professor I need to find Albus now oh by the way I’m sorry about earlier but help me find Albus now!
  • The whole “cursed child” thing is just a few lines about the authorities checking Albus for hexes after his first time travel experiment, and another few lines in which Draco says one of his ancestors was cursed, which showed up as an illness in his wife…I guess that’s supposed to make Scorpius sort of cursed?  Maybe?

Speaking of Albus and Scorpius…

Issues with the time travel plot (prepare yourselves; there are many points here):

  • How exactly do Albus and Scorpius climb out the window and up the side of the Hogwarts Express without a ladder or handholds or something?  And once they’re up there, and the Trolley Witch tells them the Express doesn’t want students to leave before they get to Hogwarts, how are they still able to jump off?  And somehow nobody else notices them jumping and stops the train.  Was no one looking out the window?  Did the Trolley Witch wait until the end of the trip to mention that two students are missing?
  • How did Delphi get the bits of Ron, Harry and Hermione to make the Polyjuice Potion?  And somehow, no one in the Ministry hears the big commotion in Hermione’s office when Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi are being attacked by the bookcases while trying to find the Time Turner.  And somehow the three of them get out of the Ministry without being noticed, even though the Polyjuice had worn off and they look like themselves again.  I guess we’re supposed to assume Delphi Apparated them out?  And amazingly, Hermione never notices that the books have been messed around, thus signaling that someone’s stolen the Time Turner.

eightthousand

  • And how exactly does this Time Turner work?  Apparently, all you have to do is press it once (or sometimes just hold it) and it spins back to the exact time you want.  Convenient.
  • Once Albus and Scorpius go back to the first trial of the Triwizard Tournament, Albus is able to do the disarming spell in front of a whole crowd of students (after only a few minutes of practice), and yet 14-year-old Hermione is the only one who (maybe) sees him do it (and doesn’t even realize he looks just like one of her best friends).  They’re all like, OMG where did Cedric’s wand go?  Oh well, guess it’s just a freak accident.
  • Once they get back to the present and are surrounded by the adults, no one notices Scorpius put the Time Turner back in his pocket.  Convenient.
  • When their first try doesn’t save Cedric after all, Albus and Scorpius go back to the second trial to try fixing that.  And apparently, if Cedric Diggory had lost the second trial, he would have been so upset he’d have become a Death Eater, and killed Neville Longbottom, making Harry and friends lose the Battle of Hogwarts, and helping Voldemort take over the world.  Um…

Scrubs

Cedric’s stronger than that.  He’s known for being a really decent guy, so he wouldn’t turn to the dark side just because he lost a competition.

  • In the Dark Timeline, Snape is still alive and teaching Potions (guess he lost the Defense Against the Dark Arts position again).  And he’s apparently really easy to convince that Scorpius is from another reality in which Voldemort didn’t win.  Seriously, even if Scorpius mentioned Lily, it seems too far-fetched for Snape to automatically believe the rest of Scorpius’ story.
  • Delphi, who’s actually a villain now, is able to use the Time Turner while they’re already in the past, even though there’s supposed to be a five minute time limit (which I’m pretty sure they’ve run through by the time Delphi comes up with her final plan).  And as for that plan, I don’t get why she doesn’t just try to kill Harry herself instead of waiting for Voldemort to try to convince him that she’s from the future and knows he’s going to be cursed if he tries to kill Harry.
  • Finally, once they figure out Delphi’s evil plan, Albus and Scorpius get to Godric’s Hollow to stop her.  They figure out they need to use tincture of Demiguise to write an invisible message onto Harry’s baby blanket so adult Harry will see it at the right time.  How convenient that Bathilda Bagshot happens to have some Demiguises lying around, amirite?  But then, how did they get the blanket away from Lily and Harry without anyone noticing?

taking-candy-from-a-baby-o

. . .

Again, I realize a lot of these points are nitpicking, but they really got in the way of my enjoyment of the story.  I guess it was still fun to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione in action again, but it wasn’t the way I’d hoped.  What did you think?  Did you like the story?  Was it the return to the wizarding world you’d hoped for?

 

Posted in family, fantasy | 2 Comments

Seven Tears at High Tide

Seven Tears at high tideC. B. Lee. Seven Tears at High Tide. Duet Books, 2015.

Rating:  4 out of 5 servings of fried fish

I learned about this one through Gay YA’s list of Asian Characters in LGBTQIA+ YA. It’s a gorgeous story about two guys, one selkie and one human, who fall in love one summer. Kevin starts the summer with a broken heart, suddenly and humiliatingly rejected by the guy he’d been with for months, who it turns out was just using Kevin. So he goes to the beach and, remembering a legend his mother once told him, lets seven tears fall into the water before making a wish. Almost immediately, he meets Morgan, a strange boy who declares his love for Kevin, and although Kevin isn’t sure about his own feelings, he does find Morgan compelling.

Things I loved:

This is not only a beautiful love story; it’s also a wonderful selkie story, adding something new to the mythos. In Lee’s world, selkies learn much about human culture from the Sea, which is like a living encyclopedia they can communicate with.

Morgan believes, though, like his mother and most of his herd, that the Sea is alive, and not just a magical network of information, not just a collection of memories and stories from which selkies can pull knowledge. He’s felt the Sea’s life, knows that the Sea, after centuries of emotions and dreams and desires poured into it, is a force to be reckoned with.

It was fun watching Morgan learn more about human culture from Kevin – things like malls and movies and fried foods. And it was neat to see the way selkies blend their human and seal natures – the way they choose multiple mates throughout their lives, the way they gather to sing and tell stories.

You know what’s also amazing? How ultra supportive Kevin’s parents are when he comes out to them as bisexual, and how supportive most of his school is. There are the few jerks, but they’re in the minority. All the other characters we meet treat Kevin and Morgan like any other couple.

Things I didn’t love:

The bigger stuff:

I wasn’t sure I liked the present-tense p.o.v. I get the appeal, the way it slows the world down and makes you feel like you’re really in the moment. But the only place I’ve really felt like that worked was in The Hunger Games, which is full of action that feels even more intense when you experience it in the present tense.

But the thing that really threw off my reading groove was the climax. It was another case, like in Tides and Akata Witch, in which the adults (or one adult, in this case) let the kids (or one kid, in this case) go into a too-dangerous situation all by themselves. How convenient, then, that the villains are incredibly sloppy and too easily overcome. Their involvement in the story was built up nicely throughout the story, but the pay-off was really disappointing. In fact, I think they could’ve been left out of the story altogether, because the real focus, the part that I was most drawn to, was Kevin and Morgan’s romance and the obstacles related to selkie culture that they have to overcome.

And regarding that, the Sea’s rules seem contradictory at times.  I give more details about this behind the spoiler tag in my Goodreads review.

The smaller stuff:

Morgan somehow already knows how to read, despite this summer being the first time he’s ever shifted into human form. Even if he learned it from the Sea, that would be a little too far-fetched.

He can also swim amazingly in his human form, again despite the fact that he’s so unused to that form.

Selkies can “talk” to each other, with quotation marks and everything, while in seal form. It would have made more sense for their seal-form communication to be written in italics, like thoughts.

Overall:

 Despite the issues with plot and point of view, the characters and the main focus were compelling enough to make this a Must Own book. I really cared about Kevin and Morgan, both individually and as a couple, and would have loved to read more about their adventures, and more about Morgan’s selkie herd. This is definitely a book I highly recommend, especially to anyone who loves selkie stories.

Posted in fantasy, favorites, LGBTQIA, romantic, selkies | Leave a comment

Drown: a Twisted Take on the Classic Fairy Tale

DrownEsther Dalseno.  Drown: a Twisted Take on the Classic Fairy Tale.  Berlin: 3 Little Birds Books, 2015.

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 oranges

This book gave me such mixed feelings. I first learned of it from Tess of Tesscatiful, and it seemed right up my alley – a dark twist on “The Little Mermaid” with a whole “fictional mythology” surrounding the existence of merpeople:

         It came about, of course, because of the wrath of a woman.
The rumour was to blame. A commonplace, folklore rumour typical to a fishing village settled on the coast of one of the world’s most unpredictable seas. That rumour still exists and hardly in this town alone. It is written on the face of every person you have ever met, in the subtext of every book you’ve ever read. It is the hope of every unhappy person. Right now, it is on the tip of your tongue.

It really was a creative, beautiful fleshing out of the original story that retained the fairy tale feel, as Tess noted, by leaving all of the characters nameless. They are simply “the mermaid,” “the Prince,” “the Sea King,” etc. And I loved the moments of magical realism (or can I call it that if the story is already a fantasy?) – heartbeats that were loud enough for everyone to hear, hearts that exploded from too many new ideas, the smell of flowers found wherever merpeople felt love, the things the mermaid could see in the Uncle’s eyes –

         “My Uncle,” said the Prince by way of an excuse, “his behavior…that is to say, his conduct…he hasn’t been the same since the war.”
The little mermaid nodded, for she had detected the shadows in his Uncle’s eyes, and sometimes she saw figures there, black figures with their hair on fire.

Oh, and there’s this gorgeous description of the sun and stars:

The God was going to sleep now, for half of it was buried in the ocean, but the little mermaid was not sad because she knew that she would see it again. Time ticked by, and she did not move, and when the God was fast asleep, she saw its angels emerge in the sky and wink down at her, thousands of them.

I did find it interesting that Tess and I interpreted very differently the mermaid’s main desire.  In Tess’ view, the mermaid’s first priority was to gain an Immortal Soul, and the Prince was the cherry on top, but I saw it the other way around.  I think the story focuses much more on the mermaid’s obsession with the Prince than on her occasional thoughts about the Immortal Soul.  The idea of love is a huge theme in the story; it’s what throws the entire mer-kingdom into chaos after the mermaid admits to one of her sisters her feelings for the Prince.  Overall, there’s much more focus on the merpeople’s hearts than on their lack of souls.

Now, as lovely as the story was, there were a number of elements that substantially bothered me. Like the constant proofreading errors.  And the implication that it would be terrible if the prince were more interested in men than women. And the many negative comments about gypsies (or, rather, “sea gypsies”):

…the gypsy folk, who travelled in groups all over the ocean, causing strife and chaos.

It was her very good fortune that she was not attacked by gypsies on her way…

She felt sorry for the hideous sea-gypsies…

…as everyone knew that disease and all manner of foul things came from close fraternization with sea-gypsies.

Then there are the logic issues:

  • The mermaid is supposed to feel unbearable pain with every step she takes, yet no one seems to notice her pain until weeks later, when the Prince wonders if her shoes are pinching her feet. Apparently she has extremely good control of her facial expressions (except she usually doesn’t, as her sisters always notice), and manages never to limp except for that one time the Prince notices.
  • Why does the nanny say there’s no way to gain an Immortal Soul when the mermaid first asks about it, but when she confronts the mermaid for constantly going to the surface to see the Prince, the nanny suddenly remembers that one can gain a soul by marrying a human?
  • As Tess points out, the mermaid has an odd ability to taste things despite not having a tongue anymore.
  • If the merpeople are supposed to lack the ability to feel, why are they terrified whenever they hear someone’s heartbeat? And why is the Sea King nervous and fearful after he mates with the sea witch (and how exactly do merpeople mate? That’s a bit of world-building I wish Desano had established)? Is it because of the spell she gave him earlier? That should’ve been explained more clearly.

And why do the merpeople have this saying –

 “Those who small-talk for a year
won’t then leave those who they hold dear”

– if they don’t have the ability to hold anyone dear?

I wanted to like this story so much more. It’s a creative fairy tale re-telling and it’s about mermaids, but the proofreading and logical errors really detracted from my enjoyment. I’m glad for the experience, but it could have been so much better.

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, mermaids, romantic | 2 Comments

Poisoned apples, twisted tales, and mer-lore

 

Yep, it’s time for more re-worked fairy tale collections, including another Windling/Datlow book!  Hey, I’ll keep reviewing them as long as I keep finding ’em🙂

Poisoned ApplesChristine Heppermann. Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2014.

This is a collection of poems about fairy tales and modern beauty standards, and the sinister messages within. For instance:

From “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy”

It used to be just the one,
but now all mirrors chatter.

In fact, every reflective surface has opinions
on the shape of my nose, the size

of my chest, the hair I wash and brush
until it’s so shiny I can see myself

scribbling notes as each strand
recommends improvements. (pg. 5)

Other poems focus on dressing rooms and mannequins and push-up bras; spring formals and health classes and spa treatments; a woman who transforms from brick house to stick house to straw,

as light as the needle swimming in her bathroom scale.
The smaller the number, the closer to gold,
the tighter the face, afire with the zeal of a wolf
who has one house left to destroy. (from “Blow Your House In,” pg. 28)

Complementing the poems are eerie black and white photomanipulations – a blindfolded girl eating apples hanging from a tree, a girl being pulled apart by hands coming out of branches, a man who opens his shirt to reveal the wall behind him… all matching the themes of food anxiety, inner emptiness, and society’s manipulation of our self-image.

 

Maura McHugh. Twisted Fairy Tales. London: Quantum, 2012.Twisted-Fairy-Tales

McHugh gives twenty fairy tales a more macabre bent, sometimes twisting the stories in her own way, sometimes staying true to the original sources (like the Brothers Grimm), and Jane Laurie adds creepy, often blood-spattered illustrations. My favorite story is “Vasilisa’s Fire,” in which a girl is sent to the witch Baba Yaga to ask for candlelight. To stay alive, she follows advice from a magic doll her mother left her. What I like best about the story are the multiple ways McHugh describes the doll’s eyes each time she comes to life:

“…in the darkness its eyes were tiny moons”

“Its eyes gleamed like stars.”

“…its eyes became like twin candle flames.”

“The doll’s eyes shone like the sun.”

Along with “Snow White” and “The Bone Whistle,” “Vasilisa’s Fire” is one of the more gruesome stories in the collection. Other stories, like “The Master and His Apprentice,” aren’t all that creepy; their “twisted” nature seems to just mean “not Disney.” Which is fine, but I would have liked a more consistent tone throughout the collection.

 

Cloaked in RedVivian Vande Velde. Cloaked in Red. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2010.

Vivian Vande Velde has always wondered about the story of a girl too daft to recognize the wolf wearing her grandmother’s clothes (a wolf who apparently likes to toy with his food instead of just eating her right away).

“I don’t like to criticize anyone’s family, but I’m guessing these people are not what you’d call close. Little Red doesn’t realize a wolf has substituted himself for her grandmother. I only met my grandmother three times in my entire life, but I like to think I would have noticed if someone claiming to be my grandmother had fur, fangs, and a tail.” (pg. 11)

So Vande Velde has written her own versions of Little Red Riding Hood – one in which a girl named Meg outsmarts a dishonest woodcutter, one in which an old woman takes an injured wolf into her home, one in which the wolf is only following Red to give her back the basket she dropped in fright, one in which the red cloak is a conscious being and keeps trying to protect the careless girl from danger… Yeah, these stories do make more sense than the original🙂

 

Vivian Vande Velde. The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.Rumplestiltskin Problem

About “Rumpelstiltskin,” Vande Velde has a number of questions. Why would the miller randomly tell the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold? Why would the miller’s daughter agree to marry a man who three times threatens her with death (well, ok, he’s the king, so maybe saying no isn’t an option)? Why would Rumpelstiltskin sing such a conveniently obvious song about his name? So, as she did for Cloaked in Red, Vande Velde tells her own versions of the story.

My favorites were “Straw Into Gold” and “The Domovoi,” in both of which Rumpelstiltskin really just wants to help the young woman (though he does take offerings in return). The latter was especially interesting, as the domovoi is a figure from Slavic folklore, a protective household being. Unfortunately, even though it’s a really lovely story, there was a big plot hole in “Straw Into Gold” – wouldn’t someone notice all the straw dumped outside the tower? Vande Velde must have realized this problem, because she finds ways to hide the straw in two other stories, but why not in the former?

I also really liked “As Good as Gold,” the only story to feature a nice king who isn’t in the habit of threatening to chop people’s heads off or burn them at the stake, and would really rather the miller and his daughter stop throwing themselves at him with their wild claims. The king is, annoyingly, a real pushover about accommodating the miller’s daughter until the end of the story, when he finally grows a backbone.

 

Troll's Eye ViewEllen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds. Troll’s Eye View: A Book Of Villainous Tales. New York: Viking, 2009.

What do we know about the villains of fairy tales? What if the stories were told from their point of view? This was the prompt Datlow and Windling gave to the authors in this collection. So Garth Nix focuses on the witch who grudgingly accepts the bratty housebreaker Rapunzel into her castle, Midori Snyder focuses on the giant plagued by the thieving Molly Whuppie, Peter S. Beagle focuses on the giant’s wife who welcomes Jack into her home in the clouds, and so on. My favorites were Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture,” about an Austrian confectioner’s daughter who can create anything – even a house – out of sweets, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Rags and Riches,” about the servant who switches places with the princess and forces her to work as a goose girl.

About her story, Valente says,

I wanted to know what kind of person would end up in such a house. Why would she build it that way? Where did she come from? Why is she so obsessed with food and eating? The academic answers never satisfied me. I know intellectually that women are associated with food in folklore, and bad women with cannibalism, and that children are drawn to candy, so that the house is a perfect lure, but that didn’t satisfy me at a gut level.

Hoffman’s story fleshes out the motivations of the princess/goose girl’s servant, Willa, and attempts to answer the question of why she would choose such a barbaric punishment for herself, as though she couldn’t tell that the king was discussing her own crimes. The story does explain where Willa got the idea for the punishment, but doesn’t really explain why she chose it for herself, especially since she did recognize the king’s story. It would have made more sense for her to name a lighter, more merciful punishment, unless she thought the king wouldn’t accept that.

Still, overall, it was an interesting new angle on one of my favorite fairy tales, and the ending was a surprise.

 

Jane Yolen. Neptune Rising: Songs and Tales of the Undersea Folk. New York: Philomel Neptune RisingBooks, 1982.

Yolen gathers together her previously published stories and poems about merfolk, including four about selkies. There’s “Greyling,” which I first read years ago as a picture book, in which a fisherman finds a seal pup and takes him home to his wife, only to find a human baby in its place. For fifteen years, the couple tries to keep the child from returning to the sea, but of course we know that won’t work forever. There’s “The Fisherman’s Wife,” who swims to the sea floor to save her husband from a mermaid who keeps the skeletons of all the other men she’s seduced. There’s “The Corridors of the Sea,” about a man with an implanted gill system whose body starts adapting better to the sea than to air.

I definitely recommend this collection to fans of mer-lore. Did you know that in many old stories, merpeople, like fish, have no tongues? Yolen tells of Neptune and Old King Lir, Proteus and Davy Jones.   A woman threatened by the famous Malaysian Mer calls upon Poseidon, Neptune, Njord, Ran, and Dagon to save her. An undine, like in the fairy tale by Friedrich de La Motte Fouque, is seduced by a human who then drops her for another woman.  No wonder Jane Yolen is one of my favorite tellers of fairy tales!

Posted in fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, mermaids, poetry, selkies, short stories, spooky | 3 Comments

Symptoms Of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human

Jeff Garvin. Symptoms Of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016.

Rating:  4.75 out of 5 lightsaber-blue eyes

If only this book had come out earlier, or if I’d waited a bit longer, I could’ve added it to my previous post. Oh well. This is another fantastic book about gender identity. As the child of a congressman in a very conservative county, Riley Cavanaugh is feeling more and more pressure as the election approaches, especially about whether or not to come out as gender fluid. Some days Riley feels like a girl, and some days like a boy. Riley describes it as having an inner compass or dial that constantly shifts between male and female, sometimes pausing at one or the other end, and sometimes somewhere in between.

Following a therapist’s recommendation, Riley deals with the stress by keeping an anonymous blog (using the name “Alix” and a David Bowie avatar🙂 ) about being gender fluid, and is shocked when it gains thousands of followers. On the one hand, this is extremely validating. On the other hand, all the attention terrifies Riley, and then an anonymous troll starts leaving comments that suggest he or she knows who “Alix” really is.

Reading Symptoms, I realized I’d forgotten to mention what an amazing high school experience Gretchen and Toni had in What We Left Behind. They didn’t have to deal with any bullying – the story even starts with everyone at Homecoming congratulating Toni for winning the right to wear pants at T’s all-girl school – whereas Riley has gotten constant grief because although Riley hasn’t come out yet, people can tell there’s something different about Riley.

The most interesting choice Jeff Garvin makes is to never explicitly reveal Riley’s biological sex (there is one accidental hint when Riley fixes Riley’s hair in a gender-specific way that pleases Mr. and Mrs. Cavanaugh). As Riley says in Alix’s first blog post, it’s none of anyone’s business. And as a writing technique, for the most part, this works just fine. There’s only one moment when the strategy becomes awkward:

I step out from behind my dad, and the superintendent looks from him to me with a bright smile. “And this must be your…” She pauses for a split second—but in that time, I see her smile falter just slightly.
            Dad, being the consummate politician, jumps in a millisecond later, defusing the awkward moment with his usual charm. “Riley,” he says, “this is Superintendent Clemente. She’s here to hold me accountable for all my campaign promises.”
            She recovers her smile immediately, but I know my dad noticed.  (pg. 207)

The fact that Riley’s parents don’t know about Riley’s gender identity is a major plot point, and yet somehow, Congressman Cavanaugh knows not to clarify whether Riley is his son or daughter. That just doesn’t seem realistic, considering he expects Riley to wear a very gender-specific outfit to every campaign function. It would’ve been better to leave that scene out.

But enough of that. Like George and What We Left Behind, Symptoms Of Being Human is an excellent exploration of gender identity. And Riley is just an awesome character. Riley loves punk rock, periodically making up new names for an imaginary band (like Soul Sneeze and Gender Fluid Rage); has a vintage record player; did I mention the David Bowie avatar? Riley even suggests Mr. Cavanaugh use “Changes” as the walk-in music for a fund-raiser dinner.

I also loved Bec, with her black peacoat and “lightsaber blue” eyes, and Solo, nicknamed for his love of Star Wars (some still call him Chewie, for the furry Chewbacca backpack he never wears in public anymore). And Mike/Michelle, and Kanada, and Bennie, and Chris, and Morgan, and Herman – the members of Queer Alliance.

Hopefully, as more books like this enter the Juv/YA sphere, more children and teens will grow up with open minds and there will be more supportive schools like Toni and Gretchen’s.

 

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Two recent books with transgender characters

GeorgeAlex Gino.  George.  New York: Scholastic, 2015.

Rating:  5 out of 5 secret collections of girls’ magazines

This is a fantastic book.  George knows she’s really a girl, even though everyone else sees a boy, and she really wants to play Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web.  Unfortunately, her teacher says only girls can play that role.  But George’s best friend Kelly comes up with an awesome plan to show everyone who George really is.

I love that Gino creates characters like Kelly, who so readily support George, reflecting the kind of society we should be, especially in a book targeted at middle grade readers.  At the same time, Gino also portrays the initially resistant characters as relatable human beings rather than just stock antagonists, showing how people can change their initial perspectives.  We need more stories like this.

The one thing I wish the book had done is make clear that not all girls naturally like or dislike certain things — that some girls like shooter games, that girls can be just as strong and fast as boys in gym.  But that’s my only complaint.

See Alex Gino’s post at Gay YA, about the need for more LGBTQIA in middle grade and younger literature:

There is no age at which it is inappropriate to appreciate people for who they are.  And there is no age before we know ourselves.  We may not have fully formed those notions, but each of us is the only person we know inside and out, and each of our challenges includes finding, respecting, and celebrating that self.

 

Robin Talley. What We Left Behind. Harlequin Teen, 2015.What We Left Behind

Rating:  5 out of 5 uniform pants you’re finally allowed to wear at the all-girls’ high school

Gretchen and Toni fall for each other at first sight, at their junior year Homecoming dance, and quickly become the perfect couple. They never fight, and Gretchen is completely supportive of Toni’s exploration of T’s gender identity. Then, the night before they head off to college, Gretchen drops the bomb that she’s not actually planning to go to Boston with Toni; she’s going to New York instead. Toni tries to pretend everything is ok, but this starts a rift in the relationship that grows as they make friends with different groups of people. Toni’s new friends challenge T’s beliefs about gender pronouns, labels, and where T is on the transgender spectrum, and T doesn’t share all of this with Gretchen the way T used to, and Gretchen is too scared to ask questions in case she says something wrong.

Lezbrarian reviewed this book here, and like her, I liked how Talley portrays various people on the “queer/gender identity spectrum … in a way that feels real and immediate and relatable.” There are characters like Derek and Andy and Eli, who know exactly who and what they are, and there is Toni, who is figuring that out from day to day.  And the book is non-judgmental as it portrays both Toni and Gretchen’s thoughts on these issues.  They’re both figuring out how to be individuals as well as a couple, how to define themselves in relation to other people, how to ask for what they really want out of life instead of just following everyone else’s expectations.

 

Posted in favorites, LGBTQIA | 3 Comments

Don’t say it’s true.

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More Datlow/Windling anthologies

First, my favorite tales from two young adult anthologies: The Green Man – a collection focused on the mythical spirit(s) of the forest – and The Coyote Road – a collection of trickster tales.

Green Man

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds. The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest. New York: Viking, 2002.

  • “Among the Leaves So Green,” by Tanith Lee. It starts in familiar territory – two sisters are sent into the woods to get eggs from the Widow. One sister is kind, the other cruel, so of course one will have a better time than the other. Only, this story doesn’t stop at the cruel sister’s punishment; rather, the forest offers her mercy and a change of life.
  • “A World Painted by Birds,” by Katherine Vaz. Like her story, “The Kingdom of Melting Glances,” from A Wolf at the Door, this tale is full of beautiful magical realist imagery. From a town where all kinds of beauty are forbidden, a musician and a maker of beautiful lace patterns escape to the forest, where a revolutionary gardener has created a world of mushroom elephants and paintbrush birds, and stars that are “stretched … into a fleet of eardrums to collect every plot in the General’s house, every whisper in Rio Seco.”
  • “Joshua Tree,” by Emma Bull. After a rave in the California desert, Tabetha gets hopelessly lost in a forest of Joshua trees, and then something really weird happens. Or did it really happen? And for some reason, she only feels comfortable telling the story to Alice, the eccentric new girl at school. And for some reason, Alice actually believes her.

Coyote Road

The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales. New York: Viking, 2007.

  • “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche,” by Delia Sherman. Her adoptive mother, Tante Eulalie, always warned Cadence to stay away from the fiddler Murderes Petitpas. Her friend Ulysse, one of the local loup-garous, also warns Cadence – “’Dres Petitpas is the big bull on the hill, and mean, mean. You stay away from him, you.” But some time after Tante Eulalie’s death, ‘Dres comes knocking on Cadence’s door with a challenge he won’t let her decline.
  • “A Tale for the Short Days,” by Richard Bowes. The God of Thieves is troubled, for the modern world is too bright and full of itself for his taste, and much of this new attitude comes from the Sparkman family, kings of coal. So three times, across generations, the God of Thieves is called to the Sparkman estate at the winter solstice to teach the head of the household a lesson.
  • “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s,” by Ellen Klages. When her best friend doesn’t show up for their usual game night, Rachel accepts the housekeeper’s challenge. But this kindly old lady isn’t what she seems, and soon Rachel is trapped in a series of life-size board games, playing for her freedom.
  • “The Other Labyrinth,” by Jedediah Berry. Of course I’d like a story about a labyrinth. “No mundane gardens, these, but a tortuous puzzle-place, as beautiful as it is confounding,” made up of many smaller mazes – the maze of white roses, the maze of false mirrors, the obelisk maze… a place that’s as much the trickster as its builder.

 

Next, as I mentioned in my previous Datlow/Windling post, the following anthologies are of more adult-targeted fairy tales (some very adult indeed), but the stories I like best tend to focus less on the sex and more on the clever twisting of the fairy tale.

Black Thorn White Rose

Black Thorn, White Rose. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

  • “Granny Rumple,” by Jane Yolen. In the town of Ykaterinislav, Ukraine, a moneylender named Shmuel tries to help an unfortunate neighbor whose boasting father risks the wrath of the mayor over stories of flax spun into gold-trimmed clothing. But, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished… Like Robin McKinley’s “Marsh-Magic,” this is a very clever re-invention of “Rumplestiltskin,” and I like how Yolen sets it up as a legend from her own family.
  • “Godson,” by Roger Zelazny. David’s godfather Morrie seems like a great person. He visits David every year on his birthday, gets him an enchanted bicycle, helps him become a highly skilled doctor… but the things he expects David to do in return start to seem unjust, and eventually David starts to rebel. Of course, if you’ve guessed the story this is based on, you know how dangerous it is to rebel against such a godfather.
  • “The Black Swan,” by Susan Wade. Sent to live with her aunt, the queen, Ylianna soon realizes she doesn’t conform to the ideals of courtly beauty. But it doesn’t really bother her until she falls for her cousin Sigfried, who sees her as just “some nestling hatched by one of the kitchen hawks: He might be briefly entertained by its antics, but he would never dream of training it to his wrist.” All this is observed by a young footman who offers to help Ylianna better meet the standards of courtly behavior and appearance. But how far will she go to be considered worthy of the prince?

Black Swan White Raven

Black Swan, White Raven. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, 1998.

  • “Rapunzel,” by Anne Bishop. Told from three perspectives – the mother, the witch, and Rapunzel herself – it starts out as the familiar story of desperate lettuce cravings and secret princely visits, but then veers off in a lovely new direction.
  • “True Thomas,” by Bruce Glassco. Thomas the Rhymer can tell the truth about people just by their scent, a Language he learned in his years living with the faeries. But these are a different kind of faery – insect/alien-like creatures who travel between the stars, learning and preserving the Language of different worlds. It’s a dreamy story of alien/fairy abduction.
  • “Godmother Death,” by Jane Yolen. Of course I imagined Yolen’s Death to be the same figure as in the Sandman comics.  She’s pale, with dark hair and a sign worn around her neck, and she likes occasionally to act mortal. The story follows fairly closely the Brothers Grimm tale, “Godfather Death.”

Black Heart Ivory Bones

Black Heart, Ivory Bones. New York:  Open Road Media, 2014. Kindle ed. (originally New York: Avon Books, 2000)

  • “Rapunzel,” by Tanith Lee. Another neat Rapunzel story, this one toys with the idea of how the story was invented. For when Prince Urlenn, traveling home from a war, comes upon Rapunzel in the forest, her hair is already cut short and the tower is no prison, there being no witch to guard it. So how did the tale of the long-haired girl in the witch-guarded tower come about?
  • “And Still She Sleeps,” by Greg Costikyan. As Costikyan says in the Afterword, “‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the ur-stories that shapes our society’s notion of Romantic love—and thinking about it, and what’s wrong with the image of love it presents, was the proximate cause of the urge to write this piece.” The story takes place in our world, with magic known to exist and studied as a science by scholars like Dr. Alistair Borthwick, whose archaeological team finds an enchantedly sleeping girl while excavating a site in Northumbria. Local legend suggests she can be woken by true love’s kiss. But can anyone really be her true love without knowing her as a person?
  • “You, Little Match-girl,” by Joyce Carol Oates. A woman is driving alone through a blizzard in Maine, desperate to reach the airport, when her car skids off the road. As she wanders the lonely road, hoping someone will drive by and save her, she’s filled with regrets about a life traveling away from her home and family, “intellectually estranged” from them and anyone else who could have loved her. Maybe this accident is giving her a second chance.
  • “The Cats of San Martino,” by Ellen Steiber. This one is based on an Italian fairy tale from the collection of Italo Calvino. Jenny Myford splits from her just-now-become ex-boyfriend on the way to Florence, leaving him to hook up with their traveling partner, Sasha. She wanders alone into the town of San Martino, where she’s instructed to stay at La Casa dei Gatti, the house of the cats. As it turns out, these are wise talking cats who can help Jenny deal with her heartbreak, and also protect her from the apparition she keeps seeing, who looks just like Sasha.
Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, short stories | 2 Comments