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 | 4 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.


Posted in favorites, LGBTQIA | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in music | Tagged | 2 Comments

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 | 3 Comments

2015 Favorites

It’s time once again for the year-end review!  Since I’ve been reading a lot of short stories this year, I’ve given them their own section.

Favorite Books –  Click each cover to see my review.

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13112921  True Blue Scouts  Of Course They Do
Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland  Half-Human  Red Ridin' in the Hood
Silver Birch Blood Moon    


Select Favorite Short Stories/Novellas

  • “Forbid the Sea,” by Seanan McGuire (from my “Month of Shorts” post) – Ten years after the Great London Fire, the lonely King of Cats takes an impromptu vacation and meets a traveling selkie named Dylan.  But as we’ve seen throughout the Daye series, relationships with selkies seem fated to end in heartbreak.  It’s stories like these that show the best of McGuire’s style, much more subtle than in the Toby novels (as fun as those are).
  • “Drawing the Moon,” by Janni Lee Simner (from Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares) – Everyone believes Andrew’s parents were killed by a mugger, but Andrew knows they were really stolen by the moon, which enters his room every night and taunts him with images of them.  Finally, Andrew traps the moon and insists it give his parents back.  Only, there’s a terrible price.
  • “The Instrument,” by Martha Soukup (from Bruce Coville’s Book of Spine-Tinglers II).  Melanie finds the instrument in the basement of her favorite thrift shop.  It’s missing strings, but just tapping on it creates a perfect sound that hushes all the noise around her.  It seems like a great thing, but just how far will Melanie go to keep that feeling of perfect stillness?
  • “The Shell Box,” by Karawynn Long (from Silver Birch, Blood Moon) – The story intro describes it as “a conflation of various Selkie and Roane stories, some ‘Bluebeard’ tales, with a bit of ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Lonely Merwen is enchanted by a stranger who pays her compliments, and when he asks her to marry him, she readily agrees. Then he turns sullen as his fishing expeditions prove unsuccessful, so Merwen gives him her voice in a special box to keep him company. Suddenly he’s bringing home excellent catches, and seems pleased with Merwen again. But how much has she given up to make him temporarily happy?
  • “Marsh-Magic,” by Robin McKinley (from Silver Birch, Blood Moon) – For twenty generations, the kings named Rustafulus are counseled by their mages to marry a woman of the marsh people, who have their own magic that could bind the land together if they join with the king of the dry land. But the new wife of Rustafulus XX will discover a secret about this tradition, and will not let herself be used the way her predecessors were.


A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!  


Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, picture books, selkies, short stories, year-end review | Leave a comment

Fairy tale anthologies by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, haven’t I? Most recently, I’ve been going through the anthologies of re-imagined folk and fairy tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. These are my favorite stories:

Beastly Bride

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds. The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People. New York: Viking, 2010.

  • “The Selkie Speaks,” by Delia Sherman. Sherman’s poem features a rare lasting marriage between a selkie and a human – and rarer still, a marriage not based on a stolen skin.
  • “Bear’s Bride,” by Johanna Sinisalo. Trans. Liisa Rantalaiko. In an ancient Finnish tribe, the women who commune with bears gain power over animals. Now it is Kataya’s turn to spend several months shadowing a bear to strengthen her own tsirnika. This story reminded me of Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, especially the way the tribe avoids the word “bear,” using terms like “Bruin” and “Honeypaws” instead.

Wolf at the door

A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2000.

  • “The Months of Manhattan,” by Delia Sherman, is a retelling of “The Twelve Months.” While trying to complete a school assignment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Liz finds a painting of Rockefeller Center, with twelve people who come to life. Afterwards, it seems like luck is always on her side, and her stepsister Beth grows jealous.
  • “The Kingdom of Melting Glances,” by Katherine Vaz. Based on two Portuguese folktales, this story is full of beautiful imagery. After Rosa’s parents melt out of love for each other, she’s left with her cruel sisters who taunt Rosa because of the lily-shaped mark on her face. When the sisters injure and frighten away her only friend, a hummingbird, Rosa seeks him in the moon’s face, on the wind’s path, and in the golden palace of the sun.

Swan Sister

Swan Sister. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003.

  • “Awake,” by Tanith Lee. In Lee’s Sleeping Beauty tale, the thirteenth fairy’s spell is much more beautiful: “‘The Spinning Wheel of Time shall stop […] because this child, by then sixteen years old, shall grasp the Spindle that holds the thread time is always weaving. Then she shall gain a hundred years of freedom before she becomes only your daughter, and wife to the prince you approve for her.’”
  • “Inventing Aladdin,” by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s poem muses on how Scheherazade came up with her stories each night.

She does not know where any tale waits
before it’s told. (No more do I.)
But forty thieves sounds good, so forty
thieves it is. She prays she’s bought another
                                  clutch of days.

 We save our lives in such unlikely ways.

Silver Birch Blood Moon

Silver Birch, Blood Moon. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

This and several other Datlow/Windling anthologies are collections of adult fairy tales – stories “that remold our most cherished childhood fables into things darker and sexier, more resonant and appealing to grown-up tastes and sensibilities.”*

  • “Precious,” by Nalo Hopkinson. At the end of “Diamonds and Toads,” the fortunate gem-tongued daughter is, of course, picked up by a prince and expected to live happily ever after. But her husband is only interested in her riches, and uses any means to force them out of her. But in the end, it’s she who has the final say.
  • “The Sea Hag,” by Melissa Lee Shaw. Who is the sea witch, really, and why is she willing to grant the mermaids’ wishes, even the one that seems too foolish? All I can say without spoiling is that it’s a lovely retelling of “The Little Mermaid.”
  • “The Shell Box,” by Karawynn Long. The story intro describes it as “a conflation of various Selkie and Roane stories, some ‘Bluebeard’ tales, with a bit of ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Lonely Merwen is enchanted by a stranger who pays her compliments, and when he asks her to marry him, she readily agrees. Then he turns sullen as his fishing expeditions prove unsuccessful, so Merwen gives him her voice in a special box to keep him company. Suddenly he’s bringing home excellent catches, and seems pleased with Merwen again. But how much has she given up to make him temporarily happy?

I would’ve liked those Selkie and Roane elements to be more explicit, but the hints made me happy enough.

  • “Arabian Phoenix,” by India Edghill. What really happens to the wives of King Haroun al-Raschid, who only seem to last a week each before he’s single again? Shahrazad has a theory, and a plan for her own future. This is a clever twist on The Arabian Nights, set in modern times.
  • “Marsh-Magic,” by Robin McKinley. For twenty generations, the kings named Rustafulus are counseled by their mages to marry a woman of the marsh people, who have their own magic that could bind the land together if they join with the king of the dry land. But the new wife of Rustafulus XX will discover a secret about this tradition, and will not let herself be used the way her predecessors were.

The story intro dubs this a tale inspired by “Rumpelstiltskin”…”But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘Marsh-Magic’ is based on ‘Rumpelstiltskin’,” says McKinley. “It’s more like one of the bigger turnips that went in the pot.”


* So says the front jacket flap for Black Thorn, White Rose. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

Posted in fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, mermaids, selkies, short stories | 1 Comment

Haunted dolls and other ghostly, spine-tingling nightmares

‘Tis the season for reading spooky stories, so in addition to Holly Black’s Doll Bones, I’ve also been reading some of Bruce Coville’s anthologies — namely, his Books of Ghosts, Nightmares, and Spine Tinglers.

Doll BonesHolly Black.  Doll Bones.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013.

Poppy, Zach, and Alice have spent years playing an elaborate make-believe game involving pirates, mermaids, and the Great Queen — a bone china doll kept always in a glass cabinet in Poppy’s house.  Poppy and Alice don’t seem to care about any teasing they attract for playing with dolls, but Zach is feeling more and more pressure from his father, who wants Zach to focus on playing basketball instead.  Then Zach’s dad does something drastic, and Zach feels forced to quit the game.  Too ashamed to tell Poppy and Alice the real reason, he pretends he’s suddenly lost interest.

But that’s when the game takes a serious turn.  Poppy claims the Queen came to life one night as the ghost of a real girl, demanding her body — the doll — be properly buried.  Could this just be Poppy’s way of forcing Zach and Alice to keep playing, or is there actually something supernatural about the doll?

BookRiot included this book in their list of books to terrify children (note that the review could be considered a tad spoilery), and while I personally didn’t find the book that scary, I can see how it would be to some readers.  The things Zach, Poppy, and Alice learn about the doll during their quest are pretty creepy.

You know what else is scary?  The thought of how Poppy’s mother will react when she finds out what the kids did to her antique doll that she wanted to sell on TV.  Yikes!

The Bruce Coville anthologies.

Ghosts  Nightmares
Spine Tinglers  Spine Tinglers 2

My favorite stories:

Bruce Coville, ed.  Bruce Coville’s Book of Ghosts.  New York: Scholastic, 1994.

  • “Not From Detroit,” by Joe R. Lansdale.  Margie and Alex have been married over fifty years, and one stormy night they find themselves discussing their mortality.  That very night, Death drives up to collect, but Alex won’t let him get away so easily.
  • “The Ghost in the Summer Kitchen,” by Mary Frances Zambreno.  Lately, the ghost of a little girl has been visiting Rose in the detached kitchen.  There must be something she wants or needs to do before moving on, and Rose is determined to figure out what.  As it turns out, there’s something Rose needs from the girl, too.

Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares.  New York: Scholastic, 1995.

  • “Drawing the Moon,” by Janni Lee Simner.  Everyone believes Andrew’s parents were killed by a mugger, but Andrew knows they were really stolen by the moon, which enters his room every night and taunts him with images of them.  Finally, Andrew traps the moon and insists it give his parents back.  Only, there’s a terrible price.
  • “The Hand,” by Eugene M. Gagliano.  What’s creepier than being woken up by a blood-dripping disembodied hand?

Bruce Coville’s Book of Spine Tinglers.  New York: Scholastic, 1996.

  • “The Thing in Auntie Alma’s Pond,” by Bruce Coville.  Margaret is scared of water, but something in the pond is calling to her, begging her to come in.  And when she wakes in the morning, she finds water on the floor, as though the pond is reaching out to her.
  • “Those Three Wishes,” by Judith Gorog.  Cruel Melinda Alice reluctantly spares a snail in her path, and is granted three wishes.  At first it’s thrilling, but soon Melinda gets careless and says something she shouldn’t have.
  • “Past Sunset,” by Vivian Vande Velde.  In the village, there’s a certain street that no one sets foot on after sunset, for fear of meeting the ghostly lady.  “Never look at her eyes,” the grandmothers warn, “for there [is] no looking away.”

Bruce Coville’s Book of Spine Tinglers II.  New York: Scholastic, 1997.

  • “Same Time Next Year,” by Neal Schusterman.  Another one of those Be Careful What You Wish For stories.  Marla Nixbok believes she’s totally “ahead of her time,” so she’s thrilled at the chance to explore Buford Planct’s basement, where a creepy professor disappeared seven years ago.  Because the basement is full of futuristic experiments and gadgets, and one of those gadgets turns out to be a time machine.  But of course, the machine doesn’t work exactly as she expects.
  • “The Instrument,” by Martha Soukup.  Melanie finds the instrument in the basement of her favorite thrift shop.  It’s missing strings, but just tapping on it creates a perfect sound that hushes all the noise around her.  It seems like a great thing, but just how far will Melanie go to keep that feeling of perfect stillness?
Posted in family, fantasy, short stories, spooky | 1 Comment

Red Ridin’ In the Hood and Fairy Tale Feasts

Red Ridin' in the HoodPatricia Santos Marcantonio. Red Ridin’ In the Hood and Other Cuentos. Illus. Renato Alarcão. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005.

This collection was a neat idea by Marcantonio, who wrote it as an “answer to her childhood desire to see Latino culture embodied in the stories she cherished.”* Her Roja (Red) lives in a Hispanic neighborhood in the city, taking a shortcut down Forest Street to her abuela’s apartment. “El Día de los Muertos,” an Orpheus and Eurydice story, takes place in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. The Beauty in “Belleza y La Bestia” is the daughter of a Mexican revolutionary.

My favorite stories were “Jaime and Gabriela,” a re-imagined “Hansel and Gretel” set in a desert where the witch lives in a house made of pan dulce and tamales, and “The Piper of Harmonía,” about a town infested by lizards and the ungrateful citizens who cheat their savior. I also liked how Marcantonio reworked “Sleeping Beauty” with a sympathetic witch and a twist at the end.

My least favorite story was “Emperador’s New Clothes”; Veronica’s plan to teach the vain Emperador a lesson comes together too easily, and his sudden change of heart is too unrealistic. I know these are fairy tales, but when a story is given a more modern setting, I expect it to follow more modern narrative logic as well. I also would’ve liked it better if the “wolf” in the title story was more creatively re-interpreted as a human villain instead of a literal wolf.

Otherwise, these are fantastic examples of re-imagined fairy tales.


I recently started a new job as a library shelver, and as I was returning books to the children’s cookbook section, I discovered these two gems by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple:

Fairy Tale Feasts Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts

Food and stories are a time-honored pair, according to Yolen and Stemple.

From the earliest days of stories, when hunters came home from the hunt to tell of their exploits around the campfire while gnawing on a leg of beast, to the era of kings in castles listening to the storyteller at the royal dinner feast, to the time of TV dinners when whole families gathered to eat and watch movies together, stories and eating have been close companions.
     So it is not unusual that folk stories are often about food: Jack’s milk cow traded for beans, Snow White given a poisoned apple, a pancake running away from those who would eat it.**

And so, these two unique cookbooks match fairy and folk tales with fitting recipes – “Cinderella” and pumpkin tartlets, “The Little Mermaid” and seaweed stuffed shells, “The Loaves In the Ark” and challah bread. In the margins or after each story, Yolen includes information about the story’s origins and variants, and the recipes are enriched with facts about the main ingredients – like the history of apples in ancient Greece and Rome, or the origin and varieties of beans.  One recipe I definitely want to try is the one for pomegranate couscous in Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts. Yum!


* from the back jacket flap

** from the Introduction to Fairy Tale Feasts: a Literary Cookbook For Young Readers & Eaters.  Tales retold by Jane Yolen.  Recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple.  Illus. Philippe Béha. Northampton, MA: Crocodile Books, 2006.

The other book is Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: a Literary Cookbook.  Illus. Sima Elizabeth Shefrin.  Northampton, MA: Crocodile Books, 2013.

Posted in favorites, folklore/fairy tales, short stories | 1 Comment