Thursday, February 23, 2012


It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium.

To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid. (Wonder, pg. 306)

Wonder is one of those remarkable books that manages to utterly captivate; it makes you grin, it makes you cry, and it, at times makes you a little angry (righteous anger to be sure, but anger none the less). A simple story about a boy with an extraordinary face, getting through his first year in a real school, Wonder is anything but ordinary.

Told in multiple narratives, readers get a glimpse into the life of a ten-year-old Auggie, disfigured from birth with extreme facial abnormalities, as he tries to maneuver his way through the harsh world that is middle school. Readers hear from Auggie, his family, and friends as they all struggle to deal with the everyday ups and downs of existence, while also dealing with the sometimes cruel realities of life for someone who is anything, but ordinary. In a time where more and more of the novels for kids and teens deal with dysfunctional families, teen angst, and substance abuse, Wonder is a breath a fresh air. The family, despite dealing with such a heart wrenching issue, is shockingly ordinary. The parents are married (to each other), they care about their children and actually spend quality time with them. The kids have the same issues as most kids do—fighting with friends, struggling through homework and school, dealing with the changes of getting older. This is an average family just doing their best to be happy. I love that for once, I can pick up a book that features a group of people put into one of the most extraordinary circumstances, and instead of imploding and turning on one another, they actually support each other and work together. It sounds sappy and Walton-esq, but it isn’t. They still have their problems, serious ones at that, it’s just the handling of it is a bit more real and relatable to the average reader.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. A book for all ages, Wonder is astonishing in its ability to capture so much in such a simple way. For such an unpretentious book is packs a lasting punch. It’s charming, funny, moving, and everything else you could ask for in a novel. A truly worthy read.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea

In a departure from my current list of mysteries, dystopics, and paranormal fantasies, I took a breather and picked up Morgan Callan Rogers’ Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, a smartly told coming of age story set in 1960’s Maine. The story follows young Florine Gilham as she comes to terms with the sudden disappearance of her mother and her own burgeoning womanhood. Told in Florine’s crisp Yankee dialect, the reader is given an intimate look at Florine’s internal struggles—from coping with the mysterious loss of her mother, to her father’s sudden relationship with another woman, to her efforts to understand the changes in her own body as she moves from a playful eleven-year-old girl to a headstrong eighteen-year-old woman.

This was one of those books that really captivates. It’s not so much the story, as there are many holes that are left unfilled and some scattered MacGuffins that almost detract from the ultimate point of the novel (Florine’s coming-of-age), but the character of Florine whose voice is so remarkably honest and fresh, that draws readers in. Florine is brilliant, flaws and all, as she maneuvers her way through the unexpected emotional hardships of her teen years. She’s blunt, yet also prone to sentimental and beautiful imaginings of her lost mother, as she tries to make sense of her changing world. In some ways Florine reminds me of characters from Southern fiction writers like Rebecca Welles, Beth Hoffman, and Fannie Flagg, in that while the voice maintains its Yankee-ness, the language of place and character takes on the spin and beauty similar to that of what is thought of as Southern Fiction. The small town feel and quirky characters almost feel as though they are hushed away in a small Georgia town just slightly on the wrong side of the tracks. Of course, that image lasts only in snippets as the lobster fisherman and dialect take you right back to Coastal Maine. It’s this sense of place and character that really wins readers over more so than the plot itself.

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is a good novel, a nice snippet of life in a small northern coastal town, and a candidly told narrative of growing up and moving on. It was an enchanting rainy day read and a delight to sink into.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Reading Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales are “in”. If you don’t know that fact you must be living in a dark, dank tunnel with blinders and earmuffs on. With dueling Snow White movies about to start showing, a 3-D reissue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a Jack in the Beanstalk in the works, a 2013 Hansel and Gretel film; and that’s not even mentioning the two television shows with fairy tale ties—Grimm, the fairy tale cop show and Once Upon a Time (my personal favorite), the sprawling epic from the writers of Lost. It seems as though Hollywood has found it’s current muse in the realm of fairy tales and not surprisingly, so has the book world.

Actually, I should change my wording on this one—the book world has never forgotten this magical realm—there have always been new editions of Grimm’s, Hans Christian Anderson stories, and so forth; there have also been some great retellings, although it’s more typical to find them in the children’s section of your local bookstore, than with the classics or fiction—it’s just that as usual Hollywood takes the credit (at least in the eyes of the non-readers). In reality, Hollywood is running a half second behind publishing, taking its cues from what’s hot in books (as an example: Hunger Games, The Descendants, Hugo, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), so it’s really no surprise that there are a few really good retellings of classic tales out right now in book form.

I have long been a fan of fables. Starting with my old Read-Along versions (cassette of course) of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and Aesop’s Fables, to the Leslie Anne Warren version of Cinderella (which I have on dvd), to the old Fairy Tale Theater with Shelly Duvall, and graduating to my hardbound edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (all 700 pages of it), I have never outgrown, and can never quite get enough of the fairy tale world. Since I’ve always had a free flowing access to books, thanks in first to my Book Buyer grandmother, and then to my own employment, I have been fortunate enough to have an unusual amount of opportunities to read these retold fairy tales—and there are more of them than any of us could possibly count. So, in light of the renewed fairy tale craze, I thought I might mention a few worth visiting. This idea, I have to say was not quite my own, I have to give credit to my seven year old nephew who recently spent the night at my house and started an interesting conversation about fairy tales, and how so many of the tales are told in such different ways. Not your typical conversation with a 1st grader, but one that spurred me to search my memories for all the different Snow White/Wicked Queen punishments, The Little Mermaid endings, retelling the stories from memory to my young nephew. Now, I do owe him a couple of readings from my original, and rather dark Complete Grimm’s (sorry, buddy, running behind on that one), but it also prodded me to think through the new stuff and what’s worth a read.

Brand new, and the start of what is to be a quadrilogy, is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, a fascinating reimagining of the Cinderella tale (made popular by both the Brother’s Grimm and Charles Perrault), taking place in a rather bleak future, where our heroin is a cyborg with an unusual and rather special past. I know, “cyborg’ probably turned many of you off, it did me too, but having promised to read it, I was surprised to find myself completely captivated by the characters and the rather fantastic tale. Cinder holds that undercurrent of darkness from the original tale, actually, there is more death in this book than you might imagine, and it unwinds itself just enough to pull you in as a reader, and then dump you off into an abyss of endless possibilities at the end when it makes you wait for the next in the series. This one is highly imaginative, and perfect for those readers who like a bit of that sci-fi, dystopic edge to their fantasy tales. Now, I understand that the word dystopic is overused and is now turning many a book buyer to drink, so if that’s not your cuppa, I suggest an older retelling of the Cinderella story, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This is a slightly more feminist version, gritty, grounded more in reality, without the traditional magic, or in the case of Cinder, science. Just Ella is a quick read, but it is unforgettable and wonderfully told; a perfect way to revisit an old favorite.

Diane Zahler is also a wonderful author who reworks lesser-known tales very well. In February 2012 she has a great new book based loosely on Grimm’s The Six Swans, called Princess of the Wild Swans, and in 2011 she released another novel The Thirteenth Princess that retells the more well know story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Both books are aimed at a younger audience than the two mentioned above, but hold enough of the magic of the original tales to charm more mature readers.

These three authors do a fantastic job of reinventing well-loved stories, but there are those that sell the originals short. Just like director Catherine Hardwicke nearly ruined Little Red Riding Hood for us with her atrocious film Red Riding Hood (who knew Gary Oldman could be bad in a film?), there are authors who adapt and destroy, instead of building new offshoots. I won’t go into too much detail, but author Jackson Pearce, whom I have now given two chances to wow me with her re-interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood (Sisters Red) and Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly), has proven that not all adaptations are magical, in fact some, like those two mentioned, can be abominable, taking the word “grim” to a new and unappealing level. Fortunately, with the plethora of offerings, we as readers (and watchers if we’re looking at film/TV) can be more discerning, avoiding those types of disasters more easily.

If, like me, you want a taste of the original to go with the new, there are some beautifully made editions of these fairy tale collections put out by Dover Publications, currently available; English Fairy Tales retold by Flora Annie Steel, Grimm’s Fairy Tales with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales retold by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, and Norton’s edition of The Annotated Hans Christian Anderson. Each of these is a beautiful addition to your bookshelf, but more importantly they are filled with wonderful stories capable of transporting you to other lands and times, if only for as brief moment.

Fairy tales aren’t going anywhere. They will continue to exist and expand into whole new concepts. These stories offer us the baselines to so many of our favorite forms of entertainment. So why not take a moment to revisit these tales of old—whether in their more original form, or in one of the retellings available out there, you are sure to find a nugget of brilliance, or at least a moment of enjoyment.

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