Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

It’s Christmas Day. The long-lost daughter, vanished these twenty years, shows up on her parents’ doorstep; she appears no older than when she left, though ragged, exhausted and weary…and she claims to have been abducted by faeries.

The parents take her in, are gentle and caring. avoid pressing her for details…and don’t believe a word of her mad tale. She’s sent to a psychiatrist, is shouted at by her brother, now a father of four, but she sticks to her story, despite the lack of proof. She ran off with a Fairy Man, not realizing what he was, and has stayed only six months in that other world. She has no explanation for the discrepancy in time between the two worlds.

Is she schizophrenic? Or was she really taken by the elf folk?

Interesting! I know there were a number of reviewers on Goodreads who weren’t as taken as they thought they’d be, but I suspect that’s because they were expecting more about the faeries (or however you prefer to spell that). I’m not sure that’s the point of the book. There are more than a few stories, some ‘real’ insofar as oral history can be proven, and some overt fictions, about people taken by the Fair Folk who stay for what seems to be a day, a night, seven years, and return to their home only to find that some horrifyingly long span has elapsed. But do any modern folk really believe those tales? Would you?

And I think that’s what Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s really about: what if someone today claimed to have been taken by the fairies? Believe them? I don’t think so. Instead, we’d do pretty much what the family did: assume the person was mentally ill, help them seek treatment, treat them gently and lovingly…but believe them? NEVER!

Well, hardly ever. Tara sticks to her story, although we see this through not only her family’s eyes but that of her psychiatrist, who breaks it down into terms of someone who’s gone through (I think) a nervous breakdown, interpreting her tale in terms of the underlying psychological underpinnings of folklore as seen through the eyes of someone who has retreated from reality.

Yet there’s the dentist, who insists that her teeth are that of a much younger woman, and suggests that the family test her saliva with a new technique that can determine someone’s age. She’s being stalked by a man whom she claims is the fae who stole her, and brought her back, and who beats up the long-ago boyfriend in a quite convincingly real fashion. The old woman living nearby claims to have been herself abducted by the fairies; is she telling the truth, or is this another example of mental illness? Certainly she was treated for just such a problem, though with very different techniques than those used on Tara. But she’s on the ball enough to not only send an email for the first time but also recognize that the cat whom Tara’s nephew brings to her is not her own—another subplot implies he’s shot her moggie and is trying to make amends. After Tara vanishes, the (ex) boyfriend sees a revival in his musical career, composing and singing as if he’d been given…well, a fairy gift.

In the end, Tara vanishes in a puff of taxicab exhaust, and we’re left only with a brief scene in which Tara’s brother sees his wayward eldest daughter speaking to a man who matches Tara’s description of her abductor. The brother, a farrier doing quite well for himself even in this day and age of modernization and mechanization, comes over, but the stranger is gone before he arrives.

What actually did happen to Tara? We’ll never know. But I do appreciate the ambiguity in the Otherworld which Tara presents to us. On the one hand, these fae of hers are no dainty sprites, small enough to sleep in the bluebells they so love, but the size of humans, and seemingly without moral scruples about sex or nudity. On the other, it could have been a commune or psychopaths.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Wearied parents everywhere will appreciate this tale of a chicken child Who. Will. Not. Stop. Interrupting. the bedtime story ritual. As you may have guessed from the title (and the cover art), this is indeed a book about a chicken who interrupts.

Papa Chicken is putting his daughter to bed, and as so many children do, Little Chicken insists on the proper bedtime ritual, omitting nothing: in this case, weary Papa Chicken must read a bedtime story…but does it end there? Of course not! He admonishes his daughter NOT to interrupt, as she’s supposed to be calming down for bedtime so she can go to sleep. Instead, rather she (surprise, surprise) INTERRUPTS not one but three stories. The first is Hansel and Gretel, when she inserts “OUT jumped a little red chicken, and she said ‘DON’T GO IN! SHE’S A WITCH!’ So Hansel and Gretel didn’t. THE END!” Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little evoke similar responses, and similar apologies from the little chicken. (In fairness, I can sympathize, and I expect a good many children can as well; how many times do parents tell their children “Don’t Talk To Strangers!” and isn’t that exactly the point of Little Red Riding Hood?) In the end, the exasperated and very sleepy Papa Chicken says “Why don’t you tell a story?” Startled, the little red chicken takes him up on it…but Papa doesn’t last three sentences. Little Red Chicken kisses her bespectacled papa goodnight and crawls into bed with him.

I’d recommend it for kids who’ve outgrown simpler books such as Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or Jules Pfeiffer’s Bark, George; books such as they are better for kids too young, too immature or too inexperienced to sit through a story with a plot, even so simple a one as Interrupting Chicken, not to mention the problem that Interrupting Chicken is a lot funnier if you have some clue how the disrupted fairy tales in the books are supposed to go…and have begun to grow weary of the same old same old over and over and over again. I think I’m right in remembering that there’s a developmental phase that many kids go through in which they find amusing stories that twist or alter the tired old chestnuts; call Interrupting Chicken an instructional manual for kids who, though they won’t be able to spell it for another couple of decades, already understand perfectly the concept of “subverting the dominant paradigm”.

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of picture books out there for kids in this phase (kids of all ages). Just ask any children’s librarian. I’d suggest starting with books like Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, (or Jon Scieska’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) or Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett.

Just to name a few…I’d welcome suggestions for more.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Mount Eskel is an impoverished territory–not even a district–in the kingdom of Danland. The mountain’s sole claim to respect is the fact that it’s the kingdom’s only source of linder, a stone which resembles our world’s marble and which is used in much the same way. The linder quarries are the sole source of income for the villagers living on the mountain, though those too old, young or weak to work in the quarries stay home to raise goats, chickens and rabbits, and scrabble out a few poor garden plants in order to supplement the foodstuffs purchased from the traders who come once a year to trade for linder.

One day, a messenger arrives to inform the community of miners on the mountaintop of a prophecy which affects them: the king’s priests have foretold that the prince’s bride may be found on Mount Eskel…but seeing as how they’re all uncultured illiterate peasants, the court has arranged for all the eligible daughters–those between 13 and 18–to attend an academy set up especially for them. The tutor starts them with the basics of reading and ciphering, but quickly moves on to more advanced subjects–Danlander history, Commerce, Geography, Kings and Queens–and those necessary for ladies of the court: Diplomacy, Conversation, and Poise.

The girls learn a great deal, though it is not necessarily what Tutor Olana intended or what they expected. They learn how to work together (no mean girls by the end of the story!) in the face of pressure to conform and against someone who disdains you. “Commerce” is another subject, during which the girls learn the true price that linder garners in the lowlands and therefore just how badly the villagers are getting rooked by the traders. They work through Diplomacy and Poise, which combine to teach the girls how to negotiate with those traders to get a fairer price for their labors…and therefore render the village better able to purchase necessary supplies. (Miri negotiates, equally successfully, with Tutor Olana upon their return to school to allow them to resume their previous status as students and “bride candidates”.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they also come to realize that being married to the prince isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This does end with a mild twist ending, though a standard fairy tale trope: the prince’s one true love is indeed among the village girls, but as is the way of all proper prophecies, she was not one of the village girls. (Yes, that girl.) All it took was the realization that speaking up for yourself is the best way to bring the story to a satisfactory end for most involved. (Life isn’t perfect.)

For those of us who prefer the sort of fairy tale fantasy in which character, education, bravery and athleticism are instilled in, or are considered important in our female protagonists: bear with the story. It doesn’t get off to a promising start: training girls to become simpering dolls to be paraded in front of a prince who hasn’t the gumption to speak up for himself? (shudders) Trust me. Keep reading. I don’t promise you’ll like the book, but the girls in the school have some very important epiphanies as the story unfolds. More importantly, the ending doesn’t match the beginning: while in the beginning, the the message seems to be ‘marriage to the prince will make girls happy’, in the end, this is not inverted exactly, but rather the more appropriate message ‘marriage to your one true love will make you happy, but shoehorning yourself into an unsuitable role will never bring fulfillment.” Something like that, anyway.

The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris

Terence, an orphan being raised by the hermit Trevisant, is out working his snare lines one day, when he comes across a man with three large horses (two of which are pack horses), a suit of armor, a sword and lance…and one of the rabbits from Terence’s trapline. All day Terence has been beset by mysterious tricks–a branch that slithers away like a snake, a squirrel that sings like a nightingale and everywhere a snickering little green man who pops up and vanishes away like a will-o-the-wisp. He is disinclined to be polite when he realizes the source of the large red-headed man’s rabbit dinner, but reluctantly invites him home to Trevisant’s hut for supper.

Like T.H. White’s Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, Trevisant sees time backwards, remembering the future and awaiting the past–and he has already packed Terence’s possessions, expecting him to ride away with this strange man to be his squire. Even when informed that this is Gawain, heading off to Camelot, Terence is dubious until Trevisant reassures him that it will prove both profitable and educational, and besides, is meant to be; he should know, as his past is Terence’s future.

The pair’s introduction at court is cut short at first by bagatelles such as the advent of the Army of Five Kings, who wish to take issue with this upstart bastard son of Uther, and Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere. The Five Kings’ conceit is ended by Terence’s theft of their Ring of Kingship–only he who holds this ring may rightly rule England or some such–with the aid of the green trickster whom he met in the beginning, though the Matter of Guenevere must wait until book two. The main plot device begins with a white hart bolting through the main hall, hotly pursued by a white hound. This mystery is only deepened by the arrival of a hag (no particular color) arriving shortly thereafter, who challenges the knights present at the banquet to follow the hart and the hound. Gawain is among the knights compelled to take up the…er…lady’s challenge, and with him, Terence; the two travel in pursuit of the hart and/or hound, but despite finding the two fairly early on in their travels, they continue on through the “England” of the time rescuing the usual quota of maidens from evil knights, brave knights from evil ladies (or not, as the situation requires). In the course of their travels, Gawain begins to learn humility–skilled though he may be, there will always be something to learn and eventually a more skilled knight–but perhaps more importantly for the series, Terence begins to learn something of his own heritage…and it’s not entirely human.

This is an amusing mashup of several medieval stories. For the most part, it centers around Arthur and Camelot, but also the variants on the “give the hag her choice when she asks whether you’d prefer her ugly or beautiful” trope which Chaucer retells in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the tales involving the differences in time flow between the mortal world and that of Faery. It’s a kids’ book, and while no one can compare to Lloyd Alexander and his Prydain, Gerald Morris’s books are well worth reading for themselves. The fact that they also can provide an overview of medieval and Middle English literature is an added bonus; subsequent books touch on (surprise, surprise) Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and other oft-studied works from College English 101. The characterization is nowhere near White’s “The Once and Future King”, but hopefully will serve as an engaging introduction to the literature and the period; Gawain, Arthur and Guenevere are here as human, though not as detailed, as they are in White’s work. Though they are not central characters in the stories, Morris does touch on why Guenevere would consider Lancelot over Arthur.

The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell

As with all good fairy tales, The Animal Family starts with that classic phrase “Once upon a time…”

Once upon a time there was a hunter who lived alone in a cabin between the forest and the sea. It was a beautiful cabin and a beautiful meadow, and the sea and the stars and the forest surrounding his home were no less so, but there was no one with whom the hunter might share this beauty. One day, his attention was caught by someone singing out at sea, by the rocks that lay just outside his cove. The voice was like a woman’s but it sang in no human language, and when he dared approach the first time, the singer dove into the water and swam away like a seal. The hunter, having learned patience while tracking prey, took his time becoming acquainted with the singer, a mermaid with a sense of adventure and taste for the different like no other of her kind. Before too long, she moved into the cabin with the hunter, though she never learned to like sweets or cooked food, or sleeping under the blankets.

They were happy together, despite their differences but what is a family without children? First the hunter brought home a bear cub, who proved loving but, well, messily bearish. Then he brought home a lynx kitten, who proved just as loving but neatly catlike. Both animals required adjustments on the part of the hunter and of the mermaid. The bear’s first hibernation came as a shock to the mermaid who believed it to have died. The lynx’s proudest “kill” of the hunter’s mother’s lace handkerchief, one of his only mementos of his parents, was bittersweet for the hunter. After a time the hunter began having a strange dream, in which he saw his long-dead father, with himself as his father’s shadow, and his also deceased mother with the mermaid as her shadow, but he, a small child in the dream, lacked a shadow. The mermaid suggested that the hunter wanted a child, but where to get one? Needless to say, the hunter and the mermaid could not have a child themselves.

One day, the lynx and the bear brought home a child of their own: a real human boy, who had been carried ashore in the boat that still held his own dead mother. The story ends, with the family now complete; not a family that most of us would have, but a family nonetheless.

Jarrell is better known as a poet than a prose writer, though it shows in this book clearly; I’ve always thought it read like poetry. It’s not a deliberately tear-jerking story, though I suspect that people who are susceptible to such things will need to have tissues nearby. Bittersweet, perhaps? Certainly the descriptions of the mermaid’s struggles to learn about the land, and to explain her love of the land to her family in the sea, are often amusing, as are the hunter’s struggles with learning how to say useful phrases in Dolphin and Seal, in case he is swept too far out to sea to swim back to shore. A ordinary household, if you discount the fact that only two of the five are truly human, going about its business and accommodating the differences of the members. As the boy thinks of the hunter and the mermaid:

The two of them were different from him, different from each other, but then aren’t a boy’s father and mother always different from each other, different from him? The difference between the hunter and the mermaid were no greater, to the boy, than the difference between his father’s short hair and trousers, his mother’s long hair and skirts, is to any child.

Maurice Sendak’ illustrations add to this dreamlike air; these are not the brightly colored, cartoonish drawings which he did for Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but the black-and-white shadowy illustrations used in Higglety-pigglety-Pop and The Juniper Tree.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My dear and unfortunate successor,
To you I suggest that you keep firmly in mind that this is a first novel by an ambitiously literary author.

This is a story within a story within a story, all concerning a series of historians (and before “historian” was a career or job description, soldiers and monks) who have searched for the truth about Dracula. The framing story is that of the ostensible author of the book, a seventeen year old innocent who has always believed herself to be the daughter of a widowed diplomat, Paul, based in Amsterdam1. She discovers in her father’s library a mysterious packet of letters tucked in with a book containing only a woodcut illustration of a rococo stylized dragon. When she presses her father for details, he becomes atypically and unaccountably evasive, but under pressure he reveals the story behind what his daughter’s found: twenty years earlier when he was finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, his thesis advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances, leaving only splatterings of blood in his office. Partway through this story, Paul disappears without any word to the unnamed narrator, who goes in search of her father as best a fundless over protected girl can manage, with the help of an eagerly puppyish young Oxford undergraduate.

Paul tracks down his vanished advisor, as he suspects there to be something more than merely abduction behind this; just the night before his disappearance, Rossi had shown Paul his own copy of a book identical in all essential regards to the one Paul has himself just found upon his carrel desk. The quest leads Paul through the hallowed halls of Oxford’s colleges to Budapest and the wilds of Hungary, which are very much behind the Iron Curtain in 1952, accompanied by a ferociously capable determined Hungarian scholar of the female gender. Along the way, Paul reads the packet of letters and research which Rossi left for him, which turns out to be Rossi’s own search along the same academic and geographic lines as Paul’s own. The two end up at what turns out to be the tomb of Rossi himself, now a vampire presumably at the hand, or rather tooth, of Dracul himself; they are obliged to bring this unlife to an end. After doing so, they remove themselves to marry, with the blessing of Helen’s mother…who just to complete the story in appropriate romance fashion turns out to be Rossi’s abandoned lover, left pregnant with Helen.

There was, of course, a very real Vlad Tepes, and he wasn’t a very nice man, to put it mildly; let’s just say he came by his nickname “the Impaler” quite legitimately. Was he a vampire in the modern sense? I’m as sure as any non-historian 500 years later that the answer to that’s a pretty firm NO. Sorry. But aren’t folk tales about things that go bump in the night fun, in a hair raising sort of way? While it’s true legends and folk tales about ghouls and undead were old when Tepes was alive, the “vampire” legends don’t always resemble the vampire tales upon which Stoker based Dracula, upon which Kostova is so firmly basing this novel–sorry!–although that is not to say that we’d particularly want to meet the subjects of those tales either! Propaganda denouncing one’s political opponents aren’t anything new to the American political scene either.

Unlike Simmons’ Drood, Kostova’s novel reads like pretty much exactly what it is: the first novel of someone with the potential to become a good author. Overall, it reads like a modern take on Dracula–a hunt for the Ultimate King of All Vampires–with a leavening of the sort of conspiracy theory which Dan Brown fans will appreciate: not one but two centuries’ old secret societies in opposition to one another, who must remain hidden to outsiders. Recommended for people who love long though padded books about the history of vampires.

The Guardian review
The New York Times Review

1we are only left to guess whether this is intended to be Kostova herself

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer/author and old book aficionado Margaret Lea receives a letter from Vida Winter, a prolific and adored (from a literary output standpoint) author who’s known for telling conflicting tales about her own youth to those who’ve pressed her for details. Winter, surprisingly, wants Lea to write her biography. Lea debates whether she wishes to do this, as she is not much enamored of modern fiction, child of an antiquarian book dealer that she is, and wonders if she’ll be able to write a suitable biography of someone she knows little about.

Warning: spoilers below.

The novel’s title derives from a famous misprint harking back to Winter’s beginnings as an author, when her publisher brought out a collection of short stories entitled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, discovered to have only twelve tales after the first edition was printed and distributed. The publisher hastily recalled them, and reissued the collection under a corrected title. Lea’s father, however, has a copy of the original first edition in his shop, and she reads it, becoming progressively more enthralled. She contacts Winter and agrees to do the biography; this involves going to Winter’s house as the latter is ailing. As Winter has a history of telling interviewers a different story about her childhood and upbringing, Lea insists on three facts that she can prove (or disprove) at the beginning, and the novel continues from there. The bulk of the story alternates between “now”, that of Lea’s background and her research into the facts which Winter has provided, and “then”, or the story that Winter is telling–as she tells it, we enter into the tale and experience it with her.

There are several layers to the story. The framing story is that of Margaret Lea, child of an antiquarian book seller and a mother who seems not to be able to care much for her. There is a secret in Lea’s childhood–she had a conjoined twin who died when the two were separated shortly after birth, but did not realize it until she found the two birth certificates in her father’s box of papers. The story within a story is that of Vida Winter, and is that of twins so inseparable that they have a language of their own, so strangely temperamental and with such lackadaisically disinterested mother and uncle that they run wild, their physical needs provided haphazardly by the servants who remain after the disruptive adolescence of the uncle and the strange behavior of his nieces.

A governess is provided by the estate, in an attempt to bring the girls to some kind of normalcy after years of running wild. She makes a strict beginning, calling the children once for meals, then locking the larder to prevent food pilferage after the household has gone to bed. She cleans the house, starting with her own room, and expanding out into the rest of the house and takes over much of the cooking from “Missus”, after the cook/housekeeper proves to be not only nearly blind and deaf but also somewhat confused. Things appear to be going well, although Adeline and Emmeline do not ever grow to normalcy under her tutelage, until the governess is caught in a compromising position with the doctor who was working with her to study the twins. After the “disappearance”1 of the uncle, who, despite being more than slightly mentally incompetent himself, was at least capable of producing a legal signature periodically for the lawyers and thus continue the funding for the estate, however inadequate, our narrator pulls herself together and approaches the family lawyers to arrange taking over that duty herself. We have a bit of foreshadowing of the denouement of the book at this point; the girls have not been out in society enough that the lawyer can distinguish between them. He has to guess at the identity of the girl before him arranging the family legal affairs.

Our narrator comes out into society as she matures, though the presumed death of her twin and the demolition through conflagration of the familial manor rather forces the issue. Nevertheless, she remains something of a mystery to her fans, refusing most interviews and giving out conflicting information when cornered. As Lea becomes more familiar with the house in which Winter is living, she notices that there is a woman who resembles her hostess lurking about the shadows, occasionally capering about behind drawn curtains; eventually, it is revealed that this is Emmeline, who survived the fire and has been living, in a manner of speaking, in her own rooms in the household without interacting with the outside world. She is badly burned as a result of the fire which destroyed the manor, and never very prone to interacting with others to begin with.

There is a twist ending–since when is there ever not a twist in Gothic Novels such as this? No, it’s not a mad relative hidden in the attic; while there are certainly a number of mentally interesting family members, we’ve met all the crucial family members in the course of the book, though we may not realize we have at the time. The secret is that there are not two, but three girls living in the household, the twins and their cousin, an illegitimate child of the “disappeared” uncle, who resembles the twins closely enough that no outsider guesses the existence of the third child….guess who the narrator of the tale is? and therefore, who the burned skeletal remains in the remnant of the mansion? As the book ends, Winter and Emmeline die, and Lea returns home, ending her book with the classic Gothic trope to the effect that she cannot ever publish the real story.

It’s a fascinating novel, well told and better written than a good many of the books I’ve read in the last year. I’d hesitate to call it brilliant, though I finished it in an afternoon. It’s a Gothic thriller, one step above bodice ripper romances and several steps below books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Castle of Otranto. I’d suggest reading the Brontes for starters, and follow that with The Turn of the Screw; when you get all the jokes in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, come back and read this. You’ll probably appreciate it more.