The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

“Wolf” Hadda rose from his birth as the son of a woodcutter, or rather a groundskeeper for a wealthy English Lord, in the Cumbrian countryside, to business mogul married to the daughter of that wealthy landowner and back down below his original station to prisoner and parolee, reviled by the Cumbrian villagers who’d begrudged him a trifling respect as local boy made good when he was at the height of his business success. Fairy tale, perhaps, but this is the kind of story that continues beyond the traditional “and then they lived happily ever after”, in keeping with real life.

Wilfred Hadda is nicknamed “Wilf” to distinguish himself from his father Wilfred who is called “Fred”; ‘Wolf’ is a nickname given him by the local laird. The family moved to Cumbria when Wilf was in nappies to help care for Aunt Caroline, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers his father got a job working for the local laird as groundskeeper and woodcutter while his mother served as companion to the aunt. His mother died when Wilf was only six, and Wilf ran wild after that, his father being too busy to watch him as he was out of the house from early breakfast to “tea”1, leaving only the progressively more confused Aunt Caroline. Charming as a boy and more so as a man, Wilf endears himself to those around him effortlessly and without smarminess; children don’t mind getting punched in the nose, teachers let him slide by on the bare minimum of work, the laird lets Wilf marry his “princess” daughter and business ventures fall into his lap.

All his entrepreneurial empire comes crashing down around his ears one morning some years after his marriage, when the police arrive with a warrant to search his house for computer files pertaining to child pornography. Even this might have dissipated with a glimpse of the truth, but Wilf’s hot temper gets the better of him and he clocks the officer in charge not once but twice, then flees into traffic when he’s let out on bail…straight into the front of a bus. Wilf wakes up from his coma nine months later to find that all his wealth has evaporated, his wife is filing for divorce aided by Wilf’s lawyer (and later marries that same lawyer) and he has himself lost an eye, three fingers from one hand and the use of one of his legs. Not only has his life and career and love dissolved into mist, now that he’s awake, he can stand trial for the original child pornography charge.

Seven years into his prison term, he gets an avant garde prison psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, who is willing to work with him in greater depth than previous medical professionals. After several months, he breaks down and cries out to her for help in acknowledging what he has done and healing himself; her testimony gains him early release, though not soon enough to see his father or daughter again. He returns home to Cumbria, where only the young and idealistic vicar befriends him as part of his pastoral flock. Wolf sets about finding out for himself just what happened while he was in a coma, and just who doublecrossed whom–it will come as no surprise to those aware of the social dynamics in the U.K. that there’s a fair bit of class differential behind the plotting.

Overall, I liked the book well enough to devour it–all 528 pages–in an afternoon. I’m not entirely convinced by the plot, but that might be my own unfamiliarity with thriller tropes and devices rather than a real failing in the plot. The characterization is very good; Hill does enough back story, world building and delving into motivation that I can understand why the characters interact the way they do. Too bad the plot itself isn’t that well developed! I can believe someone would be just that charming, but Wolf seems curiously unaware of his own ability to influence others, despite utilizing a great deal of psychological manipulation of other characters, to be sure, including one who ought to know better.

I’m not sure I buy all the plot twists, although I appreciate Wolf would seek some sort of revenge against the people who landed him in jail, and attempt to clear his name. While a number of the secondary bad characters are a bit cardboardy or stereotyped, I appreciate the fact that Hill allows the vicar and psychologist to first judge Wolf based on the crime of which he’s accused, and assume his motivations are those of a criminal then gradually become more uncomfortable with that presumption of malice, and evil deeds/intent, and finally helping him redeem his good name despite recognizing how they’ve been used for his ends.

As an example, the vicar stumbles across a case of expensive liquor (having purchased a bottle of cheap plonk for Wolf as a Christmas present2) and a tin box full of packets of £50 notes. He mentions it to the psychiatrist–the only way either of them can conceive of Wolf acquiring this money is through some criminal action–and the psychiatrist drives up from London to pay a call on Wolf. He puts her in his bedroom3, complete with liquor and tin box, and returns downstairs to make tea/lay out a plate of cookies, knowing the first thing she’ll do is look for the suspicious items which the vicar has mentioned…and he’s already tucked a note into the tin box which reads “Your tea’s getting cold.” for her to find as soon as she opens it. The two converge on Wolf’s cottage, and he explains the thoroughly mundane origins of the money: in palmier days of yore, he sent his dad £1000 per month for a number of years, which his father promptly withdrew from the bank in cash and stuffed into that old tin box. That money was not considered part of Wolf’s estate when he was imprisoned, and his creditors were unable to lay hands on it as they didn’t know it existed (as indeed it didn’t belong to him at the time!)

For once, coming up with a suggestion of what authors to read next is easier than describing the book itself: John Hart, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, and Michael Koryta’s books; though the two I read had a supernatural plot twist, the overall tone seems similar to me. While the blurb on the cover describes the protagonist’s life as a fairy tale, I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it thus, rather that it has many of the tropes of fairy tales. Read it for the characters, and the setting; just don’t think too hard about the plotting.

1early supper, for Americans
2Wolf appears to be making do on his pension, being unemployable as both a convict and a cripple
3nothing unprofessional going on; Wolf’s planning to sleep in another room

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

A handbag that contains a village from a Central European country that no longer exists, a convenience store that serves Canadians and zombies equably, haunted topiary, an inherited telephone booth/Vegas marriage chapel?

As with most collections of short stories, this one’s more than slightly hard to review. Collections with stories by different authors are usually worse than those by a single author, as the literary styles and themes tend to vary more widely. Even collections by the same author are problematic, as tastes vary so much that even stories in the same style and on approximately the same subject will appeal to different readers, and this was no different: some stories I liked, some I adored and some left me cold. In the case of Magic for Beginners, even the short stories within are difficult to summarize in a way that makes sense to someone who hasn’t read anything by the author.

As an example, The Faery Handbag: the narrator’s grandmother is from a country that no longer exists, somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe, Baldeziwurlekistan1. Zofia carries a capacious and peculiarly ugly handbag of the type elderly ladies often do carry, and claims it contains her entire village; Our Narrator believes all her grandmother’s tales when she is eight but by the time she’s thirteen, she’s swung the other way. One day, the (female) shaman of the village warned them that not only was there a band of pillagers coming their way, there was also an earthquake, which would split the hill under which the aboveground population would conceal themselves when such raids came2. The shaman ordered Zofia to make a purse out of a black dog’s skin, which was large enough to hold a chicken, an egg and a clay cooking pot, or in this modern day, a pair of reading glasses, a library book, and a pill box. The purse latch turns three ways: one opens the chicken/egg/pot (glasses/book/box) section, one opens onto a lake with a rowboat upon the shore of a lake across which one may row to the village, and the third opens onto the creature from which Zofia got the skin in the first place3. The Baldeziwurlekistani word for this type of bag is orzipanikanikcz4, or “the bag of skin in which the world lives”.

Zofia emerged from the handbag, along with several other villagers, during what is (I’m assuming) WWII; the others return hastily, but Zofia decides to remain outside in the world of normal time, as she has fallen in love with moving pictures, silk stockings and a Russian deserter, the last of which she married. Her husband couldn’t help but have his curiosity piqued by the handbag, and not too long after their arrival in the United States, he disappears into it. Our Narrator, now in high school, has become enamored of Narrator and, like Roston, has had his curiosity piqued by the handbag. Despite Zofia’s diligence, Jake gets the handbag away from her long enough to disappear into it himself; shortly thereafter, Zofia dies while making a foray into the library5. Distracted by the medical emergency, Narrator forgets the orzipanikanikcz in the library, and by the time the library opens the next day, the purse is gone and with it any chance of finding Jake.

In The Hortlak (Turkish for ghost or phantom?) two clerks are the only employees remaining at a 24/7 convenience store frequented largely by zombies from the community of same in the nearby ravine and Canadian tourists. Eric works nights, Batu days and they sleep in the storeroom, bathe in the restroom and otherwise occupy themselves as best they can. They rearrange the store in ways that amuse them–sorting the items by chewiness so gum, beef jerky and chewing tobacco end up next to one another or arranging the candy so the first letter of each item spells a line of Turkish poetry–they try to figure out what exactly the zombies want from a convenience store, being dead and therefore not interested in consuming anything likely to be sold in such a venue, and they both watch for Charley, the young woman who works at the nearby animal shelter, who takes dogs she must euthanize that night on one last car ride before sending them to the great beyond, who was fired for biting a man who brought his poorly socialized Doberman in to be put down because it bit him.

In Magic for Beginners, the protagonist inherits a telephone booth and his mother a Vegas wedding chapel when her great-aunt dies; they drive cross country despite the protagonist’s desire to stay home and watch The Library, a rogue television show broadcast at the whim of the producers about a librarian and a prince who live in The Free People’s World-Tree Library…

….and so on.

The stories in this collection remind me of the peculiarly convoluted dreams some of us have (or rather remember): they make sense while you’re dreaming, but just try to explain them to someone else after you awaken! …especially since they all seem to end rather lamely with the literary equivalent to “um, I don’t know how it ends. Then I woke up.” There is a hidden and symbolic meaning to the stories, but it’s up to each of us to decipher what they mean to us. I suspect that Link is the sort of author that people are either going to adore or scratch their heads over with nothing in between. (Not getting them is neither here nor there. I don’t think we’re supposed to get them.) If you don’t like any of the stories in the book, that’s fine, even if you’ve liked other books in the magical realism genre. Tastes vary. It’s also OK if you like some of the stories in the book but not others; it’s the rare author whose fan base likes ALL of their short stories and/or novels.

1at least I think I’ve got that spelled correctly, though given the context of the story I’m not sure it matters
2the overall (approximately) human population of the “village” was split between the aboveground population and the “people under the hill”, or what we mundane people would consider fairies/elves
3which is not surprisingly rather cross by now
4see note one
5the librarians aren’t too keen on Zofia, as she keeps losing books; only Narrator knows that the books have simply disappeared into Zofia’s orzipanikanikcz when she opened the catch the wrong way

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

What would you do if a fairy tale came to life before you, but no one believed you?

The Snow Child is based on the Russian fairy tale motif of a childless older couple who build a child of snow, only to find that their longing for a child has brought it to life. Just to warn tender-hearted readers, this particular cluster of tales invariably ends with the girl dying as a result of melting in spring or by the heat of love…though I try to avoid giving away the endings of stories.

A middle aged childless couple, Jack and Mabel, move from the kinder gentler climes of Pennsylvania to homestead in Alaska, enamored of the image built up in the publicity tat in a brochure. After two years, with the return of winter for the third time, and the days and temperatures close in, they realize that they’re NOT making a go of it; the visions of glorious Alpine meadows are no more than tourism attractions. Homesteading in Alaska even today isn’t for the faint of heart; in the 1920s, the state was even more challenging for cheechakos from outside, to put it mildly. The physical demands of farming in a region for which the growing season may be measured in weeks is difficult enough, not to mention bringing supplies into a region which has no roads. Having poured all their financial resources into this farm, they have no choice but to keep trying despite knowing they may not make it through this winter as they cannot afford enough food for themselves much less their horse and their chickens.

Despite all this they find a bit of childishly gleeful joy with the first snowfall that third winter, and make a snow girl: three balls of snow, a scarf, a pair of mittens and a tousle of hay for hair. The next morning, the snowgirl is crumbled and the clothing is gone, and they both spot a phantasm flitting through the twilight woods in the shape of a little girl, wearing those selfsame mittens and scarf, accompanied by an equally hallucinatory fox. Even today and much more so then, shipping things into the wilds of Alaska is virtually impossible; you make do with what you have and go without everything else. Heat was from woodstoves, light from oil lamps…neighbors whose separation is measured in miles, no doctors, no roads, not much in the way of daylight in winter, all result in the kind of isolation that can quite literally drive people mad. Are these two slipping into that gulf?

No one else has seen this girl. No one knows of a family who’s lost a girl. The neighboring families all assume that Jack and Mabel have simply begun the slide into cabin fever born of isolation in the Alaskan bush…or have they? At first it’s not clear whether Faina is real or simply the result of their longing for a child of their own and grief over the stillborn child they lost and left behind buried in Pennsylvania. She flits into their home when she feels like it, but cannot stay if she finds the house too warm, and disappears entirely with the arrival of spring and the warming weather. The two are bereft, and think her lost to them forever, but she returns the following fall with the first snowfall, and the pattern continues for several years. Over time, others see her as well and as she (and the neighbor boy) mature into adulthood she become more firmly real to everyone.

As with most of the Debut Novels I’ve read, I’ll reserve judgement on the author until she writes another of equal quality to this. On the plus side, I adore modern retellings and adaptations of fairy tales, and this one is reasonably well done; it sticks close to the original tale while adapting the setting seamlessly from the Russian steppes to the Alaskan wilderness. While I don’t deny the book has magical realism overtones (and I love that when well done), unlike many of the other reviews I’ve seen, I did guess quite early on whether Faina was a real feral child or a fairy child born of Jack and Mabel’s grief and longing; Ivey makes that crystal clear, as she shifts between Jack and Mabel’s perspectives. The second half shifts away from that magical “is she or isn’t she?” realism of the first half–still worth reading but disconcertingly different in tone–and the novel ends in a decidedly realistic childbirth scene. Oh, and don’t read it if you have a soft spot for chickens or are squeamish about descriptions of what trappers and hunters must do to render their catch suitable for human use. I’d say it had a happy ending in that the surviving characters have formed the family they so desired, but it has a tragic denouement; make sure you’re set for tissues if you’re prone to snifflie weepies.

Washington Post review
Kirkus Review
Caribou’s Mom

Tomorrow’s Ghost by Anthony Price

Is it possible to have a tale which invokes death merely in the telling? Do people in the various intelligence (gathering) agencies ever lose track of their personae?

Frances Fitzgibbons is pulled from her current post as a temporary secretary in London to that of a post-graduate student visiting the University of North Yorkshire in order to assist Colonel Butler on a project to protect crucial political figures from one O’Leary, an Irish terrorist. In the course of discussing J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparative talents as a philologist versus as a fantasist and from there what precisely constitutes fairy tale from modern fantasy, Fitzgibbons tells her companions a fairy tale her grandmother told her years ago: a princess is transformed from mythic beauty of youth to abysmal ugliness of old age, and the prince whose kiss is based on pure love will return her to her original state. The first prince is motivated by hot greed and his kiss only results in his bursting into flame while the second prince is moved by cold pity, and is transformed into a block of ice. The third prince is motivated only by love and his kiss restores her to her original state…unfortunately, they’re interrupted in their literary discussion by Fitzgibbon’s being called upon to dispose of a briefcase bomb left in the gentlemen’s cloakroom.

It is not until she returns home after that assignment ends that she discovers her real task was to observe Colonel Butler himself, when one of the officers to whom she reports comes to find out what her impressions were. (Don’t laugh: she has a higher than usual psychic/intuitive ability than her fellow agents.) Butler is under consideration for a promotion, but there is suspicious activity in his past: his wife disappeared some nine years ago and is presumed dead under peculiar circumstances, and not surprisingly, Butler as the spouse is the most likely suspect. Her instinct is that Butler didn’t kill his wife, but the catch is to come up with some conclusive evidence: she and one of the agents with whom she worked on the briefcase misdirection research him and his family, and conclude that, as a WWI veteran, he would not have killed his wife on the date of her disappearance, November 11th.

Oh…and about that fairy tale told in the comfort of the university lounge? It is apparently a harbinger of death; its telling invokes Death, who will either take someone dear to the teller or to a person of the teller’s choice. Yes, the book ends with an unpleasant though somewhat ambiguous ending when our protagonist is embroiled in the ambush of two people she cares for; if she warns one, the other will die, though it’s not clear that the fairy tale had anything to do with the death, whether directly, or through her belief in it.

Tomorrow’s Ghost is part of Anthony Price’s “David Audley” series, and as such might be better enjoyed if you’ve read the previous (and subsequent) book. While all the novels involve Audley and/or Butler, they’re from the perspective of different primary characters, so keeping strictly to the publication order may matter less than with same-protagonist series, but for those unfamiliar with older espionage novel writing style, starting at the beginning might well be advisable. This is the first I’ve heard of Anthony Price, much less read any of his books; he quit writing over twenty years ago, so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s’ not much in the news/publisher’s crosshairs these days. Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this book, and so am even less sure what else to suggest to fans of Price. John le CarrĂ© is the closest I can think of, in the sense of books about legitimate though undercover intelligence agencies, with connections (and opposite numbers) in other countries, whose activities are not entirely explained by the author. Perhaps not surprising, as Price mentions being influenced somewhat by le CarrĂ©.

Tor
Interview with author, part #1
Interview with author, #2

Alix Berenzy’s A Frog Prince

For those of us who like more traditional fairy tales, though with a twist, there’s Alix Berenzy’s A Frog Prince.

While it’s clearly based on the traditional fairy tale of the same name, this begins to diverge with the princess’ utter rejection of the frog who retrieves her golden ball–she will have nothing to do with him at all, even when pressed by her father. The king, embarassed at his daughter’s bad behavior, gives the poor bereft frog a pony and a suit of clothes suitable…well.. for a prince.

The frog sets out on a quest given him by the moon:

Little green Frog alone at night
Beauty is in the beholder’s sight.
Follow the Sun, then follow me,
To lands beyond, across the sea.
In another kingdom you shall find
A true princess, of a different mind.

On this quest, the frog fulfills tasks reminiscent of the classic tropes of more traditional fairy tales. He rescues a dove by tricking two contentious trolls about to eat the bird into offing one another, and releases her. He snatches a turtle from the grasp of a warty green witch about to pop the turtle into a madly bubbling cauldron to finish off her potion, and carries the turtle off in his pocket. The witch pursues him, furious at being thwarted, and casts a spell causing the forest to ensnare him, only to be thwarted by the grateful dove and her fellow birds who peck a path for the frog to pass away safely then turn on the witch. The frog reaches the shore of a sea too wide for his pony to cross, only to be transported across by the largest cousins of the grateful turtle. At the end of his quest, he finds a magnificent castle in which lies sleeping his one true love…

…a frog princess.

Well, what did you expect? Is there any better creature for a frog prince than a frog princess, who will love him for himself, combined with the opportunity to rule, with his froggie love, over a kingdom of amphibians?

Not to mention what better message(s) can we send children but “Accept yourself for what you are; find someone like you who loves you for yourself.” and “Kindness and honor are worth more in the long run than physical appearance.” This is a lavishly illustrated modern fairy tale. I can see it being ideal for slightly older kids in the ‘read to me’ age range; it’s a little more sophisticated than the simplified versions often available, and both the text and illustrations presume a fair bit of familiarity with standard fairy tale patterns. Kids able to read for themselves might enjoy it as well, but as with many picture books, the text’s vocabulary and sentence structure may be higher than its interest level–kids old enough to read it might no longer be interested in childish fairy tales. (For those of us who never quite outgrew fairy tales, don’t worry: often kids do outgrow the ‘too cool for kiddie tripe’.)

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

During the day, Conor is struggling with his mother’s progressively more desperate fight with cancer. His parents are divorced and his father gone to America with a new wife and child, seen only on alternate Christmases and the occasional Skype call. His grandmother doesn’t fit his concept of the ideal grandmother; all his friends have softly wrinkled, gently cookie baking types, while his is (gasp, the horror) still working as a real estate agent, and her house too carefully arranged to allow for the vagaries of a teenaged boy. At night, the ancient craggy yew tree in the graveyard adjacent to his garden comes to life and…visits is too namby pamby a word–the yew monster intrudes into his life, though as Conor says upon the first visitation, this is hardly the worst nightmare he can have. For the past several months, Conor has, not surprisingly, been dreaming of losing his mother, though when awake he believes the treatments will cure her because the alternative is too awful for him to bear.

During the day, Conor struggles with his classmates and teachers regarding him with that ghastly gooey pity that those of us who’ve been in this or a similar situation have come to recognize and dread; he feels he’s defined as what’s going on with his mother, rather than being seen as himself, a separate individual in his own right. This seeming invisibility and separateness is deeply troubling to him; he is subsumed into his mother and that illness of his mother’s is all people see. Not even sending the school bully to the hospital (partly at the instigation of the yew monster) after being provoked once too often by the bully brings down the expected punishment from the school administration. The teachers only say “With all that you’re going through, what purpose could that [punishment] possibly serve?” Three nights in a row, the yew tree arrives at 12:071 precisely to tell Conor three stories, each with a twist in that the ‘evildoer’, in the eyes of the yew, are not the ones Conor believes them to be. The visits will culminate with Conor telling his story: the yew draws Conor into the nightmare the boy’s been having and forces him to confront…not his mother’s death but his own feelings about it, his own sense of guilt that he didn’t do enough combined with the struggle to reconcile the childish anger at her “leaving” him via her imminent death with the more adult understanding that none of this is her choice any more than it is his–she doesn’t want to leave him any more than he wants her to go.

I’m not sure whether to call this a teen/YA book or a juvenile, simply because of the very dark subject. The Yew Monster, and associated illustrations, are frightening enough, but I suspect that the subject of the book might whiz straight over young kids’ heads. Nonetheless, I’d suggest it to kids dealing with the death of a parent, or even their own, depending on their maturity. There are stages through which we all pass in the course of understanding illness and death, and whether to give this book to any given child depends on where the kid is in the course of this process. Definitely read the printed book if at all possible, as the illustrations augment the text to the point that I’d call it almost a graphic novel. The text alone doesn’t quite cut it, and so the audio version will seem insipid compared to the printed one, no matter how good the reader.

Just to settle one question that seemed to crop up in Goodreads: A Monster Calls isn’t a horror book by any stretch of the imagination, though it is frightening. It’s a story about how we deal with loss of loved ones, and yes, Ness gets that aspect of it exactly right.

Normally, I try to avoid mentioning my own reaction to the books I review for this blog; this time I’ll bend that rule somewhat. I’m not much of a weepy type…but I couldn’t make it more than ten pages at a time in A Monster Calls before bursting into tears the copiousness of which resembled a hosepipe sufficiently to perturb my husband. Thankfully, he’d heard of the book, so when he recognized the cover, he just said “Oh–death of a parent!”2 and set a box of Kleenex by my side and let me continue on my soggy way. Speaking from experience (though not that of someone Conor’s age) Ness gets the family’s reaction to the mother’s illness and impending death absolutely spot on. On the plus side, I’m glad Ness didn’t sugar-coat the issue of a parent’s death; many children’s books have touched on loss, but I don’t remember any that provoked such a strong (positive) reaction among its reviewers. On the possible minus, I’d be interested in seeing what people in the intended age range think; many of the reviews I saw were by adults, and it’s possible that younger kids might not get the point of the book.

Here are some external reviews:
Anne, on Pornokitch
A slightly less emotionally involved review, at the same web site
The Telegraph
The New York Times
School Journal

1watch this time; it does come into play at the end.
2my mother died of something other than cancer several years ago

Catherynne Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship Of Her Own Making‘s created something of a buzz for itself, and not just for the length of its title.

“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea which borders Fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you on the Perverse and Perilous Sea.”

Thus begins the quest of a twelve year old girl from Omaha, Nebraska, who has grown weary of pink and yellow teacups, small and amiable dogs, and being left alone when her mother is working the late shift at the clock factory. (September’s father is off at war.) September is launched thereby into an alternate magical land, wherein she must conquer the Evil Marquess who has driven off the Good Queen aided (mostly) by two sidekicks whom she has Bravely Rescued: a Marid and a Wyvern. As with all good fairy tales, September wins out in the end and makes it home, though having eaten Fairy Food, she is required to return periodically…can we say setup for sequels?

Not everyone is going to like it. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that readership is going to be fairly evenly split between those who do like it and those who really don’t care for it, with very little between the two poles of opinion. For once, despite the fact that I personally loved the book, I can definitely sympathize with the people who don’t care for it….and yet, every single one of the problems I can see in this book could twist around to a positive for a reader who likes just these things. For myself, I’m just glad to see a book for tweens with a courageous girl out adventuring; September is afraid, doubts herself, fears for her friends, makes questionable decisions…but she makes amends, does what is necessary and in the end, realized her own strengths combined with loyal friendship will seal the quest.

This is a self-consciously self-aware sort of tale; the narrator will often stop to tell readers things that the protagonist cannot possibly know, being herself only a part of the larger tale. This magical land has more than a few mundane elements of an industrial culture and a ‘developed’ nation: September needs papers to enter Fairyland, her ‘weapon’ is a wrench and her final quest to fix a stopped clock, there is regularly scheduled rubbish collection and a mysterious machine comprised of iron gears marks the division between Reality and Fairyland. On the other hand, fairy and supernatural elements abound: witches, werewolves, spriggans, golems, wyverns and more…but with a twist. The witches cast spells with spoons. The werewolf is, in fact, a wairwulf: a wolf that transforms into a human when the moon is full. The golem is a bath attendant, with soap fingers. The wyvern’s father was a library; September’s companion is named A-through-L and his siblings are M-through-S and T-through-Z and each has studied subjects starting with letters in the range of their names. There is a herd of free-roaming wild velocipedes and a well-mannered green jacket, a gift to September from the Green Wind upon her entry into Fairyland. Even many of the tropes of medieval quest stories are subverted as well; at one point a boy gives the heroine a token to carry into battle, rather than the fair maiden giving the knight her token:

Saturday did not say anything. He bent and tore the cuff from one leg of his trousers. The cuff was blue and ragged and not a bit muddy with velocipede-grease. The Marid tied it around September’s arm. His fingers trembled a bit. The green jacket introduced itself politely but coolly to the cuff. Just so long as the cuff knew who came first.
“What is this?” said September, confused.
“It’s…a favor,” answered Saturday. “My favor. In battle…knights oughtn’t be without one.”

It’s right on the dividing line between kids’ and teens’ literature. On the one hand, it’s more than slightly a fairy tale, so might appeal to younger children. On the other hand, the heroine is right on the tipping point between child and adult; at one point, she’s cradled lovingly by a flying paper lantern which sings her gently to sleep, but at other points in the book, what can only be described as “maturation” themes crop up, though comparatively subtle sexually: a scene with alluringly luscious fruit comes to mind. In that sense, it may be ideal for tweens, who aren’t sure whether they’re still kids

If you did like this book, what to read next? Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories combine a fairy tale sensibility with a modern setting (at least at the time the book was written). Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events has that same “nod and a wink to the readers” aspect–the “author” will often stop to add a bit of information or define a word for the readers–although the books are ostensibly set in the ‘real’ world in their entirety (that is, however, a subject for another blog entry). As mentioned in the blog post to which I linked, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Thirteen Clocks are other worthy entries in the “postmodern self aware fairy tale” category.

For those who did like this book: Apparently, there’s a prequel of sorts; I don’t know if this will be expanded or published in a bound format.