Book Review: Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke (2016)

April 20th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

five out of five stars

There was an evil in me too, a cruel streak. I don’t know where it came from and I didn’t really want it, no more than I’d want big feet or mousy brown hair or a piggish nose. But fuck it. If I’d been born with a piggish nose, then I would own it, like I own the cruel and the mean.

THE FIRST TIME I slept with Poppy, I cried. We were both sixteen, and I’d been in love with her since I was a kid, since I was still reading monster comics and spending too much time practicing sleight-of-hand tricks because I wanted to be a magician. People say you can’t feel real love that young, but I did. For Poppy.

I’d put out a trap in the woods.
I’d caught a wolf.
And now it was screaming.
If Poppy was the Wolf, and Midnight was the Hero . . .
Then who was I?

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Poppy Harvey is as beautiful as she is cruel. You could call her a bully or a mean girl – or even THE Mean Girl – but neither does Poppy justice: she’s more like a cross between Regina George and Dexter Morgan, with the snotty, rich girl attitude of the former and the sociopathic tendencies of the latter. She once chopped off Holly Trueblood’s white-blonde hair at the skull – “all because someone said that Holly’s hair was prettier than her own.” Poppy’s the kind of girl who could grind your face in the dirt and then charge you for the privilege of spending time with her. She is the Queen and the Temptress and the Wolf, all rolled into one.

With silky, golden blonde hair, milky white skin, and a knack for social manipulation, Poppy is loved/adored/worshiped by adults and teenagers alike. All but one: Leaf Bell, the oldest and fiercest of the Orphans. Leaf sees beyond Poppy’s surface beauty, all the way down into the ugly, black rottenness of her heart – and he despises her for it. Naturally, Poppy is hopelessly in love with him.

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Midnight Hunt is the polar opposite of Poppy: quiet and bookish and sensitive. He likes magic and comic books and isn’t nearly as cool as his older brother Alabama – and that’s okay with him.

Midnight is hopelessly in love with Poppy – has been, ever since they were kids. When Leaf skips town after graduation, Poppy nurses her broken heart in Midnight’s bed. It’d be generous to call them “fuck buddies” – Midnight’s more of a boy toy, and boy, does she enjoy toying with him. Mostly she ignores him in public – at least, when she’s not making fun of his magic tricks or declarations of undying love. As Poppy points out, dark-haired, blue-eyed Midnight will be a babe one day – and she wants to claim him first.

After a year of this, Midnight and his father move into “the old Lucy Rish house” on the outskirts of town. Miles – instead of doors – away from Poppy, Midnight welcomes the fresh start.

Only thing is, Poppy’s not ready to let him go.

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Wink Bell is Midnight’s new neighbor. Wink is, well, Wink: she’s unlike anyone you’ve ever met before. Her fiery red curls, inscrutable green eyes, and girlish homemade frocks are just the window dressing for the enigma that is Wink. Her mother Mim reads tarot cards and tea leaves, and Wink swears she’s seen at least one ghost. She lives on a sprawling farm with the other Orphans, where she enjoys reading fairy tales to her siblings in the hayloft, eating strawberries fresh from the vine, and concocting stories of her own. Like the other Bell kids, she’s impossible to scare or embarrass – and oh, how the bullies have tried!

When she and Midnight strike up a friendship – and then something more – Wink becomes the target of a vicious prank orchestrated by Poppy and her minions, The Yellow Peril. Yet Wink, as sly as she is unflappable, won’t go down without a fight. Things quickly go sideways and Poppy disappears, leaving everyone (save for Wink) bereft in her absence.

Every story needs a Hero. But can you guess who the Hero of this story will be?

This is my first April Genevieve Tucholke book (unless you count Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, which she “curated” and I lapped up, licked my plate clean, and begged for seconds, thank you very much), and it definitely left me wanting more. Wink Poppy Midnight is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The story’s got an enchanting, modern-day fairy tale vibe that functions on multiple levels, from the way the narrative is structured to Wink’s tendency to interpret real-life events through the filter of fictional worlds. Even the setting (a farm; the woods) and characters’ names (Peach, Hops, Moon, Bee Lee, Katie Kelpie) all but scream “Ellen Datlow!”

It’s no surprise that the plot comes with a major twist – it’s advertised pretty heavily in the tagline and synopsis – and yet Tucholke still manages to keep readers on their toes and guessing. The twist is both expected and not – and blends seamlessly with the character of the story. Though I didn’t much care for it at first, it only took a few pages before I was not only on board – but couldn’t imagine it going any other way.

While many of the characters (especially Poppy and Wink) start out as caricatures, Tucholke gives them depth and nuance as the story progresses – and we learn more about their innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Tucholke handles her creations with care and compassion, inviting us to know the people they are under the masks, the lies, the performances. And I was shocked to find myself kinda sorta liking them all, once all was said and done.

Tucholke tells the story in short, punchy chapters that are alternately narrated by Wink, Poppy, and Midnight. She manages to imbue each teen with her or his unique voice. So skillful is Tucholke’s writing that I was immediately able to identify the point at which Poppy’s spirit inhabited Wink’s body during the seance. It’s a subtle transition, but also an unmistakable one.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. The more time I’ve spent thinking about and writing this review, the more I’ve come to appreciate it. Wink Poppy Midnight is a magical blend of suspense, horror, fairy tales, and contemporary YA fiction. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I put that check in the “win” column. Sometimes you take a risk on an unusual story and it pays off in spades, you know?

Though the two are wholly different beasts, Wink Poppy Midnight is vaguely reminiscent of The Walls Around Us (but with infinitely more swearing!) – which is appropriate, I guess, since Nova Ren Suma got a shout out in the afterward. I think it would also pair well with Kali Wallace’s Shallow Graves, as well as Down With the Shine, by Kaye Karyus Quinn.

4.5 stars.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Midnight’s half-brother, Alabama, is Muscogee and Choctaw on his father’s side. Alabama and Midnight’s mom up and moved to France – without Midnight or his father – so she could write a novel.

Wink Bell’s father abandoned the family after her youngest sibling, Peach, was born. She describes him as having olive skin, but almost all of the Bell kids are pale with red hair (except for Bee Lee, who’s brunette like her dad). He comes from “a long line” of “roamers.”

Wink and Poppy fooled around a little – in preparation for the “story” – though it’s hard to tell if this was merely a practical matter for both/either of them. In one scene, Wink kisses Poppy, in front of an audience, on a dare – and Poppy, at least, seems to enjoy it.

Buttercup, one quarter of The Yellow Peril, Poppy’s inner circle, is variously described as having olive skin and as “the daughter of a martial arts movie star who was never around. He left her here in Broken Bridge along with his wife, and only came back for holidays, and Buttercup’s mother was tall and beautiful and elegant, long swinging black hair, like mother, like daughter. I’d seen her once at the farmers’ market and once in the bookstore, but I don’t think she spoke English, not very well.”

Thomas’s younger sister drowned in the Blue Twist River when she was eight; Thomas was supposed to be watching her. Mad with grief, his father was eventually institutionalized. He’s easily the saddest and most tenderhearted of Poppy’s Yellows.

Leaf Bell beat up DeeDee Ruffler after she called Fleet Park “a slant-eyed boy-loving Chink,” making him cry. He put her in a coma and left her with possible brain damage.

Animal-friendly elements: The Bell family bought some retired, possibly-about-to-be-made-into-glue horses that were “too old to ride” and put them up in a field near the abandoned Gold Apple Mine so they could live free(-ish). “Mim’s got a soft heart for animals.” That said, the Bells have a small farm where they harvest eggs and milk for personal use.

After graduation, Leaf joined a group of environmental activists in California: “I SPREAD THE rumor that Leaf was finding cures in the Amazon, but he really ran down to California, to the Red Woods. He was living in the forest with some other Heroes, sleeping in tents during the night and fighting the Loggers during the day.”

And then there’s this (my favorite!):

Bad people still put out traps in the woods. Leaf and I found a coyote once, his back foot caught in the metal teeth. The coyote screamed and screamed. He tried to bite Leaf, and did, on his upper arm, a deep nip, but Leaf got him free all the same. The coyote ran off on his three good feet and didn’t look back.

Leaf stayed out in the forest for two days straight, waiting for the trap man to return to his snare. When Leaf finally came home the front of his shirt was dripping blood. Mim didn’t ask questions. She never asked Leaf questions.

I see the coyote sometimes, standing in the trees at the edge of the farm, looking at me with his big ears and bushy tail. I know it’s him, because of the limp. He watches us for a while, and then retreats into the woods, back to doing his coyote things. He’s looking for Leaf, but I don’t know how to tell him that Leaf is gone.

 

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