Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Stung, Bethany Wiggins (2013)

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

“Sleeping Beauty” Meets “28 Days Later”

three out of five stars

Trigger alert for discussions of rape; also, minor spoilers ahead!

In an ill-fated attempt to save the world’s endangered bee populations – and prevent the inevitable global famine which would surely follow – the scientists in Bethany Wiggins’s Stung design a new, genetically modified species of “super bees.” Immune to the effects of existing pesticides and fatally aggressive toward their less high-tech honeybee cousins, humanity’s so-called solution causes more problems than it solves: finishing the grim task begun by people, the Frankenbees drive naturally occurring bee species over the brink of extinction. They also turn on their human creators, spreading a deadly “bee flu” that’s ultimately responsible for thousands – if not millions – of human deaths.

After a promising vaccine fails – those given the antivenin develop superhuman strength and go mad – the government falls back on its “last resort”: a new pesticide, specially formulated for use against the GenMod bees. The only downside? It kills pretty much everything in its path: plants, (nonhuman) animals, even some humans.

In the wake of this destruction, the United States dissolves into a collection of city-states. In Denver, Colorado, there is safety behind “the wall” – but only for those citizens privileged enough to buy their way in with money (honey is the prevailing currency) or essential skills. At the age of 15, boys must join the militia, where they are tasked with defending the wall from “beasts” (those who received the vaccine and subsequently turned), “fecs” (refugees living in the sewers, many of them recipients of the vaccine who have yet to turn), and “raiders” (uninfected outlaws who traffic in women and beasts). Girls inside the wall are expected to marry young and have children.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman (2012)

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Come for the fairy tales, stay for the waggish commentary.

four out of five stars

When I first heard that Philip Pullman was to release a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales, I was super-excited. Not Book of Dust excited, but pretty stoked nonetheless. His Dark Materials is easily my favorite series of all time, and I’ll eagerly devour anything by or about Philip Pullman. Plus, fairy tales!

Alas, while I was hoping for a book of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm as reimagined by Philip Pullman (e.g., along the lines of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; the rampant sexism found in so many fairy tales is just screaming out for feminist retellings, don’t you think?), the resulting collection is mostly faithful to the originals. Pullman has tweaked the tales here and there – borrowing pieces from one version to improve upon another, for example, and occasionally correcting inconsistencies and mistakes, such as in “The Three Snake Leaves” (with three whacks, the prince cuts the snake into three pieces, rather than the four dictated by simple math) – but aside from some light housekeeping, the stories are highly reminiscent of those I enjoyed as a child.

Of course, I can’t fault Pullman for failing to live up to my misplaced expectations – and, for what it is, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is an engaging and nostalgic collection of classic Grimm fairy tales. While you’ll recognize many of the standards – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretal, and the especially lovely “The Juniper Tree” all make appearances – you may also discover a few new favorites.

I absolutely fell in love with one of the last entries, “The Moon,” a sort of fairy tale-cum-creation myth that tells how the moon came into being. First belonging to a town, then purchased by four brothers who each insisted that their share be buried with them upon death, St. Peter finally retrieved it from the underworld and hung it in the sky where it could shine over all the world’s creatures. Every day, he removes a piece of it to remind humans of their folly, finally restoring it at the end of each month. Hello lunar cycle!

Each of the fifty tales is followed by information about the tale type and source, as well as a paragraph or two – or, if we’re especially lucky, an entire page – of commentary about the preceding fairy tale. Fans of Pullman will love this last bit, as it’s here where his personality and humor shine through. Take, for example, this notation on “The Girl with No Hands”:

“However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands is simply preposterous.

“‘But aren’t fairy tales supposed to be full of preposterous things?’

“No. The resurrection of the little boy in ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, feels truthful and right. This feels merely silly: instead of being struck with wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken so deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety.”

Ouch!

Whether you’re a fan of fairy tales or just plain love Philip Pullman, most likely you’ll find something to savor in this collection.

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

Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, Kate Bernheimer, ed. (2010)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Something for everyone!

four out of five stars

Charmingly eclectic and oftentimes macabre, the forty stories found in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me reimagine, remix, and retell well-worn fairy tales from around the globe – including many of your childhood favorites (the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen make numerous appearances). Whether you’re a connoisseur of fairy tales like editor/contributor Kate Bernheimer or a newbie whose knowledge of fairy tales comes primarily from Disney films (guilty as charged!), there’s much to savor in this collection…as long as you come bearing an open mind and a wicked sense of humor, that is!

The fairy tales that make up My Mother She Killed Me run the gamut: while some retain their original European Middle Age settings, others are pulled into the present and updated for modern audiences. Some retellings are somewhat faithful and easily recognizable, whereas others are inspired, directly or otherwise, by a number of sources. All are what you might call “adult” in nature – but then weren’t all of the best fairy tales originally intended for mature audiences?

Naturally, some of the pieces in this collection are more enjoyable than others – and everyone’s likely to have their own favorites – but nearly all are at least mildly entertaining. The anthology begins on a strong note with “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” an unexpectedly animal-friendly tale in which author Joy Williams casts John James Audubon (of the Audubon Society fame) as a mass murdering villain. (It’s true! The founder of a wildlife “conservation” society slaughtered free-living birds by the thousands! Not especially shocking, since conservationists consider nonhuman animals “resources” to be harvested or hoarded, depending on the circumstances – as opposed to the sentient, self-interested creatures they really are.) By far my favorite of the bunch, it had me in tears by story’s end.

Unfortunately, “Baba Iaga” is the only story I’d describe as espousing an animal-friendly message. Which is fine, really; I didn’t expect this to be a vegan-minded collection. The early “score” just got my hopes up, is all. There’s plenty more to love in My Mother She Killed Me!

Among other noteworthy pieces are:

* “Ever After” (Kim Addonizio) – Set in the present day, seven little people have gathered together in a loft to await the manifestation of their Snow White, so foretold in the remnants of a book found by the group’s spiritual leader, “Doc.” (“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…”)

* “The Wild Swans” (Michael Cunningham) and “Halfway People” (Karen Joy Fowler) – Two tales inspired by Hans Chistian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans” – one, short and sweet; the other, lovely and lingering.

* “The Mermaid in the Tree” (Timothy Schaffert) – A young couple’s lives are profoundly changed when the boy, on the eve of proposing to his childhood sweetheart, rescues a mermaid from drowning among the garbage of Mudpuddle Beach.

* “Snow White, Rose Red” (Lydia Millet) – A homeless and downtrodden man is saved by two girls, rich and privileged sisters – and is able to return the favor when their abusive father threatens the family.

* “What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone” (Katherine Vaz) – A bittersweet story about loving, aging, and dying, “The Conch Shell” will leave you in tears. And possibly reevaluating some of your life choices.

The only story I flat out disliked is “A Bucket of Warm Spit”; the repetitive, heavily accented (even caricatured) language renders it virtually unreadable. Truth be told, I couldn’t get past the second page.

Quite possibly, the greater your knowledge of fairy tales – their history, origins, and the like – the more you’ll get more out of this collection. That said, My Mother She Killed Me is suitable for novices too – and just might compel you to go back and read (or reread) some of the originals. I know my wishlist grew by leaps and bounds as I worked my way through the stories!

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

John James Audubon, murderer of children.

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

I started this post on my birthday, but it was shelved shortly thereafter when Jayne, always with the excellent timing, ate my book. $7 and a used copy later, and I’m back in business!

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So this is pretty cool. The very first piece in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales casts John James Audubon (yes, that John James Audubon) as the story’s villain: the embodiment of evil, Audubon is a mass murderer of birds – and a child-killer, to boot (the titular pelican child is but one of his many countless victims).

Joy Williams, the author of “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” explains the origins of her story:

When I was doing some research for a book on the Florida Keys some twenty years ago, I discovered that John James Audubon, despite his revered status, was a great slaughterer of birds. (Perhaps everyone was aware of this.) He killed tirelessly for pleasurable sport and would wipe out entire mangrove islands of its inhabitants because…well, because I guess it was easy once he got started. I do hope the curse of history will catch up with him. Perhaps Baba Iaga will be the great facilitator in that regard.

By story’s end, the anti-hero has taken to the skies, shining a magical lamp on everyone she meets, illuminating that which they’d rather not see – namely, the “humanity” present in all animals, not just those of the human variety:

[…] Baba Iaga continued to fly through the skies in her mortar, navigating with her pestle. But instead of a broom, she carried the lamp that illuminated the things people did not know or were reluctant or refused to understand. And she would lower the lamp over a person and they would see how extraordinary were the birds and beasts of the world, and that they should be valued for their bright and beautiful and mysterious selves and not willfully harmed for they were more precious than castles or the golden rocks dug out from the earth. [More so, actually. – ed.]

But she could reach only a few people each day with the lamp.

Once, seven people experienced its light but usually it was far less. It would take thousands of years, tens of thousands perhaps, to reach all the human beings with the light.

Baba Iaga came home one evening – so tired – and she gathered her little family around her, the pelican child and the dog and the cat and said, My dear ones, I still have magic and power unrealized. Do you wish to become human beings, for some think you are under a hellish spell. Do you want to become human? The dog and the cat spoke. The pelican child had not spoken since the day of her return.

The dog and the cat said – well, I won’t tell you what they said.

But I will tell you this: I cried.

happy birthday me!

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

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Jayne decided to make me some paper art for my birthday, ‘cause she knows how much I love books. Such a thoughtful girl!

(Incidentally, I started a post about the first story in this collection of fairy tales yesterday, but I guess it’ll have to wait. At least I was already planning on treating myself to an Amazon used book shopping spree. JUST TOSS IT IN THE CART!)

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A portrait of the artiste! Don’t mind her, she’s a little shy. A real J. D. Salinger, this one.