Fairy Tale Makeovers: A Bean, A Stalk and A Boy Named Jack…

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My fairy tale makeovers review series has been lagging a bit of late, so I am happy to present you with a fun little makeover of Jack and the Beanstalk for the early years crowd.  I gratefully received a copy A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack by William Joyce and the alliteratively named Kenny Callicut, from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, and was immediately drawn to the gorgeous colours and sweeping vistas of the illustrations.  There’s also an extremely underwhelmed Brahman bull that pops up here and there that had us all giggling from the get-go, so watch out for him!

a bean a stalk and a boy named jack

When drought hits the land, all the King’s subjects must line up to do their bit – their bit specifically being producing tears in order to provide water to wash the King’s stinky pinky toe.  After some slight interference from the King’s daughter and the Royal Wizard, a smallish boy and a smallish bean join forces to solve the problem of the stinky pinky, and return equilibrium to the kingdom.  When Jack (the smallish boy) plants Bean (the smallish bean), an oversized stalk erupts and delivers the unlikely pair to the crux of the problem – a (smallish) giant kid having a giant bath!  With a bit of friendly conversation and due consideration, the water problem is rectified and the King’s pinky becomes unstinky.  Cue bathing! Cue rejoicing! Cue…another fairy tale?!

**For some odd reason – it could be something to do with the writing – but I imagined this whole tale beginning to end read in a Brooklyn-ish accent.  It seemed to fit perfectly and really added to the experience for me, but you know, it’s just a suggestion. **

At 58 pages, A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack, is a slightly longer than average picture book, but the engaging and colourful illustrations, many of them covering double page spreads, just suck you straight into the adventure.  The tale is narrated in a fun, laid-back tone, and while there’s no rhyme, there are plenty of repeated phrases for the young’uns to join in with.  The text is laid out in a combination of clear black type and colourful speech bubbles and this mixes things up and provides a bit of interest.

Jack is immediately likeable and Bean is possibly the cutest vegetable ever to grace the page and the remaining members of the  ensemble cast just seem to want to solve the stinky pinky problem and return the status quo.  There’s not a lot of wild adventure here – more of a meeting of like minds – but it’s definitely worth a look simply to appreciate the eye-catching art and gentle humour gracing the pages.  I especially liked the cheeky twist at the end of the tale which leads into another fairy tale (Jack, of course, being a common name in fairy tale circles), but I won’t spoil it for you.

If you are looking for a fun, relaxed twist on the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum that exchanges bone-grinding for hygienic bathing practices and water conservation, then this is the fairy tale makeover for you!  I must admit, paging through it again has sucked me straight back into the beautiful illustrations, so I’m going to sign off now and spend a few more moments giving my eyeballs a visual treat.  Don’t mind me.

*clears throat in preparation for Brooklynish accent*

A Bean, A Stalk and A Boy Named Jack was released on October 1st.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Alias Hook…

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Top of the Neverland to you all! Today I have a slightly unusual candidate for my fairy tale makeover series, in that the story being retold isn’t exactly a fairy tale. But it does have fairies in it. So that’s close enough for me.  I speak, of course, of Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen which tells the well-known story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the much-maligned Captain Hook, and does so in the most unexpected of ways.

I must admit firstly that I have never read, nor indeed watched, the story of Peter Pan, on account of the fact that Peter himself always struck me as a smug little git.  For that reason, I only have a vague knowledge of the original story, but this did not hinder my enjoyment of Alias Hook one jot.  In fact, I probably enjoyed it more, because I was already sympathetic to Hook’s viewpoint.  Anyway, let’s get on with it before I start to waffle.

James Benjamin Hookbridge was by all accounts a scoundrel of the highest order when he walked in the ordinary world.  However, after being mysteriously whisked away  with his ship and crew to a land ruled by a young, flying vagabond for centuries on end, it could only be said that Hookbridge, now the dastardly Captain Hook, is inwardly a broken man.  For years unnumbered, Hook has watched his crews brutally murdered by Pan and his Boys, while he himself is drawn, constantly and  unwillingly, into Pan’s violent and manipulative games.  But when a grown-up woman appears out of thin air on Hook’s ship, it is apparent that Pan may be losing control over his land of eternal youth.  Is it time for Hook himself to grow up? And can he throw off the shackles of his villainous past, or will he be trapped forever in the Neverland to suffer Pan’s twisted version of eternal life?

alias hookRead it if:

*you think Peter Pan is a smug little git

*you have ever been forced to play the same game with a toddler or small child ad nauseum, with no hope of escape in sight

*you’ve ever faked your own death in order to escape a repetitive and tedious social situation

*you quite like dressing up in fancy hats…preferably adorned with a feather or two

I was totally surprised by how cerebral this book turned out to be.  I was expecting something light, with a bit of parody; a cheeky protagonist with a “stickin’ it to the man (boy)” attitude, but this book was by turns dark, insightful, poignant and …well…dark again.  It really is a grown-up’s tale of redemption, focusing on the dilemma of how one might successfully change the habits of a lifetime (or several lifetimes, as the case may be).

As I mentioned, you really don’t need to know very much about the original Pan story to get into this book, as only the bare bones are used – the not-growing-up clause, the Wendys who mother the Boys – and I felt that this was a real strength as it allowed Hook to rule the story on his own terms, as it were.  To that end, there’s plenty of mindless violence – mindless in the sense that it is carried out mindlessly, not mindless in the sense of being gratuitous – a bit of rumpy-pumpy, at least one highly anti-social fairy and a whole bunch of soul-searching.  The addition of Stella (the aforementioned grown-up woman) is both the catalyst and the obstacle to Hook’s eventual redemption and bid for freedom.  The final epiloguey ending bit was both expected but fresh.  In fact, if I had to describe it in one word I’d say it was just darling.

(See what I did there? Geddit?!! Wait, the kids in the original Peter Pan have the surname Darling don’t they? I hope so, otherwise that joke is going to be a major flop).

Alias Hook had me dwelling on it days after I’d finished reading, which is the mark of a good read.  If you are looking for a book that you think will be reasonably familiar and predictable then this isn’t the book for you.  Alias Hook has a lot more going for it than your average “alternate point of view” retelling, so I suggest you set aside some quality reading time and delve into the one-part magic, two-parts torment experience that is Hook’s Neverland.

Alias Hook is published on July 8th and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Rump and Stiltskin: Fairy Tale Retellings for Young and Old(ish)…

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imageWelcome to another exciting episode of my Fairy Tale Makeovers review series!  Today I have two retellings of the same fairy tale – Rumpelstiltskin –  he with the penchant baby thievery and silly name-guessing games.

One of the retellings is a middle grade read full of adventure, laughs and a fresh, complex new take on the traditional Rumpelstiltskin tale, and the other is an adult fiction novel full of adventure, laughs and….well, you get the idea.  Let’s begin with the middle grade offering, shall we?

rumpRump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

Liesl Shurtliff

The Tome:

In Rump’s world, your name is your destiny.  Unfortunately, Rump’s mother died before she could get his full name out and so he has been stuck as the butt of many jokes ever since.  After accidentally finding out he possesses the ability to spin straw into gold, and then accidentally dooming the (greedy, selfish) miller’s (vacuous, unreasonable) daughter Opal to a life spent spinning gold for the king, Rump knows that he must step in to make things right.  But things take a turn for the (much, much) worse when Opal accidentally promises Rump her first-born son in return for his spinning.

Now, stuck with a magical ability he doesn’t want, a pre-emptive baby that he certainly doesn’t need, and a donkey that’s good for Nothing, Rump must use all his wits to overcome his expected destiny at the bottom rung of the social ladder.  With the help of his friend Red, some very unusual trolls and the power within himself, Rump might just be able to untangle this knotty dilemma…but he may have to fly by the seat of his pants to do it.

Why You Should Read It:

Shurtliff has done a great job here in creating complex, neatly interwoven plot threads that slowly build into a well thought out and satisfying narrative.  There’s a lot of humour in both the characters and the situation, and some fun new twists on the traditional tale.  I expecially enjoyed the trolls and their cheeky ploy to remain out of the way of humans.  All the elements of the original tale are here (except, possibly, the more violent bits) but they’ve been used in clever, creative ways to put the focus back onto Rump and how he will fulfill his destiny.

Makeover Point of Difference:

The main point of view here is Rump’s, and he’s a really likeable character.  With Rump leading the narration, this book will certainly be a hit with middle grade-aged kids looking for a familiar(ish) tale of magic with lots of humour to lighten things up.

And now for the grown ups….

StiltskinStiltskin

Andrew Buckley

The Tome:

Don’t let the rubber duck on his head fool you, Rumpelstiltskin is one cranky, murderous, rabbit-stabbing dwarf.  After escaping from The Tower in Thiside (the place where all the fairy tale mob live) with the help of the (clearly mad) Mad Hatter, Rumpelstiltskin immediately sets off to pass on a message to the unsuspecting Robert Darkly in Othaside (the place where us mob live).  On unexpectedly discovering said murderous dwarf in his bathtub, Robert is clearly somewhat distressed to discover that his world is about to get a damn sight weirder (and more dangerous).  And all this on the day that his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job.

Luckily for Robert, he is immediately taken under the (metaphorical) wing of Lily (of the Agency) and introduced to the White Rabbit.  Along with a number of other (hitherto mythical) creatures, Lily and Robert must set out after Rumpelstiltskin and foil his dastardly plan before any more fluffy bunnies succumb to the unforgiving steel of his blade.  But what Lily and Robert are about to find out is that the Dwarf’s plan may go deeper than any of them had ever expected…

Why You Should Read It:

We love a bit of silliness around the shelf and this book has silliness in bucketloads.  Not just silliness though, oh no.  There’s a fair bit of violence towards sweet defenceless fairy tale creatures.  There’s warrior gnomes and random facts about the mechanics of sex between fairies.  There’s a smidgeon of old-ladies being subjected to hallucinatory shifts in reality. Really, there’s something for everyone over the age of eighteen to be found here, and a lot of it is pretty funny.  Buckley maintains a light, humorous tone throughout and there are many little asides that are designed to throw out your train of thought and give you an unsought-after giggle.  Rumpelstiltskin is suitably evil and the Mad Hatter is appropriately devious and conniving.  Robert is adorably clueless and the White Rabbit imposing in his managerial capacity.  Overall, it’s just a good, fun romp and you should probably give it a go if you’re into retellings. Or even if you’re not.

Makeover Point of Difference:

Once again, it feels like the familiar fairy tale character that we know and love (to hate), but there’s a strange and beguiling Urban Fantasy twist going on that reminded me of books like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Un Lun Dun by China Mieville but with a lighter tone.  It’s got an atmosphere all its own though and I’d like to see what other delights Buckley has/will come up with.

So there you have it.  Two takes on the famous Rumpelstiltskin, Esq.  I’d love to know about any other Rumpelstiltskin retellings out there because I’ve grown quite fond of the repugnant/redeemable little guy.

Until next time,
Bruce

*I received a digital copy of Stiltskin from the publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for an honest review.

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ARC Read it if Review: Grim…

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imageAfternoon all, and welcome to the first in my series of reviews of Fairy Tale retellings.  You may (or may not) recall that I was previously a reject-out-of-hand type of gargoyle regarding any kind of fairy tale reimagining, given that I was not that great a fan of fairy tales to begin with.  At the end of last year however, I read two fairy tale reimaginings – Scar and the Wolf by Plainfield Press and Talespins by Michael Mullins – and enjoyed them so much that I was forced to review my (admittedly fairly judgemental) policy.  So this year one of my goals is to delve more deeply into this genre and see what comes of it.

To kick us off, I present to you Grim, edited by Christine Johnson. I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review – thanks!  Grim is an anthology of stories based on classic fairy tales, but with a dark or sinister twist, reimagined by a collection of prominent and current authors in Young Adult fiction.   There are a whopping seventeen stories to whet your appetite over the whole 480ish pages, so surely there must be something here for everyone.  The stories range from the light and humorous (oddly, for a book of supposedly dark and sinister retellings) to the …well…dark and sinister.  And be warned, some of these are very dark and quite remarkably sinister.  But more of that later.

GrimRead it if:

*you enjoy fairy tales the way they were traditionally meant to be enjoyed – that is, with a healthy dose of blood, gore and summary justice to make your stomach turn

* you’re a fan of YA fiction boys – book boyfriends, bookish beaus, reader’s eyecandy, whatever you want to call them – and the whole paranormal romance genre in general…preferably with a side order of blood, gore and summary justice to make your stomach turn

* you enjoy the idea of fairy tales but, like me, you can never quite remember how the original ones turned out in the end anyway

So I’ll start with the positives.  The thing I like about anthologies is that the diversity of authors writing about the same topic generally means that there will be at least a few (although, with a bit of luck, many) stories in the bunch that really hit the nail on the head for you.  This was the case for me with Grim.  Out of the seventeen stories, there were a handful that I really enjoyed, with The Brothers Pigget, Thinner Than Water, Better, and Figment being the main ones that I still remember clearly after finishing the book at least a week ago.  There were others that I enjoyed reading, but didn’t make a marked impression, such as The Key, Raven Princess and Light It Up, and the rest I could either take or leave, or I really hated.  But that’s the good thing about anthologies – I didn’t expect to love every story, and I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the majority that appeared here.

A lot of the tales really do take a whole new spin on the stories they are retelling, which is always good.  There was a wide range of settings – space ships and a rock and roll tour being two of the most obscure – and this really added to the experience for me as, with the sheer number of stories here, the book could be in danger of going stale with too much repetition.

On the other hand, there were a few things that struck me as odd about this collection.  For one thing, I found it really tricky in some cases to figure out which fairy tale was being re-told.  Now, admittedly, I am not an expert on fairy tales so it could have just been my deficiency in this particular field of knowledge causing the problem, but in case others also had this problem, I imagine it would be fairly irritating to those who really know their fairy tales.  It didn’t bother me too much – I just enjoyed the stories at face value rather than trying to decipher their origin – but if I had bought this book as a lover of fairy tales, I think some of these stories would have fallen short for me.

Similarly, the book is touted as a collection of retellings “with a dark and sinister twist”.  A handful of these stories, as I mentioned earlier, don’t seem to have a twist at all, and others are not dark in the least.  For instance, my favourite of the bunch, Figment, was really quite funny and had a really likeable narrator.  (Don’t ask me to tell you which tale it was based on, I’ve got no idea).  Another one, Light it Up, simply modernised the Hansel and Gretel story, rather than giving it any new twist.  Again, this didn’t bother me particularly – in fact the two I’ve just mentioned were two that I really enjoyed – but it seems a bit strange that the collection would include these stories when the premise of the book is the “dark and sinister” bit.

But now to the major beef I had with this book. I acknowledge that others will not share this one, especially given the point that this was billed as a “dark and sinister” book – but I had real issues with the themes of sexual violence in some of the stories.  In a couple of the stories (by no means all, so don’t get the wrong impression), there were instances of incest, implied rape and general brutality, all perpetrated against female characters.  Now, I don’t have a problem with that necessarily, provided two conditions are met – one, that there is some kind of warning in the blurb (and I don’t mean like a parental guidance warning, I just mean something that hints that this is really for the upper end of the YA market, if not New Adult) and two, that the instances of sexual violence are in some way integral to the plot.  In one of the stories, at least condition two was met.  In Thinner than Water, we get the whole shebang – incest, graphic violence and animal cruelty – but those elements are essential to the plot and outcome of the story.  I can’t say I enjoyed reading this one, but I certainly appreciated the way the elements were worked into the story in order to create the story arc and resolution.  In fact, in terms of crafting the story, I think this one was the best of the bunch.

The other two instances, in Better (implied rape) and Skin Trade (brutal violence toward a female character) were, in my view, completely gratuitous.  More so for the latter story than the former, but still gratuitous.  This particularly annoyed me for Skin Trade, because again, I couldn’t figure out which fairy tale this was based on, and also because the predatory behaviour of the males in the story and the ultimate violent violation of the female character just seemed far out of place for a book marketed at young adults.  Call me old-fashioned but I don’t see why a story in which

***spoiler alert here***

a young woman is hunted by three men, only to be restrained naked in their basement before having her skin torn off

***end spoiler alert***

really needs to be included in an anthology that will be read by people in their early teens.  In fact, thinking of that story still gives me the creeps, but not in a satisfying, “man that was a great, scary twist!” kind of way.  More in a “man, that was completely gross and uncalled for” sort of way.

So really, I had a mixed experience with this one, but apart from that one story that crossed a line for me, overall, the experience was good.  I’d say, if you are a fan of fairy tale retellings, definitely give this one a go.

Grim is due for release on February 25th 2014.

Until next time,

Bruce

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