magic

Nevermoor | Jessica Townsend

34219873Nevermoor has been getting a lot of praise everywhere and I was really excited to read it. I got both the book and audiobook and I was prepared to dive into the newest great children’s book. I’m a huge collector and reader of children’s literature and I approached this book with an open mind, hoping to be transported and have all the good feelings that accompany the reading children’s books. The first 100 pages were great! We get introduced to Morrigan Crow who is from this family of “Crows.” Her father (Corvus) is the mayor, an influential politician, and kind of distanced from her as she is cursed. Everywhere she goes something bad happens. The world she is in “now” is not too developed or explained, we just get a sense that every once in a while a child is cursed and when they hit age 12 they die. Morrigan lives with the knowledge that she will die by 12. Knowing this, I kind of thought that maybe her family was distancing themselves from her so that they don’t get attached because they know she will die. The suspense of it all is quite different than other books and I respect that there was more showing than explaining, and kind of action-packed. On the eve of her 11th birthday Morrigan finds that this was actually the day she’s supposed to die, but gets approached by a man who purchases her at auction, named Jupiter North. He calls her Mog and saves her from her fate, takes her to Nevermoor, and enrolls her into a race/contest for children for her to earn the rights to stay in Nevermoor. Up until this point I can see many comparisons, as many have already mentioned, that Morrigan Crow is basically Harry Potter. She’s mistreated in her previous life, she’s a cursed/chosen one, and she enters a new magical realm with a guide/mentor. Once in Nevermoor the book turns into a hybrid of The Hunger Games, and The Goblet of Fire, where there are just countless contests where the children must “prove” themselves worthy of joining the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor. For Morrigan it’s even more important because she’s an ‘illegal’ and by winning she can get to stay in Nevermoor. I’m not going to say much more plot-wise. This is the general premise. It definitely has its strengths and its own spins. I enjoyed the diversity  in this work. From the names one can tell that some characters come from different backgrounds. The language is elevated and certainly respects children’s literacy skills, perhaps even presenting some challenges. I particularly enjoyed was finding out that Jupiter’s “powers” are seeing things as they are …truly. He is sort of a magical version of Sherlock Holmes where he can look at something, observe it and truly know everything about it, and most importantly see its potential. Jupiter says:

“It’s not a memory like yours or mine. It’s more like…how shall I put this? There are…events and moments in the past that attach themselves to people and things, and cling to them through time simply because they have nowhere else to go. Maybe they eventually fade or get torn away or just die. But somethings never die—the especially good memories or the especially bad ones can hang around forever.”

This concept was very creative and I really enjoyed it. However, I felt like on many levels it was extremely unfocused. It jumped from place to place, from character to character, from sequence to sequence, without allowing the reader to get acquainted with a place, or attached to a character. No concept, location, or character is fully developed and it made the story feel very wobbly. I felt like the author kept changing direction and pointing to something else every few sentences. It was as if the author tried to squeeze Harry Potter 1-5 in one book, told by Dr. Seuss, and then made a list of everything that sounded sort of cool and just threw them in fast without any time to process. The chandelier grows out in the shape of a ship like a tooth would, there’s a vampire-dwarf, or dwarf-vampire and there’s a difference, the concept of Morrigan being an ‘illegal,’ the random side characters thrown in, the umbrellas, the contest, what the actual Wundrous society is and what does it do, the children’s auction, before she’s about to die her step-mom mentioning she’s pregnant like in a soap opera. Everything happened so fast that it felt rushed, and nothing is fully developed. The characters hardly had any depth. The ‘bad’ girl was just ‘bad’ and annoying. One Goodreads reviewer said that Townsend must have put all these fun facts or fun ideas in a hat and just pulled them out at random, and that it resembles Hotel Transylvania…and that’s how I kind of felt reading this. There’s no foundation, the place doesn’t seem real or like it truly has a history. Jupiter North (despite the cool name) is a mash-up of Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). He’s even described to look a lot like Gene Wilder in the Willy Wonka role. I felt the presence of the author the whole time and it was very transparent what she was trying to do, and what previously existing stories she was trying to mesh together.

Saying all that, and how transparent it was to me as a long-time reader, and superfan of children’s books…I don’t know if a child would be able to see through that, or if they would thoroughly enjoy it. I don’t believe children should be treated like they are not smart, or have short attention span, but if someone can’t see through every plot incident and every character and be able to point out exactly what it reminds you of, maybe this could be really enjoyable….that said, I can’t help but think of the C.S. Lewis line:

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Again, this novel was a mix and it had some pros and… it had some cons. I’d recommend trying it out because a MAJORITY of people seem to enjoy it, so clearly there’s something to this book, even if I’m not capable of seeing it.

My Life with Folk Tales & Fairy Tales

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I think everyone has a special story of their life alongside fairy tales—particularly bookish people. At one point you realize they’ve either been there all along, or you’ve spent your whole life chasing them. This post is very self-involved and for that I must apologize. If you don’t care about one person’s life in fairy tales (respectively mine) then don’t bother. If you care, read on!

Most of my childhood was spent in two separate locations in Romania, the first five years in absolute poverty in the middle of nowhere, and the second in an idyllic, pastoral village in the Carpathian mountains. For the first five years I have memories of my mother reading some Romanian folk tales to me—most of them were about revenge in a form of another and almost all had either anthropomorphic talking objects, or animals at their center. Images in my head of the first five years involve a goat with three kids (two of which get brutally murdered) who seeks revenge on the big bad wolf, the prince who turns into a pig every night and whose wife skins him alive, the competition between the ‘daughter of the old man’ and ‘daughter of the old lady,’ a rooster who swallows treasures, and a guy named Ivan who has a bag that traps demons while he is bunking with Satan in a jail cell…you know… your typical 5-year-old folk and fairy tales. Easter Europe is so broken. I find it so amusing when Western kids find out a small inappropriate fact about one of their fairy tales or children’s movies and say ‘childhood ruined.’ Really? Have you heard the one about Ivan bunking with Satan? How about the one where the prince comes back home only to find a coffin and be slapped in the face by Death? I am not making these up.

41SQXR8NNWLI did however get a Walkman as a gift from a visiting cousin (keep in mind the ’80s made it to Eastern Europe by the late ’90s) and he gave me alongside it a tape with “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” You best believe I listened to that tape cassette a million times. I also have a vague memory of my kindergarten teacher (who was also the mayor, my next door neighbor, and the principal) doing puppet shows for us where the big bad wolf ate little red and I remember seeing its stomach bulging. The last memory of this place from the first five years was finding in the library (which was made of exactly 20 books and was located beneath the discotheque) a very thick, dusty book with stories. I couldn’t read it, but I remember the pictures and that it was massive and for some reason it stayed in my mind forever. I also remember pretending I’m in a coffin and saying: “Look mom, I’m Snow White!”

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My village

I then moved to the village in the Carpathian mountains with my grandparents. Here life was much much better. While living here “St. Nicholas” once gave me the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen which became my bread and butter. “The Wild Swans” and “The Ugly Duckling” were my favourite but I cherished “The Little Match Girl” every Christmas since. It was so beautiful and sad. Reading these fairy tales while living on a farm in the mountains was so perfect. Each spring we had real ducklings and goslings, and baby bunnies, and sheep. It was merged into my relationship with fairytales and my overall loneliness as an only child. I once visited my cousin in the city and he had gotten a boxed fairy tale collection in which I was introduced for the first time to “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The latter stayed in my mind forever and I’ll never forget those illustrations. My cousin was lucky, he had so many fairy tale books and so many Disney movies. When I turned 7 my cousin’s family relocated to Canada which meant that they handed down those tapes to: ME!

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My copy of Andersen’s tales 

These are the tapes I had from age 7-10: Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, and Sleeping Beauty. Most of these were two on the same tape, and sometimes with voice dubbed over with translation or just captions in Romanian. A few years later I got a present of a film of Snow White and The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile on regular TV I watched only two things: The Adventures of Sinbad (a television series with live-action), and Xena: Princess Warrior.

Meanwhile, my knowledge of Romanian folklore was enriching with Ion Creanga’s memories from childhood series and a popular author-less folktale series containing a comical foolish peasant for whom everything somehow works out anyway named Pacala.

DwarfcottageAll these had a huge impact on my life choices. Having so little for so long made me remember each encounter with a fairy tale, and it stayed with me for very long. One day I was walking through the mountains (we had to go get our cow back) and I was on this walk with a family friend, who was in her 30s. As we were going up the mountain she pointed in a random direction and told me that if you go on a seven day journey in that direction you will come across the house where the seven dwarves lived, and that she’s personally been there. My jaw dropped. I was set on going to find it right then and there. It was the first time someone convincingly told me a lie. I never heard of grown-ups telling lies and I thought she’d have no reason to. Most importantly, I wanted it to be true. Every day I kept asking her to take me there so maybe I too can live with the dwarves. She always said no.

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Rumplestiltskin

Alongside regular fairy tales I was always deep into Eastern Orthodox narratives and hagiographies (which I later realized were taken out of The Golden Legend) and the traditions of the small town were quite morbid—and I was very involved. I’d go to funerals and they would take on days. I’d see the whole process of death from beginning to end. Mix that with the fairy tales and folk tales from earlier….yep.

Skip forward now to ages 10-14. I moved to Canada and had to learn a new language from scratch. I had no friends and my aunt had somehow become over the top religious in this time and took me with her to her church which was very very very different from anything in Europe. No birthdays, no Christmases, NO MAGIC. We weren’t allowed to read or watch anything with magic in it, and that included Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, several other Disney films, and anything relating to Santa Clause. These four years were filled with Bible Stories of another kind and there was a lot of fear. I really missed my fairy tales. At school kids were reading Harry Potter and I always felt like I was missing out on something. I kind of stuck by the kids who were into A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I read the first 5 books and dropped the series after that because I wasn’t too interested anymore. Every time I think of those four years I get really angry.

Luckily I moved out from her house at 14 and never looked back. Slowly I returned to fairy tales and watched every Disney movie I never saw before. By 15 I decided that I would become an artist and work for Disney one day and make magical movies for children. I worked on that portfolio for three years. Unfortunately it had many rigid demands and I wasn’t able to meet the standards or get in to a very competitive program, though I received a letter telling me that the storytelling components and ideas were some of the best they’ve ever seen and ranked highest on their charts, but the art work itself was not up to the standard of allowing me into a program with 10% acceptance rate. Changing course I went into literature because in the end…stories were what I was after. By 18 I discovered new children’s literature that blew me away like Peter Pan: the boy who never grew up, and got quite literally under my skin, and Alice in Wonderland, and Mary from the Secret Garden, and oh so so many more fairy tales. I discovered that the Sinbad I used to watch had been from the Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights and that there’s so much more mythology out there from Greek and Roman myth, to Egyptian legends, to Tolkien’s vast made-up world, and the vast world of Medieval legends. In the year between 18-19 I was just as alone in my parents’ house as I had been in my Carpathian village. I read non-stop that year. I read every Victorian book, Russian Lit book, I went down the lists of “100 books one must read” and got a grasp of the canon. At 19 I got into seven universities for their English programs and chose the University of Toronto. Here I made a chart of everything I wanted to know. I took a course on Greek and Roman Mytholgoy, many many others on every Arthurian and Medieval thing, Celtic Mythology, Children’s Literature, Slavic Folklore, the Finnish Kalevala, and even retellings from the post-colonial world including Maori and other Indigenous forms of writing back to the Canon. My head was booming with so much literature. It got to be overwhelming. The magic started flickering away many times when things got too academic. I was moments away from pursuing this topic further, but each time I had to stop myself because I didn’t want to kill what I loved about my fairy tales and myths.

B0MNwBdCYAAPUPZAt the same time I was introduced to Once Upon a Time, a television series produced by ABC that brings together all the fairy tale characters out there in a very soap-opera way (got me through some of the toughest times). This show became so important to me and every time things were bad I still had Once Upon a Time. Meanwhile, my sister (17 years younger) was starting to discover things for the first time and forced me to keep updated with the new kids movies, shows, and books. My Disney and Fairy Tale side started pulling me in my sister’s direction while my dark morbid side found Gothic Literature, Tim Burton, and LORE. Meanwhile movies like Frozen completely reawakened my memories of reading Hans Christian Andersen. Also the Romanian side of me found a lot of joy in the sort of perception of Romania as the cradle of Vampires and creepiness. Yeah, pretty much. Can’t disagree with you.

md17953497530I met some incredible academics along the way who did pursue this topic on a different trajectory. I spent a day with Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and (author of Enchanted Hunters, and most of the Annotated fairy tale books out the particularly on the Brothers Grimm). I took an independent research course on children’s literature focusing on what is magic really, and what makes it so different from technology, by zooming in on the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. (What a Muggle thing to do?!—from what I recall, my thesis was that communication is magic because there’s a lot of verbal incantations, signs, symbols, and textual preservation). I got very very involved with all sorts of projects involving children’s literature (click here if interested).

By fourth year I decided: I want to be very close to the books. I want to have them in my life. I want to participate in bookish culture and fairy tales will have a place in my life, but I will not become an academic. I will become a librarian!

So now I am a librarian with a library “job,” and Once Upon a Time just had its series finale last weekend….and I don’t know what to do with my life if I’m honest. People don’t interact with the library in the way I used to, or the way I fantasized they would. I feel no engagement with the actual books, and it’s really sad. I feel like subconsciously I chased fairy tales my whole life (but in a secret cool way that got to pass for acceptable in regular society). Somewhere in the last 4 years magic sort of started flickering away and I feel a little lost. I don’t know if this is a result of having read all of these, or actively studying them, or encountering too many retellings told poorly, or watching too many fairy tale spoofs like Shrek, Happily Never After, and short-format parodies…or losing the hope that maybe one day fairy tales will come true (though funny enough the royal wedding which happened alongside the Once Upon a Time finale was announced in the Toronto Star with the headline: “Happily Ever After”). Maybe it was also finding out that they weren’t special only to me. I always had this super-heightened intimate relationship to fairy tales and suddenly I found out that everyone does. I see people roll their eyes at the thoughts of a ‘fairy tale themed’ anything as if it’s something so cliche. I keep hunting for fairy tales. I try to decorate my apartment with fairy tale elements, I went to Disney World, I try to go in secret places…and they all turn out to be attractions. Nothing feels sacred, or special, or magical. I search for paintings, and art, and any semblance of anything that may come remotely close to feeling like it used to. Now I’m really into pirates for some reason. I still look into the distance sometimes and think about what that woman said to me: if you walk seven days in that direction, you will find the dwarves’ house. One day I’ll fucking do it!

Gork, the Teenage Dragon | Book Review

“For inside my scale green chest, there beats a grotesquely large and sensitive heart.”

32766443I hope this book gets turned into a children’s cartoon series because I would watch it with a lot of passion. Gork: the Teenage Dragon, is Gabe Hudson’s debut middle-grade fantasy novel. The narrative follows a dragon named Gork who, you guessed it, is a teenager. What’s particularly charming about this novel is its snappy humour. Gork narrates his story and in the first chapter he establishes himself as:

“My first name is Gork, my middle name is The, and my last name is Terrible, and like I said, I’m a dragon, plus I’m a poet”

But not before criticizing Beowulf and Tolkien to no end for their bad portrayal of dragons. He says:

“Mr. Tolkien was a real low-hearted sonuvabitch.”

Gork is in high school at WarWings Military Academy where he is a little different than the other dragons. He is afraid of heights, and really does have a large heart. His nickname is: Weak Sauce. His main purpose in this novel is to find himself a queen, for if he fails to do so he will become a slave forever.

Maybe I read Spinster, and All the Single Ladies too closely together this year and only in the last month, but this ‘despair’ that young Gork has throughout this novel really resembled for me the pressures society put on women in the past. You must find a husband or be ridiculed as a ‘spinster’ or enslaved in various other forms. I hope I’m not reading incorrectly into this children’s book, but this is the first time I’ve read a book where the male character is forced, nay, obliged and in ardent despair to find himself a partner. While other books have shown this dynamic from a male perspective, never with such urgency, and I’ve personally never encountered it in children’s literature. Well done Gabe Hudson!

Politics aside, I must return to the humour. This book is so funny. I found it funny as an adult who is quite in love with dragons and I wonder how the children would take this same humour. There’s something in his voice that echoes Lemony Snicket for me, though his publishers insist that it’s ‘Harry Potter meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Either way, I suggest we, the readers, allow Hudson to have his own voice through Gork. I also enjoyed the ways he doesn’t shy away from swearing a little bit (never vulgar though). Highly recommend! I would also suggest that parents read this book aloud to their children, or librarians to their students at circle reading time. It’s a great bonding book! I look forward to Hudson’s future novels.

This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.

The New Voices of Fantasy | Review

33838972The New Voices of Fantasy is an anthology compiled by Peter. S. Beagle (famously known for his work The Last Unicorn) and Jacob Wiseman. All the stories in this collection have been previously published between 2010 and 2017 in short story magazines like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. In 2010 Beagle edited another anthology The Secret History of Fantasy exploring the merging of genre fantasy and mainstream markets into a new form of literary fantasy. Wiseman asserts that “this anthology constitutes something of a sequel.”

Beagle begins his introduction to this anthology with a block quote paraphrasing an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

The older generation constantly unwilling to accept the young/new. What Verne could not accept was that Wells invented machines beyond what was mechanically possible—unlike what Verne did in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with the submarine—Wells expanded by creating a time machine. Beagle relates an anecdote from his experience as a young writer where one of his older teachers, Frank O’Connor, could not accept Beagle’s storytelling in the writing class back in the ‘60s because he was a fan of realism and classics. Beagle writes: “I was outraged at O’Connor’s rigidity.” The resistance from the older generation is not the only thing keeping young fantasy writers back–there is also the hierarchy, favouring ‘literary works’ and ‘realism’ above the innovations brought forward by fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin tells Beagle:

“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”

Realism is not everything, and fantasy under a different name does not become more ‘literary’ or significant. Beagle and Le Guin ask us to open our eyes and see that it was Fantasy all along.

What Beagle does with this anthology is an elegant passing of the writing pen to a younger generation of fantasy writers, and he presents them to us, the readers, without rigidity as his teachers before him have. He accepts them as they are and is in awe of their risk-taking, creativity, and courage. I cannot imagine how many works Beagle must have read through to select these top 19 stories, but I had a hard time selecting my favourites, as each one of them brings something completely unique to the Fantasy cornucopia. His selection includes a great balance of men and women writers, as well as various backgrounds.

The stories featured in this anthology are as follows:

  • “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
  • “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
  • Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander (opening line: “Rhea is nine years old when she first meets the tornado that will fall in love with her”)
  • “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” by Sarah Pinsker
  • A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone (featuring Dracula as a suburban dad so worth reading)
  • “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
  • “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
  • The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A.C. Wise
  • “The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” by Hannu Rajeniemi
  • Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry
  • “The One they Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval
  • “Tiger Baby” by JY Yang
  • “The Duck” by Ben Loory
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
  • “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer
  • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
  • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

I linked some of my favourite ones, but in support of Beagle and his work I would recommend this anthology as an individual codex because it is cohesive and works well as a collection with the choices Beagle has made.

I recommend this anthology to anyone who loves fantasy and wants to try some of the new emerging voices. I have no doubt that each one of these writers will continue to write and publish larger works in the future, and this anthology is a great introduction to them. I would especially recommend this to readers who are new to fantasy and want to sample shorter works without committing to an entire series and/or trilogy.

Many thanks to Tachyon Publications for sending me an ARC for review. This anthology is currently scheduled to be published on  August 18, 2017 (though books are always subject to having dates pushed back). Regardless of publication date, it is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.