Review: Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezso. Candlewick Press. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Fairy tales retold in free verse.

The Good: I love retold fairy tales, especially when they twist and tweak and turn inside out. You may remember that from my post about the TV show Once Upon A Time. Take something you think is familiar, look at it from a new direction, what new truths are there?

Most of these tales live in a world that is both modern and fairy tale. The first one is The Stepsisters, from Cinderella, and begins “I write this on a brailler, a kind of typewriter/ for the blind.” Like some (but not all) of these stories, it takes the viewpoint of a secondary character (the stepsisters) and makes references  that are both non-fairy tale (a brailler) and classic (the birds pecking out their eyes.) It gives a different perspective: “Mother turned us against our stepsister,/ belittling her.”

My favorite of the short tales in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is Hansel and Gretel, perhaps because I’ve never quite liked the father: “Their parents want to kill them./ Not the father so much, but he’s a beaten dog./ A jellyfish, a limp noodle, a nobody.” Honestly, what type of father allows the abandonment of his children?

Readers who don’t just like fairy tales, but like when there is a bit of a different approach, will enjoy what Koertge does to old favorites.

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; and Professor Nana.

Review: Sweetly

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Gretchen and her older brother, Ansel, are on the road, driving through South Carolina, when their car breaks down. Bad luck turns to good luck when they meet Sophia Kelly, owner of Kellys’ Chocolatier. Sophia needs some help around her house and store; she cannot pay much, but she can offer a roof over their heads. She also offers friendship.

Gretchen cannot believe their luck. The Kassel siblings have only known hard times and trouble: twelve years ago, Gretchen’s twin sister disappeared. Their mother died. Their father remarried, and then he died. Once Gretchen turned eighteen, their stepmother threw them out. After all that loss, the self-imposed isolation of grief, the warmth and welcome that Sophia offers is almost too good to be true.

It may be too good to be true. There are rumors about Sophia, whispers, linking her to teenage girls who have gone missing. Not missing, say some — just high school graduates eager to leave their small town. It’s not Sophia’s fault.

Gretchen believes in Sophia, because Gretchen knows what it is to be whispered about. Gretchen is convinced that the reason her sister went missing years ago is a witch took her. As Gretchen learns more about Sophia and the missing girls, she comes to a horrifying realization. Witches aren’t real . . . but werewolves are.

The Good: Sweetly is a companion to Pearce’s Sisters Red, a fairy tale retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that made the wolves werewolves and Little Red Riding Hood into an axe wielding werewolf hunter. Sweetly, for those of you not instantly suspicious by the sibling names of Ansel and Gretchen, is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. As in Sisters Red, there are werewolves; and a main character, Samuel Reynolds, is a brother of Silas from Sisters Red. While reading Sisters Red gives the reader more knowledge of the werewolves (called Fenris), it’s not necessary to read it before reading this book, because while those readers may realize things like the significance of the color red, other readers are going to be saying “oh, so they’ve been taken in by a nice woman who makes candy? why, who in the original story is associated with candy . . . ” and put 2 and 2 together and, hopefully, not come up with 37.

I enjoyed the character of Gretchen, and her relationships with the other characters: her older brother, Ansel; their new friend, Sophia; and Samuel, one of the locals who is convinced that Sophia is linked to the disappearances of the local girls. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, or, rather, give too much away about how Pearce tweaks the original tale, because part of the fun of a retelling is seeing what the author does with it. Pearce makes this retelling refreshing, new, and exciting by having the suspected witch, Sophia, be pretty and kind and likable; introducing werewolves; and making the children grown-ups.

Gretchen starts the book with little: she and her brother were shown the door by their stepmother the moment Gretchen turned 18. All their worldly goods are in one car, and that car just broke down. Sophia taking them in begins Gretchen’s journey of trusting others, of making friends, first Sophia, and, later, Samuel. What makes her suspicions of Sophia all the more heart-breaking is that Sophia has truly helped Gretchen and Ansel. Even then, though, Gretchen looks for ways to make sense of it all, to not lay blame without proof.

Then, there is the werewolves! Gretchen’s acceptance of their existence makes sense, as she both sees them in action and has always believed that something more was at work when her sister disappeared. As a child, she believed it was a witch; now, after talking to Samuel, she believes it was a werewolf. Either way, her response is so terrific I have to share it, spoilers be damned. Gretchen decides to learn to shoot; she decides she is not going to be passive, is not going to run away, is not going to pretend the big bad wolf doesn’t exist, is not going to lock her doors; she’s going to learn how to protect herself.

 One of the things I enjoyed about Sisters Red was the meaning behind many of the names used. Pearce has fun with names once again, and no, I’m not just talking Ansel is Hansel and Gretchen is Gretel. Kassel, their last name, sounds like “castle” and castles are often in fairy tales. More importantly Kassel is also a town in Germany — not just any town, but the town where the Brothers Grimm lived. Abigail, the name of a child that was lost, means “father’s joy” and any joy that family had was lost with the child. Sophia means “wisdom,” and I’ll leave it to the reader to determine how meaningful that name is. Naida means “water nymph,” and that character has a tie to the ocean.

The next book in this sequence is Fathomless,  and will modernize The Little Mermaid.

Review: Invisible Things

Invisible Things by Jenny Davidson. HarperCollins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Explosionist.

The Plot: 1938. Sophie Hunter, sixteen, has fled Scotland for Denmark. Had she stayed in Scotland, she would have been forcibly brainwashed to become a perfect secretary for the “good of the country.” Denmark appears to be a safe harbor. She lives with her friend Mikael and his mother, assistant to Neils Bohr. Sophie waits to hear from the mysterious Alfred Nobel, who says he knows things about Sophie’s long dead parents. War is on the horizon, but the world Sophie finds herself in is not one of politics but that of science and the weapons that scientists make.

The Good: In case the “Alfred Nobel is alive in 1938” doesn’t give it away, (well, that and Scotland using brainwashed secretaries) this is an alternate world. Briefly, in this world, at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoleon defeated Wellington and consequences include a European Foundation that invades England while Scotland joins the New Hanseatic League, which is made up of Scandinavian countries. Some history remains similar – a war is threatened. Germany has instituted racial laws. Science is similar, and with Bohr and other scientists around it is treated very seriously. Spiritualism is real, or at least, real for some. The “invisible things” are the stuff of both science (atoms and radiation) and spiritualism.

From dynamite to nitroglycerin to nuclear physicists – it’s real, with slightly altered timeframes. Real enough for those who are into science to get a thrill by the names that are dropped (Lise Meitner). Sophie, in conversations and internal musings, thinks about science, weapons, war, peace.

Sophie’s parents died in an explosion when she was a child, an event she barely survived and hardly remembers. She is about to find out secrets about them, about their past, about their work, about their connections to people Sophie is meeting for the first time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Mikael is slowly turning into something more.

Sophie’s new home and her safety is changed dramatically when war comes to Denmark. An attack leaves Mikael injured and his personality changed; the European Foundation invades Denmark; and a new character is introduced, Elsa Blix. For a second time, Sophie flees her home.

At this point, Invisible Things turns from a story of science, war, and peace to a retelling of The Snow Queen. Mikael is Kai, his injuries turning him cold and enthralling him to the Snow Queen/Elsa Blix; Sophie is Gerda, out to save her best friend.

Every time Sophie turns around, it seems, the world and her place in it is not what it seems. It’s not just being a refugee, first from Scotland, then from Denmark. It is realizing that everything she believed, about herself and her family, is not what it seems. Her world is full of invisible things, slowly being made visible.

Do you have to read The Explosionist to read Invisible Things? No. The Explosionist features the spiritualism that is (sometime) real in this world, so that part is mainly in Sophie’s past, when she refers to experiences in Scotland. But you know what I’m going to say — you’re going to WANT to read The Explosionist. You’re going to want to find out more about this alternate history. You’re going to enjoy Sophie and her adventures and want more.

Review: Reckless

Reckless by Cornelia Funke. Little Brown. 2010. Reviewed from Advance Limited Edition from publisher.

The Plot: When Jacob Reckless is twelve years old, he discovers a mirror in his father’s study that takes him into a world where fairy tales are real. Twelve years later, his brother Will follows him through the mirror, eager to discover his brother’s secrets and to visit this strange new world where dreams come true. Nightmares are also dreams, and fairy tales are not safe and cozy. Will is hurt and Jacob has to use all he has learned in the Mirrorworld to save his brother.

The Good: If Percy Jackson and the Olympians sent kids to the library asking for Greek myths, Reckless will have them wanting the original fairy tales Funke weaves throughout her story.

Gingerbread houses and children-eating witches? Real in the Mirrorworld. Jacob has spent years escaping into the mirror, away from his mother who mourns a lost husband and a brother with his own needs. In Mirrorworld, Jacob’s freedom has allowed him to be fearless. With no one to care for but himself, he becomes a treasure hunter, seeking out the magical and cursed objects of stories: glass slippers, spinning wheels, talking mirrors. “There was always something to hunt for in this world. And most of the time it helped him forget that he had never been able to find the one thing he really wanted.”

Dark magic has hurt Will and Jacob races to save him. Jacob isn’t alone; Fox, a girl who can change into a fox, is his friend and companion in the Mirrorworld. Will’s girlfriend, Clara, a medical student, senses something wrong and enters the Mirrorworld. The Mirrorworld isn’t all medieval fantasy. Oh, yes, there is an Empress with a princess daughter and Fairies and Dwarfs and Ogres. There is darkness and death. It is also industrial — in the past few years, trains and guns and factories have sprung up. What have also risen is the Goyl, a people made from stone, who have left their caves to battle humans. Instead of being hunted for sport by humans, they have attacked, organized an army, and are winning. Jacob doesn’t care about politics and battles. He only cares about the hunt: before, treasure hunting, now, hunting for a cure for his brother.

Those who insist that you can tell the audience of a book by the age of the main characters will be puzzled by Reckless. While Jacob and Will are children in the first chapter, they are adults for the rest of the book. A book for children and teens about a twenty-four year old? Yes. It is a book about Grimm’s Fairy Tales come real, full of adventure with real risks. Children and teens will eat it up, and adults will remember that such Fairy Tales are also for grown-ups.

Reckless is also a book about love: love for friends, love for family, love between brothers. In some ways, Jacob is still a twelve year old boy who misses his father and doesn’t want to share with his younger brother while feeling responsible for that younger brother. In that, it doesn’t matter to the reader that Jacob is older than they are because he feels what they do, wants what they want: adventure! fun! freedom! Here is the pesky younger sibling who wants to tag along, also, and of course, doesn’t the younger brother muck things up? Of course Jacob will fix it, and show all his gifts and talents and courage. This is about Jacob figuring out his place in the world and his family and taking responsibility instead of running. It doesn’t matter that Jacob is twenty-four. If anything, his age will help expand the audience for this book to teens and adults. It’s a book for those of us who were always more interested in Mo and Dustfinger from Funke’s Inkheart books.

I loved the writing, the story telling, the language, so credit to three people: Cornelia Funke, who wrote it; and, as the credits say, to Cornelia Funke and Lionel Wigram who “found and told” the story; and Oliver Latsch, translator. My copy of the book is full of post-its to mark sentences I loved. The first sentence, after the chapter heading of Once Upon a Time: “The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.” And this is what you need to know about Jacob even before he finds the mirror: “Jacob loved the night. He felt it on his skin like a promise. Like a cloak woven from freedom and danger.” And this, which is true for all of us, Mirrorworld or no: “The present swiftly became the past, and the future suddenly wore strange clothes.”

If you’re looking for happily ever after… You’ve come to the wrong place.”

Because Funke breaks the rules by making a book for children that features adults; because anyone, of any age, who wants a good story will love this; because of its smart use of fairy tales that expects the reader to understand the references; because Jacob’s journey is heartbreaking; because the adventure is full of twists and turns and the unexpected; Reckless is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.


Cornelia Funke’s Brave New World at The Los Angeles Times