Archive for the ‘Once Upon a Time IV’ Category

While I was having the rather unpleasant experience of reading The Girl Who Chased the Moon, my friend was enjoying one of Sarah Addison Allen’s earlier books, The Sugar Queen.  She enjoyed it so much that, immediately after finishing, she passed her copy on to me, urging me to give Allen another try, which I did and thank goodness, as it redeemed Allen and I will no longer have to think badly of her (and I do dislike thinking badly of others).  The Sugar Queen was light and frothy but it had characters who were actually interesting (unlike the one-dimensional characters in The Girl Who Chased the Moon) and I found the magical elements enchanting rather than grating.

When my friend first mentioned The Sugar Queen, she mentioned that one of the characters reminded her of me.  The character, Chloe, is, to use my friend’s phrase, “haunted by books.”  They appear from out of no where, follow her around, and the titles are selected to get her through whatever crisis she is currently facing, giving her advice she’s not necessarily willing to take.  Of all the compliments I’ve ever been paid, being compared to Chloe and her magical books might be my favourite.  If I ever have to pick a magical power, I’m all set now.

On the other hand, I might like the compliment all the more because my friend passed over Josey, another main character, with whom I share more personality traits than I might like.  Overweight Josey, holed up with her aging mother, held there by guilt, secretly eating junk food in the safety of her bedroom closet, desperately in love with the mailman Adam who barely notices her, afraid to take any risks.  And yet, at heart, she’s a sociable, adventurous woman, though it takes a ghost to help her discover that.  I’m far more outgoing than Josey but the fear in her, the terror of rejection or failure and the twisting of that fear into a rationale for not living her life, struck a little too close to home, especially as far as relationships go.  I can sort out every other aspect of my life, but that bit still eludes me.

Side note: you know you’ve been reading too many cook books when you go to type aspect and you find that you’ve written out ‘aspic.’  My mind has turned to jelly (yes, bad joke, but I couldn’t resist – it’s been a long week).

And, because I collect these, here’s a lovely quote about books, taken from a conversation between Chloe and the owner of her dream house (complete with a dream library):

Books can be possessive, can’t they?  You’re walking around in a bookstore and a certain one will jump out at you, like it had moved there on its own, just to get your attention.  Sometimes what’s inside will change your life, but sometimes you don’t even have to read it.  Sometimes it’s a comfort just to have a book around.  Many of these books haven’t even had their spines cracked.  ‘Why do you buy books you don’t even read?’ our daughter asks us.  That’s like asking someone who lives alone why they bought a cat.  For company, of course. (p. 180)

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The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen has had some very positive reviews and, looking for another book for the Once Upon a Time challenge, I thought ‘why not’?  Allen seems to be a favourite with many other bloggers and the premise seemed intriguing enough:

Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. Such as, why did Dulcie Shelby leave her hometown so suddenly? And why did she vow never to return? But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew—a reclusive, real-life gentle giant—she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor bakes hope in the form of cakes.

I was never very excited about reading this and, once I got started, the excitement certainly didn’t build.  It was one of those books that I didn’t find offensive or awful, just plain boring.  I stuck with it until the end (it’s a very quick read), hoping that I might be missing something, but my perseverance was for naught.  There was really no suspense or build up so when the climax came it had little to no impact on me, aside from being a sign that I was closer to the end (a cause for celebration). 

Strangely enough, one of my close friends has been reading The Sugar Queen week, which she’s had much better luck with than I did with this.  Since we usually have very similar tastes (last week we read The Imperfectionists at the same time, also unplanned) I might be willing to give Allen another try.

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Given all the controversy and the excessive press coverage that surrounded its publication, I think I was expecting The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman to live up to all that hype.  Perhaps I was expecting something challenging and offensive, certainly I was expecting something fresh and original.  However, after reading this slim volume, I was singularly underwhelmed.

By now, I’m sure that most people have heard the premise of the story: Mary is visited by an ‘angel’ (who looks suspiciously like one of the boys in the village) and conceives twins who, when born, are named Jesus and Christ.  Jesus is an energetic and mischievous child, hugely charismatic, while Christ is weaker, happier to study and pray than to play with the other children.  When Jesus begins his ministry, Christ is convinced by a mysterious stranger to document his brother’s teachings, to keep records of what is said and of what ‘miracles’ Jesus brings about.  This was perhaps the only aspect of the book that I found at all intriguing: Christ as Jesus’ PR rep.  Rather than always reporting them as the truth, Christ’s intention after Jesus’ death is to refine the stories, to essentially create a more dramatic narrative of his brother’s life, using artistic license where need be (‘if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of God himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be!’ P. 243). 

I suppose I was mostly disappointed simply because the story didn’t seem very creative.  Yes, the twin-angle was new but everything else, all the secular explanations of what had actually happened, seemed like the kind of thing that children puzzle out, trying to come to terms with the fantastical stories in the Bible, trying to determine what bits might actually be rooted in truth. 

Monty Python’s Life of Brian still does it best.

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…he didn’t like the rules.  He didn’t like the idea of marrying someone who thought he was a deformed cross-dressing peon, and even less did he like the idea of getting caught up in some kind of struggle with a mythical witch from the nightmares of fifty generations of Russian children.  He’d done his part.  He woke her up and set her free.  The prince didn’t have to stay.  Especially when he wasn’t a prince. (p. 70)

 I have no idea how to classify Enchantment by Orson Scott Card.  What do you call a novel that revolves around fairy tales, throwing in gods and time travel for good measure?  Compelling, for starters.

As a young boy, Ivan glimpses a princess asleep in the woods.  As an adult coming back to the Ukraine to study after years in America, he returns to those woods and wakes the princess with a kiss.  However, nothing is as simple as Disney had made it seem, and Ivan finds himself engaged to Princess Katerina and follows her back to the late 9th Century where the witch Baba Yaga terrorizes all in an attempt to seize the king’s lands.  Ivan, a Twentieth Century academic, is unable to even handle a sword – certainly not the hero all had hoped for and relied upon to protect the kingdom.  Katerina and Ivan must work together to out run and out wit the deadly Baba Yaga and to plot her defeat.

I loved this book.  I thought it had fascinating, complex characters, a rich, detailed narrative and a wonderfully irreverent sense of humour.  Fantasy books can take themselves, and their heroes and heroines, too seriously but that’s certainly not the case here.  Ivan and Katerina are extraordinary people but both are still sympathetic and believable, with more than enough faults.  Katerina has an innate nobility about her, the confidence of someone born to rule and more than capable of doing so.  Ivan falls short of her rather lofty expectations but, though somewhat insecure in his new setting and role, he remains strong.  The evolution of their relationship is believable, as are the prejudices and misunderstandings that at times keep them apart.

I loved the interweaving of folk tales, myths, and time travel.  Combining fairy tales to have Baba Yaga as the witch who put the princess to sleep was fantastic.  Nothing is sacred here: time travel clichés (such as don’t introduce advanced technology) are considered and then discarded, with delightful results (Molotov cocktails and hand gliders in the 9th Century, anyone?).  Also, with many time travel novels it’s only one character that jumps from his or her normal time.  Here, both Ivan and Katerina are able to travel, allowing them to appreciate the other in his or her own setting, where they each appear to best advantage.  Baba Yaga also does some time travelling of her own, as do the passengers of a 747 she highjacks.  Surreal, but magnificent. 

Baba Yaga might be my favourite character.  It’s not uncommon that the villain (or villainess) outshines the hero and heroine of a novel.  The balance here is quite even, but Baba Yaga has some of the best lines and suffers from none of the self doubt and insecurity that plague the more virtuous characters.  She is evil and it’s fantastic.  Her conversations with her husband Bear, a god she has enslaved in order to use his power, are hilarious, as is Bear’s occasional use of ‘whatever’ in a very 20th Century, Valley-girl way.

There was literally nothing about this book that I didn’t enjoy.  Every time I put it down, I was counting the minutes until I could pick it back up.  It’s been a long time since I read something that entertained me this much.  Generally, I’m a little scared of the fantasy genre but experiences like this give me the courage to consider expanding my reading further.

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Let’s not lie: I was terribly nervous about reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  I’d heard so many great things about Gaiman over the years but, for some ridiculous reason, thought I wouldn’t like him.  When I decided it was time to finally confront this prejudice, I solicited your opinions for where to start and Neverwhere won by a landslide.  No pressure.

Jenny had advised that there were jokes about London Tube stations, which is honestly what sold me, but I had to rely on the back cover to actually tell me what the book was about.  It was suitably vague:

Richard Mayhew is a young man with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk.  His small act of kindness propels him into a world he never dreamed existed.  There are people who fall through the cracks, and Richard has become one of them.  And he must learn to survive in this city of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels, if he is ever to return to the London that he knew.

The summary only worried me more.  Would it be too dark and scary for me?  I may still very, very occasionally have panic attacks while alone at night in my apartment.  Monsters, murderers…these didn’t sound quite my thing.

I was so wrong and, for the record, all of you were right.  It was humourous and inventive and I’m very glad I finally got up the nerve to read it.  The entire atmosphere is so richly detailed, so intriguing, that I found it difficult to put it down.  I took it with me to breakfast at a local diner and the waitress kept trying to peak around to see what it was I was reading, before finally confronting me and asking, since she saw I was enjoying it so much.

Yes, there are sinister elements, but nothing horrific enough to scare me, squeamish as I am.  The world of London Below is dark and complex and wonderfully fascinating.  The characters who people it, particularly the murderers Croup and Vandemar, are grotesquely Dickensian.  If anything, this is one of those books that confirms that villains are far more intriguing than their less morally-dubious counterparts.  Door and Richard are the only main characters who could be unquestionably classed as ‘good’ and Richard, as our narrator, can hardly escape our attention while Door fades into the background, becoming more of a convenient plot device than a compelling persona in her own right.  I liked her, but she was far from memorable, despite her special talent.

Richard is a very sympathetic protagonist – a good man, all too easily carried along by the will and wishes of others, I rejoiced at his victories all the while struggling to decide where I thought he belonged, London Above or London Below.  The ending is very satisfying but, considering that Richard really had very few choices over the course of his journey, it seemed oddly lenient and convenient that he finally had all options open to him.  Satisfying perhaps, but almost too perfect.

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I’ve decided to join the Once Upon a Time IV Challenge.  I’ve been fussing over the decision all week, but since I don’t generally read the genres the challenge focuses on (fantasy, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology) despite enjoying them, I think this will be a great opportunity to actually challenge myself to change my normal reading habits.

I’ve signed up for Quest the First, meaning that between March 21st (today) and June 20th I must:

Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time IV criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

My personal tastes lean more towards folklore and fairy tales, but I really want to try some fantasy as well.

Clearly, I desperately need ideas on what to read!  Any recommendations?  I think it’s time for me to finally try Neil Gaiman, but where to start?  Maybe some Angela Carter too?

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