Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

I have no hesitation on this one.  I love Gail Carson Levine's work, and A Tale of Two Castles is no exception.  Elodie heads to the city of Two Castles, where her parents believe she will apprentice herself to a weaver.  Elodie, however, has other plans: she wants to become a mansioner (actor).  Unfortunately, it's not until she's on her way that she learns that there are no more free apprenticeships, and the little bit of money she has is stolen by a cat shortly after her arrival.

Luckily for Elodie, she soon crosses paths with -- and then impresses -- Two Castle's resident dragon Meenore.  Soon the two of them are entangled in politics and plotting, and trying to protect the shape-shifting Ogre, Count Jonty Om.

Cats and ogres -- there's only one fairy tale that springs to my mind, and yes, this is Levine's retelling of Puss in Boots.  Although she follows the original tale in a way that's sketchy at best, she brings in plenty of the elements of it, and explores some of the trickier questions as well.  As she says on her website, "I'm utterly won over that a cat threatens a bunch of peasants with cutting them up as herbs for the soup and they're scared."

If you liked Ella Enchanted or Levine's other work, you'll like A Tale of Two Castles.  And if you haven't read any of her work, this is a fun one to start with.  She's definitely writing on the lighter side of fairy tales, and the book is probably aimed at middle grade readers, so the writing isn't overly complex.  It's a quick and enjoyable read.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin

Although Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin, isn't directly a fairy tale retelling, it definitely draws heavily on fairy tale motifs and concepts.  Phoebe is a rather ordinary girl from a family of remarkable people.  She becomes close friends with a girl named Mallory, who has a dark agenda from another world.  Mallory, though, is drawn to Phoebe as well, and delays in her task.

Mallory, as we-the-readers quickly discover, is from the faerie realm, and her people are sick and dying.  Years pass as she grows closer to Phoebe, until her people send Ryland to finish Mallory's task -- and to destroy Phoebe.

This book works well on the top level, as a fairy tale about friendship and loyalty.  It also works well as a metaphor for emotionally abusive relationships.  Phoebe is drawn to Ryland and he builds a terrible trap for her: sweet and warm at first, and then slowly tearing her apart with carefully cruel words.

I was gritting my teeth in frustration and anger as I read this book -- Ryland was so.  Freakin.  Evil.  And yet he's set up as justified in the story -- he's trying to save his people, after all.  Although his behavoir isn't directly considered acceptable in the story, I feel pretty ambiguous about the justification that's built into the story.

In the end the characters do find another solution, and Ryland's behavoir, while tolerated by his faerie folk, is not applauded.  And I do think that Phoebe's eventual confidence in herself is what makes the book work.  My main concern with the book is that there would ever be any reason for such behavoir to be justified.

If you can read this book on the literal level, it is a good story and I will say that in the end, love does triumph (although not romantically, which I have to say is a refreshing twist).  I do hesitate to give it a full endorsement because of that justification, but it does give a good starting point for discussion on abusive relationships.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cloaked by Alex Flinn

Alex Flinn returns to the world of Beastly with her book Cloaked.  Although she doesn't return to the characters from that series, and aside from mention of the chat room for people who have been transformed by a curse, there's not a lot tying the two books together, so you don't need to have read one to jump in with Cloaked.

Instead of just one fairy tale, Flinn tackles four, and weaves them together skilfully.  The story centers around a frog prince transformation, but the main character, Johnny, is a bit of an unusual hero, since he's more of a shoemaker than royalty, and although he's aiding a princess, he's trying to get the frog prince back safely.

The story is complicated when Meg, Johnny's long-time best friend, starts to notice that strange things are happening around the hotel where they work.  And when she seems to know more than she should, Johnny can't help but be suspicious of her.

Wicked witches, curses, transformations, and heroics abound in this story of friendship, love, and loyalty.  Flinn's writing is witty and her characters are fresh and fully realized.  (An interesting side-note: The books are being rereleased with more typical YA covers now, haunted-looking girls striking tragic poses.  Although I recognize that it's a marketable trend, the new covers don't fit the tone or style of Flinn's books at all -- in my opinion anyway.  Her books are funny and playful and adventurous, and the covers are just a little too... tragic romancy.)

This is a great take on some lesser-known stories, so it's definitely one to check out if you're tired of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty.  It's a lighter retelling, and a fairly quick read as well.  If you liked Beastly, you'll definitely like this one -- maybe even more.  (I liked the book Beastly much more than the movie, so don't let that stop you!)