Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer

between the lines by jodi picoult and samantha van leer Publication year: 2012
Genre: YA fantasy
Time and place: contemporary US + the world between the pages of a book
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a brave king and a beautiful queen, who were so much in love that wherever they went, people stopped what they were doing just to watch them pass.
Verdict: Liked it, but it did not live up to my expectations.

Summary
Once upon a time there was a prince in a fairytale. He was smart and loyal and not very brave. And he was merely playing a part.

For as long as he can remember, Oliver has been forced to act out someone else’s words each time someone opens the book he lives in. However, when the book is closed, he and everyone else in the kingdom is free to enjoy themselves as they please and according to their own temperament. Oliver feels the pull of the “otherworld”, the place where the readers live in, a place where all the choices will forever be his own. But… how is he to ever get out there?

Enter Delilah. A fifteen years old loner, the only things she finds solace in are stories with a happy ending in general, and Oliver’s story in particular. She’s read the latter so many times that she knows everything in it by heart — which is why she’s quick to notice that one day one of the illustrations has subtly changed. This leads to her actually communicating with Oliver, and she promises to help him with his seemingly impossible quest. And still the question remains… how?

General impression
A very promising idea :) The fact that the book was co-written by an acclaimed writer and her daughter also made me quite curious — Jodi Picoult is able to write compellingly about complex characters and issues, and I was very looking forward to see this ability of hers translated in a fairy tale world. In this case however, she seems to have let her daughter take the lead: while the story has its charm, the very complexity that I was expecting and looking forward to enjoying is lacking. I have seen reviews written by young adults (the very target age) and they too were complaining that the book is too simplistic, and would have been better off marketed to an even younger audience.

In the end, it’s probably a matter of my expectations being too high. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all, of course, because I definitely did.

Characters
Growing up without a father and with a mother struggling to make ends meet, Delilah feels the need to escape her own life now and then. She is very unpopular in school since she accidentally broke a cheerleader’s knee, and has almost no friends at all. One of the few pleasures she has in her life is losing herself in a story and being able to believe in a happy ending. If we add to that the fact that the story-Oliver has grown up without a father too, it is no wonder that Delilah spends so much time reading and re-reading that particular tale. Sadly, there is not much more to her than that. We know that she is quite resourceful and she doesn’t give up easily, despite hitting all sorts of roadblocks on the way. I liked that about her, of course, but she still felt like a blank canvas with no depth at times. I would have loved to see her be a teensy tiny bit more complex, perhaps.

Oliver is even more of a mystery. While his in-story persona is described in a fair amount of detail1, he insists that this is not who he actually is, that Oliver is just a part. To me however the line between the two was sort of blurred — I thought that the real Oliver too was smart and loyal and while he may be brave he lacks an opportunity to prove it. And then he insists that he’s nothing like the other Oliver and this sort of confused me to no end, because if we subtract the story Oliver’s traits from the real Oliver’s list of traits that I could see there would be very little to nothing left.

Anyway, I found the idea that the characters in books are nothing like their story counterparts quite original and interesting2. As Oliver explains:

When we’re not acting our parts, we’re all just free to go about our business. It’s quite complicated, really. I’m Prince Oliver, but I’m not Prince Oliver. When the book is closed, I can stop pretending that I’m interested in Seraphima or that I’m fighting a dragon, and instead I can hang out with Frump or taste the concoctions Queen Maureen likes to dream up in the kitchen or take a dip in the ocean with the pirates, who are actually quite nice fellows. In other words, we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a Reader opens the book.

And there is more: the villain of the story is actually a butterfly collector, Oliver’s trusty steed has self esteem issues and the marriage-crazy mermaids are in fact quite jaded about love. At least the wizard is still interested in magic experiments :) I liked all of this, and I would have liked to see it played with a bit more; as it is, this felt mostly relegated to the background, and I was sort of sad to see it so.

Relationships
Since Oliver and Delilah are about the same age, it came as no surprise to me that they sort of fell in love with one another. It did came as a bit of a disappointment though, because in the context it felt like their feelings were born out of desperation rather than a mutual liking for one another. I may be wrong, of course, but look at it this way: Oliver is obsessed with the world outside his book — is it any wonder that he falls for the first girl he sees in that world? Not to mention the only girl available to him other than Seraphima, whom he despises because he finds her delusional and dumb as a brick. On the other hand, Delilah is obsessed with that particular fairy tale — is it any wonder that she falls for the main character, who’s also the one boy that has paid any attention to her in quite a while? Which is why the love story bit fell sort of flat for me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in it almost at all. Although I do agree that a love story was sort of expected to happen under the circumstances :)

Plot
The plot was a linear and a very simple one: throughout the book Delilah and Oliver try one way after another to release the latter from his book. However, while that’s all that there is to it, I have to admit that it did manage to keep me interested :) It was quite cool to see them coming up with all sorts of ideas and then, when those didn’t work, coming up with new ones. I definitely liked that; I would have liked it even more though if the reasons why some things did not work would have been more expanded upon, instead of just having to accept that it is so. Ah well, nothing is perfect.

What I liked most
The way the things taken out from the book reverted to words (e.g. the pearl necklace turned into the word “pearl” written over and over again on Delilah’s neck). I think it was an original and a nice touch.

Also, I liked the way the book’s opening is sort of like a window to our world. The characters can and do see not only the reader’s face looming huge over the horizon, but also the things around him or her (which is how Oliver gets to learn a few bits and pieces about our world).

Ah, and another small detail that I thought was sort of cute, albeit insufficiently explored: Delilah’s mother hears her repeatedly talking to the book and actually takes her to see a psychiatrist. While in many fantasy books the main characters wonder about the probability of imagining things and/or what would other people think if they only knew, I liked how this book went a bit further and actually made it happen. Sure, there is no actual consequence3, but it was a novel and somewhat unexpected detail nevertheless.

Last but not least, one of my favorite fantasy tropes is having the prince be in need of saving, and someone else (usually the female character, which makes it even better) be the one doing the saving. In this book Oliver is the trapped one, and as such he can only be “saved” by someone else — whereas Delilah, far from being a damsel in distress, does her utmost to make his dream come true. I couldn’t not like that :)

What I liked least
While the book is/feels a tad simplistic at times, and some things are needing more suspension of disbelief than others, there is only one element that has really bothered me: it’s been specified more than once that the book characters can only act out the story when the book is open, they can do nothing else — and yet Oliver is able to freely interact with Delilah after they make that first contact. It’s like something in the world building doesn’t make sense. Also, why is Delilah the only one who can hear Oliver4 ? I kept feeling like there was something, some rule, some explanation that I am missing, and this kept pulling me out of the story.

Thoughts on the title
A great title and probably the best one for this book. This being said, the fact that the story of Oliver was also named Between the Lines felt a bit forced, considering that there is nothing remotely related to any lines, literal of figurative, in there (show spoiler

).

Thoughts on the ending
The ending felt somewhat incomplete (or maybe I was missing something?), as we are not told exactly how Oliver manages to get out of the book. After spending all those pages trying to find the solution to a problem, it’s rather unsatisfactory to have it solved “just like that”, without the actual solution being given.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
YA fantasy lovers with low expectations. It’s a fun book, but one of the authors was a teenager at the time of writing and sometimes it shows.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Jodi Picoult’s website | Jodi Picoult on Twitter

Other books written by Jodi Picoult:
Mercy | My Sister’s Keeper

If you liked this you may like:
Inkheart

  1. my favorite bit: “Oliver was smart and loyal, but he was a complete disappointment when it came to bravery. In an effort to make his mother happy, Oliver overcompensated, spending his teenage years trying to do everything else right“. []
  2. although to be fair I’d rather believe that a happy ever after is “real”, and the characters in books really are who I think they are even after the book closes []
  3. if we don’t count that the psychiatrist will probably end up being Delilah’s step dad []
  4. I know that in the book he — very annoyingly — refuses to speak when anyone else is around, but he says that he has tried contacting others before and to no avail. While I can fully get the idea that people only see what they expect to see, I have trouble believing that a reader, any reader, could have missed a radical change like for example his writing stuff on walls. []

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Publication year: 2012
Genre: Fantasy/Children’s book
Time and place: The Land of Stories, of course; some years after the events in Brother Grimm’s fairy tales took place
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence:The dungeon was a miserable place.
Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Summary
Twins Alex and Conner’s lives have taken a turn for the worse when they were ten and their father was killed on his way to work. On an attempt to make their twelfth birthday special, their grandmother gives them a book called The Land of Stories, a book that used to be their favorite thing growing up. Later that night Alex looks longingly at the pictures, wishing she was in the fairy tale world, where everything is less complicated and good prevails. And then the book started buzzing and glowing…

Once in the fairy tale world however, both twins (as Conner has dutifully followed Alex in the pages of the book) realize that life in a land where trolls and goblins take people into slavery, and a descendant of the Big Bad Wolf roams the forests is not that much of a breeze either. Luckily they meet a friend who tells them about the Wishing Spell, a spell that makes one single, important wish come true. The kids make it their mission to find the items needed for casting the spell that is supposed to send them back home — but they don’t know that the Spell can only be cast once, and that a very powerful someone else is after it too.

General impression
I find it quite funny how all the reviews I read start with “I’m a big fan of Chris’ work on Glee”, or something of the sort. Now, while I have to admit that I too watch Glee and enjoy having Kurt as a character, I can’t say, like the others, that I started this book merely because its author was famous — the plot itself is one of my favorite tropes. Now, Chris C. is certainly a very talented young man, and with a sense of humor too, judging by the few interviews of him I happened to watch, but can he also write? Why yes, I think he can. Sure, this is not a book for adult readers, so the language is veering towards simplistic, and yet I have enjoyed it nonetheless. It has a certain descriptive quality that made me feel I was right there with the characters, and if there ever was something I considered the mark of a good reader, this is definitely it. I am definitely looking forward to his future books.

Oh, and the pictures (by Brandon Dorman) are quite a treat too.

Setting
The Land of Stories, as imagined by this author, has no less than six kingdoms, an Empire, and a bit of extra territory. Three of the Kingdoms are ruled by a King Charming — there are actually four Charming brothers: Chance Charming, Chase Charming, Chandler Charming, and Charlie Charming, and three of them are kings; one married Snow White, one married Cinderella, and the third married Sleeping Beauty. Then there’s the Corner Kingdom, ruled by Rapunzel, the Red Riding Hood kingdom, where Little Red Riding Hood, now grown up, is ‘the first elected queen in history’, and the Fairy Kingdom, ruled of course by fairies. There’s also the Dwarf Forest, where the dwarves live, the Goblin and Troll Territory, a set of underground caves where trolls and goblins live, and so on. During their quest the twins meet most of the characters in popular fairy tales, even the Little Mermaid, despite the fact that her story did not end well, and as a bonus some nursery rhyme characters, like Little Bo Peep.

It’s really an enchanted land, and the author has taken great care in imagining it in detail, and describing it accordingly. As a random example, here’s the introduction of a bridge troll:

A large troll had jumped right in front of them on the bridge. He was short and very wide with an enormous head. He was covered in matted fur with large eyes and a snout. His arms and legs were tiny, but his nails and teeth were sharp and long.

Also, I loved how the story went a bit more in-depth with some characters’ happy ever after: Cinderella is very happy with her husband, King Charming, but the first few years were hard on her because people at court had trouble accepting her and the fact that their prince has married a commoner; the people in Sleeping Beauty’s Kingdom are feeling the after effects of their century-long sleep, as they keep falling asleep most of the time while the fields remain fallow; and so on.

Characters
The book has plenty of characters, what with the plethora of fairy land people that the two children get to meet throughout the book, so it’s no wonder that none of them were actually well developed. I did like however how the author kept the general conventions of fairytales, making all princesses smart and kind and caring and very much in love with their respective Charmings. The one exception to this is Red Riding Hood, the only flawed character, but this doesn’t contradict her story at all if one thinks about it (after all, it all started when the little girl disobeyed her mother’s advice).

As for the twins, I liked the way they complement each other. Alex is book smart, doing extremely well in school, and is also very much in love with everything fairytale-related. Conner is quite her opposite: he keeps falling asleep in classes and he thinks that he simply cannot learn some of the stuff in school, yet he has an inquisitive mind and is quite smart too, despite his opinion of himself. Alex is the emotional one, who enjoys everything with the heart, while Conner is the one who analyzes his environment with a more critical eye.

Another character I appreciated was the twins’ father. While he’s mostly absent from the pages of the book, everyone who knew him thought very fondly of him, and I grew to like him a lot myself. If only he wasn’t so irrevocably killed at the beginning of the book :( I would have loved to get to actually meet him in a sequel.

Plot
The plot, while starting out interesting and quite promising, ends up being a bit too simplistic. Many of the children’s problems are solved by mere luck, without leaving enough time for suspense to build. And then there’s also the matter of the journal the children were given, one that chronicles in detail every single step they should take (when you get to palace X use door Y, and what are you looking for is in the corridor Z). I understand that everything had to happen fast and there was simply no time for the children to learn all the ins and outs by themselves; however, a bit less guidance and a little more of having them contribute to the strategies themselves would have perhaps nicer. I would have preferred the Wishing Spell to need less items, with each of them being a challenge to obtain, rather than needing eight and make obtaining them simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Regardless of the journal, the children find themselves quite often in sticky situations, and sometimes the ways they find to get out of it are surprisingly fun. My favorite such moment being right at the beginning, when they discover the gingerbread house and the witch wants to eat them; they manage however to make her grant them a wish, and their wish was for the witch to become a vegetarian :)

What I liked most
The motivation of Snow White’s Evil Stepmother for… well, for everything.

While it’s been ages since I first discovered the idea of having the Evil Queen (EQ) being misunderstood instead of evil, I am always happy to see how creative people are in bringing their own versions of the story to the table. In EQ’s own words:

“Your story will forever be romanticized,” she told Snow White. “No one will ever think twice about mine. I will continue to be degraded into nothing but a grotesque villain until the end of time. But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

What I like about this version, besides its novelty, is that it has managed to make EQ’s actions understandable (of sorts) even when she wanted to have Snow White killed, without turning SW in a villain either. Extra points for explaining EQ’s obsession with youth and beauty too :)

show spoiler

What I liked least
There are a few minor slip-ups here and there, and I wonder how come a competent editor hasn’t caught them. A random example, when the twins first get to the fairytale land they notice on the path lots and lots of pencils — the ones that Alex kept throwing into the book as an experiment. And then a bunch of knights ride on the path and the horses step on some of the pencils and break them. But the pencils have been there for about a week and later we find out that the knights ride through the forest twice a week, so how come no pencils were broken before?

And yes, I am aware that there probably is a valid explanation, something along the lines that some of the pencils may have been broken when the twins arrived, but the author did not mention them2. My issue with it is that having to search for that explanation snapped me right back to reality, making me enjoy that particular scene and a few after it a bit less. And then there is the matter of the children being able to cover all. of. that. land mostly on foot in two days or so. And the part where the previous guy who had cast the Wishing Spell (and whose wish too was to be transported to the human world) had the time to go back to some of the kingdoms and return some of the things he’s taken before being whisked away. Minor stuff, but flaws nonetheless.

Thoughts on the title
I noticed that the book is being marketed both as “The Land of Stories” and as “The Wishing Spell”. I think that the first is more general, and a good name for a series (the Discworld comes to mind, again), while the second one is fit for this book alone. Anyway, I love them both to pieces — any of them would have piqued my interest even if I had no idea who the author was.

Thoughts on the ending
Now, I had guessed what the big secret twist was somewhere very near to the beginning, so the ending was rather predictable for me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, especially when it came to the newly formed ‘happily ever after’ couples :)

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who finds intriguing the idea of people from our world trapped in the world of fairytales :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Chris Colfer on Twitter

If you liked this you may also like
My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison

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  1. in my country Mira is a girl’s name so I had a few moments when I wondered whether EQ will turn out to be gay :) was there ever a gay fairy tale character? []
  2. although I believe it’s quite relevant; if the twins had noticed a bunch of broken pencils they would have worried that the travel through the worlds may have been what broke them, and wonder about the effects of that same travel on themselves []

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Genre: Fantasy
Main characters: September Morning Bell, the Honorable Wyvern A-Through-L
Time and place: Fairyland, unspecified time (in terms of our world September is from Omaha, Nebraska, and runs from home sometime during WWII)
First sentence:Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.
Verdict: Lovely :) (I gave up trying to quantify my impressions by stars)

Summary:
Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.

When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she wants to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she jumps at the opportunity to leave her boring home and get to have adventures. She soon stumbles upon a quest, being asked by the witches Hello and Goodbye to bring them the spoon that the Marquess, the evil ruler of Fairyland, has stolen from them. She also makes some friends among the way, such as A-through-L, the self-proclaimed Wyverary (a cross between a Wyvern and a Library, that is), and Saturday, the blue skinned Merid child who can fulfill wishes if defeated in fight. She also meets her Death, almost gets turned into a tree, loses her shadow and, of course, circumnavigates Fairyland in a ship of her own making.

General impression
When I started this book it had a 4.11 rating on Goodreads, so one can say I had quite a few expectations from it.1
I opened it with a flutter of anticipation and a slight fear of disappointment. And then I read the very first words (a chapter title), and I just knew I was going to love it.2

And I was right. The writing style was lovely, with a beautiful prose and a beautiful turn of phrase. The events were just the right blend of fantastic and plausible, with just enough grief thrown in3 to make it more than an average children book. At times it reminded me of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, while at others it had a touch of The Neverending Story mixed in :)

Setting
Ah, Fairyland. Prey to an evil ruler, who tries to impose bureaucracy and other nonsensical — for Fairyland — things. People still remember fondly the previous Queen, Mallow, who was nice, and gentle, and loved by all. The world building is one of the things that bring magic to the book, as Fairyland turns out to be a place full of whimsy and wonderful things. There is a house that takes anyone looking for the capital city by surprise, appearing suddenly in front of them. There are migrating herds(?) of bicycles. There are… ah, so many enchanting things. And everything is enveloped in a beautiful language that is a pleasure by itself.

Characters
September is twelve, and born in May. Her favorite color is orange, as “[o]range was bright and demanding. You couldn’t ignore orange things.“. She’s also described as being an “ill-tempered and irascible enough child“, right at the start. However, as time goes by and her adventures in Fairyland unfold, September, although she tries to take courage from the fact that someone once considered her ‘ill-tempered’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. She is smart, and kind, and brave, and loyal to her friends, and ready to make sacrifices in order to help others. She turns out to be quite my ideal character, and I couldn’t but love her as the pages rolled on.

My favorite ‘castmate’ was the Wyverary, A-through-L, who had a brother and a sister with names like M-through-S and T-through-Z. He was convinced that his father was a Library, and when he meets September he was just on the way through the capital, to find his grandfather, the Grand Library. He’s also quite an expert in all things with names starting with letters A through L :) Although a Wyvern, he looks just like a dragon, being big, red, winged and able to breathe fire; yet on the inside he is a very gentle creature, a bit shy even, and loyal to the core.

And then there are the (supposedly-but-not-so-much) inanimate objects, which are, in this world, infused with a personality of their own. Such as the green jacket, who tries her best to protect September from the weather, changing its shape and size when necessary to do so. Such as the little key brooch that followed September everywhere, just in case she (September) might find herself in need of a key :) Not to mention the Tsukumogamis, who, albeit not friendly, there were quite a nice touch:

But when a household object turns one hundred years old, it wakes up. It becomes alive. It gets a name and griefs and ambitions and unhappy love affairs. It is not always a good bargain. Sometimes we cannot forget the sorrows and joys of the house we lived in. Sometimes we cannot remember them. Tsukumogami are one hundred years old.

And let’s not forget Saturday, the Marid boy. We do not get to find out much about him, other than his being peaceful, and shy; however I was enchanted by the very concept of Marids and the way they relate to time:

Our lives are deep, like the sea. We flow in all directions. Everything happens at once, all on top of each other, from the seafloor to the surface. My mother knew it was time to marry because her children had begun to appear, wandering about, grinning at the moon. It’s complicated. A Marid might meet her son when she is only eleven and he is twenty-four, and spend years searching the deeps for the mate who looks like him, the right mate, the one who was always already her mate. My mother found Ghiyath because he had my eyes.

Just one last tiny quote and I will move along :) this one fascinated me because it managed to make me fond of the character it refers to, in just a handful of words:

Now, jackals are not the wicked creatures some irresponsible folklorists would have children believe. They are quite sweet and soft, and their ears are clever and enormous.

The last six words did the trick. I don’t remember ever being drawn to a new character after a mere six words, but this is precisely what happened here. Unfortunately for me this was a character that appears only briefly, but I am very hoping to see her (it was a girl) again in a next book.

Relationships
At first, September is Heartless. All children are, explains the author, as they have not yet grown a heart. Faced with a choice later, at a crossroads, she chooses the path with ‘lose your heart’ as a consequence, without thinking too much about it.

And this is how we, the readers, see September grow throughout the book. Bit by bit, adventure by adventure, she transforms — from a child who did not much care about others, and who did not think twice before leaving home without saying goodbye to her mother, into someone aware of others’ plights, someone who cares and cannot remain indifferent. In short, she grows a heart. One of my favorite things in the book.

Plot
The plot is not that much taken by itself — a classical tale of a questing hero that faces the villain with the help of some friends. However, everything else in the book (the characters, the world itself) is so very fascinating that I don’t think anyone will be bothered by that. Alas, many things may be said of this book, but accusing it of lack of originality is absolutely and definitely not one of them.

What I liked
I liked that the author does not overly protect the main character, as September does have some difficult things happen to her. Sure, everything turns out all right in the end, but I think that this shade of grey sometimes cast upon September makes the book one that is addressed to adults too, rather than being oversimplified for children’s (sort of) sake alone.

Huge list of quotes to follow. Alas, this is one of those books where I have to restrain myself to keep from quoting half the book, if not more.
Starting with some small ones:

It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.

Short yet irresistible :) (I share the same opinion but I could never have put it so beautifully)
About the earth:

The earth, my dear, is roughly trapezoidal, vaguely rhomboid, a bit of a tesseract, and altogether grumpy when its fur is stroked the wrong way!

About the Marquess:

“You may be ticketed, or executed, depending on the mood of the Marquess.”
“Is she very terrible?”
The Green Wind frowned into his brambly beard.
“All little girls are terrible,” he admitted finally, “but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

Next, the inspirational ones:
One about courage:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.

And one about dreams/wishes:

“For the wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy and their color fades, and soon they are just mud like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets.”

One of my favorite things is the oblique reference to Schrodinger’s Cat and the observer effect:

The casket is really quite clever. I received first marks for it. How shall I explain? It is both empty and full, until one opens it. For when a box is shut, you cannot tell what it might contain, so you might as well say it contains everything, because, really, it could contain anything, see? But when you open it, you affect what is inside. Observing something changes it, that’s a law, nothing to be done.

And then there is something that makes one think of Plato’s theory on soulmates:

A lady stood uncertainly by, looking as if she might run at any moment–if indeed she could run, for the lady was truly only half a lady. She was cleanly cut in half lengthwise, having only one eye, one ear, half a mouth, half a nose. It did not seem to trouble her any. Her clothes had been made to fit her shape, lavender silk trousers with only one leg, a pale blue doublet–or singlet–with only one padded sleeve. Half a head of hair tumbled down her side, colored like night.
[...]
The lady ran full tilt towards a young man, tall and half-formed just as she was. His trousers, too, were silk and purple, his collar yellow and high. The two joined–smack!–at the seam, and she turned to face September. A glowing line ran down their bodies where the join had been made.

This particular idea will develop into something else than I initially thought, but I still find it brilliant :)
One last concept I found too interesting not to mention here, this time in a spoiler box, just to be on the safe side:
show spoiler


And to think that all these are but a few of the interesting things in the book :)

Thoughts on the title
While this has to be one of the longest titles I have encountered, if not the longest, it is nonetheless a very intriguing and also descriptive one. I love it, although September gets to experience a lot more than simply travelling around Fairyland on a ship4 :)

Thoughts on the ending
The book ends hinting to a sequel, and it does so in a beautiful language:

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

While I already knew a sequel is in the making, and am very looking forward to it, I am somewhat against this ‘buy my next book’ practice some authors engage in. I do admit that as far as these things go this is a very tame attempt, but I was a bit sad to see it nonetheless, on principle.

As for the rest of the ending, long spoiler to follow:
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Everyone. It is so nicely written and has such imaginative elements that I think everyone will find at least something in it to enjoy.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Catherynne M. Valente’s website | Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter | A sort of a prequel to the book (the story of Queen Mallow) | how the book came to be (an inspirational moment in itself)

  1. I usually try to avoid looking at ratings ever since I discovered my tastes aren’t precisely similar to the general trend, seeing as I found some titles (Shiver, Graceling, The Iron King) not as enjoyable as their surrounding hype made me believe. And yet when I do see the ratings I cannot quite ignore the fact that the mixed opinion of almost 2000 people marks this as a way above average book. []
  2. “Exeunt, on a leopard”. Why, ‘exeunt’ is one of my favorite words. And a leopard is even better than a bear, is it not? :) []
  3. one cannot have adventures without grief, remember? []
  4. a ship she herself has fashioned out of fairy gold scepters tied together with her own hair, no less []
  5. this was one of the moments I was looking forward to the most, having Ell’s chains removed from his wings :) and when it happened it turned out to be even nicer than I imagined it, due to the involvement of the travelling Key []

My Unfair Godmother by Janette Rallison

Genre: Fantasy, YA
Main characters: Chrysanthemum Everstar, Tansy Miller Harris, Hudson Gardner
Time and place: mostly Sherwood Forest in the year 1199; a small Arizona town in “early twenty-first century”
First sentence:Dear Professor Goldengill,
Thank you for another opportunity to raise my semester grade with an extra-credit project.

Verdict: Four stars.

Summary:
By the time Tansy was twelve, she had worlds without number enfolded in her heart. And each one of them was built with the scaffolding of her father’s voice. She couldn’t read without hearing him narrate the story in her mind.

By the time Tansy turned thirteen, her parents got a divorce and her father moved away. Tansy, always a Daddy’s girl, feels that he has abandoned her, like she no longer mattered. When Tansy’s sister gets a part in a Broadway play, their mother has to go on tour with her, and Tansy is sent to live with her father and his new family. She still feels unimportant to him though. She starts dating a boy her Dad disapproves, just to show him that she couldn’t care less about his opinion either :)

But things go awry one evening and Tansy ends up at the police station. She tries to play tough, but she is a good girl at heart so she is easily tricked into divulging the guilt of her boyfriend and his gang. The next days are a difficult time for Tansy, who feels both hopeless and pathetic. There is a huge surprise in store for her though: her level of patheticness was so high it earned her a fairy godmother, complete with a set of three wishes to be fulfilled!

Alas, Chrysanthemum Everstar, the fairy, is but an amateur one, the kind that did not pay much attention in school. Tansy’s wishes end up taking her on a wild ride, including Robin Hood, King John, Rumpelstitskin, and… Hudson, the local police chief’s son. The only way to get back to a normal life is for Tansy to figure out the moral to her own story — will she be able to?

General impression
After reading and liking My Fair Godmother so much, it was absolutely obvious that this will be the next book I pick up. Now, however, I am not sure it was such a good idea. Thing is, I have found the first book absolutely charming not in the least because of the novelty of it all; while the wishes-gone-horribly-wrong theme is hardly novel, I do not remember when was the last time I encountered it, so I enjoyed everything and its freshness. In this context, the second book, which is based mostly on the same ideas, felt somewhat recycled and unoriginal in comparison. A pity, since it was a cute book, and I think I would have liked it a lot more had I read it first (although not as much as I liked My Fair Godmother, mind you, there are no patronizing dwarves here :) ).

Setting
The setting Tansy ends up swept in is a combination between fact and fiction: we’re talking about 1199′s England, the time of King John and Robin Hood, and somehow also the age where Rumpelstitskin made his deal with the miller’s daughter. It’s a time of fairies, and wizards (the king himself has an official one of his own), and other magical creatures; people are used to them and see nothing out of the ordinary in having them around. Rumor has it that the fairies are evil and care about their own interests alone, so mortals usually know better than to deal with them; however now and then someone is desperate enough to ask them for something, and so a new fairytale is born :)

Characters
The thing that I noticed being mentioned the most in reviews of the previous book was that people were happy that the main character doesn’t do well in school; apparently having a straight A student as a main character is somewhat of a cliche. The author must have noticed that too, so she pushes the envelope a bit farther this time: the reason Tansy does not do particularly well in school is that she wants to spite her father, who was a librarian, a book lover, and the one who taught her to enjoy books. It’s actually fun to watch Tansy trying to be a rebel, as deep down she is the goody-two-shoes type :) Luckily, shortly after the book opens, she realizes that the path she’s on leads her nowhere, so she’ll have to think of a new strategy to win her father’s heart. She doesn’t seem to have heard the song about money not being able to buy love, so that ends up being her main wish: to be able to turn everything she wants into gold. I liked the way the author has laid out Tansy’s motivations, managing to allow her to have such a wish without seeming greedy. The thing about Tansy is that, unlike Savannah (who among other things has tried to slay an ogre on her own), she is more damsel-in-distress-y, having people rescue her and take care of her more often than not. Which isn’t to say I did not like her — she’s brave, and kind, and willing to sacrifice things for what she thinks is right.

As for Hudson, I did not feel anything for him for most of the book. I actually spent about half the pages trying to put my finger on the reason why Hudson didn’t particularly work for me (unlike Tristan, whom I found interesting even at the times when I wasn’t sure whether I liked him or not). The closest I could come to an explanation is that Hudson is the distant type, and, as we see things through Tansy’s eyes, we don’t get to know enough about him to become emotionally invested in his adventures. Case in point: he becomes a lot more sympathetic near the end, as he gets closer to Tansy (and she gets to know him better). Coincidence? I think not. :)

Moving on to Chrissy, I was somewhat confused by her behaviour in this book. While in the first one she has been behaving somewhat erratically, yet managed to keep things balanced enough for me to still find her sympathetic despite her lack of logic, in this book she crosses the threshold into downright strange and sometimes silly. While the hint that she may have had a master plan all along is still there, this time I could not buy it, as things were too far out of control at times for her to pretend otherwise. At least I found amusing the way she had to get a job as a tooth fairy in order to feed her shopping addiction :)
I wonder whether there’s ever gonna be a sequel (she still hasn’t been admitted into university, so she is bound to have at least one other extra project :) ), and if so where will the story take her (and us) next.

Relationships
All I can say here is that the relationship between the two main characters started out in quite an original way :) Sure, it was somewhat obvious they will end up together ever since they first met, but the thing that actually brought them together was a complete surprise:
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Something I liked
I thought the way that Tansy was able to solve her problem with Rumpelstitskin was quite cool, in an imaginatively-plausible kind of way.
show spoiler

Also, I was amused to note that this book answered one of the questions I asked in my previous review (“how do fairies decide which mortal to choose as godson or goddaughter?”). In Chrissy’s own words: “I needed an extra-credit project, and your life qualified according to the pathetic-o-meter.” :)

A quote about King John’s delight on being offered golden thread spools:

He stopped at several of the spools, admiring them like they were works of art. “Resplendent! Prodigious!”

He knelt down in front of one and stroked it. “We shall name this one Theobald, and he shall sit at the foot of our bed.”

Haverton made note of it on a scroll he carried. “I’ll have the guards take it there at once, sire.”

King John moved onto another spool, patting it lightly. “And this one we shall name Helewise because she is beauteous. Splendiferous.”

Something I did not like
There were a few things that I did not like, but all of them are rather small so mentioning them would feel like nitpicking :)

Thoughts on the title
Ah, I even liked the title of the other book better than this one’s :)
Although, to make this title justice, Chrissy does act somewhat out of whack in this book, which I imagine qualifies her for being considered “unfair”. So at least it’s an accurate title if nothing else :)

Thoughts on the ending
The ending was by far the best moment of the whole book’s. Loved it loved it loved it :)
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who wants to enjoy a light but not overly light read. This is a second book in a series, but the only connection between this and the previous book is the presence of Chrysanthemum, so you don’t need to know anything about the first book in order to enjoy this one.

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This book is a sequel to:
My Fair Godmother

My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison

Genre: Fantasy, YA
Main characters: Chrysanthemum Everstar, Savannah Delano, Tristan Hawkins
Time and place: “Herndon, Virginia, early twenty-first century”; also, a land of fairytales, called Pampovilla, in the Middle Ages
First sentence:Dear Professor Goldengill, Thank you for allowing me to raise my semester grade through this extra-credit project.
Verdict: Five stars.

Summary:
The prom is approaching and Savannah, recently dumped by her boyfriend, has no one to go with. Which is why, approached by a fairy saying she’ll grant her three wishes, Savannah thinks aloud about how nice it would be if her life would have a prince to take her to a ball, you know, just like in a fairytale.

Next thing she knows, she’s Cinderella. Eight months before the ball. And the fairy, Chrysanthemum, is nowhere to be seen.

General impression
I loved this! The writing style (I would have quoted half the book if it were possible), the ideas, the characters, the world building, everything. I would never have thought I would like so much a book about an airheaded high-schooler who doesn’t care much about books, but I did! I am so looking forward to the sequel :)

Setting
Somewhere outside our world there is a school of Fairy Godmothers, where teenage fairies are studying various topics meant to help them in their future career. The criteria that makes a fairy become a particular someone’s godmother were not expounded upon; suffice it to say that a fairy is assigned a person, and they have to grant that person three wishes (because that’s how the story goes, right?) :)
Getting to live in a world where a fairy can poof into one’s existence at any moment, offering to grant three wishes, is bound to lead to some interesting adventures — as is the case with this book. Now, while fairies (and leprechauns, and computer gremlins) do exist and take their Godmothering responsibilities very seriously, their assignments are spread around in time and space, so very few people know about them at a given moment.

This is the case in Pampovilla too, actually. While there is plenty of magic there, complete with knights and ogres and dragons to be vanquished, most of the atmosphere is classical Middle Age-y, with folks going around their business, most of them knowing about the magic and the likes from stories only, not having direct contact with it. This made the characters transition from their own world to Pampovilla as seamless as possible in the circumstances, especially as even Savannah knew enough about the fairytales she found herself in to know what to expect.

Characters
The main reason I liked this book so much are the characters, whom I found likable and relatable, despite the difference in age and, well, everything else.

The book starts out focusing on Jane, the straight A student and the serious one (“The way the teachers loved her, they could have erected a statue in her honor. They would entitle it The Student the Rest of You Should Have Been“). And also, as was somewhat to be expected, the one in love with a guy that doesn’t even know she exists.

And then the POV switches to Savannah, the beautiful, airheaded sister, the one who thinks high school exists merely as an opportunity to socialize, preferably with cute guys. I did not know what to make of her at first but, somewhat to my surprise, she turned out to be a very likable character. I was happy to see that, despite her lack of interest in school-related stuff, Savannah never acts dumb, or ditsy. She is smart, brave, kind, and never takes the easiest way out just because it’s the easiest; she always tries to do the right thing, and I can never resist that :)

The fun part is that the fair godmother, Chrisantemum (Chrissy from now on), is very much of a teenage girl herself: good looking, loves flirting and pretty clothes, and is able to spend countless hours shopping at the mall with her friends. Alas, these activities keep her too occupied to actually pay attention to her charge, which is how Savannah ends up in all sorts of situations in the first place. Chrissy is, in a way, too much of a teenager for my taste, and, while it was fun meeting her and all, I am not sure I would have liked interacting with her for a longer period of time (alas, I may be too old and grumpy to get her). To be fair, her lack of patience regarding other people may be related less with her being a teenager and more with her being a fairy, and as such thinking herself way above humans (her paper about her assignment is named “How I Used Magic to Grant Wishes, Make Mortals Happy, and Rescue Them from Their Dreary Lives” :) ). However, when all is said and done I cannot say I did not like her; quite the opposite actually, I am looking forward to reading the next book she stars in.

As for Tristan, I think it was a very good idea to have him spend a few months in the Middle Ages before meeting the narrator/reader again. He must have taken it quite hard at first, but after a while he ends up adjusting very well to the day and age he finds himself in. I very much liked his resourcefulness, how he managed to find a way to earn his bread (by telling stories — according to him people turned out to be great fans of Battlestar Galactica :) ), and how he has formulated a plan to get out of his predicament. A difficult plan too, but he doesn’t waste any time complaining about what he cannot change, he just does his best with whatever tools he has at hand. And to think that in his own land he was a rather shy teenager :)

Relationships
The book starts out in Jane’s POV, so we get to see the way her relationship with her sister’s then boyfriend has begun and evolved from a sympathetic standpoint. Which was quite a nice touch, in my opinion. Jane’s situation is not easy, but she is indeed a far better match for the guy she’s been interested in all year (far before he met her sister) than Savannah is. And deep, deep down Savannah herself knows it, although she is disappointed and heartbroken and lacking a date to the most important social event in the near future. I liked the relationship between the two sisters, although it’s not much dwelt upon. I liked how each of them cared and worried for the other, despite there being a world of difference between them and despite the recent event that has pushed them apart.

As for Savannah and the guy she’ll end up with (I’m not saying who that is :) ), I liked the way their relationship develops. Sure, he has been interested in her all along, and yet she never noticed him until very recently. Drawn to him by a sense of duty, little by little she starts noticing him as a person, the way he looks, the jokes he makes, the way he acts. Just the kind of relationship I like seeing in books :)

Plot
About a decade ago there was a movie called Bedazzled, with Brendan Fraser starring as a guy who’s granted seven wishes by the devil. However, each and every time he makes a wish, the devil (Elizabeth Hurley) takes it literally, making each wish’s fulfillment something to get rid of rather than something good. It’s one of my favorite comedies, and it is the one this book reminded me of over and over again. :)

What I liked
My favorite part was when Savannah found herself in the middle of Snow White story, and everyone was treating her condescendingly because it seems that the original Snow White wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Apparently, she is the one who has nicknamed the seven dwarves Grumpy and Doc and Dopey and the rest, because she couldn’t keep track of their actual names.
On the whole I found the dwarves’ reactions to her to be laugh-out-loud funny, and I am really sorry I cannot quote that whole part here :) They are all quite fond of her, and try to humor her as much as possible (e.g. they all still wear the misshapen caps Snow White has made them when she learned to knit), and yet somehow that always turns out to be quite hard to do (even now, as Savannah has replaced Snow White, because although she is smart enough she still knows too little about the new environment to act like a person who truly belongs).

I cannot help but quoting a part, although I am not sure how much it works outside context:

[...] I thought of the perfect way to learn the dwarfs’ names. I’d just call out a name and see which
dwarf answered me. It would be easy. Ha — and they thought I wasn’t smart.
“Dopey?” I asked.
“Of course you’re not,” the one in the brown cap said. “You’re just not used to cooking yet.” He went to the cupboard, took out a stack of bowls and spoons, and handed them out.
A dwarf in a blue cap went to the soup pot and stirred it. He kept poking the spoon through it as though
searching for something, then sighed, disappointed.
“Well, bring over your bowls and we’ll say grace.”
The gray-capped dwarf looked into the pot. “Aye, it needs praying.”
“Sleepy?” I called out.
“I am now,” the gray-capped dwarf said. “Think I’ll turn in for the night instead of eating.”
I tried one more time, searching the dwarfs’ faces.
“Doc?”
“Don’t be a pessimist,” The brown-capped dwarf said and handed me a bowl. “No one’s gotten sick from eat-
ing your food for days now.”

Fun bits aside, I liked how the author has managed to strike a balance between a clear, readable writing style and beautiful prose. Consider this quote for example:

Guys can smell desperation. It triggers an instinct in them to run far and fast so they aren’t around when a woman starts peeling apart her heart. They know she’ll ask for help in putting it back together the right way — intact and beating correctly — and they dread the thought of puzzling over layers that they can’t understand, let alone rebuild. They’d rather just not get blood on their hands. But sharks are different. They smell the blood of desperation and circle in. They whisper into a girl’s ear, “I’ll make it better. I’ll make you forget all about your pain.” Sharks do this by eating your heart, but they never mention this beforehand. That is the thing about sharks.

It makes me want to go out and find some other book of the author’s, to get to enjoy her writing some more.

What I did not like
Five stars = there’s nothing I want to complain about, I have liked everything well enough.
Which is definitely the case here. :)

Thoughts on the title
The title is the thing that has first piqued my interest in this book. Its explanation is funny in itself: Chrissy is a fair godmother because her grades are only fair, not good. And, according to Savannah, it shows :)

Thoughts on the ending
I cannot help but wonder whether Chrissy knew all along how things will eventually unfold (that everything will end well and everyone will benefit from the experience) or she was just lucky enough to have things work out in the end. I am leaning towards the former, although Chrissy does seem enough of an airhead most of the time to make the latter very plausible too.

The moral of the story is “nothing worth having comes easy”; in Chrissy’s own words:

“Did you think wishes were like kittens, that all they were going to do was purr and cuddle with you?” She shook her head benevolently. “Those type of wishes have no power. The only wishes that will ever change you are the kind that may, at any moment, eat you whole.But in the end, they are the only wishes that matter.”

Recommend it to?
Anyone who doesn’t really and truly hate YA. And who knows, you might like it even so (I myself am not crazy about some of today’s YA tropes, and this book managed to steer clear of all of them; and did I mention it’s fun? :) )

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Part of the same series:
My Unfair Godmother