Down a Dark Path

49011 I don’t know about you, but I have always loved scary stories. I loved Disney’s fairy tale movies as a kid, but I knew from reading that they didn’t tell the whole story. I knew that Snow White’s evil stepmother was supposed to dance herself to death in molten iron shoes. I loved brave Vasilisa and her encounter with Baba Yaga. I loved all the scary parts of real fairy tales as much as ghost stories. In real fairy tales, the prince doesn’t always save the princess, lots of times she saves herself.

One day, long after my childhood was over, I stumbled across a copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I read it over and over. It was the first time I’d ever read a fairy tale re-telling and I wholeheartedly adored it. From cover to cover, each story is haunting, lyrical and downright terrifying. Carter digs into Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and many others in such a way that feels true to the original tales, but also completely expands what you feel you already know.

In stories like “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” or “The Tiger’s Bride,” the source of the story is obvious (Beauty and the Beast), but Carter’s spin pulls out themes from the original tale and amplifies them. In other stories, like “The Lady of the House of Love” (Sleeping Beauty) Carter only loosely evokes the original tale, spinning something different, both beautiful and horrific. And perhaps this is the heart of Carter’s magic: humanity is sick and strong, horrendous and dazzlingly beautiful. We hurt one another deeply, but can love with the same depth. Fairy tales are always amplifications of human nature, using the supernatural or paranormal to tell us something about ourselves and Carter does this beautifully.

I taught The Bloody Chamber for many years in first-year writing courses. I watched with glee as students pulled apart the stories with fresh horror each semester. They were alternately horrified by the sometimes grotesque nature of Carter’s storytelling and fascinated by how the stories stuck with them.

It’s a testament to how powerful Carter’s writing is that when I ran into a young man I’d had in Fall semester his freshman year, the first thing he mentioned was that he tells people to read “The Snow Child”and “The Company of Wolves” if they want their minds blown. This was three years later and he was still deeply affected by the work. We chatted for almost twenty minutes about the things he still ponders from time to time about the book. Then, before he took off, he said that he and a group of my former students all got drunk together and waxed poetic about The Bloody Chamber; they didn’t know one another before that night, but bonded over reading the book in my class. That’s something, friends. Most of my first year students barely remember my name three years later, but Carter sticks with them.

Eventually I began teaching business writing, rather than freshman writing seminars and my days of reading Carter with the kiddos were over. It was a long time before I read another book that even remotely resembled Carter’s seminal work, but eventually I started picking up copies of scary fairy tale retellings from time to time and I always react with a shiver of delight when I hit on a particularly good collection. I dearly love novel-length retellings, but there’s something very powerful about short, scary fiction that I enjoy.

S7945295o, without further ado, whether you’re just hearing about The Bloody Chamber for the first time, or you’re a fan who’d like to read something similar, please let me suggest the two following works:

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, compiled and edited by Kate Bernheimer (great authors like Shelley Jackson, Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates all contributed)

Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino and from China, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, Norway, and Mexico. Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the 6490566imaginative frontiers of the twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.

There One Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya 

Vanishings and apparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt these stories by the Russian master Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe. Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia-or anywhere else in the world-today.

I hope you’ll give some of these a try. Folks who love ghost stories, fairy tales, or just traveling down a dark path to see where it leads will all enjoy any of the selections I’ve mentioned here. Start with Carter, if you haven’t read her and move on. I can’t promise you’ll love every story, but I can probably guarantee there’s one you’ll want to talk over with a strong drink and some good friends. Invite me over when you’re ready.

Allison Carr Waechter has only days left of summer school teaching and wishes she could throw it all away and talk with her business writing students about “The Snow Child.” Alas, it’s personal branding and application materials for the next few days. Check on her on Twitter if you want to know how she’s holding up in the sweltering Missouri heat. 

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What Next? Wednesday: A Court of Thorns and Roses

16096824Nicola, Alyssa and I have some serious longings for sequels going on! There have been so, so many awesome fantasy books this year and we’re dying to know what happens next. We’re willing to bet that a bunch of you are in the same boat as us. So what to do when you’re dying to read the next book in a series, but you’ve got months to wait?

Our suggestion is that you find something new, but similar, to read and start the cycle all over again. This really is meant to be a solution, but you know how it goes with being addicted to reading… there’s always more books. So for the next few weeks we’re going to run a little series we call “What Next? Wednesday” and give you some ideas about what you might read after you’ve finished one of this year’s totally awesome bestsellers.

No shock here, we’re going to start with Sarah J Maas’ smash hit A Court of Thorns and Roses. Remember when the three of us gushed over that one?

To refresh your memory:

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world. As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

If you’re as wild about Feyre and Tamlin as we are, here’s what might help you get your fix ’til the next book comes out!

Nicola’s Re22535481commendation: A Wicked Thing

Like A Court of Thorns and Roses, Rhiannon Thomas’ A Wicked Thing is a retelling of a popular fairytale, this time Sleeping Beauty, beginning when Aurora wakes up from her coma. Aurora is a very different protagonist to Feyre, her strength coming from the depths of her convictions moreso than her actions, but readers who loved the rich, magical backstory of Prythian and Feyre’s struggle for freedom from her imprisonment will find much to love about A Wicked Thing.

15839984Allison’s Recommendation: Cruel Beauty

Like A Court of Thorns and Roses, Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In its own way, it is similarly faithful to the original fairy tale. So, if you’re looking for another creative B&B retelling, this may interest you. Unlike Feyre and Tamlin, who are essentially good, Nyx and Ignifex are a little more in the grey area, which makes Cruel Beauty a lot of fun. Cruel Beauty is as full of dark magic and rich fantastical tradition as A Court of Thorns and Roses, but with its own very distinct voice. It is not anywhere near so sexy though, so if you’re looking for a steamy fantasy read scroll down!

Allison’s Recommendation: The Shattered Court

The Shattered CourtThe Shattered Court, by MJ Scott is not a fairy tale retelling. However, if you’re looking for an engrossing romance in the fantasy genre, I think you’ll like The Shattered Court. Much like A Court of Thorns and Roses, The Shattered Court is ripe with magical secrets, a looming war between nations and a sexy love story. I really enjoyed the love stories in both these novels and I found Sophie to be a similarly dispositioned kind of character to Feyre. By that I mean, I think they’d easily be friends.
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Alyssa’s Recommendation: The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh, is a perfect choice for ACOTAR fans. It is a reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights, with a “Beauty and the Beast” twist. Every evening Khalid, the ruler of Khorasan, takes a new bride whom he executes at dawn. After Shahrzad’s best friend becomes one of his victims, she volunteers to marry Khalid. She intends to stay alive long enough to kill him (by cleverly telling him stories), but then…she falls for him. Like ACOTAR, The Wrath and the Dawn reworks “Beauty and the Beast” in fresh and compelling ways, and Shahrzad is a tough heroine who reminds me of Feyre and Celaena. She’s strong-willed, confident, bold, snarky, knows how to fight, and believes in self-sacrifice.

We’ll be back next week with more cures for the “What Next?” woes. Until then, keep cool and keep reading.

Yours in books,

Allison, Nicola and Alyssa


New YA Fairy Tale Retellings: Valiant & The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

I don’t think I have to tell you that fairy tale retellings have become very popular. Too popular perhaps? Even if, like me, you’re an avid reader of fairy tale retellings that promote female agency and take a feminist perspective, you probably can’t help worrying that publishing will soon be oversaturated with them. How much longer will re-imaginings of well-worn tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White” be as creative and unique as, say, Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles?

One way a retelling stands out is if it is inspired by a lesser-known fairy tale, as is the case with two new releases: Sarah McGuire’s Valiant, a gender-bending reimagining of “The Brave Little Tailor,” and Stephanie Oakes’s The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, a contemporary story of violence against women based on “The Handless Maiden.” Both debut novels advocate for female empowerment and bring new life to familiar fairy tale tropes, but in very different ways.

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McGuire was smart to choose “The Brave Little Tailor” as the basis for Valiant. A clever and courageous tailor’s daughter, masquerading as a boy, defends a kingdom from an immortal duke and his army of giants.

In the beginning, Saville is at the mercy of her mean-spirited father who values his bolts of velvet and silk more than her. When he becomes ill, however, she takes a great risk: she dresses up as a boy and convinces the king to commission her as his tailor. Her masquerade is further jeopardized after she outsmarts two giants who threaten to attack the city, and she is declared the king’s champion and future brother-in-law. If the king finds out her true identity, she’ll likely be accused of treason and executed–even if she is the kingdom’s savior.

17185496Valiant relies heavily on fantasy elements like most fairy tale retellings, while The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is set in the real world. Both female protagonists are brave, clever, and rebellious, but Minnow Bly’s heroism depends on overcoming real-life imprisonment: first in a religious commune that abuses women and next in a juvenile detention center.

Oakes couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate fairy tale than “The Handless Maiden” for portraying Minnow’s brutal victimization as well as resilience. Minnow lost her hands after she rebelled against the Kevinian cult, and now she is in a juvenile detention center as the main suspect in the Prophet’s murder investigation. Fortunately, this novel is hopeful as well as harrowing since, rather ironically, it’s during her incarceration that she gains freedom and faith in herself.

If you like Valiant and The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly,  you may also be interested in Malindo Lo’s Ash, Rhionnan Thomas’s  A Wicked Thing (read Nicola’s recommendation here), Christine Heppermann’s Poisoned Apples, Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica (8/15), and Sarah Prineas’s Ash & Bramble (9/15).

While market oversaturation is a valid concern, I believe that fairy tale retellings can continue to be creative and unique. Here are a few of my most anticipated 2016 fairytale-inspired releases. (Summaries are from Goodreads.)

C. J. Redwine’s The Shadow Queen: From Publisher’s Weekly…a dark fantasy inspired by “Snow White.” A princess has lived in hiding from her stepmother for years, until the false queen sends out a new kind of huntsman – the crown prince of a nation of powerful dragon shifters, desperate enough to save his people to ally himself with even an evil usurper.

Wendy Higgins’s The Great Hunt: A strange beast stirs fear in the kingdom of Lochlanach, terrorizing towns with its brutality and hunger. In an act of desperation, a proclamation is sent to all of Eurona—kill the creature and win the ultimate prize: the daughter of King Lochson’s hand in marriage. Inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ tale, “The Singing Bone,” New York Times bestselling author Wendy Higgins delivers a dark fantasy filled with rugged hunters, romantic tension, outlawed magic, and a princess willing to risk all to save her people. 

Danielle Paige’s Stealing Snow: Reminiscent of Wicked and Maleficent, in Stealing Snow, seventeen-year-old Snow escapes a mental institution in upstate New York and ends up lost in Algid, a Winterland of ice. Confronted with a past she never knew she’d had, in a strange world that mirrors her dreams, Snow meets the River Witch who tells of a prophecy: Snow must save this mysterious frozen land from the evil King Lazar and claim it for her own or she will never escape Algid….This gripping, re-imagination of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” is equal parts romance and fairy tale—a quest to fulfill a destiny that may not go where the heart leads…and the dark twists and turns it sometimes takes to get there.

Alyssa recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction at Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She also writes staff recommendations for the Boulder Book Store, where she worked for many years as a bookseller. She thanks Edelweiss for The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly and NetGalley for Valiant. Please chat with her on Twitter about books! What are your favorite and most anticipated fairy tale retellings?


New Fairy Tale Retellings: Echo, Nightbird, Monstrous

Last week I recommended my favorite YA epic fantasy books published this month. Now I will share with you a few of my favorite new releases in another subgenre of fantasy/science fiction: fairy tale retellings.

You would think by now that reading classic fairy tales and their many adaptations and retellings would get old. But, amazingly enough, many writers have used familiar fairy tale elements to create surprisingly inventive and complex narratives. Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, and MarcyKate Connolly’s Monstrous employ fairy tales in their narratives in very diverse ways.

Echo, a breathtaking novel of interconnected stories, begins with an original fairy tale involving a magical harmonica that unites two boys and a girl growing up before and during World War II. They live in different worlds, strangers to one another, but they all experience prejudice and share a love of music.

The first story features Friedrich, an aspiring conductor who is called “Monster Boy” because of his birthmark and labeled an undesirable in Nazi Germany. In the second story, set in Pennsylvania, Mike and his brother desperately try to escape from an orphanage and their musical talent may be their best hope. In the final story, which takes place in California, Ivy struggles with her school system’s segregation of Mexicans (including those American-born like her) and discrimination against Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor bombing. By uniting these individual stories, Echo not only emphasizes their common experiences of injustice but their love of music—an enduring source of hope and resilience during dark times.

Nightbird, which will be released in March, also employs magical realism and is a fairy tale set in contemporary times. In 12-year-old Twig’s small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, a winged monster is rumored to come out at night and is believed to be responsible for strange incidents of theft and graffiti. Twig is a keen observer of what goes on in the town, but she also stays separate, and Nightbird fuses fairy tale elements with everyday life to bring more meaning to her isolation. She is not just a lonely and awkward 12-year-old who has difficulty making friends and feeling normal. A family secret—more specifically, a witch’s ancient curse—keeps her and her mother in self-imposed isolation. That is until Twig befriends their new neighbors who have ties to her family secret, and she starts to believe that breaking the curse is possible.

Monstrous also features a magical creature that humans fear and a curse the characters struggle to overcome. Fairy tale fantasy combines with a Frankenstein motif, as Kymera is brought back to life by her father, but without her original human body and memories of her previous life. A year ago she was killed, along with her mother, by the evil wizard who abducts and murders girls, using their young blood as a powerful ingredient in his magic spells. After many experiments joining his daughter’s human parts with multiple animal parts, her father has finally succeeded in recreating her as a hybrid with patchwork skin, cat eyes, claws, wings, and a barbed tail.

Monstrous’ fantasy world mirrors Kymera’s beloved volume of fairy tales, which she and her father read together during their seclusion in a hidden cottage outside of the city of Bryre. Her father wants to keep them safe from the evil wizard’s magic and from humans who would feel threatened by her appearance. Humans would see her as a monster, he explains, and not as his perfect creation and their salvation.

The wizard has cursed Bryre with a spreading deadly briar and a disease that sickens girls who he imprisons before using them for his dark magic spells. Bryre’s salvation depends on Kymera: her hybrid form is ideal for rescuing the girls from the wizard’s prison and bringing them to her father who cures and protects them. Her rescue missions become more complicated, however, as memories of her former life slowly resurface and her friendships with a mysterious boy and a rare dragon cause her to question what she believes to be true.

Although written for middle grade and young adult readers, I recommend these books for all ages—especially if you like fairy tale retellings. I love how they apply fairy tale magic to universal experiences of loneliness, prejudice, and finding hope and love in a damaged world. Older readers may find plot twists predictable, but I hope that doesn’t prevent anyone from picking up these enchanting reads. I also recommend Bird and Beastkeeper if you are looking for comparable books.

Perhaps what I love most about these novels and about many fairy tale retellings is that so-called monsters (who are alienated, judged, feared, and threatened because they are different in appearance or status from people considered normal and acceptable) demonstrate extraordinary humanity and don’t stop fighting for justice.

If you want a sense of just how many YA fairy tale retellings there are, check out this wonderful infographic.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and the publishers for providing her with advanced readers copies in exchange for her honest reviews.