Book Review: The Merry Spinster

the merry spinsterThe Merry Spinster – Tales of Everyday Horror
by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Fairy Tale Short Story Anthology
188 pages
Published March 2018

So this JUST came out. I’d had my eye on it for a few months, and put a request in as soon as my library ordered it. The author recently came out as trans, so it’s also part of my effort to read more inclusively. Ortberg definitely played with gender and sexuality in several of these tales; in one of them people decided whether to be the husband or the wife, independent of their gender, in their marriage. (One party to the marriage in the story stated “I’ve been trained for both roles.”) In another all of a man’s daughters used male pronouns and that was never explored further. That was slightly odd.

These were dark, twisted versions of these stories. “Our Friend Mr. Toad,” for example, involved gaslighting and psychologically torturing poor Mr. Toad. I found that one particularly disturbing. I enjoyed the title story, Ortberg’s version of Beauty and the Beast, which has a very different ending from expected. I also really liked “The Daughter Cells”, inspired by The Little Mermaid. I LOVED “Fear Not: An Incident Log.”

I think this was a great, albeit strange, little book. It’s unique, for sure, and a quick read. If you’re looking for a fairy tale collection that is VERY different, try this one.

From the cover of The Merry Spinster:

From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from the beloved “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, “The Merry Spinster” takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and the best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. The feature has become among the most popular on the site, with each entry bringing in tens of thousands of views, as the stories proved a perfect vehicle for Ortberg’s eye for deconstruction and destabilization. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children’s stories and fairy tales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.

Readers of The Toast will instantly recognize Ortberg’s boisterous good humor and uber-nerd swagger: those new to Ortberg’s oeuvre will delight in this collection’s unique spin on fiction, where something a bit mischievous and unsettling is always at work just beneath the surface.

Unfalteringly faithful to its beloved source material, The Merry Spinster also illuminates the unsuspected, and frequently, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, as we tuck ourselves in for the night.

Bed time will never be the same.

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Book Review: Crimson Bound

Crimson BoundCrimson Bound
by Rosamund Hodge
Fairy-tale Retelling
436 pages
Published 2015

Well, Rosamund Hodge has done it again. I think this one was actually better than Cruel Beauty, and about on par with Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. Crimson Bound is billed as Cruel Beauty #2, but it doesn’t actually seem to take place in the same world. They’re only connected in that they’re both dark fantasy retellings of fairy tales. Crimson Bound is loosely (VERY loosely!) based on Little Red Riding Hood. It’s amazing.

In Rachelle’s world, The Forest is the dominating theme – it encroaches on villages and towns, sending “woodspawn” to attack people, and Forestborn to turn more humans into bloodbound and ultimately Forestborn. Humans are sheep to The Forest; prey to the Forestborn. Once a Forestborn has marked a human, they have three days to kill someone or they will die. If they kill someone, they become bloodbound – an intermediary step before they become completely Forestborn. Bloodbound have increased strength, resilience, and fighting skills, so the King has extended an offer to Bloodbound – even though they are known murderers, since they had to have killed someone to gain their powers – he will grant them clemency in exchange for their service to the realm. Guard the people from the woodspawn, the mindless monsters the Forest sends to attack people, and he’ll let you live.

So Rachelle is a Bloodbound, bound to the King. Unlike most, though, she still believes in some of the old pagan stories about The Forest and the Devourer – the ancient evil driving the Forest’s predatory ways. The book is about her quest to stop it from coming through into their world and destroying everything. There are twists and reveals that I cannot mention here, but it is an AMAZING piece of world-building and myth and I LOVED IT.

I also discovered she has several short stories post on her website so I’ll be binge-reading those for a while!

This book – and anything by Rosamund Hodge – is pure magic. If you like dark fairy tales, you can’t do better than this.

From the cover of Crimson Bound:

When Rachelle was fifteen she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless—straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.

Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in a vain effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her hunt for the legendary sword that might save their world. Together, they navigate the opulent world of the courtly elite, where beauty and power reign and no one can be trusted. And as the two become unexpected allies, they discover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic . . . and a love that may be their undoing. Within a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?

 

Book Review: Cruel Beauty

cruel beautyCruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge
Fairy-tale Retelling
342 pages
Published 2014

After reading Bright Smoke, Cold Fire I knew I HAD to find more Rosamund Hodge. She has a fantastic flair for taking fairy tales (or Shakespeare!) and twisting them into something darker but more realistic. Cruel Beauty is a twist on Beauty and the Beast, but this is no Stockholm Syndrome-suffering Beauty. She is resentful, and bitter, and angry at her father for subjecting her to this. She has trained her entire life to go to the Beast and destroy him, even if it means destroying herself too. What she find at the castle is nothing like what she expected, though, and neither is she what Hodge’s Beast expects. Watching these two bitter, mocking characters dance around each other to get to the bottom of the curse and what actually happened to their world is engrossing and beautiful.

I couldn’t put this book down once I started it, and I’ve already started Crimson Bound (Little Red Riding Hood), the next book in the same world. There’s also a novella, Gilded Ashes (Cinderella), that I should snag a copy of.

The world is lovely and evocative, with gods and Forest Lords and Demons who actively participate in the world and grant wishes and make deals. It’s a little bit Rumpelstiltskin, a little Fairy Godmother, a little Greek mythology, and all Rosamund Hodge. She’s got talent, and writes my favorite micro-genre SO WELL.

If you like dark fairy tales, read this and then everything else Rosamund Hodge has written. It’s excellent!

From the cover of Cruel Beauty:

The romance of Beauty and the Beast meets the adventure of Graceling in this dazzling fantasy novel about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Perfect for fans of bestselling An Ember in the Ashes and A Court of Thorns and Roses, this gorgeously written debut infuses the classic fairy tale with glittering magic, a feisty heroine, and a romance sure to take your breath away.

Betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom, Nyx has always known that her fate was to marry him, kill him, and free her people from his tyranny. But on her seventeenth birthday when she moves into his castle high on the kingdom’s mountaintop, nothing is what she expected—particularly her charming and beguiling new husband. Nyx knows she must save her homeland at all costs, yet she can’t resist the pull of her sworn enemy—who’s gotten in her way by stealing her heart.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

So I usually publish a review on Saturdays, but as it’s St. Patrick’s Day today, I thought I’d do something a little different, and share the Irish books on my shelves! I have Irish and Scottish ancestry, so I’ve always been fascinated by Celtic things. It’s also a popular theme in the Renaissance Faire community, so I see a lot of it. So here are my Irish books, with a couple of more general Celtic books tossed in.

bloody irishBloody Irish – Celtic Vampire Legends by Bob Curran
A short book, only 186 pages, but centered on Irish Vampire stories. This book hails from the days I played Vampire: the Masquerade all the time! I didn’t find anything in here too creepy, but it gave me material to use in my games!

 

celtic myths legendsCeltic Myths and Legends by Eoin Neeson
This one actually belongs to one of my housemates. Unlike the rest of these, it only has seven stories, but they are preceded by a lengthy foreword on the place of myth in Celtic history, and what we know about ancient Celtic history. Each story is much longer than the stories in most of these other books, as well. And having the larger historical context is pretty interesting.

 

irish fairy folk peasantry talesFairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry edited by William Butler Yeats
This one focuses more on the Irish tales, rather than general Celtic ones, and most of them were collected in the 19th century by folklorists, so the language is rather old-fashioned. There are stories here that I haven’t seen anywhere else, though, like Bewitched Butter, and Rent-day, and The Pudding Bewitched.

 

great irish fantasy myth talesGreat Irish Tales of Fantasy and Myth edited by Peter Haining
Similar to Celtic Myths and Legends, this book includes context for its stories, but instead of a lengthy foreword, it contains a few paragraphs before each story about the legend it came from and the authors who recorded it. I like the bit of context and history it gives to each individual story.

celtic fairy talesCeltic Fairy Tales collected by Joseph Jacobs
Another general Celtic book. It overlaps a few stories with the Irish Peasantry book – The Horned Women and King O’Toole and his Goose, among others, but still a fun book of fairy tales. He has a second book (More Celtic Fairy Tales) that I don’t own.

 

 

 

irish tales fairies ghost worldIrish Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtin
Another book belonging to a housemate. A tiny book of only 124 pages, it still manages to cram in 30 stories told within a framework of a man and his houseguest trading stories.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

thebearThe Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden
Fairy-tale Retelling
330 pages
Published 2017

So I finally got around to reading this one – people have been raving about it all year long. And honestly – I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s good, sure. But it’s not Girls Made of Snow and Glass, or The Crown’s Game, or Uprooted. It’s not The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it, but I think the hype is a little undeserved. I am, however, always a sucker for Russian-themed fairytales. (Probably why I liked The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate so much.) And I am looking forward to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, which just came out. (I have a hold requested on it from my library.) The third book in the Winternight Trilogy appears to be The Winter of the Witch, and is scheduled to be published in August.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in Rus – a Russia-like country, but with magic, of course. Vasilisa/Vasya is a granddaughter of a witch, and has some abilities herself. Mostly just the ability to see things that other can’t, and to talk to them. Through the course of the book, she avoids an arranged marriage, saves a priest, fights a priest, and tries like hell to save her village from the demons of winter. I loved her tenacity, and her love for the old spirits. The description of The Winter King and his home was absolutely enchanting. Overall a good book, but a bit overhyped.

From the cover of The Bear and the Nightingale:

Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
 
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village. 
 
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

forest1kForest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie C. Dao
Fairy Tale Retelling
363 pages
Published 2017

You know I love my Fairy Tales! Especially re-imagining the villains. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an Asian take on the evil queen from Snow White. The author is a Vietnamese American, and this is her debut novel. She has quite skillfully woven a new origin story for the wicked stepmother in a fantasy land heavily influenced by East Asian mythology and culture. I don’t know enough about the individual countries’ mythologies to tell you if the influences come specifically from Vietnam, or more generically from the area. I know that their beliefs can vary pretty wildly by locale.

That said, this is another superb debut novel. I’m eager to read the sequel – it’s billed as “A Rise of the Empress novel” so I’m sure there will be one or more. Xifeng is a pretty complex character – she is somewhat single-minded in what she wants, but conflicted in what to do to get it. (It being the position of Empress.) I was intrigued by who was chosen to fill the roles of the traditional tale; Xifeng, of course, would be the wicked stepmother. The Fool is Xifeng’s version of Snow White, and Xifeng thought for some time that she knew who The Fool was. The reader, of course, knows the Fool must be Snow White, and so not the people who Xifeng suspected. The one that surprised me was the identity of The Huntsman. I won’t spoil anything – but he was unexpected.

There’s also more going on than just the Snow White plot. There are gods and goddesses and spirits and an underlying war. I am quite eager to see how those play out.

There is a slow spot in the middle – I set the book down for a couple of days before picking it up again, and that’s always a sign I’m not as absorbed in the book as I could be. But I did pick it up again and read straight through to the end, so it’s not too bad!

If you like Fairy Tales and Asian mythology, this is definitely a neat blend of the two. I really liked it.

From the cover of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns:

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. 

Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins – sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.