The Trickster and the Storyteller – The Top Ten Reads of 2012

A good book should leave you…slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.

– William Styron

What a year of books it has been! To choose an arbitrary number for my favourites is an act of self-inflicted frustration – I mean, I could have made it the top twenty instead – but for some reason that feels dishonest (and dangerously open-ended, I told you I can’t trust myself where lists are concerned) so I have instead honed the brilliance of a year’s reading down to a choice of ten. Each book on this list displays a combination of superb writing, excellent characters and mind-blowing imagination. Some of them I own, and treasure. Most I don’t, and covet. Whoever is reading this, wherever and whenever you are, I would love to know your top ten too. This is literary cross-pollination, and the flowers can be wonderful.

  1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  2. The Tricksters – Margaret Mahy
  3. The Shape-Shifter’s Wife – Sharon Shinn
  4. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente
  5. The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater
  6. The Courier’s New Bicycle – Kim Westwood
  7. The Demon’s Covenant – Sarah Rees Brennan
  8. White Cat – Holly Black
  9. De Luxe – Lenny Bartulin
  10. House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

An Anatomy of Lists

“One must always be careful of books,” said Tessa, “and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.”

– Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

Late last year, I began writing a list. I should have known better. My lists have a history of evolving from a few bullet points to life-consuming catalogues that never end.

It may already be obvious I am an avid book lover, and that most of what I read is speculative fiction. My attitude is, what’s the point of reading about ‘real’ life when I have a real life of my own to put up with? I want to change reality. I want to wave my fingers, or at least a pen, and conjure dragons from the clouds, portals from bare brick. But I also have a wide-ranging sense of curiosity, a feeling of obligation to the classics, and an unshakeable optimism that comes with the arrival of a brand new calendar. All this resulted in an unmanageable accumulation of mental notes on what I wanted to read in the new year. I set myself the challenge of venturing into unfamiliar genres, diving after anything that caught my fancy. 2012, the year of broadened horizons. The list would get me there.

The thing is, I still haven’t finished writing it. I can’t stop adding things. By now I’ve got a backlog literally numbering in the hundreds. I couldn’t get through that many within the space of one year if I abandoned all other pursuits and did nothing else but read. Which admittedly sounds nice. Someone will recommend an old favourite, or I’ll see an interesting blurb in a bookshop; my local library keeps sending newsletters of fantasy and science fiction. Much loved authors release new books, or I find out they’ve written books I haven’t read. Then there are the classics that all cultured and intelligent people are supposed to know. This is no longer just a list. It’s a physical embodiment of personal ambition. I want to get all the references, understand all the hidden jokes. I want to uncover worlds I didn’t know existed and explore their secrets. I want to build myself Daedalus wings from the pages of every book I encounter and fly beyond the horizons of my limited knowledge. I want to add a thousand incandescent strands to my personal web of reading.

What I want may not be possible. There will be books on the List I may not be able to find, let alone stomach; books I will abandon halfway through because they’re boring or depressing or there’s something else I want to read more. There are books on that list just for the challenge they represent. I may hate them. Once that might have been enough to make me turn back for safer waters, but not any more, or at least not right now. Everyone is reaching for a personal horizon – to paint that picture, reproduce that recipe, run that marathon, play that song. I want to read those books. So here I am, at the end of 2012, with the list unrolling away from my metaphorical feet like a road of words.

When I’ve read them…well. Who knows what they will make me want to do next?

Vignette No.16 – Red Man’s Wood

Red Man’s Wood

It was not the top hat – that has been confirmed. He left it behind and it’s perfectly ordinary, a costume piece that has seen better days, or better decades. Nor did he go through the wardrobe. That, too, has been examined carefully by experts, myself among them. There was some hope when a scattering of golden stars were found right at the back, but these were identified as sequins, and it’s been agreed that the magic did not come from there. The Speculative Escapist Society will continue its investigation, of course. We all want to know how it happened. Whether it could maybe happen to us too.

But I don’t think it will. You see, I think I know already.

I met him. I put an elderly Christmas tree outside my house one year for kerbside collection and that morning he showed up in his red truck like he’d heard it calling for his help. He was a big broad-shouldered man, I remember, though he must have been in his early seventies. Beautifully dressed, too, in a crimson waistcoat and black silk top hat. He picked that balding tree up off the rest of the rubbish like it was a crying child and carried it carefully around to the bed of the truck. When I leaned closer to my window, curious, I saw there were two others like it already there. I watched him drive out of sight, and wondered. I am an Escapist. We cannot resist strange things.

In further evidence of the interconnectivity of the universe, I heard a friend talking less than a week later about ‘the Christmas man’. I had a slight frisson and took down the address. It was out of the suburbs, where the road was rough and the houses were all big properties backing onto long tracts of bushland. I did have some concerns about the second-hand directions, but as it turned out, it wasn’t hard to find what I was looking for. When I reached the house, I just stopped the car and stared. I was outside an acreage that had been completely overgrown by a forest of Christmas trees.

Slowly, I climbed out of the car. It was August then, evening sunlight a thick golden haze, gum trees filling the air with their lemony scent, but on the other side of the fence it was all artificial pines. Some were tall, six-footers or larger; others were tiny, baby trees I could have cupped between my hands. There were all colours, too – white, black, pink, every shade of green. I walked closer and that was when I saw him, the old man, pottering quietly through his forest with a basket on his arm. He saw me at the fence and waved like we were friends. He let me in. Later on I found out he did the same for everyone. I wandered through narrow paths between the trees, where ornaments shone and spun in the sunlight and the old man’s footsteps crisscrossed over each other in a thousand trails. I found him, too, eventually, and he took me inside to make me tea.

He wouldn’t answer my questions, only smiled. I heard his story from other people. How he found the forgotten trees and brought them home to the forest. How he collected broken ornaments and mended them, rescued left-behind toys, gave them all a place. I think that one day he rescued something that understood. Something alive.

He disappeared on the day before Christmas. He’s been gone for months now. But sometimes there is a scatter of inexplicable snow on the ground among the trees, or a trail of sequin stars that disappears where it can no longer be followed. I saw a little brown bird once, with a red breast, perched at the top of the tallest tree.

I think he found the Forest. Or rather, it found him, and it took him home.

© Faith Mudge 2012

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.20 – Friends of the Frog

Witches turn people into frogs. Everyone knows that. It’s traditional. Some authors have even turned it into a joke – Terry Pratchett exploring the hard physics of transformation in his Tiffany Aching novel A Hat Full of Sky is genius fantasy – but this week I’m exploring the origins of the legend by comparing four different fairy tales that introduce us to talking frogs. If they prove anything, it’s that frogs are a resourceful lot, and they also attract the lost possessions of royalty like iron filings to a magnet.

Version 1: The Queen’s Ring

Taken from the 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’s collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, this story introduces us to a beautiful but deeply depressed queen who is walking alone in the meadows around her palace wondering what has become of her husband. He went away to war and for months she has had no news of him. At last, tired out by her restless wandering, the queen finds her way to a well where she sits to rest. It is a favourite place with her, the place where the king gave her a beautiful diamond ring as a memento of their love and one last kiss before he rode away to war. Lost in memory, the queen slips the ring from her finger and presses it against her cheek, begging it to tell her where her husband is. Instead it slips from her hand, falling into the well. Horrified, the queen sobs like she has lost her husband all over again.

Her tears do not go unnoticed. A curious frog climbs out of the well and inquires why she is so upset. Apparently too upset to worry about trifling things like frogs who can talk, the queen tells it about her ring. The frog offers to retrieve it for her if she will provide a favour in return, and the queen, rather rashly, promises it anything it wants if it will only find her ring. The frog duly returns with the ring in one webbed hand and claims its favour – a kiss from the queen, on the mouth. She is completely taken aback. Of course she doesn’t want to kiss a slimy frog. She phrases her feelings with more care, grateful for its assistance, explaining that she will kiss no one but her husband. The frog is unmoved by this connubial loyalty. No kiss, no ring. It is prepared to jump back into the well, taking the queen’s ring with it; she relents, lifting it so that she can kiss its cold mouth.

But then she’s not kissing a frog any more, she’s kissing a man, a man with her husband’s laughing voice who is putting his arms around her. After the war, he tells her, when he was riding home, a mist descended and he was separated from the rest of his men. When the mist cleared, he was alone in front of a small house in the forest where a beautiful girl sat spinning silver thread. She was happy to offer him a night’s lodging, but in return for a kiss, and the king won’t kiss anyone except his own wife. The girl leaps up, turning into a raging witch. He’s no king, she screams, he’s nothing but a cold-blooded frog. No sooner has she said that then that is what he is, and until a beautiful woman kisses his new shape of her own free will, he will stay that way.

It is a long way back to his own kingdom with legs so short. On his way he sees many lovely women and perhaps one of them might have taken pity on him – but he has never kissed anyone but his wife the queen, and he will kiss no one else. So he makes his slow and painful way back to his own kingdom, where his wife was waiting by a well. With that, the king puts the diamond ring back on her finger and together they return to their palace. The story concludes with a happily ever after, but I could see that anyway. This couple took their vows pretty seriously. For wetter or for worse…

Version 2: The Friendly Frog

This fairy tale is taken from the 1999 Puffin Books anthology Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales but was actually written by Madame d’Aulnoy, a prolific contemporary of Perrault. Her story also begins with a king at war. Fearing for his wife, he ignores her protests to remain with him and hides her away in a forest stronghold where his enemies cannot possibly find her. Once there, however, she broods on the loss of her home and husband to the point where she decides he must be trying to make her suffer, though he writes many letters to explain the situation at home. Eventually the queen decides she’s been exiled long enough. Pretending she wants a chariot for hunting, she formulates an escape plan and orders a grand hunt to be commenced. Instead of taking her back to the king, the horses go wild and run away with her, overturning the chariot and pinning her foot underneath. Not exactly the escape she had planned.

When she opens her eyes at long last, she is no longer alone. A female giant is standing over her, wearing a lion’s skin and carrying a stone club. The queen is convinced this must be what lies on the other side of death, but the giantess just laughs. She is, she explains, the lion-witch. She is also lonely, bored and planning to take the protesting queen home with her as a sort of pet. With this explanation, she takes the form of a lion and carries the queen home with her down an endless stair into a vast cavern, where monsters dwell in a lake of quicksilver – but there is nothing more dangerous here than the lion-witch herself. Having recovered from her injuries, the queen is set her first task, the making of a fly-pasty. For a resourceful peasant, that might not be so impossible, even with a chronic lack of flies. The queen, however, has never made pastry in her life and is inclined to fall into despair instead of making a plan. She doesn’t even try looking for flies. Instead she starts sobbing about how much she misses her husband and how worried she is he’ll fall in love with somebody else.

She looks up, eventually, and sees someone who has more problems than she does – a frog who is being swallowed alive by a raven. This is enough to lift her from her depressed lethargy and she goes at the raven with a stick, scaring it enough to make it release the frog. It is very grateful to the queen. She knows this because it tells her so. Unlike the queen in the previous story, she doesn’t take the matter of a talking frog in her stride and demands explanations, which the frog duly provides. She is not, in fact, a real frog – she has a little fairy blood, a strong sense of curiosity, and a cap of roses that is supposed to protect her but got left behind at an inopportune moment, hence her encounter with a hungry raven. To thank the queen for her kindness, the frog then gathers together an army of her frog friends (six thousand of them, to be precise) to hunt down flies for the lion-witch’s pasty.

That’s not the end of their friendship, though. The air of the witch’s cave is toxic and the queen begins to build herself a hut for some protection against it. The frog reunites her army of followers and somehow, with mysterious architectural prowess for creatures who don’t actually possess opposable thumbs, they create a beautiful little hut. She doesn’t get to keep it for long. The monsters from the lake drive her out with their screaming and wailing and promptly move in the moment she’s out the door, so she goes again to the frog, who’s very sympathetic and quickly puts together an even better house that same night.

The queen needs its sanctuary more than ever now, because she has discovered she is expecting a child. Not that this induces any kindness from the lion-witch. The queen’s next task is to produce, from somewhere in this wasteland, a bouquet of flowers. She turns to the frog, who enlists the assistance of a kindly bat, who – with the loan of the magical cap of roses – returns shortly with a beautiful posy tucked under her wing. The frog is a very useful friend to have, but if you’re thinking she can conjure a similarly successful plan of escape, you’d be wrong. She goes through a few rites and announces to her horror-struck friend that actually, Fate says no. The queen will not escape. She’ll have a very pretty daughter though, the frog adds in a dismal attempt to cheer her up. It’s not all bad news!

Tell that to the king. When the war is over, he sends word to the queen, only to be told by her servants that she died in a hunting accident. He is overcome at first by his grief, withdrawing to the palace to mourn alone, but he’s a dutiful leader and pulls himself together to start rebuilding after the war. He doesn’t know that the woman he’s literally tearing his hair out over is not only alive, but has just given birth to their first child, a baby girl of extraordinary beauty. The queen names her Moufette and manages, with considerable difficulty, to convince the lion-witch not to eat her. Months go past. As the baby grows, the queen’s mind returns to her husband and her fears that he will have already replaced her. It disturbs her so much that the frog offers to make the long and difficult journey from the lion-witch’s cavern to Moufette’s father’s kingdom so that she can tell him the truth. She takes with her a message written by the queen in her own blood – the only ink she has to use in this place – and, in a strange little carriage made from tortoise-shell and lizard-skin, she sets off, accompanied by frogs and rats for servants, with snails for mounts. Which makes for a remarkable spectacle if you happen to see them passing by, but isn’t so good for speed.

It takes her NINE YEARS to get there. And when she does, it’s to a scene of festivity, because the queen’s fears have finally been realised – the king’s getting married again. The frog is affronted on her friend’s behalf. She tells the king about his wife’s imprisonment and the birth of his daughter, providing as evidence the ragged letter written by the queen. He is ecstatic. In the middle of his eager questioning, though, a guest loudly denounces the frog as ‘scum of the marshes’, insisting that she is no more than an attention-seeking liar trying to hoodwink the whole court. She throws that back in his face with a display of fairy magic, turning her company into humans dressed so well they could have come from the greatest of courts. They keep changing, turning into dancing flowers, leaping waterfalls and gleaming boats, before finally returning to their original shapes as frogs and rats. The king drops his wedding plans. With a ring given to him by the frog to help him find his way, he sets forth alone to rescue his wife and daughter.

They’re not doing so badly, though. The lion-witch has for some years been permitting them to leave the cavern to hunt with her, and little Moufette’s aim is excellent. It is during one of these hunts, while the queen and her daughter are riding on the witch’s lion form, that the king sees them and recognises his wife. Though they are moving too fast for him to follow, he is guided by the frog’s ring to the cavern where they live. The lion-witch is aware of him. Fate organised this one too, but she’s not letting him in that easily, and constructs a palace of crystal at the centre of the quicksilver lake where she hides her two prisoners. The monsters surround it. This is phase two of her plan, phase one being to attack the king herself the moment he enters the cavern by launching herself at him in lioness form. This doesn’t work out too well. He is handy with a sword and furious about the loss of his family to boot. Cutting off one of her paws, he presses his advantage and pins her beneath the tip of his sword, demanding the return of his wife and child. She jeeringly points at the lake – if you want them, go and get them. She then disappears and the king is left to find a way to the crystal palace alone.

And it takes him a while. Three years, in fact, living off bitter fruits and sleeping on the hard ground, spending each day running around the lake trying to catch the palace as it floats from one side to the other. The monsters seem to find it all a bit entertaining. Eventually, one of the dragons approaches him with an offer – it will help him rescue his wife and daughter, in exchange for a certain tit-bit to which the dragon has taken a fancy. Suspicious? Oh, yes. But the king’s spent three years getting nowhere and is so grateful for the help that right now he would give the dragon anything at all. With its assistance, they fight their way to the palace. The queen, who has had to wait a whole lot longer than three years, starts kicking down the walls and uses chunks of crystal to join the fight. Go, queen! At last the battle is won. The long-parted couple fly into each other’s arms, and…

…just like that, they’re home. In the king’s own palace, around a feast no less, with Moufette beside them and everyone in an amazed uproar at this extraordinary turn of events. Yay! Happy endings! The celebrations draw royalty from all over the world and among them is Prince Moufy, who falls immediately in love with Moufette. Well, their names match. That’s a good omen, right? And the king makes no objections, he will let his daughter marry anyone she thinks will make her happy. Of course, unless a lot more time has passed since their miraculous return than specified by the story, Moufette is only about thirteen years old. Apparently that’s okay in this part of the world, because the betrothal is quickly announced and Prince Moufy returns to his own country to make preparations for the wedding.

The prince has been gone for several months when an envoy arrives from the dragon. You didn’t think he was just going to go away, did you? He reminds the king of his promise and explains that the tid-bit he has in mind is Moufette, baked into a pie. The king is one of those people who takes honour very, very seriously and realising he’s actually thinking about this, the queen is sent into a state of livid shock. She pleads with the envoy herself, begging him to spare her daughter, but is met with polite, firm denial. She then faints and the princess, who is after all the one who may soon be eaten, is forced to pull herself together so that she could look after her mother.

The king doesn’t give her up after all, and the dragon offers an unexpected alternative. The princess will be spared if she will consent to marry his nephew, who is reportedly young, handsome and rich. Moufette’s parents think this sounds a much better option, but she’s having none of it. She will marry Prince Moufy or be a pie. Her determination is so immoveable that at last she is brought to a mountain top to await the dragon, surrounded by a company of mourners and her grieving parents. The queen wails aloud, accusing the frog of deserting her, but when the dragon’s envoy demands the mourners disperse, no one tries to resist. They decamp instead to a neighbouring hill-top so that they can at least see what happens to the princess. The dragon is already on his way – huge, blue, and overweight. That’s what happens when you eat too many pies.

As he slowly flaps his way towards the mountain where the princess is waiting for him, the mistakenly accused frog is also winging away, riding on hawk-back to find Prince Moufy. She creates for him a three-headed, fire-breathing horse, a weightless sword and a coat made from flexible diamond, then sends him off at an impossible speed, so that he reaches Moufette before the dragon. With his killer steed, the prince draws first blood in the ensuing battle, and with the watching mourners cheering him on he fights the dragon down to the ground, where he finishes it off with his fairy sword. To everyone’s shock, a dandyishly dressed young man steps from the dragon’s severed neck and starts hitting on the prince. “How can I ever repay you, my gallant deliverer?” he declares, before explaining that he was enchanted by the lion-witch and it was on her command that he was to devour the princess. He pays his respects to the bemused princess and the whole scene descends into happy pandemonium.

To crown off the rejoicing, the frog flies down from on high and transforms into a majestic noblewoman. And the crowning is quite literal, because she is so impressed by Moufette’s constancy that she gives each lover a myrtle wreath and turns the dragon’s bones into an arch in commemoration of the event. The marriage takes place the next day. Between a fairy frog and a dragon prince, it must have been an interesting ceremony. Madame d’Aulnoy leaves it to her reader’s imagination. I don’t blame her.

Version 3: Cherry, or the Frog-Bride

Taken from the Dean&Son Ltd. collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this story is named after a young girl who is so fond of cherries that Cherry is what everyone calls her. When the king of the land sends out his three sons to see the world, all three happen to see Cherry standing at her window brushing her hair and fall madly in love with her. So madly that they all take out their swords and start fighting. The abbess of a local nunnery comes to see what is going on. Now, she has some unpleasant history with Cherry already, being very fond of cherries herself and none too pleased at the scarcity of supply. Blaming her for the fight instead of the brutish princes, she wishes the girl would turn into an ugly frog and end up under a bridge at the world’s end. Perhaps it is her good relationship with God, but no sooner has she wished it than Cherry disappears. The princes come to their senses, shake hands and go home without a second thought for the poor cursed girl.

The king, meanwhile, has decided he is too old to rule and arranges three trials to determine which of his sons would rule best in his stead. The first task is to seek out one hundred ells of cloth so fine in weave that it can be drawn through his ring. I have no idea how much a hundred ells of cloth might mean. Let’s assume it’s a lot. The elder two brothers ride off with large companies to seek out the finest of fabrics, but the third prince goes off on his own and for some reason chooses a dirty, depressing road. It takes him not to a weaver, but a certain bridge, where his sighs draw the attention of a kind-hearted frog. Though he’s quite rude to her, she offers him her help in the form of a length of fine, if grubby, cloth. He reluctantly thanks her and, having nothing better to show for his journey, brings it home to his father. When he draws it from his pocket to be compared with the offerings of his brothers, it is magically clean and goes through the ring without the slightest difficulty.

Well, the first task was at least humanly possible. The second task would imply that the king is having second thoughts about giving up his throne. He wants a dog so small that it can lie down in a nutshell. While the older brothers head off in a definite panic, the youngest returns to the frog’s bridge, where his problems are once again solved. He comes back with a hazel nut, and when his father cracks it, a white dog runs out so little that it can scamper around on the king’s palm. The king is thrilled with his new pet. Reconciled to retirement, his last task would seem to be the easiest – whoever brings home the fairest bride will be crowned in his place.

The elder two brothers have renewed optimism. The youngest, for once, does not. He doubts that the frog can produce a beautiful young woman the same way it has found him cloth and nut-dogs, but he goes to ask anyway. The frog tells him that she can help – only he must not laugh at anything that happens. Still not convinced that she can do what she promises, the prince returns home, followed by a peculiar little carriage made from an actual pumpkin, drawn by actual water rats. Take note, Cinderella, this is how girls without fairy godmothers get to the ball. At the last minute, though, magic does intervene, and the prince turns around to find himself facing a grand carriage. When the door opens, down steps the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen – and he has seen her before, because it’s none other than poor Cherry, restored to her own shape. The prince is awarded the crown and gets the girl. Hopefully her newly discovered streak of sorcery will be enough to defend her if her husband’s brothers decide to recommence the fight that started the whole mess in the first place.

Version 4: The Frog Prince

This one is from the 1974 Children’s Press edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the concerns the most famous frog of them all. When a king’s youngest and loveliest daughter is out playing in the castle gardens one hot day, tossing her golden ball up and down beside a quiet little fountain, it falls from her hand and rolls into the water, which is so deep she can’t see even the glint of her favourite toy. She begins to cry. A voice rises from the water, asking what is wrong, and she looks around to see a frog watching her. She tells him mournfully about her ball and he agrees to retrieve it for her, if in exchange she will allow him to be her constant companion – eating from her plate, drinking from her cup, sleeping in her bed. It’s a creepy proposition and the princess, though she agrees, has no intention of actually doing as he asks. When the frog returns with her ball in his mouth, she runs off happily, leaving him behind without so much as a thank you.

But oh dear, promises are a dangerous matter in a fairy tale. They have a habit of catching up with you. The next day, while the royal court is at dinner in the great hall, a strange splashing sound is heard on the steps outside and a knock is heard at the door, with a voice calling for the king’s youngest daughter. She rises to open it, sees the frog, and slams it quickly shut again. When she returns to her seat, the king is surprised at her distress and wants to know who was waiting outside, joking jovially about giants coming to take her away. He is less sympathetic when the princess explains the story and insists she lets the frog in.

It’s not an enjoyable meal for her. She is forced to lift the frog up so that he can reach her plate and eat with her, though his presence is enough to almost make her sick. Afterwards he wants to go to bed. The princess begins to cry, horrified at the thought of the cold slimy frog in her own clean, safe bed. You’d think her father might draw the line here, but instead he totally backs the frog and the princess has to take her unwanted guest with her to her bedchamber. She tries to compromise by leaving him in a corner of the room. He won’t leave her alone, coming up to the bed and threatening to go to her father if she doesn’t lift him up. Furiously, she snatches him up and – in an act of startling cruelty – hurls him at the wall.

But it isn’t a frog who falls to the ground. It is a beautiful prince, enchanted by a witch to remain in that shape, in the fountain. It isn’t explained why throwing him at a wall was enough to free him, or how he managed to leave the fountain after all without the princess’s help. The power of a promise seems completely unlimited. The princess likes this version of her guest much better and the next morning, when a magnificent carriage arrives out of the blue, happily accepts that she will be whisked away to the prince’s own kingdom. With the carriage has arrived his loyal servant Henry, who grieved so much when his master was turned into a frog that he had three iron bands placed around his heart for fear it would break. As he helps the young couple into the carriage, it apparently having been decided in the night that they will get married, he is so full of joy that the iron around his heart splits apart.

Possibly I am being unnecessarily literally minded, but riding around with bits of sharp metal inside you? It doesn’t sound like a joy that is going to be very long-lived if he doesn’t get to a surgeon right now. Also, what is the king thinking at this point? The Grimms are in such haste to conclude everything with a wedding that they are marrying off a pair of volatile children who have only known each other for ONE DAY!

The frogs of these stories are each described as ugly at least once, which is strange, because I personally think frogs are pretty cute. Not cute enough to kiss, though, or take home to sleep on my pillow. Something I find intriguing about these four stories is how both female frogs appear to have a considerable degree of control over their return to human form and at least some command of magic. The male frogs, on the other hand, have to bribe the right royal into restoring them. And only one frog requires a kiss to be human again. In the same collection as this version of ‘The Frog Prince’ is one of ‘Briar Rose’, in which a childless queen finds a fortune telling frog in her bath who predicts the birth of her daughter. It just goes to show, you can find them anywhere.

This is the last Fairy Tale Tuesday of the year – I will be back with heroic birds and musical espionage on the first of January 2013.

Review No.50 – Peter Pan and Wendy

Peter Pan and Wendy – J.M. Barrie

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., Unknown

Yes, I really have never read Peter Pan before, or seen the Disney adaptation. I knew some of the famous quotes, of course – ‘second to the right and then straight on ’til morning’ – and have read about Barrie’s life, but this is the first time I have tried the actual novel. The edition I read is a beautiful old hardback so old that it has no date of publication inside. It would feel almost rude not to like a book that looks so venerable.

The three Darling children have often dreamed of Neverland, a place on the edge of their imaginations, but when a strange boy arrives in their room one night and wakes Wendy by searching for his lost shadow, they are whisked away to Neverland made real – a place of gleaming lagoons, tempestuous fairies and endless adventures. For the boy is Peter Pan, the child who ran away to live with the fairies and refuses to ever grow up. Neverland is his home. Unfortunately, it is also home to the wicked pirate Captain Hook, who is determined to rid himself of Peter’s frustrating existence once and for all, and has just discovered the perfect way to do it…

It is a strange beast, this book. There is a beautiful lyricism to the style of writing, many of the characters are complex and unpredictable, and it is overflowing with the brilliantly mad ideas that characterise classic fantasy. I enjoyed it very much. At the same time, though, I’m glad I didn’t read this as a child, because it would have broken my heart into little pieces. The ending is for adults, more bitter than sweet. The casual sexism and racism are also, while unsurprising is the context of Barrie’s time, jarring to me as a modern reader. All the same, there is a reason this book is so beloved as a classic. Who could not love the rakishly world-weary Captain Hook, the feisty fashion-conscious diva that is Tinker Bell, and transport via trees?

Year of the Dreamer

So, if I was needing more reasons to love December…it’s official, my short story ‘Winter’s Heart’ will be included in Fablecroft Publishing’s new anthology One Small Step! The table of contents is up on the Fablecroft website. And what company am I in! There are contributions by Rowena Cory Daniells, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Angela Slatter, Kathleen Jennings and so many more – all edited of course by the wonderful Tehani Wessely. It is due to be released in April next year, the same time as Dreaming of Djinn, so…all I can say is, April 2013 will be a month to remember! There is also a Christmas special on my previous work with Fablecroft, the boutique collection To Spin a Darker Stair, which pairs my story ‘Oracle’s Tower’ with Catherynne M. Valente’s darkly beautiful ‘A Delicate Architecture’.

This has been an amazing year for me. Things that I have been dreaming of for years are finally beginning to happen, which is – a little overwhelming, actually. Don’t worry. I’m sure I can get used to it.

On the 20th of this month the Dreamline will have been around for seven months. It was, still is in fact, my first ever blog and I don’t know how long I spent trying to come up with a good first post, but it was long enough to work myself into a state of intense nervous cynicism. I expected trouble from the first. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about people who have been forced offline by anonymous aggression; bloggers I really like keep coming out with new restrictions so that they can cope with the strain.

As it turned out, I am harder to find than I gave myself credit for, and I like it that way. I still don’t know how half the people who visit this site locate it – it isn’t even the first thing that comes up when you Google my name, so go figure that one.

I know I’ll get the wrong sort of attention eventually if I stay online. It’s a matter of statistical probabilities. But you know what? I haven’t had a single unpleasant comment yet. You have been absolutely fantastic, readers of the Dreamline, and I want to thank you for that. I started this with one toe in the water, really wary about what I was getting myself into. Now I know that next week I’ll be publishing my hundredth post. I have talked about everything from Margaret Mahy to Jane Austen, fairy tales to feminism, and there’s still so much more to say. There will be new directions to take in 2013, more books to review and fairy tales to explore, rants to be made and news to share. I’m looking forward to it.

Whatever you believe and celebrate at this time of year, may the rest of your December be happy and your new year bright. Best wishes from the Dreamline.

The Twelve Books of Christmas

December in Queensland means the smell of gardenias. It means the song of the koel and the frangipanis coming out. The harsh summer light withers the grass until it crunches under your feet, there’s a heat haze on the horizon and sweat sticking your hair to the back of your neck. Cicadas drone from the bushes like insectoid hypnotists. Then the clouds start massing and a cool wind brings the smell of rain and the rumble of distant thunder as the heat breaks with a storm. It often storms on Christmas Day.

It’s a dichotomy, really. On days when a bottle of shampoo that hasn’t been anywhere near the sun feels like it’s been microwaved, we exchange cards printed with wintry landscapes and reindeer. But I love that. It’s an Australian thing, lifting something from another culture and bunging it in here even if it looks weird, just because we like it. The convict heritage always tells.

December means feel-good articles in the Courier Mail about Christmas lights and charity drives in the local paper. The term ‘Grinch’ is usually over-used. Glossy brochures offering all manner of enticing things fall in the letterbox, Santa chocolates appear at the corner shop counter, you start hearing carols on TV advertisements. There are specials on things that I, as a vegetarian, will never eat. But this is when you see the summer fruits, too – plums, mangoes, nectarines. Christmas food.

And I know people look at a lot of these things as gross commercialism, but in my opinion, if brochures no one is making you read and television advertisements no one is making you watch are enough to destroy your faith in the season, you aren’t trying hard enough. This is no time to be cynical. I get a thrill from it all – the recipes I will never get around to cooking, the holly-patterned crockery that gets used maybe once a year, the glitter and sparkle of decorations in shop displays that wouldn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in Mount Isa of fitting on our family’s overstuffed tree.

One of the biggest things about Christmas for me, though, has always been the annual re-emergence of the Yuletide Library.

I only started calling it that quite recently. When you have five or six large boxes of Christmas books, stuffed to the gills, and each year you get more, I think there’s a point when it needs an official name. It’s been a tradition in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, there used to be a mad dash on the day we started packing away the decorations, everyone trying to speed read through a few last books before they were hidden away for another year. It was an exciting and somewhat traumatic experience. Thus is nostalgia born.

In the spirit of the season, I will today be opening the doors to the Library on this blog and choosing twelve (a particularly Christmassy number) of my favourites to recommend. I’d also love to hear about what books are special to you at this time of year. What are your traditions? What is December like in your part of the world?

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (The Classic Storybook Collection, 1999). The ultimate of all Christmas stories, it was first published in 1843 and has been an integral part of the festive season ever since. Somehow spooky and heart-warming at the same time, it follows the transformation of vicious miser Ebenezer Scrooge one Christmas Eve when he is drawn into the world of the spirits. The copy I have in front of me is irritatingly awkward to pin down to a specific publisher or year of publication – I think the information I’ve provided is accurate – but it is otherwise brilliant, including little pieces of trivia in the margins that explain the more esoteric references to Victorian society. For instance, did you know that in the 1830s there were repeated attempts to ban all shops opening on Sundays and holy days? It would have put an end to the festive pleasures of the poor while leaving the wealthy unaffected and Scrooge upbraids the Spirit of Christmas Present about it as an example of hypocrisy. The Spirit is less than impressed by the lecture.

Wombat Divine – Mem Fox (Omnibus Books, 1996). Wombat has wanted to be a part of the Nativity play ever since he was very small. Now that he is finally old enough to take part, he hurries to the auditions, hoping for a chance. With illustrator Kerry Argent’s irresistable imagery and Fox’s enchanting style, this is possibly the sweetest picture book I have ever seen. It’s been in the family for as long as I can remember and I still re-read it every year.

The Lump of Coal – Lemony Snicket (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2008). Do you believe in miracles? A certain lump of coal – who, for the sake of argument, is both sentient and mobile – wakes up one winter morning full of wishes and optimism, but he soon discovers that finding a miracle is no straightforward business. This is a story completely characteristic of Lemony Snicket, an author best known for A Series of Unfortunate Events, with mysterious moustaches and interesting words. Spoiler: it’s happier. And Brett Helquist’s illustrations are so good they manage to make me want to hug of a lump of coal.

The Same Old Story Every Year – Anne Fine (Puffin, 1994). When her favourite teacher Mr Kelly is once again coaxed into running the school Nativity, Maya is eager to take part, but her casting as Mary produces an unexpected problem, and an even more unexpected solution. It is a genuinely funny book, and makes its message of tolerance so incredibly simple that if only every child read this I think world peace would have a good shot at success. Well, at least as long no one gave each other ‘the look’.

When Santa Fell To Earth – Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 2006). One stormy December night a caravan falls out of the sky and crash lands in a suburban street. It is the home, and sometimes the getaway vehicle, of the last real Santa, Niklas Goodfellow. He is on the run from the brutally bureaucratic new management that has taken over Christmas, and he’s still trying to deliver presents on the way. One way or another, he’s even going to make it snow…This book is a wonderful Christmas story that reminds us wishes aren’t quite the same thing as wants, and that generosity of spirit is something very much worth protecting.

Hogfather – Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 2006). First released in 1996 and made into a TV miniseries in 2006, this was my introduction to Terry Pratchett and pretty much sums up the intelligent insanity that is the Discworld. On the night before Hogswatch, an assassin is given a very surprising commission – to eliminate the Hogfather himself. It is up to Death, who draws a line at that sort of thing, and steely poker-wielding governess Susan to save the jolly man in red, and possibly the whole of humanity along the way. What are we, after all, when there is nothing left to believe in? Do we exist at all? Familiar Christmas traditions are given the full Pratchett treatment, including ‘The Little Match Girl’. If you ever finished that story in outrage, you need to read this book, just for that one moment.

The Night Before Christmas – Clement Clarke Moor (Scholastic Inc., 1999). On Christmas Eve, while the house is all asleep, there is a clatter on the roof as a visitor in red comes to call…The version I’ve chosen – and how many options do I have, everyone does a take on this one – is The Teddy Bear’s Night Before Christmas with photo illustrations by Monica Stevenson, because it’s unconditionally adorable. Santa Claus has never looked so cuddly.

Christmas in Australia – ed. Malcolm McGregor (Hutchinson Australia, 1990). I’m cheating with this one. It is not a story, as such – it’s more of an annual, a remarkable album put together by more than sixty photographers to capture one Australian Christmas. And I love it. There are stories captured in one picture and a brief caption, like the amazing Alf Harris, who collected and mended toys throughout the year, becoming the one and only Santa for the remote communities along his route – or a kangaroo gatecrashing Government House in Canberra. Why are there not more annuals like these? In fact, why is one not being put together right now?

The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] – John Julius Norwich (Doubleday, 1998). The Yuletide Library has a great many copies of The Twelve Days of Christmas (which is actually a carol and not a story), ranging from a beautifully mysterious version that involves ice-skating turtledoves and frogs in wigs, to an Australiana version that replaces the traditional partridge with a bellbird in a flame tree – but this is not one of those. This is the story begging to be told about the recipient of all these very…unusual gifts. Where do you actually put seven swans a-swimming when they turn up on your doorstep? And what on earth do you say to your true love when you’d really like him to STOP BEING SO GENEROUS now, please? I give you fair warning, Quentin Blake’s illustrations will affect how you see this carol forever.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey – Susan Wojciechowski (Walker Books, 1995). Jonathan Toomey is the town curmudgeon, the man who never has a smile for anyone but can find a complaint about anything. What no one knows is why he’s that way. When a widow new to town comes to his door with her exuberant young son and a comission for a very special Nativity scene, however, Jonathan Toomey finds that perhaps you can make your own miracles. It’s a beautiful story, with rich illustrations by P.J. Lynch, that brims over with Christmas spirit.

The Witness – Robert Westall (Macmillan Children’s Books, 1995). This is the story of the Nativity told from the perspective of a troubled cat who finds shelter in an innkeeper’s stable on a night of miracles. It has Mary as a champion of religious tolerance and kindness to animals, capable of generosity to anyone who comes her way, and the Baby Jesus already picking up on her influence. It’s a gorgeous, poignant picture book enchantingly illustrated by Sophy Williams.

The Hole in the Sock – Alan Thornhill. This short story is taken from the treasury simply entitled Christmas, published by Blandford Press Ltd. in 1978. There are wonderful essays, recipes and trivia in this book, but The Hole in the Sock is the real reason I love it. The story starts in Egypt, where an air stewardess’s Christmas break is ruined by unexpected overtime on a flight to London. It means that she is there in a crowded aeroplane when a young Palestinian refugee goes into labour – and in doing so, unwittingly sets off a powder keg of conflicting opinions and violent emotion. It’s a very powerful modern retelling of the ancient Christmas legend and captures the elusive meaning of it all incredibly well.


Fairy Tale Tuesday No.19 – Ricky of the Tuft

Ricky is not a name automatically associated with fairy tales – generally if someone is named, they will hold the traditional hero name of Jack, or possibly Hans – but in this fairy tale, taken from the Puffin Books collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, Ricky is apparently the family name of royalty. When a queen produces a son so misshapen he can barely be recognised as human, the fairy present at the birth tries to mitigate her depression by predicting that the boy will be brilliant of mind, and gives him a very surprising gift – not beauty, as might have been expected in the circumstances, but the ability to bestow his own degree of intelligence upon whomsoever he should love most. Fortunately for him, he lives up to the hype from an early age, entertaining the court with his wit and wisdom. He is given the nickname Ricky of the Tuft in consequence of his one small tuft of hair, but it seems more affectionate than malicious. He is clever enough to make himself popular.

Seven or eight years later, the queen of a neighbouring kingdom gives birth to two daughters. The first is so exquisitely beautiful that the fairy present for her birth – the same who was there for Ricky’s, is she some sort of a midwife? – decides to moderate the queen’s gleeful gloating by pronouncing that the girl will grow up as stupid as she is beautiful. Because obviously a little infant can’t be allowed an ego moment. The queen’s horror is compounded moments later when the second princess is born, if not as ugly as Ricky, then at least extremely plain. Here, the fairy is on more solid ground. She decrees that this girl will be so sensible that no one will care whether she is pretty or not. As for the elder girl, the fairy backtracks slightly, giving her the gift of bestowing beauty on the one she loves. I expect you can see where this is going already. Fairy tale romance is not subtle.

As the sisters grow older, their gifts and flaws grow in equal measure. When in company together, it is the eldest to whom everyone flocks at first, drawn by her beauty – but her inanity and awkwardness quickly drive them away, while her sister’s intelligent conversation is always appreciated. The first princess is not so stupid that she isn’t aware of that, or that she can’t wish for some of her sister’s innate poise. None of this is her fault, but nothing she does can help, and even her mother doesn’t understand how hard it is for her. One day she is sitting alone in the woods, crying over her impossible situation, when an ugly little man in very pretty clothes comes towards her and introduces himself. Yes, it is Ricky of the Tuft – how did you know? He has seen the princess’s portrait and fell so deeply in love with it that he has left his father’s kingdom in order to meet her.

Her misery is unexpected. To him, beauty is the ultimate achievement, and once you have it you should be completely happy. The princess tries, somewhat ineptly, to explain her troubles. At first he refuses to accept that the princess is stupid at all – “nothing more clearly displays good sense, madam,” he insists, “than a belief that one is not possessed of it. It follows, therefore, that the more one has, the more one fears it to be wanting.” Told you he was clever. The princess doesn’t know how to argue with this, so she just tells him again how miserable she is, and he announces triumphantly that he can solve her problems with the gift bestowed on him at birth. The only condition is that she will agree to marry him. She isn’t entirely sold, weighing his looks against his promises, but at the end of the year he gives her to make up her mind, she accepts his hand. No sooner has she given her word than everything becomes clear to her. Not only can she express all the things she never could before, she can hold her own in a debate with Ricky so capably that he’s worried she’s actually cleverer than he is.

When she returns to the palace, her transformation is feted as a miracle. The only person who doesn’t like this new princess is her sister, who cannot compete with beauty and brilliance combined, and is sidelined by everybody who used to listen to her. Proposals pour in – it seems that every prince in the surrounding kingdoms wants to marry the elder princess now – but she can find none with the sense to match her own and so refuses them all. Then she meets with another prince, one who is both handsome and clever, and rich to boot. It’s tempting. She retreats to the wood to think the matter over, and there encounters Ricky once again. Well, actually, the first thing she sees are his staff. He has established a massive underground kitchen in preparation for his wedding.

Now, the princess made her promise while still without sense. When transformed, the memories of her previous life were suppressed, and she completely forgot that she had a fiance already. As if the resurfacing memory alone is enough to conjure his presence, Ricky himself appears and greets her in full expectation of her being his wife the next day. But that’s not how the princess sees things. She coolly argues her point, explaining that a promise she hesitated to make even while cursed with stupidity should not chain her against the promptings of her newfound intelligence. If he had wanted her, he should have married her while she was still stupid enough to accept. As an intelligent man himself, surely he can see that.

Ricky is in no mood for this sort of debate. Frankly, it’s insulting. “Is it reasonable,” he demands, “that people who have sense should be treated worse than those who have not?” Then he pulls himself together, making use of his own intellect. He wants to know what it is, apart from his appearance, that she finds objectionable about him – his family, his personality, his manners? The princess has to concede that she likes all these things about him. Ricky tells her of the gift she was given at birth, the mirror image of his own, and in relief she bestows it on him, as he bestowed his on her. No sooner has she agreed once more to marry him, this time intending to honour the promise, than Ricky of the Tuft is transformed into the handsomest man she has ever seen.

Some romantics of the kingdom, Perrault tells us, claim that this transformation was no fairy enchantment, but love – that in remembering all his good traits and the kindness he had shown her, that she looked at him with new eyes and he was made beautiful to her. It’s a lovely idea, but doesn’t explain her IQ count. I would have found more to like in this story if Ricky had fallen in love with the plain but clever princess. For all his intelligence, he’s still every bit as shallow as her beautiful sister.

Review No.49 – House of Suns

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2008

During the era of the Golden Hour, when humanity was still congregated in one tiny corner of the galaxy, around their one familiar sun, a woman named Abigail Gentian shattered herself into a thousand clones and sent them away into the unknown on an unending quest for knowledge. Six million years later, human civilisations have risen and fallen across the galaxy and the shatterlings of the Gentian Line have been there to see it all, each circling alone through the changing stars like ambivalent gods. When rebellious shatterlings Campion and Purslane fall in love, they know they are breaking the ancient traditions of the Line and compounding their transgression by arriving decades late for the next reunion of the Line. They hope to minimise the inevitable censure by bringing a rescued hostage from the Machine People, a sentient robot name Hesperus, as their guest. But when they reach the designated reunion world, they receive a distress signal that changes everything. A secret buried in the long history of the Line has resurfaced and now the life of every shatterling in the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I have read very little in the genre of space opera before, but House of Suns blew me away. The story is a massive, intricate thing. Beautifully crafted, it is infused with magnificently ambitious science fiction concepts, spanning millions of years over the course of its narrative yet maintaining consistently on track right to the end. At 473 pages, this is a novel that requires both time and attention, but is absolutely worth it.

Review No.48 – Divergent

Divergent – Veronica Roth

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2011

The city where Beatrice Prior grew up is its own small and broken world, occupied by five radically different factions working together in a fragile harmony. When Beatrice turns sixteen, it is time for her to choose her place in that world. To stay with her family and the familiar frustrations of their life in Abnegation, or leave it all behind to join another faction where the rules are utterly unknown and she is nothing more than an expendable, unproven initiate. Whatever choice she makes will allow her to redefine her own identity, but Beatrice is already something different: she is Divergent. Now all she has to do is find out what the hell that means.

Dystopian America is a popular setting for YA fiction at present, with big titles like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy gaining international attention. The setting for Divergent initially seemed to me to be too simplistic, but over the course of the book Roth builds an impressive complexity in both her world and her characters. Beatrice, later Tris, is a strong protagonist and her voice propels the story forward at an excellent pace, but it’s secondary characters like Christina, Will and Al who make Roth’s world so convincing. Divergent is a fierce, punchy read, unafraid of going to dark places, but there’s humour and heart here as well. Many thanks to the woman who recommended this book to me at Logan Hyperdome Library earlier this year, you have good taste! The series continues with Insurgent.