One thing I found time for over the winter was coffee with Rebecca Fisher, winner of the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2015 for Best Fan Writer. She keeps a very interesting (and frequently updated!) blog, They're All Fictional, and her reviews have also featured on Helen Lowe's blog, as Big Worlds On Small Screens.
A few months ago now, Rebecca read and reviewed my fairy tale collection, Beyond the Briar. Her review of Beyond the Briar is reposted below:
Friday, September 4, 2015
Review: Beyond the Briar
A few months back I mentioned attending a small ceremony for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, where among other things I got to meet my fellow nominees. Among them was Shelley Chappell, who was in the running for Best New Talent on the strength of her short story anthology, Beyond the Briar.
We exchanged emails, we did lunch, and I came home with a copy of her book. As those who follow me on Tumblr will know, my dash is filled with art, illustrations and gifs that demonstrate my love for fairy tales, so I'm always on the lookout for a fresh take on the old material.
Beyond the Briar contains four stories based on Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, though with a little gender-flipping and setting changes, Shelley manages to turn the familiar beats of each story into something innovative and unexpected. Once they're removed from the traditional European backdrop, it's interesting to see how the mythologies, traditions and flavours of international cultures can change the shape and flow of the old stories.
And it's not like there isn't a precedent for this. After all, the oldest recorded version of Cinderella takes place in Egypt, in which the Pharaoh marries a young slave-girl called Rhodopis after the god Horus drops her show in the Pharaoh's lap, sparking a nation-wide search for its owner. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the roots of Beauty and the Beast are to be found in the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
In many ways Shelley is transporting these stories back to older, stranger environments, and half the fun is finding out for yourself how exactly each fairy tale will be reimagined. As such, a part of me doesn't want to delve into specifics – but then again, what's the point of reviews if I didn’t?
"Stars on Dark Water" follows the template of Rapunzel, reinventing Rapunzel as a young man called Rudaab and setting the story in the Middle East. A merchant and his pregnant wife are separated from the rest of their caravan during a journey through the desert, only to find a beautiful oasis amidst the sands. There they drink from the pool and eat from the fruit trees, but it's while his wife is sleeping that the merchant meets the owner of the oasis: a beautiful witch.
The price of having trespassed is the eventual marriage of the merchant's unborn child with the witch's infant daughter – though the merchant dies without ever sharing this agreement with his wife or son Rudaab. It is a shock then, when years later a strange and powerful young woman appears in the encampment, demanding Rudaab's hand in marriage. Bound by his hair in the witch's tower, it's up to his sweetheart Azar to stage a rescue...
Next is "Ranpasatusan", a take on Rumplestiltskin that's set in feudal Japan. Sunny and her father are wandering minstrels and storytellers, never staying in one place for very long, and eventually travelling as far as the village of Hitachi in the east. There Sunny's father is critically wounded after he brags about his daughter's ability to spin straw into gold (even if he only meant it metaphorically). But the local daimyo takes him at his word and insists that Sunny turn a room full of straw into gold if she wants her father to get the medical treatment he needs.
This is the part where you'd expect the gnomish Rumplestiltskin to emerge and cut a deal with Sunny, but there's a twist in how Sunny's saviour is portrayed – one that's rooted in Japanese history and culture. No, I won't give it away.
"The Sleeping Maid" is my favourite in the collection, which does not feature the usual change in locale or switch in gender (except in making the evil fairy a male) but instead opts for telling the tale from an unexpected point-of-view. When the sleeping curse strikes the kingdom and the briars grow up around the castle, the family members of those who work in the palace are cut off from their loved ones. How do they cope knowing that their daughters, brothers, mothers and sweethearts are slumbering in stasis beyond the briars?
Gorran the blacksmith was due to marry his beloved Caterina; now he finds that an insurmountable barrier separates them. The years roll past and Gorran grows older, hoping all the while that he'll live long enough for the promised prince to arrive and break the spell so that he might see her one last time...
Finally, "The Old Boot" is a take on Cinderella (with a dash of Beauty and the Beast) in which a young cobbler's daughter called Beauty befriends Miguel, a farmer's son forced into servitude by his wicked stepfather and stepbrothers. When Beauty catches the eye of the prince, she's forced to leave Hay-on-Dell for the palace and begin the necessary transformation into a princess.
She hates it, especially since she left her heart behind with Miguel. But on the night of the masquerade ball, she dances with a familiar figure – one who leaves behind an old boot in his rush to escape the guards.
Taking a European fairy tale, shifting it to a different part of the world and making a few little tweaks when it comes to gender and motivation is a simple but very effective formula in reimagining these familiar stories as something fresh and new.
What they all have in common is that a romance lies at the core of each one, though these love stories (with only one exception) are between couples who have known each other all their lives. By eliminating the "love at first sight" narrative that's so prevalent to fairy tales, powerful and transformative love is instead portrayed as something that exists between best friends and childhood sweethearts, making all the couples and their affection for each other feel warm and grounded and genuine. It's easy to hope for happy endings if you can reallybelieve in the love as it appears on the page.
If you're interested in reading them for yourself, here's a link to Shelley's website, where you can purchase them in paperback or as an e-book (either separately or together).
In short, if I had to sum up this book in a single image, it would be this one:
Like cupcakes, these stories are small, light and very sweet.
Thanks, Rebecca, for the nice review! Have you read Beyond the Briar? Let me know if you'd like me to share your review.
Lovely review from the Happy Homemaker blog - reposted
Book Review – Beyond the Briar June 15, 2015/ happyhomemakernz
“The stories she wove as a result were quilted masterpieces which audiences could tuck around their shoulders for comfort and warmth. By listening to the people she met, she learned what different folk feared and loved and laughed about, and she told tales that joined them together”
Description of the story-teller, Sunny, in Ranpasatusan – Beyond the Briar
In Beyond the Briar, author Shelly Chappell has taken four traditional fairy stories and given them an intelligent retelling imbued with beauty, grace and a deep understanding of the human soul. Ostensibly written for young adults, this insightful reincarnation of the stories of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin and Cinderella also captivates adult readers. Chappell’s narratives are sometimes light and playfully humorous, sometimes moving and thought provoking and sometimes beautifully lyrical.
While the stories retain the fairy tale elements of romantic love, magic and happy endings, Chappell’s tales all contain significant twists on the original versions both in the story-lines and in the characters. In some stories the geographical location is different, in others the setting is brought forward to a more modern time, in others the gender of the key characters is swapped. The main female characters are all strong, confident women, but this is not a simple reversal where the women are strong and the men weak. The characters are much more complex than that. The strength of the female characters establishes a balanced equality with the leading male characters. In Chappell’s stories there is no one hero, male or female, who swoops in to save the day, instead the main characters both contribute to save each other.
I have to confess that at first the idea of retold fairy stories didn’t really grab my interest, but I decided to read this collection because it was a finalist for Best Collection in the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Awards (Ranpasatusan was also a finalist for Best Novelette and Chappell was a finalist for Best New Talent) and because the author is part of the writers’ guild that I belong to. However, I was captivated from the moment I started reading the first story by the quality of the writing and the originality of the narrative. If you like romance, especially historical romance or fantasy romance I think that you will enjoy reading Beyond the Briar.
A great read for something fun and different.
Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant's (ed) Steampunk! an anthology of fantastically rich and strange stories (2011): A Review
My reading group reads around themes rather than specific novels, and one of our themes this year was 'Steampunk.' I'd seen and admired the fashion so had a vague idea of the genre itself, but my forays into a few recommended texts left me baffled (Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel, and Scott Westerfield's Leviathan). Were these really steampunk, I wondered? None of them felt quite like they represented the genre.
So I found myself in a moment of genre confusion — right where an anthology like Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant's Steampunk! comes in handy. A genre anthology is surely the best way into a broad overview of a genre, and even though the editors note in their introduction that their focus for this collection was the continuing reinterpretation of steampunk, still it gave me a very good sense of the genre itself – a better sense, perhaps, than any single novel could ever do. The editors note that Jeff and Ann Vandermeet's anthologies Steampunk and Steampunk II are definitive of the genre, but their own collection was both functional and entertaining in this respect. Their introduction was also useful, delineating '[g]aslit alleys, intrepid urchins, steampowered machines, [and] technologies that never were' as 'the basic accoutrements of steampunk'. All of those motifs featured in their collection, although I could also see the truth to their claim that 'steampunk has gone far beyond these markers'.
Perhaps the most apparently traditional of the stories in the collection, if setting is to be awarded a strong defining factor, was Cory Doctorow's "Clockwork Fagin" which is a Dickensian tribute. Although, if my memory serves me correctly, it may have a New World setting, it had a very Victorian London feel, being set in a city home for children injured by their apprenticeships with heavy machinery. The narration is vivid, the characters memorable, and the plot clever. These children with their serious injuries and metal limbs are certainly 'intrepid urchins' – entrepreneurial in the extreme.
Holly Black's "Everything Amiable and Obliging", Garth Nix's "Peace in our Time", Cassandra Clare's "Some Fortunate Future Day" and Delia Sherman's "The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor" also felt like they might be useful markers of 'traditional' steampunk (if such a short-lived genre can claim the term).
Black's story has the feel of a Regency romance, complete with a drunkard father who has to be dragged from gaming hells, an orphaned heiress, and a Lady in love her dancing tutor. What was steampunk about this setting was the surplus of automatons and the advent of a sentient house. Black asked hard questions about human's treatments of automatons as servants and their mistreatment of them as slaves and objects to be tortured and discarded. She also raised a favourite theme of mine since my teenage reading on robots – could automatons ever feel? — but her question has a tidy twist.
Garth Nix's steampunk story of a retired despot was amusing and clever. I chuckled at beginning and end. The characters were finely drawn and the mechanistic setting unfolds slowly like a rose to the sun – perhaps the plot therefore mirrors its setting, as it opens in a rose garden and ends with a big bang.
Cassandra Clare's tale was more chilling than amusing, but was also quite clever. I've always found the idea of independently moving children's dolls creepy (I was possibly scarred by Chucky as a child…) and Clare's dolls have something of that quality about them. But I'm perhaps overstating the case here. The story was pleasant enough – what really chilled me was that the protagonist is stuck in a solipsistic cycle and there seems little possibility of her maturing beyond this and coming to interact with other people as individuals rather than reflections of her own needs. But that makes the story thought-provoking, so it achieves its ends.
Delia Sherman's story of a teenage girl's desire to be more than a maid appears a perfect model for romance but this is no Cinderella story. It details a young girl's love for an old manor house, a young man's obsession with science and mechanical creatures, and a brave female ghost's desire to see her family do well.
I'll segue from the traditional to the quite different with the anthology's two graphic stories, "Finishing School" by Kathleen Jennings and "Seven days beset by demons" by Shawn Cheng. Jennings' story is a fun little piece set in a nineteenth century girls' boarding school and focusing on defining intellectual freedom and embodying physical freedom; Shawn Cheng's explores the seven deadly sins experienced by a young man who keeps a market stall and falls for the wrong girl. It had potential but a loose ending, leaving me wanting some kind of clever resolution.
But if a clever resolution is what you are after, Ysabeau Wilce's "Hand in Glove" will satisfy. I daren't say too much about the plot without giving away its amusing oddities, but Wilce has a distinctive and unusual voice and the setting is certainly refreshingly different. Is it steampunk, however? I'm not so sure.
Another story which pushes the limits of the genre is Kelly Link's own, "The Summer People". It's set in the modern world and features a few small inventions but these are limited to one owner and attributed to non-human creation, which is where things perhaps become a bit blurry genre-wise (to my admittedly limited understanding of it at least), as the more traditional stories seem to represent settings with fairly widespread technical differences to our own. I really enjoyed Link's story all the way until the final few paragraphs when the plot twists (not unexpectedly), but the characterisation seems to fizzle out and there is no clear resolution. I felt I missed out on some ultimate revelations and that a strong character washed out.
Another story set in modern times was Dylan Horrocks' "Steam Girl" which is metafictive and reminded me a lot of the movie The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005), although the male narrator of this story is not the one with power over fact and fiction. Like the movie, in many ways, this is a story about bullying - with all the darkness a serious exploration of that theme entails; I feared a dark turn near the end but Horrocks didn't disappoint; he affirmed the power of fiction to offer ways out of darkness.
Christopher Rowe's "Nowhere Fast" took us from the present into the future, exploring life in a post-apocalyptic world in which small, far-flung communities are eco-dedicated and noisy things like machines and cars are forbidden. I felt a bit torn about this one as it raised some interesting questions about the disjunction between progress and development and a love and protection of the Earth, and I wasn't sure these questions were answered in ways I agreed with.
Which leaves us with three stories to discuss, all unique in their own way. M.T. Anderson's "The Oracle Engine" was set in an alternative (steampunk!) Ancient Rome, the bleakness of its plot offset by the medium (told in the format of an ancient historical text, as if one was reading Herodotus). Elizabeth Knox's 'Gethsemane', which took steampunk into a possibly Caribbean slave-era setting, had some deep and meaningful messages but some disturbingly grotesque descriptions. Finally, Libba Bray's 'The Last Ride of the Glory Girls' took steampunk into the wild west. Her narrator had a strong, memorable voice and a history worth knowing about; the plot was fairly adventurous and satisfying. And, best of all, it reminded me that perhaps I first encountered steampunk in 1999 when I watched The Wild, Wild West, starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline. Now that crazy movie finally makes sense.
So, to conclude: if you're looking for an introduction to and overview of the steampunk genre, you need look no further than Link and Grant's anthology. Suggestions, anyone, of a definitive steampunk novel?
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is one of those books you hear a lot about but probably only get around to reading if it's required for a course — or you're scrolling through the free e-books provided on your reader and feeling virtuous.
I fell into the latter category this week and almost gave up reading in the info dump of the first few pages as readers are taken on a tour of the factory that conceives, grows and brainwashes the children of the future. However, Huxley caught my attention when he started splicing two or three conversations together so that I had to multi-task like mad and by the time I got out of the tail end of that I was hooked.
I gave A Brave New World three stars on Goodreads — although it's not the sort of book you really 'like', I found myself reading on with fascination, a little like the inability to look away as you drive past a car crash. The tragedy is not Huxley's style (although it is rather stilted), but his dystopic future, which has to be one of the primary forerunners of all dystopias. I felt some pretty strong echoes of Walter Tevis's Mockingbird (an excellent modern development and revision of some of these themes) and was surprised to realise that cloning was a motif as far back as 1932.
What delighted me about A Brave New World was the clever integration of known cultural and scientific theory with those yet to develop in the society of the future. Consumerism (the society worships 'our Ford') and psychoanalysis (their god is sometimes known as 'our Freud') is melded with historical figures like Malthus and future historical figures (at least, they aren't real as far as I and Google are aware) like Pzifner and Kawaguchi. Of course, the theories we are familiar with are either taken to the extreme or interpreted in unexpected ways – such as Freud's theories on the autoeroticism and erotic awareness of children leading to the enforced erotic play of all future children.
Sex is a major theme of the novel. 'Everyone belongs to everyone else' which means everyone is expected to be promiscuous and avoid monogamy at all costs. The desire for a strong passion (and sometimes pregnancy) is replaced by hormonal surrogates that burn themselves out. However, sometimes a few grammes of soma are needed to get a girl through a particular sexual encounter, as evidenced by Lenina and the Arch-Community Songster. Which brings us to some of the problems of the novel.
As I'm sure many reviewers before me have pointed out, Huxley's dystopic future is both sexist and racist — and I'm not sure if this is an intentional aspect meant to heighten the dystopia or an accidental side-effect of Huxley's conditioning. When clones are created, males are kept fertile, but only a small proportion of women maintain their fertility, the rest to be turned into 'freemartins', made sterile by an increase in male hormones. Contraception becomes the responsibility of the fertile women after they grow up. I don't think I need to point out that the sterility and responsibility could have been spread around in a less sexist future.
Racially, the clones are created in a caste system, from Alphas to Betas and down to Epsilons (familiar terms in contemporary werewolf novels, although Omega seems to be preferred these days to Epsilon). Alphas run the world and have more free will — or, at least, freedom of thought. The castes have different employment, interests and intelligence ratios (all enforced by genetic manipulation and conditioning) and are identified by their different coloured clothes — although skin colour, from the little we read of it, also seems to be matched to different castes, with pale skin being equivalent to alpha status. It's possible I've misinterpreted this as there is a 'feely' movie later in the novel featuring a sexual encounter between a 'gigantic Negro' male and 'golden haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female' and given the conditioning to dislike other castes it seems likely sexual encounters are meant to only occur within castes; however, the representation of the black character is typically racist (a knock on the head leads him to become a sexually voracious 'black madman') and he is replaced by the end of the feely with a trio of 'handsome young Alphas'. Skin colour/race unmentioned generally equates to whiteness in early texts so I think we can assume Huxley intended these 'handsome' Alphas to be read as white.
The 'Beta blonde becoming the mistress of all her three rescuers' is just a sample of the sexism evident in the future culture - i.e. she's their mistress, they're not hers. In this future, Alpha men have all the powerful jobs (management, conditioning, media) while alpha women work in the fertility section of the factory, monitoring the bottles in which children are born, and, if Linda's example is meant to be representative, have little awareness of how the system really works. In a sexually free future, men seem to have gained more freedom of choice than women, with Bernard Marx noting that men discuss women (in this case, Lenina) as though they are 'meat' to be had. Lenina is invited off on weekends away with various lovers, but she isn't the one doing the inviting or planning. In other words, women are the passive recipients of male desire. However, later in the novel a female friend does encourage Lenina to simply take what she wants …
Which brings us to John, the Savage. The 'Savages' in their 'Reservations' in America could have been presented as utopic in comparison with 'civilised' culture, since they are able to continue living a 'natural' life, but instead they are represented as 'sullen', strange and brutal. The conditioning John receives from his childhood amongst them has a harsher impact than the conditioning of 'civilisation' does on figures like Bernard Marx, Helmholtz and the Director, although John's descent into madness really occurs once he submits himself to the influence of Shakespeare and confronts an inability to reconcile his sexual ideals with reality.
It's difficult to decide whether John's wild insanity or the regulated sanity of civilised society is more disturbing, although perhaps we can take a guess as to the author's intention from the differing fates of these characters. Compared with John's, the future lives of a reconciled Marx and Helmholtz on an island of interesting people don't look at all bad…
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