05 October 2012

Fairy tales! My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (ed. Kate Bernheimer) & Fables (Bill Willingham) &

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father She Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer: I've been dying to read this anthology for two years, being, as I'm sure I've babbled about before, a fairy tale devotee from my earliest literate years, in all their dark and bloodthirsty glory. Unfortunately, while there are some wonderful, weird, wicked stories here, the collection as a whole falls short of greatness. Some of this, I think, is the way it's structured: each story is linked to an original fairy tale (maddeningly, the latter are given in the table of contents but not in the body of the book), and they're organized by country of origin. The problem with this is that there are often multiple new stories deriving from the same old one, so the reader gets several versions of, say, "The Six Swans" in succession. It's clunky pacing, and makes the book seem far too long. Furthering this awkwardness is the author's note following each tale, in which most of them explain what they were trying to do--well, authors, if you succeeded, the note's redundant, and if you didn't, it's just embarrassing.

I also felt that many of the stories were, in fact, the opposite of fairy tales, over-grounded in the Real World and Things That Actually Happen--ignoring the fact that the original tellers of these tales knew perfectly well that they were rearranging reality, creating worlds in which the good were rewarded and the evil punished, where bleakness and misery turns to triumph, usually through the kindness and hard work of the protagonist. Stripped of their otherworldly nature, fairy tales are just depressing, and that's what, for example, John Updike does with "Bluebeard in Ireland," which is just about an unhappy couple. Really breaking new ground there, dude.

But! Those wonderful, weird, wicked stories I mentioned definitely appear. The reliably magical Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman contribute "Catskin" and "Orange," respectively. And I loved Kevin Brockmeier's "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin," Shelley Jackson's "The Swan Brothers," and Timothy Schaffert's "The Mermaid in the Tree." Lydia Millet's "Snow White, Rose Red" and Kate Bernheimer's "Whitework" are also standouts' both of them also appeared in the superior Tin House Fantastic Women compilation. And it was nice to see some lesser-known stories represented, particularly the couple for Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, a loved-to-the-point-of-being-coverless edition of which looks down from the shelf as I type.

Fables: Legends in Exile, Bill Willingham (story), Lan Medina (penciller), Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (inkers): Another title I've been meaning to read since I discovered it existed! Legends is the first trade collection of the ten-years-running Fables series from Vertigo, which runs with the conceit that the once-disparate kingdoms of fairy tales and nursery rhymes alike were driven from their homelands by an annihilating Adversary. A lucky few slipped through into the human world--specifically New York City, where the expats now live hiding in plain sight. It's a fun premise, well executed: Snow White as deputy mayor! The Big Bad Wolf (turned human) as sheriff! Prince Charming as a twice-divorced smarmy bastard! This initial arc is a murder mystery--who killed Rose Red?--that also smoothly introduces the setting and major characters. It feels so lovely to begin a new series and love it--with the 13th trade paperback publishing next January, I shan't run out anytime soon.

And the simple, realistic art makes me wish so badly that comic-strip syndicates would get better artists for soap opera strips--I exempt Graham Nolan (Rex Morgan, M.D.) and Mike Manley (Judge Parker) from this, as they're aces with the medium. But poor Frank Bolle (Apartment 3-G) needs to retire. Yes, my comics-nerdery area of expertise is newspaper soap opera strips. WHAT OF IT?

03 October 2012

Five-star romances: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (Miranda Neville) & Ravishing the Heiress (Sherry Thomas)

I keep intending to branch out romance-wise--read some contemporaries or some classics of the genre (like, people say Nora Roberts is actually good? Who knew?)--but more often I just wanna read Miranda Neville and Sherry Thomas forever and ever. I fear they have spoiled me for all others, for very different reasons.

Exhibit the first: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Miranda Neville: Third in the linked Burgundy Club series (after previous fave-raves The Wild Marquis and The Dangerous Viscount), this one takes up the amatory fate of Tarquin Compton, fashion plate and bringer of Regency snark to those who don't measure up to his sartorial standards. Celia Seaton once found herself the victim of his jibes, and blames him for the dashing of her chances with the London ton marriage market, which doomed her to life as a governess. So when they are thrown together by violent circumstance (and in deshabille) on the Yorkshire moors, and she discovers he's suffering Plot Device Amnesia, she can't resist telling him he's really her country-bumpkin fiancĂ©. Needless to say, things get complicated when she finds herself falling for this un-dandified version of Tarquin--especially when a naughty book she discovers in his belongings (a real example of 18th-century pornography--as Neville says in her research notes, "It's okay, you know, if it's historic, especially if it's in French")  gives her ideas she's never imagined.

For me, Neville's greatest strength is her humor, ranging from sly to slapstick, not just in her characterizations (I've read quite a few books where the hero/heroine were described as "witty," but she writes them telling actually funny jokes, which of course I would quote if I were a better reviewer, but alack), but in the goofy joy of eroticism itself. And, of course, her background in rare books is a constant delight.

Exhibit the second: Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas: And then we have Ms. Thomas, my greatest love for whom is reserved for her ability to be just gut-wrenching, my goodness. Ravishing is an example of perhaps my favorite romance subgenre, the Arranged or Unhappy Marriage Becoming a Passionate Meeting of True Minds (see also her Not Quite a Husband or Eloisa James's An Affair Before Christmas); this one's got even more unspoken despair to it, as tinned-goods heiress Millie fell head over heels for impoverished earl Fitz the moment they met, only to learn that their marriage requires him to leave behind the woman he loves. Eight years later, after an unconsummated union where they've become best friends and business partners, Fitz learns his lost love Isabelle is newly widowed--Millie, ever outwardly practical while she nurses her constantly broken  heart, grants him permission to pursue happiness with the other woman. But first, they need to conceive an heir.

Ravishing is so sad, you guys, all about making do with the life you have while trying to set aside what you really want, and then omigosh what if you had what you wanted all along? I just kept tearing up, and yelling at the characters about how their marriage is so perfect by modern standards--but they wouldn't know that, it's 1896! And they were married as teenagers, so goodness knows they were idiots! Oof. I teared up so many times reading this book--the last time with joy.

(FYI, Ravishing is the central entry in a trilogy about the Fitzhugh siblings. The first, Beguiling the Beauty, tells the story of Fitz's sister Venetia, who revenge-seduces a studious duke on an Atlantic crossing, never letting him see her face, as punishment for using her as an example of perfidious pulchritude. I liked it, especially the couple's shared interest in paleontology and its partial American setting, but it didn't resonate as deeply as this one. Still worth a read--and the third installment, Tempting the Bride, is coming with my on my imminent honeymoon!)
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