Adult Fairy Tales

Although I write fairy tale retellings for Young Adult, lately I’ve been drawn more to fairy tales for adults. My favourite author in this genre is and, I suppose, always will be the brilliant Angela Carter.

I had a nosey around and came up with a list that’s grabbed my attention; I want to read them all now. Unfortunately, being in the UK, the network of libraries in my town, although good, don’t have many of these even though they aren’t new releases. I’m going to have be very patient as funds aren’t going to stretch to getting these many books in quick succession.

Here they are, in no particular order:

‘A Wild Swan and other Tales’ by Michael Cunningham

A Wild Swan and Other Tales’ by Michael Cunningham and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, these are a collection of tales to do with “the moments – dark, perverse and true – that our fairy tales forgot”.

‘The Mermaid’ by Christina Henry

The Mermaid’ by Christina Henry is based on PT Barnum’s ‘Feejee mermaid’ hoax but, here, an actual mermaid agrees to join his show.

‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ by Graham Joyce

Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ by Graham Joyce. A contemporary tale, it’s about a young girl returning to her family home after disappearing into the woods 20 years previous. Although full of happy stories, she hasn’t aged a day. Her parents are thrilled to have her back, having thought her dead, but her brother can’t help worrying there’s more to her story than she’s letting on.

‘Tinder’ by Sally Gardner

Tinder’ by Sally Gardner. I have not, personally, come across a retelling of ‘The Tinderbox’. The part I enjoyed most about the original fairy tale was the 3 dogs that could be summoned. This retelling sounds quite dark and the cover is suitably creepy. According to Mal Peet’s review, Gardner “has noted and exploited, ingeniously and powerfully, the connection between The Tinderbox and the story of Prometheus, and this mythic underpinning gives her pell-mell fantasy both coherence and a satisfying richness.

‘Unbury Carol’ by Josh Malerman

Unbury Carol’ by Josh Malerman. This one, I am really looking forward to reading. A loose retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set in the Wild West. The Carol of the title has a bizarre condition – she lapses into a near-death coma-like state in times of stress. She appears dead, but she isn’t. Only 2 people know of her condition – her husband, who decides its time to let people believe Carol is dead when she’s not so he can have her inheritance, and her outlaw ex-lover who’s in a race against time to save her being buried alive.

‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy. Another retelling which sounds brilliant yet haunting. Set during the final months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, 2 children are left in the relative safety of the woods by their parents fleeing the Nazis. Renamed ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’ as their true names would reveal their Jewishness, they wander the woods until they’re taken in by an old woman, Magda, who the nearby villagers call a ‘witch’. Despite the dangers, she’s determined to keep the children safe.

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey. I’ve wanted to read this one for ages. Inspired by the Russian folk tale, ‘The Snow Maiden’, the setting is Alaska in the 1920s. A couple, wanting a fresh start in a remote homestead, still yearn for the child they lost years before. They build a snow child one evening, but in the morning, find their creation has gone. They then catch a glimpse of a young girl in the forest, accompanied by a fox. Is she the answer to their prayers or something more?

Have you read any of these? If you have, please share your thoughts, spoiler-free, of course 😊 Are there any others you’d recommend? 

Awe-Inspiring Libraries

I’m going to indulge my love of books and the places you can find them.

I love going to the library though with the busyness of life and the boys being older, I don’t go as often as I used to.

I admit to not paying much attention to a library building or the interior when I visit one, but when libraries look like this, it’s probably fair to say that the books don’t get immediate attention.

The Library of Trinity College in Dublin, the largest library in Ireland, which houses the Book of Kells.

Library of Trinity College, Dublin
Book of Kells, text that opens Gospel of John

Book of Kells, text that opens Gospel of John

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is one of the largest buildings in the world dedicated solely to rare books and manuscripts.

Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (photo credit: Lauren Manning)

Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (photo credit: Lauren Manning)

The description for this Image of the Mezzanine level – ‘to emphasise the beauty of these rare books, they were set up to be the centrepiece of the building. All the books were placed around the core like a large display case. The exterior skin is composed of thin marble panels that allow light to show through but not damage the books’ (curved lines are caused by the wide-angle lens used to take the panoramic photo)

The history of Prague’s Clementinum National Library dates from the existence of an 11th century chapel dedicated to Saint Clement. The library was founded in 1781 and has been the National Library since 1990.

Clementinum National Library, Baroque Library hall (photo credit: Bruno Delzant)

Clementinum National Library, Baroque Library hall (photo credit: Bruno Delzant)

The George Peabody Library in Baltimore is the research library of The Johns Hopkins University. George Peabody was a merchant-banker-financier-philanthropist who wanted to create a library “for the free use of all persons who desire to consult it”.

George Peabody Library (photo credit: Matthew Petroff)

George Peabody Library (photo credit: Matthew Petroff)

Austria’s National Library, founded by the Habsburgs, has its origins in the imperial library of the Middle Ages.

Austrian National Library, State Hall (photo credit: Richard Hopkins)

Austrian National Library, State Hall (photo credit: Richard Hopkins)

Another library in Prague, the Strahov Monastery Library. In 1670, the philosopher and theologian, Jeronym Hirnheim, became the abbot of Strahov. He was responsible for the building of the new library in the Theological Hall, which was completed in 1679.

Strahov Theological Hall, original baroque cabinets (photo credit: Jorge Royan) The paintings are from the 1720s

Strahov Theological Hall, original baroque cabinets (photo credit: Jorge Royan) The paintings are from the 1720s

The Library of El Escorial in Madrid, a historical royal residence, has, over the years, functioned as a monastery, basilica, royal palace, pantheon, library, museum, university and hospital. The library’s collection includes important illuminated manuscripts like the Golden Gospels of Henry III, which is an 11th century illuminated Gospel Book, probably produced under the patronage of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. The collection is located in a great hall with marble floors and carved wood shelves. The ceiling is decorated with frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts of Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy; liberal arts being the subjects that were considered essential in classical antiquity.

El Escorial (photo credit: 'Xauxa' Hakan Svensson)

El Escorial (photo credit: 'Xauxa' Hakan Svensson)

The Benedictine monastery of Admont is the oldest remaining monastery in Styria, in southeast Austria. Known for its Baroque architecture, art and manuscripts, Admont Abbey houses the largest monastic library in the world. The ceiling consists of seven cupolas, decorated with frescoes showing the stages of human knowledge culminating in Divine Revelation.

Admont Abbey Library (photo credit: Jorge Royan)

Admont Abbey Library (photo credit: Jorge Royan)

The National Library of France – Bibliotheque Nationale de France – has its origins in the royal library founded by Charles V at the Louvre Palace in 1368. It’s the national repository of everything published in France as well as extensive historical collections.

National Library of France (photo credit: Vincent Desjardins)

National Library of France (photo credit: Vincent Desjardins)

The Abbey Library of St. Gallen in Switzerland was founded by Saint Othmar, who’d founded the Abbey of St. Gall in the 8th century. The abbey was destroyed in a fire in 937, but the library remained intact. The library hall was constructed between 1758 and 1767. One of the earliest and most important monastic libraries in the world, the library collection is the oldest in Switzerland.

Abbey Library of St Gallen (photo credit: Stibiwiki, Wikipedia user)

Abbey Library of St Gallen (photo credit: Stibiwiki, Wikipedia user)

Canada’s Library of Parliament is the main source of information and research for the Parliament of Canada.

Canada's Library of Parliament (photo credit: Wladyslaw, Wikipedia user)

Canada's Library of Parliament (photo credit: Wladyslaw, Wikipedia user)

Canada's Library of Parliament, main reading room (photo credit: DavidWEnstrom, Wikipedia user)

Canada's Library of Parliament, main reading room (photo credit: DavidWEnstrom, Wikipedia user)

The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Road'

Giving the ‘Art’ section a rest, and doing a book review instead.

I watched the film of ‘The Road’ a couple of years ago, before reading the book by Cormac McCarthy.  I knew it was bleak but admit that I wasn’t prepared for how unrelentingly bleak it was.  Still, I kept thinking I wanted to read the book.  And finally did, a couple of months ago.  Despite knowing the story, I was still looking forward to reading it.

A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast.  Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind.  They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

Cormac McCarthy is not known for writing upbeat, happy stories; instead, isolation and violence are the words that spring to mind.  He doesn’t use much in the way of punctuation.  There are no quotation marks in the book so it isn’t immediately obvious what is direct speech; you'd think it would make for a challenging read, but I found it easy to keep track of who was saying what.

The story isn’t laid out traditionally in that there is no beginning, middle and end.  Neither are any of the characters named.  For me, the book seemed more like diary entries, written by the father.  He remembers the world before the unnamed disaster struck.  Sometimes we get glimpses into his past.  The boy was born into the devastated world; he knows nothing but their bleak existence.  We follow them as they traverse the road, making their way to the coast in the hopes of finding something, anything more than what they’re experiencing.

The world that McCarthy has created is a frightening one, in that it is a world that could, one day, come to be.  Everything that’s not already dead is dying, covered by choking ash.  There seem to be no animals; the few humans that there are, are either little more than dead people walking or cannibals.  

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn.  Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side.  Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind.  A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned.  Farther along were billboards advertising motels.  Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

This isn’t a story about the end of the world or life in a devastated one.  It is the story of a father and son, the mutual love and, also, dependence between parent and child.  It is about the strength of their bond in a world where it would be just as easy to give up, to abandon, to betray.  For a bottle of water; a can of food.  The father may have no hope left for himself, but he refuses to give up; he carries on for the sake of his son.  It could be said that his son is, literally, his reason for living, for surviving.

He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Although the boy has been raised in this dying world, his father has instilled values in him.  Ironically, it is the boy who becomes the father’s conscience, questioning when the man ignores those in need, when he refuses to share their meagre supplies.

Despite the desolation of the story and sparseness of style, McCarthy still makes magic with his use of words.

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable.  A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.  Often he had to get up.  No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.  He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.  An old chronicle.  To seek out the upright.  No fall but preceded by a declination.  He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return.  Eyes closed, arms oaring.  Upright to what?  Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix.  To which he and the stars were common satellite.  Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

I found the menace they faced more overt in the film, whereas in the book, while still there, it creeps along, just out of sight.  The fear that something might be about to happen to them is palpable even when nothing awful is in sight.  It is a far from happy story.  Yet, despite the harrowing subject, there are moments that uplift, between the father and son.  In my opinion, the book is well worth the emotional ride.  McCarthy’s depiction of the parent/child bond in such an awful setting elevates it above the norm.  He has also given the reader – this reader anyway – food for thought: is there any point in carrying on when there is nothing; no hope, no promise of a better life.  I’d like to say ‘yes’ … but it’s one of those situations – until you’re living it, who truly knows what they’ll do? 

The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Enchanted'

This is the debut novel of Rene Denfeld, and what a debut it is.  I’d never heard of her, or her book, but the moment I saw it on the shelf at the bookshop, I was drawn to it. 

At just over 230 pages, it did not take me long to read.  And I can honestly say I have never read anything quite like it.  Ms Denfeld displays superb skill in crafting her story with hauntingly beautiful prose, sparingly used.  Together with 'The Vagrant’, this was my other favourite of 2015.  How coincidental that the ‘protagonists’ in both do not speak.

Monsters aren’t born – they are created.
A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum-security prison.  We don’t know his crime.  We don’t know his name.  But he watches and he listens.
A lady investigator unravels unspeakable crimes.
She does not let men go to their deaths without a fight.
And the prisoner wonders … how do we stop men like me from happening?

The story is told in first person by a nameless, mute prisoner; we are not ‘introduced’ to him by name.  He is on death row, the dungeon, along with the other condemned.  He never sets foot out of his cell, and yet it is he who tells us all that transpires.  Ms Denfeld has handled the magical realism in such a seamless, believable way that at no point was I jolted out of the story.  It’s as if his time in the prison – from being with the ‘general population’ to being shut in the dungeon – has given him the ability to see-all and know-all.  His ‘voice’, although simple, is breathtakingly lyrical …

This is an enchanted place.  Others don’t see it but I do … I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air … I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky … I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs …
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here … I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.

In the prison, the only ones who have been named are the prisoners and corrupt guards; the other characters are labelled in a general way – ‘the lady’, ‘the priest’, ‘the warden’ – as if they are the ‘unimportant’ ones.  The main story concerns another prisoner, York, who will soon be executed.  Unlike many of the others, he wants to die.  He’s a killer, and he makes no excuses …
He says … he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does … “If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says. “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”’

The ‘lady’ is a death row investigator, a job similar to Denfeld's, which she explained in an interview – “I dig deep into the histories of men and women facing execution, trying to understand why they did such terrible things."  The character in the book does the same thing, trying to find any shred of evidence that might result in a stay of execution.  But it is more than a mere job to her; she seems to genuinely care for the men awaiting execution, trying her hardest to find that bit of evidence that will commute the death penalty to life imprisonment.

The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marvelling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

The horror of prison life is evoked, as is to be expected, but there are no unnecessary, graphic descriptions; Ms Denfeld leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination.  I liked the lack of stereotypical characters; for example, the warden, although a believer in the death penalty, is a compassionate man who treats the inmates with care.

There are other stories that are woven in, about the lady, the priest, the warden, a new inmate, the narrator … Like York’s story, they are all sad.  Yet, despite the bleak subject matter, and overarching sadness, there are moments of hope and salvation, which Denfeld communicates in a way that neither justifies the crimes nor belittles the victims.

To begin with, I found York to be an irritating specimen, but as his story unfolded, I started to see the person behind the criminal, and my heart went out to the little boy he’d been, who had been subjected to undeserving awfulness.

Although the narrator is in prison for doing a ‘bad thing’ – the details of which we are never really told – and he ends up in the dungeons for doing another ‘bad thing’, I found myself caring for this broken soul.  He talks about those who have been violated, who, like him, have had ‘the edges of [their] body blurred’ … ‘When your body stops being corporeal, your soul has no place to go, so it finds the next window to escape. My soul left me when I was six.  It flew away past a flapping curtain over a window.  I ran after it, but it never came back.  It left me alone on wet stinking mattresses.  It left me alone in the choking dark.  It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.

The image of a 6-year-old running after his soul must surely be one of the most distressing thoughts imaginable.

The thing that first drew me to the narrator was his love of books, the written word.  When he’d first entered prison, he did not read well, but, utilising the prison library, he laboured over the words he did know, and gradually improved his reading ability.

When I first started reading, I didn’t know how to sound some words.  I would whisper them inside my head. Sioux, paisley, ruche.  Obsolete, rubric, crux.  How do you say those words?  How do they sound when others say them?  Are they as pretty as they sound inside my head?  … I decided that in the end, it doesn’t matter.  In my mind, the words sound right.  They chase each other around like boats on a lake after dusk …

Now, I am not, for one moment, saying that we have to feel sorry for criminals, especially those guilty of heinous crimes.  Before reading this book, I never spared a thought for the criminal.  But now, while not agreeing with, or condoning crime of any sort, and still firmly believing that criminals get what they deserve in the sentences that are meted out, I find myself wondering why; what happened in their past, especially their growing-up years, that has made them behave as they do?  In my opinion, this intense, intelligent story, makes you think about how monsters are created, and how we – society – could stop it from happening.  How far should we go to step up and take some collective responsibility instead of turning a blind eye?  In Rene Denfeld’s words, “Without empathy, we have no soul.”