The World’s Wife: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

I got this title out of Pandora’s Jar (review still forthcoming!), and it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped. These are the women’s stories, from myths and classics and fairy tales, reconfigured. Many of these women are new to their tales, like Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Sisyphus, Queen Kong, Frau Freud, and Pope Joan. Others already had their own myths before Duffy arrived to rewrite them: Penelope, Demeter, Circe, Salome. The book begins, for example, with “Little Red-Cap,” whose relationship to the Big Bad Wolf takes a different angle. A few of my very favorites are “Mrs. Midas” and “Mrs. Darwin,” although I’m also captivated by Duffy’s Eurydice, who was so relieved at the quiet of the Underworld and so sorry to see that damned Orpheus again. Clever, clever, cynical Eurydice.

I am pretty confident in calling these persona poems: each takes the first-person perspective of a female hero we’ve not heard enough of until now. Each has its charms and its surprises; I have been slow in writing this review over more than a week–unusual, and a bad hole to fall into usually, but they haven’t left the top of my mind in that time. I think Duffy was the perfect author to do this job, the new highlighting of both familiar traits and of delightful surprises. (Guess what body part Frau Freud assigns no fewer than 31 nicknames to in fifteen lines.) These poems are often funny, often fraught and moving, and always lovely. See these images: “a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” And these judgments: “The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife / which made me worse.” What else has Duffy written? I would read more poetry if it all worked like this: easy to access but inviting lots of processing time, deep and rich and wide.


Rating: 8 teeth of the rich.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

This delightful little book brought to us once again by Liz. In this, the first in the Fractured Fables series, Alix E. Harrow retells the story of Sleeping Beauty in winning fashion, set in a recognizable modern Ohio but with a portal into magical realms, featuring various strong female and queer characters and general reclamation. It’s dedicated to “everyone who deserves a better story than the one they have,” and feels like a perfect response to the Toni Morrison quotation: “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” A Spindle Splintered is just a novella at a hair over 100 pages, and I’m thoroughly entranced; I’ve already preordered book 2 in the series (A Mirror Mended), which should ship to me in June from Gaslight Books.

Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. (“She literally sleeps through her own climax,” as my favorite gender studies professor used to say. “Double entendre fully intended.”)…

Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White.

Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.

In the first page, we learn these things about our narrator, Zinnia Gray: that she’s a nerd who majored in folklore. That she’s dying – has been dying all her life. That she loves Sleeping Beauty even though she knows it’s problematic as hell. In fact, Sleeping Beauty has been one of her life’s great obsessions. The action begins on Zinnia’s twenty-first birthday, when her best friend Charmaine Baldwin (Charm) throws her a Sleeping-Beauty-themed birthday party, in a tower and with an ancient spinning wheel, no less. Charm is a badass lesbian science major and Zinnia’s absolute champion. This twenty-first birthday is especially heavy, because no sufferer of Zinnia’s very rare disease (caused by environmental pollutants) has ever lived to twenty-two. Zin manages to prick her finger on the spindle of Charm’s birthday party prop – no small thing, as it’s quite dull, but she is a determined dying girl – “and then something happens, after all.”

Zin has an adventure in another world, side-by-side a plucky princess named Primrose. They aim to avoid not only the spindle of a spinning wheel but an unwanted marriage; they travel to take on a wicked fairy who is not who she seems; and they learn that they are but two in a whole galaxy of doomed or cursed or dying princesses or girls or women, who would all like the chance to rewrite their own stories. This is not “one of those soft, G-rated fairy tales, stripped of medieval horrors,” but rather “the kind of tale where prices are paid and blood is spilled.” Except it’s also a tale of empowerment and badass womanhood, of female friendships and love, and it ends in a joyful go-forth sort of moment. And it’s hilarious: Zinnia as narrator is wry, sarcastic, vulnerable, irreverent, just someone I’d love to know. (Dying girls sometimes use humor as a shield. “I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.” And what of it?)

I am extremely excited about the next installment – I was afraid A Mirror Mended might take on another standalone fairy tale rewrite, but this is indeed the continued adventures of Zinna Gray, “professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty,” and I can’t wait.


Rating: 8 stones slick and dark with blood.

The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers: And Other Gruesome Tales by Jen Campbell, illus. by Adam de Souza

This delightful book, I’m pretty sure, came from another Shelf review. Jen Campbell teases her reader, in a brief foreword, with a playfully sinister tone; she notes that “brilliant, horrible tales” once “known far and wide” have somehow been replaced with “‘happily ever afters’ where nothing really awful happened and, well, a lot of them became boring.” She wants to restore the gruesome; thus this book, which offers fourteen tales from around the world (each presented with its country of origin), adapted and tweaked by Campbell. They are indeed deliciously gruesome, and complemented by Adam de Souza’s illustrations, which nod to each story’s cultural origin. I really liked this intersection of fairy tales, traditional storytelling, modern twists, and horror. Campbell’s afterword neatly bookends the collection with a cozier tone, now that we’ve gotten to know each other and all.

The title story is Korean, and straight horrifying. “The House That Was Filled With Ghosts” (Japan) I enjoyed for its victorious ending (bit of a ‘happily ever after’ here, Campbell!). “The Adults Who Lost Their Organs” (Germany) reminds me of a story I knew as a child but cannot name now… “The Man Who Hunted Children” (South Africa) is I think the “Hansel and Gretel” reference. “The Wife Who Could Remove Her Head” (El Salvador) had a refreshing outcome for the rebellious wife; likewise a bit of justice in India’s “The Son of Seven Mothers.” But my absolute favorite was definitely the final story, from Spain: “The Woman and the Glass Mountain.” There are book lovers, adventures, a wedding in a library, triumphant women, and queer love. I am smitten with this story and this whole book, and will put it in the growing pile of fairy tales & folktales that are somewhat simultaneously creepy and weirdly comforting. What a treat. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys tracking storytelling in human history and across cultures, or fairy tales and their origins, or spookiness in general. Good times.


Rating: 8 fingers.

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon

I got this title from Well-Read Black Girl, although the cover was familiar enough that I wonder if I had it as a child at some point. (I definitely recognized some of the characters, like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, if not these particular stories.) In a larger format, with a number of rich, grayscale illustrations, it offers a selection of folktales passed down as oral tradition from the Americas’ earliest Black residents: enslaved Africans and their descendants. Virginia Hamilton has done good work in compiling these stories, of course, but an equally important contribution is her brief notes about what each one represents and where it falls in the larger scheme of storytelling traditions in time and geography. (I really appreciated the occasional personal note, too.) She notes the families each story falls into and her choice to use more or less dialect, and the global traditions that contribute to each.

These stories appear in sections, headed by a title story and then grouped by type: animal stories, tales of the supernatural, tales of the real, extravagant, and fanciful, and slave stories of freedom. This last section finishes with the title story, “The People Could Fly,” and I think it’s the right note to end on. The illustrations really did add something – just look at that cover, where I find the facial expressions evocative; I feel like it conveys the movement and inspiration of the title story.

I love the animal stories, which perhaps felt most familiar – not only do I know Brer Rabbit, as mentioned, but these recall Aesop’s fables and many other storytelling traditions. I do love a tall tale, like “Papa John’s Tall Tale.” And I was pleased by the “grisly realism” of “The Two Johns” – just as a matter of personal taste, I suppose. There’s a general sense of rural settings close to nature, that I think comes of the enslaved experience (as Hamilton notes about the animal tales in particular); there’s a feeling common to all folktales and traditional storytelling, of trying to explain the world through stories. There’s something comforting about that effort, even when the resulting explanation is discomfiting.

I enjoyed the stories, but I think what makes this book special is Hamilton’s work, in her footnotes, to put them in context. I especially enjoyed the geography, or the references to global patterns in storytelling – that the opening story, “He Lion, Bruh Bear, and Bruh Rabbit,” for example, “ranges throughout North and South America, Europe, and Africa.” It’s pretty wild to think about how stories can encompass so much of the world: that they are that important and elemental.

With its moving illustrations, excellent and concise footnoting, and its range of fine stories, I think this is an essential book for any home library – for children and adults. Glad I came across it.


Rating: 7 clever rabbits.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This was a delightful quick read: five spooky stories, with brief introduction and conclusion to bookend. Carroll’s illustration style is lovely – I almost want to say simple, but deceptively so, for sure. She communicates a lot of emotion. I am reminded of the graphic versions of Gaiman’s work. I loved the woman “with starry eyes,” and indeed there were tiny little stars in her pupils.

These tales are deliciously unnerving, creepy, and enigmatic – it’s not always clear that there is something to be scared of in the end, but there sure might be. There’s a lot of question of who to trust, of things that go bump in the night and come out of the woods (as “most strange things do”). Friendships and familial relationships are perhaps less stable and trustworthy than they first appear. There might be monsters, after all. Houses and spaces hold nasty potential. I’ve decided to call these stories dark fairy tales; they definitely recall that style and the traditional setting (and at least one is a clear reference).

This is the kind of horror that is just deeply fun, and in this graphic format, even sumptuous. There are multiple spreads that I could see hanging on the wall. I love the idea of keeping this around for quick, easy, luxurious, high-impact reads. Carroll deserves her accolades. I’d buy another volume of this work in a minute.


Rating: 8 teeth.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties are both highly varied – in length, form, and style – and also absolutely related. They each handle gender in our real world, including issues of body image, sexuality, violence, lust, and family structures, but frequently do so by calling in supernatural forces, post-apocalypses, fairy tales or other fictional reference points. These are narratives to get completely lost and absorbed in, not necessarily pleasant reading, but compelling.

“The Husband Stitch” starts the collection off, and is why I own it: my friend Vince teaches it and I’ve heard him talk about it several times. It is a quite discomfiting story of a woman’s life from girlhood on, including her marriage and motherhood to a boy. It’s about gender expectations, and it feels true to our world, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It also makes reference to the classic urban myth/horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck – remember that one?

“Inventory” lists the narrator’s partners, of different genders, over the years, until the reader understands that in her world there has been a global pandemic that has all but wiped out the human population. (This was published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at an off-angle while ostensibly focusing on sexual/romantic relationships.

“Mothers” sees a woman showing up on her former lover’s doorstep with a baby, which she deposits, saying “She’s yours.” The trick is that the partner is also a woman, who has imagined their life together as mothers many times, but simultaneously comforted herself that it wasn’t possible for them to make a baby. This central riddle is never solved; by the end, it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an interesting thought experiment. The passage about “the major and minor arcana of our little religion” pleased me greatly.

“Especially Heinous,” the longest story in this collection, I felt was the weakest of the collection. I like both the form and the frame: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” it offers very short synopses of 272 episodes of that show, seasons 1-12. I have watched this show some; as a person mostly ignorant of pop culture references like this, it was gratifying to know the subtext. But it didn’t really work out for me. This alternate version of Benson and Stabler have themselves an alternate version, Henson and Abler, sort of evil doppelgängers who muck up their cases and relationships. It’s otherworldly, paranormal, and weird (none of which I shy away from!) but somehow didn’t come together. Maybe the large number of short pieces didn’t hold together for this many pages. I definitely got bogged down here and reading became a bit of a task.

But then things came right back together again. “Real Women Have Bodies” sees a world with another, different epidemic, in which women sort of… fade out, and become invisible. But where do they go? Our female protagonist works in a high-end dress shop, and finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and both wind up in a position to witness the ways in which women change and are disregarded. (No metaphor here, I’m sure.) It’s lovely and haunting, which could be said about the whole collection.

“Eight Bites” is another perfectly apt observation of the world, in which a woman gets gastric bypass surgery – the last of her sisters to do so – and thereby horrifies and enrages her daughter, who rejects the societal bullying that gets us here in the first place.

“The Resident” features a writer heading to an artists’ residency where she struggles to relate to others, eventually finding herself humiliated – again. This story has a neat trick at its conclusion.

And finally, “Difficult at Parties” (a phrase that echoes from an earlier story) depicts the aftermath of a trauma. Not for the first time, this story is so realistic and painful that it is hard to read, but also spellbinding and crystalline.

NPR‘s Annalisa Quinn states that this book is “full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.” I’m glad I read that line; it helps me to think about this kind of writing – fabulist realism, perhaps – as defamiliarization. Making our very own familiar world strange helps us to see it more clearly.

I’ll be thinking about these stories for some time. Machado has a gift. Keep your eyes open for her later memoir, In the Dream House. Also, thanks Vince for the recommendation.


Rating: 8 dresses.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

This quick read combines Snow White (the classic fairy tale) with still more horror, in graphic novel form, with story by Neil Gaiman and beautiful, intricate illustrations by Colleen Doran in the style of Harry Clarke. Gaiman’s version subverts the classic tale to star an evil stepdaughter, and moves away from a children’s story (to the extent that these fairy tales ever are that to begin with!), with sex as well as scariness. Doran’s art is jewel-toned, detailed, evocative, and yes, sexy and scary by turns. The book is hard-covered, slim and gorgeous; I enjoyed every minute on a chilly rainy evening, and again the next day, skimming for both plot details and visual ones. Gaiman’s storytelling (down to word choice) is exquisite, and Doran’s work (which I was not familiar with) is equally so. Again, it is a short book, but a beautiful one which I will revisit. Think of it as a gift option for the fans of dark fairy tales in your life! Sinister and delicious.


Rating: 8 bridges.

Once More Upon a Time by Roshani Chokshi

Once upon a time, there lived twelve reasonably attractive princesses who, when lined up together, caused such a sight that the world agreed to call them beautiful. And so they were.

Prince Ambrose and Princess Imelda fall in love at her sister’s wedding; her father, being thrifty, asks them to wed the very next day to save on expenses. He gives them a kingdom called Love’s Keep, which will thrive and prosper only as long as its rulers remain in love. Naturally, then, Imelda falls ill; a convenient witch offers to save her life if Ambrose agrees that they will give up their love for each other, thereby damning both Love’s Keep and their marriage. This story begins when Ambrose and Imelda must leave Love’s Keep, that barren land. Before they part ways forever (unclear on why they every wound up together in the first place), a different witch (at least I think it was a different witch?) appears and offers them a quest. The point of the quest is not for them to fall in love again, but stranger things have happened on quests. The estranged king and queen, then, set off through strange lands, to have adventures and meet wild beasts, cannibals, and a horse cloak that thinks it’s a horse. What will they find, and lose?

I am much intrigued by this deceptive little tale, which seems simple on its surface but (as so often!) contains depths. Both prince and princess have some hangups, some baggage, some triggers. Both have put up defensive mechanisms that limit their access to joy and love, and this is not the usual material of prince-and-princess fairy-tale romances, but it is the material of real life. I love that this princess has a trigger about the objects that have been used in her past as a means to exert control, to tie her to the earth. And in a classic miscommunication, her prince’s attempt to use that very mechanism to free her will be misinterpreted – as can happen when we establish less-than-rational associations. There is a question built in throughout as to where love comes from, and whether it can be regained once lost. What is really the obstacle to the success of the relationship and of Love’s Keep? Imelda fears that even in her joy,

This feeling will trap you. There is no freedom in this.

Is love a trap? Can one be safe in love?

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

Love made no promise to stay, to put down roots.

Later,

Ambrose knew there was no trust in love.

But there was no love in trusting that truth either.

As ever (and echoing that recent read, Everything, Everything), these things only work if you take a risk that they won’t.

You think it’s lust, but it’s not. It’s bravery. To close distances. To take the raw, beating part of you and hold it up to the light.

A romance, yes, but a far more pragmatic one than fairy tales tend to be. At only 133 pages, it’s an easy and absolutely joyful read. Also, please note that Imelda goes around saving Ambrose’s tail more than vice versa. I’d never heard of Roshani Chokshi but will have to find more.


Rating: 8 apples, naturally.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris, illus. by Charles Vess

Fairy tales for grown-ups, allegories, visions and horrors: these gorgeously illustrated linked stories are guaranteed to transport.

With Honeycomb, the prolific Joanne M. Harris (Chocolat; Peaches for Father Francis), who has written fantasy, historical fiction, suspense, cookbooks and more, offers an enchanting collection of darkly delightful, imaginative fairy tales and parables of the modern world. (These stories began as a series on Twitter.) Illustrator Charles Vess (Stardust; Sandman) brings to life Harris’s Silken Folk, “weavers of glamours, spinners of tales… whom some call the Faërie, and some the First, and some the Keepers of Stories,” in richly detailed images.

In the world of Honeycomb, the Sightless Folk (regular humans) unwittingly often share space with the numerous and diverse Silken. “There are many doors between the worlds of the Faërie and the Folk. Some look like doors; or windows; or books. Some are in Dream; others, in Death.” These 100 stories form a whole that is magical, fanciful, enchanting and occasionally nightmarish. Some center on single-appearance characters, and some characters are revisited, but all belong to the same universe. “Dream is a river that runs through Nine Worlds, and Death is only one of them.” In special moments, “all Worlds were linked, like the cells of an intricate honeycomb, making a pattern that stretched beyond even Death; even Dream,” and the stories are likewise linked cells.

Some act as allegories, as in “The Wolves and the Dogs,” in which the Sheep elect a Wolf to protect them because at least he is honest. In “The Traveller,” the titular character passes quickly by many delights in pursuit of his destination, which turns out less impressive than he’d hoped. “Clockwork” is a horrifying tale in which a husband rebuilds his wife piece by piece. “The Bookworm Princess,” on the other hand, ends with deep satisfaction. There is the Clockwork Princess and the watchmaker’s boy; a girl who travels with a clockwork tiger; and a mistrustful puppeteer who manifests what he fears. A recurring farmyard is packed with colorful animal characters–a troublesome piglet, a petulant pullet–and allegory, Orwellian and otherwise. The connecting character is the Lacewing King, whom readers meet at his birth in “The Midwife” and follow for hundreds of years, as the fate of Worlds hangs in the balance. “There are many different ways to reach the River Dream. One is Sleep; one is Desire; but the greatest of all is Story….”

Completely engrossing, exquisitely inventive, brilliantly illustrated and thought-provoking, Honeycomb is a world, or Worlds, to get lost in. “Some of these tales have stings attached. But then, of course, that’s bees for you.”


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 candied cockroaches.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

This is a difficult book to review. I want to use lots of superlatives, and I want to rate it a 10, but with a big asterisk, because I think it should come with a warning label of some kind. I am no longer sure where I got this recommendation from, but I missed a major headline: this is a horror novel, and a truly horrifying one of those, too. I had grasped it as fantasy, which is not wrong but it’s not all. So let me start off here: this is an excellent, mindbending, outstanding novel, but it is likely to upset even hard-to-upset readers (I consider myself one of these). Also, I want you to go in spoiler-free, which makes this review even harder to write.

Shelf Awareness’s review begins:

The Changeling is Victor LaValle’s version of the marshmallow test: forgo the quick thrill of a mass-market mystery/horror and be patient as the author genially paces you through 120 pages of buildup, and you’ll receive the kind of shock that fairy tales are made of.

and I think that part is well done. (I’m not a fan of the rest of it, which gets one important detail wrong and includes a spoiler, and that’s why it’s not linked here. Please avoid spoilers.) Truly, part of why I was so shocked is that those first 100+ pages are so delightful and unhorrifying. LaValle lulled me with the completely realistic, imperfect but sweet story of our protagonist, Apollo, beginning with his parents (white father from Syracuse, Black mother a Ugandan immigrant) and their romance in New York City, Apollo’s birth, and his father’s disappearance when the boy is quite young. Apollo grows up quickly to become a used book dealer (in the best of times, a rare book dealer, but you take what you can get), a kind and driven man. He in turn enjoys his own romance with Emma, a librarian and profoundly independent woman. These are complicated and nuanced people we really like and root for. Their first child, in an unlikely turn, is delivered on a stalled and stranded A train, underground, by Apollo and a few motley fellow passengers; but he is born healthy. Emma appears to suffer from a severe postpartum depression, however. And then things take a strange, strange turn.

I love the characters: Apollo, his mother Lillian, Emma the badass librarian, her sister Kim, her old friend Nichelle. Apollo’s best friend and fellow book dealer, Patrice, is a delightful giant of a man, an Iraqi War veteran with a great sense of humor and a hobbyist’s interest in computers. They’re all fully developed, with small background details that make them real humans rather than types. That these characters are Black is not the point of the book and rarely needs pointing out, except when it very much does (“you and me are two black men sitting in a minivan in the middle of the road in the middle of White Ass, Long Island,” Patrice reminds Apollo. Time to go). That full realization of characters, the round shape of them, applies to the general setting in time and place as well. I can tell that LaValle is an author who knows things about these characters and this world that didn’t make it into the pages; they’re complete like that. It’s a wonderful story to sink into for these reasons. There is commentary on fatherhood: Apollo’s continuing reckoning with his own absent father (and related nightmares), and his role as proud father himself. The passage about New Dads and how they are different from Old Dads is priceless, and self-deprecating: “New Dads do half the housework (really more like 35 percent, but that’s still so much better than zero).”

And then there’s the horror story – which is fantasy and fairy tale too. It’s a delight, actually. I just didn’t have my seatbelt buckled up for it. And if the idea of harm coming to children is a trigger point for you, fair warning here. (Fairy tales can be pretty awful in this regard, to be fair.) When things go south for Apollo, he will have to step out of the modern Queens that he knows and into something more ancient, awful, elemental. “For a moment he pawed through the contents [of his suitcase]: a mattock, some clothes, a children’s book, and a gravestone. This was how you packed for a trip to another world, not another borough.” Just put your seatbelt on.

I am deeply impressed with LaValle’s skills and have just added to my purchase list all of his books: three more novels, a story collection, a novella, and a comic. I’m completely sold. I was horrified! But it was worth every minute for this transporting read.


Rating: 10 moldy hardcovers, but be careful.
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