Category Archives: fairy tale retelling

Thorn Jack – Katherine Harbour (Night and Nothing#1)


(This book, or part of it, is set at Halloween.)

This is a great read set through the month of October with the climax on Halloween..  ‘Thorn Jack’ captures the feel of Autumn. The brisk cold has the wind ripping leaves off trees. The Fae or Others, and their dead brought to life by the fairy folk, play their part.  Add a Teind, a pact that must be satisfied for the Fae and their collected spirits to live another 100 years and the story starts to get interesting.  Now, include a woman starting her first year at college in the sleepy Northeastern American town of Fair Hollow.  After her sister and her mother took their own lives in California Finn and her father fled to heal from the loss.  It’s a pretty fascinating concept, right?  It also is a retelling of the old Scottish ballad Tam Lin.  This book felt created especially for me based off my own personal interests.  It is very good but it is also a book that fades in and out of greatness.  The first near half of the book is close to perfect, however.  Katherine Harbour has a way with words and created a beautiful world mixing the normal with otherness.  It reminded me a bit of Charles De Lint’s writings.

Serafina Sullivan, better known as Finn, came to Fair Hollow with her father, the professor of myth and folklore, to escape constant reminders of the loss of her sister, Lily Rose. Someone, who we learn about through small portions of her journal.  Finn and her father move into her late grandmothers house covered in carvings/pictures of fairies and anthropomorphic animals.  It is a true example of the eccentric town that contains several other boarded up mansions belonging to old families of wealth and fortune.  It has been a haven for the art/theatre community for years.  Finn’s college takes liberal and unconventional to new levels, but the town love for celtic tradition appears to be more than nostalgia for lineage and roots. Finn and the close friends she makes get drawn into Fae mischief.  Finn turns the eye of a Fairy Queen and her Jack.  Their interest, and the why behind the interest is what this book is about.  When Finn sees ties to the Fae in her sister’s journal it causes her to unabashedly rush down the rabbit hole in search of answers.  The fact that she is attracted to the Jack only draws her further.

I recommend you read this book rather than listen to it.  Kate Rudd narrates it and while she has done very well with other books, such as The Chronos Files Series by Rysa Walker, I preferred my own interpretation of Harbour’s writing.  Listen to the snippet available prior to purchasing the audio version and make your own assessment.

The first half of this book I could not put down.  Harbour’s writing is picturesque and I adored the originality.  I recognize this is a retelling, and that Tam Lin itself is a romantic story of a woman who tricks the Fairy Queen to release her love/the Queen’s Jack from her clutches.  My problem is I was so engrossed in Finn’s story of finding out what happened to her sister, who committed suicide and the reasons behind it, I was frustrated at being drawn away from that portion of the story. Ultimately, however, Harbour had to develop the tale of how Finn grows a new heart in the dead Jack.  (A Jack is an Other, who at the bidding of the Fairy Queen, causes people to fall in love with them in the pursuit of mischief and.)  The paranormal romance is not bad, but it did not have the same teeth that Finn’s search of the truth about her sister’s death has.  The romance is predictable and typical of current YA/NA writing.  The character interaction of Finn with her friend’s Sylvie and Christie loses its depth and realness at this point as well.  I belive Harbour has great potential as an author. I hope the next stories in the series of Night and Nothing can be the level of the first half of this book all the way through.   I believe Harbour can do it and I have been left curious.  I’m assuming the stories will not be about Finn and Jack since this story feels so complete.

I recommend you pick this up is you like stories about the Fae.  This is very good at leaning on real lore regarding the Fae from Celtic origins with interesting quotes from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Lady Gregory.  It is definitely New Adult and paranormal romance but it is interesting.  As I said I am interested in Harbour’s other work.


‘Alice’ – Christina Henry: A different take/the Grimm state of fairy tale retelling

Fairy tales, original fairy tales, are dark.  The Brothers Grimm stories are violent and come with a lesson.  ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll is not a fairy tale, but it has been granted that status in our culture.    Disney created an innocent and sweet movie based off it. I’m sure you’ve seen it.  Henry’s book isn’t charming and certainly not sweet.  Carroll’s original story isn’t free of its own grim aspects.  Legend/popular opinion is that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is about the little girl of a friend Carroll knew, Alice Liddell, and was written while Carroll was under the influence of psychedelics.  It isn’t squeaky clean.  Henry takes that and ups the madness quotient.  Alice is in an insane asylum when we meet her.  She speaks of rabbits and tea parties and it gets her locked away.  That is the start of this dark tale. Henry’s world still contains magic but The Caterpillar, The Cheshire Cat, and The Walrus and the Carpenter are not what we have been taught.  They are realities wrapped in small bits of magic and a lot of mental instability.  If you are looking for lighter fare turn around and walk away.  ‘Alice’ isn’t for the faint of heart.

What if Wonderland is a delusion? – a fantasy created by a sixteen-year old girl to deal with a tragic experience her mind didn’t know how to cope with? Her upper class parents didn’t know what to do when their little girl came up missing.  All they wanted was to have her back  but the girl they got back was scarred and raving about rabbits.  When the story didn’t change they committed her not knowing what else to do.  Henry’s story introduces its to Alice, now twenty-six, in a cold cell speaking to her only companion through a mouse-hole.  The man is ‘Hatcher,’ an unstable man said to have murdered his wife, child, and several men in a blood bath with a hatchet.  He has nightmares and fits about the Jabberwocky.  Alice doesn’t believe it exist.  Henry takes her characters, Alice and Hatcher, through escaping the Asylum to the ‘Old City,’ an area abandoned by the upper class and elite, to a criminal element.  It’s where these two characters must go to hunt down the Jabberwocky – something that is either a threat to the entire world or a figment of Hatcher’s imagination.

Some retellings can be considered for children and young adults.  This is not.  The violence and concepts are for an adult audience.  The effects of mental illness, rape, and violence are realistically explored. I was impressed how Henry dealt with the topics and the long-term effects.  It was not eroticized or used for shock factor.  For much of the book I thought there might not be any fantasy element and found myself respecting the choice.  How magic is used, and Alice’s questioning of it’s very possibility, is clever.  Alice, being told she was mentally ill for years made her believe it.  She constantly questions her understanding of what is real as well as what Hatcher believes is real.  This would be true of an institutionalized population.  She also deals with her perception of the world.  She acknowledges her understanding of society is frozen at a 16 year-old perception.  It was when she was institutionalized.

I can’t say I enjoyed this.  ‘Alice’ is a grimdark fairy tale retelling.  It’s not common and it is fascinating.  I am impressed with the concept, the writing, and the tie to Caroll.  I don’t recommend this for everyone.  If you are ready for it, and aware walking into it, it is worthwhile. I respect it.  I would not recommend it outside an adult audience.  It handles sexual abuse, violence, and mental instability well but it’s intricate and handled at a high level.  It’s an interesting psychological study inside the framework of Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland.’  It is good.

I received this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

This is a beautifully written book.  Take a broken married couple who wanted nothing more in their life than to have a houseful of children and place them in Alaska during the 1920’s. Mabel and Jack moved to the wilds, away from their families, to a homestead so remote the closest town doesn’t have a doctor.   This is their chance to start over, where it is just the two of them, away from family that judged their failure to have children.  Their life in Alaska shows two shadows of people growing outside of themselves to trust each other again, befriend a new family of chosen friends, and raise a young mysterious and wild girl of the woods.  ‘The Snow Child’ is linked to the Russian fairy tale, ‘Snegurochka.’  The beauty of Ivey’s story is that her characters, or at least Mabel, is aware of the fairy tale.  What would you do if your deepest dreams came true in the likeness of a story you were told when you were a child?  Would you believe it?  The more I think about this book the more I like it.

At the beginning, Mabel and Jack are estranged.  They purposefully have chosen to not interact with other settlers.  They are protective of their sadness.  Their move was made to get away from other people and to be able to create a homestead and life that is theirs.   As they grow through the book their peace of mind and happiness comes from their closest neighbors befriending them forcefully.  Mabel’s polite cultured upbringing is no match for Esther’s loving refusal of any form of convention.  This stubbornness is what breaks Jack’s and Mabel’s defenses to be able to care, love, laugh, and learn of their own strength.  This is one piece of the book.  The second is a mysterious little girl.

One evening, in the dead of the long Alaskan winter, a young girl appears at their homestead.  They don’t see her, but there is evidence of her.  Mabel and Jack built a small and beautiful snow child during the storm.  It was an image of the child they yearned for.  They dressed it in scarf and mittens knowing that there was no person in miles to claim the items during the night.  In the morning the articles are gone.  Jack follows tracks away from the statue but can not find the items.  Both he and Mabel think they see signs of a little girl but for a long time they think it could be the tricks of winter and cabin fever playing with their minds.  Eventually, the child reveals herself to them.  The child, supposedly, is the daughter of a trapper who has died.  She refuses to live with them and will only visit them if they do not restrict her movements or force her to stay.  She takes care of herself.  No one has seen this child other than Mabel and Jack.  Their friends are kind but do not believe she exists.   Mabel remember the tale of  “the snow child” from a Russian story book her father read her and starts to believe the little girl is  ‘Snegurochka.’ It fits.  Faina, the girl, disappears during the summer.  She only sees Mabel and Jack in the winter – disappearing when the snow melts.  Mabel has her sister send her the book.  She wants to know more about the tale.  What does it mean and what happened to Faina – the girl she loves as her own daughter?  If she has enough faith will she come back with the snow?

Ivey is a skilled writer.  She evokes the solitude and wild nature of the early Alaskan frontier.  The beauty of the landscape combined with her strong complex characters alone make the book worth reading.  Add in the magical realism of the fairy tale and you get something very special.   To be clear, the magical realism is a question.  It is not clear if Faina is ‘Snegurochka.’  Much of the story is dedicated to Jack and Mabel determining if she is in fact real or a figment of their imagination brought on by the duress of the Alaskan winter.  The other question is if she is akin to a feral child or if she is something more magical in nature.  Ivey explores the definition of magic, family, strength, and trust.  This book snuck up on me.  I didn’t expect to love it as I do.  I continue to think about it long after I finished it.  It is not action oriented.  Do not pick this up if you are in the mood for that.  It’s strength lies in being a contemplative book of ideas and character study.

If you enjoy audible books Debra Monk does a beautiful narration.  I highly recommend it.  Her performance added to the enjoyment of the experience.  This book is one I prefer to listen to than read.



Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente


This is a beautiful book combining the magic of Russian folk stories, old rule of Russian Czars, and the rise of Communism.  The story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless is told while St. Petersburg, becomes Leningrad and Russia enters World War II.  Valente shows folk tales and belief in magic to be old traditional Russia filled with Czars and Czaritza’s of life and death.  New communistic Russia is modern with no need of fairy tales.  It only needs what can be made by a comrades two hands.  Valentine’s tale is poignant, full of patterns, and the tragic inability to escape destiny.

Marya Morevna as a little girl sees what others do not.  She sees birds come to their house, transform into men, and  wed her sisters.  The world of magic opens to her and she waits for her own bird to whisk her away.  She clings to a book of Pushkin’s tales of magic.  She knows they are real, but when everyone else believes them to be silly tales, she must be careful who she talks to.  Her precious red scarf, the only thing that is truly hers and shows she is a good citizen comrade of The Young Pioneers, gets taken from her by girls in her class because she believes the old stories.  It marks her as old Russia, not modern, and not a comrade.  When Koschei comes for her she goes happily with him to Bolyan.  She is happy to leave Leningrad and the twelve families and mothers that now live in what was her family home.

Valente explores relationships and marriage.  Chairman Yaga or Baba Yaga gives Marya advise so she does not become one of the countless girls Koschei discarded.  Once Koschei is done with them, Yaga uses to build new soldiers in the war between life and death.   Yaga, who had eaten many husbands, says marriage is about power and control.  Only one can rule, and Marya has to prove her worth to marry Koschei.  Marya asks why he does not have to prove his worth, but since she is a consort and slept with him without marriage, had bargaining chips.  She must complete impossible tasks at Yaga’s request, our become soup. Their relationship is a struggle, as all marriages are a struggle.  Valente’s fairytale story is not a happily ever after, but the inevitable struggle that is life’s fight against death.

In the original tale of Koschei the Deathless there is always an Ivan that pulls Marya from Koschei and every Marya finds Koschei’s death.  She kills him so she can live her life with the Ivan.   Marya learns she has not been Koshei’s only love, and is one of many Marya’s in Koschei’s long life.  She is only one Marya, in one cycle of a story that repeats itself. Marya fights it  but it inevitably ends the same.  Fate wins, as it always does, and she meets her Ivan.  Even as she had no desire to leave Koschei, she falls in love in the moment she meets a warm blooded Ivan.  In him she sees her human life stolen from her, the children she could have had, the life with her family that was not filled with despair in the inevitable losing fight in the war with the Czar of death.  The war that has taken all her friends.

She goes with Ivan to Leningrad, she leaves one war only for it to be replaced with another.  Russia joins World War II.  A promised life of children and love is one of starvation, freezing, and death.  The depiction of life in Leningrad by Valente is an accurate portrait of the absolute despair that existed.  This beautiful book combines magic folk tales with the tragic life Russians endured during the 40’s.  The food lines, rationing, loaves of bread made with saw dust that sold for diamonds happened.  All at the same time, Valente has the Czar of Life lose the war to the Czar of death, Koschei loses his life to Marya and Ivan,  tradition and magic die, and the Russian people die.  Only death wins.

If you enjoy audible books Kim de Blecourt narrates a beautiful version.  Her character differentiation is fabulous, and she is able to handle both male and female voices well.  My one recommendation is to increase the reading speed.  This is the first book I have ever chosen to this with.  This is a minor concern and easy fix.

I make it sound terribly depressing and spirit crushing.  You would think I didn’t like it but I love it.  I will re-read it.  I appreciate the amazing book Valente created.  The juxtaposition of old world magic with communistic Russia is done so well.  I can’t see anyone who has an appreciation for history, folk lore, and Russian culture coming away unenlightened.  Yes this is a book of death, desperation, and inescapable fate, but it is also one of joy, love, appreciation for what one has.  Death comes for us all but there is freedom in that too.  I strongly recommend this book.

“The Girls At The Kingfisher Club” – Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

This is historical fiction and a fairy tale retelling.  Combine the prohibition era with ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and you get ‘The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.’  The roaring twenties is a perfect setting for this Grimm fairy tale.  The reality of restriction and prohibition  in the society of day leading to an overwhelming majority of citizens rebelling by drinking at the speakeasy’s at night.   Politicians and policemen frequented the speakeasy’s while their political  platforms railed against corruption and the vice of drink.  Bootlegging alcohol across state lines was a booming trade, and the speakeasy that got raided was the one that didn’t pay protection or a bribe.  Now, add the state of women’s rights.  Previous to 1920 American women did not have the right to vote, and married women couldn’t own property.  They had no legal claim to money they earned, and were subject to the will of their husband, father, or nearest male relative.  What better setting could you place a story about twelve princesses tightly controlled by their father who somehow wear out their shoes every night?  This type of traditional father would never allow his daughters to go dancing.  In his eyes, only disobedient lascivious women would engage in lewd behavior as dancing and drinking, and only a weak man can’t control his women.

Mr. Hamilton is nouveau riche.  He married a woman of status. Being a driven and ambitious man he knew that if he had a son he could enter the upper echelons of society.  His wife, however, only had daughters. Mrs. Hamilton was never without child until she died.  She conceived and birthed twelve daughters.  Her twelve daughters rarely got to see her and were confined to the upstairs rooms.  Only Josephine, the eldest was announced.  None of the daughters were introduced to society and most never met their father.  Only two were ever let outside the house at a time with a nanny.  They had a governesses but as more daughters were born their father dismissed her deciding that  the girls were Josephine and the eldest girls responsibility to educate and care for.  Precious rare occasions took place  when Josephine was taken to a movie or the opera as a special treat arranged by their mother.  It had to be and hidden from their father.  There were a few books and sporadic presents at Christmas time when their father was feeling generous but otherwise the were to stay away from windows, not be seen, and be forgotten.  Josephine or Jo was their father’s  emissary.  She negotiated a $4 allowance once a month to buy clothing, shoes and any large concerns.  Jo learned early not to anger their father for fear of abuse and what consequence it would have for her sisters.  Several time she sent her sister Ella, the actress, to play the  role of a foolish and demure young woman to obtain needs rather than go herself.  She was factual tempted to challenge –  something that guaranteed refusal from their father.

The escape from their cage is dancing.  Over years Jo’s responsibility makes her seem like the nannies, and found she could escape with one of the girls for a few hours.  They went to the  movies, saw dancing, and fell in love.  They practiced and made up steps until they grew the nerve for the oldest to leave, grab a cab, and go to the first club they heard of.  They danced all night, but their were rules.  You couldn’t go if you were sick,  if you were heart-sick, you could tell no one names or where they lived, if you got drunk you would be left, and they went home on Jo’s orders.  Over time they became know only as the princesses.  They got a reputation for having tin hearts because they didn’t dance for romance.   Also, the princesses stuck together, if someone got  handsy they had all the princesses to contend with.

Their father decides its time for them to marry and creates heartache and fear.  It isn’t that the girls don’t want to marry.  The concern is for the kind of man their father will pick for them.  No introduction to society is planned.  They are still a secret.  Instead a few girls at a time will host quiet dinner parties with  men their father deems suitable.  Considering their fathers controlling and traditional values the sisters don’t have much hope for nice open-minded men.  What kind of man would want a woman who had been closeted away and knows nothing of the world.

This is a beautiful  retelling. Valentine turned a tale about misbehaving cold-hearted young women on its head.  It shows controlled, captive women struggling to find independence during the twenties when women just received the vote.  Many women were breaking out of the sole role of being at home as mother and housekeeper.  The story shows their need to be cold.   Solidarity for the sisters was a necessity of survival.  Valentine’s writing is beautiful, but I found I didn’t have the time to read as much as I wanted.  When I saw it was available on audible I snapped it up.  It’s a fabulous way to enjoy the book.  Susie Berneis is the narrator.  I had read some critique of minimal character development of the sisters outside of Joe.  Listening to Susie Berneis I didn’t notice it as much.  There are a few sisters who definitely do not get as much attention, but the narration made it feel natural.  This is not a romance but does deal with gender roles and the dynamics in dating and marriage during the era.  A few kisses are discussed perfunctorily, but nothing in any kind of detail.

I recommend this to anyone who enjoys the roaring twenties, fairy tale retelling, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the study of social dynamics during Prohibition in the twenties.  Listen to this rather than reading it if you enjoy audible books.

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