A Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.
In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah. This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.
Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.
Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.
The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.
The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.
After his success with What If?, Randall Munroe is back to tackle yet another aspect of science in everyday life — exactly how is the world around us constructed? In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Munroe delves into the workings of our world, from the insides of our cells to our solar system and a lot of what’s in between.
Munroe states in the introduction that “…there are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This book explains what they do.” So this book won’t help you pass a vocabulary test or memorize the terminology, but it will explain in simple terms how a lot of the world around us functions. And this is on purpose — Munroe crafted a list of the “ten hundred” most used words in the English language and then restricted himself to only using those words in the book. So instead of the Curiosity Rover diagram or Human Torso diagram, Munroe breaks down the Red World Space Car and Bags of Stuff inside You (by the way, this book has forever changed how I view bags).
It may seem slightly ridiculous or humorous to be discussing boats that go under the sea (submarines) and food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), but Munroe is known for balancing scientific fact and innovation with humor, and this book is no different. His blue and white sketches of the items he’s discussing include funny little asides from his stick-figure illustrations on almost every page.
Even still, his depictions of these engineering marvels are anything but ridiculous. Thing Explainer is a fascinating and stimulating read for all ages, letting us remember to appreciate the world around us because it’s a lot more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Even if we can explain it in ten hundred simple words.
Do you have time in your busy schedule to read a short story? Not just any short story, but a ghost story. Not just any ghost story, but a ghost story by Gillian Flynn. You may have heard of her. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl, one of most talked about novels of 2014 . Flynn’s latest release is a stand-alone copy of her 64-page, Edgar Awarding-winning short story, The Grownup. It made its first appearance in author George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology.
The Grownup is about an unnamed and “barely thirty” female con artist who works at a sketchy place called Spiritual Palms that provides fortunes and illegal sex services. Viveca, her boss gives her a job promotion, which makes the con artist no longer a sex worker but a fraudulent fortune-teller. A troubled customer by the name of Susan Burke stops in to have her fortune told. The con artist learns that Susan is being terrorized by her 15-year-old stepson,Miles, and that a trickle of blood drips on the wall inside Susan’s renovated Victorian house. The con artist helps Susan by cleansing the inside of her home. During one of her house cleansing visits, the con artist meets Miles, a menacing teen who gives her an ultimatum: stay away or die. However, the con artist ignores his threat and soon finds out that she is the one being swindled. Swindled by who? You’ll just have to read it and find out.
If you are a Gillian Flynn fan or you just want to read an entertaining short story, I encourage you to check out a copy of The Grownup at a BCPL branch near you. And whatever you do, avoid a place called Spiritual Palms.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
“Say nothing. Not a word to anyone.” So begins the painful odyssey of a frightened child in Andrew Taylor’s The Silent Boy. It is 1792 in Paris, and The Terror has begun. Turmoil grips the city. As the violence spins out of control, it overtakes anyone in its path. Terrified and covered in blood, the boy races through the streets of Paris to find an old servant who worked for his mother. She takes him to Monsieur Fournier, who believes the boy is his son. Together they escape to England to stay at desolate Charnwood Court.
Edward Savill, employed as an agent in London for a wealthy American, is informed that his estranged wife has been murdered in Paris. She has left behind Charles, a 10-year-old boy suffering from hysterical muteness. The boy cannot possibly be Savill’s, but he is still married to Charles’ mother and legally responsible for his welfare. Charles also has a half-sister, Lizzie, who is anxious to bring him home.
These conflicting interests clash to create an unrelentingly suspenseful tale. Savill, the wronged husband, is fiercely determined to provide for the boy; Fournier, the former lover, holds onto him as a talisman. Behind the scenes, political interests far more powerful than these two men pull the strings. Taylor has drawn such achingly real characters that the desire to rescue the boy is palpable. With characters reminiscent of Dickens, this tale creates a level of insecurity in the reader that mirrors Charles predicament.
Andrew Taylor is the author of several thrillers, including The Office of the Dead and The American Boy, both of which won Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, making Taylor the only author to receive the prize twice. With The Silent Boy he surely has another winner.
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.