Review of A Curse as Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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A Curse as Dark as Gold

by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  395 pages.

Winner of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award 2008.

Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Fantasy Teen Fiction

http://www.elizabethcbunce.com/

http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/

http://www.scholastic.com/

I do love fairy tale retellings.  A Curse as Dark as Gold takes the basic story of Rumpelstiltskin and sets it in a woolen mill shortly before the Industrial Revolution.  The author retains the feeling of magic and romance, and gives us a determined and strong heroine.

When Charlotte Miller’s father dies, leaving an enormous mortgage on the mill, Charlotte knows she must do something to keep Stirwaters running.  The entire village depends on the mill for their livelihoods.

But everyone says there’s a curse on the mill, and as soon as Charlotte and her sister Rosie overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle, another one rises up to take its place.  So when a strange man who calls himself Jack Spinner offers to help, Charlotte seems to have no choice.

This story is dark, as it does involve curses and difficulties.  But Charlotte is such a determined, capable character, you quickly find yourself rooting for her to succeed, even though you can’t imagine how she’ll pull it off.

The author fills the story with details about the woolen industry before the industrial revolution, so it almost feels more like a historical novel than a fantasy.  However, there is a strong undercurrent of magic, which practical Charlotte does not want to acknowledge.

This is a magnificently written book, and I’m excited to learn it’s Elizabeth Bunce’s first.  If this is how she begins her writing career, I will eagerly wait to see what she writes next!

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/curse_dark_as_gold.html

Review of Fairest Audiobook, by Gail Carson Levine

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Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Read and Sung by Sarah Naughton and the Full Cast Family

Music by Todd Hobin

Full Cast Audio, 2007. Unabridged.

Review written January 28, 2008.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #2, Audiobooks.

Here’s a delightful audiobook well worth listening to.

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, has written a wonderful retelling of Snow White.  Aza lives in Ayortha, where everyone loves to sing.  She’s quite an eyesore, with her pale skin and blood-red lips, but she is blessed with a magnificent voice.

The Full Cast Audio production of this book advertised that it has more songs than a Broadway musical. This is the perfect tale to listen to, since music is such an important part of the story.

My expectations were extremely high.  Full Cast Audio always does an excellent job, using so many actors for their productions.  The book itself was wonderful, and I was looking forward to hearing it done with music.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I was a little bit disappointed.  Unfortunately, the Playaway version that I listened to did not have good sound quality (maybe the fault of my headphones?) and tended to static any time anyone hit a high note—definitely detracted from the enjoyment, though that wasn’t the fault of the production.  I think I will want to try it again as a Book on CD, because it was good enough to want to listen to again.

After reading about how wonderful Aza’s voice was, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d be a bit disappointed in any real person trying to play Aza. (Maybe I would have been happy with Charlotte Church?) Sarah Naughton’s voice is definitely nice—it just didn’t quite fit the build-up from the story as being the best voice in the kingdom. In fact, I thought the singing voice of the actress playing Aza’s sister Areta was sweeter.

There were indeed many, many songs, and they were nice—but I wish there had been a few catchier tunes. Maybe it had more songs than a Broadway musical, but the songs weren’t as memorable as you’d find in a Broadway musical.

Still—those are just quibbles. The fact is, for a recorded book, this production is tremendous. They didn’t just read the book; they used many different actors to read the book, and they performed all the songs in a book about music. This recorded book is something special.

I should add that although I was slightly disappointed at first in Aza’s singing voice (though I liked her speaking voice), the Prince’s voice melted my heart. And Queen Ivy’s voice was perfect—her character showed through with every word and every note.

This production would be a wonderful choice for a family trip in the car. You’ve got a compelling story with music to keep everyone entertained. If the kids have heard the story of Snow White, you’ll have fun discussing how the story is the same, yet different. You can discuss other issues that come up. (How important is beauty? Why did the King love Ivy?) In this case, the recorded book offers even more than the original, because it has music.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/fairest_audio.html

Review of Beastly by Alex Flinn

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Beastly

by Alex Flinn

HarperTeen, New York, 2007.  304 pages.

Starred review.

http://www.alexflinn.com/

http://www.harperteen.com/

Here’s a wonderful retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern-day New York City, told from the beast’s perspective.

I just saw the Twilight movie, and now I’m going to recommend Beastly to people who like the movie but don’t want to wait for 900 people on the request list for Twilight.  Although there are no vampires, Beastly has the same flavor of supernatural romance, told with beautiful writing.

Kyle Kingsbury knows he is the sure winner for ninth-grade prince of the spring dance court.  No one can compete with his looks and his dad’s cash.  When a creepy goth girl challenges the whole idea of voting based on looks, he reacts.

“She pissed me off, so I jumped on her.  ‘If someone’s so smart, they’d figure out how to get better-looking.  You could lose weight, get plastic surgery, even get your face scraped and your teeth bleached.’  I emphasized the you in the sentence, so she’d know I meant her and not just some general sort of you.  ‘My dad’s a network news guy.  He says people shouldn’t have to look at ugly people.'”

Later, Kyle thinks of a way to get her back for her disturbing words.  A way to utterly humiliate her at the spring dance.

The author convinces us that he completely deserves his curse:  to become a beast until he finds “someone willing to look beyond your hideousness and see some good in you, something to love.  If you will love her in return and if she will kiss you to prove it, the spell will be lifted, and you will be your handsome self again.  If not, you’ll stay a beast forever.”

When Kyle’s Dad is convinced that doctors can’t cure him, he rents Kyle a house in another part of the city with a housekeeper and a tutor, with thick shutters against the outside.  Kyle slowly shows the beginnings of transformation as he learns to grow roses and loves them.  So then when a junkie crashes into his greenhouse….

I love the way Alex Flinn worked in all the elements of the traditional tale.  I also loved the believable way she showed us Kyle changing, transforming.  And of course there’s the wonderful blooming of true love.

Between all that drama, there are hilarious interludes of transcripts from a chat room, the Unexpected Changes chat group, hosted by Mr. Anderson.  There’s a mermaid called SilentMaid, a former prince called Froggie, and someone called Grizzlyguy who’s met these two girls, Rose Red and Snow White (not *that* Snow White).

All this adds up to a truly delightful book that I hope will become wildly popular with teens.  And any adults who will admit to enjoying Twilight, let me urge you to give Beastly a try.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/beastly.html

Review of Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

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Wildwood Dancing

by Juliet Marillier

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.  407 pages.

Starred Review

www.randomhouse.com/teens

“I’ve heard it said that girls can’t keep secrets.  That’s wrong: we’d proved it.  We’d kept ours for years and years, ever since we came to live at Piscul Dracului and stumbled on the way into the Other Kingdom.  Nobody knew about it — not Father, not our housekeeper, Florica, or her husband, Petru, not Uncle Nicolae or Aunt Bogdana or their son, Cezar.  We found the portal when Tati was seven and I was six, and we’d been going out and coming in nearly every month since then: nine whole years of Full Moons.  We had plenty of ways to cover our absences, including a bolt on our bedchamber door and the excuse that my sister Paula sometimes walked in her sleep.

“I suppose the secret was not completely ours; Gogu knew.  But even if frogs could talk, Gogu would never have told.  Ever since I’d found him long ago, crouched all by himself in the forest, dazed and hurt, I had known I could trust him more than anyone else in the world.”

So begins a wonderfully intricate tale loosely based on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but with many intricate plot threads woven through the tale.

Jenica and her four sisters spend the night of every Full Moon dancing in the Wildwood, in the Other Kingdom.  They have rules to keep themselves safe, like no eating and drinking while there, no wandering into the forest.

But things in the Other Kingdom begin to change when the Night People show up.  Rumors about them in the mountains of Transylvania are dark and sinister.  One of them shows a particular interest in Tati, Jena’s oldest sister.

At the same time, everyday life is getting out of control.  For the sake of his health, their father must spend the winter in the city, and he leaves them in charge.  But Cezar, their interfering cousin, quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t think women capable of that responsibility, and he begins “helping” them by taking over.  They don’t hear from their father and cannot stop Cezar.  Meanwhile, Cezar has a grudge against the folk of the Other Kingdom and vows to destroy the Wildwood.

This tale is beautifully written.  Jena is resourceful.  She loves her sisters and loves her friend the frog.  She glories in her friends from the Other Kingdom.  She tries to protect them, and herself, from Cezar’s manipulations.

This wonderful and rich storytelling quickly captivated me.  It gives the flavor of Transylvania, going beyond the stereotypes to deeper myths.  A haunting tale of wonder and cleverness and sacrifice and true love.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/wildwood_dancing.html

Review of Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George

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Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

by Jessica Day George

Bloomsbury, New York, 2008.  328 pages.

Starred Review

http://www.bloomsburyusa.com/

“Long ago and far away in the land of ice and snow, there came a time when it seemed that winter would never end.  The months when summer should have given the land respite were cold and damp, and the winter months were snow filled and colder still.  The people said the cold had lasted a hundred years, and feared that it would last a hundred more.  It was not a natural winter, and no one knew what witch or troll had caused the winds to howl so fiercely.”

Here’s a beautiful retelling of the fairy tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”

When a ninth child is born to a poor woodcutter in the far north, the mother is so disappointed the baby is a girl, she doesn’t even give the baby a name.  However, this lass is destined to change the family’s fortunes.

Jessica Day George beautifully fleshes out the story, putting us firmly on the side of this brave lass who cares about her loved ones enough to defy the powerful queen of the trolls.

The only thing that hurt my enjoyment of this story was that I already have read a much-loved retelling of this same fairy tale, East ( www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/east.html ).  It’s been a long time since I read that version, but it feels somehow disloyal to that book to like this new version so much.  These are both books I will want to reread, but I will have to alternate which one I read, in order to keep from comparing them.  Both are beautifully done, each with their own take on the story.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/sun_and_moon_ice_and_snow.html

Review of Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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Princess Ben

Being a Wholly Truthful Account of Her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008.  344 pages.

Starred Review.

I dearly loved Princess Ben!  This is exactly my favorite sort of book — an original fairy tale, with princes and princesses and magic and danger and enchantments and adventure and romance.

Princess Ben is no damsel in distress who waits around to be saved by the prince!  (In fact, there’s a delightful fairy tale reversal toward the end.  I dare say no more!)

At the start, Princess Benevolence’s parents meet a dreadful fate, with circumstances pointing to assassination at the order of the neighboring, or rather surrounding kingdom of Drachensbett.  As in so many other princess tales, Ben must now learn to be a proper princess, under the stern direction of her aunt the Queen.

Naturally, there are also plans to marry Ben off in the service of diplomacy.  However, matters get complicated when Ben discovers a secret passageway to a magic room and a book of magic.  She begins learning how to perform magic and use it to serve her own purposes, like get some decent food.

But as in any fairy tale, before the end the fate of the kingdom lies in Princess Ben’s hands.  The reader can’t help but root for things to end Happily Ever After.

Ben’s a delightful character, a princess with spunk and a weight problem.  The plot is nicely twisted to keep things interesting.  Utterly charming and a whole lot of fun.  Not a book that’s easy to stop reading.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/princess_ben.html