Off to Neverland, with Fairies

Long-time readers know that Peter Pan is one of my favorite books.  You might also know that I often have trouble with new writers telling stories about beloved characters.  So Gail Carson Levine’s Fairies series is a slightly dicey situation, with one of my favorite authors writing based on one of my favorite books.  If it had gone bad, it all would have been immensely sad.

So it’s a good thing that it’s a good series!  It’s very much a kids book, but it’s a sweet read.  I just read the last book as part of my challenge to complete more series.  This one is basically a stand-alone, so you could choose to start here if you like.  I started this series so long ago (2006!) that I don’t even remember my thoughts when I began, if I was worried about whether it would work.  But I remember I liked the first two books, and I can talk about why I think they do work.

As you might have already surmised, the series is not so much about Peter as it is about Tinkerbell, and a host of other fairies who live in Neverland.  Shifting the focus makes it easier for a new author to step in.  Barrie only gave us a few hints and glimmers (or should I say flashing lights?) about fairies, so Levine can build up a more complex world without contradicting what came before.  In the first two books, Peter Pan himself is just referenced, and he’s only a supporting character in this third one.

The first two books introduce us to Levine’s Tinkerbell, an emotional but well-meaning fairy who loves to tinker with metal objects.  It’s not the image people usually have of elegant Tinkerbell–but it’s exactly what Barrie said about her, and explains her name.  We also meet other fairies, like Rani, who loves water, and Vidia, a nasty fairy who loves to fly fast.

Knowing the characters would certainly provide more context for book number three, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, but you could start here because the book really focuses on Gwendolyn, a descendent of Wendy, whose female ancestors have been flying off to Neverland with Peter ever since.  Gwendolyn can’t wait for her turn, especially when Wendy’s “kiss” (the acorn a confused Peter gave her) gives her tantalizing visions of the island.  Peter does eventually arrive, and when she gets to Neverland Gwendolyn rushes off to look for fairies.

That’s both the strength and the weakness of the book.  Gwendolyn gets to meet all the fairies, and their guardian, Mother Dove.  It’s lovely to find out about society in Fairy Haven, and to watch Gwendolyn learn what her own talent is as she struggles to be accepted by the fairies, and then to help them when a terrifying dragon is accidentally released.  It’s a sweet story, exciting in spots, rather cute throughout.

My trouble, actually, is Peter.  As long as he wasn’t in it at all (or just in a passing reference), I didn’t miss him–so the first two books were fine in that way.  But when he’s in it a bit, suddenly it bothers me that Gwendolyn seems to have no interest in him at all.  Likewise, Peter has very little interest in Gwendolyn (and keeps calling her Wendy).  Peter’s arrogance and forgetfulness are very well-established so I don’t fault the character portrayal.  But the magic of Peter appearing at the window to take someone to Neverland…well, part of it is a Cinderella story, that the special person sees you and chooses you and says that you’re special too.  Peter didn’t seem to think Gwendolyn was special at all.  I guess that’s all right, since what she really wanted was for Tink to think she’s special…but I think Peter’s special so it bothered me!

But that was mostly a side issue, a kind of absence of something that I thought should be there.  What actually was there was good.  It’s not Barrie’s Neverland–it’s a bit homier and a bit more practical.  But it’s not painfully not Barrie’s Neverland either.  And to be fair, the cover says it’s about “Disney Fairies,” so I suppose it doesn’t have to be based on Barrie at all, when it’s really coming from another source material.  With that in mind, Levine has actually written something that’s impressively accurate to Barrie, when she probably didn’t need to be at all.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the illustrations.  David Christiana did the illustrations for the entire series and they are absolutely beautiful.  There are many full-page illustrations (or two-page, and even one fold-out!) and they add a wonderful dimension to the story.  I like the book, but it’s actually the illustrations that are making me tempted to buy it!

This isn’t one of my favorite Levine books, but it is a fun look at Neverland from a different angle (even if sometimes a little TOO much that angle!)  This is a simple, sweet, fast read–I’m glad I finished the series, because it was a lovely book and when I did finally read it, it only took me a day!

Author’s Site: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/

Other reviews:
Reading All Year Long
Shannon Messenger
Confessions of a Book Habitue
Yours?

Favorites Friday: Author Blogs

Somehow it never occurred to me to look for author blogs until I started writing a blog myself.  One of the best parts of all this has been reading other people’s blogs, and it’s been so fun to find that several of my favorite authors have blogs.  Today, here are some favorite ones from favorite authors, with links if you want to check them out.

Patricia C. Wrede has a very valuable writing-focused blog.  She posts Sundays and Wednesdays, and discusses both the craft of writing and the complexities of publishing.  Most often I feel like I see either the art OR the business, so this is a great place to get information on both.  She offers solid advice across a range of writing topics, gives funny examples at times, and makes references to her own books, which is always fun too.

Gail Carson Levine also writes about writing, mostly the craft.  I think her target age group is middle school, but her advice is good regardless of your age.  The middle school aspect mostly comes out in that her writing prompts revolve around school or parents or topics like that.  Levine posts every Wednesday, and while her topic is sometimes more basic than Wrede’s, she still drills into great areas and often gives me a new idea or a new angle on something (say, Point of View) that I felt like I already knew a lot about.  She also makes frequent references to her own books and writing process; I’m fascinated by how writers write, so I love knowing that background to her books.

Robin McKinley posts every day; her blog requires a certain amount of wading.  She tends to write stream-of-consciousness about whatever is going on in her life, and some of it seems like it would have, er, niche appeal.  I usually read her posts a week at a time, and I skim until I find a section that looks good.  On the so-so (for me, at least) days, she talks about her knitting, her singing lessons, and the intricacies of bell-ringing.  On better days, she talks about her garden, her hellhounds, and her fights with recalcitrant technology.  On the best days, she talks about her writing.  And then there was the Great Bat Catastrophe (my name for it) last spring, when she had bats nesting in her attic and finding ways through into her house…terrible for her, I’m sure, but so funny to read about.

The thing with McKinley’s blog is–when she’s dull, she’s very dull (unless you’re interested in bell-ringing, perhaps).  But when she’s good, she’s VERY good.  The thing about reading blogs by favorite authors is that they’re good writers.  McKinley can be very funny and very engaging, and once you’ve been reading for a while you get used to the groove of her life and it’s fun to stroll through.  Then when I read her book Sunshine, I felt like I could see her personality coming through in the book, which added a whole new layer to it.  And it’s great to be up on the key events in her writing–I knew about it when she switched the book she was working on, and I got to order a personally signed (and doodled) copy of Beauty when she had an auction!

Other favorite authors with blogs include Gordon Korman and Geraldine McCaughrean, but they post very rarely, and Tamora Pierce, who posts sporadically, usually about news items.  I also hear good things about Neil Gaiman’s blog, though I haven’t followed him regularly.

Who are your favorite authors who blog?  Or favorite blogs that are by authors?  Almost the same thing…but maybe not always.

A Human and Hideous Snow White

Reading A Tale of Two Castles put me in a mood to reread a favorite Gail Carson Levine book, Fairest.  Set in the same world as Ella Enchanted (and very loosely connected), this one is a retelling of Snow White.

The main character, Aza, has milky white skin, blood red lips, and coal black hair–the traditional Snow White.  Except that Levine takes this to its literal and logical conclusion.  Pay no attention to the cover–Aza is ugly.  As someone would be who had literally white skin, red lips, and black hair.  In her favor, Aza has a kind disposition, a loving family, and a magnificent singing voice.  She’s not a princess, but she ends up visiting the castle for the King’s wedding to his new bride, and finds herself caught up in intrigue–and intrigued by the handsome prince.

As with Ella Enchanted, Levine has given us a very clever, practical and creative retelling of a familiar fairy tale.  Many of the original elements are there, but reshaped.

Aza is the best part of this.  Besides the part about her appearance, she’s a wonderfully human character.  She’s not perfect, but she’s sympathetic.  She wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t know what to do in some difficult situations.  She has to find her own strength, and her own value.  She struggles a lot with her appearance, and sometimes gives in to temptations.  She’s both likable and realistically flawed.

This is definitely an excellent Snow White retelling–one of the few.  It occurred to me I hadn’t read many, and a recent search didn’t turn up much.  Anyone have a suggestion for another good retelling of Snow White?

Author’s Site: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/

A Dragon, an Ogre, and a Mystery

I just finished Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, A Tale of Two Castles.  I feel something of a personal attachment to this one–I read her blog with great dedication, and she’s been talking about this one coming out.  She’s also been talking about her travails right now with writing the sequel.

So I admit I was predisposed to like this one.  And it really is a fun, sweet tale.  It’s the story of Elodie, a poor farmer’s daughter who comes to the big city of Two Castles hoping to apprentice as a mansioner, an actress.  When she can’t pay for her apprenticeship, she ends up instead as assistant to the local dragon, and finds herself enmeshed in a mystery surrounding the local royalty and the local ogre.  Someone is threatening Count Jonty Um the ogre, and he enlists the dragon and Elodie to investigate.

I particularly enjoyed the dragon and the ogre.  Meenore the dragon is a detective, occasionally in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, as well as a rather creative entrepreneur, selling toasted food and heating up the blacksmith’s fire.  Meenore is referred to throughout the book as IT, rather than he or she.  Dragons apparently have gender, but don’t share the details on what he or she is, so the appropriate pronoun is IT.  I think this is a clever device that then got overused a bit, to the point that I nearly forgot Meenore had a name, IT’s referred to so often as IT.  But I like the dragon, and ITs gradually warming relationship with Elodie.

I also like the shapeshifting ogre, usually referred to as His Lordship.  I have a soft spot for characters who are feared and misunderstood by the people around them just because they’re different.  It’s that Phantom of the Opera thing.  His Lordship is kind and shy, but the people of Two Castles can’t seem to get past the fact of his ogreness.

Elodie herself is a pretty good character.  She’s only twelve, and sometimes it feels like it.  She goes off on flights of guessing about the possible solution to the mystery.  These often feel far-fetched, and I can’t quite tell if we’re meant to take them seriously, or if we’re meant to interpret them as Elodie having a wild imagination.  But aside from that she’s a pleasant girl trying to make her way in the world and do the right thing, who grows in her role as dragon’s assistant.

My library copy of this is labeled “Mystery,” and I suppose it is one, but it doesn’t really feel like it to me.  I wouldn’t recommend thinking too hard about the mystery.  If you focus instead on the book as Elodie’s adventures, which involve some mysterious happenings to solve, I think you’ll get on better.

If you’ve never read Gail Carson Levine, I have to say, go read Ella Enchanted because that one just has to be read.  If you’ve already read Ella, then by all means give A Tale of Two Castles a read!

Author’s site: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/

Quotable Gail Carson Levine

“There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over.  When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.”

–Gail Carson Levine, in Writing Magic

Gail Carson Levine is the author of a number of fantasy books for children and young adults, best known for Ella Enchanted.  You can follow her blog at: http://gailcarsonlevine.blogspot.com/