Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella Enchanted is a modern re-imagining of the classic fairytale Cinderella. One of many, you might say. But first of all, fairytales are meant to be told over and over and develop with each re-telling; second of all this book is from 1997, which puts it squarely before the fairytale-craze of the last years; and third of all, Carson Levine’s take on the story really is original and innovative. The Young Adult genre often uses the same formula for its plots, but now and then you find a gem between the rocks and this is one of those.

“Ella Enchanted is now a major motion picture, featuring Anne Hathaway, star of The Princess Diaries!” says the back cover of my copy of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, in big yellow letters. I’ve seen it, it’s a funny and colourful film with an excellent cover of Queen’s ‘Somebody to love’, amongst other songs. It is, however, nothing like the book. And since they advertise the film on the book cover, they ought to promote the book in the film because it is definitely worth reading.

The story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Kyrria. A ditzy fairy, Lucinda, bestows a gift upon Ella of Frell when she is newly born. Thinking it will be a blessing, she grants Ella the gift of obedience: the girl has to do anything and everything she is commanded to do. Of course, everybody around the crib is horrified, because forced obedience is actually as cruel a curse as you can imagine. But Lucinda is adamant: she thinks she has done the child a service and won’t undo the curse. So Ella must learn to live with a dangerous secret. Anyone who knows about her curse could have absolute power over her. But the girl is headstrong and refuses to let the curse take over who she is. She tries to find loopholes in people’s commands, obeying the letter of the order but not the spirit.

From this premise the story develops. It follows the storyline of the original fairytale quite closely. The different events from the fairytale are like anchor points throughout the book. Between them, the novel develops. Ella’s loving mother and always her ally, Lady Eleanor, dies from an illness when Ella is nearly fifteen. Her father, a proud and distant businessman, soon gets entangled with a mean woman called Dame Olga. This woman, of course, comes with her own two insufferable daughters: Hattie and Olive. The three teenage girls are sent off to finishing school together. Hattie, the eldest and smartest of the two sisters, bullies Ella relentlessly and eventually figures out Ella’s secret. When Ella complains in her letters to her father about her stepsisters’ bullying behaviour, he ignores her.

When Hattie orders Ella to break off her friendship with Areida, a girl from the neighbouring country of Ayortha, she is heartbroken and decides that enough is enough. She runs away to find Lucinda and to ask her to reverse the spell. On her journey, she meets mythical creatures like elves, ogres and giants, but these are introduced naturally and fit into the reality of the book. On the whole, Carson Levine doesn’t spend much time padding the story by needlessly elaborating on details that are not necessary to the story. The descriptions are colourful and visual and just enough. The book is, consequently, easy to read.

You might be wondering if the prince appears in this version of the story. Ella is clearly a woman who can take care of herself. But the prince, Charmont (Char), has an important role to play. Luckily then, his character is well-rounded and actually charming without being utterly arrogant and annoying. Ella and Char know each other for a long time, become friends, help and support each other, before a romance develops. When it does, it happens while they are miles apart and can only write each other letters. There’s a problem, though: Ella realises that a prince can never marry a woman who could murder him in his bed if told to do so by some malicious individual. Their relationship seems impossible after that. I won’t reveal the ending, but we all know the fairytale: there’s a royal ball, there’s a pumpkin carriage, there’s a search when the stroke of midnight and a spiteful Hattie put a damper on the evening. But soot-covered Ella is our heroine, and she will not only save herself, but the entire kingdom.

I did wonder, as did many other readers, whether the curse couldn’t easily be broken by someone ordering Ella to ‘stop obeying’ or some such command. But thinking about it, I realised that this command would mean she could never again do anything anyone told her to do. Can you imagine the consequence if her prince unthinkingly told her ‘kiss me’? If, on the other hand, you would order Ella to only do whatever she wanted to do herself, she wouldn’t be able to function as a human being, seeing as we do have to put a check on our base desires, thoughts and actions. Any command to break the curse would become a new curse. Anyways, I don’t think the wording of the original curse would have allowed for such a simple solution.

While the frantic film is aimed at young children, I would recommend the book to children from about eleven years old and up. It is not complex, I just think it’s more fun when you’re old enough to swoon a little at characters falling in love and to laugh at blessings turning to horrible, ironic curses. Because Lucinda is still traveling around Kyrria, waving her wand at unsuspecting citizens like big magic is nothing. The best example of her presents is the wedding of Ella’s father, Sir Peter, and Dame Olga. Lucinda attends, the only one crying at a ceremony that has everything to do with money and influence, but nothing with love. She decides to give the ‘happy couple’ a gift: they will love each other forever. Two egocentric people, forever connected by an artificial love… they will never be able to get rid of each other. Now that’s dark humour.

Jane Austen Award for a romance build on respect and copious letter-writing

Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (New York, 1997)

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Jo Robin

Caraval (Caraval #1) by Stephanie Garber

I’m going to be completely honest here, in saying that I picked up this book mostly because it reminded me of ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern and I hoped it would be similar to that one. I loved the magical atmosphere of The Night Circus, its beautiful language and just the stuff of dreams. Caraval is a story with a circus that moves around and appears when you least expect it, and it’s the closest you’ll ever come to magic, or so it says. Maybe my expectations were set too high and I admit I do a lot of comparing to The Night Circus, but I really was very disappointed.

Scarlett is a young girl, who has written every year, for many years, to the Caraval Master Legend, for an invitation. Only when she writes to him that she’s getting married, and won’t be able to come, he answers with an invitation. Very excited, Scarlett tells her younger sister, Donatella, the good news and how they’ll finally be able to escape their tiny island and their cruel father’s rule. Tella is ecstatic at the news, but then Scarlett begins to have doubts. She’s the more practical one of the sisters and fears her father’s punishment if they do run away. Tella, in the arms of a young and handsome sailor, wants to take any opportunity to leave and the sailor even offers to help them. But Scarlett is engaged to a count she has never met and decides that marrying him is the safest way for them to escape their father. Tella, however, takes matters into her own hand and, with the sailor, she practically kidnaps her sister and takes her to the island where the Caraval games will be held.

When the sisters were abandoned by their mother, their father turned vicious towards them. Their grandmother soothed them with stories of a magical circus, Caraval, where the participants play a game to win the prize of one wish. Legend, the Caraval Master, apparently once loved a girl, but she rejected him and that’s how magic came to be in the Caraval, in an effort to impress her. Fuelled by their childhood dreams, the sisters both cope with reality by dreaming of escape. But when Scarlett sails towards the magical island with this sailor boy named Julian, (Tella has already gone ahead) all she can think of is danger, so she plans to only stay for one night of the games, find her sister and get back home in time to marry the fiancé she has never met. When they get to the games, magical things like shape-changing dresses and secret portals inside clocks appear, with notes attached, addressed to Scarlett who is now Legend’s special guest. In order to find her sister, Scarlett decides to play, but playing comes with a warning: ‘’Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.’’

But this year’s mystery to be solved at Caraval, is finding Donatella, Scarlett’s sister. Confused by how Legend seems to send her personal notes and how they’ve now become the center of the game, Scarlett decides that playing along might be in her best interest. At the same time, Julian gets up to all kinds of strange things: he appears in charming fashion, only to disappear again without saying a word. As her search continues, it soon becomes clear that Scarlett will need more than just one night to find her sister, but the game turns more sinister with every hour. When she finds out how a girl, Rosa, has once died during the games, Scarlett begins to suspect that Legend is not as magical as he seems, but might be just as cruel as her father, or worse.

Again, I don’t really like comparing one book to another, but Caraval brought it upon itself when it was promoted as the Young Adult version of The Night Circus. Unfortunately, the comparison acutely demonstrates what it is Caraval lacks. I don’t think I would have thought much of this novel, even if I hadn’t read The Night Circus, but you can never really tell. I did enjoy reading Caraval though, to a certain degree, because it was a fun read, a page-turner and I was curious if it was going anywhere exciting (It didn’t really…). But after finishing Caraval, I could mostly see everything wrong with the story. There are two elements that are extremely important in Fantasy novels, in my opinion. Number one is the setting, or the ability to build a world that is convincing and compelling. The Night Circus takes place in our world, in Victorian London, where magic is ever so needed and fits perfectly into our world. Caraval takes place in some other reality, and the sisters are apparently from the Conquered Isles of Trisda. This bothered me, because no explanation was ever given. Conquered by whom?? We get to learn nothing about this world, except when the author suddenly describes the gorgeous colour of the sand on the beaches. Because of this, nothing really appears magical, because nothing is out of the ordinary, because as a reader you have no idea what’s going on most of the time. Her world feels flat and very unrealistic because of it.

Number two is character development, or the likability of the characters, or even just characters being compelling in some way. But even here we start off with a cliché: Scarlett is the heroine and Donatella the little, foolish but following-the-heart-kind-of-girl, sister, and then there is Julian: love-interest, for both girls… Scarlett is the main character and the narrator of the story, and I can’t tell you how much of a nuisance it was to be trapped inside her head for 400 pages. She is, I can safely say, the most boring of characters I’ve ever encountered. She repeats herself over and over, even in thoughts, never quite makes up her mind or does something incredibly foolish all of a sudden and then prides herself on being practical? To give you an example: She quite fancies Julian and a lot of paragraphs go into how she would like to kiss him. I’d say, go for it. But no, Scarlett first has to bore her poor audience, for the hundredth time, with reminding us of her upcoming nuptials. We know this marriage will likely never take place, so kiss the handsome strange but oh, so attractive stranger, with his (why avoid any clichés at this point) gorgeous amber eyes. But, after much contemplation, she doesn’t. Also, I hated how Scarlett berates her sister constantly for falling in love when she hardly knows the man and what does she do? Yes, she falls in love with the handsome sailor without knowing a thing about him. Scarlett; I’m not a fan, but don’t even get me started on Donatella…

I’ve touched upon it a little already in the paragraph above, but I didn’t care for the style of writing either. The book is filled to the nook with clichés and platitudes. The same goes for the characters, without any character development, not relatable or realistic in any way. All the women are damsels in distress in this novel and all the men are young, dark and have a smile with ‘flashing white teeth’. It’s annoying. Then there’s also the horrible unconvincing manner in which certainties are conveyed. For example, Legend is supposed to be this charming, but elusive and magical man, but we only know this because the author keeps telling us. You just have to assume she’s right, because in no other way does she bother with actually convincing us of this fact, and this happens a lot in the story. People die and again, the author has tried very hard to keep us emotionally involved, but I never really cared about them anyways. But the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that Scarlett sees emotions in colours. Isn’t she special?! It makes no sense, everything appears to be some exotic kind of blue and the author is simply trying to hard to be poetic here, failing miserably.

Lastly, the plot doesn’t make the book either. Caraval is a game and it attracts all kinds of special snowflakes. It’s like a mystery or scavenger hunt, which sounds like fun, but everyone competing must be completely dim-witted. Because Scarlett, not the brightest bulb, is the only one on the entire island able to figure out the clues, and the clues are so easy. There’s a number of plot twists or answers to questions that I figured out way ahead of her. So what is the rest of the people doing there, besides from looking pretty in their overly described dresses? The love story is as predictable as it is nauseating, with mysterious stranger falling for the girl in the end, without him ever intending to… So many interesting things are left unanswered and the answers that are given in the end are incredibly disappointing. It’s like the author didn’t quite figure out how to end the story either and left us with a sloppy anticlimactic ending. So I have to ask: did Stephanie Garber even try?

But honestly, and this may come as a bit of shock after everything I’ve written above, I did enjoy reading the book and I read most of it in one go. To be fair, I kept on reading hoping it would get better and even though it didn’t, it kept me reading. The story does draw you in, but I’m not sure why. I think it’s just a simple tale with a lot of darkness mixed in, and I liked that. All the unanswered questions make it a page-turner, but it was very unfortunate that most questions remained unanswered. It was an easy read, very quick-paced, and therefore quite enjoyable on a sunny morning. However, looking back on it, the book comes up short in so many ways, so I wouldn’t recommend it or read it again. Sadly, my overall feeling towards this book was just disappointment.

I-really-wanted-to-like-this-book, but-didn’t award, because this happens more often to us readers than we’d like to admit

Stephanie Garber, Caraval (Caraval #1) (New York, 2017)

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Thura Nightingale 

The wind in the willows by Kenneth Grahame

This book starts with a wonderful springtime dream of rowing down a river with a friend and a beautiful picnic to look forward to. That is exactly what large parts of this book feel like: a springtime dream of happy times with friends, full of kindness and enjoyment.

The wind in the willows was written in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame when he retired and went to live on the bank of the river Thames. But do not let the age deter you, because it is written in a very accessible way. When I googled the publication date I was very surprised actually. The stories are partly based on Kenneth Grahame’s ‘messing around in boats’ when he was retired, and the bedtime stories he told his children. The story centres around animals and their life on the riverbanks. It starts with Mole who, fed up with springtime cleaning, goes out for a walk instead. On that walk, he meets Rat who is rowing down the river in his boat. The sight of the boat pleases Mole so much that he begs to be taken along and Rat and Mole’s friendship begins. Mole is kind and gentle and always willing to see the best in people. Rat is a poet and has the greatest pleasure in boating, but also has a bit of a restless streak. Another important characters is Badger, who likes to be on his own, but is not unpleasant when he counts you among his friends. Also, there is the wonderful Toad, who is never not convinced of his own cunning, cleverness and intelligence and who has a mania for motor cars.

The main narrative of the book tells about Toad’s mania for cars and his subsequent adventures following from that. Toad loves to drive very fast, but he is a horrible chauffeur. Within minutes of speeding up, he usually crashes the car against a tree or in a field. Consequently, his friends worry about his physical and financial well-being, because he keeps on buying new cars. Many attempts are made to divert him from the car-business, but they all seem futile. This main narrative is cut up in several chapters and alternated with shorter stories about the adventures of Mole and Rat. In those stories, they meet a lot of other animals and the stories tell both of the light sides of life, but also about the darker sides when Otter’s son goes missing. One of my favourite stories was ‘Dulce Domum’ where Mole returns to his old home after a long absence. He has been living with Rat for a long time, but one evening when they are walking home late Mole sniffs a familiar smell that pulls him to a certain direction. It is the smell of longing and homesickness. Moving on from the smell leaves Mole devastated. When they decide to follow the smell it leads them to the home Mole abandoned at the beginning of the book. They decide to stay there for the night, however, the house is in a dire state. This makes Mole miserable again, because he badly wanted to give Rat hospitality, but his house is small and dirty. The following acts of friendship Rat shows are heart-warming. Rat sees the sorrow in his friend and with some effort, he manages to clean up the house and to convince Mole again of how perfect his home is. After their labours, they have a very merry time in Mole’s cosy house.

When I started to read this book I thought it would just be a pleasant children’s book to entertain me while I was visiting family. But this book is much more when you read it with a philosophical mindset! The animals are anthropomorphic versions of humans, and therefore how they interact with each other is a caricature of how humans deal with each other.  A lot of the dealings the animals have with each other are determined by social norms and the personality of each animal, which you have to accept because they are simply like that. For example, for a long time, everyone accepts Toad’s arrogance after berating him, because that’s his character. Also, Badger is not seen as anti-social, because he prefers to live in the ‘wild woods’ on his own. Everybody understands he needs time on his own, but they also see he will always welcome anyone who needs his help. The chapter ‘Mr. Badger’ was a particularly sweet one, where Badger welcomes a lot of animals who are lost in the snow. Everyone is enjoying his food and hospitality while Badger is doing ‘very important work’ in his study, aka sleeping. This is accepted by all the visiting animals because Badgers need sleep in the winter.

Because it is a children’s book, it is not subtle about caricatures and the sometimes funny way people think and deal with each other, which makes this book very funny with a lot of quick wit and jokes. There is, for example, the time Toad dressed as an old washerwoman and the dilemmas that gave him. Toad is generally a good character for laughs because he keeps getting himself into a mess because of his own arrogance. His friends keep getting him out of the mess and berate him for his wilful actions. And every time Toad feels immensely guilty, cries a lot of tears, promises betterment until the next amusement turns the corner. He only seems to repent when he’s in trouble and forgets all about it when the trouble is over. When the trouble is over he is full of stories about his own cleverness of overcoming them, ignoring the fact that he is lost without his friends.

The language of this book is brilliant. A bold statement, but many a time I had to pause myself and read more precise because I was missing some brilliant quips. This book shows a hundred percent that a children’s book can be, and has to be, as well written as any ‘proper’ book for adults. Just because children are smaller doesn’t mean they are not smart, and just because it’s a children’s book it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be intelligently written -look at Winnie-the-Pooh. The humour and brilliance of the writing in this book is in the unexpectedness. Kenneth Grahame has a way of writing down stories to make them feel familiar, but with a twist. Here is a quote to illustrate my point:

“However, they set out bravely, and took the line that seemed most promising, holding on to each other and pretending with invincible cheerfulness that they recognised an old friend in every fresh tree that grimly and silently greeted them, or saw openings, gaps, or paths with a familiar turn in them, in the monotony of white space and black tree-trunks that refused to vary.”

A feeling everyone who has done some hiking will recognize. Also, the flow of the prose makes me wish to have/borrow a kid to read this book to one day!

All the stories are told with such great mirth and emphasis on the good river bank life that it is sometimes hard to also grasp the darker elements of the story. Which is interesting, because before I started to read this book I had a vision of a terrifying dark industrial scene of a film about this book. The dark is present as well: there is a clear division between the happiness of the river bank and the danger of the ‘wild woods’. However, the characters tend to laugh away danger and unhappiness once it’s passed, and that is maybe exactly what the book intended to do: to talk about the joy of life and to show that it’s important to enjoy time with your friends on a peaceful river bank whenever you can. Let bygones be bygones, accept the people in your life as they are and value the importance of friendship and helping each other. And above all, that there is always a meal with a friend to look forward to. Not a bad message for children or adults I’d say.

Winnie-the-Pooh award for another children’s book talking about important stuff in an understandable way.

Kenneth Grahame, the wind in the willows (London, 1908)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Stravaganza – City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

I must have been ten or eleven when this book was translated to Dutch and I borrowed it from the library. I was enchanted by it and even last week, when I heard someone talk about Italian art and city states, I immediately thought ‘like in Stravaganza!’ I still hope to visit Venice, Italy, before it sinks into the sea. So many books and stories take place in that city that it has reached an almost mythological status: a city of fairytales. This children’s book takes that reputation and runs with it, using Venice’s canals and gondolas and glasswork and palaces and adding its own magical details.

Lucien is a teenage boy who lives in England and has cancer. He’s very sick from chemo therapy and has recently lost his hair. He’s too tired to talk and his throat aches, so his father gives him a beautiful Venetian notebook to write in. He falls asleep with the book in his hand, dreaming of the city with canals instead of streets. When he wakes up, he is outside in a place that looks like Venice. He is also in immediate danger of his life.

Lucien discovers he is a stravagante: someone who can travel between parallel universes with the help of a talisman. With his notebook, he is connected to an alternative Renaissance Italy called ‘Talia’. He is in the city of Belezza, the Venice of Talia, where he meets colourful people and deadly intrigue on every street corner. Each time he falls asleep with his talisman in London, he wakes up in Belezza and vice versa. Possibly the best thing about Belezza is the fact that Lucien is not sick when he’s there: he’s not in pain, he’s not tired and his hair grows back. The second best thing about Belezza is Arianna, a willful fifteen-year-old girl from the islands near Belezza with a determination to become a mandolier (the Talian equivalent of a gondolier).

The city is governed by the Duchessa, a strong, elegant and ruthless lady who always wears a mask, as do all of the unmarried women of Belezza, in accordance with an old tradition. Duchessa Silvia refuses to give power to the wealthy Di Chimici family, who rule half of the city states of Talia and have their eye on Belezza. Her resistance is not appreciated by the powerful Di Chimici’s, and of course plots to kill her are devised in back alleys and splendid palace halls. But Silvia knows how to navigate deadly politics and is assisted by the illustrious Signor Rodolfo, who happens to also be a stravagante. Lucien and Arianna are swept up in the drama amidst carnavals and illicit romances, and need to choose their alliances very carefully.

There are a few notable differences between our Italy and the alternative Talia. The people from Belezza worship not a God, but a Godess: an interesting amalgamation of Mary, Mother of Jesus and an ancient veneration of the ‘Lady of the Laguna’.

In the well-known founding myth of the city of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus fight over where to build the city. Romulus kills Remus and names the city after himself. In Talia, this story has another ending. Remus kills Romulus instead and founds the city of Remora.

Science in Talia is more like what we consider alchemy with elements of magic thrown in, and silver is more valuable than gold, because it, unlike our silver, does not blacken over time. Talian gold, however, needs to be polished regularly. Details like these give a twist to the familiar image of how we think of Renaissance Italy. The athmosphere of beauty and excitement of Venice ramains, but Belezza is its own place with its own mythology and traditions.

The sometimes aimless plot is not the strongest aspect of the book: the world building is. Mary Hoffman has said herself that Talia originated from what she imagined 16th century Italy would be like. It’s a dream version of Italy, exciting and dangerous but never truly horrible. As a child, I did not (and still don’t) always look for books that would teach me about harsh reality. I even think that the current trend of demanding incredibly lifelike stories and characters is a little obsessive – not wrong in itself, but surely some space should be reserved for daydreaming? City of Masks is born of daydreaming and inspires it. As the father of modern high fantasy put it:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? (…) If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” – J.R.R. Tolkien

The book was originally the first in a trilogy, which was then expanded into a six-part series, each book focusing on different stravagante in a different Talian city state. Characters from previous books usually show up as secondary characters and interact with each other in this world or the parallel one. I think Mary Hoffman once announced she would write twelve books, one for all twelve of the city states, but I hope she won’t. Like I said, I don’t mind stories that are unrealistic, but the later books became increasingly far-fetched and needlessly complex, until I simply lost interest. I think Hoffman has exhausted the concept of stravaganza in the first three or four books. But this doesn’t detract from the magic of the first book: it’s the perfect read for Sunday afternoons in spring, when the sky is grey and you want to be transported to the sunny streets of the City of Masks.

Phantom of the Opera Award: for masquerades, murder and romance

Mary Hoffman, Stravaganza: City of Masks (London, 2002)

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Jo Robin