We're All Mad Here
There is something inherently terrifying about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, from the casual disregard of lost Alice's fears to the homicidal tendencies of the crazed Red Queen. Many authors have investigated these aspects of the story and yet exploring Lewis Carroll's creation in new ways is something I never tire of doing. The trick is to bring something to the classic that fits and does not upend the narrative simply for shock value. A.G. Howard clearly delights in the creepier aspects of Wonderland, and they infuse her debut novel about Alice Liddell's fictional great-great-great-granddaughter, Splintered.
Alyssa Gardner is convinced she will go insane, just like her mother (an inpatient at the nearby asylum) and the other members of her matriarchal line. She knows she's already halfway there because insects have been talking to her for years, no matter how relentlessly she kills them and pins them into her outrageous three-dimensional art. Whiling away the non-school hours at the skateboard park and working at a vintage clothing store (no Alice would work traditional retail!), Alyssa tries to convince herself that "it's all in her head." Events quickly overwhelm her, however, and a moth appears to haunt her, a poster from an '80s classic comes to life, and a website suggests that the white rabbit was nowhere near as cute and cuddly as Disney led us to believe. Alyssa finds herself with a family mystery that must be solved and a trip to Wonderland that cannot be avoided. The fact that her longtime friend and crush ends up along for the adventure is just an added bonus, because, hey, nothing makes a run for your life through Crazytown better than doing it with the one you secretly love.
All the regulars you expect are here from the queens to the tea party to the garden to the Cheshire Cat, and, most spectacularly, the Caterpillar. It's all twisted, grotesque, and will make you recoil more than once. Howard has done an excellent job of playing with the classic but weaving a contemporary story within it, making sure each step of her narrative is part and parcel of Carroll's narrative. The romance is complicated, the protagonist conflicted, and the heroes are hard to come by. And while Alyssa wavers from bold (jumping down that rabbit hole with aplomb) to confused victim (shades of Bella rearing their ugly head), the only real disappointment for me came near the end when things go predictably in the direction of amnesia and noble sacrifices for love and impossible-but-presented-as-factual declarations from members of the medical field that you can be crazy one moment and perfectly fine the next. This is all a wee bit too pat for the novel's earlier promise, and especially frustrating when it comes to the amnesia parts. It does nothing to diminish all the fangs, fur, and sharp bloody promise (loved the flower garden especially) that came previously, but I'm hoping in Howard's next novel she lets her boldness carry her along to the last delicious page and leaves those convenient plot devices in the dust.
Christopher Barzak has a riveting take on Alice as well in his new short story collection Before and Afterlives. "The Mad Tea Party" is brief and lacerating, a tale that delivers a clear message on the perils of madness. Grown-up Alice returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. Upon arriving, she takes on a porcelain Cheshire Cat, recalls a flight attendant dressed in white and sporting a pocket watch who hastened her on her way, craves tea, and dreams of playing cards. This Alice is wounded and angry, destructive and broken. She is the girl who will prompt readers to ask why Carroll's Alice felt compelled to follow the white rabbit in the first place, and what she might have been running from. If Howard writes a fantastical version of Alice's mental health legacy, Barzak plumbs even deeper depths and goes full-on reality. I'm still thinking about the eight pages of "The Mad Tea Party."
Elsewhere in Before and Afterlives, Barzak shares the history of the scariest haunted house ever in "What We Know About the Lost Families of -- House," reveals a bitter emotional legacy for the parents of a runaway teenager in "The Drowned Mermaid," and reaches deep into the heart of a living boy who finds solace in the resting place of a dead one in "Dead Boy Found."
Throughout this collection, Barzak effectively writes people contending with their fears and doubts but most especially he writes about loneliness, and it is this writerly radar for alienation that perhaps makes him so perceptive when it comes to his teen characters. The boy in "Dead Boy Found" is like any other, but Barzak teases out his sorrow page by page, paragraph by paragraph, giving readers a peek at teen humanity that will ring all too true for many high schoolers. He achieves similar results with a sister coming to turns with her older brother's sexuality and unorthodox romance in "Map of Seventeen" (this has to include one of the best portrayals of truly great parents I have read in ages), and further with a daughter forced to confront her father over the effect of his paranormal profession in "The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter." The tour-de-force, however, is "The Language of Moths," in which a brother learns to appreciate his autistic sister and together they weather a challenging summer and come to an unexpected understanding that, really, makes everything all better. Barzak makes it all seem so easy, these gentle glimpses into his characters' lives, and even though these lives might include mermaids or ghostly parents or talking fireflies, the extraordinary aspects are not what make his tales so magical. It's the way he sees plain ordinary people that gives his stories such power; the way he sees us and yet loves us anyway. Bravo.
Margo Lanagan wanders yet again into the territory of dark myth she travels so well with her multi-generational look at seal wives (selkies) and the land men who claim them in The Brides of Rollrock Island. From the young girl with a stark and frightening seal kinship whose unforgiving childhood leads her down a path to cold and cruel witchery to the boy who challenges a lifetime's worth of social mores to save his mother, Rollrock takes readers into the hearts of its island residents and the subtle way in which rape can affect a society.
Generations of disappointment weigh down Rollrock Island, and even those who are bewitched cannot deny their own responsibility in the sorrow of others (or that they sought out the bewitching in the first place). As one seal wife is driven by abject despair to suicide, the families gather to witness her sad end and know that the same possibility haunts each of their homes as well. Real love -- honest love -- is not easy, but at least it is true and fair, something the men of Rollrock have willfully forgotten and the women are lost without. Lanagan is a master at sparing her characters no quarter, at forcing readers to recognize every moment of weakness that propels her narratives. But with Rollrock, she shows how complicated love and longing can be, how emotions can be manipulated and harsh family dynamics can destroy far easier than love can mend. By every measure, this novel is the very definition of tortured romance and the author never lets you forget that.
Margo Lanagan has rightfully received praise for her previous titles and The Brides of Rollrock Island is worthy of equal measure. I was struck while reading it, however, by how adult it is. This is a novel for teens, and many of the characters in the shifting points of view are quite young, but it has an adult sensibility and awareness of the serious choices we make in the world. Margo Lanagan understands teens like few other authors today; she grants her audience a literary respect more often seen in the pages of The New Yorker than the exhaustive paranormal section of the local bookstore. Kidlit, my ass. Read her pages and see yourself as the serious reader Lanagan knows you to be while gaining a newfound respect for the always complicated world of teenagers.
In the grand tradition of fairy tales everywhere, Lily the Silent is the story of a reluctant heroine, feckless prince, and the wickedest of queens. Author Tod Davies turns expectations gently on their ears while writing her imaginary "History of Arcadia." Once within the story, however, readers will quickly recognize the invading city of Megalopolis as a thoroughly modern society that never appeared in the realms of Cinderella and Snow White. Consider the following assertion from the evil queen:
"Our technology is great. Well, it should be, considering all we've had to pay for it." She looked around her tower at the gray, wire-riddled, garbage-strewn city below. "It was easy enough for us to build another moon. Haven't you heard in your little Arcadia?" she said in a haughty voice. "We have become like gods, here in Megalopolis. We do what we will. And we do it because we can."
The industrialized city comes with a rabid celebrity culture, a passion for appearance before substance and a devotion to echo chambers that leaves Lily, the future leader of embattled Arcadia to observe: "I found out later... that they never heard anything they didn't expect to. Never. And this was true all over Megalopolis." Sound familiar, cable news fans?
Don't worry that Davies is writing a heavy-handed-message book, though; for all that Arcadia suffers at the whims of the technologically advanced and monumentally arrogant Megalopolis, this is also a story of a girl who falls in love with a boy too weak to save anyone, a False Moon designed to host parties, mermaids who guard the key to everything, and a monumentally pissed off version of Death. It is clear that events early on take her by surprise, but Lily is more Joan of Arc than Sleeping Beauty, although destined to sacrifice all, still wise enough to wrangle an escape clause. She can't help falling in love with the prince, but quickly figures out that you can't change your lover (especially when his mother has been controlling him since birth and the whole country prefers a star's gleaming good looks over a leader's hard truths). As their daughter later recounts, "...you can never tell anyone anything that they have not first discovered for themselves."
Davies has fun with Lily the Silent, opening with a bard's introductory summary of events and then relaxing into the main narrative as told by the daughter, whose asides about her parents and family friends are light with a wry and sophisticated wit. With Mike Madrid's illustrations throughout (appropriately compared to Arthur Rackham's), this title shows how comfortably fairy tales can encompass the fits and foibles of current times. It reads fast and furious and promotes love and friendship, all while making sure readers never forget to keep a solid head on their shoulders -- something the original princesses would certainly appreciate.
Exterminating Angel Press has another unique title for adventurous fairy tale readers: 3 Dead Princes: An Anarchist Fairy Tale by Danbert Nobacon ('90s trivia fanatics will recognize the author as a founding member of Chumbawumba). Set over 100,000 years in the future, this is the most anti-post-apocalyptic novel you can imagine (get those Blade Runner visions out of your head right now). Organized as a fairly traditional fairy tale, our heroine is Stormy, princess of the kingdom of Morainia, which is under threat from their neighbors in the kingdom of Oosaria. In the course of one fateful dinner, Stormy meets the visiting queen of the Oosarians and one of her sons, whom she is apparently supposed to marry. Things do not go well and, as the title suggests, the dastardly prince is soon not so much alive and Stormy is running for her life with the court fool.
What follows are encounters with a wise witch and her hip daughter, legends of a large black cat that plague Stormy's dreams, the drums of war that reverberate everywhere, a near capture in a tavern, and a great raven with a mysterious egg. 3 Dead Princes follows the fairy tale narrative with personal challenges, serious battle preparation, and more brave moments than the movie Brave. But every time you think you have it all figured out, Nobacon throws a curve ball, forcing the reader to rethink what a fairy tale can be (hello, Neanderthals!). From considerations of how a king spends his time (archaeologist and inventor?) to how his queen should act (teaching yoga at one point then donning battle gear in another), the author never wastes an opportunity to let his readers stretch their ideas of the princess-saturated world we all keep living in. By the final pages, with prince number three dead and gone, Nobacon has successfully given us all the adventure and happy ending we could want, while also posing a lot of subtle questions about society, culture, and evolution. Is it an "anarchist's fairy tale"? I'm not sure about that. Mostly it's about Stormy and how she wins and since I loved Stormy, I have to say 3 Dead Princes succeeds just fine, and with Alex Cox's illustrations along to spice things up even more, it's a very enjoyable, and unorthodox, read.
Finally, echoing the presence of mermaids and water creatures found to some degree in all of these other titles, is Mark Siegel's epic graphic novel Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson. I'll be honest, I struggled a bit with this historical novel set in the late nineteenth century onboard a Hudson River steamboat. Captain Twain is just trying to do his job, but life is complicated by the ship's ever-present owner who seems intent on seducing as many female passengers as he can while searching for his missing brother. There is also a mysterious author who is hiding more than one secret and, of course, a mermaid that Twain saves and nurses back to health in his cabin and finds himself unable to resist. The sudden arrival of the author proves to be the catalyst for the other players in this drama who are all so busy covering up their own motivations that as events overcome them (which include some standard socio-economic issues below decks), they have no time to explain to each other just what the hell is going on. The story ends, appropriately, with a bang, but only after Twain has found the madness that lies in loving a mermaid and Lafayette learns that he should have been honest with his captain all along.
Siegel's black-and-white illustrations are perfect for the haunted nature of the book, and although some might take issue with the bare-breasted presentation of the mermaid, she is depicted as readers would expect. Following some pretty specific plot points along the way, the ending is purposely obtuse, however, and therein lies much of my concern with the book. After laboring with Twain for four hundred pages, questions remained for me about an awful lot of the plot, from motivations to actions to conclusions. I tried to work this out with other readers of Sailor Twain, and can assert that it is a title that invites a lot of contemplation and discussion (always a good thing). I encourage readers intrigued by mermaid stories to check this one out, and see what they think Twain decided and if he was successful in his quest.
COOL READ: Fans of innovative storytelling will be very interested in Paul Fleischman's sumptuously illustrated The Matchbox Diary. I've long been a fan of illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline's realistic artwork, and with Fleischman's story he delivers big time. After a contemporary opening, the narrative unfolds over history, as an elderly man invites his great-granddaughter to explore his personal library and to "Pick whatever you like the most. Then I'll tell you its story." The room is a mash-up of a bibliophile and collector's dream, awash in the jewel-like tones of Ibatoulline's palette and infused with a golden glow. It gives the book a dreamy appearance and makes the story that follows even more endearing.
The girl chooses a cigar box full of matchbooks, each containing a small item that provides a touchstone to the grandfather's life journey. The objects, which include an olive pit, a photograph, a bottle cap, and a St. Christopher medal, all are part of his immigration and subsequent career as a small bookshop owner. He hands off his idea of keeping a diary (written or otherwise) to the little girl, who in the final page begins her own collection. This could be easily dismissed as a sweet story (and it certainly is heartwarming), but the celebration of tangible memory, of small innocuous objects that are capable of carrying so much history, makes it a scrapbook that transcends Fleischman's tale, and will inspire readers to create their own collecting diaries. Don't dismiss The Matchbook Diary as a picture book for small children, but view it instead as a transcendent story for all ages. This is illustrated work at its best and Fleischman and Ibatoulline have crafted a quiet sensitive masterpiece.