Cloaked in Red: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande VeldeSome fairy tales are just problematic. Rumpelstiltskin’s motivations are fuzzy at best. Does Rapunzel’s mother really need lettuce that badly?

Then you have Little Red Riding Hood. How oblivious can one child be? Why was she left unsupervised in the woods? Why a red hood at all?

Many questions. Not so many answers.

Plenty of opportunities for new retellings in Cloaked in Red (2010) by Vivian Vande Velde.

Find it on Bookshop.

This collection runs in the same vein as Vande Velde’s earlier collection The Rumpelstiltskin Problem. An author’s note starts the volume in which Vande Velde outlines the numerous problems with the original Little Red Riding Hood.

In the eight stories in this collection Vande Velde offers a different slant on the story. “Little Red Riding Hood’s Family” offers a very clever, whimsical explanation of why Little Red would not be concerned to find her grandmother looking like a wolf. “Granny and the Wolf” delves deeper into the relationship between Granny and the woodcutter (not to mention the wolf). “Deems the Woodcutter” is a delightful story about a myopic woodcutter who misguidedly helps quite a few familiar fairy tale characters while out gathering wood.

While this collection ignores some of the darker undertones of the Perrault* version of the story–and only nods to the Grimm version in “Why Willy and His Borther Won’t Ever Amount to Anything” without mentioning Perrault at all–the collection is solid with a range of stories to appeal to readers of every age and persuasion.

With a snappy tone and amusing starts to every story along the lines of “Once upon a time, before department stores and designer labels . . .” Cloaked in Red is filled with stories that are approachable and fun. This would be a great collection to pair with picture book versions of Little Red Riding Hood, to read aloud, or even to use as a primer on short story writing.

*The moral from the Perrault story is as follows: “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” It’s safe to say the moral is hinting at a bit more than actual wolves.

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

You can find some different version of Little Red Riding Hood (including both Perrault’s and Grimm’s) here: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0333.html

Deadly Pink: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande VeldeWhen Grace’s mother pulls her out of class Grace knows something is wrong. What she never would have guessed is that it’s Grace’s smart, talented, generally better sister Emily who is in trouble.

After working at Rassmussem as a game programmer for college credit, Emily has inexplicably decided to go into the game she was building. According to the note she left behind, Emily doesn’t plan to come out. Ever.

With time running out before the immersive reality game equipment does permanent damage to Emily, Rassmussem is running out of options to get Emily out of a game she clearly doesn’t want to leave. They hope Grace might be able to help.

But inside the game is nothing Grace expected. Her sister has taken refuge inside a game designed for little girls complete with frilly dresses and unicorns. Worse Emily wants nothing to do with Grace and she definitely doesn’t want to leave.

Grace always considered herself the average sister compared to Emily. But with her sister in real danger, this average girl will have to think her way out of this problem before it’s too late in Deadly Pink (2012) by Vivian Vande Velde.

Find it on Bookshop.

Deadly Pink is Vande Velde’s third novel featuring Rassmussem games with the first and second being Heir Apparent and User Unfriendly respectively.

Fourteen-year-old Grace is an authentic narrator with equal parts sarcasm and (especially later in the novel) ingenuity. While the game itself is not the most interesting, or well-developed, setting Vande Velde does an excellent job presenting Grace’s complicated relationship with her older sister.

Unlike Heir Apparent the focus of this book is more on the characters than the game play. With most of the non-playing characters playing minor roles in the plot, most of the story deals with Grace trying to convince Emily to leave the game.

While both sisters are well-rounded characters, the lack of setting and secondary characters for the majority of the novel is a major weakness. The game is never explained to Grace or the reader giving the effect of Grace running blindly through the game with little understanding of where she is supposed to go or how she is going to save Emily. Grace’s constant plodding through the game while never asking advice from anyone makes for a plodding plot that drags.

The story picks up in the last third of Deadly Pink as Grace comes into her own. Finally embracing her strengths andalso using the limitations of the game’s play to her own advantage, Grace proves at last that she is a heroine worth reading about. If the entire book had been like this small part, it would have been a definite winner.

Unfortunately the story falters once again with a rushed ending to explain Emily’s motivations to go into the game as well as a hurried explanation of what happens after the game is over.

If there are more Rassmussem stories to be told, one can only hope they will return to the style of Vande Velde’s earlier novels.

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Heir Apparent: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande VeldeVivian Vande Velde is one of the best fantasy writers out there (and one of my favorites if you couldn’t tell already). Her stories are believable and populated with characters you’ll remember long after the book is closed. They are also surprisingly believable given that they are fantasies. Such is the case with Heir Apparent (2004), which takes place in some undisclosed future time.

Find it on Bookshop.

Despite the short amount of time spent in the story’s “present,” Vande Velde manages to describe enough of the the environment to make it feel real. The problems start for the narrator, Giannine, when the automated bus won’t let her off at her chosen stop (a game store). Like all good characters, fourteen-year-old Giannine easily circumvents the computer and makes her way back to the Rasmussem Gaming Center.

The story gets into gear when Giannine enters a full-immersion virtual reality game (by the same name as the title of the book) to compete to rule a kingdom. Giannine is just getting the hang of the game when she receives some bad news from the owner of the gaming center: Protesters outside of the gaming center (from Citizens to Protect Our Children ironically enough) stormed the entrance and damaged the equipment. Giannine can’t get out of the game unless she wins. The problem? If Giannine loses she might not be able to leave the game environment at all–because she’ll be dead.

As you might have guessed by that little summary, most of this story revolves around Giannine playing the game over and over as she tries to win. This creates a lot of repetition–as we watch Giannine go through the same scenarios repeatedly with varying levels of success. (If this sounds similar to the premise of “Groundhog Day” that’s because it is.)

Happily, instead of seeming redundant, the story/plot remains interesting. Vande Velde artfully describes the gameplay so that readers won’t get bored. This makes the book go by really fast. Even though Vande Velde covers the same territory multiple times, she never gets redundant. Each run through reads slightly differently and covers a different part of the story. Similarly, since Giannine also loses the game several times, Vande Velde creates pseudo-alternative endings for the story by showing Giannine pitfalls as she works her way towards a win.

The characters are extremely interesting and the premise–while not totally new–is unique, as is the author’s handling of it. The story features Vande Velde’s usual humor throughout. What it doesn’t feature is her usual ambiguous ending. The story is still open-ended but it has more closure than are found in A Well-Timed Enchantment or Companions of the Night (both also by Vande Velde and also highly recommended), which makes for a nice change. Heir Apparent also lacks the typical romantic subplot, making the novel’s appeal stronger for boys and placing a heavier focus on the action and relations between all of the characters (instead of the main character and her romantic interest).

Heir Apparent is a timely book looking forward to what video games might one day be while also reminding readers that there’s no harm in a good game–as long as overzealous protesters don’t get in the way at least.

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Warcross by Marie Lu, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, Audrey’s Magic Nine by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey

Companions of the Night: A Halloween Chick Lit Wednesday review

Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande VeldeVivian Vande Velde is basically my hero. She is a master at taking traditional fairy-tale-like themes and making them fresh and totally unique. Companions of the Night (1995) does that for the vampire story.

Kerry’s little brother, Ian, had a simple request: drive to the laundromat to retrieve Ian’s stuffed bear. Kerry knew all the reasons she should tell Ian no (she had a big test to study for, it was the middle of the night, she only had a driver’s permit and shouldn’t be in a car without a licensed driver), but then Ian started to cry and Kerry knew she couldn’t say no–not if Ian was going to cry. It was late, there would be no traffic. Getting the bear would be simple.

And it was simple. Until Kerry got to the laundromat and stepped into what looked like a gang shootout. Or a kidnapping. Or a vampire hunt.

Unfortunately, the hunters think that Kerry is a vampire too. So she and the other supposed vampire, Ethan, have to escape. Adventure ensues.

Vande Velde, as is her way, also throws a romantic element into the plot. Happily, she does so without falling into the typical “Dracula seduction” style so common in vampire stories.

Every author has a different take on how vampires function in “real life.” I am quite fond of how Vande Velde explains their immortality. The explanation just makes so much sense, it’s great. In a way Vande Velde takes the mystique out of the whole vampire thing, trying to create realistic explanations for things like immortality and how a vampire can exist inconspicuously in the modern world. Overall Ethan is an exceedingly likable character even if he is, basically, dead.

Technically speaking the narrative is nicely written. This novel is very much like Vande Velde’s other works. In particular, parallels can be drawn between this novel and A Well-Timed Enchantment. Both have a similar plot formula and the narrations style is very modern in both.

Vande Velde also develops the characters of Ethan and Kerry nicely. The book is short, so readers are never bogged down with background information or “back stories” for the characters. Nonetheless, Vande Velde creates very dimensional and, dare I say, very real characters.

Companions of the Night is definitely an action story. The narrative is tightly wound, keeping readers ready for excitement and action.

Possible Pairings: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

A Well-Timed Enchantment: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande VeldeI don’t particularly like cats in real life, but I’ve noticed recently that they are generally a lot more appealing in fiction. A Well-Timed Enchantment (1990) by Vivian Vande Velde has a cat that’s cool like that.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story starts when Deanna, a fifteen-year-old spending the summer with her mom in France, drops her Mickey Mouse watch down a well. Turns out the well isn’t your average well: it’s magic. To make matters worse, Deanna didn’t drop her watch into the well, she dropped it into medieval France. Now she has to get the watch back before things get really out of hand. Deanna gets some help in the form of Oliver, the black cat she befriended back in modern France. Except now Oliver is a human.

I first read this book when I was sixteen. I loved it so much I read it twice back to back. A Well-Timed Enchantment is one of those books that never get old. You can read it again and again and the story is still just as good as the first time.

Vande Velde’s narrative style here is similar to her other “fairy tale” books (like The Rumpelstiltskin Problem or Heir Apparent) with a blend of traditional story telling and her inimitably modern sensibility. The novel is written with a third person narration that follows Deanna’s perspective.

This novel combines a lot of different elements to great effect. One of the best characters (in any of) Vande Velde’s work is Oliver. Turns out cats don’t see things the same way humans do. I don’t know how convincingly anyone can write in the voice of a cat-turned-human but Vande Velde seems to do a good job of it.

The story is quick and fairly simple. There are a lot of things that older readers can enjoy and comment on, but the story is straight-forward enough that younger readers can also keep up. I might even go as far as to say it’s a great feminist-oriented book for children (some might call it “anti-princess”) because Deanna plays a significant role in fixing things (getting back the watch) even though Oliver does help quite a bit.

My only issue with A Well-Timed Enchantment is the ending. Some readers will tell you they like a good, open-ended finish. It’s more realistic, it encourages readers to use their imagination, etc. There is a time and place for open-endedness. This book does not happen to be the best place for it. Vande Velde acknowledges this in her dedication (it’s dedicated to a girl even though she hated the ending). Over the years the ending has rankled less because, having given the matter more thought, I’ve been forced to conclude that there might not be a better way to end things. But it still left me frustrated after my first reading.

Despite the somewhat irritating ending, this book is amazing. The characters are endearing, the story is fun, Oliver is awesome. Vande Velde is as creative and fun here as ever.

Possible Pairings: Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Let’s talk about fairy tales: A review of The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande VeldeYou probably already know the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Just in case you don’t quite remember it, here are the details: A poor miller tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. But she can’t. The king then brings the daughter to the castle to spin some straw into gold. She is very highly motivated to do so since the king will kill her if she doesn’t. So, the girl is in a bit of trouble, right? Luckily, a little man drops by and offers to spin the straw into gold for the girl. First in exchange for a (gold) ring, then a (gold) necklace. Then, the girl has to spin straw one last time–if she does the king will marry her–but she’s out of gold (because Rumpelstiltskin obviously needs gold). So the little man asks for the daughter’s first born child. She says okay. Time passes and Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect but the daughter balks, so Rumpelstiltskin gives her an out–guess his name and she can keep the child. Eventually she does and the little man is royally upset and stamps a crack in the castle and explodes.

Weird story, right?

Vivian Vande Velde certainly thought so. In an attempt to better justify some of the weird bits of Rumpelstiltskin, Vande Velde came up with her short story collection called, appropriately enough, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem (2000).

Find it on Bookshop.

The book features six stories.  Questions answered include: Why would Rumpelstiltskin spin gold in exchange for less gold? Why would he want a baby? Why is the miller telling people his daughter can spin straw into gold? Why can’t anyone guess such a bizarre name? And more.

These retellings have the tone of modern fairy tales. Each story begins something like this: “Once upon a time, before pizzerias or Taco Bells . . . ” creating a nice contrast between our time and that elusive time that all of the good stories happened upon. The  stories run, on average, ten pages. And every one is different–Vande Velde never covers the same ground twice.

In some versions the miller and his daughter save themselves, in others Rumpelstiltskin (yes! the bad guy!) does. Sometimes the king is a creep, sometimes he isn’t. Each story offers a slightly different take on the story by asking “what if?”

The stories feature Vande Velde’s usual ingenuity, in this case taking one of the oldest fairy tales in the book and making it her own (six times). My person favorites in the collection are “Straw into Gold,” “The Domovoi,” and “Papa Rumpelstiltskin” because Vande Velde takes the framework of the Rumpelstiltskin story and just runs with it bringing each of these stories into completely new territory. At times heartwarming, at times sad, this collection is a must read for anyone  who likes a good fairy tale (with a twist) and, of course, for anyone who is already a fan of Vivian Vande Velde.

The only difference between this collection and Vande Velde’s novels, I’m thinking particularly of A Well-Timed Enchantment which also turns the whole fairy tale tradition on its head, is that the short stories don’t have the same depth–because they’re short. This isn’t a bad thing, just if you’re new to Vande Velde’s work I’d recommend starting with one of her novels instead because they are more illustrative of her all-around awesomeness.

Anyway, anyone who enjoys seeing fairy tales turned upside down, inside out, or sideways should give The Rumpelstiltskin Problem a look today :)

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik