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October 20, 2014

And They Lived Happily Ever After...?: Fairy Tales for Adults, Round Two

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Once upon a time (read: last year), I wrote a post on fairy tales for adults. You can read it here.

I’ve decided to make it annual, because modern authors are constantly borrowing from fairy and folk tales, invigorating them with fresh life.

The term ‘fairy tales’ probably conjures images of childhood, thanks to Disney’s sanitized versions. But to give a brief history lesson, their origins were anything but childish. The Grimm’s initial collection was dark and strange and more suited to Kafka readers than to the Mother Goose set. History lesson over (I said it would be brief); if you’re curious, you can see my original post or you can do some googling.

So if you’re looking for a book that is Weird with a capital W, in the best possible way, I’ve got you covered:

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker
It’s rare when a book lives up to its hype, but this one mostly does. Exploring the American immigrant experience through the lens of folklore has been done before --- see AMERICAN GODS further down this list --- but it’s rarely done with this unique a vision. Forget supernatural creatures like vampires or werewolves that have been done to death; Wecker borrows from Eastern cultures to give us mythology we don’t commonly see. With a concept that’s as potentially out-there as this, an author has to be willing to go balls-to-the wall with it. Wecker does just that, in a way that only a first-time novelist can.
Fairy Tale Elements: Sentient clay women. Glass castles. Magical rabbis. Fire creatures pretending to be men. Visions.  

THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL by Chris Adrian
This is admittedly not as good as Adrian’s best work, THE GREAT NIGHT, which I included in my original fairy tales post, and which remains one of my all time favorites despite the fact that I also agree with its mixed reviews. But this one is also a thoughtful and wild ride. Adrian has a way of taking a familiar story and presenting a spin on it that you’d never have thought of even if you were on drugs. I mean that as the highest possible compliment.
Fairy Tale Elements: Angels. Mysterious healing powers. Precocious children. Terrible luck. Biblical floods.

AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
I recently included this in another post, but this book fits into many categories. Plus, I can hardly do a post about adult fairy tales and exclude Gaiman. Above all else, AMERICAN GODS is a fairy tale. Characters have names like Wednesday and Shadow. Road trip odysseys abound, each one stranger and more treacherous than the last. Dead wives drop by for casual chats, treading graveyard dirt onto the carpet. It’s whimsical and crass, it’s lighthearted and dark, it’s abstract and straightforward. It’s a novel of contradictions, with treats around every corner.
Fairy Tale Elements:Magical coins. Missing children. Sexy cat-ladies. Road trips. Leprechauns. Thunderbirds (not the car). Resurrections.

WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT by Elizabeth Blackwell
The title of this one is baffling, as it’s got little to do with the actual story besides telling us the source material. This is a fairy tale re-envisioned as a gritty pseudo-historical drama, told from the perspective of a side character. The magical elements are handled cleverly --- they aren’t dismissed entirely, but less whimsical explanations are offered. And, while some parts can’t avoid predictability, the author continuously subverts expectations of the usual tropes. For a story that we all supposedly know, it’s as unpredictable as possible.
Fairy Tale Elements: Well…SLEEPING BEAUTY is a fairy tale…so, everything.

The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater
I admit, I was initially skeptical because the title sounds cutesy and the description hints at love triangles…which just goes to show, marketing can be misleading! Now, I’m not someone who generally scorns YA --- a good book is just a good book --- but many do share characteristics that can be enough to turn you off. This isn’t one of those. There is a mild love triangle but it doesn’t exist to create arbitrary drama. Although the characters are teens, their relationships have a collegiate feel (think Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY but with less whining and incest. Similar amounts of Latin and murder, though). And for the most part, teenage boys speak like actual teenage boys, not improbably chivalrous 40 year olds (ahem, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). There is a plot, but it’s almost incidental; I’d happily read about these characters going to the grocery store. The third book in this quartet comes out in a couple weeks.
Fairy Tale Elements: Quests. Death curses. Doomed love. Hit men. Mysterious dreams. Magical rituals. Prodigal sons. Disappearing parents.  

LITTLE, BIG by John Crowley
A family saga for a patient reader, this novel spans years, bridges worlds and involves a mysterious, ever-changing house. A sort of ALICE IN WONDERLAND mixed with HOUSE OF LEAVES, yet more subtle and less annoying than both. This book is intimate yet sprawling; bizarre yet commonplace.
Fairy tale elements: Fairies. Places with vague names. Prophecies. Changelings. Characters named Smokey. 

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan
Egan is one of the most skilled writers of opposite sex characters, which is not as easy as it sounds. Her men are never stereotypical or hyper masculine; they are neurotic, vaguely insane, and yet their voices feel authentic. This has Egan’s trademark combination of wry humor and lives that overlap in unexpected ways. It also has a story-within-a story that reveals itself slowly, a treat for a sharp-eyed reader. Simultaneously a fairy tale, a psychological drama, and a deeply weird story, each time you think you can guess where this is going…guess again.  
Fairy Tale Elements: Crumbling castles. Unnamed countries. Mysterious Caves. Ageless women. A story-within-a-story.