Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Alice, I Think by Susan Juby

Susan Juby isn’t just writing YA books anymore. Or, more specifically, she isn’t just writing about Alice Macleod, a teenager living in Smithers, BC, who is trying to leave her hobbit-costume legacy behind and, with the help of her therapist, transition from homeschool into alternative school. Juby’s new publications include her memoir, Nice Recovery, which details her struggle with alcoholism, and The Woefield Poultry Collection, is more adult than young adult (even though eleven-year-old Sarah Spratt is one of the highlights of the book). And I can’t say enough about Getting the Girl, this hilarious young adult mystery novel that Juby wrote a few years ago. But whenever I think about Susan Juby, I always go back to Alice, I Think and the two books that came after (Miss Smithers and Alice Macleod, Realist at Last).

(I had a friend from Smithers, BC, who had Susan Juby come to his school to do a reading and was really excited about it, which is basically on the opposite side of this interview with, and I can’t remember who exactly, but I think it was this British tennis player, where J.K. Rowling went in to read an excerpt from Harry Potter at his elementary school or something, and he was like, “Eh, no big deal.”)

When the book starts, Alice is reflecting on the event in elementary school that drove her to be homeschooled for most of her life. She “blame[s] it all on The Hobbit,” since Alice attends school dressed in the hobbit costume that her mom made for her and meets a girl named Linda:

            “So you’re a what?” she asked.
“I’m a hobbit. We are small and ordinary but also special. We can be sort of invisible sometimes. And we laugh like this.” I have her my deepest and fruitiest laugh.
“You know what I think?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“I think you look like an ugly boy.”

Linda leaves Alice alone on the playground, “hobbit hat in hand, burlap sack filled with extra cakes for new friends over my shoulder.” After that, Alice is homeschooled, and now, where the book begins, she is in high school, her first therapist has just suffered a meltdown, and Alice has decided to transition back into Alternative School.

Alice is such a likeable protagonist because she has a concept of normal, and she tries to stay as close as possible to that idea, but she also knows who she is and that normal isn’t really what she’s looking for. She is unique. And she overthinks everything. Juby traces these thought patterns on their unpredictable and waving paths, which actually start to make sense and become more rational than what Alice holds up as “normal.” For example, she goes out for coffee with a guy named Aubrey and she thinks,

Anyhow, I think Aubrey might be a sociopath. I mean, he is very confident for a seventeen-year-old. He wants to be a “low-fi musician,” which I think means that you don’t have to know how to play your instrument that well or be a very good singer. He said he “revels in misanthropy, but in a wholesome way.” I couldn’t help thinking about Ted Bundy. I guess that not all sociopaths are serial killers. I read somewhere that sociopathism can be very good in certain kinds of careers. And Aubrey isn’t necessarily a sociopath – I just sort of wonder why he would want to have coffee with me.

The entire time she’s on the date, and even afterwards, she’s trying to figure out just what, exactly, she’s doing. She thinks, “For a while I thought I was going to throw up. Was this a date? Was I dating? Have I headed out into the sexual marketplace? I have nothing to sell…I think I love Aubrey. I know I love my hair. I may even be a girl. The rituals of humans are very odd.”

The three books about Alice MacLeod fit into the “humor for young adults” category, and a lot of them are usually by British authors (all of the Molesworth books, and St. Trinian’s, and Adrian Mole, the ones that are around 1950s category of humor for adolescents, and then Louise Rennison and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary). And having this category sort of sink into Canada is so great, because sure, it’s always easy to read characters into other, more familiar places, but it’s kind of awesome whenever there’s a book set in Smithers, BC, so you can go, “Oh yeah, I know that town.” A few years ago The Comedy Network turned Alice, I Think into a TV show and it still runs in Canada sometimes. And if anything, the ending of the book, Alice, I Think, is reason enough for reading this series.*

* And Getting the Girl. Protagonist Sherman Mack is just as nuanced as Alice MacLeod, and just as funny. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

At the beginning of each semester, sometimes I poach books from classes that I’m not in. I KNOW. It is not a good thing, especially because then you end up in one of those poached book classes and find out you’re in trouble for the first assignment because it is impossible to get a copy of whatever you need to do it because some stranger from another class has bought the copy you were supposed to buy. But I poach books all. The. Time. Mostly because I am thinking, “Why am I not in this class where they are reading REALLY GOOD BOOKS and I am stuck with reading Jane Eyre for the third time, and oh hey, I have to buy TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS of Wuthering Heights for two different classes in one semester. And over here some class is reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman.”

Stardust is one of those crossover books, shelved in Fiction and YA alternatively, sometimes with different covers marketed to their specific audiences. I think it was nominated for an Alex Award through YALSA, those awards that are for books that are typically written for adults, but that teens love to read. And I am going to go full disclosure, but there is not one book written by Neil Gaiman that I don’t own. Okay, maybe not his Duran Duran biography. But novels, picture books, short story collections, graphic novels, and collaborations? Ahem. They are part of the reason that I have so many bookshelves. I first picked up Stardust at a university bookstore about five years ago, because some lucky class was reading it for Intro to Prose Fiction.

I just re-read Stardust, and it’s such a funny feeling to read a book again after the movie adaptation has been out for a few years. The movie version of Stardust (from 2007) is really great, directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Jonathan Ross’ wife!); it’s sort of an updated Princess Bride, where it’s quirky, meta, fantastical, funny, and heartbreaking. The book carries those same characteristics, but Gaiman’s writing is always so distinct and reading the novel is like walking through a series of beaded curtains, where pieces of characters and setting and story get stuck and hang back, dragging along behind you through the next one.

But the novelization of Stardust still came after the graphic novel that Gaiman first published with illustrations by Charles Vess (which means that it’s not just Fiction and YA that it gets shelved in, but also Graphic Novels at the bookstore), and I think that it’s my favorite version, out of the three: graphic novel, novelization, movie.  Vess’ illustrations really push it into the fairy tale genre, and the long prose paired with images takes it out of simple categorizations of shelving, making this a truly border-crossing story.

Stardust is about many characters in many places, but the character who ties it all together is Tristan Thorne, who promises a girl from his village, Victoria Forester, that he will cross the Wall that divides the town from the Faerie realms to retrieve a fallen star. Tristan doesn’t realize that he is not exactly of a straightforward birthright, since his father’s visit to the Faerie Market years before resulted in Tristan being left as a baby in a basket at his father’s doorstep. Now that he takes off across the Wall, his connections to that place become more real and his heritage apparent. Yvaine, the fallen star, is worth reading the story for – and Gaiman’s rendition of a fallen star as a beautiful young woman – and I think her introduction in the graphic novel and the novelization of Stardust is my favorite way to meet her.

Meanwhile, there are other storylines taking place in the background, forming the present action and altering Tristan’s course. One of my favorite storylines is that of the sons of the eighty-first Lord of Stormhold in Faerie, who is about to die and has the problem of passing his crown to one of his remaining sons (by this point, it seems, there should only be one son remaining, having edged out the rest of the competition). Brothers Secundus, Quintus, Quartus and Sextus are already dead, and their shades stand as “unmoving, grey figures, insubstantial and silent,” waiting in limbo for the next Lord of Stormhold to come into power. This passage comes from the graphic novel, and I really love Gaiman’s writing and imagination and invention, especially when it appears so straightforward, but underlain with so much other invented history and past, already woven together in his own head, so that something complex and fantastical can appear on the page for the reader:

Three of his sons remained alive: Primus, Tertius and Septimus. They stood, solidly, uncomfortable, on the left of the chamber, shifting from foot to foot, scratching their cheeks and noses, as if they were shamed by the silent repose of their dead brothers. They did not glance across the room towards their dead brothers, acting, as best they could, as if they and their father were the only ones in that cold room, where the windows were huge holes in the granite and the cold winds blew through them. Whether this is because they could not see their dead brothers, or because, having murdered them (one apiece, but Septimus had killed both Quintus and Sextus, poisoning the former with a dish of spiced eels while, rejecting artifice for efficiency and gravity, simply pushing Sextus off a precipice one night, as they were admiring a lightning-storm far below them), they chose to ignore them, scared of guilt, or revelation, or ghosts, their father did not know.

Oh, does Neil Gaiman not get enough love around here? I’ll make sure to put up a review of The Graveyard Book soon, because that is one of his books that really shouldn’t be missed. But Stardust, for it’s incredible range of interpretation of an original fairy tale story, is a great place to start with, and you can really jump into any of the three mediums, depending just exactly what you're in the mood for. And believe me, by the end of whichever one you choose, it'll be hard to resist picking up the other versions, just to see the intricacies of interpretation and adaptation.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin van Draanen

The best thing about series is that they span A LOT of years. I mean, stand-alone books can cross a lot of time from beginning to end. Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of a Whole, a book narrated (for the most part) by the son of “the most hated man in Australia” and the nephew of “the most loved man in Australia” takes the protagonist through childhood and adulthood, even flashing back to position him before he is born. One Hundred Years of Solitude covers seven generations of a family and something like The Time Traveler’s Wife takes a nuanced look at timelines by shooting back and forth through time to show an out of order life of husband and wife Henry and Clare. It’s satisfying to follow characters throughout an entire life (you know, to see how it’s done) in books, but there is something about reading series that breaks up that long, generational life into smaller, more manageable pieces. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are notorious for this, especially since when you read all thirty-eight or thirty-nine or forty of them in order, you don’t just see their characters gradually changing and growing older, you also see the fantastical/sci-fi world improving on technology and science, developing culture, and watching how storylines in previous books become historical events later in the series.

I have been reading Wendelin van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series since 1998 when I was in grade five, and Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack is already on my little Amazon pre-order for its July release, the fifteenth book in the series. In the first book, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, Sammy is (and, no joke, I just opened my copy of this book to check Sammy’s age and I found a little note that says, “To Amy – so glad you like Sammy Keyes. Keep on reading! Wendelin van Draanen” and I am REALLY struggling to remember WHEN THAT HAPPENED) in seventh grade at William Rose Junior High School – she’s just started and the transition from elementary school to junior high is a focus of this first book. She lives with her Grams in a Senior Highrise apartment that she sneaks in and out of, because she is definitely too young to live there. The reason for the secrecy is that Sammy’s mom, who she calls Lady Lana, went to be an actress in Hollywood and left Sammy (and her cat Dorito) behind.

Each Sammy Keyes book starts out with a mystery, and the mystery in the Hotel Thief is pretty self-explanatory:

Grams told me my binoculars were going to get me into trouble. I just didn’t believe her. See, Grams worries. All the time. About the way I dress and the food I eat, about me getting home on time, and especially about nosy Mrs. Graybill seeing me come and go. It’s not like a try to upset her – I try real hard not to – it’s just that somehow Grams winds up worrying and I usually get blamed for it.

So when she’d see me looking out the window with my binoculars and say, “Samantha Keyes, you mark my words, those things are going to get you in a big heap of trouble someday,” I’d just say, “Mmm,” and keep right on looking. I figured it was just Grams doing some more worrying about nothing.

That is, until I saw a man stealing money from a hotel room across the street  - and he saw me.

The mystery at the heart of a Sammy Keyes book is always a good one, but over the years of reading these books, the characters that are a part of and surrounding the mystery make me keep coming back year after year. Sammy is one of my favorite young protagonists. She’s straightforward and down to earth, and her sense of humor gets a couple of snort laughs per book. She grows and matures throughout the series from a seventh grader thinking, “Now maybe I’m kind of skinny and maybe I don’t wear makeup or get all decked out to go to school, but there’s no way I look like I’m in the fourth grade,” to her first kiss a handful of books later with her archenemy’s brother Casey. She still lives with her Grams as the series continues, but her elusive mother makes a couple of appearances and Sammy learns more about herself and her family, and (hopefully eventually!) the identity of her father.

But then there are all of the characters along for the ride with Sammy. There’s her best friend Marissa, her friends Dot and Holly, the horrible Heather Acosta, her Grams, an older man who lives down the street named Hudson, and Officer Borsch, and there is a lot of Sammy growing on him and him growing on Sammy throughout the books (like Sammy says, “Now I don’t mind policemen. Actually, when I was in the fourth grade I wanted to be one, but that was before Lady Lana left me with Grams and I had to start worrying about someone finding out. When you’re living where you’re not supposed to be living, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you should stay away from people who ask nosy questions, and believe me, policemen like to ask lots of nosy questions”). And it all takes place in the fictional California town of Santa Martina, a backdrop that carves out a place for Sammy to ride on her skateboard, passing the familiar landmarks that are present in every book.

Van Draanen has said before that she has plans for a few more Sammy Keyes novels, and I’ll be reading them until the end of the series. Sammy Keyes is brave, smart, funny, and the fact that she makes mistakes, is flawed, and learning about who she is and where she fits in, makes her such a likeable protagonist. You can start just about anywhere in the series if you just want a great, well-written mystery series, but if you want to watch Sammy grow up and grow up with Sammy, reading them in order lets you right in to her world and keeps you there for a while.

And, just for the record, my favorite so far has been Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary. It’s a really great one, and if you’ve read it, then you totally know why.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fables: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham

I promise I’m going to take a break on the Fables reviews after this one and head back into some really great YA lit. But, until then, one more!

While Legends in Exile and Animal Farm focused on more self-contained stories, that had a concrete beginning, middle, and end, Fables: Storybook Love complicates this structure by taking a few of the loose threads from the previous volumes and begins to weave them through several narratives. By this point the exposition and introduction is nicely sitting up at the front. Any new characters that are introduced now fit into an already established world with particular rules, and characters who have been around since the beginning grow more and more layered with every issue. Instead of an event mediating the stories in the book, “love” becomes the organizing concept in Storybook Love, the permutations and combinations of which appear here.

But, the really great thing about the established universe of Fables, is that Willingham can step away from the present action of the story in order to move backwards in time, where his characters have quite impressive histories of their own. Because of that, Storybook Love starts out by rocketing back to the Civil War, where Jack’s penchant for schemes that put him on the losing end of things continues when he shows up with a put-on Southern drawl. Jack is this character who is so widespread, that the stories that follow him around cover a lot of ground. I’ve been trying to remember where I have this sort of pre-conceived idea of the Jack stories, since Jack Ketch showed up a couple of issues ago, and then I remembered that when you are trying to remember where you know a piece of mythology or folklore or literary trope from, just go back to Neil Gaiman. In Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (a throwback to The Jungle Book, except, here, the protagonist Bod is raised by the ghosts of a graveyard), there are a slew of Jacks who make an appearance under the name of the Jacks of All Trade, including Jack Frost, who is nothing like his Christmas self. But this Jack is just the ex-boyfriend of Rose Red, who, during the Civil War, managed to capture death in the Devil’s magical bag, one that resembles the one that Hermione uses in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (its ever expanding and can contain a whole lot of stuff – Jack has some sundry items, a pig, and also the scythe-carrying Death trapped inside it at one point).

The ending story of this volume likewise takes its characters back to a time before present day Fabletown, framed by Bigby telling Flycatcher (who is the Frog Prince in human form) a story about the Lilliputians who now live in Smalltown. The frame story is an excellent way to bring up this past history, and it talks a bit more about the Adversary (who we still don’t know too much about yet). It’s used as an origin story to explain why a group of Lilliputains from Smalltown makes the trek into Fabletown every year to attempt to steal a few barleycorns from an old jar.

BUT: between Jack and the Lilliputians takes us back to Fabletown and Bigby and Snow, who still unknowingly are going to have to deal with the repercussions from disabling the revolutionary movement at Animal Farm.

For example, Bigby takes on a journalist who has dug up a whole lot of facts about the Fables over the years. He claims that he has a story that could bring them down, but, in a slightly different way than Bigby is expecting. Journalist Tommy Sharpe figures that the Fables are actually vampires, and he’s out to expose them. Diffusing the situation is Prince Charming, Bigby, Little Boy Blue, and Bluebeard – Rose Red is still up at the Farm taking over from Weyland Smith, and Rose is still recovering in the hospital from being shot by Goldilocks.* It’s a discursive group set to the task, and the relationships between them are heightened by all of the past that is behind them. It’s sort of a heist narrative in miniature, and it has one of those endings where a character makes a choice that is definitely coming back to haunt them later (MAYBE?). Briar Rose is also along for the ride, pricking her own finger as a diversion (and this is a great chance to look at Prince Charming, who used to be married to Briar Rose [as well as Snow]; it’s their familiarity that allows Briar Rose to invite him to live with her again – the love between them is gone, but there’s a recognition of the way things used to be that remains).

Next, Goldilocks is discovered hiding with Bluebeard, and she’s still pretty upset over how things ended in Animal Farm. They’re definitely sleeping together, and their love is a sort of mutual respect for revenge – they’re using each other to get just exactly what they both want. She’s teamed up with Bluebeard, agreeing to kill Bigby to cover some of Bluebeard’s untreated revenge. Using some really old and expensive magic, they maneuver Bigby and the still recovering Snow on a camping trip to Washington where they will be out of the way and easy to kill. Snow’s still using crutches to get around, and while she’s close to being back to normal, she’s not there yet. When they come to in Washington, realizing that they’ve been there for a while sleeping in the same tent (OH AND HERE IS ANOTHER HUGE CHOICE THAT WILL AFFECT THEM LATER), they piece together the fact that Goldilocks is there with them, hunting them down. And Bigby gets to retreat to his animal form with some pretty great lines like, “It’s time for a bit of the old huff and puff.” By the end of this issue Goldilocks is well and truly dead** and Bluebeard appears to be as well (at the hands of Prince Charming, who says he’s doing it for Snow, showing the way that all of this old love and the coming apart that came after still remains for all of them).

Also, Snow and Bigby are killing me with their story. It’s so good.

* One of my favorite directions that the story is taking is the idea that Fables have a rough time dying. But, this is based on how much ordinary people believe in them and their stories. That means that some Fables can die easily, but others, whose stories are well known, have a lot more trouble slipping away.
** Although Snow says, “She’s a popular fable with the mundys. They won’t let her die easily.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is a novel that was recommended to me recently, based mostly on the keywords “Jaclyn Moriarty,” “YA lit,” and “Australia.” There is something about Australian YA lit that is just so bang on – well-written, relatable, excellent dialogue, amazing story – that I search it out sometimes, especially in the summer. From Garth Nix to Jaclyn Moriarty to Markus Zusak and now Craig Silvey – there are some unbelievable authors from Australia writing for YA/adolescent readers. Jasper Jones is also a Prinz Honor Book, and there is no going wrong EVER with one of those. Anyway, it was recommended to me, and now I’m recommending it as well, all chain-letter-style, paying-it-forward, passing-it-on.

It’s hard to talk about Jasper Jones without giving away the secret at the heart of the novel, something introduced within the first few pages, but worth keeping quiet about in a review because those first few pages are some of the most powerful in the novel. The synopsis on the back of the book talks about this secret that “sits like a brick in Charlie’s belly,” and it will sit like that with the reader, too, hard and sharp and heavy.

Charlie is the main character here, and the novel starts with the line, “Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.” Jasper Jones is not really someone who asks for help – he’s Charlie’s age, just in his teens, but he already mostly lives on his own, away from home and his drunk and absent father, staying mostly in a hollow in the bush outside of the small town of Corrigan. When he comes to Charlie’s window, Charlie pulls back the glass panes of the window and follows him without asking questions.

Jasper Jones is interested in the idea of human nature, and what it is that makes individuals do horrific and violent things to one another. Charlie wants to know the “why” and “how,” and his summer circles around the basic questions of what leads a person to get to the point where it is possible for him/her to hurt another person. When Charlie comes across an account of a man who went to jail for murder, his mind cycles around the answer the man gave – “I just wanted to hurt someone” – and whether something as simple as that is possible, or if it only hides other layers of explanation, cause and effect. It’s a lot of what Markus Zusak was looking at in The Messenger – how can people watch the horrific things that happen around them without doing anything about it?

There are issues here at play that underlie the secret Charlie carries. His best friend Jeffrey Lu is from Vietnam, and the story is set smack-dab in the middle of the Vietnam War, where a small Australian town flares with the all-too recent conscription notices alongside official letters informing Corrigan residents of the death of their young men abroad. Their anger focuses on the Yu family, Jeffrey and his parents all at the receiving end of racism in the community. And then there is the dropped reference to Jasper’s own half-Aboriginal heritage, a brief mention of which adds a layer to the way that he is treated by the town of Corrigan, who respond to him with suspicion and violence, the sergeant taking him in and beating him up all over, cigarette burns and black eyes that Charlie sees a few days after it happens. When Charlie looks at Jasper and understands that he will always be the first suspected in any event, he thinks, “And it happens like that. Like when you first realize that there is no such thing as magic. Or that nothing actually answers your prayers, or really even listens. That cold moment of dismay where your feet are kicked from under you, where you’re disarmed by a shard of knowing. He’s right. Jasper Jones is right. He’s really in trouble.” But Charlie can learn a lot from Jasper Jones, how to be hard in an uncaring world, as he says, “You don’t have to lie, Charlie. You just have to look like you don’t give a shit.”

There are meditations on religion in this novel that are complex and nuanced, as Charlie’s secret comes together with the way Jasper Jones is treated in Corrigan alongside the Vietnam War and his best friend Jeffrey. Jesus is “Cheeses” in this book, but the humor is coupled with long conversations about life and death, especially when Jasper talks to Charlie about how many billions of people have lived on Earth already, and he notes, “…they’re fools to be thinkin that some big bearded bastard gives two shits how much money they throw in a tin tray or if they eat fish of a Friday. It’s all rubbish.” When Charlie tries to counter that people have to “cast a line out to outer space, like there’s something out there to connect to,” Jasper asks him if he really means that; Charlie responds, “Me? No. Course not. I’m a speck of dust like you.”

Charlie’s comprehension and interpretation of the literary novels that his father gives him to read – The Sound and the Fury, Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird – are both funny and intricate. The rampant references to smoking and drinking in the novels he reads come up against his experience with smoking and his first drink of whiskey with Jasper Jones:

This shit is poison. And I realize I’ve been betrayed by the two vices that fiction promised me I’d adore. Sal Paradise held up bottles of booze like a housewife in a detergent commercial. Holden Caulfield reached for his cigarettes like an act of faith. Even Huckleberry Finn tapped on his pipe with relief and satisfaction. I can’t trust anything. If sex turns out to be this bad, I’m never reading again. At this rate, it will probably burn my dick and I’ll end up with lesions.

Charlie and Jeffrey also have involved conversations about superheroes, where they figure, “The thing about Spiderman is that he is completely useless outside of New York City…He’s nothing. And he’s sticking out like a dog’s bollocks. Suddenly he’s just a weird-looking guy with snot shooting out of his wrists.” A contemplation on humanity is buffeted by issues from religion and crime to superheroes and day-to-day life, all on the background of a summer in 1970s Australia, where Charlie is figuring out his place and reason for belonging. And then there’s also love. Where Charlie notes, “Eliza’s manner has always intrigued me. She seems troubled, yet infinitely untroubled. Sometimes at school her heart beats too fast and she has to sit down. She goes quiet and pale and tells everybody she’s fine, even though she’s breathless and sweaty. And I just want to hold her hand and slow her pulse and calm her down.”

This is YA lit at its best and most challenging, its most relatable and alien. Charlie, an aspiring writer of his own, passes on Silvey’s narrative with an ease and grace that make every single word worth reading. As Charlie reflects near the end of the novel,

But it’s nice to know that you had enough weight to hold it down, to keep it grounded so you could admire it for a time. Like something precious that you can pull out and look at. A piece of jewelry. A poem, a song. And you want to tie it to something permanent, put it in a cage at night. Have it for keeps, despite its nature. Like people who put rings on their fingers just so neither of them can leave. But of course you can’t do that. Holding something back doesn’t make it yours. You realize at some point you’re just keeping it back for yourself, because it’s pulling away with equal force. You’ve got to cut the string from your finger and leave that wispy thread, like a baby spider on the breeze. 

It’s a book that you can’t tie down even if you want to, one that allows you to just enjoy the small moments crowded into a book like Jasper Jones

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fables: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham

Thank you, Fables, for taking my money and my life for the past few days.

Reading these comics is like catapulting back to old, familiar, recognizable stories and then watching them orgami themselves in something all creased and folded and layered. Not that The Jungle Book was all benign and happy, but Shere Khan gets his makeover as a Big Bad in modern times in Animal Farm and Goldilocks is not all “Oh, my mistake, sorry Bears” here. She’s kind of a revolutionary warrior.

Like Legends in Exile, Animal Farm sets up a situation that reveals the desires, fears, history, and present of several key players in the fables universe. Legends in Exile did this by using a traditional mystery story; Animal Farm skews a few choice canonical texts, borrowing their structures and tropes and twisting them to their own devices.

Animal Farm begins with Snow White dragging her sister Rose Red out of the city to upstate New York, where a farm exists for all of the fables creatures that are too animal to pass as human in New York City. They’re bringing back Colin, the pig who made a few choice appearances in Legends of Exile, hanging out with Bigby even though he’s Bigby Wolf, the wolf who blew down the three little pigs’ (which includes Colin) house. Snow White is also doubling up on the journey by making it a chance for reconciliation with her sister after Rose Red pretended to kill herself in Legends in Exile. She’d attempting to give them another chance at the sister relationship that used to be a lot more rosy and happy than it is now.

But when they arrive at the farm – “sort of like Old MacDonald meets Walt Disney meets Munchkinland” – things are not the way that Snow White left them. Weyland Smith, the man who runs the farm (opposite to Snow White, who runs the city) has disappeared, and the three little pigs seem to have three different answers to explain where he has gone. And with Weyland Smith,* Willingham starts making Fables reach back to its folkloric roots, testing out reader connections across stories and texts. Weyland Smith was the first real thread in this story that reminded me of Sandman, with all of the hidden references to stories and mythologies that enter into the narrative brief as a wink. There are others that come just as fast and furiously: Jack Ketch, an executioner (and Sandman has a great story about Jack Ketch, if I’m remembering right!), and the gees, an enchantment placed on Weyland Smith (and, if you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, you’ll know that this comes up a lot with the Nac Mac Feegle). But these references are not the only ones that hold the story together, as it delves into literary reference and structure in this volume. Fables does rest on the structure of other stories, but Willingham goes back to more recent and contemporary canonical novels to create a sort of geometric shape to fit these stories and others into.

The Farm quickly mirrors George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the most overt reference in this story. Snow White and Rose Red walk into a barn where the pigs are leading the other animals in a meeting about overthrowing Fabletown in order to break out of the prison that is the farm they’ve been exiled to. When one of the three little pigs, Colin, is found in the morning, decapitated and with his head on a stick,** the Farm quickly becomes the devolving, destructive island of Lord of the Flies, where individuals rise and fall to the circumstances of revolution, order, and governance. Rose Red defers to the revolutionaries, while Snow White is left to find a way out on her own, with the help of the fox Reynard (I really get so excited by the different characters that pop up, but this was one of my favorites!).

It’s not that Snow White and Rose Red weren’t strong characters in Legends in Exile (although, Rose Red was mostly absent), but they are growing into fully fleshed out, dynamic, interesting, smart female characters. Both are developing story arcs and histories, strength and vulnerabilities, and I’m really excited about where this series is going to take them both. They’re rounded out by Bigby, who has so much depth of his own, Snow White’s ex-husband Prince Charming, Bluebeard, and the Little Boy Blue. Willingham has taken the stock characters of fairy tales and fables and made them into flawed, accessible, and overwhelmingly human characters.

I picked up Fables: Storybook Love today…so look for that next!

* A smith in Norse mythology – I think references to Norse mythology are by far my favorite to find in books and comic books.
** Lord of the Flies is all over the place here, especially with the whole pig’s-head-on-a-stick.