Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club 
Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for fans of fairy tales, romance
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

Retelling something as familiar as a fairy tale can be a risky proposition. In some cases, magic can come out of the details as an author elaborates on a classic. For instance, I happen to love Robin McKinley’s book Beauty, a take on the old tale “Beauty and the Beast.” On the other hand, when she re-told the story again twenty years later in Rose Daughter, I didn’t care for it at all. So I brought few expectations to my reading of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, a retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” To my delight, I found a creative, emotionally complex story that takes the  original in an empowering direction.

In most versions of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (a German version is titled “The Worn-Out Shoes“), the story focuses on a challenge to discover why a king’s twelve daughters wake up in the morning with holes in their shoes (one version here). The king is baffled and frustrated, and offers a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery–but if not, then off with his head. Many have been died after falling asleep during their watch. Before accepting the challenge, a soldier meets an old woman who gives him a magic cloak and warns him not to drink anything from the princesses. After the soldier pretends to fall asleep, the princesses dress, go through a secret passage to an underground lake, row across and through a forest of metallic trees, and spend the night dancing with princes at a ball. As they return, the invisible soldier breaks off a piece of a tree, first silver, then gold. On the last night, he steals a goblet from the ball as proof. When the king demands an accounting, the soldier provides the proof and is rewarded by marrying one of the princesses.

Clearly, the origin story is a complex bit of fairy tale, with princesses that are complicit in the deception, a father who is outside it but cruel with his consequences, and a ordinary man using magical gifts to catch the princesses in their dishonesty. Girls versus their father, a common man versus princes, and duplicity all around.

Valentine takes these elements and heads into a very interesting direction. Twelve girls are growing up in a wealthy but isolated household in early Prohibition New York. Rarely permitted outside, or even invited to the downstairs levels of the house to visit their mother, they are ruled by their father in an extremely circumscribed life. Jo, the oldest, has met her mother only a handful of times, and the youngest haven’t met her mother at all. It falls to Jo as the oldest to negotiate on behalf of the sisters with her father. Told in third person limited, largely from Jo’s point of view, Jo ponders her nickname “The General,” arising from the unenviable position as enforcer/mitagator of her father, but yet attempting to protect them against his rage. Unfortunately, her efforts are often underappreciated.

A ripple of relief ran through the room. It was too loud, too happy; it was a gloss over an unspoken thrum of mutiny so sharp that Jo felt like someone had snapped a rubber band against her wrist.

Early on, Jo and the second oldest, Lou, would sneak out to the movies where the girls would learn new dances. Natural talents, dancing became a way to escape their limited lives. As each successive sister was delivered upstairs, she was eventually taught to dance by her sisters. In an act of desperation, Jo suggests sneaking out to go dancing–she knows if she doesn’t let the girls blow off steam in some fashion, they might simply run away and be lost forever.  The night out dancing is a success, giving the girls hope, a reason to exist and a source of joy and discussion to fill their days. They danced through their nights, unattainable to the men at the clubs:

The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.

Trouble begins on two fronts when their father decides to actively intrude in their lives. As he schemes to marry the girls off, he gets wind of stories about a bevy of girls dancing at local speakeasies. An ad in the newspaper strikes fear in Jo as soon as she learns of his plans.

The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.

The last section follows the girls as they discover life outside their father’s house. I rather enjoyed that Valentine took her story a step beyond the simple “they escaped and they all lived happily ever after,” and looked at the challenges of making a life, and how different the idea of success could be for each sister. 

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

As in all fairy tales, characters exist largely as archetypes. With twelve sisters, it’s hard to achieve a great deal of individuality with each, but Valentine succeeds with a few, particularly Jo, Lou (the second oldest), and Doris (the sensible one). I thought Jo’s emotional dilemma was well done. The father is perfect; elegant, controlling, and all implied threat.

The setting of New York during Prohibition was nicely done. I’ve read a number of books that were quite enamored of the 1920s, but focused on the setting at the expense of character. Valentine achieves a nice balance between the magic of the clubs and plotting. My chief complaint was a writing style that felt awkward. Additional thoughts and commentary were often given in parenthesis, and the purpose/voice weren’t always clear. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the way Valentine’s tone and word choice was able to capture the emotional magic of a fairy tale but incorporate it into a real-world setting. 

Overall, I’d call it a delightful improvement on the original tale. I’d highly recommend it to fans of fairy-tales, sister bonds, coming of age stories and gentle romance.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria books for providing me an advance ereader copy.  Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.

cross posted at my blog

Before I Fall

Before I Fall
by Lauren Oliver

Reviewed by Sesana
Three out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.Instead, it turns out to be her last.Then she gets a second chance.Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death-and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing. 

My Review:

There were times when I really struggled with this book. The main character, Sam, is awful. Her friends are awful. Her boyfriend is awful. It's so hard to get involved in a book that's populated almost entirely by terrible people. And it took quite some time. I admit that I persisted purely out of stubbornness, and I wouldn't have if the book had been much longer. I also admit that it was, frankly, a relief to be done with this book, because I wouldn't have to deal with Sam Kingston, her awful friends, and her awful boyfriend again.

Here's the thing: Before I Fall is essentially an issue book, and the issue is bullying. But the perspective we get here is from one of the bullies. And the bullies in this book, including Sam, are terrible. Classic Mean Girls stuff. Am I supposed to root for Sam? Feel bad when she dies, over and over again? I don't. I'm not at all sure that I'm supposed to. I feel like Oliver gave me permission to hate her, even to the end of the book. But it isn't entirely about her, not really. It's also about the people she's affected, especially the people she's bullied.

I can get tired of Mean Girls, especially when the Mean Girls are also the popular girls. That just doesn't match my experience in school. The popular girls were popular because (get this!) people liked them. The mean girls had their friends, sure, but they weren't what I would call popular. This is the first book that I've ever read that actually deals with that contradiction between the reality I know and the evil popular girl cliche. Sam and her friends are popular, sure, for a certain definition of popular. People are nice to their faces, sure, and they get invited to parties. But does anybody actually like them? It takes Sam almost an entire week of reliving her last day to realize the answer is, unsurprisingly, no. Very few people actually like them, and that's something Sam needs to recognize and deal with. And you know, I was just so happy that Oliver was acknowledging that people like Sam and their friends wouldn't actually be well-liked, just powerful in a petty sort of way that it helped me get through the book.

That didn't make it easy. I listened on audio during my commute, which might be a good thing. I probably wouldn't have finished if I'd actually read it. Even so, I had to take a day and a half off from listening because I just couldn't take Sam's narration any longer. Not because it was bad, mind you, but because it was too good. It was not fun to be in Sam's head. Maybe, in this case, Oliver did a little too good of a job.