March 11, 2014

TURNING PAGES: Grim, An Anthology edited by Christine Johnson

Oh, happy day! It's anthology time! This one from Harlequin Teen just last month, and the list of authors is shiny, award-winning, and long: Ellen Hopkins, Amanda Hocking, Julie Kagawa, Claudia Gray, Rachel Hawkins, Kimberly Derting, Myra McEntire, Malinda Lo, Sarah Rees-Brennan, Jackson Pearce, Christine Johnson, Jeri Smith Ready, Shaun David Hutchinson, Saundra Mitchell, Sonia Gensler, Tessa Gratton, and Jon Skrovan. Based on the classic fairy tales from the bros Grimm, these are re-imagined and in most ways, reinvigorated with new life. Some you'll have seen before -- if you were a Merry Sisters of Fate fan, you'll have seen an earlier incarnation of Tessa Gratton's story BEAST/BEAST, and a few stories are merely retellings, but for the most part, this is a strong collection that will make you want to go back to your old fairy tales and see those familiar stories with fresh eyes. The cover isn't anything to get excited about, but it does the job - brings to mind both a family tree, and a family crest - and gives the cover a "you already know these guys" familiarity vibe.

There's no really good way to do a review of the anthology as a whole - so, here's just a little story-talk highlighting my favorites:

We're INUNDATED with fairytale retellings - Malinda Lo's take on Cinderella, Jackson Pearce's twist on Little Red's wolves. Some of the least popular and most avoided tales are the ones which sparked my interest. I have a particular and appalling interest just now in Bluebeard, so I was thrilled - in a horrified fashion, like watching an accident - to read Saundra Mitchell's "Thinner Than Water," based on the Grimm story of Donkeyskin. This one is a DOOZY. There is the death of a mother, the asphyxiation of innocence, a delusional, crazy father, and a complicit counselor - and the sinister rejection of almost an entire kingdom. Almost. And then, the death of a horse, instead of a donkey, which just put the perfectly awful mafia shine on the whole thing. I haven't yet read any of Mitchell's VESPERTINE novels, but seeing this writing - bold-faced, inevitable horror, but with a razor-honed conclusion - not so inevitable, but deeply, chillingly satisfying - I want to.

Two phrases stick with me from this story, "You are not alone," and "There are worse things than death..." Indeed. But, even when your soul's been battered, there's nothing worth giving away your life for - so stand up, pick up your horse head, and take what belongs to you - in this case, revenge, and a kingdom. Long live the flippin' Queen.

Rachel Hawkins' "The Key" is a spooky little tidbit -- and could have been enlarged into a longer story. It is based, I believe, on the story of Bluebeard -- because in that tale, he gives all of his wives the key to his secret, and they none of them can stop themselves from using it -- and finding out everything they didn't want to know. I sometimes find myself dying to know What Happened Next when I read short stories -- and in a way, that's the nicest kind of wistfulness. In this case, the heroine's Mom is psychic - so we kinda know what happens, even if we don't know details. I can only hope this character reappears somewhere in Rachel's work -- and figures out how to handle her own psychic gifts. I like that she questions the shame she's feeling, and knows that shame hasn't any place in relationships which are supposed to be built on love.

"The Brothers Piggett" by Julie Kagawa is a funny one -- "The Three Little Pigs," re-imagined in a totally new way -- what if the pigs were all boys? And the wolf was a girl? As Sara Lewis Holmes will tell you, pigs are vicious - and they'll do anything for their fellow pigs. I want her to read this one very much.

"Sharper Than A Serpent's Tongue," by Christine Johnson was also a favorite - and the title spins off of the proverb, "Sharper than a serpent's tooth is a thankless child." In this story, there are two girls, one who is Upstanding And Good and the town favorite, well-placed to be smart enough to rise above her mother's drunkenness and poverty, and Dina, the Other Daughter who is a smart-mouthed artist who people agree is No Better Than She Should Be. The first daughter chooses to keep a secret that she should scream to the world -- and in return for her secret, is given something that ties her even more tightly to the worst things in her life. A really unusual - and disturbing - take on the Grimm tale, "Diamonds and Toads."

"The Twelfth Girl" by Malinda Lo was a tough read. I'm not a huge fan of the rich-boarding school-we-all-wanted-to-be-part-of-their-clique tale, because honestly? I would AVOIDAVOIDAVOID those people like they'd been sprayed with ebola and dog poop. However, the tough heroine in this novel doesn't PUT up with people telling her what to do. She's first told by a palmist to avoid these girls? Nope - she seeks them out. Then the girls finally take her in as one of the twelve who live in their swank dorm, and warn her not to ask questions, and to do what she's told -- nope. When she breaks the curse that binds them, she finds that -- nope. Nobody's grateful to her, either. This one is a disturbing little commentary on the teaspoon shallow pool of wealth and fame and partying.

Jeri Smith-Ready's "Figment" is a poignant sideways retelling of "Puss and Boots" which itself was a story intended to remind listeners of the importance of being grateful for the "little people" and the luck which got you where you ended up. It took me awhile to figure out which story this came from, because Puss - especially after the Shrek films - took on the same status as Puck, practically -- you expect scheming and tricks, but there weren't any. Not sure if I agree with the personality change, but this is a compelling story nonetheless.

Do we not always love Sarah Rees Brennan? YES, WE ALWAYS DO. Do we want to stand near her and bask in her greatness? WHY, YES, WE DO. Even though she made us snort-take with this story, "Beauty and The Chad."

I mentioned Tessa Gratton's Beast/Beast story -- where two creatures determined that they could live together, regardless of their beastliness, regardless of the height of the wall enclosing them, regardless of scars, uneven gaits, and ugliness. That's a better love story than most get, and as much of Gratton's work is, it is eerie and poignant and meaningful and beautiful. Meanwhile, Sarah's retelling is all those high and upstanding things, but also completely ridiculous -- and comes with added BroSpeak(TM). Here, the Beast has a name - Chad. And, Dude, it's hurtful not to use it. And, Chad feels like the witch overreacted, this whole Beast issue is his to solve, and he'd really rather the candlestick not do games or tricks with their fellow candlesticks -- he'd be much happier to be the castle's Guest if everything would stop moving around in such a creepy fashion.

Meanwhile, Beauty isn't really beautiful - and The Chad calls her Dude. This story contains heroism, but of the self-righteous kind, lectures, freakishly animate soup tureens, and a healthy dose of Not Taking Itself Seriously. Thank you, Sarah. Again.

Claudia Gray's "A Real Boy" is so Asimov it made me happy. It's Asimov with Mature Content, though. And ol' Isaac would have been pissed, as he wasn't a huge fan of women writing SFF anyway. Nevertheless, even though The Three Laws aren't quoted, this is AI up my alley, and I could see this being made into a whole book, which made me really happy, as I haven't read much Claudia Gray before now. Another author to discover!

There were only a few stories in this collection which I didn't finish at all, and there are more great tales unmentioned - Jackson Pearce's "Sell Out" is a bit sobering, but also intriguing. While everyone's taste in short fiction differs, for me, this book has enough good in it that I think it's one you'll want to pick up. A great tuck-in-the-bag book for waits between doctor visits and gym team try-outs, this book is like a little portal to a very odd world, and will keep you well entertained.

FTC: This book courtesy of Harlequin Teen, no money exchanged hands, nor were any bribes made for a review.

You can find GRIM: An Anthology edited by Christine Johnson online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

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