Book/Author and Year Published: Happily Ever After edited by John Klima (2011)

Reviewer: Jeriann and  Bethany

Age/Genre: Fairy Tale Collection

Preferred Reading Environment: Next to a waterfall or somewhere you feel connected to nature

Reading Accoutrements: Apples! (Not poisoned)

Content Notes: Child Abuse, Child Neglect, Prostitution, Murder, Death, Adultry, Torture, Alzheimers, Drug Use, Stillbirth

As we looked at our calendar for the month of October, we realized that we were short a post. Because the two of us had an equal number of posts for this month, we decided to do another co-review. Then the challenge became: What would we review?

Bethany: The answer came to me in an email from Amazon Kindle: a collection of fairy tale retellings was on sale!!! And many of the authors included in this collection were favorites of ours. I immediately told Jeriann.

Jeriann: Seeing names like Neil Gaiman, Patricia Briggs, and Garth Nix was all I really needed to agree to buy the collection. We figured that fairy tales were a pretty good fit for Halloween, what with magical creatures of all sorts and occasionally dark settings. 

As usual, we’ll spotlight just a couple of the stories from this collection and then we’ll give our thoughts on the collection as a whole.

Of course we were both excited for Patricia Briggs’s contribution, and we were not disappointed. “The Price” is a Rumplestiltskin retelling. This one is set in the same European feudal society as the story is usually set in, but it gives character motivations where the original was lacking.

Bethany: I LOVED THIS RETELLING THE MOST!

Jeriann: Yeah, I read this one before Bethany, and I told her she had to read it immediately. I honestly feel like this is the best version of Rumplestiltskin I’ve ever read. The characters aren’t assholes, and I felt like the original moral is actually more potent. It tells you not to be a dick by showing people being decent, instead of showing people screw each other over. I also liked how it portrayed people abusing power, and solidarity among the oppressed. 

“My Life as a Bird” by Charles de Lint isn’t so much a fairy tale retelling as a modern fairy tale. De Lint is an author of urban fantasy and mythic fiction, so it’s no surprise that this excerpt from a previously published work takes place in a modern-day fictional town. It follows Mona, a comic book artist/author living in a town called Newford. In this town, fairies exist, although they rarely make that fact known to the humans they interact with (if they can help it).

Bethany: I enjoyed the moral of this story. Probably because it’s a pretty common lesson in fairy tales, and this one made the message relevant to today.

Jeriann: I loved the characters in this piece. They’re 20-something artists just trying to figure their shit out, which I found extremely relatable.

“Chasing America”  by Josh Rountree follows Paul Bunyan escaping “the Jacks” who have persecuted him in Europe. Yes, not all men named Jack are giant hunters, but all giant hunters are named Jack. The story takes place in six parts set over the span of about 200 years. Paul witnesses the growth and corruption of “The American Dream” while constantly on the run from his pursuers.  

Jeriann: I love the idea that Paul Bunyan was a fairy tale giant who became a part of American folklore. Since Paul is immortal, he lives long enough to have an informed perspective on how change has made things both better and worse.

Bethany: Paul is such a relatable character, which can be hard to find in fairy tales because: 1.) It is usually difficult to relate to people from such a disparate time, when the struggles were so different from our own, and 2.) Fairy tales are very short and, as such, the characters tend to have over exaggerated personality traits that make them difficult to relate to. But Rountree’s Paul is just an average giant trying to get through life in the best way he knows how. Sometimes he has bad days and sometimes he has good days; some days his whole perspective is turned on its head because of a random stranger in a train car. It was like I was reading about my own life…

Jeriann: Been doing much train-hopping recently, Bethany?

Bethany: Okay, okay…so the train hopping thing wasn’t relevant to my life per se. But I still really connected to Paul’s character. 😛

“The Night Market,” by Holly Black, is a retelling of a Philippino fairy tale. When we first see Tomasa, she is walking down the road, intent on her task: to leave offerings for the elf who lives in a tamarind tree and who cursed her sister with a mysterious illness. Interacting with fairies always has unintended consequences, however.

Bethany: I thought the message of this story was very powerful, if a little cheesy. To be perfectly honest, I wish I knew the original tale when I read this, because I think knowing what was changed in the story might change my perspective.

Jeriann: I thought this story painted an intriguing picture, but found the end result a bit underwhelming. 

“Pinocchio’s Diary” by Robert J. Howe, surprisingly removes the fairy from the story. Though there is no blue fairy, or explained magic, it’s still as much of a fairy tale as ever, though the lesson seems to be geared more toward adults than children. Gepetto creates Tiberio out of wood, but it is unexplained what gives him consciousness, or why his nose grows when he lies. Since he is alive, he must go to school, where the other students torment him and nickname him Pinnocchio as an insult. Instead of comforting him, Gepetto focuses on how Pinocchio falls short in his eyes. He blames the boy for being bullied, and gets defensive every time he’s reminded of their poverty. Tiberio eventually must seek help from other adults to address wrongdoings against himself and other boys in the town. 

Jeriann: I thought this story did a great job of showing how adults both intentionally and unintentionally wield power over children irresponsibly. There are both kind and cruel adults, and the system is shown to be capable of both justice and perpetuating injustice. At one point, Tiberio has the realization that adults can be kind and wise, but still wrong, which I found very powerful.

“The Faery Handbag,” by Kelly Link, is another story that isn’t a retelling of a traditional fairy tale. Instead, the narrator (Genevieve) tells us the story of her grandmother’s handbag, which went missing around the same time as her friend Jake did and at the exact same time that her grandmother died. Now Genevieve searches for the handbag in the hopes that she will find her friend along with it.

Bethany: I was fully engaged in this story as I read it, and I really want to know what happens next! I feel like once I know the ending, I might be able to glean a lesson from it. Until then, I’m just dangling on this cliff…waiting for my hand to go numb…waiting to fall to my death…

Jeriann: Sheesh, Bethany, Dramatic much?

These were some of our favorites from this collection, but overall, our impression of the anthology as a whole was.. Less than favorable. 

Jeriann: There were some great stories, some of which we didn’t even get to here, but there were also a lot that didn’t sit very well with me, and a few I outright hated. There was a Red Riding Hood retelling that was basically Lolita, and both the Rapunzel retellings had uncomfortable sexualization that wasn’t completely addressed.

Bethany: The fact that there were a couple of stories in this collection that I hated wouldn’t normally put me off of the whole book, but this one also suffered from poor organization. The first three stories were full of time-period-specific jargon that made them hard to wade through; I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if they had been spaced throughout the book instead of one right after the other. Instead, it was a chore to push my way through those three. Several of the stories in this collection are also very dark in tone, and I don’t think the editor gave a lot of thought to spacing out the positivity among the negatively-charged pieces.

Jeriann: On top of that, this book is LONG. There are a lot of stories here, and since some fall into the straight “retelling” category and others are original stories, it’s easy to imagine that this could have been a more concise and consistent collection. When I saw that the end had original publication information for all but one of the stories, I was not surprised. This definitely reads like a somewhat random selection of work rather than a project that authors carefully crafted pieces for. The editor includes introductions for each author and story, which also seem inconsistent and sometimes even inaccurate. I never got an idea of why the editor chose the works they did, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the introduction to the book was written by someone else. Overall, the lack of cohesion made this kind of a slog at points.

Bethany: I’m really glad that we read this book, despite the lackluster moments. Several of the short stories (especially “The Price”) were great and I am happy to have read them.

Jeriann: “Ailoura” by Paul di Fillippo is a pretty awesome sci-fi version of Puss and Boots that you should definitely check out if you’re into science fiction.

Bethany: My suggestion to anyone who wants to read this collection is to read it together with friends. Take turns reading them to each other and spend time talking about what you love (or ranting about what you hate) for each.

What was the last “mixed bag” short story collection you read? Were the good parts worth the parts you disliked?

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