Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Mod fairy tale (page 1 of 3)

An Economic Allegory?

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

ivan repila

At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.

It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?

The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.

‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’


‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.

The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…

This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.

Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel!  Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void?  That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.

This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.

A Graphic Novel Excursion…

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-stephen-collins-cape-01-540x755I read very few graphic novels, but just occasionally one will get my interest – the title of Stephen Collins’s debut book was irresistible. I bought it when it first came out at the end of 2013, but being an A4 sized hardback, it got other books piled upon it, and I only rediscovered it over Christmas!

The Gigantic Beard is drawn in pencil, and each drawing is richly textured. I particularly loved the way that he typically splits a single picture into smaller frames to carry the text through the picture or similarly to advance the action as below as if in stop-motion. A conversation may flow in speech bubbles melding through a single picture split into many parts. It’s a very clever and artistic way of indicating time passing.

gigantic beard 2

Dave is single and bald but for a single hair – he wears a wig to work these days. Dave lives on the island of Here. The other side of the sea is There, and the straight-laced people of Here are scared by it. They are inward-looking folk and Dave’s house next to the beach has no windows looking out there. He spends his evenings looking out of his window onto the road outside, drawing what he saw.

And all his life, Dave had liked to draw his street,
He really
really liked drawing his street.
It was just so neat. So…
Complete. That’s the word.

The quote above, with each line in a separate frame, surrounds Dave drawing at his window.

Then one day at work, Dave, whose job is to present the daily stats, is presented with a seemingly random scatter of data that makes no sense, until the pattern of a hand coming to get him reveals itself and he flees to the loos scared. It’s then that he starts to sprout a beard which won’t take no for an answer. The law in Here says that men must be clean-shaven, and Dave’s new beard which just won’t stop growing must be evil. No-one can understand it and Dave becomes a pariah, hounded by a simultaneously fascinated and scared populace. Did it come from There? What can they do?


There is so much more to this graphic novel than just the pictures which are wonderful – the words are also rather brilliant. The story is written as a sort of prose poem; most of it doesn’t scan, but within the text there are loads of rhymes and other poetic devices.

A story
many times retold
and resold.
and ultimately reclaimed
by the inevitable growing-back
of the skin of things.

I spent ages poring over every picture following the flow, reading the text out aloud in my head to get the cadence of it. It’s also a pleasure to read physically – presented in large format with plenty of white space around the images on good quality paper.

My only regret is, that like most graphic novels they tend to be extended short stories story-wise, and this one was over too quickly! This modern fairy-tale for grown-ups with its sideways satire on the consequences of not letting yourself go – even just a little bit now and then – was delightful from cover to cover. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy.
Stephen Collins – The Gigantic Beard that was Evil. Jonathan Cape, 2013, hardback 240 pages. Buy at Amazon UK

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t read proper fairy tales …

When I was little, the books I enjoyed reading the most were fairy tales. My childhood favourite was the Puffin A Book of Princesses selected by Sally Patrick Johnson published in 1965. It’s a great collection combining old tales like The Twelve Dancing Princesses with ones by E E Nesbit and Oscar Wilde. I still have my copy somewhere complete with coloured in illustrations.

Soon, I was devouring the wonderful fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang. I’ve been addicted to fairy tales ever since, building up a collection of volumes from around the world together with commentaries on the subject.

Lang’s collections comprise twelve volumes in every colour of the rainbow, not to be confused with the Rainbow Magic franchise that today’s early readers are offered. There are over 150 of these tediously similar stories for little girls now! My daughter did read some of them when she was five or six, but by the time we’d read maybe a dozen, she lost interest, (phew!). These books are written by a wide range of authors under the name Daisy Meadows, and always feature two schoolgirls Kirsty and Rachel who have adventures with their fairy friends. I’m sure they do have some value in building confidence in young readers, but they are seriously formulaic, very sanitised, and frankly no-one needs 150 of them.

Many of the traditional fairy tales were not written specifically for children, although they were included in the intended readership by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s for instance.  In their original versions, some of these tales are very dark indeed, being full of violence with people getting eaten by wolves as in Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, (1697) or tragic like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and Little Match Girl, (1830s-40s).

With all the animated Disney adaptations, enjoyable as they are, but which reinvent the traditional tales with new happy endings, and the formula books mentioned above, I feel that general opinion has rather dumbed down fairy tales as stories for young children. We know better.  My daughter, however, gave up fairy tales completely – swapping them for family dramas by Jacqueline Wilson, Hilary McKay, Sophie McKenzie et al.  Quietly, I despaired…

…then a couple of days ago, I found her starring at my Folio fairy tale shelf …

She was admiring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and she said could we start reading them.  We started with Lang’s rather different version of the Three little pigs from the Green Fairy Book, but then she decided she wanted to start at the beginning and read all of them – so back to the Blue Fairy Book (which is the first chronologically too, but I’ll have to adjust the order of the others though on the shelf!).

I asked why the sudden interest? She said that she hadn’t realised that the Three little pigs was considered a fairy tale, and that they didn’t necessarily have to have fairies in. That, plus she liked the book colours and covers. I hope her interest is sparked by reading these together, and that she can cope when we do meet a fairy, especially as the violet and brown volumes will be joining the others soon!

Do you have an opnion about the dumbing down of traditional folk and fairy tales?
Is our current fad for ghosts, vampires & zombies squeezing fairies out?
Which are your favourite fairy tales?

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To explore further at the Folio Society or Amazon UK, click on the links below:
Folio Society – Andrew Lang Fairy Books (Membership requirements apply)Book of Princesses (Puffin books)selected by Sally Patrick Johnson (available second-hand)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)
Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)
Olympia the Games Fairy (Rainbow Magic) by Daisy Meadows

Raining in my heart?

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

When Ali Shaw’s first magical novel, The Girl with Glass Feet was published in 2009, I was drawn to this adult fairy-tale like a Greek sailor to the sirens, nothing could have stopped me reading it.  Luckily for me, it was good – very good. Without doubt, it was the best debut I read in 2009, and you can read my review here.  After Ali did an event in Abingdon and turned out to be one of the most fascinating authors I’d heard speak, I championed this book everywhere.  This meant, for me, that his second novel had an awful lot to live up to…

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Elsa Beletti needs to escape – from the claustrophobia of her city life and her boyfriend.  She grew up in the open spaces of Ohio, where her father was a fearless stormchaser; always happier outside, he was ultimately killed in a tornado.

She’d seen it as a kid, when an afternoon storm had lifted the gutter of the ranch’s barn, twirled it in the air like a baton, then flicked it at him. It broke his leg. Being holed up in the house while it healed made him catatonic. ‘I’m weather-powered, see,’ he mumbled once, and it was the best way to describe him.

Elsa is drawn to a small settlement nestled amongst the mountains that she’d spied from an aeroplane window once.  Thunderstown is isolated, it’s a trek to get there, but she’s not alone in having found this backwater which is surrounded by weather.

The residents of the town are a real mixture – good and bad, traditional and modernising, jobsworth and helpful. Almost all of them however, are superstitious about the town’s legendary Old Man Thunder – except Daniel Fossiter, the town’s ‘culler’ (whose job is to keep the local wild goat population in check), he has reason to think differently.

One day Elsa goes hiking in the mountains, and meets a young man with rain in his veins and a thunderstorm inside him.  Finn Munro is an outcast who lives alone on  the mountain, and it’s love at first sight.  However there are many obstacles and a world of weather in the way to make this relationship one that can run smoothly…

From the first page, I was taken once again, into Shaw’s world-vision.  In his hands magic is entirely natural, for those that embrace it, that is.  For those who don’t believe, it is unexplainable and to be feared, which sets up the central conflict which powers the plot. This organic and robust approach to magic is essential in this kind of adult fairy-tale, showing both cause and effect which adds authenticity, and Shaw gets that just right with his descriptive imagery.

He handles the non-magical folk well too, they’re all believable, from kindly Kenneth, Elsa’s landlord – a cricket-loving West Indian, and Dot, a nun who looks after those touched by lightning to the rather scary council leader Abe Cosser, who always gives Daniel a hard time.

If I hadn’t read The Girl with Glass Feet first, I would have been totally wowed by The Man Who Rained. Don’t get me wrong, I did love this book too, but felt it was not quite different enough from his debut. Both featured magical people, small town locations, and both had heroines who were lured there to find themselves – I was just expecting something else.

Difficult second novel?  Definitely not!

The Man Who Rained is engaging,  beautiful and a fabulous read. I can’t wait for what he comes up with next. (9/10).

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Man Who Rained– Pub Jan 2012, Atlantic books hardback, 258 pages.
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Paperback.

A fabulous little modern fable…

The Tiny Wifeby Andrew Kaufman

This small but perfectly formed novella could be the wackiest thing you’ll read this year. A modern fairy tale about a bank robber that doesn’t steal money, but items of sentimental value from everyone held up.

He explains before he leaves, that those items give him 51% of everyone’s souls, and that will have ‘bizarre and strange consequences‘ in their lives, and they’ll have to learn to grow them back or die. Strange things do indeed begin to happen, and the victims meet to share their experiences, some of which are rather unsettling to say the least.

The story is recounted by the husband of Stacey, who had been in the bank.  She’d handed over her calculator on which she worked out everything – at first she thought she was just losing weight, but it soon becomes clear that Stacey is shrinking!  Will she work out how to stop it, and even reverse it, before she pops out of existence like the Incredible Shrinking Man did?

This story has a large amount of charm, which is augmented by wonderful illustrations in silhouette by Tony Percival. however it’s not all nice – parts of it are totally grim, (or should I say Grimm!).  The story is deceptively simple, yet packs the suitable moral punch that all good fairy tales need.  I will be definitely be searching out Kaufman’s previous short novel My friends are superheroes, after reading this great little book. (9/10)

My ARC came from publisher The Friday Project – thank you!

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If you like modern fairy tales, I can also wholly recommend The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and Tokyo, cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.  Links below:

To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman. Pub Sep 1, as a gift hardback, 80 pages.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

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