"review" · concenter · fiction · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · Tales · young adult lit

{book} cinder

11235712Cinder (bk 1: Lunar Chronicles)

by Marissa Meyer

Fiewel&Friends, 2012

Hardcover, 387 pages.

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. –publisher’s comments

I am sometimes frustrated by an author’s choice to re-imagine a classic fairytale, but Marissa Meyer’s decision to transport Cinderella into a futuristic city and turn the protagonist into a cyborg was brilliant. The marketplace where Cinder sets up shop brought a more arid Blade Runner to mind, which follows with the adorable image of Firefly’s Kaylee with grease and a blush on her face. Flitting images before Meyers makes all images and references (intentional or no) her own. The hook of the premise and the promise of that red-glass slipper on the cover catches and does not disappoint.

Meyer envisions a future-other place where fairytale magic has scientific leanings. The science fiction is fun, and it pleases me to see this female author stitching it into the fabric of a cinderella-cyborg. The possible resides alongside the impossible in a cyborg and how comfortably this sort of conflicts fit into the story of Cinderella. She is, in so many ways, an impossible girl who is so terribly probable as to be painful for the reader. She loves someone out of her league, someone who really mustn’t love her in return if he knows what is good for him. She is alien within her own family, and community. She is hard-work going no where. She is beauty (read potential) wasted or enslaved for small purpose.

A big shift is not content with a usual feminist revision, but in revisiting the possibility of origins. And why do we not ever think about Cinderella’s mother? Especially when the idea of the father comes across more the doting uncle in some ways… The mysteries Cinder sets up aren’t terribly hard, but the adventure is where the read finds its entertainment anyway.* What will Cinder do now or next? But for the extraordinary time spent on the “pumpkin” (however necessary), Cinder maneuvers pieces into place and pages click along.

Lines from the classic tale epigraph sections and in a way refocus and anticipate coming events. Not that Cinder remains all that anticipatory for long (thus the refocus). The bigger bones of the story are there, but plenty of the elements are either new or skewed marvelously.

The Stepmother is fabulously evil. And the Lunar figures are appropriately strange and creepy. The prince always shifted to a Miyazaki-princeling every time he showed up—much to my delight. Meyers gifts enough to flesh and clothe her characters, while allowing us the pleasure of wanting to see them continue into the sequel. A sequel in these endless teen/young adult series’ that I am actually interested in pursuing.

Marissa Meyer writes a highly entertaining adventure in Cinder with a heroine increasingly equipped into a figure that has me curious where Meyer is taking her. I am equally invested in this very intriguing quandary of Prince Kai’s (talk about revisionist’s play). The next book, Scarlet, visits Red Riding Hood and I do feel a bit anxious** about this—must say something about Cinder that I’m going to read it anyway.

recommendations: mg+; those who like a good visit w/ classic tales, futures w/ a tasteful salting of genetic engineering and dystopic murmurings, sci-fi talk midst a faerie-lore sensibility.

*feels like a young teen read through and through—wish I’d had this to read at N’s age. btw, this is a good thing.

*there are some great readings/tellings of Red Riding Hood, where might Meyers go with it?

"review" · horror/scary · juvenile lit · recommend · Tales

{book} wooden bones

wooden bones coverWooden Bones by Scott William Carter

Simon & Schuster, 2012.

hardcover, 148 pages. juvenile fiction ages 8-12.

of note: my link to Powell’s shares a synopsis with Goodreads that is a bit of a spoiler. I was happy to pick this up off the shelf with the below copy to intrigue without given “oh, no” moments away.

“Becoming a real boy was just the beginning…”

Pino thought that all of his wishes had come true. Since he changed into a real boy, he has been content with the simple quiet life he leads with his father, Geppetto. But the boy who used to be a wooden puppet doesn’t quite fit in with the other villagers. When Pino discovers a terrifying new talent for bringing wood to life, he and Geppetto find themselves fleeing from an angry mob.

On the run with a wounded Geppetto, Pino must face a world full of people who want to use—or misuse—him for his powers. But when Pino discovers that every time he uses his mage, he is slowly transforming back into a puppet, he as to make the most important choice of his life.

Scott William Carter breathes new life into an old story and explores what it means to be truly human.—Jacket copy.

I adore fairy tales, but I am not a fan of Pinnochio (my own childhood issues). So I am not entirely sure why I took this one home from the Library to read other than that jacket copy and it was a slim volume. I’m glad I did. Scott William Carter not only carries the spirit of the characters through, but he holds true to the spirit/feel of the fairy tale.

There are some monstrous creatures and wondrous places. The peril is breathtaking for a juvenile fiction—and carried forth with less ego than Adam Gidwitz’s effort to (re)introduce children to Grimm. The adventure compounds, with a respite that tests the pacing, but Carter merely wants us to believe in the potential of a happy ending. oh, dear.

The story of Pino’s change, of who he is or even why he is, seems to move in the shadows of the survival-adventure, but it is an important thread that contributes to that difficult ending. And by difficult I mean that I was not sure how things were going to go—at all. There is much to do with identity in the vein of: what is meant, how things work out, and no matter how difficult it may be to understand some thing’s should not be changed/reversed—including Pinnochio himself. Loss is a recurrent visitor and an inescapable theme the reader must consider on some level. Wooden Bones has some very rich aspects to it that one can appreciate in the hands of a storyteller rather than a preacher.

The narrative is a third person limited with the odd (and only) “you” address to the readers on page 22, otherwise so smooth. I like how Scott William Carter creates symbols out of objects and haunts the novel with them (must be a short story writer). Understanding how Pino would use wood in descriptive terms is lovely. I adore the misdirections. I loved how completely absorbed I became and how moved by so many of the characters, their dangerous flaws and all. The imagination that Carter is able to translate is worth the while (that woods section, and the scar…) Wooden Bones is a wonderful find and one that not only fans of fairytales will truly appreciate.

recommendations: any and all, but probably above 8, older if sensitive. it does have the classic tale feel/elements so that is something to mind. lovers of tales, adventures, and/or wood [carpenters/carvers will find this read delightful].

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · recommend · short story · Tales

{comic} the eternal smile

The Eternal Smile : Three Stories by by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim

First Second Books, 2009.

Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim are authors and artists who’ve teamed up in this collection of three short stories, or three individual comics. The three pieces find commonality in their use of cultural influences, like fairytales, products, childhood media, virtual reality, and technological communication. They play with cultural references in art and story as they explore what is real, healthy, manufactured, isolating, and malleable. They move from the psychological to the technological, finding natural cause to frequently blur the two, ultimately binding the three under an umbrella of escapist fantasy. And their sophistication regarding social commentary progresses with each story. The Eternal Smile is an excellent choice for Teen and Young Adult, but not to the exclusion of us who are older.*


Duncan’s Kingdom. Duncan is not the most adept suitor to call on the Princess (“Your eyes glisten like wet marbles”), but with a magic sword from the monk who found him as a babe, how can he not win her hand by slaying the Frog King? Or will a haunting dream and an obsession with Snappy Cola ruin everything?

The title page has the appearance of a classic fairytale cover of a heroic adventure. It fairly blares a herald’s bugling. And with the turn of a page all is silent but for night sounds and someone snoring from a room in the castle. While European medieval comes to mind initially and is illustrated throughout in a fitting fashion, the Asian influence saturates the story in lovely ways—particularly in color. I would love to say more on that influence, but there’s my ignorance. The amalgam is a delight, and works from its fantastical start: a Frog Clan? There is little that is atypical in the tale actually, until Duncan dreams. The discovery of Snappy Cola takes the story for a truly bizarre turn.

The story has a really good and challenging moral for its young (and perhaps not so young) adult audience.


Elias McFadden’s Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile. Gran’pa Greenbax strives to create a pool of money into which he dive into without busting his nose on the bottom. With the latest venture not producing enough depth to his pool, Gran’pa and his two granddaughters (Polly and Molly) demand another inspired business opportunity from his bullied, under-paid employee. Filbert has run out of ideas and hopes the sighting in the sky will be enough to soothe the savage beast of a boss. What it does is lead them on a path none of them could have anticipated—no not the decision to exploit the masses with religion, the other thing, the thing that has to do with that Eternal Smile.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” sports a title page reminiscent of Disney’s Duck Tales w/ Scrooge McDuck comics replete with volume number and publisher block in the corner and “Elias McFadden’s” in Disney-font. Referencing childhood television, its merchants and its merchandise is no coincidence as Duck Tales meets aTruman Show twist in an indictment of exploitation, whether the institutional interests are media-, corporate- or religion-driven. What would happen if you met your creator, finding echoes in the “outside” mirrored in your own life, and the realization of an influence most unnatural? Would you find relief knowing that you were made the way you are by someone or –thing other than you? What about those recurring (hardwired) desires that had to be manipulated or worked around.

There is a drastic move, and while the violence throughout comes across as startling (eventually), it makes more than a Fight Club sort of sense. Whether internal or external something painfully disruptive might lead to the kind of return to self a character needed. There are a lot of inner- and interpersonal dynamics at play in this cartoon-rendered tale.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” also includes a nice cameo from “Duncan’s Kingdom.” That hope-filled image comes at a key point in the story.


Urgent Request. Where the other two brought more mainstream cultural images instantly to mind the third drew an indie vibe for me (Tomine meets Sunday comics section). The panels appear like screen captures, the dingy black and white apt. Beginning to read, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan came to mind, and I hoped “Urgent Request” would not reach that level of depressing. It seemed well on its way.

Janet has worked her CommTech cubicle job for 7 years, and a scheduled performance review with an vein and inconsiderate boss doesn’t look to change things. She lives alone and has no social life at or away from work. Eavesdropping on a conversation, a co-worker (the receptionist) describes her as “Awkward? Shy? Frumpy?…insignificant.” This is a pivotal moment as she decides to seize her chance to save a Nigerian Prince who has just started e-mailing her asking for monetary aid.

Janet would be difficult to deal with if the world around her did not seem as equally despairing. The opening panel is dark and rainy. The boss clings to a triumph years before and , the receptionist comes across as pandering to the boss at anyone else’s expense. And what about this Nigerian Prince? Of all the tables Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim turn in their earlier stories, this one is the most surprising. I was delighted even as I was initially baffled by the revelation. But then one has to get over the idea that Janet is so singular and other from the likely tech-savvy, tech-world-built readership of the comic. She is painfully familiar and very typical, except for the fact that she recognizes her life for what it has become and boldly claims her choices.

What appears to be rather unfortunate investment calls become complicated as Janet appears to be investing in herself at the same time. The sun breaks through, Janet begins to decorate her cubicle, becomes more animated and more musical when she moves, we get color. And what to do with that ending? “Urgent Request” transforms its central character into someone who is not awkward, shy, frumpy, or insignificant. The getting there is odd and complicated and did I say odd? I guess it really isn’t all so very odd, just watching someone open up in the face of incredible personal risk requires a massive lung capacity for all that held breath. You genuinely hope it pays off—in some form. And “Urgent Request” does calculate the expenses. Humor manages to find a way in, but the idea that a world has been robbed of passion either in their neutered avatars, or their ergonomic work closets is a delightful indictment in this piece. Janet decides to demand more.

A moment on the format with this one. I really enjoyed the speech bubbles and text (other than sound effects) were placed outside of the panels. The frames keep their (older) on-screen quality. And when they take up white space it makes all that white on the page more comfortable. The placement of the frames require more conscious attention, as their effect is disruptive in obvious ways; the composition had me wondering if there was more to it than the distancing, the emptiness (isolation), and “out of place”/ “out of sync” visual perception–not that that wasn’t enough.


*Curious after reading Same Difference and noting Kim’s pop cultural references, I checked birth dates. Derek Kirk Kim was born in 1974, and Yang in 1973.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang}

Check out this 2009 interview I found when looking for images. Yang and Kim speak with Alex Deuben for Comic Book Resources, wherein Yang says,

“Geek culture has heavily influenced mainstream American culture. Escapist culture is all around us, and it’s big business. I think it’s easy, especially for teachers like me, to just look at the ways it interferes with real-world relationships, goals, and personal growth. But many of the roots of modern escapist fantasy – myths, fables, and even the more modern Tolkien novels – weren’t really about escaping reality. They were about illuminating it. I think fantasy videogames, movies, and comic books can do the same, if crafted well.”

"review" · cinema · recommend · Tales

{film} mirror mirror

Not even half-way through the film and I knew I would have to see Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror (2012) again. Why? The costumes and sets. I found myself distracted—in a good way. The silliness of story was a bonus. The film experience felt like a taste of theater, an odd juxtaposition in a dollar theater with an audience running the gamut in age and summer wear; and especially weird with that woman (at my right shoulder) who couldn’t seem to open her bag of candy.

Eiko Ishioka, visionary, costuming Mirror Mirror.

The costume design is by the late Eiko Ishioka (who died too young in January). It is a sadder world without Ishioka designing in it. She has more than a few breathtaking moments in Mirror Mirror. With how costuming helps create the narrative, adding depth to characterization and setting, you could pretty much mute the film and allow the costumes and their characters’ purportment man the script alone.

If you go in with Disney’s adaptation of the tale of Snow White in mind, you will be fine. It is anticipated. Anticipate a criticism of beauty vs. substance and expectation. Aphorisms abound amidst the very tongue-in-cheek scripting. We aren’t left wondering where we come to know the things we know about Ideal Beauty (among other things, like age). I do not think many anticipated silly (even in a PG film). They probably hadn’t seen The Fall, or its restraint. Tarsem does not restrain himself here—and I love silliness. It’s one of my favorite forms of laughter. And it certainly takes the edge off the derisive, toward which the story is easily prone to veer; derisive or sappy and Tarsem tries hard to avoid either. In choosing the stage and whimsy over gritty realism, Tarsem does not eschew a strong moral message. As readers/fans of fantasy understand, taking the edge off realism does not remove the sting of criticism, let alone hide it. Cleverness and becoming one’s own fully capable and lovely self is the hero of the day. Borrowing from other sources and debting oneself to vanity and consumption will not only prematurely age you.

just when the dresses couldn’t get more amazing… and the scene she walks into has some of the most marvelous undergarments.

While the reasons to see the film are the set and costumes, the acting is not too painful either. I loved watching Julia Roberts have fun in the role as Queen. And while I had a hard time not calling up images of a certain meerkat, Nathan Lane was humorous as usual. Armie Hammer as the Prince: he goes from goof-ball to sultry (can a man be referred to as sultry) in a heartbeat. The Prince role is so well cast, so well played. The best scenes were the ones he and/or Julia occupied. This is not to say that Lily Collins as Snow White wasn’t picture perfect. The film again, I think, looks to draw on cultural cache with Collins. Doesn’t she bring Audrey Hepburn to mind? Delicate, elegant, and graceful, and all spitfire waiting to be unleashed?—because that is Snow White; Snow White whom had been made insecure by the calculated barbs of the Queen, but whom has all the resources just waiting for the right antidote to the Queen’s poisons. The antidote comes in the form of the kitchen staff, who encourage a fateful outing to the village, and the seven dwarfs in the forest.

Mark Povinelli (Half Pint), Martin Klebba (Butcher), Jordan Prenitce (Napoleon), Danny Woodburn (Grimm),  Ronald Lee Clark (Chuckles), Joe Gnoffo (Grub), Sebastian Saraceno (Wolf)

Mirror Mirror’s take on the dwarfs is a nice one, although I was a bit concerned. Theirs was a costuming choice I was initially repulsed by. The Village People (ala “YMCA”) flitted across the mental screen. The lost boys of Peter Pan’s Neverland followed a short time after. I have to admit both references work in light of what we come to learn about the bandits in the woods. The men fulfilled different job positions in the village until a proclamation by the Queen expelled them from the kingdom for being ugly. They escaped and were lost to the forest to become a bit wild and predatory, robbing passersby. What was trickier for the film was to comment on their status as outsiders, ugly, and made invisible (and more visible using stilts) without reinforcing the ideologies they are used to emphasize. To do so would also undermine their role in the narrative that creates the necessary change for Snow White.

aside yet relevant…Sean and I both had heard Audie Cornish’s NPR: All Things Considered interview with Peter Dinklage the other day. We were first introduced to Dinklage in The Station Agent (2003); many more will recognize Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game  of Thrones. Having the interview in mind while watching the film makes for an interesting viewing experience. I’m still a bit conflicted…and well, I would have to see the film again. Essay, anyone?

the color and shapes of the gown, the sophistication/ingenue, the framing.

The title of the film seems an obvious reference to the “mirror, mirror on the wall” lines we all know and love. It also means something more. It begs to create parallels and dichotomies. Chart, anyone? While Good/Evil is pretty much left alone, traits popularly assigned to each is not—and not unexpectedly. We associate Good with Beauty and Evil with Ugly. The film panders to this before making the switch and thus upsetting the notions. I found ascribing a good work ethic with Beauty versus incurring debt (carelessly) and using short-cuts (magic aka privilege?) with Ugly of interest. I admire the removal of age as a qualifier for beauty and sexuality. Why should the Queen accept the aged Baron’s proposal over the pursuit of a handsome young Prince? Sure, it makes for humor, but there is a bite there. It is hard not to admire (the likable Julia Roberts) the Queen’s drive to create a world based upon her own terms. I mean, isn’t that what we are waiting for Snow White to learn to do? Thus, it comes down to whose terms are based where, and which are based in Good (ethics, cooperation) versus Evil (vanity, greed).

the swan /the peacock, white/red. love the Prince as the white rabbit, so apt.

Stories mirror, characters mirror, and one story is revealed to be another’s (though we find this unsurprising, as does the Queen). What I did find a clever unveiling was that ending as the credit began to roll. The film, directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. has Snow White return the singing and dancing to the kingdom Bollywood-style. The snow melts away and the greater architecture of the palace cannot be ignored (hints were there all along, see image 1). mirror mirror. But what is Tarsem saying in the departures and in the departing musical number? Who is the fairest of them all? And why should Hollywood be excluded from the criticism in its contributions to ideas of beauty and age and good and evil.

The choices of theater and puppetry become more clear.

…I’m still not even half-way through the film or my thoughts on it. This quirky little comedy Tarsem has brought us could be more disarming than initially expected.

Or it could just be a fun little film lovers of costumes and sets and silliness will enjoy.

————-Mirror Mirror (2012)—————-

directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar; based on “Snow White” by Brothers Grimm; story by Melissa Wallack; screenplay by Marc Klein & Jason Keller; music by Alan Menken, cinematography by Brendan Galvin, Editing by Robert Duffy & Nick Moore; produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Bernie Goldmann, Brett Ratner & Kevin Misher; starring: Lily Collins (Snow White), Julia Roberts (the Queen), Armie Hammer (Prince Alcott), Nathan Lane (Brighton), Sean Bean (the King), Danny Woodburn (Grimm), Martin Klebba (Butcher), Sebastian Saraceno (Wolf), Jordan Prentice (Napoleon), Mark Povinelli (Half Pint), Joe Gnoffo (Grub) & Ronald Lee Clark (Chuckles).

Rated PG, Running Time 106 minutes.

IMDb page. Wiki page. Roger Ebert’s Review.

{images belong to Relativity Media}

—-of course, this fits nicely into the Once Upon a Time Challenge—-

"review" · Children's · fiction · juvenile lit · sci-fi/fantasy · series · Tales

Ivy and the Meanstalk

Ivy and the Meanstalk by Dawn Lairamore

Holiday House, 2011

hardcover, 227 pages. Juvenile Fiction.

Having saved her kingdom from the dastardly designs of a scheming prince in Ivy’s Ever After, fourteen-year-old Princess Ivy and her dragon friend, Eldridge, have little time to rest on their laurels, for Ardendale is once again being threatened. Many years ago a magical harp and a hen who laid golden eggs were stolen by a youth named Jack. The rightful owner, a surly giantess who hasn’t slept a wink since the thefts, needs her harp back to cure her insomnia or Ardendale will suffer an unspeakable fate! So Ivy and Eldridge set off on another fairy-tale-inspired adventure: a quest for the magical harp that takes them across the sea, into the fiery depths of a  magnificent golden kingdom, and high into the clouds where a black castle looms at the top of a vicious, man-eating meanstalk. ~jacket copy.

Impressed with Dawn Lairamore’s debut Ivy’s Ever After*, I was excited to read the recent release of its sequel Ivy and the Meanstalk. Fans of the first will not be disappointed to find that Ivy and Eldridge have returned in fine, independent form; as does the author.

The story begins with the intention to remind reader’s of what went on in Ivy’s Ever After while establishing the beginnings of a new adventure. If you’ve read the first novel recently and/or the events are fresh in your mind, the first chapters of Ivy and the Meanstalk will feel a bit beleaguered, no matter how sensitive the author was to alternate present action/dialog with reestablishing the setting/story. Soon enough, however, the adventure is well under way. A meanstalk sprouts and a sleepless giantess is on a rampage. Jack should not have stolen that harp. Nor should Ivy’s Fairy Godmother have played a part in it—or should she have? Sometimes the most noble intention/action has unforeseen consequences.

Ivy would resolve old hurts/wrongs and rescue her kingdom from certain destruction. With Eldridge (the dragon) and Owen (the stable boy) with her, she travels to a fantastical golden kingdom of all too self-absorbed royalty who see no reason to help her. Desperate times make for desperate measures, but it all works out, because the three from Ardendale are not the only heroes in this story. It really does take more than one to avoid certain disaster (on multiple occasions) in Ivy and the Meanstalk. If it doesn’t mean one using their skills to aid the other, it might mean one defending another’s existence. Friendship is of vital importance to the novel and its adventure.

There are a few nice lessons** to glean from Ivy and the Meanstalk alongside ‘sometimes the most noble intention/action may have consequences;’ ‘acknowledge someone’s suffering, learn some grace;’ and ‘helping/defending a friend is important.’ It is good to have fun. Adventures and frivolity have their advantages, but an education is just as vital—it helps in so many ways. (141, 153.) Ivy learns that shirking some of her responsibilities (book work) could have terrible consequences, the kind that could endanger those for whom she cares the most. I like the reminder that getting your rest is important. Imagine the irrational creature you could become if you don’t get your sleep (or allow a parent theirs). “I’m not usually like this, you see, but I get a little cranky without sleep”~Largessa (219).

The romantic turn in Ivy’s Ever After blossoms a bit more between Ivy and Owen, however it is still in the blushing stages of noticing the other, and of deepening friendship. A royal and a stable boy, how might this unfold… It is a sweet part of the novel that doesn’t get in the way of the reader continuing to witness a strong female character coming into her own.

Ivy and the Meanstalk is an especially great read for young female readers ready to stretch out into novels after the slimmer chapter books/series. Ages 7-10 (even up to 12). This would be a good read-aloud. In Ivy and the Meanstalk, Dawn Lairamore creates a wonderful story out of an old familiar with a great sense of humor and some very courageous characters. She is a must-read author for the grade school set.


*My review of Lairamore’s Ivy’s Ever After (Holiday House, 2010).

**Ivy isn’t message-y, the ‘lessons’ are a natural result of plot/themes.

"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · Tales

the boy with the cuckoo-clock heart

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Hardcover, 172 pages.

Ages: Adults

I checked this out from the library based on its premise. I had not seen the cover everyone rightfully raves about (see below).


FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. SECONDLY: master your anger. THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.

Edinburgh, 1874. Born with a frozen heart, Jack is near death when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine—witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans—who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. And it is in her orphanage that Jack grows up among tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, and a man with a musical spine.

As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, this is exactly what he does: on his tenth birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia—a bespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But now Jack’s life is doubly at risk—his heart is in danger and so is his safety after he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer.

Now begins a journey of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia. Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak—by turns poignant and funny—in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart. ~publisher’s comments.

Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a lovely dark tale about hearts that won’t let go.

I can say I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I know yet what to do with it.

Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, usually so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.  The din of the surf rings out like the sound of windows smashing. Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodyies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts yawning at the moon, as they watch the carriages sliding over the cobblestone ice rink. It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.

This is the coldest day on earth. And I’m getting ready to be born. (3-4)

Malzieu has a way with images and that alone is worth the read. The fantastical woven amidst the grit of realism is something I love in a story; Malzieu firmly sets the reader into wonderful possibility and painful familiarity. A boy with a cuckoo-clock grafted into his chest, echoing/prompting his heartbeat and young/first love.

The fairy tale aspect to the novel is convenient. It allows for the strange to find new expression in timeless emotions/conditions. The cuckoo-clock works and the way in which Malzieu carries it all off is astounding.

the narrative…The narrative is a bit tricky. The narrator is Jack, the boy with cuckoo-clock heart, and yet the tense is not in the past; which is jarring when an infant remembers and uses impossible similes. And at one point he shifts to address Madeleine directly.  By the end you wonder to whom Jack is speaking and why the story is being told (even as it isn’t exactly being told). Much of the story is dominated by Jack’s obsession with Miss Acacia, but this central focus provides a parallel for other characters’ obsessions. It also serves as a distraction. The story is as much if not more about Jack and Madeleine, than Jack and anyone else.

Another aspect of the narrative is in the first person’s singular perspective. Flaws in Miss Acacia that Jack observes is quickly blanketed with layers of adoration, re-positioning her back into saintly light. He is a boy deeply in love and it becomes as if his heart has been grafted onto hers; a strange and awkward appendage; and image that makes all too much sense. The singular perspective also allows for the reader to be jarred as Jack is when a revelation finds us near the end of the novel.

characters…I loved the idea of a mad midwife prosthetic engineer. The 19th century Dr. Madeleine alone should excite Steampunk readers. Then Malzieu would add George Méliès as a character; which is an interesting choice: a personage who fits well into the story, a figure well-suited to befriend and advise Jack.  He makes for a brilliant male counterpart to Madeleine, and father-type to Jack. A man that dreams as grandly as Jack, and who has loved as grandly.

As love stories go, Miss Acacia, however lovely to laugh scornfully at upon occasion, was a figure I can only imagine understanding. I think Jack’s obsession may speak more clearly to someone other. But I did linger over moments of Jack’s emoting that was too prettily put to ignore. The way he speaks about her at times is painfully beautiful, which makes any rejection harder to bear. The trajectory of their story is not for happy endings, you hope, and yet not. And it may well have a happy ending; as Méliès ending makes room for hope.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart creates and bears plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. It has adult sensibilities which remind the reader that even as the narrator may be ten as he is experiencing something, his consciousness really must be that much older; a consciousness that is intent on connecting with an adult audience. The perceptions become easier to believe as he ages. The story has a fascinating quality to it, primarily held in the images Malzieu has wrought; this forgives the jostling shifts and turns in the overall telling. The crafting of The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a bit rough and raw, a bit crooked, but the real heart of it is good and worth the while.


Check out these wonderful write-ups:

Irena’s review at This Miss Loves to Read

and Darren’s review at Bart’s Bookshelf.

Children's · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend · Tales

3 Barefoot Books & Ceccoli

Continuing in appreciation for Nicoletta Ceccoli’s work, I picked up 3 of her picture books at the Library. All of which happen to be published by Barefoot Books who in turn, seem to provide a good catalog of books to browse. They employ authors/illustrators from all over the planet and have a sizable bilingual section.

Those familiar with Ceccoli’s illustrations will notice a difference in these Barefoot Books: the absence of mixed-media collage or her beautiful but eery doll-like characters. Just the same, Ceccoli’s signature is all over these stories. The soft palette and lovely use of color, the lighting. The whimsical voice and the composition that draw the eye into further interest beyond the moment, without pulling the reader away from the author’s own composition.

An Island in the Sun by Stella Blackstone

illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli

Barefoot Books 2002

In a spectacular seascape, a young boy sails for a distant island where he finds a special friend waiting for him. Who could it be? Children will delight in pointing out the animals and objects that the little boy spies along his journey.~publisher’s comments.

“I spy with my little eye…” The young boy sails the sea accumulating things in his spyglass via a sing-song rhyming game. As if this isn’t an amusement enough, there are other things for the reader to spy along the way–not in the hideous jumble of junk drawers an I Spy book, but a few lovely things here and there.

In a gentle spin on daydreams and boys’ adventures out to sea, the young boy finally arrives at his island to not find wild things waiting, but a much tamer and sweeter friend. They play until it is time for him to go home again. The movement from “I spy with my little eye…” is not completely discarded in the transitions, but revisited via a memory game, “What did I spy with my little eye?” Or is it an invitation to begin the story again?

I would’ve loved to have known about this when Natalya was younger. The illustrations are so pleasing! The words sing themselves from the page, and the gentle adventure is a delightful daydream. An Island in the Sun is a great source of fun activity and for the educational sort it is rife with prepositions and the spatial relationships between things.

The Faerie’s Gift by Tanya Robyn Batt

Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli

Barefoot Books, 2003.

If you could make a single wish, what would you wish for? Would you ask for something that would transform your own life, or would you try to take the needs of your family into consideration, too? A humble woodcutter faces this very dilemma when he rescues a faerie one day in the woods. A flash of inspiration provides the answer that makes everyone’s wish come true.~publisher’s comments.

The humble young woodcutter lives in a house with his wife and his aging mother and father.  “Life was hard. Old Man Poverty sat on the doorstep and snatched away everything good that came their way” (5). He and his wife could not have a baby and his mother had gone blind, “the world about her like a curtain of darkness” (3).

One day the woodcutter rescued a faerie in the woods who in gratitude gave the young man the only thing he had, a single wish. But what to do? His own fancies take flight about him until he remembers there are others in hardship as well. He seeks his family’s advice and each have desires of their own–and not frivolous ones either.

The Faerie’s Gift is about Patience, Ingenuity, and ultimately Unselfishness. As the faerie was exceedingly generous, so may be the woodcutter, who, notably, found a way to gift all the others with their desires; and the happiness was all his. And really, he seemed to have learned unselfishness from those around him, as well as patience. His mother raised him, and his father was spare in speech but wise when he did advise his son. There are all kinds of ways this story addresses the unselfish act while still being an enjoyable story to read–not to mention look at.

The Faerie’s Gift is laid out in two small images atop and below text and a full illustration on the facing page. Little Red Riding Hood below is formatted the same way. The two images capture the action of the text, and the facing page a portrait that would signify the moment. It is a lovely way to accompany the author’s storytelling. Ceccoli could easily overtake the text. As it is, her work embodies the spirit of the story, is quietly emotive, and ever breathing in the soft unassuming light.

Little Red Riding Hood retold by Josephine Evetts-Secker

Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli

Barefoot Books, 2004.

Unlike the recent fractured-fairy-tale versions that make Red Riding Hood a strong hero who rescues herself, this picture book dramatizes the archetypal story of the loss of innocence. Red Riding Hood is a sweet, overprotected child. She always keeps to the path and does what grown-ups say–until one day she meets the wolf, who shows her the beauty of the woods and makes her stray. It’s all shown with fun and uproar: the greedy beast rushes ahead and gobbles up Grandma and the little girl, and the woodcutter rescues them. But Ceccoli’s beautiful, soft-toned pictures in acrylics, pencils, and oil pastels focus on the wolf’s seductive power, his sleek body circling the child enraptured by a world she never saw before. On the last page, the child is in the cozy kitchen with Grandma, but outside the shadowy forest beckons. The story is very child friendly; there’s no analysis. But the author is a Jungian scholar, and folklorists and students of children’s literature will want to talk about the underlying coming-of-age journey. Hazel Rochman, Copyright © American Library Association

Hazel Rochman sums it up quite perfectly, wording my own response better than the few notes I’d made after the read. While the story is old and familiar, the decision on Evetts-Secker’s part to forgo the ‘fractured-fairytale’ route is of interest, and refreshment. Pairing her story with Ceccoli’s enchanting style is another brilliant move (on somebody’s part).

The only dark and threatening aspect is the large smoke-like wolf who is somewhat serpentine and en[w]rapturing. Flowers aren’t a bad idea, nor are small adventures (like walking to grandma’s house). The wolf is hardly unreasonable in his whispers to the young girl, but still, she’d had her instructions, it would have been best to stick to them.

Besides the interesting variation upon the ending, there is a nice introduction to the girl at the beginning.

In a cozy cottage on the outskirts of a sheltered village there once lived a little girl who was quiet and good. No one noticed her, until one day she appeared in a bright red cape with ribbons to fasten the hood under her chin. Now, people turned their heads on the village street and everyone delighted to see her. From that day on, she was known as Little Red riding Hood.

The grandmother made her the cape by the way. Ms. Rochman is right, “folklorists and students of children’s literature will want to talk about the underlying coming-of-age journey” from page one. Her subtly beneath the calm exterior, the toned-down violence, and gentle sway of words is echoed in Ceccoli’s work. Little Red Riding Hood is rich retelling of a classic cautionary tale.


previous posts featuring Ceccoli’s work: here and here.

Ms. Ceccoli’s site.

*first image “Incubi Celeste” by Nicoletta Ceccoli