Review: ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente

Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t … then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

This book came out a few years ago, and many of you will have already read it. I had a few Audible credits to spend, and I added this one to my haul, mainly because the rather hefty title caught my eye. I didn’t regret it.

The Girl is a middle grade story about a girl, September, who runs off to fairyland at the drop of a hat because her life is a bit boring and lonely — her father has gone to war and her mother works long hours in a factory, making planes and similar. She doesn’t think twice about running off on her poor mother (whom I feel sorry for, not gonna lie), because, according to the author, “all children are heartless”. The main character growth of the story is September’s growing of a heart — learning to think more about others rather than acting on selfish impulse.

I liked September. She wants to be irascible, like storybook child heroes, but is instead incredibly polite and sweet (despite her alleged semi-heartlessness). She sometimes despairs, but she gets back up again. And she’s not afraid to act in the face of injustice.

The side characters are great — especially A-Through-L, the wyvern mentioned in the blurb (though he identifies as a wyverary — half wyvern and half library). But the real star of this book is the writing. I’ve never encountered Valente’s work before, but she is a master of the language. She doesn’t dumb down her style for the younger reader — in fact, there’s a quote from the book that is particularly apt in describing the style:

“September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

I could include dozens of other quotes that would make my point here, but it might be quicker if you went and read a few for yourself. You’ll know soon enough whether the writing is for you.

On the subject of the audiobook itself, it was read by the author. She wasn’t bad, but she also wasn’t to the usual standard of the actors I’m used to hearing. It took me a while to get used to her style, her vocal quirks, but eventually she became the voice of the story and I stopped noticing. (Which is, honestly, what you want from an audiobook.)

The Girl is the first book in a series, and I’ll definitely be going back for more — less because I’m invested in what happens next, honestly, and more because I want to continue my love affair with Valente’s prose! ❤

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Review: ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman

Coraline

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Neil Gaiman is a strange author to me in some ways. I love his scripts, and his Sandman graphic novels, and those of his other books that I’ve read. But I haven’t read that many of them. I don’t exactly know why. So when I saw Coraline at my local second-hand bookstore, I snapped it up. (The cover above is the cover of the version I own. There are prettier covers, but it does capture the weirdness pretty well.)

And no, I haven’t seen the movie either. Although now I kind of want to.

I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction yet. (My son and I are onto chapter books. If I put all the Geronimo Stilton books I’ve read into my Goodreads account I’d be 50% done on my 2014 challenge already.) But this has got to be one of the best, surely.

I love Neil Gaiman’s wry humour. It’s—dare I say it—terribly British. I love how calm and clever Coraline is, and how even when she’s scared she manages to be brave. As she said, “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” Wise little girl.

Apparently Gaiman wrote this book for his five-year-old daughter. So either his daughter is also very brave or he’s trying to give her lots of opportunities to learn, because this is a scary-ass book. At the point where Coraline’s other mother offered to sew button eyes onto her as a mark of her acceptance into their creepy family, my own eyes bugged out a little.

There weren’t any plot twists I didn’t see coming. But this is middle grade fiction, which means the twists tend to be a little more clearly telegraphed than they would be in a book for adults. Nothing wrong with that.

There was one thing lacking from the book. Gaiman didn’t often touch on how Coraline was feeling. When she first discovered her parents were missing, it took her a full 24 hours to cry about it. This is partly because her parents are a little remote and she’s used to fending for herself, but I think it was partly a stylistic choice Gaiman made—not to wallow, or let Coraline wallow, in her emotions. Maybe he did it because the content of the story is nightmare-inducing, and if he’d described the taste of fear in the back of her throat, the shaking of her hands, it suddenly wouldn’t have been middle grade anymore?

Or maybe that’s just his style. Like I said, I haven’t read that many of his books, and those I have read were ages ago.

Either way, although I noticed the lack of emotion, the extra distance that imposed wasn’t enough that I couldn’t follow or enjoy the story.

This is a 4.5 star read for me.

Four-and-a-half stars