Historical

Review: Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

I got this book at the KL Alternative Book Fest from the DRAM Projects’ booth, and haven’t really bothered to pick it up until a couple of days ago. And the reason I picked it up was because I moved my computer table and now it’s closer to my shelves, which means I take out books at random and flip through them while waiting for pages to load. I was immediately interested in continuing the book, but I was already in the middle of Maria Tatar’s Enchanted Hunters and I don’t want to read anything else until I’m done. But the next time I was waiting for a page to load, I picked up Just Ella again. And again. Then, as I was going to Face Affair, I slipped Just Ella in my bag as well as Enchanted Hunters. By the time my hair was being blow-dried, I was on the last chapter. Heh. So much for not wanting to read anything else.

Just Ella is definitely one of those easy, fast, enjoyable reads. It’s not Ella Enchanted, but it’s an interesting interpretation of the Cinderella story. Ella is definitely the hardworking, smart, spunky Cinderella type I love. And I like that unlike most Cinderella retellings I’ve read, this book reads more like a sequel to the fairy tale. What happens after “happily ever after”? Can you really fall in love with someone you just danced with at this one ball? (Okay, in some of the older stories there were three balls, but still.) Ella finds castle life smothering and boring, where everyone was only nice to her because she was betrothed to the prince and she was bound by so many rules and conventions it’s a wonder she didn’t go insane with it all. She rarely sees the prince, and when she did, they only spend a short time together (with a chaperone), where his only conversation is, “you’re so beautiful.” Fortunately, she does find friendship in Mary, one of the servants, and Jed, one of her tutors.

What I found irritating in this book (for me, at least) is that it is set in the past, being a more “traditional” retelling in that sense, but the language is very modern. I don’t mind historical novels using modern English – most of the time I even prefer it – but I find phrases like “more power to them” too jarring. The cover is misleading, too, I think; when I first got it I thought it was a “chic lit” type retelling, like Robin Palmer’s Cindy Ella. I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t.

If you’re looking for a Cinderella with fairy godmothers and magic, this isn’t the book for you – Ella uses her smarts to get what she wanted. Having said that, this retelling isn’t exactly “meat” either – you should be reading Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted instead. But if you’re looking for a fun, easy retelling with a heroine who would punch the prince in the stomach, then give Just Ella a try.

~ originally posted on livejournal

Historical · Malaysiana

The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw

Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory was not something I thought I would really enjoy, not because it wasn’t good (because it is!), but because it’s historical in nature and I’m really not a fan of historical fiction, and I’m especially tired of Malay historical fiction – I’m not sure why almost every single Malaysian writer out there writes historical fiction.

This novel is about Johnny Lim, a Communist leader in 1940s Malaya. His story was told from three different narrators – his son, his wife, and his friend. Each of the narrators had different ideas of who Johnny was. His son, Jasper, wrote of a determined, malicious young man who had a gift for machines and rose up from working at the mines of Kinta Valley to being the owner of the Silk Harmony Factory and a fearless leader of the Communist party. The man his wife, Snow, wrote of was more ordinary. He was a man who tries hard to appear worldly, and was enamored by the wife he was too afraid to touch. Snow also wrote of Kunichika Mamoru, a Japanese professor she was falling in love with. I enjoyed Snow’s part in the story the most, and at some points the prose actually reminded me somewhat of Murakami Ryu’s short stories. The third and last narrator was Peter Wormwood, an English actor who became a close friend of Johnny’s. Snow’s diary in the second part of the story already hinted at how close Peter and Johnny were, and Peter’s narratives proves that both of them really needed the other at the point in time they were friends. Peter was charmed by what he saw as Johnny’s innocence or naivete, while Johnny had attached himself to Peter in some hope that he too could become as polished and worldly as Peter (or the Peter in his mind, at least). Peter’s narrative repeats a lot of things already told by Jasper and Snow, but it wasn’t boring in the least. Instead, his perspective made me realise that there is no one answer to the question of who Johnny Lim was.

I enjoyed the somewhat fragmented way the story was told – each narrator were from different times in Johnny’s life, even if Peter & Snow’s story intersect – and how only when I was done did I see how everything was woven together. This book definitely deserves a second read. I also enjoyed Aw’s style; his prose was delicious to read and despite the “historical” label it read as easily as contemporary fiction. I’m still waiting for his second novel, The Map of the Invisible World, to be out in B-Format, and during his book tour he mentioned that his third novel would be a contemporary one, so I’m definitely looking forward to that!

~ originally posted on blogspot

edit: I’ve since heard that there’s a lot of factual errors in terms of geography, history, culture, etc. – all of which I didn’t catch as a Malaysian reader. Shows how much I know about my own country! But this did not change the fact that I found the writing enjoyable, and more readable than most Malaysian writing I’ve tried.

Historical · Review

Review: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Becca Berlin and her sisters grew up listening to their grandmother’s telling of Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), which was always slightly different than the “standard” version. When her grandmother, Gemma, claimed to be Briar Rose at her dying bed, Becca promised to uncover the truth behind the story. Having only a fairy tale and a few of Gemma’s belongings to help her, Becca’s journey finally led her to an extermination camp where her grandmother was during the Holocaust.

I wouldn’t have thought that a fairy tale could be a Holocaust story, but in this novel Gemma’s retelling of Briar Rose and the true story hidden within it worked together very well. This is my favourite book by Jane Yolen so far – I’ve always liked her work, but found something lacking in her prose. This book, however, was very emotional and chilling for me.

The one thing that bothered me was how no one in Becca’s family had guessed about what Gemma went through, because the clues in her story seemed rather obvious even to me – and I’m from a place where the Holocaust is just one small paragraph in our history textbook! (I think we have that much, at least.) But I suppose part of it could be because I see fairy tales as a sort of different way to tell the truth, while the Berlin family probably thought of them as mere children’s stories. Anyway, this book turned out to be one of the most original, interesting fairy tale retellings I’ve read, so I’m very glad to have picked it up.

~ originally posted on blogspot