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on 18 July 2012
Very occasionally, a book comes along which grabs you from title to blurb and this was one of them.
I am a sucker for a twisted fairytale, and in a sense I suppose this qualifies as that. It's narrated in an utterly delightful and direct fashion and is much more realistic (if that's possible) than most fairy stories.

I adored every second of it, and highly recommend it.
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on 4 June 2012
Catherynne M. Valente is a name it's hard to miss in the SFF community. She's been twice nominated for a Hugo, won both the Tiptree and the Andre Norton Award and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards. She's also one of the SF Squeecast regulars, a podcast I listen to with pleasure every month. I follow several bloggers who adore her writing, such as The Booksmugglers and The Little Red Reviewer. Still, despite reading rave reviews and having my interest peaked every time I did so, I never got around to reading any of Valente's work. Until now that is. And after having finished The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, all I can say is "WOW!" and "Now I get it." I was blown away by this book and Valente's writing and story-telling.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - hereafter referred to as The Girl Who... - is gorgeously written. Its prose is stunning and was made for reading aloud, chock-full of alliterations, rhyming and just generally beautiful passages. And that is just the words on the page; the text is heavily layered with different meanings. Plus there are lovely allusions to other classical works such as The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I had a lot of fun spotting these and making the connections. The Girl Who... would probably be a very rewarding book to reread, as I'd guess you'll find new things in it every time. The narrative is also quite self aware, with a narrator that addresses the reader directly and talks about the conventions of story-telling and warns the reader when he is about to break them. I really liked this aspect and the narrative voice, which was warm and at time gently mocking the goings-on in the book.

September is a great character. She is not such a saccharine-sweet girl as one often saw in more classic children's novel, but one with a bit of bite to her or as the Green Wind put it, 'an ill-tempered and irascible enough child.' I loved that September is described as Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown and the book's explanation of how all children start out heartless and only because of this can they act like children. And her voyage through Fairyland seems to have grown her heart as well, as she never once considers abandoning her friends--well, not for very long anyway. She's a girl that takes matters into her own hands and she'll be the hero of her own tale, thank you very much, though she is glad for the help of the friends she makes along the way. Her friends are delightful. A-Through-L, the wyverary completely stole my heart and I loved his dual nature, how could I not love the child of a wyvern and a library! Saturday, the Marid, was interesting and another creature that has two sides to him. Mostly he is a sweet, shy creature, but when he is challenged for a wish he becomes scary and ferocious. Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, where all grown-ups are either bad guys or mad, in The Girl Who... grown-ups aren't made into the bad guys. No, the villain in this plot, The Marquess, is a little girl too. This a tale of growing up and finding independence without having to vilify all adults, even if they leave you alone to go to war, like September's father, or are at work all the time, like her mother. In The Girl Who... the adults are normal people - relatively though, I mean, how normal is a witch? - who can be good or bad, kind or unkind.

The Girl Who... is a story for all ages. Younger children will just see the exciting story, the quest September undertakes, while teens will perhaps see a little deeper into the story and see its wisdom about growing up. And for adults there are different layers again: the impact of the loss of a parent, how destructive our modern-day corporate and bureaucratic world is to a free spirit and that in the end life is all about losing and finding your way again, sometimes with the help of (unexpected) friends.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a fantastic story and one anyone who loves fairytales and classical children's books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wizard of Oz shouldn't miss. I can't wait till the girls are old enough to read it with them - or until the book, hopefully, is translated into Dutch, which means we'll get to read it sooner - as September is a heroine they could do worse than emulate. This one of the best books I've read so far this year and I wouldn't be surprised to see it show up in my year's end list. It also means I've found yet another writer whose backlist I need to read! The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is out in paperback in the UK from Corsair on June 7th.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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on 2 March 2016
Apparently Time Magazine, Neil Gaiman and everyone else in the world but me loves this book. I must admit Valente can conjure a gorgeously lyrical turn of phrase. And if you appreciate novelty, nearly every sentence has at least one new idea the reader must pause to visualize. Having said that, I came away from this book feeling like Valente has taken a big steaming dump on Narnia, Wonderland, Neverland, Hogwarts and Oz, without ever catching the slightest glimpse of their true value and beauty, while also fluttering within a hair’s breadth of openly supporting inequity and child abuse. I found myself absolutely Hating this book.... Hating it so much I had to capitalize the word Hate and still half-considered tacking on a few extra H’s... HHHHHHHHHated.

My initial frustration was with the relentless bombardment of inventions, which while omnipresent were not especially imaginative. It's as though Valente took Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, Harry Potter and a few others, threw them in a blender, and then poured the mixture arbitrarily into chapter-sized saucepans. One example that jumps out: in the Narnia books C.S. Lewis created the incredibly evocative 'Wood Between the Worlds.' Valente adds the thinnest coat of varnish imaginable to his idea, calling it 'The Closet Between Worlds.' Seriously?!? If this is meant to parody Narnia, I don't get it. If it's not meant as parody, it's hard to think of a less imaginative piece of literary theft; why not just name one’s villain 'Snarth Vader'?

What is that makes Oz, Wonderland, Narnia, and Middle Earth so wonderfully alive and evocative while the oodles of imitations always feel so lifeless and emotionally tone-deaf? I suspect a big part of the magic is that each is built on an extremely tightly-controlled hidden structure – so the surface characters, places and objects may seem whimsical and arbitrary, but they *feel* right because they embody the hidden structure. Valente’s Fairyland makes no apparent attempt to include this secret key to enchantment, so each and every idea feels as arbitrary as a Mad Lib: “Just then, September bumped into the [type of animal] of [abstract concept].” [Yawn.]

‘The Girl Who…’ (2011) reminded me strongly of ‘The Magicians’ (2009), by Lev Grossman. Both stories are primarily reactions to the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and both stories seem completely tone-deaf as to what makes Narnia feel special and magical. As one approaches chapter 19 of Girl, a horrible revelation emerges…

<spoiler>
…is Valente for realzies going to do the exact same surprise twist ending Grossman used just a few years earlier in The Magicians? Sure enough, the Big Bad of her story turns out to be the child-hero who once saved Fairyland from evil, but refused to return to the mundane world, grow up and face adult responsibilities, and so has become a force of oppression in a fairyland where no one realizes they were once the child-hero. *Exactly* identical, note-for-note, and I didn’t care much for the twist the first time around, when it was at least a surprise (and ‘The Beast’ is genuinely scary, the only good part of Grossman’s otherwise lackluster and creeptastic book).

The Narnia stories say explicitly that the entire point of Narnia is to help equip children to grow up and face the real adult world, where they’ll know Aslan by another name (Jesus); if one has anxieties about growing up, is it entirely sporting to blame Narnia, which exists solely for the purpose of helping one grow up? Grossman and Valente come across like troglodytes who’ve smashed their way into a sacred temple of the imagination, couldn’t make sense of the sacraments (at least not without more effort than they’re prepared to invest), and so in retribution took a giant dump on the altar.

At this story’s climax we discover that the villain, The Marquess, is actually a 12-year-old girl, essentially Dorothy from Oz but with a dead mom, inadequate food and physically abusive, alcoholic father. She fell into Fairyland, deposed the wicked King Goldmouth, and lived to adulthood as beloved Queen Mallow. But then her ‘Fairyland Clock’ ran out and she was dropped back into reality, again a 12-year-old girl, where her physically abusive father was waiting (“My father found me and gave me a good thrashing… I tasted blood in my mouth.”) So when ‘Maud’ finally clawed her way back into Fairyland, she returned as a despot out for revenge against Fairyland for condemning her to exile and abuse.

Here’s what I needed to hear the heroine or any of her friends say: “Wait! Before we forcibly depose this admittedly-unjust ruler, could we take even 60 seconds to consider if there’s any way to get what we want without knowingly condemning a 12-year-old girl to horrible, persistent physical abuse? …Any way at all? …Just even a single minute? …Because we’re not evil, supposedly?”

Readers who experience any twinges of discomfort at the image of a 12-year-old girl’s ongoing physical abuse being shrugged off as acceptable collateral damage (“...with heart and wisdom” – Neil Gaiman) will be even more surprised to learn at the end that, while the villainous Marquess is motivated by her frustration at being exiled from Fairyland into abuse, the non-abused, well-fed heroine who still has both her parents is special and will never be exiled from Fairyland, so she can return every year. So the moral bedrock of the story is a bit like a man who was ‘right-sized’ from Wayne Enterprises stealing just enough food to keep his children from starving, then Batman swoops down from his mansion to beat the sh*t out of him – in the name of *Justice*.
</spoiler>

Grab-bag of lesser frustrations:
• Ana Juan’s art is great but for me at least does not suit this story.
• No map of Fairyland? Really?
• This book is 288 pages – at least 200 more than necessary – and then on the very last page one learns that the story isn’t resolved, and you’ll have to read at least 1,152 more pages, not including the prequel, to learn how the story ends...? Frowny face emoticon.
• According to her Wikipedia page, Valente is currently churning out about 5 books/year. ‘The Girl...’ feels like she made it up as she went along, without even an outline, and never revised the first draft, so 5 books/year sounds about right. Am I a grumpypants for expecting authors to invest a bit more time & effort in books they’d like me to pay money for...? [Addendum: Valente confirms in an SFWA.org interview that she did in fact make this story up as she went along with no initial plan, outline or rewrites.]

If lyrical prose and constant novelty is your favorite aspect of the Wizard of Oz or Wonderland stories, and you’re not fussy about those novelties being particularly inventive, or connected with much of a plot, or fairyland having anything like the piercing sense of enchantment you’ll find in Baum, Carroll, Barrie, Rowling, Lewis or Tolkien, I must admit that Valente’s prose reads almost like poetry and offers a few strong one-liners and other bright moments. Obviously a lot of people love these books, but I wanted to at least give voice to those of us who’d hoped for a delicious new kind of fantasy milkshake but discovered our cup filled instead with dregs from the fantasy blender, with maybe just the slightest hint of tacit endorsement of child abuse.
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Every child wants to be whisked away to a magical land, have adventures, and set out on a fantastical quest against a tyrant.

It's a pretty typical fantasy storyline as well, and it takes something special to make such stories stand out. Catherynne Valente's "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" is an enchanting example, filled with delightful nonsense, wryly witty prose, and a wonderfully oddball world that reminds me of a more lyrical Lewis Carroll.

A young girl named September is whisked away from her boring Nebraska home by the Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland. But September soon finds herself traveling through Fairyland herself, encountering a soap golem, a half-library wyvern named A-Through-L, a wairwulf, the Perverse and Perilous Sea with its golden beaches, The House Without Warning, gnomish customs agents, a jeweled key, a migration of bicycles.

She also is given a quest by a pair of witches -- find the magical spoon that the cruel Marquess stole from their dead brothers. So she and the Wyverary set out to the city of Pandemonium, but soon find themselves (and a flying leopard named Saturday) on a new quest, with overwhelming results for all the people of Fairyland.

Normally, Catherynne Valente has a lush, lyrical, sensual writing style, and there's a fair amount of that in this book ("... the moon slowly fall down into the horizon and all the dark morning stars turn in the sky like a silver carousel"). Her Fairyland is a weird, sometimes dangerous place filled with countless oddball creatures (migrating bicycles!), making her story feel like a more plotcentric "Alice in Wonderland."

But since this book is meant for children, she also weaves in a wry, arch style that reminds me of some classic British prose ('As you might expect, the geographical location of the capital of Fairyland is fickle and has a rather short temper"). This gets a little twee sometimes, but Valente also weaves in a bittersweet thread as the story goes on, as well as some dark, delicately heartrending moments.

It takes a little while to warm up to September, since she is initially Heartless (like many children), and doesn't care much about what worry she might cause her parents. Then again, it's pleasant to have a heroine who goes happily into another world without moping about going home -- and despite being Heartless, September proves herself to be a sweet, compassionate girl who is just childlike enough to accept the weirdness.

Catherynne Valente blends her velvety prose with a quirky magical twist in"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making." And she leaves the door to Fairyland open... just in case.
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I think I have mentioned this book a few times on the blog before. It's one that popped up as an Amazon recommendation and I couldn't resist with a title like that!

The book is as amazing as its title. There is such a clear, quirky writing style: it's all very whimsical, a little Alice in Wonderland like, full of weird logic, magical characters and always underlying threats of danger.

September is a wonderfully protagonist. She is brave but not afraid to cry, a little ill tempered sometimes and a little Heartless (but then all children are, according to the book's logic) and she is quite prepared for all the adventures one might expect in Fairyland.

And she gets them.

September makes friends with some truly strange creatures - a Wyverary (a kind of dragon bred with a library), a Marid, and a lantern that's 112 years old - she charms her way out of some situations, stumbles into others and faces down her own Death, all to save Fairyland.

While this could easily be another twee, Alice aspiring story, there are some darker moments that can be very creepy. September's adventures in the Autumn Provinces were a particular favourite, where she gets herself into a predicament that still makes me shiver to think about.

The villain of the story is not a disappointment either. The Marquess is equal parts charming and terrifying, and she has one of my favourite back stories to match as well. Her reasons for being rather awful are almost understandable, and it's sad to see how she got to be that way.

Another little detail I really enjoyed is the start of each chapter, which has a wonderful little diagram and a description of the chapter under the title (In which September meets...etc). It gives the book such a lovely, old fashioned feel that makes me want to gobble it up.

This is a thrilling start to what I imagine is going to a wonderfully whimsical and beautifully dark series, and I'd recommend everyone to give it a go, if not just for the narrative voice, which is superb.
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on 8 November 2012
In feel, this has a charm that reminds me of Victorian writing at its very best but without any of the cloying sweetness... well, with very little of it at any rate.

The villains are properly villainous and there heroes are nicely flawed. The use of language is nothing short of beautiful. The plot is strong. The imagination is immense.

This is a wonderful book that deserves a bigger audience. I am not sure that teenage girls can be persuaded to read this and not rush on to Twilight and Twilight clones but I hope that they will find this and love it. Of course, I am not in the target demographic for this book and so I feel free to say that it well worth reading at any age, either gender. Some of the language would be a little challenging for pre-teen but well worth the effort.
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on 21 June 2012
This book is pure joy!

Who doesn't love fairytales?

September is swept away from Omaha by the Green Wind riding the Leopard of Little Breezes. As they travel away from the world the Green Wind offers her advice and teaches her the rules she must always remember - and then she arrives in Fairyland and her adventures begin. As she travels around this amazing realm she encounters witches called Hello and Goodbye, a Wyvern called A-Through-L (his father was a library!), Calpurnia Farthing (a velocipeder) with her ward Penny, a blue boy called Saturday and, of course, The Marquess. The Marquess has a task for September and it is difficult and dangerous, of course!

This book is wonderful. I just loved it. Ms Valente has a glorious imagination and her use of images relating to colour is superb, especially in the Autumn Provinces. Here it is constantly Autumn, and everything is clothed in bright oranges, reds and yellows. Nothing changes, but everything changes in this season of the year as the natural world moves from summer - the height of its strength and beauty to its death in Winter. I also love the way that the Marquess's hair constantly changes colour as she is talking to September. For a book with text and some (extremely appealing) black and white illustration, this a story full of bright and spectacular colour.

This is a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress" meets "Alice in Wonderland" sort of story, but it is entirely original. Younger readers will love the creatures and characters that inhabit this weird and wonderful land (just imagine, the town of Mercurio built entirely of bread and cake!), but older readers - and even adults - will find plenty to enjoy as the writing is inventive and beautiful. Once again I have to say, this book is pure joy!
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on 29 July 2011
Brilliant book. One of those stories which you constantly see compared to classics (modern and traditional)of the genre- Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13- and you think it can't possibly compare. However I've read several of Valente's books and loved them, so I trusted in these grand claims and bought the book, and I;'m very happy I did so. It combines the best of her books. It's lyrical and poetic like 'Labyrinth' and full of great stories and unique, yet recognisable characters such as in the Orphan's Tales. Recommended for all lovers of fairytales and stories with spiritied heroines.
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on 25 April 2015
Among tales about little girls who get whisked away to fairyland, this one stands out for a less than perfect heroine, September. We are told she is heartless, though the narrator is quick to qualify: "One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh suite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one". This is but one of many whimsical nuggets in this delightful story that keeps holding this reader's attention.

September encounters allies like the literary Wyvern (not a dragon mind you) who tells (yes of course he talks) September he was raised by a library, though he only knows stuff from A to L, those being the volumes of encyclopaedia he was raised on. She also meets a soap golem, who gives her baths to clean her courage, which is of course not as "clean and new" as when she was first born and that "every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you'll never be brave again". September is sent on a quest by the evil marquess to extract a sword from a dead forest, but of course she also throws many obstacles along the way. Who the marquess is and how and why she usurped queen Mallow's throne is something that comes to light in the first installment of the fantastically well-written fairytale.

It just gets a little dark and gory, and unlike conventional children's stories where children fall and hurt themselves with bruises and bumps, this one includes scenes of battle and bloodshed. Nonetheless, this novel is truly engaging and a welcome addition to the YA fantasy bookshelf.
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on 22 April 2015
I first came by this book while I was walking along in Foyles. It immediately caught my eye with its deliciously illustrated cover and eccentric cover, but unsure, I walked on.

I couldn't get it out of my head though. There was something intriguing in the long name I couldn't quite remember, the vague promises of travelling to a faraway land, and eventually I gave in and bought it on my kindle. Best decision I made.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a throwback to the time of fairytales with underlying commentary of a modern society. Toss in some lovely illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and you have a book that will entertain all ages.

The story is about September, a lonely girl who get's whisked away to Fairyland, where she sets out to retrieve a wooden spoon from the Marquess, and then gets entangled in a plot created by the Marquess herself. On her journey she meets Ell the wavererly (a cross between a wyvery and a library, don't ask), an utterly funny character. She stumbles across fairyland, encountering all sorts of creatures, which is told through a brilliantly self-aware narrator voice.

On the surface, this book may remind you of Alice in Wonderland (which I have to say, was the book of my childhood). However, where AiW was a book purely for the story, and without the meaning or morals that came with books of that era, TGWCFiSoHOM (too long?) is teeming with them. Whether it's commenting on the loss of childhood innocent and the cruelty of children and childhood, or death and the future, or indeed modern society with its layers of bureaucracy that disguise the people in powers hidden motives, TGWCF (better?) has meaning to it.

And that makes it special.

I think Valente wrote the book with the idea that parents would read it with their children, thus layering the meaning under the fun, but as a teenager I would recommend it too. It was nice, reading a book where a message could be conveyed in an entertaining way that wasn't layered with sex, drugs and violence. And even without all of that, it remained just as thought-provoking

Sum It Up: A brilliant take on a fairy tale that will enrapture all ages. Totally amazing!

Rating: 10/10
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