Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I was going to read Confessions in September or October, but I couldn’t resist. I decided to take a peak at the beginning of the book, maybe read the first few lines or paragraphs, maybe the first chapter, but once I started I didn’t want to put it down so I just kept going. It took me a week or two to get through it, it’s kind of long, but it’s really good!

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I’d give Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not going on my Favorite Books list, that would be a 5, but it is very good and I definitely recommend it. There were two reasons I decided to read this book. First, I wanted another challenging read. I just got done reading After Alice a few weeks ago and it was very challenging. I expected Confessions to be the same. The second reason I decided to read it was because of what the Detroit Free Press said about it: “An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel . . . . Confessions . . . isn’t easy to classify or forget.”
Hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel? I definitely agree.

The novel has a few mysteries, I won’t say whether they are solved or not, and it has a surprise ending. Really, I did not see that coming! The characters are very well done, particularly the evolution of “Cinderella” and her “evil step-mother” -who they started as and who they eventually became. You gradually get to know each individual a little more with each passing chapter. This makes it a very authentic experience and makes the characters seem so real that when the book ends you know you’re going to miss them. (I really loved the main character, Iris. She was so relatable. I do miss her.)

Maguire’s version of the Cinderella story suggests that we’ve got it all wrong. Cinderella wasn’t forced into being a servant in her own house, she chose it. She did not hate her step-sisters and they did not hate her. These sisters loved each other. And as for the “evil” step-mother . . . . well, that’s more complicated. In the end I felt that the step-mother was, at the very least, extremely selfish, but other readers might come to a different conclusion about her.

The other Gregory Maguire novels that I’ve read, Wicked and After Alice, were a bit difficult to read and follow, but I did not have that problem with Confessions. I’m not sure if this was because I’ve gotten used to Maguire’s writing style or if Confessions really is just easier to read than the others. To me Confessions seemed to be written in a more straight-forward way, no intellectual sidebars, and no obscure words or phrases.

Another reason this may have been easier for me to read was because I’ve read Girl With a Pearl Earring which is like a pre-requisite for Confessions. Both novels are set in the Netherlands during the Dutch painting renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Both novels give detailed descriptions of life in the Netherlands at that time- the people (rich and poor), the markets, the canals. (The canals becoming clogged with giant chunks of ice or freezing over altogether was really fascinating!) Each novel also gives a detailed description of the art and science of the painting process which I found very interesting. If you read either of these novels you will learn A LOT about painting- color, light, the moods of the artist, and how they made their colors.

I learned a lot from these novels! In Confessions the reader also learns a lot about the history of one of the things the Netherlands is renowned for: tulips. What, besides paintings, canals, wooden shoes and dikes, is more Dutch than tulips?! But did you know that Tulips are not native to the Netherlands?
This is why I read people, this is why I read. I learn something new every time.

So, obviously, in addition to Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister I also highly recommend Girl With a Pearl Earring. But if you happen to be working on an autumn-themed reading list I recommend Confessions. With its secrets and mystery, imps and changelings, it can be a little dark, and wouldn’t make a  half-bad Halloween read.

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Review: After Alice, concluding thoughts

“All of life hinges on what one does next, until finally one makes the wrong choice. But was this that moment?” 

“Alice, I’m coming.”

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After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, tells the story of what was happening in Alice’s world after she chased the white rabbit and fell down the rabbit hole. It can be a difficult book to read and follow, especially the first few chapters, but the more I read the easier (and better) it got. The more I read, the more I liked it, and by the end I really liked it. It isn’t going on my “Favorite Books” list, but I liked it well enough to maybe read it again one day. It isn’t a long novel, but it also isn’t a quick read.

In between the telling of the actual story the author inserts thoughts and lectures on a variety of topics– philosophy, theology, evolution, architecture, even the city of Oxford itself. It’s all very smart and interesting, but it’s also what makes the book difficult to understand at times. The topics the author touches on, and themes he hints at, add to the novel in a way I can barely comprehend- I can’t deny that. But you really could take those parts out of the book and the story itself would remain in tact.

After Alice switches back and forth between the underworld and the “upper world.” The narration also switches from character to character. Usually I don’t like this in a book, sometimes I absolutely despise it, but in this case it wasn’t so bad and it didn’t bother me that much.
Alice is mentioned throughout the story, and we learn a lot about her peculiar personality, but she isn’t an active character in this novel. She doesn’t appear until the very end and has only a few lines of dialogue, but they’re great. Quintessentially Alice.

The main characters are Alice’s older sister Lydia, her friend Ada, and Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong. The reader learns a lot about Alice’s older sister Lydia, which I found really interesting. You also learn a great deal about Ada, “a friend of Alice’s mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” (Many of the well known characters from the original Wonderland novel are also in After Alice– the Mad Hatter and the hare, the White Rabbit, the White Queen, and the Queen of Hearts, as well as others.)

Ada is a curious character and I liked her. There is a lot of description about her physical appearance. She is described as having a “distortion in her skeletal structure,” and walks with “a stoop and a gimp.” In an attempt to correct this Ada has to wear an iron corset, and all of this comes into play throughout the story.

We also learn a little about the members of Ada’s family, her quiet father the Vicar, her “dropsical” mother, and her new-born baby brother who has a large impact at the start of the story. I found it both fascinating and annoying that the author referred to the baby in 15 different ways within the span of only 5 pages!
Good god, I had no idea what the hell was going on at first! It took me forever to understand that the author was only talking about a colicky or sick baby. The problem was he didn’t just come out and say it. Apparently Mr. Maguire has something against clarity! Or maybe laziness. Gregory Maguire wants you to work for the story, he isn’t going to just hand it over to you, you mental loafer!
So, as I was saying, Ada’s baby brother is referred to in 15 different ways in the space of only 5 pages. First it’s the poor creature and then pink smudge of infant, infant in peril, wretched offspring,
“His Lordship the Infant Tyrant”
“The Tiny Interruption”
“Boy Boyce,” etc.

There are also several minor, but very interesting characters. Mrs. Brummige and Rhoda, two servants in Alice’s household.  Mr. Winters, an American man visiting England with his adopted son. Siam, Mr. Winters’ adopted son, a young boy rescued from slavery in the South. And, the biggest surprise character of all, Darwin. Yes, the Darwin is a character in After Alice.

So, as I said, even though I got off to a rough start with After Alice, in the end I really liked it. Actually, it was the surprise, very clever plot twist at the end of the book that sealed the deal. There is a very unexpected “witness” in the trial at the Queen’s garden party- it’s brilliant! I loved it. I also think I got more out of After Alice because I had previously read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, so I definitely recommend that.

Also recommended, Confessions of An Ugly Step-Sister.
“An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel. . . . Confessions . . . isn’t easy to classify or forget.”
  -The Detroit Free Press. (From the back of the After Alice book jacket.)

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A hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel that isn’t easy to classify?!
How could I not read it! How can I not accept this challenge? Because a challenge it will most definitely be. A friend of mine told me a few weeks ago that she read Confessions, and she confessed to encountering the same difficulties that my mother-in-law and I had with Wicked and After Alice- a hazy, patchy style of storytelling, too many obscure words, a lot of philosophical sidebars that do not seem to further the plot or character development. She said she didn’t know what was going on until several chapters into the book, and even then the story still wasn’t very clear most of the time.
Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to resist reading it.

However, that won’t be until September or October at the earliest. The next book I’m reading is, of course, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 

 

Review: My first impressions of After Alice

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After Alice is a Gregory Maguire novel. He’s the guy who wrote Wicked, the novel that tells the Wizard of Oz story from the perspective of the so-called wicked witch of the west.
After Alice is, obviously, a spin on the Alice in Wonderland novel(s). To me the title has a double meaning, and the book, in fact, tells two separate stories. What was going on with everyone else- friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances- after Alice fell down that rabbit hole? The reader is also introduced to Ada, the little girl who also somehow falls down into Wonderland (although it is never called that) sometime after Alice had already descended. Once down there, Ada comes to the conclusion that maybe this strange place is where Alice has disappeared to and decides to go after Alice, to find her and bring her back home, if she can.
So, that’s a brief synopsis.
Now, my first thoughts and impressions of After Alice. . .

Big words. This is why I think Gregory Maguire writes- to use big, obscure words that most people have never heard of, let alone understand.

For example,

aspidistra      comportment      miasma      cozen/cozened      descants
bucholia         ellipsis                   vatic            self-immolate       martinet
camphor        churlish                 gibbet         dipsomania            crepuscular
farrago            purloined             unguent      opodeldoc               hydrocephalic
pellucid          portents                denizen       bosh                         folderol
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Yes, I actually wrote them all down. As I was reading After Alice I became so fascinated by the incredible amount of unfamiliar words and phrases that I felt compelled to start making a list. What I listed above is only part of what I recorded on paper here at home, and includes only up to chapter 7!
Now, to be honest, I haven’t done any research on Maguire at all, so maybe there is an article or something out there that explains why he writes using such obscure language. With that said, I think one possible explanation as to why he uses such strange words in After Alice is that he is writing for the time period in which the story is set. Just a theory…

However, on the back of the book jacket of After Alice there is a quote from the Los Angeles Times regarding Wicked which describes that novel as “A staggering feet of wordcraft. . . .”

Exactly. Wordcraft. The words come first. The story- the tale being told- is secondary. It takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and determination for me to read a Gregory Maguire novel. And I state this unequivocally despite the fact that I’ve read only 1 and 1/2 books by him. A few years ago I read Wicked. It was difficult, but I did finish it. (I also saw the play. The play is much better.) And, a bit challenging though it may be, I WILL finish After Alice. I am, as I’ve said, determined. I will conquer it. That’s why I stuck with and ultimately finished Wicked even though it took me forever to get into it, and it’s why I will do the same with After Alice- TO CONQUER IT, to beat it, to win! I can’t let the book win!
This is a new sensation for me.
I’ve never read any book to “beat” it. I read books that I actually like, books that are fun and interesting with characters and stories that I love, relate to, and learn from. I read books to relax, I read books because I enjoy them- not to conquer or beat them as though reading is some sort of battle or struggle between book and reader. Or reader and author.

At this point (Sunday June 26th, 2016, approximately 1:00 am) I am a little more than half way through After Alice. It took several chapters but I finally understood what was going on, and now that I’m getting close to finishing the book I can say that the story– once the author finally gets to it- is actually pretty good and interesting. It’s also, from what I can remember, much easier to follow than Wicked.
I was just talking to my mother-in-law about this today (well, yesterday, technically.) She’s the one, as I mentioned in a previous post, who gave me her copy of After Alice. She’s  read Wicked as well, and we (along with several other readers we know) share the same sentiments regarding Gregory Maguire’s unusual writing style. We don’t care for his style of storytelling, but he is a good writer. The following are some of my favorite quotes (so far) from After Alice.

“Depending upon the hour, a governess in a troubled household is either a ministering angel or an ambulatory munitions device.”

“Ada, not a deeply imaginative child, believed the cows were resistant to conversation.”

“But she was a good girl. On the way out, she slammed the sewing room door only a little.”

“Mrs. Boyce lay squalid in self-forgiveness.”

“Miss Armstrong was aware that imagination, often a cause of temptation and unrest, could also serve the soul. . .”

“Miss Armstrong sometimes tried to communicate her yearning for recognition as a feminine entity by the tilting of an eyebrow. This was too obscure a hieroglyphic for the Vicar to decipher, no matter how Miss Armstrong concentrated the pure fire of her being in the muscles of her forehead. One day she would self-immolate . . . . Spontaneous combustion caused by an eyebrow left to smolder a moment too long.”

“The world pauses for royalty and deformity alike, and sometimes one can’t tell the difference.”

“She’d fall forever and never land. She’d be the world’s first internal asteroid.”

“She’d stood there for sometime, poking the pyre of coals so that no evidence of her own corruption survived. . .”

“Up until ten minutes ago, Ada had not had much experience in the practice of imagination.”

“Marmalade has to make its own way in life, like the rest of us. . . .”

“She’d have to take up a hobby of some sort if she were to fall for eternity.”

“Her gait was still lopsided, but so was the world, so she kept on.”

“No one can ever know the answer to that question. It is existentially, hyperbolically, quintessentially unknowable.”

“Evolution a mighty power, could it yield up creatures capable of argument.”