As many of you know, I am running this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge, the purpose of which is to encourage people to get acquainted with different aspects of the library’s collection and stretch our reading horizons.  From time to time I’ll write about a category here, to give a little more information and insight about what’s good, what I love, in that category (why yes, I did choose some of the categories because they’re the types of books I love myself — why do you ask?). I already did that for Time Travel Books here, and now I’m going to talk about Adult Fairy Tales and some of my personal favorites in this category.

I could almost have filled an entire category with Neil Gaiman’s books; one of the things he’s really good at is creating his own versions of fairy tales, either new takes on old stories (e.g., The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is awesome) or stories of his own which feel like fairy tales (e.g., Neverwhere, which was also made into an excellent BBC mini series).  His collections of short stories include quirky and often dark takes on famous fairy tales, too, so if you’re a short story fan, do check out his collections.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites of his, the excellent (and surprisingly short) The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I’m not usually a fan of the “framing story”, where the real story is being told by a character in the story, who intrudes at the beginning and the end; I usually find that a clumsy device and think the framing part could be excised easily without any damage to the story. HOWEVER, in this particular case, the framing story really works, and adds depth and poignance to the story you’ve already read.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you.  A middle aged man returns to the scene of his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary period of his life, when terrifying forces converged on his family and the only people who were capable of saving him and his family were three women, a girl who’s apparently his age, an adult woman and an old woman who claims to remember the Big Bang itself.  Gaiman’s prose is gorgeous, his grasp of myth and archetype is amazing, and this is just a terrific book all around.

A very different, but equally wonderful, book is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in a vividly rendered New York City at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.  Chava is a golem, created by a Polish rabbi who died while he was transporting her with him to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire spirit from Syria, only recently released from the bottle that imprisoned him.  The two of them meet and develop an unlikely but poignant relationship as each of them navigates his or her way through their respective cultures and tries to find out his or her origin and purpose in this world.  The book focuses on Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, not the usual stuff of fairy tales we’re familiar with, and brings these very different and very unusual characters to life.  

Alaska in the 1920’s doesn’t seem like a likely setting for a fairy tale, but once you’ve read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, you’ll change your mind. The setting is unusual, but the storyline, about a couple who long for a child of their own and can’t have one the usual way until they build themselves a child out of snow, which then seems to create a real live child, is classic fairy tale stuff. The child, who seems to be a part of the wilderness herself, calls herself Faina, and Jack and Mabel, the couple at the heart of the story, come to love her as if she were their own child, born to them.  However, she isn’t really their child; there’s more to her than any of them know, and as Jack and Mabel discover, fairy tales don’t always end with happily ever after.  This is a book with a wonderful sense of place (a great book to read in the hottest part of summer, because I guarantee you’ll feel cooler just reading it) and a poignant plot with believable characters.

And then there’s Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is the kind of book you dive into and forget your surroundings while you become absorbed in the world of the book. While the main plot of the book concerns Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been trained practically from birth to be rivals but who find themselves falling in love with each other (to the consternation of their mysterious mentors), it is the circus world in which they live that really stays with you after you finish the book.  The circus itself is mysterious and wondrous, appearing without warning in a place and then disappearing just as quickly, only open at night, and filled with the most amazing things, the sort of acts and displays you will never find anywhere else. There’s magic here, in the plot, in the descriptions of the circus, in the whole world Morgenstern’s created, and yes, there is a very satisfying ending (though I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s a Happily Ever After ending, all things considered).  A book club favorite and an absorbing read, The Night Circus is the best kind of adult fairy tale.



It’s clearly not true that everything fictional that can be said about the Depression and World War II has been said.  Four new books here at the Field Library take new looks, from different perspectives, at those well-known historical periods and each, in its own way, shows us more of the human side of great historical events.


First, let’s consider life in the Great Depression, in The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. Both a love story and a show-business story, with characters almost fairy-tale like in some respects and Dickensian in others, The Lonely Hearts Hotel stars Pierrot and Rose, two orphans abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in 1910, who discover each other and their talents more or less at the same time.  Pierrot is a piano prodigy, and Rose is a brilliant dancer.  As they perform around the city, falling in love with each other in the process, Pierrot and Rose hatch plans for the greatest circus the world will ever know.  Unfortunately for them, in their teens they’re separated, sent off to work as servants, and to discover the depths of the underworld, where they will do whatever it takes to survive.  When they find each other again (of course they find each other again; what kind of book do you think this is?), they remember and reignite their old dreams of a circus, and when they and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls and other extraordinary performances reach New York City, neither the entertainment world nor the underworld will ever be the same again.  If you loved The Night Circus, then you’ll enjoy The Lonely Hearts Hotel.


Then let’s turn to a debut novel* that follows the fortunes of a Jewish family during World War II and afterwards. The book is We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, and it’s based on the true story of her family’s actions and reactions to the Nazi invasion of Poland and subsequent horrors in World War II.  The Kurc family starts out together in the town of Radom in Poland, in spring, 1939, noticing the increasing deprivations Jews were beginning to suffer, aware of the movements of Hitler’s armies and Europe’s response to those moves, but, like most of us, they try to live normal lives in the presence of such disturbing storm clouds, until it becomes impossible for them to do so any longer.  As war comes to Poland and the Nazis take over, the family is scattered, as all of the members try to find their own way to safety in very uncertain times. Some are exiled, to different countries, to different continents, while some try to keep their heads down and work endless hours in ghetto factories.  Others hide in plain sight, disguising themselves as gentiles and living in the midst of their would-be enemies.  None of them knows when or even if he or she will see any of the other members of the family, but all of them, from the jazz clubs of Paris to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the farthest reaches of Siberia, will find ways to survive, to persevere and even, in a triumph of the human spirit in the midst of terrible darkness, to find each other again.


In Pam Jenoff’s book, The Orphan’s Tale, the protagonist, Noa, is a 16 year old girl who’s forced to give up her baby when she becomes pregnant by a Nazi soldier, cast out of her home in disgrace and living above a railway station.  One day she sees a boxcar filled with Jewish babies on their way to the concentration camp and, thinking of her own lost child, she takes one of those babies and flees, finding refuge, oddly enough, in a German circus, where she needs to learn how to perform on the flying trapeze in order to fit in.  This brings her first into rivalry with Astrid, the current lead aerialist, and then into a firm bond of friendship with her.  But both women are keeping secrets and in this period secrets are extremely dangerous.  Is their friendship strong enough to protect them from the dangers around them?


A small village in England during the war is the scene of Jennifer Ryan’s book, The Chilbury Women’s Choir.  The well-meaning but misguided vicar of the village church decides that in these dangerous times, a church choir is a luxury the village cannot afford. When a new music professor arrives in the village, he gives the women the spark they need to defy the vicar and set up their own choir, the Chilbury Women’s Choir.  The book interweaves the stories of the women, very different in character and circumstances, from the widow with a son at the front to the young Jewish refugee to the midwife trying to outrun her past to the town beauty falling for a rakish artist, allowing their stories (told through letters and diary entries) to join together and strengthen each other as their voices do in their new choir, revealing the powerful lives of the women on the home front in the early stages of a terrible war.


*Which qualifies for the Debut Novel category of the 2017 Reading Challenge, for those of us who are working on that, just so you know.