Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May Book Review Club: INSTEAD OF THREE WISHES



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@Barrie Summy

It's supposed to be spring, and for most of you it probably is. Here in Maine, the window shows us budding trees, we dance out the door, and we freeze in place. This is why they call it "climate change" rather than "global warming."

On the plus side, more wood stove time. Here's a lovely bit of escapism that would work just as well on a beach if you don't live in The Land the Sun Forgot. Yes, I'm whining.

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By Megan Whalen Turner
Greenwillow Books, 1995

Guilty secret: Every now and then, I google “Megan Whalen Turner Book Five,” grasping for news on the promised sequel to the four Queen’s Thief novels. So far, the series consists of THE THIEF, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, THE KING OF ATTOLIA, and A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, each better than the one before. Which is saying something, considering that THE THIEF won a Newbery honor.

The last book came out in 2010, and Turner has said there would be two more in the series. If that's not true, I will turn into a heap of disappointed dust on the floor.

Last time I guiltily googled, I was reminded that Turner’s first book actually was INSTEAD OF THREE WISHES, a collection of short stories. “Why haven’t I read these?” I muttered, scrambling for the “buy” button.

Why indeed.  Unlike the Queen’s Thief books, which are set in a fantasy realm, most of these stories are in my favorite sub-genre, fantasy set in the real world.  What's more, they're blessed with the dry, wry, understated sense of humor best served up when the supernatural meets the humdrum. Example: Having watched a Cinderella-esque coach-and-four appear and disappear in her front yard, a protagonist's mother says calmly, “It's a good thing we don't have many neighbors. They'd wonder.”

The stories don't have the literary heft of the novels, but lordy they're fun. My favorite, I think, is the title tale (quoted above), in which a high school student named Selene unwittingly earns the gratitude of an elf prince who grants her three wishes she doesn't really want. One after another, she rejects the coach, a palace, and a charming but dimwitted prince with matrimony on his mind, until the desperate elf turns up on the doorstep pretending to be a history professor who needs to rent a room. (Mom, a historian herself, finds it odd that he's never heard of the Battle of Hastings.)

The conundrum's solution is both neat and heart-warming.

In other stories,  a New Hampshire town withstands a leprechaun sighting and onslaught of tourists,  a kid goes back in time to rid a Viking settlement of its cockroaches, and a fledgling punk suffers nightmares in which he sees what other people think of him. Ghosts are addicted to reading. A young king masquerades as a baker.

My second-favorite story, the one whose complex texture most resembles Turner's novels, is “Aunt Charlotte and the NGA Portraits.”  An elderly aunt enthralls her niece with the tale of a girlhood summer on the North Carolina shore, when she helped a strange but beloved neighbor solve a series of art-related puzzles and challenges. I quibbled a bit with the storytelling aunt device—couldn't see why it was necessary. But the story itself was marvelous.

Elements of this collection took me back to the ironic, deliciously weird short stories that got me through my teen years, written around the turn of the last century by journalist H.H. Munro under the pen-name “Saki.” (If you've never read “The Open Window” or “Sredni Vashtar,” correct this gap in your education immediately.) (None of Turner's stories is as bloody as "Sredni Vashtar," I hasten to add.)

I would love to know if Turner ever read Saki. She has claimed Diana Wynne Jones as an inspiration, so that’s almost as good.

For those of us who are Turner-deprived, these stories do ease the ache.

Also, Ms. Turner, hurry up.

(Dear FCC: Do you not recognize the addiction here? Think I’d wait for someone to pay me or otherwise incite this review? In short, I bought this book and no one cares what I say about it.)


7 comments:

Sarah Laurence said...

So right about our weather! Overheard in the grocery store: “Spring has been colder than winter this year.” Maybe I’ll kindle up the fire again. Sigh.

No wonder you love Turner; the witty humor reminds me of yours. Excellent review and thanks to the intro to an author new to me.

Lucy said...

Definitely sounds like a fun read. Thanks for the review!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I will admit, I just added The Thief to my Amazon cart. My 14YO is a voracious devourer of fantasies, so I'm hoping this highly recommended series--despite not being finished--will pique his interest. Thanks for a great review! Hang in there! ;)

Stacy said...

This sounds so fun!

Barrie said...

So sorry about your weather....:( Well, you know how I love short stories! And you've convinced me that I need to read more fantasy. So, I'm in! Thanks for reviewing, Ellen!

Cloudbuster said...

So sorry about the weather, though it's only been a week or so since we've consistently hit 50 and above, so I feel your pain.

This sounds like fun! I've never read any Turner before, and this sounds like a great entry point. Thanks for the review!

Lyndi Lamont said...

The short stories sounds like loads of fun. I'm glad you enjoyed them. And I hope the weather warms up soon. This climate change sucks. Where I live, we couldn't get rain out of a Godzilla El Nino. Bah!