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REVIEW:  Ella’s Big Chance – A Jazz Age Cinderella  by Shirley Hughes

REVIEW: Ella’s Big Chance – A Jazz Age Cinderella ...

Dear Ms. Hughes,

A few months ago, I was looking to buy another retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale and your book, “Ella’s Big Chance – A Jazz Age Cinderella” was recommended to me at the same time. Intrigued by the setting and cover illustration, I bought it as well. Though I love the Cinderella story, I acknowledge it has its drawbacks – namely that though the heroine gets a man who loves her, he seems to have trouble recognizing her without her footwear. Your version takes that into consideration and then goes it one better.

Cinder EllaMr. Cinders might be a talented dressmaker with a nice little shop but his red headed daughter Ella is the true artiste in silk and satin. Together with delivery boy Buttons, they make sure the store is always bustling. One day, Mr. Cinders married a widow with two daughters of her own. Soon though, Pearl and Ruby along with their mother, begin to behave spitefully to Ella – forcing her to work long hours making beautiful clothes and to move into the basement with no one but Buttons and an old grey cat for company. Hen pecked Mr. Cinders seemed unable to do or change anything.

One day, the Duchess of Arc swept into the store and was fussed over and flattered by Mrs. Cinders as she watched Ruby and Pearl model the beautiful dresses. Soon an invitation to a grand ball to be held by the Duchess arrived at the store. Poor Ella had to work harder than ever on dresses for her step-mother and step-sisters then got left behind when the rest of the family left for the big event. Disheartened, she cried into the grey cat’s fur.

But a tap on her door brought her out to the kitchen where Buttons promised to cook her a meal. Suddenly a stranger arrived – an older lady who announced that she is a Fairy Godmother. With a tap of her furled umbrella, she turned Buttons’s delivery bike into a shiny grey limousine and the cat into a uniformed chauffeur. Then she sketched a shape in the air and Ella’s shabby black dress was transformed into a glittering flapper gown. Off to the ball Ella went with instructions on when the magic would wear out.

There she dazzled the Duchess’s son the Duke with her lively wit and infectious sense of fun. Time flew until the striking clock called Ella back to reality. Fleeing away, all she left was a glass shoe before the magic wore off, leaving her to push the bike back to the shop while the disgruntled cat made his own way home.

Determined to find this stranger who touched his heart and enchanted him as no other had ever done, the Duke set off to find her. Finally he arrived at the dress shop but neither Ruby nor Pearl could force a foot into the glass shoe. About to leave, he spied Ella in the shadows. At last he’d found her! But will everything go according to fairy tale plan?
As soon as I began to read the book, I could tell that it would be different. Mr. Cinders is present throughout the whole story but once he’d made his colossal marriage blunder, frankly I wanted to give him a swift kick in the pants. Being milquetoast is one thing but watching your beloved daughter’s life be made a misery is another.

Still, the setting and the fantastic illustrations of jazz age fashion – and I can tell why these won you your second Kate Greenaway Medal – kept me going. Plus Ella isn’t the standard wafer thin, “oh, all she needs are nice clothes” beautiful. Ella has a lovely mop of red hair and is, to put it gently, a little plump. A plumb Cinderella? Yes, indeed and she’s cute as a bug’s ear. She also knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to stick to what she wants. And here is where I fell in love with this book.

All through the story, I felt a little off. There is a character here not usually in the standard story and as Ella heads off to the ball to dance the night away and charm the Duke, I was uneasy. Okay, if Ella and the Duke fall in love and get married, it’ll be alright but …. but ….something just didn’t feel right. Until you made it right with a neat change to the story which had me grinning from ear to ear. Ella got her man and has wonderful plans for a future – including the grumpy, grey cat – and I couldn’t be happier about them or the way the story ends. Brava! A


REVIEW:  Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

REVIEW: Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

Dear Ms. Marriott,

I’m always on the lookout for books featuring nonwhite characters so when I stumbled across your new novel on NetGalley, I had to request it. I know my previous encounter with your work was so-so but the experience certainly wasn’t enough to turn me off to the possibility of giving you another try. I’m so very glad I did.

shadows-on-the-moonShadows on the Moon tells the story of Suzume, the daughter of a noble family. When the book opens, she’s looking forward to celebrating her birthday without the oppressive presence of her mother, who’s currently away visiting a bereaved relative. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a happy day turns to tragedy. Soldiers attack her family and everyone is killed.

Everyone except for Suzume, that is. (After all, if Suzume died, there’d be no story.) Suzume manages to survive and reunites with her mother, who arrives by the side of powerful lord Terayama who was also the best friend of Suzume’s father. Terayama takes in both Suzume and her mother and as perceptive readers can guess, soon her mother and Terayama marry.

Suzume throws all she has into forgetting what happened and becoming a perfect daughter and lady. That plan falls apart when she learns the truth: Terayama was responsible for the death of her beloved father and cousin. It’s something Suzume cannot forgive. And so she casts off her entire identity in order to seek revenge.

This was one of the more original retellings of Cinderella I’ve seen. I’m not even referring to the setting, which is a fantasy world loosely based on what I believe to be Heian era Japan. The interweaving of Suzume’s quest for revenge with her psychological trauma and burgeoning magical ability against the original Cinderella story was well done. I also found it interesting that the wicked stepmother and fairy godmother roles were genderflipped and assumed by male characters here.

I also thought it was refreshing that Suzume’s prince was not actually the Prince Charming character. In fact, the Prince Charming analogue is rather bland — something Suzume acknowledges, but she sees him as a means to an end rather than her one true love. Instead Suzume’s love interest was another prince entirely. It was great that he was not only nonwhite but also the African analogue of this setting. It’s still relatively rare to find interracial romances between nonwhite characters (versus the more common white/nonwhite couple), and I liked seeing that representation here.

Speaking of great, it was also nice to see a trans woman as a major supporting character, especially when she wasn’t portrayed as a freak. It’s still 50/50 these days when it comes to portrayals of transgendered characters. (And maybe I’m being generous with those odds.) While Akira is infamous, it has more to do with her past role as the lover of the previous Prince than her gender in and of itself. It was nice that Shadows on the Moon didn’t just focus on diversity in race but also queer diversity. That’s more inclusive.

I found Suzume’s trauma over the family massacre, as well as her guilt over surviving it, to be handled pretty well. As a reader, I felt how damaged she was and saw how it ultimately led to her cutting. And a warning to readers sensitive to depictions of cutting, there’s a lot of it, especially in the first parts of the novel where Suzume is the most freshly traumatized by her experience. I wouldn’t say it was portrayed in explicit detail but it’s definitely present and Suzume relies on it quite a bit.

I appreciated the effort to leave certain Japanese terms untranslated. Because it’s true; some things are lost in translation due to there being no English-language equivalent. For example, Japanese honorifics like -san or -chan. Translating these terms can be clunky and awkward so I favor leaving them as is. On the other hand, there can be such a thing as including too much. If there’s a direct English translation of a Japanese word, I see no reason to leave it in the original Japanese. For example, baka means idiot or stupid. There’s no reason why that can’t be translated. I realize it’s a fine line to walk. Some prefer more original Japanese language while others like none to be included at all.

Revenge stories are one of my favorite narratives so I stayed glued to the pages until the end. However, the more we approached the end, the messier the plot became — and I don’t mean in a good way. It seemed rushed and anticlimatic. It’s not that I thought Suzume’s ultimate revenge against Terayama to be inappropriate; I found it fitting, in fact. But the narrative tension lost some steam when a certain reveal took place right before the climax.

Retellings are fairly common, and Cinderella is often a popular choice. Despite this, I thought Shadows on the Moon brought something new to the table. The choice of setting, the diverse cast of characters, and the heroine’s personal trauma and determination to seek revenge no matter the cost made this a worthwhile read for me. B

My regards,