Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

It took me awhile to decide whether Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses annoyed me and was insignificant, or offended me and was worthy of a tirade. I decided on the latter, although I will try to control the tirade. Dark fairy tales and fairy tale retellings are some of my favorite things to read. I’ve gotten away from them for a while, and was looking forward to this book as a return, and that it was in verse, was supposedly a bonus. I was sadly disappointed.

I know I’ve mentioned before that I love poetry. Whatever this was it wasn’t poetry. There has always been much dispute over what constitutes true poetry, and it’s a debate I don’t really like to get into, so I’ll only say this: to me poetry is one of the highest forms of language, it requires discipline and skill, it elevates thought, and it makes a kind of music that is all its own, whether it rhymes or not, whether it was a rigidly structured meter or not. I’m not one of those people that feels it’s only poetry if it’s rhymed and metered, but I do feel that all these “rules” of poetry above should apply to free verse as well. It should have kind of hum and feel about it, something you can almost taste and say, “Yes, that is obviously poetry,” even if it’s unrhymed, unmetered free verse.

This book had very little about it that to me qualified as poetry. Even by the rules of prose the language was crass and common, the structure and wording was amateurish and cheap. The whole writing style was extremely harsh, rough-draft-ish and grated on me terribly by the end, even though it’s only 88 pages long. Going simply by the writing style, this was written on a very immature, middle-grade level – not even good middle grade. As you’ll see, there’s a problem that keeps it from being truly middle-grade. But leaving aside the style, it was the content that truly offended me.

Classic “un-Disneyfied” fairy tales have always been dark, and yes, even adult. The farther back you go, the more adult they become. Even Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen cleaned them up and lightened them for a younger audience. However there is a difference between being dark, and being unnecessarily vulgar, sexual, and morally repugnant.

I should have seen it coming, just from reading the reviews on the back of the book. The critics used phrases such as “subversive, post-modernized”, “the best antidote I know to the sanctimonious sanitizing of fairy tales”, [it has a] “scent, stench, fragrance”, “a wicked send-up of nursery tale morality”. I happen to agree with most of these statements. The only difference is, they mean them as compliments, and I very much do not.

I like dark, “unsanitized” fairy tales. (READ: the originals). I like the dark retellings. To the serious fairy tale reader: you can do so much better than this book. The entire point of this book was to shock and appear oh-so edgy and avant-garde. Virtually every story in this book is full of glorification of sexual deviancy and extreme violence, including self-violence, incest, affairs, lesbian incest, etc. Ogres, wolves and the like are portrayed in sympathetic light, while admitting the horrible evil they had committed. This was not so much a retelling as a corruption and destruction of the originals.

To me the best part of this book was the silhouette-style illustrations by Andrea Dezs√∂. Once you subtract title pages and illustrations from this 88-paged book, you average less than two pages for each of the 23 stories, and honestly I didn’t have a problem with that. I would rather look at the illustrations than read the actual book. Yes, they were dark, and sometimes violent, but they were still infinitely better than the contents of the stories. Really, it’s a miracle I read the whole book. I probably shouldn’t have, but because it was so short, the pain was over quickly.
I cannot think of anyone I would recommend this book to. To the contrary I would try very hard to recommend other, better stories, some of which I hope to revisit in the coming weeks.


  1. I absolutely love it when you can agree with the statements made by other reviewers, but with a different meaning attached. Heh heh.

    I absolutely hate it when I'm really looking forward to reading a particular book only to find myself insanely disappointed. Bummer!

    I dislike poetry which I have said before. But I still like knowing ABOUT it in the hopes that perhaps one day I'll grow to love it. My brain is not superior enough as yet. ;)

  2. It was pretty disappointing, but like I said, the reviews on the back kind of set off warning bells.

    I have to say, poetry can be hard to break into, and for some people it NEVER really is there thing. The best way to get a taste for it is to just absorb it in small amounts while reading other things. You know, little extracts, and quotes here and there. Then if you decide you like something (a particular poem, or author) you can go straight for them. That's how I started. now it's a minor obsession.

  3. Thanks for this. I will just avoid it. I find that many times retelling seem to just overly sexualized fairy tales. So disappointing. I do enjoy Robin McKinley for redone fairy tales. She's very good.

  4. I've run into that too. Didn't Robin McKinley do one called Beauty? I believe I enjoyed that one. For a slightly younger audience though I remember being borderline obsessed with The Sisters Grimm when I was a young teen. Very similar to Once Upon a Time, only with younger main characters, and a tiny bit darker in some places. It's similar enough to OUAT that I really believe someone stole from someone. I'm just not sure who. :) I'm wanting to revisit it soon and review it. Hoping it's as good as I remember.