Friday, April 22, 2011

Review - "Cloaked"

I've said before that I'm a fan of fairy tales, and fairy tales deconstructed. I find these stories fascinating, the way they move across cultures and adapt for their surroundings. So any time a book incorporates fairy tales in its storytelling, you better bet I'll be nearby. I loved Alex Flinn's Beastly, a solid story from a different point of view with wonderful touches of magic and modernity. I haven't read her A Kiss in Time (it's on my list), but I just had the opportunity to put my paws on her newest novel, Cloaked, which once again takes up the hero's point of view and puts him on the road for a rollicking good adventure.
Taking its cues from half a dozen fairy tales (at least), Cloaked tells the story of Johnny Marco, a seventeen-year-old living in South Beach, working at his family's shoe repair shop.
"My family's run the shoe repair at the Coral Reef Grand, a posh hotel on South Beach, since before I was born - first my grandparents, then my parents, now my mother and me. So I've met the famous and the infamous, the rich and the...poor (okay, that would be me), wearers of Bruno Magli, Manolo Blahnik, and Converse (again, me). I know the beautiful people. Or at least I know their feet."
Then one day a princess walks into his shop, the young Victoriana from Aloria, a fictional, French-speaking country, and turns his life upside down. One minute Johnny's biggest worry is how to pay the electric bill, the next, he's off on a quest for the princess to recover her brother, Philippe, who has been turned into a frog and is loose somewhere in south Florida. There is magic in the world, he discovers, and he learns to use part of it by means of a cloak that will taken him anywhere he wishes (but he must learn to be very specific) and an earpiece that will allow him to speak with animals, at least those who used to be human. Along his way, Johnny is joined on his quest by his best friend, Meg, and sparks fly in every direction when they get close and when they fight. All fairy tales must have a happy ending, of course, and this one does it up right, with a few twists and surprises on the way (although I wasn't particularly surprised by one of them).
Part of the charm of Cloaked is Johnny. He's affable, a sort of teenage everyboy, but one that harbors a special dream and talent. He wants to design and make women's shoes. That in and of itself is unusual, but I love that Flinn doesn't make a big deal about it. The dude loves shoes, and that's just fine. Johnny's an easy character to like, necessary for the kind of journey Flinn puts him on, so that even when he does something dumb (and he does, often), you're still on his side. Meg doesn't succeed quite as well. She's a little bit of a stock friend character, but charming in her own way. I just happened to find the princess, with her frantic faith in Johnny as a "good boy" and slightly sneaky manipulation of her own image, a little more interesting, and I was a bit disappointed when we didn't get more of her.
The fairy tales are the real gem of this book, though. Here are stories less well known than your average princess tale, including "The Salad", a personal favorite of mine. Also at work in Cloaked are "The Elves and the Shoemaker" (of course), "The Six Swans" and "The Fisherman and His Wife". I was thrilled to find a fairy tale at work that even I was unaware of; Flinn names it "The Golden Bird", though it was originally a Russian tale called "The Firebird and the Gray Wolf". Flinn incorporates all these tales quite deftly, spinning them together into a story of her own, one that captures the imagination and keeps you on the edge of your seat. This is a must read for dedicated fairy tale fans.
Cloaked by Alex Finn
2011, HarperCollins
Library copy

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