Fiction The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin , G.P. Putnam’ Sons Countless versions of the Cinderella story exist to inculcate into little girls the possibility of happily-ever-after if they meet their Prince Charming. The ending, however, isn’t as simple in Olga Grushin’s telling. Not just about good and evil, the Russian-American author’s brilliant, 21st century take on the classic tale will enchant readers who have lived long enough to realise wedded bliss is not guaranteed even, or especially, for those who observe all the rules. The Charmed Wife is, as Grushin has said, a “subversive exploration of fairy tales”, conceived while she was grappling with a difficult divorce. It’s also a feminist hurrah, raucously funny in parts and clever to a fault. We meet a 35-year-old Cinderella, who, 13 years after her nuptials, is mother to two children. Hubby Roland, a philanderer and liar, runs a kingdom inherited from his father. We first meet him when a witch, who helps unhappy wives, casts a spell for Cinderella – but not to rekindle lost love. Her client prefers him dead. The cast includes a fairy godmother, stepsisters, all-seeing mice, and also lawyers and therapists, who bring the allegorical plot up to date. While The Charmed Wife is a modern-day fairy tale, the book’s foundations are old. Grushin can join hands and take a bow with Alexander Afanasyev, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Non-fiction Craving Supernatural Creatures by Claudia Schwabe , Wayne State University Press No doubt Monster High has earned new fans with its two recent dolls, both inspired by Stephen King’s fevered imagination: Pennywise, the sinister clown from It (1986), and the bloodless Grady Twins from The Shining (1977). However, instead of promoting fear and rejection of the unknown, Mattel, the company behind the franchise, is doing the opposite: children are being told it is fine to be different, Claudia Schwabe argues. Her volume, subtitled German Fairy-Tale Figures in American Pop Culture , examines why, increasingly, “the monster has become beautiful, the villain appears attractive, the freak is now cool”. Acceptance of them indicates that society is taking steps to embrace the Other, she explains, showing how American pop culture has transformed German fairy-tale characters such as the golem, the doppelgänger and the automaton. Popularly depicted as agents of doom in the early 19th century, they have been cast in a more flattering light and now appear “more like us”. References to literature and film are wide and impressive, and include Blade Runner (1982), The Stepford Wives (1972) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Schwabe also breaks the (wicked) spells of witches, Brothers Grimm-inspired dwarfs, even the Big Bad Wolf, a fairy-tale beast whose image has been rehabilitated. While other interpretations of our affinity for supernatural creatures are possible, it’s a relief to start the year with a positive reading of the good, the bad and the ugly. Gender: A World History by Susan Kingsley Kent , Oxford University Press In 2016, in Canada, non-binary genderqueer trans person Kori Doty fought for their baby not to be assigned a gender at birth, which is why “U” (presumably for “unspecified”) replaced “M” or “F” on the child’s ID card. Two years later, the government of Ontario began issuing gender-neutral birth certificates. Now, although many states worldwide still jail those whose gender identities don’t match their biological sex, about 20 countries, a handful in Asia, recognise, in some form, transgender people. As American historian Susan Kingsley Kent remarks, the “change in the cultural acceptance of changing gender definitions has occurred with astonishing speed”. Feminist movements can be applauded for their influence. As can books such as this, which should maintain, if not increase, the momentum. Kent guides readers to the 21st century from the ancient world, showing early constructs of identity and pointing out how ideas about gender have changed, although often to advance unequal rights. We are taken first to Egypt, where, upon assuming the throne, Hatshepsut began dressing in men’s clothing to turn herself into a king. In Japan, concepts of masculinity (embodied by samurai) valued cultural attainment above combat skill. In China, Kent finds that some women “did better” than men at looking after themselves during the Long March, according to one marcher. Their implements of survival? A washbasin, a stick, an animal skin and a needle.