The Good Fairies of New York

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Immediately after I'd broken my arm, I found it impossible to concentrate for long periods of time (longer than five or ten minutes at a stretch) because of the intense pain or because of the haze caused by the pain medications. But nevertheless, I wanted to retreat into a book, so I decided to read a book that was completely different than my usual fare -- just for fun, of course. Thanks to one of my readers, I already had the perfect book in my possession; The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press; 2006). This humorous fantasy, set in modern day NYC, is delightful and entertaining and filled with a group of amusing and quirky characters.

The Good Fairies of New York starts when two fugitive Scottish thistle fairies, Heather and Morag, fall through the open window of a fourth floor apartment in Manhattan and vomit on the carpet. Sitting a few feet away was an astonished violin-playing Dinnie, a lonely "overweight enemy of humanity" who is the worst violinist in all of NYC. Heather and Morag immediately begin arguing before angrily parting ways. Heather remains with Dinnie while Morag flies across the street and takes up residence with the tragic and beautiful free-spirited punk-rocker, Kerry. Kerry suffers from Crohn's disease and has a colostomy bag, which causes her lovers to unceremoniously abandon her. Even though Kerry is enchanted by her surprise miniature companion, Dinnie clearly is not.

"I've decided not to believe in you in the hope you'll disappear," he declares to Heather who, of course, does not disappear at all, but instead, makes Dinnie into her "project".

Since most humans cannot see fairies, you might be surprised, as I was, to learn that NYC is packed with them; Chinese fairies, Ghanaian fairies, Italian fairies, Celtic fairies -- all of whom indulge themselves in frequent thievery, copious amounts of whiskey, a variety of sex acts and of course, dancing and playing lots of music. It is less surprising, especially to people who live in NYC, to find that homeless people, such as the intelligent but insane Magenta who believes she's Xenophon, a Greek general, are not invisible at all, so they wander in and out of the plotline throughout the entire story. And since this book features both fairies and homeless people, why not a ghost, too? Several special guest appearances are made by the ghost of punk rock guitarist Johnny Thunders, of the New York Dolls. Thunders unfortunately who a few died years before, but he uses his appearances in this book to seek his lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top guitar.

In fact, everyone in this book is searching for something, or in many cases, several somethings. For example, the irascible slacker, Dinnie, is seeking true love (or endless sex; he does spend a great deal of time watching pornography on television), he's also hoping to improve his horrible violin playing, and he needs to earn enough money each month to evade eviction -- perhaps by playing his violin on a street corner? Kerry, who also is in search of true love, wishes to exact revenge upon her former boyfriend who abandoned her when he learned of her health problems. Additionally, she wants to learn how to play the New York Dolls' music on her guitar and wants to build a Welsh flower alphabet as her entry into the local talent show, which she believes will restore her to full health if she wins the grand prize. The fairies, Heather and Morag, are both trying to gain possession of Dinnie's violin because it is a precious long-lost fairy artifact and they also wish to start their own radical punk-rock band -- a fairy first -- while bag-lady, Magenta, wishes to lead her troops into battle and is also trying to maintain possession of Kerry's rare triple-bloomed Welsh poppy.

The book is serious and funny in turns, and it describes a riotously hilarious adventure that will make you giggle through your pain medications and laugh outloud on the subway. Just to briefly mention some of the highlights, Heather and Morag end up triggering a war between NYC's Italian, Chinese and Ghanaian fairies, disrupting a community production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and eventually saving NYC from invading hoards of evil Cornish fairies. In spite of their mischievous selves, Heather and Morag also manage to do good by playing matchmaker between Kerry and Dinnie, helping Johnny Thunders track down his missing guitar and returning the triple-bloom Welsh poppy to an ailing Kerry.

Since the importance of music is the pivot upon which the entire book is built, it makes sense that there would be plenty of musical references and discussion, but the references to musical styles such as strathspreys, jigs and reels were rather cryptic to me, unfortunately. Nevertheless, this did not detract from the story itself, which was charmingly silly. Whether you are recovering from a broken arm or a broken heart, this book is just what the doctor ordered. Read it in good health and humor!

Martin Millar was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but has lived in London, England, for a long time. He has written a lot of things -- novels and plays and short stories and articles. Miller has written seven other novels -- Lonely Werewolf Girl; Love and Peace with Melody Paradise; Milk Sulphate and Alby Starvation; Lux the Poet; Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving: Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, and Ruby & the Stone Age Diet. Martin Millar likes Jane Austen novels, and wrote a stage play of Emma. He even wrote the novelization of the Tank Girl movie. Last, but not least, as Martin Scott, Millar writes the Thraxas series of books. There are eight so far, and he won the World Fantasy Award for the first one. When he's not writing, Millar likes to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and read ancient history.

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I also loved "Good Fairies".

As an Irish music freak, I can define the different kinds of music for you, even though it's a bit late.

In general, you can divide traditional Celtic music into two sub-groups: songs and tunes. Songs are vocal, and are generally a-capella; instruments don't play along with traditional Celtic songs. Tunes are for dancing, and they're usually (but not always) instrumental.

Tunes get classified depending on rythyms, which determine what kind of dance you can do to the tune.

A reel is based on an even 4/4 timing - that is, the rhythm
is counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 with each beat getting the same amount of time, and with a strong accent on the 1 and a soft accent on the three. It's divided into two parts (usually called just A and B); the form is two repeats of A, two of B, and then back to A: A/A/B/B/A/A/B/B. Reels are a
high-energy dance, so they tend to be played fast - anywhere from 100 beats/minute up to 140 beats per minute. They're sometimes played faster in a concert setting, but you can't dance any faster than about 140, and even that's pushing the limits.)

A jig is structured the same as a reel, but it's based on triplets - two groups of three. So instead of 1/2/3/4, it's 123/456. Jigs vary in speed; they're usually up there with the reels, but some jigs are played more slowly.

A strathspey is still in 4, but it swings the rhythm a bit, making it irregular. The one and three are longer than the two and four. So it's got a sort of bouncing rhythm. If you know music notation, it's almost like the quarter notes for 1 and 3 are dotted, and 2 and 4 become 8ths. The real rhythm isn't quite that extreme, but that's the idea. The old "You take the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be in scotland before ye" is a strathspey. Strathspeys are played slowly in comparison
to most other tunes.

A hornpipe is pretty much the same rhythm as a strathspey. Different dance, but roughly the same basic musical form. The main difference is really place of origin: strathspeys come from the scottish highlands; hornpipes come from Irish fishermen. Hornpipes are faster than strathspeys, but they're not as fast as reels.

Slipjigs are in 9 - three sets of three. They're great fun to play, but uncommon compared to the standard jig.

Waltzes are what you expect if you know classical waltz. It's a simple three-beat, generally on the slow side. It's generally used as a sort of cool-off: after you've had a crowd up dancing to these fast, high energy things, you need to let them down easy. So you always finish with a waltz.

By Mark C. Chu-Carroll (not verified) on 08 Apr 2008 #permalink

Mark covered the musical aspects of the differences between jigs, reels, and strathspeys. I'm a Scottish country dancer, so I'll add a few notes on the dancing. Jigs and reels use the same steps, called skip-change of step for traveling and pas de Basque for setting steps, where you don't go anywhere. In both cases, the feet are usually at right angles. Irish country dancing is similar.
Strathspey (the word means the area around the river Spey) is uniquely Scottish, and has a hop at on beat four of the measure. There's a pretty good example here:

The Popeye the Sailor theme is actually called The Sailor's Hornpipe. The "toot toot" at the end of a phrase is the characteristic of a hornpipe.

The book sounds like a lot of fun. I'll look out for it. I like the combination of fantasy and modern elements. Mercedes Lackey's urban fantasies involving elves are similar. There's also Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, mysteries solved by a wizard in Chicago. SciFi Channel did a good job on them last year.

heh, bob; if i mentioned that an evil cornish fairy pushed me into the gutter while i was out photographing the city thereby breaking my arm/shoulder, i am sure i'd be admitted the the hospital again -- into the nuthouse this time.