Brave New Words: 8 Retellings That Put Fresh Twists on Classic Tales

Sarah Walsh
October 19 2021
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I have a secret. I’m obsessed with retellings of classic stories. I think it all started at my local library when I picked up a copy of Ella Enchanted because Princess Mia Thermopolis (aka Anne Hathaway) was on the cover. Little did I know that this book would change my reading life forever. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized you could retell my favorite fairy tales and make them new and exciting. And if I’m going to be honest, the bulk of my reading today still consists of new twists on old favorites.

I have a feeling that many of you might share my obsession, so I’ve rounded up some of my favorite retellings of classic stories that are sure to make you think of your beloved characters in a whole new light.

The Ballad of Laurel Springs
by Janet Beard

One of the most underrated forms of storytelling is folk songs. There’s just something about the way these popular ballads find a way to ingrain their lyrics into your brain, never to be forgotten. In THE BALLAD OF LAUREL SPRINGS, author Janet Beard revisits popular Tennessee ballads like “Pretty Polly” and “The Knoxville Girl” by telling the story of ten-year-old Grace, who inherits a grisly family legacy. Several generations ago, Grace’s four-times-great-grandfather stabbed his lover, only to have his crime memorialized in a folk song. Beard vividly reimagines these ballads as they intertwine with the lives of the women in one family across generations.

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The Ballad of Laurel Springs
Janet Beard

From the internationally bestselling author of The Atomic City Girls, a provocative new novel about multiple generations of women in one East Tennessee family haunted by violence and redeemed by their rich inheritance of folk music.

Ten-year-old Grace is in search of a subject for her fifth-grade history project when she learns that her four times-great grandfather once stabbed his lover to death. His grisly act was memorialized in a murder ballad, her aunt tells her, so it must be true. But the lessons of that revelation—to be careful of men, and desire—are not just Grace’s to learn. Her family’s tangled past is part of a dark legacy in which the lives of generations of women are affected by the violence immortalized in folksongs like “Knoxville Girl” and “Pretty Polly” reminding them always to know their place—or risk the wages of sin.

Janet Beard’s stirring novel, informed by her love of these haunting ballads, vividly imagines these women, defined by the secrets they keep, the surprises they uncover, and the lurking sense of menace that follows them throughout their lives. With the same rich sense of place as Bloodroot or Serena, The Ballad of Laurel Springs is an unforgettable portrait of women fighting to make a safe place in the world for themselves and the people they love.

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Longbourn
by Jo Baker

PRIDE & PREJUDICE is one of my all-time favorite books, so it won’t come as a surprise that I’ve read many P&P retellings. But few have captured my attention quite like Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN. In this novel, Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are moved to the background while their maid, Sarah, takes center stage. Gone are the ballgowns and suitors with £10,000. In its place, the reader learns about class boundaries and life belowstairs against the backdrop of a beloved, familiar story. For those looking for a greater understanding of the Regency era, this book is a must-read.

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Longbourn
Jo Baker

Jo Baker’s novel is a completely different take on Pride and Prejudice. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, the servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to the beloved novel and dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England.

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House of Names
by Colm Toibin

New life is breathed into the Greek tragedy of Clytemnestra through the gripping prose of Colm Tóibín. In his novel HOUSE OF NAMES, Tóibín gives Clytemnestra the voice she hasn’t had throughout history. Clytemnestra tells her story in vivid detail—the why behind the murder of her children and husband, her desire for power and vengeance—which will have you not only understanding her desire for revenge but celebrating it. If you’re a lover of Greek mythology, make sure to pick up a copy of this book to give you new insight into this classic.

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House of Names
Colm Toibin

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Shallow Waters
by Anita Kopacz

Yemaya, Africa’s Yoruba people’s deity of the sea, is transported from her traditional narrative and into antebellum America. In this retelling, Yemaya leaves behind the role of water spirit and instead takes shape as a young woman who discovers Black resistance and the power of love and femininity to fight the evils of the era. Along the way, she meets historical icons as she travels the Underground Railroad in search of the man who exchanged his freedom for hers. Her innate strength and incredible journey will leave you feeling empowered.

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Shallow Waters
Anita Kopacz

In this stirring and lyrical debut novel—perfect for fans of The Water Dancer and the Legacy of Orïsha series—the Yoruba deity of the sea, Yemaya, is brought to vivid life as she discovers the power of Black resilience, love, and feminine strength in antebellum America.

Shallow Waters imagines Yemaya, an Orïsha—a deity in the religion of Africa’s Yoruba people—cast into mid-1800s America. We meet Yemaya as a young woman, still in the care of her mother and not yet fully aware of the spectacular power she possesses to protect herself and those she holds dear.

The journey laid out in Shallow Waters sees Yemaya confront the greatest evils of this era; transcend time and place in search of Obatala, a man who sacrifices his own freedom for the chance at hers; and grow into the powerful woman she was destined to become. We travel alongside Yemaya from her native Africa and on to the “New World,” with vivid pictures of life for those left on the outskirts of power in the nascent Americas.

Yemaya realizes the fighter within, travels the Underground Railroad in search of the mysterious stranger Obatala, and crosses paths with icons of our history on the road to freedom. Shallow Waters is a nourishing work of ritual storytelling from promising debut author Anita Kopacz.

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All's Well
by Mona Awad

Another underrated form of retellings is when a beloved work is told through the lens of characters putting on a production of the original work. In ALL’S WELL by Mona Awad, the heroine struggles with life following an accident that left her stage career and marriage in tatters. As she copes with a painkiller addiction as a result of her accident, Miranda works toward putting on a production of All’s Well That Ends Well and is mysteriously helped by three benefactors who seem to know a lot about Miranda’s past and future. Particularly suited for all the Bard fans out there, this is a must-read for anyone interested in seeing their favorite plays come to life in a new way.

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All's Well
Mona Awad

From the author of Bunny, which Margaret Atwood hails as “genius,” comes a dazzling and darkly funny novel about a theater professor who is convinced staging Shakespeare’s most maligned play will remedy all that ails her—but at what cost?

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF SUMMER 2021 SELECTED BY * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * VULTURE * LITHUB * REFINERY29 * GOODREADS * POPSUGAR * NOW MAGAZINE * BOSTON * AND MORE

“[A] sparkling valentine to the Bard. A dream of a novel, perfect for a midsummer night’s read.”OPRAH DAILY
“A dazzling wild ride of a novel—daring, fresh, entertaining, and magical.” —GEORGE SAUNDERS
“Wild and exhilarating and so fresh it takes your breath away.” —LAUREN GROFF
“Oh my lord what a fabulous novel—knocked me out!”—MARY KARR

Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating, chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised, and cost, her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.

That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible, doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.

With prose Margaret Atwood has described as “no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged...genius,” Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All’s Well is the story of a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.

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These Violent Delights
by Chloe Gong

If you frequent BookTok, Chloe Gong’s THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS might have come across your FYP lately. Your favorite play from high school English class (yes, I’m talking Romeo and Juliet) is reimagined in Shanghai in the 1920s. The two titular characters are now heirs to rival gangs that have begun to show signs of instability—leaving chaos and power grabs in its wake. The two characters must set aside their past pain and lost love to work together to restore order to the city before all descends into mayhem. Yet another inspiring retelling of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

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These Violent Delights
Chloe Gong

An Instant New York Times Bestseller!
A BuzzFeed Best Young Adult Book of 2020

Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Serpent & Dove, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

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The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware

TURN OF THE SCREW meets your favorite smart home devices in Ruth Ware’s retelling, THE TURN OF THE KEY. Our heroine finds herself in the job of a lifetime: an extremely well-paid nannying gig in the Scottish Highlands in a decked-out smart home, and with a new love interest on the horizon. But between the constant surveillance, faulty technology, and relative abandonment by the children’s family, she realizes something isn’t quite right. The situation truly turns into a nightmare when the heroine ends up on trial for murder after the child in her care ends up dead. As she awaits the trial, she writes to her lawyer to explain the situation, which is foggy in her memory, only knowing that someone else committed the murder and is walking free.

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The Turn of the Key
Ruth Ware

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A superb suspense writer…Brava, Ruth Ware. I daresay even Henry James would be impressed.” —Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On

“This appropriately twisty Turn of the Screw update finds the Woman in Cabin 10 author in her most menacing mode, unfurling a shocking saga of murder and deception.” —Entertainment Weekly

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lying Game and The Death of Mrs. Westaway comes this thrilling novel that explores the dark side of technology.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the home’s cameras, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder—but somebody is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie C. Dao

With films like Maleficent and Cruella, by now we’ve all learned that the movies we loved as children don’t necessarily tell the full story of the villains who haunted our childhoods. In FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, author Julie C. Dao reimagines the origin story of the Evil Queen in Snow White. Growing up as a peasant, eighteen-year-old Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny her cruel, witch aunt foresaw for her: give in to her inner darkness and she will become the Empress of Feng Lu. But as her journey to the top requires her to scorn the man she loves and eat the hearts of the recently dead, Xifeng must decide if her destiny is worth the price she pays along the way.

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Julie C. Dao

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MENTIONED IN:

Author Picks: 6 Literary Quotes That Stuck with Me

By Ash Davidson | November 29, 2021

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By Sarah Woodruff | November 24, 2021

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By Holly Claytor | November 22, 2021

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By Chris Gaudio | November 19, 2021

Staff Picks: 5 Books We’re Extra Thankful For This Year

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 18, 2021

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Photo credit: Gallery Books

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