Friday, July 13, 2012

The Silver Bough by Lisa Tuttle

The Silver Bough was a recent treasure I found, thanks to the recommendation of a friend -- I'd never even heard of it.  Featuring an ancient and mysterious library, a strange blessing/curse tied up with apple trees, and a misty island that is half in and half out of this world: it was just my cup of tea.

Kathleen leaves her big-city library job to take over a position in tiny, declining Appleton, which was once famous for its apples (go figure) but no longer seems to have much of a crop or anything else to offer tourists.      Ashley visits her distant relatives and learns the story of how her grandmother left the town and rejected the blessing that kept Appleton prosperous.  And Nell has come to find peace and solace after the death of her husband, and her work toward restoring the apple orchard at the estate she purchased sets a chain of events in motion that will change the fate of the town.

The three women's lives weave in and out of each other's, and that of the town itself.  When Appleton gets cut off from the rest of the world after a mudslide, blocking the only access road, strange events start to affect all the locals and visitors....

This was a real gem, and definitely recommended if you want something that touches on the otherworldly and mythy.  It's not a straightforward folktale retelling but draws on many of the familiar elements and creates it's own fantastically atmospheric setting.  I think this one will appeal to fans of Charles de Lint or Juliet Marillier.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

White Cat, Red Glove, Black Heart by Holly Black

White Cat by Holly Black is the first book of the Curseworkers trilogy, which also includes Red Glove and Black Heart. All three books tie in pretty closely together to tell one story, but it's the first book in the story that I'm going to focus on, because it's based on the fairy tale The White Cat. (Surprise surprise!)

 The basis for the story is fairly loose, although it does pull the essential elements out of the original tale. (Girl is imprisoned in the form of a cat and needs rescued by handy local hero.) It's not a commonly retold fairy tale, so it's hard to say "Wow, this is a really fresh new take on this story!" because there simply aren't that many versions. It is refreshing just because there aren't that many versions. In spite of hedging on that matter, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed these books. 

Cassel and Lila are well-rounded, engaging characters. Cassel manages to be a bad-boy without coming across as a total jerk (perhaps because the story is told from his perspective). The secondary characters felt fully formed as well, not just props for the main characters to move around. And I appreciated the lack of love-triangle-as-drama.

The fairy tale eventually falls into the background, and the story of the Curseworkers, the politics and ramifications of a world where a portion of the population can curse other people with a touch, and the family life of Cassel and his mother and brothers span all three books.  It's a captivating story and a quick read; I could barely put them down.

And it's nice to have a completed trilogy to read while we wait for some of the many sequels that are popular right now to come out!

Sunday, July 8, 2012


I got my first inkling of worry about Brave when I went to buy postage stamps and picked the Pixar stamps. Take a look, here is the first set that was designed:
And here is the 2012 set:

 That was the first time I noticed it, but it hit me then: every one of those movies is about guys. Although some argument can be made that Wall-E is ungendered, I think we are meant to recognize "him" as masculine. And there is some sense of The Incredibles as an ensemble, but I think it's really about Mr. Incredible, with his family as strong secondary characters.

That's not to say that there aren't wonderful female characters. In fact I think Pixar does an excellent job of representing females as fully-developed characters (when they HAVE female characters in their movies). But as it has been pointed out, this IS Pixar's first movie with a female lead. And as such, the spotlight is on: how are women represented in THIS movie?

Those postage stamps were what did it for me, though. That's when I winced and thought, "Oh no. What if Pixar is just doing a movie about a princess who doesn't want to get married?"

There are some great articles already delving into this, so I'm not going to go into it, except to point out Mary Pols's article (again, from above), and in particular:

This wouldn’t feel so vaguely unsatisfying if Brave were just one of many Pixar movies that featured a strong female lead. It’s the absence of others that turns the spotlight on Brave. And having a princess protagonist isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that she is so chapter one of what girls can be — and so many other Pixar movies skipped most known chapters and moved on to whole new volumes.

And Once Upon a Blog challenges the notion that Brave is doing anything original with the princess concept.

Much with the SPOILERS ahead:

All that aside, I thought the relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor was well done. The motives of both were complex but clear to the audience even if they weren't clear to each other. Both women were sympathetic -- I don't buy the idea that Elinor was the primary antagonist, which would be a huge throwback to cliched storytelling. I liked the witch, as well, who I think was far more interesting and unstereotyped than I've seen credited anywhere -- she's not the "bad guy" per se although she causes more problems than she solves.

The main problem with Brave is the constant and significant suggestion that the characters choose/make their own fate/destiny, and then are lead around by the nose throughout the movie. The Will o the Wisps lead them to every significant plot point; the two women are left with very little agency outside of their cultural roles.

Now, how they end up, with a slightly modified lifestyle (they are "choosing" to fall in love instead of having an arranged marriage -- and I do like to think that Young Macintosh and Young MacGuffin eventually hook up) really has hardly "changed fate" at all. Merida will still probably get married, she'll just take a little more time about it and marry someone who catches her fancy, rather than being stuck picking from the three overly-buffoonish choices she had before. She'll still have babies who grow up to drive her batty, and grow old among her clan and die. She's not doing anything out of the realm of her expected life.

I'm willing to accept that. I think the main misfortune of Brave is that it claims to be something beyond the beautiful story of a mother and daughter coming to understand each other. Which I felt was very well-done (although, this being a Pixar film, I wish there had been more, successfully). I believed in the simultaneous frustration with and love for each other that Merida and Elinor felt. I thought it was wonderfully appropriate that to win the day, if you will, Merida had to sew and Elinor had to fight. The meal that Merida and Elinor shared, post-transformation, made me grin and tear up at the same time.

So why couldn't they be their own agents?

Why couldn't Merida have sought out a witch to change her mother, instead of just going with the first solution to fall into her lap?

Why couldn't Elinor, who is studied in the lore of their culture, have taken her daughter to the ruins and showed her the consequences of ill-considered magic?

Why couldn't Merida remember the way to the ruins, having found them twice before?

Why the damn will o' the wisps, anyway?

And that leads me to my next point, which I think "fixes" the story enough for me that I still love the movie -- although I'm not sure it's what the creators intended at all.

Merida and Elinor both suggest that the will o the wisps are lucky and will lead you to your destiny. (In contrast with the concept that they desire to make their own destiny.) And aren't they cute? Don't they just look helpful and appealing?


NO. They look EVIL. And I have no idea who got the idea that they should be our little handy helper buddies. After all, in traditional folklore, they're anything but helpful:

A will-o'-the-wisp /ˌwɪl ə ðə ˈwɪsp/ or ignis fatuus ( /ˌɪɡnɨs ˈfætʃuːəs/; Medieval Latin: "foolish fire") is a ghostly light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths. A folk belief well attested in English folklore and in much of European folklore, the phenomenon is known by a variety of names, including jack-o'-lantern, hinkypunk, hobby lantern in English. (From Wikipedia


In fact, nowhere in British (and therefore Scottish, the culture Merida's world is drawn from) folklore does it suggest that Will o the Wisps bear any kindness toward humanity:

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is "fairy fire" held in the hand of a púca, or pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost. The púca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family. In Wales the light predicts a funeral that will take place soon in the locality. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions the following Welsh tale about púca.

A peasant traveling home at dusk spots a bright light traveling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a "dusky little figure", which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice. This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the ignis fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o'-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.

Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has "pixie-led" travelers away from the safe and reliable route, and into the bogs with glowing lights.

"Like Poltergeist they can generate uncanny sounds. They were less serious than their German Weisse Frauen kin, frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents." Pixy-Light was also associated with "lambent light" which the "Old Norse" might have seen guarding their tombs.

In Cornish folklore, Pixy-Light also has associations with the Colt Pixy. "A colt pixie is a pixie that has taken the shape of a horse and enjoys playing tricks such as neighing at the other horses to lead them astray". It may well be said that the wild colt pixy would sometimes bedevil regular horses on a ride and cause them to lead their human masters into a predicament or hazard, and might have yielded the pixy - horse name variation.

In Guernsey, the light is known as the faeu boulanger (rolling fire), and is believed to be a lost soul. On being confronted with the spectre, tradition prescribes two remedies. The first is to turn one's cap or coat inside out. This has the effect of stopping the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other solution is to stick a knife into the ground, blade up. The faeu, in an attempt to kill itself, will attack the blade.

So all right. The creators of Brave have tweaked the mythology, and made the Will o the Wisp a helper. But if that was their intention, they didn't do a very good job. Every time the Will o the Wisp appears, it leads to mischief or further problems. Consider:

They first appear when Merida is a little girl. This one instance I might be stretching a bit, but think about it. The instant she gets back to her family, they are ready to leave. One could theorize that the Wisps have, in fact, delayed the departure -- just long enough for Mor'du to find them, and attack, potentially killing the whole family. The quickness of Elinor and the bravery and fighting skill of Fergus save the family (minus one leg). We don't know if any of Fergus's men are killed or maimed as well. MISCHIEF MANAGED.

The second time they appear, they lead Merida to the witch. Now the witch isn't all bad, and in fact discourages Merida from trying to solve her problems with magic. But she certainly can't be argued to be straightforward or even particularly helpful. She is, however, willing to be bribed, and when Merida sets her up for a nice retirement, she takes the opportunity. And Merida is handed a solution that will cause far more problems than it solves. MISCHIEF MANAGED.

The third time they appear, they lead Merida and Elinor to the ancient ruins, where they discover what happened to the last prince in Elinor's story, and the last known instance of the witch using her magic to "help" someone. So it might be argued that the Wisps are trying to help Merida and Elinor figure out what's going on. But then, on the other hand, they get attacked and nearly killed by Mor'du. Only by working together do they escape. And from what the wisps have seen of Merida, she would be disinclined to work with her mother. FURTHER DEATH OR MAIMING NEARLY MANAGED.

The fourth time they appear is when they SEEM to be the most helpful, on the surface, leading Merida back to the stone circle which she for some reason can't find at that moment. Now, they appear to be fully helpful, but consider; Merida comes from a culture with no apparent female fighters, and her father is about to slay her mother. To me, this looks like the Wisps taking sadistic pleasure in leading Merida to her parents just in time to witness a tragedy. The fact that Merida does in fact prevent the tragedy is a testament to her skill and determination, not to the helpfulness of the wisps.

If for some reason Merida's mythology of the Wisps is misguided, then you have the Wisps fighting to destroy Merida's family and clan. They are subtle, sneaky enemies, and Merida's bravery and skill, as well as that of her family, help them to survive.

It's a slant on the story, I admit; I think the creators' intention was simpler and more problematic. And I'm not sure how that fits into the overall portrayal of women and the culture. It makes me feel like Merida and her mother are fighting against something more that societal expectations, and that by joining forces they overcome more than a constructed convention.

Overall, I did enjoy the movie, and it was soooo worth seeing in the theater. It's stunningly beautiful, one of Pixar's best in terms of the imagery. And I really do want it to do well. For all that I think there are problems, it's by the standard of a movie company that has blown away so many conventions and set the bar considerably higher than it ever was before. If I quibble with the fact that they've told a conventional story, they've still done it well and deserve the recognition. (Plus I want them to know that a movie with a female lead can make money -- do it again!)

What did you think?

Friday, July 6, 2012

An Undone Fairy Tale by Ian Lender, illustrated by Whitney Martin

This is a cute picture book that naturally caught my eye, as you can imagine.  It's the story of a princess who needs to be rescued -- and it's also the story of the painters and builders and animal-wranglers that are desperately trying to get everything into place before you turn the page, and could you please come back in a week or so when they have everything finished?

But naturally, you turn the page and find things half-finished, and quick substitutions of whatever materials were on hand, and unpainted backdrops, and cast members unprepared.

The fairy tale itself spins in unpredictability, given that all the necessary props -- fire-breathing dragons, horses, and even the royal crown -- weren't ready on time.  The book itself is great for kids who are learning about the different ways to tell the same story, and is fun for those of us who study or love deconstruction of traditional tales: it just takes the concept a bit more literally than normal.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell, was a fun, light read.  The story is told from the point of view of Reveka, a young and sassy herbalist apprentice.  Though she is impatient with the conventions and restrictions of her role in life, she is an excellent herbalist, and attempts to use her plant knowledge to cure the mysteriously ailing princesses, who disappear every night and return exhausted and with their slippers worn through.

Her meddling brings her to the attention of the queen, who encourages her to keep trying.  As Reveka learns more about the history of the curse and the affect it's had on the entire kingdom, her worry increases, and she's drawn more and more intimately into the princesses' lives.

The story evolves about midway through to become a more recognizably Beauty and the Beast adaptation, with a strong flavor of Persephone thrown into the mix.  I loved the blend and the reasoning and the way the two tied together to make a strange underworld for Reveka to explore.

I think I would have liked more detail about the kingdom and its neighbors, and some more of the complexity of the political situation to come through in the story -- but I do think the book is suitable for younger readers and as such, readers who are (old) like me will find it a pretty quick read.

Definitely a delightful take on two of my favorite fairy tales.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

So the Huntsman.  Mmmm, yummy.

Oh, I'm sorry.  I meant Snow White and the Huntsman.  (But I'll be honest--The Hunstman is the highlight of this movie for me.)

Okay.  So.  Snow White is a little girl, with a father who adores her, and a sweet and loving but sickly mother.  A terrible winter comes to pass, and Mother dies.  And then Father, who is sad and in mourning, gets drawn away from the castle to fight a mysterious army that has appeared.  His soldiers fight the bizarre army (great visuals -- as they break apart you see them turn into mirror shards) and "rescue" the beautiful captive, Ravenna.

Well she doesn't take long to turn on him, poisoning and killing him on their wedding night.  So the castle and kingdom are won by treachery.  Then for some reason she locks Snow White in a tower for 8 years.

We tune back into the action and meet a dirty but just matured Snow White, playing with dolls in the fireplace.

For those of you who dislike Kristen Stewart on principal, I'm not going to try to defend her acting in this movie.  There is honestly a lot of mouth-breathing that I could have lived without.  However, if you are a Kristen Stewart fan, you'll like her in this movie.  I think I fall somewhere in the middle, and I thought she did all right with the accent.  She plays the part pretty subtly, and I'm not sure how well that fits this kind of movie, which I tend to think of as more along the lines of Labyrinth than a purely dramatic piece.

My favorite part of the movie is probably the Enchanted Forest, as its own entity.  I think the lead up to it falls a bit short -- there is some suggestion of magic, like the apple tree that blooms and bears fruit at the same time -- but it's all very subtle, background world-building stuff until BAM "This is the forest where the fairies live!"

I found it a bit abrupt.

But don't get me wrong.  The forest itself is gorgeous.  And if you can shrug and say "Okay, we're in THAT kind of movie now," it works out okay.

It is a much looser interpretation of Snow White than I was expecting.  There is a "prince" character to play along Snow White (the Duke's son) and unfortunately that seems to mostly be in order to give the movie some hint of a love triangle.  (Blah, I've had enough of those.)

The movie succeeds at some of the world-building, giving some great backstory on some of the characters.  And then there are other places where I wanted more -- What has the Duke's son been doing all this time?  How did Snow White stay sane, locked up from the time she was a little girl?  WHY did the evil queen just stick her in a tower in the first place?  (If there had been any indication of Snow White and Ravenna talking during that time period, I think it would have worked.  As it is, it appeared that Ravenna stuck her up there and forgot about her.)

The ending fell totally flat.  And by ending I mean literally the last scene.  I thought about it afterwards and decided it was because they didn't bookend the narration -- Chris Hemsworth has a voiceover, setting up the story at the beginning, and at the end there's just all this staring and no narration.  The last scene was just a big ....

Overall I liked the movie much more than I disliked it.  The use of magpies was brilliant (as they are also white as snow and black as ebony).  Charlize Theron does a stunning job of being insane but strangely sympathetic (as you get glimpses of her backstory and where she came from).  Chris Hemsworth plays a fascinating character, with much more motivation than I was expecting -- he's far from a stock romantic-interest character.  I liked the secondary characters quite a lot, from the village women who scarred their faces so they wouldn't be taken from Ravenna (although that hardly made them ugly as they claimed) to the dwarves and the stories they told.

The film is visually beautiful, from the forest critters to Charlize's wardrobe.  It's certainly worth SEEING.  And I did enjoy the interpretation of the story, although I have heard that there's some confusion about how the whole kissing thing works (but not from fairy tale fans).  I think it's worth watching even if you're not a big Kristen Stewart fan.  It's a creative twist on Snow White and pulls in some other mythology and folklore in both the visuals and the storytelling itself.