osprey_archer: (art)
Ed Young's Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China won the Caldecott medal when I was young, so it was everywhere in my early years, and it terrified me. Not the story, mind you, I never got to that part - but the cover: all in red, except for the shadowy black wolf with its terrible hypnotic white eyes.

It's probably just as well I never read it, even though the art style is beautiful, because many of the illustrations have that same terrifying effect. Like the bit where the three girls let the wolf into the house, because the wolf has convinced them that he's their grandmother, and the picture is simply the vast black shadow of a wolf splashed across the top of the page with the three girls looking tiny underneath...

I've heard a number of variations on the Red Riding Hood story, and in my recollection Red escapes in the end in all of them - but the illustrations created such a sense of menace that I began to worry this story would buck the trend. Especially as there are three sisters. Doubtless the wolf would be vanquished in the end, but he might still eat one of the sisters first.

(I hope you will not consider it a hopeless spoiler if I reassure you that he doesn't. In fact the sisters defeat him all on their own, no woodcutter in sight to help.)

And the illustrations truly are gorgeous. They never become wholly abstract, but there's definitely something expressionistic about them: lots of intense close-ups on the wolf's face, broad washes of color for the sky or the trees.

The first picture, which shows the mother leaving home to visit the actual grandmother - beneath a golden wash of dawn, with pale purple clouds above, and the ground still black with night, except for the golden gingko tree nestled against the house - well, that's just lovely. And there's a similarly lovely picture at the end of the book, bookending the story to show that peace has been restored.
osprey_archer: (books)
The Caldecott book for the week is Marcia Brown's Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper, and the illustrations are gorgeous! They're pen and ink outlines with great washes of color in them, like the world's most beautifully done coloring book, simply and lively and sometimes slyly funny, like the illustration where Cinderella tugs her stepsister's corset strings tight. Her stepsister looks so pleased about it, and Cinderella is pulling with all her might.

I'm so used to authors attempting to put their own stamp on the tale - in particular, attempting to give it a feminist spin - that it actually almost surprised me to read a plain retelling. Cinderella is sweet and beautiful and good, and her stepfamily is ugly and foul-tempered, and they all live in France in the 18th-ish century, and that's that.

In fact Cinderella is so good in this retelling that after her marriage to the prince, she not only brings her stepsisters to court - this is a 1950s picture book, so they do not of course cut their toes off in an attempt to fit into the glass slipper - but marries them off to noble lords, which is clearly their dream come true.

Now, I've never been a big fan of the ending of the stepfamily story in Drew Barrymore's Ever After, where the stepmother and mean stepsister end up working in the castle scullery - it seems so pettily vengeful to make them labor forever - but this seems like going to far in the other direction. Maybe you shouldn't marry your petty spiteful stepsisters into situations where they'll have power over yet MORE people, you know? Maybe just leave them in their house to stew over their loss of the prince.
osprey_archer: (writing)
The [livejournal.com profile] trickortreatex fics have been revealed! I wrote three, my main story and two treats.

First, for my recipient: Something Old, Something New, an Ella Enchanted fic about Ella’s first few weeks living in the palace, between her engagement to Char and their wedding. She’s still getting used to living without the curse that forced her to be obedient, and navigating when and how to obey now that she doesn’t have to; and also dealing with the fact that she’s now a princess, which means that people have to obey her.

I also wrote two treats. First, The Wolf’s Tale, which actually a rewrite of a story I wrote in eighth grade, a fairy tale retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” from the wolf’s perspective. It’s a pretty simply reversal – rather than the wolf gobbling up the womenfolk, only for them to be rescued by the manly woodcutter, the wolf flees in terror from Red who is an ax-wielding fiend – but I had a lot of fun with it both times I wrote it.

And finally, Trick or Treat a Psych fic about the annual Santa Barbara police station Halloween party. I had a bit of trouble making this fic work, but once I came up with a reason for Shawn and Lassiter to dress up as Little Miss Muffet and the spider it all came together nicely.

The story also features Gus in a pirate costume, Juliet in a dirndl, and cameos by everyone (except Woody. Sorry, Woody) including the Dread Pirate Roberts, who as [livejournal.com profile] entwashian pointed out to me is clearly Pierre Despereaux, the dashing art thief played by Cary Elwes. What is he doing at the Santa Barbara Halloween party? I DON’T KNOW. Clearly it’s part of a long con.
osprey_archer: (books)
I have just finished a marvelous book! Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, a 1920s retelling of the fairytale Twelve Dancing Princesses, which has spare but lovely prose, an excellent cast of sisters, a perfidious and sinister father, and glorious Jazz Age atmosphere.

Probably that's enough to make half of you run out and read it right now, but just in case it isn't, let me go on about it for a bit. The twelve Hamilton sisters live crammed in the upper floors of their father's town house. To their father, the girls are simply failed attempts to get a son, and he avoids them as much as possible - to the extent that he hasn't even met many of the younger girls.

But nonetheless he prides himself on how well he protects them. In his mind, trapping them in the upper floors of the house as a way to keep the girls old-fashioned and demure, far away from the temptations of the Jazz Age. He's so rigid that he's unable to see any other interpretation of his behavior. You might just as well try arguing with a statue.

Meanwhile, every night they can, the girls slink out of the house with dancing shoes in hand and head for the Kingfisher Club, where they dance and dream of better days - although Jo, the oldest sister, is painfully aware of how impossible that dream may be.

Most of the book is told from Jo's point of view. Her younger sisters call her the General: she is the one who organizes their nightly escapes to the Kingfisher Club, and she also provides the main line of contact between the sisters and their father. He hasn't even met some of the other girls. She is her sisters' protector, but protecting them from their father forces her to enforce many of his rules, and she is painfully aware that she is their jailer as well.

I love a lot of things about this book - Valentine's ability to switch effortlessly between the oppressive atmosphere of the house and the effervescent lightness (although with an underlying anxiety) of the Kingfisher Club, her clever updating of the fairy tale, her refusal to soften the father's awfulness - but most of all I admire her portrayal of the twelve sisters. It has to be hard to write twelve different sisters who have all been cooped up in one house for their whole lives and all share the same hobby, and yet make them all quite different and distinct. But not only does Valentine do it, but she makes it look easy, effortless.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Alethia Kontis’s Enchanted. I seem to be in some kind of reading rut, because this is yet another book that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as I expected to. I think there’s a critical mass of fairytales that you can cram into one novel and maintain coherence, and Kontis clearly surpassed it.

Or perhaps that’s not the problem, exactly. I felt like Kontis didn’t really have anything to say about any of the fairy tales. They’re there so the reader can squeal upon noticing the fairy tale allusion, but there’s really nothing more to it: the stories have no thematic resonance.

And there are really only so many times I can read the hero and heroine sigh about how they love each other so so so much (but can’t be together because once he’s in prince form he refuses to tell her he’s the frog she fell in love with, WTF dude) before I want to knock both their heads together and scream.

On the other hand, I’ve also just finished an excellent book, Peter Carlson’s Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy, which is about a couple of Union reporters who got captured by Confederate troops, paroled, and were supposed to be sent home...except they got sucked into the Confederate prison archipelago and ended up spending nearly two years there.

This is pretty grim stuff, and both Junius and Albert occasionally give into black despair (Junius is particularly prone to flinging himself on the floor and attempting to give himself up to the sweet liberty of death), but Carlson manages it with a light touch: he shows not only their despair, but the dark and sometimes goofy humor with which they tried to keep up not only their own spirits but those of their fellow prisoners. Everyone seems very human in his history books, which I think is why I like them so much.

(Carlson also wrote K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist, one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. K Blows Top has been optioned for a feature film. I WANT THAT MOVIE SO MUCH.)

What I’m Reading Now

Hilary McKay’s Caddy Ever After. I’ve been spacing out the Casson family books because I enjoy them so much and want them to last forever, and this one is just as lovely so far as the ones before. I love the way McKay writes Rose, especially, because she is so very much herself, stubborn and passionate and artistic and stubborn. Very stubborn. Darling Rose!

Also Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shield Ring, because I am about to move away from the library that has it and there’s no telling when I’ll have access to another copy.

What I Plan to Read Next

I’ve just discovered the Hilary McKay wrote a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Prince, focusing on what happens at the boarding school after Sara leaves, for Ermengarde particularly. Should I read it? On the one hand, I always have wondered what happened to Ermengarde. On the other hand, sequels to beloved books are always dangerous, perhaps particularly when they’re written by a different author (although being written by the same author often doesn’t seem to help).

Maleficent

Jun. 12th, 2014 06:05 am
osprey_archer: (kitty)
I saw Maleficent! Holy uncanny valley, Batman, if they were going to use that much CGI I don’t know why they didn’t just go ahead and get rid of the live action component.

Having said that, I think the visuals bothered me more because they were really the most interesting thing about the movie. Some of the scenes where Maleficent shows Aurora the moor are quite lovely, like the fairies skating across the water to turn it into ice (Fantasia shout out!). But as a whole I thought the movie dragged, and it really put too many eggs in the message basket (true love is not necessarily romantic love!), especially given that Frozen portrayed the same message in a more original and interesting way.

We get it, Disney, you’ve repented of your sins in glorifying love-at-first-sight romance as the path to One True Love. It would be nice if you could have expressed this without committing character assassination on everyone but Maleficent and Aurora. I'm particularly bitter about how they made the good fairies a trio of raging incompetents.

I also was not a big fan of the fact that Maleficent tells an entirely different story than Sleeping Beauty. If it had just billed itself as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty the fairy tale that would be one thing, because really the only thing I demand of a Sleeping Beauty retelling is that a person falls into an enchanted sleep and gets kissed awake, and this movie had that element.

But this is not a retelling of Sleeping Beauty the fairy tale, it’s a weird AU version of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty that suggests that the original version never happened. I get that it would be difficult to construct a movie around Maleficent’s original characterization - how much depth can you get out of a petty fairy putting a curse on someone for petty reasons because sometimes that’s what fairies do? But it seems cheap to make a movie that purports to be about a character who behaves like that, but is actually about a completely different character in a completely different story, who happens to have similarly-shaped horns.

On the bright side, at last my darling Elle Fanning has gotten a role in such a major movie! Maybe more people will start casting her in better movies.
osprey_archer: (shoes)
I’ve been thinking more about Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, specifically about the ending. What makes the first two-thirds of the book so interesting is Ivey’s ability to hold possibilities in suspension. Is Faina a snow child, magically born out of the snowgirl Mabel and her husband Jack made? Or is she just a normal girl, living alone in the wilderness after her father drank himself to death? Or is she somehow both?

But this balancing act falls apart in the story’s third section - although it is, perhaps, a little unfair for me to blame the plot for continuing to follow the basic outline of the Russian fairytale that spawned it.

The question of Faina’s nature isn’t resolved, but the question of whether she can live with other people or grow up is. Clearly, Faina can’t.

This is how these stories so often end: the fairy girl either disappears (as in The House without Windows) or becomes less than herself, like in the later Anne of Green Gables books. It’s an ending with the long weight of trope behind it, but it’s not the ending that I wanted or perhaps needed out of the book. I’m tired of reading about magical girls who can’t - not who don’t, or don’t want to, but can’t - grow up.
osprey_archer: (window)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind. I really liked it! I worried vaguely beforehand that it might be just as depressing as The Lantern-Bearers, as both of them involve heroes enslaved by Saxons, but Owain hates the world considerably less than Aquila and is therefore less draggingly miserable to read about.

(Of course, it helps that Owain sells himself into slavery by choice, more or less, to save his friend Regina when she’s ill. It’s not a free choice, but it’s still more of a choice than having his home burned down, being tied to a tree, and then kidnapped, as Aquila was.)

Oh, and I liked Regina an awful lot! She’s a study in contrasts, hardened by her life but with flashes of kindness as well. I think what I find particularly appealing is that her hardness is genuine, not merely a defensive protection for a soft squashy heart: she tried to kill her old caretaker, who used to beat her. But her softness, as in her love for birds, is genuine too.

On a more macro level, one of the things I find fascinating about Sutcliff’s work is the sense of the sweep of history in it. Tribes and states and empires never just are in her work, they are always in a process of becoming. Either they are rising and replacing the empires that have come before, or decaying and being replaced in their turn.

What I’m Reading Now

Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, about Sophie, a bookish white girl in 1960s Louisiana who, under the influence of too many Edward Eager novels, asks an uncanny creature to send her back in time. She winds up on her family’s plantation in the 1860s, where she gets mistaken for one of their relation Robert’s bastard slave children.

I suspect things are going to start going very badly for Sophie once her many-great ancestors realize that this is not so, but so far she’s coping with her situation by trying to convince herself that this is a perfectly acceptable adventure, if perhaps rockier than she anticipated. Oh, Sophie. :( This is going to end in brutal disillusionment and I feel bad for her in advance.

Before I started the book I felt trepidation about the potential anviliciousness of the message - I mean, just look at that premise - but so far the book has lived up to the laudatory review that convinced me to read it. Sophie’s characterization is a great triumph. She loves books and exploring and is a little awkward, is in short very easy to sympathize with - but at the same time, she’s imbued with the racism of her surroundings.

It’s not a virulent racism: it’s subtle and insidious enough that merely meeting black people on a level of equality is not enough to blow her tiny mind. Given how thoughtfully she’s been portrayed so far, I feel cautiously hopeful that the book will avoid anviliciousness.

Also I’m reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. I’m reading this before bedtime, which means I’m getting through it rather slowly. But it’s also going well: it’s a book with a lot of book talk in it, which is always fun, and Dean has a gift for creating a sense of place and atmosphere at Blackstock College.

And it’s interesting just how different the college experience was, even just twenty years ago. I don’t mean only the lack of computers (although that does catch me up), but Janet’s comment on her anthropology professor: “Nor did it seem that he communed with the dead - the dates on all the books except one showed that the authors were either still alive or but recently dead.”

I think there is more of an assumption, now, that new books are better than old.

What I Plan to Read Next

I have a whole slew of Sutcliff books on hold from the university library, having just realized that this is my last chance to get at them. I’m particularly looking forward to reading The Mark of the Horse Lord.

Ever After

Dec. 10th, 2013 08:00 am
osprey_archer: (window)
Writing about Disney’s Cinderella got me thinking about another Cinderella retelling, Ever After, which I finally saw recently, because I think it’s a good example of a retelling of feminist retelling of Cinderella, and not just because Danielle is awesome. Although Danielle is extremely awesome. I particularly love the scene where she hoists the prince on her back because the ruffians have told her that she can walk away with anything she can carry. Good thinking, Danielle!

Also there is a scene where she wears a dress with wings, you guys, wings, how awesome is that? If only they had been functional...is that too much to ask, da Vinci? (He designed the wings, you see. Da Vinci: secretly fond of dress design.)

But along with Danielle’s awesomeness, this retelling also avoids the two main pitfalls a Cinderella retelling can fall into: retellings can suggest that women other than the heroine are always untrustworthy or evil, and that ugliness and evil are synonymous.

(Oddly, the retelling that I think falls most strongly in the first trap is Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Just Ella, which is supposed to be a feminist take on happily-ever-after, but mostly suggests that Ella is the only sensible woman in the entire kingdom. Not only her stepfamily but all the women she meets at court are fluttery morons.)

The best way to counteract the first one is to balance the evil stepmother with non-evil women in Cinderella’s life, and Ever After manages this cleverly in two ways. Danielle doesn’t have a fairy godmother per se, but she does have two fellow servants who are her friends and protectors; and there’s also the younger of her stepsisters, Jacqueline, who is inconsistently kind to Danielle - not enough for Danielle to count on her - but is an interesting character in her own right.

Jacqueline is one of my favorite characters. She’s naive and a bit slow on the uptake, often mocked by her family but rarely fast enough to come up with a comeback - but even when she can’t think of something to say, her face and her posture mirror all her feelings so clearly, even when she’s just chilling in the background of a scene.

Danielle’s stepmother Rodmilla and her older stepsister Marguerite are still pretty terrible people. Rodmilla’s terribleness is perhaps heightened by the fact that she’s sometimes almost nice to Danielle: I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Danielle brushes Rodmilla’s hair, and Rodmilla sympathizes with Danielle’s lack of a mother. You can see Danielle that maybe at long last, she and Rodmilla will start to get along...and it’s just heartbreaking when Rodmilla snaps back into her general unkindness to Danielle.

Another thing I liked is that the stepsister, Marguerite, is more classically beautiful than Danielle. Often there’s a sense in Cinderella retellings that the stepsisters are ridiculous for not realizing that they’re too ugly to aspire to the prince, which I find painful to watch: on the one hand they’re such mean people that I wouldn’t want them marrying a prince and ruling anything, but there’s a sort of secondhand embarrassment in watching them flirt with someone who is so clearly not interested - particularly when their failure to notice their own humiliation is presented as something the viewer is supposed to enjoy.

Marguerite may be barking up the wrong tree, but there’s no sense that it’s inherently ridiculous for her to aim for a prince. One can easily imagine some gormless prince falling for her pretty face, not realizing that she’s self-centered and cruel, even though this particular prince is protected because he already loves another.
osprey_archer: (Disney)
[livejournal.com profile] lycoris asked: Your favourite Disney film in childhood and do you still feel the same about it now?

Either Cinderella or Fantasia, although I only liked select parts of each. In Cinderella, I was all about the mice. In fact, we usually never got to the ball: once the mice put together their dress for Cinderella, the movie was over as far as I was concerned.

With Fantasia, I liked the seasonal fairies, the Nutcracker songs - the dancing mushrooms and the waltzing flowers particularly - the Greek myths, and occasionally the dinosaurs, but the stegosaurus’s death was too sad to bear much watching. :( The dancing hippos were totally disturbing, though, and as for the giant Satanic figure at the end - good night! I saw that part once and it still pops into my mind to scare me.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen either movie, so I don’t know how I would feel about them now. I think Cinderella tends to get a worse rap than she deserves: people say she’s weak, but would a weak person be able to pull herself together to go to the ball after having her first dress ripped apart by her stepsisters? Indeed, could a weak person withstand her stepfamily’s constant campaign to undermine her self-worth? Her fairy godmother only gave her a new dress. Cinderella had to supply the self-confidence to wear it like she meant it.

This is not to say that Cinderella is an unproblematic story. The stepmother and ugly stepsisters can send a variety of misogynistic messages, depending on the choices made in the retelling, and in Cinderella Disney makes mostly the bad choices. But Cinderella’s character and in particular her supposed weakness are not one of those bad choices.

Hanna

Dec. 8th, 2013 12:11 am
osprey_archer: (window)
I recently watched Hanna, because it fit with my brother and my not-very-overlapping movie tastes. An action thriller (good for him!) with a non-sexualized teenage girl protagonist (hooray for me!), which fortunately turned out to be excellent, if kind of trippy.

The action begins in the frozen arctic, where Hanna’s ex-CIA father trains her in all his ex-CIA know-how; continues once Hanna has been whisked away to a labyrinthine top secret base; and then follows Hanna’s road trip adventures, where it quickly becomes clear that her father’s years of intensive training totally failed to teach Hanna the most basic ability of spycraft: being unnoticeable.

Hanna is not merely not unnoticeable, but endearingly incapable of fitting in at all. At one point, a boy is about to kiss her, and she says, “Kissing requires a total of 34 facial muscles, and 112 postural muscles. The most important muscle involved is the orbicularis oris muscle, because it is used to pucker the lips.”

Oh Hanna. As if that line weren’t enough, she proceeds to deck him. It’s probably just as well for him, though, because people who spend too much time with Hanna tend to end up running afoul of the CIA and getting killed…

This leads me to one question the movie leaves open, which is driving me mad. Hanna spends a large portion of the movie traveling about with a dysfunctional British family with the world’s most obnoxious daughter. The husband and wife constantly snipe, the daughter is forever rolling her eyes, but Hanna is nonetheless enchanted: her childhood was so devoid of warmth and fun that the family delights her.

Eventually, of course, the family fall into the hands of the CIA, and we see them being questioned. But the movie just drops the plot thread! Perhaps we’re supposed to assume they were killed? Maybe the director felt a big squeamish about killing off the kids on screen? But I want to know...

And then Hanna confronts the big bad in a dilapidated fairy-tale theme park, which is satisfyingly surreal. Hanna is not a retelling of any particular fairy tale, but there is a sense of fairy tale hanging over the whole story: Hanna’s only storybook, for instance, is a German book of Marchen. There’s a sense of eeriness, almost a fascination with the grotesque, that hangs over the story: it’s reminiscent Twin Peaks if it’s like anything, but it’s really not much like anything else.

***

Incidentally, if you have any ideas for good movies that my brother and I could watch over Christmas, please share. So far I have Iron Man 3 and perhaps The Incredible Hulk, because Marvel movies also fall into that amorphous category of “movies we might both enjoy.” Maybe Skyfall?
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which I enjoyed even more than Beauty - I think you can really see how much she grew as a writer between the two retellings, because Rose Daughter is much more airy and at the same time far more gothic. The characterization is stronger, too: Beauty’s two sisters are much more strongly differentiated, as is the Beast. And the ending doesn’t feel as rushed.

H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, which is super fun in the same “Victorian thought experiment” way that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is super fun. They, along with Frankenstein, teach an important lesson: Friends don’t let friends do science alone. It always ends badly.

And finally - I’ve totally been procrastinating this week, can you tell? - P. G. Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City, which is delightful to the end. Although I suspect having a friend pay for your education with the goal of making you a factotum on his estate would be a bit more awkward than Mike seems to feel about it, even if Psmith is his bestest best friend ever.

What I’m Reading Now

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. The first two thirds are delightful: it tells the story of a middle-aged couple, recently moved to Alaska (in 1920), who meet a strange little girl who lives in the wilderness with lichen and birch bark tangled in her hair. It’s a mixture of darkness - literal darkness; a lot of the book takes place during the Alaskan winter, and kicks off with the heroine walking out on the ice in a half-hearted attempt at suicide - and this eerie half-fairy tale feeling. Odd but effective.

The last third, which I’ve just started, bids fair to be a tale of Young Love, which - judging by the epigraph - will end with the wild girl becoming far less wild. I may decide that the last third never actually happened...

Also The Wind in the Willows, although I’m going to have to find a non-annotated edition, because the annotations are terribly distracting and often not very to the point. No, I don’t really care to know that the annotator thinks Otter is a member of the nobility and the rabbits are the teeming lower classes and the whole thing is an allegory for the English social structure. Even if Graham meant it that way I don’t want to know, because it rather detracts from it as a story.

In the meantime, I’ve laid The Wind in the Willows aside to start Selma Lagerlof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which I’ve been meaning to read since I was approximately eight. If there has been a theme to this year’s reading, it has been “finally getting around to all those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.”

What I Plan to Read Next

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. [livejournal.com profile] ladyherenya has said so many nice things about the miniseries, clearly I need to get around to seeing it, which of course means I must read the book.

I’m also thinking about reading more McKinley. I’ve already read Sunshine (this seems to be everyone’s go-to McKinley rec), and I’ve heard that I have to read Pegasus. How do people like her other fairytale retellings? I’m intrigued by Spindle’s End but feel dubious about Deerskin, which looks pretty hardcore.
osprey_archer: (books)
I actually wrote these reviews before I headed off into the wilderness, and it’s interesting looking back on them. I tend to write my book reviews soon after I’ve finished reading, which has obvious advantages, but also means that I don’t usually know how the book is going to sit with me: there are books that grow on me over time, like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and books that I enjoyed immensely but remember poorly, like Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.

I liked all these books when I first read them, but the only one that stayed in my mind rather than drifting away is Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl. And the one book that I read before the trip that really stuck with me, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, I didn’t even write a review for - because I didn’t realize it would. I suppose I ought to rectify that...

Robin McKinley’s Beauty )

Frances Temple’s The Ramsay Scallop )

Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl )
osprey_archer: (castle)
Clockwork! Much as I love The Golden Compass, Clockwork is probably my favorite of Philip Pullman’s work: it is not spoiled by later books that go off the rails, but is complete and satisfying in itself.

This, even though its a very short book: barely more than a hundred pages, with wide-spaced type interspersed with wonderful, shadowy illustrations. But all its pieces fit together perfectly, exactly like clockwork: each cog in the plot turning and ticking inexorably toward the end, which is - despite the sense of inevitability - a surprise when it comes.

And clockwork is not only the perfect metaphor for the way the disparate pieces of the story come together, but also at the center of the story itself. It is set in a German town that centers on a clock tower, near the beginning of the 19th century; one imagines it occurring even as the Brothers Grimm are out collecting, because the story is a melange of fairy tale and clockwork and Doctor Faustus.

Clockwork often seems to be folded into the general steampunk aesthetic (let’s throw some cogs on it!) - and I think, actually, that this is one of the reasons why steampunk often seems to work better as a clothing aesthetic than as a backdrop to stories: you can throw all the cool things together and make something snazzy out of it for a costume, but stories need the pieces of a setting to fit together.

It’s not that clockwork is not Victorian - the Victorians were after all obsessed with time keeping; Around the World in Eighty Days is basically a thriller about railway timetables. But it’s not the clocks they were obsessed with: clocks were old hat by then. The first great clocks were late medieval, and they came into their own in the Renaissance and Reformation. Clockwork is not propelled by electricity or steam but seems to go of itself. It is the technology of fairy tales.

The railway timetables are exciting because they reflected the all-conquering power of steam: steam power that made transportation run to human specification, rather than at the whim of the elements. Steam seems to conquer time and chance, to bend nature to our will; clockwork only counts, remorselessly, and reminds us that time and chance happen to us all.
osprey_archer: (books)
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted was my first fairy tale retelling: Cinderella with a twist. Well, a number of twists, but the main one is this: when the heroine, Ella, was born, the foolish fairy Lucinda gave her a gift. But it was a gift that was really a curse: Ella must always be obedient.

One of the reasons this book remains so fresh in my mind is that this curse provides endless fruit for speculation. We know that Ella will obey any order given to her, even if it threatens her life, and we know that she obeys orders even in languages that she doesn’t speak. But what are the exact parameters of her obedience?

If, for instance, she came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, and there was no one around to tell her to move, would she just have to stay there forever? What about orders that aren’t directed at her, but at someone else? “Go save little Timmy from the well!” barked Lassie. How could poor Ella even try to obey that? And must she obey orders even from animals? I am pretty sure sheepdogs consider it an order when they try to herd you, after all...

In short, this is not a very workable curse, but it’s a great literary device. It ratchets up the tension in any scene - and this means most scenes - where someone might give Ella an order. Will the ogres order Ella to let them eat her? Will her father order her to marry someone horrid? What awful new orders will Ella’s stepsister Hattie think of?

Hattie eventually hits on the idea of ordering Ella to give up her friendship with Areida. (Another one of the twists in the retelling is that Levine adds a couple of fun female characters to offset the stepmother and stepsisters: Ella’s fairy godmother, Mandy, a no-nonsense cook with crinkly gray hair who offers more mentorship than magical aid, and Areida, their boarding-school classmate from Ayortha who teaches Ella her language and jokes with her about the finishing school regimen.)

Ella is so horrified by the idea of hurting Areida that she runs away from boarding school that very night: a neat way of following the order (can’t be Areida’s friend if she’s on the other side of Kyrria, after all!) but also thumbing her nose at Hattie. Ella, as you can see, does not take her curse lying down. As she puts it: “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.” Although she doesn’t know how to break the curse, she hates being ordered around and, though she has to follow the letter of orders, always tries to wriggle out of their spirit.

One of the most chilling sequences in the book is the one where Ella asks Lucinda to take her curse away; and Lucinda, after thinking about it a bit, orders Ella to be happy about being obedient. Oh, it is terrifying! She almost traipses blissfully into marriage with a suitor her father finds for her, nearly forgetting about her love for Princess Charmont (or Char, as he is called) until Mandy saves her.

Ella’s relationship with Char is the last and perhaps greatest of the changes in this retelling. Rather than meeting at the ball, he and Ella meet long before - at her mother’s funeral, in fact, where they soften the awfulness of the day by making each other laugh. Their courtship consists of sliding down banisters, fighting ogres, and sending each other letters when he leaves the country on a diplomatic mission. An epistolary courtship! It is a most satisfactory romance.

***

In keeping with my “think of ideas for [livejournal.com profile] fic_corner stories!” project, I have given some thought to fic ideas for Ella Enchanted But I can’t actually think of any stories I would want for it. The romance wraps up so satisfactorily, and while I really like Ella and Areida's friendship, I'm not sure where a story would go with it.
osprey_archer: (books)
Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars is like Star Trek, if the characters in Star Trek took the Prime Directive seriously (and the women got better parts). It is also like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, in that nary a chapter passes without characters either swearing solemn oaths or going through hell to keep those oaths - except that unlike The Lost Prince, Enchantress from the Stars has a plot that rises to a crescendo that is not merely satisfying but stunning.

Oh, and it has telepathy. And a fairy tale retelling. And one of my favorite heroines of all time, Elana: bright and curious, empathetic, a little impetuous. As the story begins, she’s heading through space to join the Federation’s Anthropological Service, but - entirely against all orders and policy - sneaks onto a landing craft onto a Youngling planet.

(Younglings are people like us who haven’t yet evolved out of wars, greed, etc., and into our full psychic potential.)

Normally, an untrained civilian like Elana would be sent back to the Federation spacecraft sharpish - but because of plot complications, Elana is stuck planetside. So, untrained though she is, she has to take the Service Oath:

And I, Elana, swear that I will hold this responsibility above all other considerations, for as long as I shall live...

This is all we get of the Oath, and yet it becomes a mantra that the characters live by as their situation grows steadily more desperate. The Oath demands not only that you would die for it, but that you would go out of your way to get killed for it if need be. That is why Elana is stuck planetside, in fact: one of the Service agents in the landing party got vaporized distracting the Imperial soldiers who are invading the planet from the Federation landing craft.

This was not, let me be clear, a matter of military necessity. A Federation has no plans to go to war with the Imperials, and in any case a Federation landing craft is as technologically advanced over an Imperial one as an atomic bomb is over a tomahawk. The agent had to prevent disclosure, because if the Imperials discovered that there was a civilization hugely technologically advanced beyond them, it would mess up their cultural development.

This, then, is Elana’s mission: to stop the Imperial invasion of Andrecia (a planet where the inhabitants have a medieval level of technology), without disclosing the Service’s existence.

Elana accepts the anti-disclosure position until she visits a local village. She seems starvation - disease - a beggar who had his hands cut off by the king - and she is so horrified that she storms back to her father, the mission leader, who is up there with Atticus Finch in the Best Fictional Father Ever category. “Why doesn’t the Service do something?” she demands. “Why [can’t we] devise some way to correct obviously unnecessary evils without revealing ourselves?”

“The real issue here is the whole concept of ‘obviously unnecessary evils,’” her father replies. “Who are you to say that human suffering is unnecessary?”

Elana of course finds this answer horrifying. Enchantress from the Stars takes place in an Enlightenment universe, where overcoming human suffering truly does lead to lasting human progress (indeed, for the civilizations that make the Federation, has already led to utopia), so the balance of the evidence is on her father’s side; and yet Elana does not cease to find it horrifying.

One thing I really like about this book is that, while Engdahl has a definite point of view and makes it clear that this is so, she doesn’t try to force the reader to accept it. The reader can, with Elana, reject this answer, without rejecting the book, because there is so much going on in it.

One would think that the nature of good and evil and the ultimate disposition of the universe were quite enough to be getting on with in a single children’s story, but Enchantress from the Stars is endlessly prolific with ideas. It deals - and deals well! - with a myriad of other topics: symbolism, the nature of belief, providence, sacrifice (and the ability to meaningful consent to sacrifice in a situation where one doesn’t have all the information), the meaning of love, imperialism...

It has a great anti-imperialist screed: Jarel, a disillusioned Imperial officer, thinks bitterly, “We are on no higher a level than the natives, and we never will be; progress is a myth! If there are superior peoples in the university, it is pure luck...that they have never found us. For if they ever do, they will surely consider the Empire the worst disease ever to threaten the galaxy and will deal with us accordingly.”

It is, in short, a book that is good food for thinking with - and a real pleasure to read, to boot.
osprey_archer: (cheers)
Blancanieves! It’s a retelling of Snow White in 1920s Spain, featuring bullfighting, beautiful black-and-white cinematography that creates an exquisitely gothic atmosphere, an evil stepmother who is a joy to watch - she just enjoys being evil so much, you guys! - and we enjoy rooting for her downfall almost as much! - because the heroine, who is Carmen until she gets amnesia and becomes Blancanieves the bullfighting girl, is totally delightful.

The whole film is delightful, and gothic, and beautiful, and creepy. So creepy. It has the CREEPIEST ENDING EVER. Silent film is the perfect medium for a fairy tale adaptation: the silence puts it at a sort of remove from reality, which gives it both a sort of ethereal glow and that essential strangeness that both say "fairy tale."

And now I will give a capsule summary of the movie, because I must share the glory with you! But seriously, spoilers for all the things. )

ANYWAY THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD ALL SEE IT. Because it is so beautiful: even just on a purely visual level, the black and white is so crisp and clean and striking, and all the details so rich and well-chosen. And the fairy tale adaptation is so playfully and delicately done! And the characters are so much fun! And they all wear beautiful twenties clothes! And bull-fighting outfits, for which I have an unfortunate fixation, because they are shiny!

And also I kind of want to read about Rafita’s unrequited crush on Blancanieves and possibly Blancanieves realizing that she likes him too, although pining is always fun, and Blancanieves being ravishingly beautiful in her traje de luces, and maybe futurefic, and and and HELP ME LJ-WAN KENOBI, YOU ARE MY ONLY HOPE.
osprey_archer: (nature)
The local library has special children’s classics section. On the one hand, this is very convenient for me. They have all the Green Knowe books! And I can finally read The Wind in the Willows! Etc.

But I wonder if segregating out all the classic books makes actual children less likely to read them - if only because they aren’t on the regular shelves to stumble over by browsing.

Anyway, in the course of discovering this special shelf, I stumbled on Ethel Cook Eliot’s The Wind Boy, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It features Gentian and Kay, a pair of refugee children - the book is deliberately obscure about exactly which war they are refugees from - who are having a hard time of it, because the rest of the villagers think they’re weird.

But who should appear, but a girl with a dress “the color of sunlight on a brown forest path when the sun is low behind the trees” and “sandals that looked as though she had made them herself out of bark and braided weeds.” Her name is Nan, and she has come to be their housemaid/nanny/etc, never mind they can’t pay.

It’s a bit like Mary Poppins, although the focus remains firmly on Kay and Gentian rather than their magical nanny. Gentian is named after a flower that has “all the sky folded around in its soft fringes.” This is, as you may be guessing, a book with a lot of nature imagery. As well as Mary Poppins, it reminds me a bit of a grown-up version of Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House without Windows

Grown-up, both in the sense that it has rather more plot and character development, but also in that it lacks the peculiar moral anarchy that gives Follett’s book its charm. The Wind Boy is a book with a number of morals, not least of them being “I don’t care if they talk funny, be nice to refugee children.”

But Nan and the fairies - or Clear Children, as they’re mostly called - although charming in themselves, also seem to be a metaphor for religious ideas, just as the Magic is a religious metaphor in Burnett’s The Secret Garden. (As a side note: Nana specifically tells us that she’s not a Clear Child or a fairy. It’s not at all clear what she is, which makes her the most interesting character to me.)

Perhaps the most obvious morality play is the scene where Gentian is weaving herself a nightgown of “starry-brightness” - dark blue fabric that seems thin but is so deep that you seem to be looking into it, like the night sky, to see the stars glimmering - and the weaving tangles up every time she has a selfish thought.

It also, peculiarly, tangles when she thinks how nice it would be to weave a robe for her mother. “This is kind of a robe each one must make for oneself,” the Twilight Girl, who taught her to weave, tells her gently. I’m not sure what life lesson we are meant to learn from this. (Balancing the duty you owe to others and the duty you owe to yourself is a common theme in early twentieth-century girls' books, though.)

In any case, it’s a rather sweet book, and I liked it enough to get Ethel Cook Eliot’s The Little House in the Fairy Wood, which is available free on Kindle. I don’t know if anyone else shares my strange affection for peculiar old children’s books with lots of nature, a little philosophizing, and outcroppings of fairies, but The Wind Boy is a good example of it if you do.
osprey_archer: (books)
Kit Kittredge, girl reporter! I’ve been trying to write this entry for over a week, but it’s hard to know where to start when I love so many things that the Kit books choose to be. They were not the beginning of my long love affair with the history of the thirties - that would be Blue Willow (which is awesome and everyone should read it! I heart Janie forever!) - but they were a contributing factor.

Incidentally, when I was researching my American Girl paper I found lesson plans online, using the American Girl books as the cornerstones for lessons in American history. In some ways the books rather invite this treatment: each book ends with a section called “A Peek into the Past,” which talks about some aspect of history related to the story.

(The American Girl books were the first historical fiction books I read on my own. When I went on to other historical fiction books, I was surprised that they didn’t all have historical notes in the back.)

If a child finishes the American Girl books and cries “I want to read All the Things about the Depression!” clearly that’s great - especially if they want to read a Depression Era novel about, you know, robots and hopping trains and ancient Egypt artifacts.

But if not, it seems to me that making the American Girl books part of a formal curriculum will just ruin what’s there. There seems to be a sense that - why let kids just enjoy the books when you could wring every drop of educational value from it?

But I think actually just letting them enjoy the books is the most educational policy, even if they don’t rush out to read all about the Great Depression afterward. They’ll still have a sense of the history and a few tidbits of it, made memorable by the context of the story, and a sense that history can be interesting and exciting, which forcing it into the context of a lesson would kill.

But I’ve wandered rather far afield from Kit Kittredge and friends. In the Kit books, Tripp reprises the sort of tripodal relationship that worked so well for her in the Felicity books: heroine, best friend, friend who is a boy. In the Kit books, the friend-who-is-boy is Stirling. Unlike Ben Davidson in the Felicity books, Stirling does not come equipped with “future love interest!” arrows pointing at his forehead: “penniless boarder” is not nearly as eligible a category as “firebrand apprentice.”

Kit’s best friend Ruthie, however, is even more awesome than Felicity’s best friend Elizabeth. Ruthie loves fairytales! (“Loves fairy tales,” like “steals horses,” is an instant road to my heart.) She has her own companion book, Really Truly Ruthie, in which Ruthie goes on a Quest - a real life fairytale quest! With strangers who help guide her, and a real life sleigh ride! - to find Kit’s aunt, who might have the money to save Kit’s house.

Kit’s father, you see, has lost his job; hence the boarders the family has to take in. Kit is plucky, proud, and prickly, an ardent admirer of Amelia Earhart and Robin Hood, who yearns for a tree house and dreams of being a reporter.

The tightening horizons of Kit’s dreams, now that her family has lost its money, is one of the themes in the books, and the constriction makes Kit peppery, especially with her still-wealthy best friend Ruthie. Another theme: how to help unfortunate friends (in money, in this case, but I imagine the same idea applies in other things) without embarrassing them.

All the books I read as a child had all these great life lessons in them. It’s kind of a pity I didn’t internalize most of them more.
osprey_archer: (yuletide)
The Yuletide reveal is come upon us! At last, I can share my fics.

The main story

Erlkönigs Tochter, Princess Tutu, Fakir & Ahiru & fairytales. Betaed by [livejournal.com profile] isiscolo and [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume and also one of my RL friends, because I was having vapors about whether it worked.

I got the prompt for this and the beginning and end more or less fell out of my head. (Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve used the same twist end for a Yuletide story, so probably I ought to retire it.) The middle, though, was hell on wheels to write: the bloody story just kept accruing fairytales. But I think it turned out well, in the end - and it makes sense even if you don’t know the original, which is quite an achievement for a Princess Tutu tale!

The treats

Fidelity, Cairo Time, Juliette/Tareq.

One thing I love about Yuletide is that it lets me write for fandoms I would never think of otherwise - and not only would I never have written this, but I wouldn’t have seen the movie at all if I hadn’t read about it in someone’s Yuletide letter. The filmmakers managed to take one of my least favorite themes - infidelity - and make a quiet, lovely movie. I tried to match its tone in this fic.

Dream a Little Dream, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, Maddie/Julie.

This is quite a last minute story. It was Christmas Eve, I wanted to write one last Yuletide story, and I had all these feelings about Code Name Verity, and...this happened. The idea for the story had been rattling around in my head since I read the book: near the end Maddie comments that Julie taught her how to foxtrot, and I went “Where is this scene! I WANT THIS SCENE.”

I meant this to be fluffily flufftastic, but multiple people commented that it made them cry, so...apparently that’s as close as CNV gets to fluffy?

The Winebearer, Classical Roman RPF in SPAAAAAAACE, Julius Caesar/Nicomedes of Bithynia. Betaed by [livejournal.com profile] carmarthen.

...I kind of want to write “The Further Adventures of Caesar in SPAAAAACE.” Bad brain! No cookie!

I had a great time writing incredibly arrogant Caesar, even though I wrote myself a corner with it. I got to the part where Caesar is on his knees, went “Crap, there is no way this is not ending porntastically,” glowered at the fic for a while, and then...wrote the porntastic scene.

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