Back in 2013, when I was new-ish at my previous (and first-ever) job at GMA News Online, I once spent an entire day reading Manix Abrera’s News Hardcore from the first strip to the latest. Concealing my laughter became a struggle.
News Hardcore at first followed the adventures of a newbie journo and then branched out into the experiences of her co-workers in the difficult but noble profession of news. The comic was only about 150+ strips at the time. Even if I couldn’t (yet) relate to a lot of what was going down in the comics–from the failure to hail a cab to going to work during outrageous typhoons–I told myself and my officemates that this would make a great book and I’d buy it if it was. Little did I know that one day, Manix would email me a strip every week, that I would have to upload these comics onto the GNO website myself, that we would meet in conventions here and there, that he would give me a copy of 14 to review.
Flash forward to 2015, two years and a few odd months later, to the November Komikon. Manix was at the head of a long line of people who wanted autographs on News Hardcore: Hukbong Sandatahan ng Kahaggardan. I was not the same girl who read 150+ comic strips in one afternoon during some downtime from work: no longer naive, no longer a journalist, and preparing to leave my second job to move into my third, I’d left my fulfilling but ultimately toxic media job behind. But I still wished to have a hard copy of News Hardcore because no matter what happened to me next, the fact remains that my time in journalism has become an indelible part of me. (Spoiler alert: I did not buy a copy. Manix gave me a review copy for free.)
The truth is that my last six months at GMA were fraught with anxiety, stress, office politics, and the beginnings of a year-long depression. There came a point when I cried during a car ride to work–my body’s way of telling me that I did not want to be there anymore. Remembering what was good and what I loved about the job became an unreachable dream. In the months after, I even stopped listening and reading to almost all kinds of news because I would remember some small thing that brought on so much boiling anger and resentment.
I read my physical copy of News Hardcore not in one sitting, as during that day in 2013, but in bursts between tasks at work, breaks, car rides, and an hour before going to bed. I noticed that I laughed more during this second reading than I ever did during the first. I could recognize myself and my former colleagues in beautifying yourself after coverage upon coverage; in gossiping about &#%$@^*@#% grammatical mistakes and other ridiculous writing sins committed by contributors; in trying to get HR to reimburse a hellish commute fee. I remember going to work the Saturday after Typhoon Yolanda struck, having to return gifts over P300 in price, pushing through a crowd just to get an assignment done. I remember having moments to myself on the rooftop or in the bathroom, not exactly questioning my life choices but taking stock of my life thus far anyway. I remember all the chats with my colleagues about what we really like to do beyond office hours (actor, writer, photographer, comic artist…there were many of us with other hobbies). I remembered all of it, laughing (and cringing a little).
It’s been a year since I left GMA. It’d be an understatement to say that coping with the fallout, the near-constant rush of triggering memories, the slow climb back to a place that isn’t dark and so far down from an exit, hasn’t been easy. But I have done it, and I just so happened to read News Hardcore in a better frame of mind and under better circumstances. This book helped remind me that there were some good times, great memories, moments I could be proud of. And that yes, there are things I miss about the job, moments when I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed and the situation had been better. This book also helped me realize that that chapter of my life really has ended and that I am done wallowing in pain. Thus, reading this book is a wonderful way to go full circle.
I don’t know if I can offer an objective review of the book and its contents (is there even such a thing as an objective review?). But this is what News Hardcore means to me, and I am so glad it played such a significant part of my life.
Now all that’s left to ask is, kailan kaya yung volume 2? 😀
WARNING: SPOILERS AHOY, ESPECIALLY FOR EPISODE VII. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET. GET YOUR ASS TO A CINEMA AND COME BACK AFTER YOU’VE SEEN IT. I WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE RUINATION OF YOUR VIEWING EXPERIENCE.
I’m going to come out and say that I’d never watched the original Star Wars trilogy, and so it was no big deal whether or not I watched Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, just like watching the second trilogy was no big deal (in my defense, I was 8 years old when Episode I came out and I wasn’t yet very particular about art by the time Episode III hit theaters).
But my dad was insistent that we watch that first Sunday after the release date (“You write science fiction, you should be a fan!”), so in preparation for Episode VII, my sister and did a marathon watch of the first trilogy the day before. In glorious VCD. (We didn’t bother with the second trilogy because we don’t even have copies.)
Episodes IV, V, and VI
Episodes IV, V, and VI follow the typical trajectory of the Chosen Farm Boy discovering his true origins and innate powers, in true Hero’s Journey fashion. He develops those powers with the help of a Wise Old Mentor, all in the service of rescuing a scrappy and attractive space Princess. Along the way, he also gains some friends in the form of the Dashing Smuggler and his hairy first mate, loses his Wise Old Mentor, shows that he’s a damn capable pilot, and blows up the World-Ending Weapon of Doom–thereby pissing off the Dark Lord. He spends the next two movies further developing his powers, losing a hand, losing the Princess to the Smuggler (totally okay because she turns out to be his long-lost twin sister, so that’s a relief), falling into trap after trap, losing his second Wise Old Mentor, leading the Resistance, discovering that the Dark Lord is his father, refusing to join the Dark Side, and celebrating with everyone after the second World-Ending Weapon of Doom is blown up, thereby bringing about the downfall of the Empire.
I make it sound like I didn’t have enjoy watching the trilogy with that summary, but the truth is, I did. The original trilogy is a ball of fun and adventure and despite the no-nonsense Princess Leia being put in that infamous slave bikini, she goddamn strangles Jabba the Hutt with the same chains he clamped around her limbs. It was probably pretty groundbreaking–though it didn’t quite get everything right–in terms of feminism and diversity in the 70s. I think that if I’d seen it at a younger age, I’d be a pretty big fan today.
But I wrote the summary of the first Star Wars trilogy in such a manner because I wanted to point out how much the movies (Episode IV, in particular) adhere to the usual tropes. In that sense, however, I think Episode VI is superior to the first two in terms of trope-breaking: for one, Luke is not the Big Damn Hero who blows up the second, larger Death Star (that honor goes to Han Solo and everybody aboard the Millennium Falcon). Luke also doesn’t have a Big Damn Showdown with either Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine–he already had one with the former in Episode V, so another would’ve been redundant. Lastly, Luke’s most heroic act in Episode VI is on a whole other level with his most heroic act from Episode IV: whereas he blew up the first Death Star in the first movie, he decides that his father is worth saving and actually hies on over to the the second Death Star to help him back into the light. He believes this even while being tortured by Force Lightning. Luke evolves from a whiny farm boy with Zac Efron-good looks, immense talent, and no impulse control to a guy who didn’t age well but looks and acts so damn cool in his black suit, has mastery of his Force powers, and believes in the goodness of the guy who killed Obi-Wan Kenobi, the guy he mourned more than the uncle who raised him.
I did have a few problems with some aspects. The political situation of the Empire wasn’t very clear, for one–yes, they blew up Alderaan, but apart from that, were they allowing slave trafficking? Over-taxing its people into deep poverty? Banning free speech? Taking entire planets by force? What was it that compelled them to build a Death Star in the first place if most people were already under their rule? What tyranny was the Resistance fighting against? And did they realize that there would be a pretty gaping power vacuum if they sunk the Empire and didn’t have an alternative leader?
And a few quibbles: why does everyone allow the other side to track them to their damn bases (Princess Leia already mentioned the tracking to Han Solo, but they did zilch about it afterward)? Why did the Resistance name Luke Skywalker a commander when he has no tactical experience in battle apart from blowing up the first Death Star (which is completely different from a land or sea battle on another planet)? And why the hell didn’t the Empire vary their architectural plans for the Death Star a.k.a. why is there another small hole that functions as an Achilles’ heel?
All told, however, the first trilogy did a pretty good job of getting me excited for Episode VII.
Apart from viewing the first trailer more than a year before the release date, I steered clear of any and all news and bits of information about Episode VII. Therefore, I didn’t know what to expect of this movie–except perhaps, everyone might break into song, as befitting a Disney movie.
The story begins thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is missing and everyone is searching for him–including his sister, Resistance General Leia Organa, and the pro-Empire cult called the First Order. A map of his location falls into the hands of Ace Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who in turn hides the map in his BB8 unit and puts up a brave fight before he is captured by Dark Lord-wannabe Kylo Ren of the First Order. The BB8 ends up with Rey, a young Jakku scavenger, while Poe is freed by ex-stormtrooper Finn. Poe and Finn’s comandeered TIE fighter crash lands on Jakku and Finn finds himself in Rey’s company. Their adventures begin when the Jakku post they meet at is bombed by the stormtroopers and they escape on a rickety old ship called the Millennium Falcon–which is being tracked by its former owner…
There’s a fine line between paying homage to source material and actually copying everything about it. At first, the movie was walking the homage line with the Millennium Falcon and the fact that BB8’s journey in a way parallels that of R2-D2. But as it went on, I got the sneaking feeling that it was basically the plot of Episode IV rehashed: the planet-sized Death Star (forgot what it was called, sorry) destroys a planet, this time the one that housed the Republic; the Resistance storms the First Order base while a small group (Han, Chewie, and Finn) infiltrates it to not only take it down from the inside, but rescue a captured Rey; Rey witnesses the death of her father figure at the hands of Kylo Ren; Poe’s squad takes down the planet-sized Death Star by bombing a weak point in its design–all before it can fire at the star system of the rebel base; Rey and Kylo Ren have a lightsaber showdown.
Which is not to say that, like with its predecessor above, I did not enjoy Episode VII. In fact, I’d say that I’m a fan of the movie at this point, and it’s thanks in large part to deuteragonists Rey and Finn.
I love that Rey is a competent mechanic and decent pilot–there is nothing of the whining or angsting found in Luke or Anakin. She is not afraid to show her insecurities or her fear and thus, these do not bog her down, especially when it’s time to get down and dirty (with the exception of the incident at Maz Kanata’s castle).
I love how Finn alone among all the stormtroopers has lasted this long, even if it’s because he turned his back on the cause. I also really like the bromance blossoming between him and Poe (hahaha–let’s face it, those two have far more chemistry than Finn and Rey). I love how he managed to hold his own in a fight with Kylo Ren; even though Ren eventually slashed him unconscious, he still managed to cut the guy.
Episode VII also managed to address that power vacuum I mentioned earlier. The politics are more developed and contemporary. What I mean by this is that the First Order has parallels with both the Nazis and ISIS in terms of goals and hierarchy. And in terms of cultural politics, it’s pretty awesome to see a woman as the (not at all sexualized) Chosen One, a black man as deutragonist and potential love interest (not shipping this one because see Finn and Poe above), and a couple of Asians as minor characters.
My takeaway from this movie: I’d watch the sequel; the Skywalkers should not be allowed to have children EVER because they tend to dictate the fate of the Galaxy with their Force sensitivity; someone should tell Kylo Ren that his grandpa turned to the Light Side before he died; Han throwing that gangster henchman to the squid beast kinda renders the whole morality root of the “who shot first” argument moot; and someone needs to fire the Death Star engineer and all their descendants, pronto.
Aladdin is special to me for being the very first Disney movie I ever watched, and perhaps the only one I–according to my parents–would cry at the end of, as I apparently wanted them to rewind the VHS tape and play it again. I couldn’t tell you what I saw in it over 20 years ago, of course.
Considering that I watched it for the first time as an adult recently, I can tell you what I think of it now: despite some plot holes and glaring problems in the geographical and cultural setting, Aladdin is a rollicking, hilarious, romantic, and progressive (for its time) cartoon.
Summary from IMDB:
When street rat Aladdin frees a genie from a lamp, he finds his wishes granted. However, he soon finds that the evil has other plans for the lamp–and for Princess Jasmine. But can Aladdin save Princess Jasmine and his love for her after she sees that he isn’t quite what he appears to be?
It was extremely difficult for me to summarize the plot of Aladdin without going into great detail as to what happened in the beginning. I think that this is because Aladdin’s turning point, that of meeting Genie and trying to win Jasmine’s hand as a prince, doesn’t occur until a good one-third into the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I enjoyed the somewhat tuneless preamble leading up to the second Cave of Wonders sequence.
You know what else I enjoyed? Aladdin and Jasmine, from start to finish. I feel like there is no other Disney movie where the chemistry between the hero and the heroine is this strong. Aladdin turns into a real goofball when it comes to Jasmine, so much so that I can feel a goofy smile growing on my face whenever they’re about to kiss or when the “A Whole New World” number came up. Even if the next two films and the animated TV series weren’t as good as Aladdin, I’m glad Aladdin and Jasmine got that much material and screen time to further develop their relationship; they are by no means perfect and they often have misunderstandings, but that’s just part of their charm.
Jasmine herself is a pretty admirable character, perhaps the first example of the naive-but-fiery-and-capable-princess trope. She can’t handle a bow like Merida or a sword like Mulan, but she’s every bit as willing to fight to protect what’s important to her like Nala, and even as willing to trick her way into achieving her aims like Megara and has all the sexuality of Esmeralda. I may have wanted to be her when I grew up.
The film–in glorious 2D that’s all but disappeared from mainstream US animation–has a rocking color palette that isn’t at all shy about going from warm to cool undertones from one scene to the next. Appropriate when you consider that the “A Whole New World” sequence is basically a preview of the settings of future Disney movies, like Hercules and Mulan. I also very much enjoyed how Carpet was animated–it takes a lot of skill to be able to draw a rug that can express its emotions without any voice acting. Plus, its pattern was beautiful.
Speaking of voice acting, Robin Williams in his turn as the Genie was especially stellar. Scott Weinger does a pretty good job as Aladdin, too.
I did have to wonder, however, about some plot points. Why Jafar didn’t just attempt to marry Jasmine in the first place if he wanted to take over Agrabah so much? He clearly had the resources–the snake staff–to do it, and if he’d done that in the first place, he’d have had access to enough resources to storm the Cave of Wonders, or else to discreetly detect Aladdin’s presence in the marketplace.
It also bothered me somewhat that you couldn’t tell at a glance if you were in India, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. (The palace and Jasmine’s attire has some Indian influences, the marketplace is more Arabian souk–and I’m probably getting too technical on this, but wasn’t the original Aladdin story set in China?)
I was also thinking the whole time I watched the Sultan, how did this happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t take anything seriously get to lead a whole country? I mean, Jasmine was so upset when she thought that Jafar had had Aladdin beheaded, and he thinks that talking to both parties as mediator is going to appease either one? And yet, it’s that same quality of the Sultan’s that finally allows Jasmine to choose Aladdin as her husband, so I guess it’s all good…?
Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed Aladdin as much if I’d first come to it as an adult, but who cares? The bottom line is that it gave me so many feelings and I’m still singing out “Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa” at random times throughout the day.
(review by Vida Cruz, ARC from Tor.com the Imprint)
Mistress Patience Gideon is a harmless middle-aged lady living with her teenaged foundling Gilly and her wolf-dog Fenric in the outskirts of Edda’s Meadow. She heals with herbs the ills of the locals who cannot or will not see Dr. Herbeau, the medicine man who comes around once a month. Unbeknownst to everyone except Gilly, Patience is a witch–a good one, though that doesn’t matter to the religious–and her house is a safe place for all passing witches, such as the talented doll animator Selke, on the run from the archbishop of Lodellan. Otherwise, life is mostly peaceful and quiet for Patience.
But when the spoiled, shapeshifting Flora Brautigan is publicly caught in the middle of shifting and a sinister figure from Patience’s past appears in Edda’s Meadow, Patience and every other witch in their village are in danger of being revealed and summarily executed…
Yesterday (Aug. 31) was National Heroes’ Day in the Philippines. Coincidentally, I also finished the novella I’ve been working on since October 2014 on the same day. Hooray!
Being high off the triumph and unable to keep my brain from running on ideas, I’ve begun to brainstorm what the next work I set in the same world–namely, an alternate 15th-16th-century Philippines–will be about. One plot thread is definitely about heroes and heroism.
So, related to both National Heroes’ Day and these future works, I have to ask:
What makes an ordinary person a hero?
Who decides who becomes a hero, and how?
What sets heroes apart from ordinary people?
Related to the above, what are the differences between mythic heroes and folk heroes? Between National Heroes and modern-day ones?
If a hero were in trouble, how much would risk to help them out, if at all?
If anybody, especially someone from the Philippines, has answers to some or all of these questions, I’d love to know in the comments. 🙂
Seraphina is about a teenage girl with a talent for music and a terrible secret landing a job as assistant to the court composer in an alternate medieval world of an uneasy peace between humans and dragons. Just as she arrives at court, one of the princes of the royal family of Goredd is murdered, and the mystery surrounding his death is a lot closer to her past and family than Seraphina would like. She ends up teaming up with bastard prince Lucian Kiggs, whose reputation as a skilled investigator and position as Captain of the Royal Guard make him the most likely person to ferret out Seraphina’s secrets. Together, they uncover a plot that could unbalance the world they know.
It’s been a long time since I picked up a novel, longer still since deliberately choosing a Young Adult fantasy novel as reading material thanks to a dearth of vampire romances and their copycats, and even longer still since I devoured a Young Adult novel featuring dragons from cover to cover. Seraphina breathes new life into the genre not only with its unique mix of fantasy tropes, but with how it treats the intelligence of its readers, who are supposedly aged 12 and above, with respect: the novel presents concepts in art, religion, philosophy, politcs, race, gender, and love, and fully expects its readers to engage with these.
The goal of any novel should be to prove to readers why they are taking time away from their precious families/friends/significant other/pets/internet/work/food/sleep for its sake. Seraphina accomplished this goal magnificently, in my opinion; every page had a new plot twist and every chapter ended in either a cliffhanger or a stepping stone to a spiraling event, resulting in my going to bed at 2:30a.m. on a weeknight and no regrets in the morning.
The writing itself flows smoothly, unimpeded by unnecessary words (although it does not shy away from big words, especially when dragons discuss math and music). It is also descriptive using only light touches, as with this quote from a Porphyrian philosopher that describes Seraphina’s mind’s garden:
“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.” (p. 442)
Which is a feat considering how many rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments the reader is introduced to (and some of which turn out to be actual medieval rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments, according to the author interview bundled with my edition).
There’s a great balance between exposition and being left to figure out what such-and-such is supposed to be or mean. The society is sufficiently complex: the novel contains some very realistic portrayals of racism and prejudice between the humans, dragons, and even the lesser dragon race of the quigutl, and this is dealt with in different tones. Take for example, this ironic quote:
“I scrupulously hide every legitimate reason for people to hate me, and it turns out they don’t need legitimate reasons. Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with.” (p.124)
And this humorous passage:
An aged monk led me to the infirmary. “He’s got the place to himself. Once the other invalids learned there was a dragon coming, they miraculously got well! The lame could walk and the blind decided they didn’t really need to see. He’s a panacea.” (p. 429)
Nuances within each race are also present—for instance, dragons are emotionless (or are damn well trying to be), but that does not mean they are not complex creatures driven by a thirst for knowledge and bound by the philosophy of “ard” or order. Worldbuilding-wise, my favorite aspect is Seraphina’s ever-changing mental garden of grotesques, which houses others of her kind whom she regularly has visions of, and some of whom actually see her and try to reach out to her (not always in good ways). It also seems like an ideal technique for dealing with problems in real life.
Seraphina herself is a compelling character. Her struggle with loathing her body and self completely resonated with me. I think my two favorite things about her is that 1) her actions make her out to be a courageous young woman even though she never once felt courageousness in her bones, and 2) she can take jokes about herself, going so far as to refrain correcting those people and incorporating them into some lie or other that she built around herself. I sometimes wondered if she was snatched out of precarious situations by too many lucky coincidences, but I tended to forget that as I read on.
The supporting cast is full of characters to love or feel compassionate toward. Seraphina’s dragon tutor Orma is an adorable, socially awkward scholar (but then, all dragons are socially awkward, as they still don’t get the nuances of human interaction even after 40 years of walking in their skins and feeling their discomforts). Princess Glisselda could easily have been the typical flighty dimwit, but Hartman also makes her out to be shrewd in affairs of state as well as friendly. Even Seraphina’s lawyer father Claude was not the yelling, antagonistic person I had initially expected him to be.
I want to use Prince Lucian Kiggs’ character as a touchstone of an aspect of Seraphina I absolutely adored and which stood out for me the most: the novel’s treatment of relationships. As someone who plays a lot of dating simulation games and who ends up writing relationship-focused fiction herself, it was refreshing to watch the unfolding of a love story that began from a place of mutual respect and friendship instead of mutual disgust or mutual attraction. Kiggs and Phina’s—as he calls her when he isn’t upset with her—relationship trajectory is just as rocky as any of the great romances, but the bullheadedness and stupidity that often plunges them downward are more borne of the conflicts in their goals and their personalities instead of an authorial need to get the plot going. At their best, their respective intelligences dance in perfect step with each other, more than their actual bodies dancing the pavano, such as when they quote Porphyrian philosophy to each other while speculating or extrapolating on clues.
One of the best scenes starring Kiggs and Phina involved them having a private conversation at the steps of Kiggs’ “beastly tower”, a day or so after Phina insults Kiggs, who once again asked too many personal questions. The word “love” will not make itself seen until some chapters later, but you can really sense over the next four pages that Kiggs and Phina are falling for each other the more they discuss Porphyrian philosophers and their treatises. Afterward, when they bid each other good night and he closes the door, she turns around and stands with her hand on the the surface for a long time, wondering what Kiggs does up there, leaving only when one of her musicians walks by and asks if she’s all right. As I read the novel in both public and private spaces, I had to struggle to contain gigantic grins whenever I read a scene concerning these two (ultimately resulting in some weird facial expressions)—and I’m usually very difficult to impress when it comes to romances.
It isn’t just Kiggs that Seraphina has a strong, complex bond with, however. She also has a strong familial relationship with Orma. They never say the word “love” to each other, but it’s clear that even Orma—who should not be feeling love, as this is considered a disease in dragon culture—cares deeply for Seraphina. Seraphina could also have easily hated Princess Glisselda, who is her music student and romantic rival, and her father Claude for keeping her sheltered most of her life, but she reacts to them with compassion and understanding. Her relationship with her mother Linn, who left her a mind pearl of maternal memories, does have shades of anger in there for her perceived recklessness in falling in love, marrying, and having a child with her father—but that reaction does not end there. Seraphina eventually manages to find empathy for her mother with every new maternal memory she experiences.
These nuanced relationships also reflect on the world at large: yes, Goreddi society is flourishing after forty years of peace with dragons, but that has done nothing to ease the hatred and violence its members commit against the dragons in their human forms (called saarantrai in the plural). Yes, the ruler who forged the peace with the dragons is female and it seems that their long line privileges women in the seat of power, but clothier Thomas Broadwick can still insinuate that Seraphina is a “worm-riding quig lover” who will end up in a sack in the river after he sees her buying a figurine from a quigutl. Yes, Seraphina loves Orma and can understand dragon language and behavior, but she finds newskins or newly transformed dragons appalling to behold and refers to herself often as a monster due to her parentage. The child who picks up this book for the first time will be forced to ask questions while the adult looking for cultural, racial, and political realism will be satisfied—or at least, I was. I was so satisfied that I went looking for other similar Young Adult fantasy novels with the small hope that I would find something just as complex but would induce in me the same amount of sheer joy.
When I reached the end of Seraphina during lunch out with my family, just before diving into the 30+ pages of bonus materials in my edition and some hours before I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy of the sequel Shadow Scale without a second thought, I laid my head on the table and told my sister, “You know that feeling you get when you realize that a book has wrecked you in a good way? This book has wrecked me.“
Before I watch any live-action Disney film, especially one that’s a retelling of a retelling, I always make sure to lower my expectations first–not because I think the film is going to be bad per se (although Maleficent was pretty…meh), but because there will be inevitable changes to the story that may not sit well with me. In other words, I’m still willing to be surprised even as I hold up the 1950’s Cinderella cartoon alongside this most recent incarnation.
2015’s Cinderella, despite being the millionth retelling of the beloved Charles Perrault fairy tale, will surprise you if you let it.
I had doubts about casting Downton Abbey‘s Lily James as Cinderella (Ella in the movie) when I saw the trailer, but those quickly faded. She brought equal parts breathiness, naivete, and also quiet strength to the role. Some will no doubt pan her for her lack of fiery ass kicking, but these days, we seem to forget that there are many different types of women and that even those who can silently and steadfastly hold their own against the odds deserve time in the spotlight.
I may be biased because Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses, but I truly could not hate her in the role of the Wicked Stepmother, Lady Tremaine. I was too busy admiring 1) her fashionable and occasionally avant garde (for the movie’s era) wardrobe with its deep green, black, and gold palette, and 2) how she manages to exude spite coated by a layer of grace, and most of all, jealousy toward Cinderella without ever truly explaining herself during their confrontation in the manor’s attic. Especially after revealing her backstory and motivation via the fairy tale mode, I thought, “aw, she’s just doing everything she can to survive, albeit being bitter the whole way.” Definitely an improvement from the rigid sternness of the cartoon Lady Tremaine; however, I felt that there was another note that her characterization lacked, thus hindering Lady Tremaine from becoming a truly complex character. Can’t put my finger on what it is, though.
It helps that Richard Madden has a charming smile, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Prince Charming (or “Kit,” as he so adamantly calls himself as the Captain and Grand Duke interrupt his meeting with Ella in the forest with a “Your Maj–“). It might actually be more to the credit of the scriptwriters, now that I think about it: compared to the cartoon Cinderella, this prince has speaking lines, a personality, and most of all, humanity. Plus, I loved how he suddenly removed his disguise just as the Captain and Grand Duke were arguing about the one other maiden in the Tremaine household–my breath literally caught during that scene. (But did he seriously have to sit down for three seconds when Ella ran from him? I mean, my gosh.)
I wasn’t so sure about Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother when I saw the trailer, given her the quirky darkness I’ve come to know her for, given her previous roles (Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). I mean, she can put the “boo” in “bippity-boppity-boo!” But she managed to retain her quirkiness and her gift for deadpan humor while still keeping in tone with the rest of the movie (and in a glittery white cake of a gown, too). Not saying that her Fairy Godmother was better than the 1950’s Fairy Godmother (who had the most personality out of anyone in that cartoon, I think), but hers was an interesting rendition.
I must admit, I expected Kenneth Branagh’s direction to be more like the Shakespeare-esque overtones of Thor (2011)–but that’s not what happened in this movie at all. Plus, the slapstick, language jokes, and the witty one-liners hit me in all the right places (“I can’t drive, I’m a goose!”–it’s funnier when heard onscreen). Branagh has improved significantly from that first foray into film direction.
The set pieces were beautiful (that carriage!) and the costumes could be out there and even ahead of their time (Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe, for instance) without being distracting. I also like how there’s a color palette and sometimes even patterns for each character in the movie (just look at Cinderella’s step family). I did have a slight, inconsequential dislike for Ella’s default blue house dress. (Better than the cartoon Cinderella’sdress, but I mean, her parents must have had her wear other dresses when they were alive, right?)
I had a few issues with some aspects of the cinematography, particularly how the camera would cut and fade to another angle as Kit and Ella walk together in the palace gardens. I also got kind of dizzy watching them dance.
The writing and the storyline surprised me on the whole. There were also a few plot tweaks, mostly at the end, that echoed 2002’s Ever After (Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott) in terms of politics. What didn’t sit well with me was how Kit’s father the King had to die in order to give Kit more humanity and depth; apart from this, I’m not sure what else that death accomplished. Tangentially, nearly every parent in this film died of an illness, making me think that Kit’s first order of business as king should be to investigate the source of this mysterious parent-killing disease. (Yeah, it was understandable with Ella’s parents, but the King, too? That’s too much in one movie.) But these are minor things.
What I really like about this adaptation is how Ella herself was given a backbone. “Have courage and be kind” is a message that could easily drown in this dog-eat-dog world, and I like how this was given more emphasis–Kit himself remarks to the Captain (Nonso Anozie) that he was more drawn by her kindness and goodness than her beauty (“Although she is beautiful,” he says). Ella even defies Lady Tremaine at some point, demanding to know the cause as to the older woman’s cruelty. When Kit finally asks her, before he fits the glass slipper on her foot, who she is, I at first thought it off that she introduced herself as Cinderella instead of Ella, given that reflection on how much Ella’s step family had “transformed her into a creature of ash.” But upon talking it out with my sister, I realize that this was just the right note–2015’s Cinderella is not a movie about breaking your shackles and claiming your freedom. It’s about staying true to who you are and believing in goodness and fairness despite the bitterness of the world.
One final note about the relationship between Kit and Ella. James and Madden really brought the two to life with their onscreen chemistry, and I love how the script took pains to somehow equalize Ella and Kit in terms of strength and humanity, station in life be damned (I just don’t like how they had to kill off a character to help in this). This is something I feel that a lot of media does not do well, or else I am not watching enough movies or reading enough books. They helped me to see that, no matter how many times I watch or read a Cinderella retelling, I will always hold my breath and my heartbeat will always flutter during the moment when Cinderella catches the prince’s eyes across the ballroom floor. 2015’s Cinderella is probably one of my favorite versions yet.
Readers can dive into a short story collection at any point in the book–unlike with novels, which are usually read from cover to cover.
Not so with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. You could read the 16 gems in this book in any order, but to get the full effect of her nesting doll-like structure, you must read them in the order they were presented. How else are you going to realize that some protagonists are descendants of others, or that they all cross paths at some point? Sourdough is not just a masterful collection–it’s a masterclass in how to curate stories for a collection.
Now, I have huge To Be Read piles (yes, piles) that aren’t getting any smaller despite my reading more books this year than the last two years put together, because:
I am also a Book Hoarder, and
Even though I profess my undying love and loyalty to print books, I have to admit that the next best thing to getting books that will not ship to my damn country are eBooks.
I was planning to read something else for my job, but I ended up taking a peek at Slatter’s September-released The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in my Kindle. Slatter said in her intro that it’s a prequel of sorts to Sourdough and Other Stories, so logically, I exited from my copy and dove right into Sourdough.
I don’t know if my attention span’s grown shorter or there just aren’t enough really riveting books coming out lately or some other truer reason, but there have been so many times when I picked up a book and read maybe a paragraph or even a chapter of, and then put it down, not at all drawn to it again. That was not the case with Sourdough. If I put the book down, it’s because my real life intruded on my reading time; otherwise, it’s hard to leave when the paragraphs look like this from the titular story:
My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.
It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a THIN silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.
If that doesn’t grab you, then you have no imagination at all. You get a sense while reading Slatter’s collection that it’s like walking into a bakery–there’s 16 kinds of bread all laid out nice and crisp. But don’t think you’ll know what to get once you pick one up despite such labels like “Gallowberries” or “Dibblespin” or “Little Raddish.” Don’t think that they all taste alike either, oh no–though most of the stories end in a bittersweet way, they each have their own shape, their own distinct flavor.
The only time I felt unsatisfied after reading was after “Under the Mountain.” I got the sense that it and its prequel “Sister, Sister” would have been better next to each other as opposed to being interwoven between “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.” The reason I feel this way is because I feel that, while all the stories are connected, only three sets of paired stories are true sequels to each other, with the third pair being “The Story of Ink” and “Lost Things,” which were next to each other and a little earlier in the collection. “Under the Mountain” ends on such a terribly sour note while “Lavender and Lychgates” had an ending that was a little brighter than most that came before it.
I think Slatter’s stories trained me into thinking that there is hope for each character even beyond their stories, however grim–their appearances in later stories, which also happen to be later times, are proof enough–but “Under the Mountain” was different somehow. The doors of the troll kingdom closing on the protagonist Magdalene don’t just signify the close of the story, the collection; they’re a closing off of all possibilities for her redemption, for finding any love. Of course, a lot of other characters come to such an end elsewhere in Sourdough; I may have hoped that in the roulette of tales Slatter set up, the closing tale would be hopeful, too.
Ultimate favorites from the top of my head include “Gallowberries,” “A Porcelain Soul,” “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.”
I’m really excited to read The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I feel like it’ll be a little bit like coming home.
Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.
When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.
This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.
I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.
I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.
The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.
How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.
I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).
In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.
But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.
I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.
Beautiful Darkness got under my skin whether I wanted it to or not.
The physical experience of having the book sort of mimicked my reading experience. To start with, I did not buy this book–it was sent to me by a friend who wished for me to bring it home for her from San Diego, where I was immersed in the Clarion Writers Workshop and thus, had very little time to read work that wasn’t that of my classmates.
One of my roommates, the awesome horror writer Haralambi Markov, saw it and asked to borrow it for a while. When I happened upon him in our living room later on and asked him how the book was, he said that it was disturbing–this, coming from the guy who wrote a tender family story with baking a dead person into a cake at its center. He showed me the page where the little people start pouring out of a dead girl, survivors of their world turning to jelly and crumbling.
So I left it on the living room table up until the day I had to play tetris with two balikbayan boxes before going home.
Safely back home, the book sat on my table until I showed it to my boyfriend. He flipped to page one and was hooked from the beginning. I sat next to him and read right along with him. I turned the pages for the both of us, though I didn’t really want to read it–but I figured we had very little time together before I officially went back to work. For such a disturbing book, reading it with another gave me insight into how my boyfriend’s critical and readerly brain worked, so that’s the first point of approval in this comic’s favor. It was interesting to note the parts where we both said aloud “I knew it!” or “Aw, and look at what so-and-so is doing in this panel before this happens…”
The second approval point: Kerascoët’s lush watercolors and the two different art styles–highly stylized for the little people and realistic for the two humans. They do nothing fancy with the panels or the lettering, and I must say it was disconcerting not to have any lettered onomatopoeias tearing across the page. But simplicity is one of this comic’s key elements; without it, it wouldn’t work half so well. Beautiful Darkness‘s startling layers of complexity must be allowed to speak for themselves, so the art had to scale back the usual ostentatious dynamism that graphic novels are often told in. The Kerascoët duo’s art style was perfect for this project.
Beautiful Darkness opens in a fairy tale-esque manner, with the protagonist Aurora preparing for the arrival of Prince Hector with her friend Plim after a ball. Soon after the Prince arrives and pays his compliments, the room they stand in begins disintegrating. Aurora escapes what looks like the end of the world and the “camera” pulls back, revealing that many others like her are escaping, too–from the body of a dead little girl lying in the woods.
Soon after, Aurora and the survivors attempt to make some semblance of the civilization in the big wilderness surrounding them and the corpse, even if some actions include what were once mundane activities becoming completely nonsensical out of context–for example, the vain and cruel Zellie having a wedding dress made around her body for about half the book. Others try to find new ways to get food and survive in general, such as climbing into a bird’s nest and getting their throat punctured as the bird feeds them bugs, or eating fruits that turn out to be poisonous (these have killed off scores of the other survivors in no time, apparently). Death is everywhere, but it comes to the nicest and most civilized of the little people first.
And there’s the other disturbing element of Beautiful Darkness: death is rampant, even gruesome, but none of the little people seem to care when someone they once knew dies. Life goes on in the dystopia in the woods–there are tea parties and dinners and kite flying, even a wedding. Nobody once says “it’s kill or be killed” or “every body for themselves” at any one point, but that’s exactly the kind of mentality going on here.
It is also a tale of the death of innocence (the dead girl is one layer) and of civilization crumbling. Aurora’s helpful, friendly, hospitable nature (the one that allowed her to distribute food, help build shelters, and try to draw people like the shy Timothy into the bigger circle) disintegrates slowly, beginning with her ruinous dinner with the forest animals that inevitably leaves many of her people dead and the food scattered. She even gouges out the eyes of the nice mouse who often gave her berries to eat over uncivilized behavior at the dinner table (it peed on the said table, which was just the mouse being true to its animalistic nature). At the same time, the population of survivors dwindles due to individual stupidity or group callousness (the aforementioned Timothy is buried alive by the snobbish Zellie and her handmaidens, the baby she was caring for left to die on a root even after one of the handmaidens take it from Timothy and coo over it as if it were a toy).
There is plenty of backstory left out of the comic: we do not know what life was like for any of the little people before their host body died, for example–certainly, no one spends their time reflecting on what they lost; they just go on trying to replicate it all, whittled down to their most basic images, often with catastrophic results. We do not know how the host body died or why, although it is implied that her death was violent and caused by the adult man living by himself in a cabin–“the giant in the woods.” And we definitely do not know why there was an entire country of little people living in a little girl–and it’s all right that we don’t know the answers to any of these mysteries.
But at its core, when you push aside the tales of surviving a dystopia and the horrors of the human experience, Beautiful Darkness is a fairy tale about what one plucky young woman has to do to win her prince. And even this simple formula, it subverts.
The verdict: Beautiful Darkness was adorable. It was disturbing. It gave me goosebumps–Lord of the Flies with a thick layer of sugar and icing on top. It forced me to categorize the way I liked things, the way I really liked things, and the way some things are not my jam at all and yet I can’t put it down for the life of me. Beautiful Darkness is exactly the third thing I just mentioned. I usually cannot stand horror, but I think the simple but effective art style and the fairy tale tropes (and their subversion) managed to pin me down. And the fact that I can write this long a post dissecting it really says something about it.
Beautiful Darkness does not appeal to my personal aesthetics at all, and yet, I feel that it’s set to become a classic among other titles in the same medium. Best of all, it helped break this horrible streak I had ever since coming from the workshop, in which I began to see the strings in published work, whether I liked the piece or not. I had no experience of the sort reading this.