Thursday, March 30, 2017

Reading for Education or Entertainment? A Brief Review of Disney's Live-Action Beauty and the Beast

Theatrical poster for the film.
While Disney's Beauty and the Beast is sure to hit every nostalgic bone in my body, I have decided to delay seeing it until it comes out on DVD.

This is partly because of how Cinderella turned out, but also because--from what I've heard--I anticipate being dissatisfied with the direction director Bill Condon and Emma Watson decided to take Belle's character.

In the live-action film, Belle faces more extreme prejudice in the village for reading because she is a girl. When she tries to teach another girl to read, she is even punished.

The Los Angeles Times describes Belle's "passion for education" as "one of the emotional cornerstones director Bill Condon used to build new plot points and broaden the characters."

They quoted Condon saying, "'Books, not boys. And everything that books represent....It's a double thing for her. There's an escape into the adventure of books, but it's also just feeding her imagination, and the zeal for knowledge. That's something that, I think, is important to a lot of us.'"

As a young girl, Belle was my favorite Disney Princess, largely due to the fact that she had brown hair and liked to read, two traits I share.

I can confidently say that I did not connect with her based on her "zeal for knowledge." I have never been ostracized for a desire to educate myself through reading because I am a woman. I find it difficult to believe that any woman raised in a first-world culture has, especially when women outnumber men in higher education by an increasingly large margin.

I connected with Belle because she read aggressively, fully immersing herself in stories she loved, and re-reading when she could not obtain new material.

I have faced criticism for that behavior.

I appreciate Belle in the original cartoon because her character's behavior argues that there is something worthwhile in reading for entertainment.

In the original cartoon, the villagers did not understand this. I never thought that the whole village was sexist--Gaston certainly was, but he was the bad guy. The villagers were working. They clearly thought that Belle's behavior was strange but not necessarily because of her gender.

For me, people who criticized my reading habit usually doubted its value as a pass-time. They usually had other things they thought I should be doing (such as homework or chores) and other responsibilities that were being neglected (not without reason). I was not allowed to read while I was babysitting my younger siblings because I became so engrossed that I ignored whatever they were doing.

There are five villagers other than Belle who are not working in the opening scene. Gaston pursues Belle because she is beautiful, the three blondes pursue Gaston because he is beautiful, and LeFou follows Gaston as a lackey.

The original cartoon makes it clear that Belle's time is spent better than these others, even though she, too, is not technically working and that the villagers do not understand this.

Is this true? I would have liked the live-action remake to explore the value of reading further.

In our world of boundless entertainment, what makes books most valuable? How do we justify consuming entertainment instead of spending our time in more "productive" ways?

I think that would have been a more worthwhile theme than the non-issue of women being allowed to educate themselves through books.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bad Idea: Firefly May Be "Revisited"

David Madden, President of Entertainment, FOX TV, recently stated that he would “be open to a Firefly reboot if Joss Whedon himself wanted to revisit it.” This statement has sparked eager discussion among fans hopeful for the return of the cult-classic.

Summary

Firefly was a sci-fi western originally aired on Fox from September 2002 through December 2002, for only 11 episodes before it was cancelled.

It followed 9 people, both passengers and crew (Captain Malcome “Mal” Renolds, his first mate Zoe, her husband Wash, a mercenary Jane Cobb, a Companion Inara, the engineer Kaylee, Dr. Simon Tam, his sister River, and Shepherd Book), on the Firefly class ship named Serenity as they traveled in space and their different values and ideas. 

The director Joss Whedon said about the futuristic setting, “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today.”

After the tv show’s cancellation, fan enthusiasm facilitated a follow-up film Serenity (2005), a novelization of the film (2005), comics, RPGs, a fan-made documentary, and an unofficial sequel.

With so many other classics receiving remakes, it is not surprising that Firefly would come up in the discussion. However, there are three reasons why I feel dread and not hope at this proposition.

1. The Show Was Canceled

Martyrdom is good for business. While Firefly is a great show, it was saved from petering out like many other sci-fi shows. It ended on a high note after a series of good episodes.

I sincerely hope that Firefly fans are not so easily thrilled as Star Wars fans who break into applause at the sight of an AT-ST. I think that Firefly is more subtle in what makes it an entertaining show and that it will be harder to replicate in a satisfying way.

My next objections question the methods by which a new Firefly show would be accomplished.

2. Serenity (Spoilers)

The film ties up many of the loosed ends left after the show was cancelled. It answered the mysteries presented by the psychic research conducted on River (a fugitive from the government) and the origin of the Reavers (mad men who committed atrocities). Furthermore, it killed off two of the nine characters.

The biggest question raised by “revisiting” Firefly is what to do with the film?

Would the plot continue after the film?

This would mean that Wash, a much beloved character in the tv show, would not return, and the subsequent hole in his absence would need to be filled. Wash provided a light-hearted world-view unmatched by the other characters most of whom struggled with dark pasts and dark futures. His consistent love and loyalty for his wife provided a foil for the captain’s frankly depressing relationship with Inara, which could never quite find its feet.
River became an overpowered character at the end of the tv show, so she would also need to be dealt with either through a medical relapse or physical separation from the group (voluntary “mission”, kidnapping, death). All of these would have implications for her brother, as well.

The show would also need to address the big “what happens next”. What would be the driving force behind the show? With so many of the characters dead or suffering, how would it progress?

Or does the story progress from the end of the tv show?

Would it continue on as if the ending was still unknown? Or perhaps conclude with new explanations as if Serenity will never happen and was only one possible resolution to the mysteries? This possibility leads into my next problem.

3. Age of the Actors

It is clear that the actors enjoyed Firefly and highly likely that they all would be willing to participate in a revisiting. However, after 14 years, what would that look like?

Do they, like The Force Awakens, make the story occur X many years later so that they can include the original actors? This itself creates problems of stagnation: in order to make the characters and setting recognizable, they cannot have changed overmuch.

Do they recast the characters? Different actors means different chemistry. The interaction of the characters was vitally important to the success of Firefly: will they be able to recapture that?

Perhaps like Rogue One, a new story will be presented in the same setting. However, I doubt that this will be successful because, unlike the Star Wars extended universe, the Firefly franchise is deeply rooted in the characters of the original show. Serenity, its novelization and RPG, the comics books, the R. Tam Sessions, etc. have all been about the same characters.

Whedon originally pitched the show as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” These characters are extremely important to the show’s success, and to base a revisiting on anything else would be precarious.

4. Current Trends

Special Effects: Firefly felt real. Real sets, real fights, limited CGI and computer generated effects. Today, Digital grading and over-the-top battles are present everywhere. Even in The Force Awakens, which used real costumes and sets, had the overly polished look of today’s mass media.

Anti-hero: Anti-heroes have been popular lately, but Mal does not fall into this category. He is neither a good guy nor a bad guy. Every character has their own values and are very consistent, but not all of their values are currently in fashion. Legalized prostitution for example.

Politics: I find it hard to believe in the current backlash against libertarians and conservatives in the wake of the election that a tv series starring a libertarian and preaching the evils of big government would be produced by our ultra-liberal media, even FOX.

I find it more likely that if the show was revisited today, it would cast the big government as a far right, Nazi-like organization and remove much of the moral and political ambiguity that was present in the original show.

Conclusion


FOX would be better off looking closely at what made Firefly successful and hiring Whedon to make something original. I would much prefer that to watching the show deteriorate into a tattered and impoverished version of its former self.

I would love to hear your opinion on this, though! Are you excited? Hopeful? Nervous? Do you think it would be a success? Would you watch it even if you knew it wasn't going to be good?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Disillusionment and Faith: The Raven's Shadow Series

Front cover
After reading--and loving--The Waking Fire (2016) by Anthony Ryan, I sought out his Raven's Shadow Series.

Blood Song (2011), the first novel, captured me with its story of intrigue and betrayal. Ryan skilfully crafts driving fight scenes in a well-developed world. Now I await the third from the library!

It was in the second book Tower Lord (2014), though, that I began to recognize a thematic pattern of mislaid faith.

Summary

The story begins with Vaelin Al Sorna abandoned by his father at the gate of the Sixth Order where he will learn to devote his life to battle for the Faith--a religion which boasts a life-after-death, but no deity. He carries resentment towards his father and tries to embrace the Order as his only family.

As he grows, however, the political and religious aspects of his nation begin to pull at one another and at him through his family. The king wants to go to war with other countries, who follow other religions, and Vaelin finds himself manipulated into taking a leading role in the venture.

But there are darker forces at work. Someone is manipulating things from beyond the grave, and Vaelin seems destined to oppose him.

Mislaid Faith

One of the themes in the Raven's Shadow novels is mislaid faith in false religions.

The worst antagonists use the faith of others to manipulate them or ridicule them, while lesser antagonists are driven mad by fanatic devotion to their faith.

The main characters are disillusioned, one-by-one realizing that all the religion they believe in is false. They are put-off by the faith of others and consider them foolish, delusioned, or victimized.

Dark Results

This results in an increasingly dark view of the world from the protagonists' perspective, the only hope relying on Vaelin's power. His cynicism, and that of the other protagonists, gives the book a hopeless and downtrodden tone.

Perhaps the third book will provide the series with a more uplifting conclusion, but based on the books I've already read by Ryan, I am doubtful.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Predictable and Bloody: A Brief Review of The Dragon Round

The first thing I noticed when I began reading The Dragon Round (2016) by Stephen S. Power was that it is written in the present tense. The description on the back of the cover is in past tense, as is the inside flap of the cover jacket, but the story itself is in present tense.

This is not necessarily a draw-back, but it does take some adjustment, and makes me wonder why Powers made that artistic decision.

This is Power's first novel, and I thought that his descriptions were vivid and his characters well-written. The world seemed a little too big for the story, interrupting the flow with distracting details.

However, there is nothing surprising about the main character's vengeful quest. The plot is predictable and graphically bloody.

Summary 

Jeryon is the captain of a ship who is marooned by his crew after a dragon attack along with a healer named Everlyn. Together they begin to build a life for themselves on a deserted island, even finding and raising a baby dragon, but Jeryon never forgets the wrong done him by his traitorous crew and vows revenge, utilizing the dragon as a tool to accomplish this.

Dark and Graphic

Everlyn is a more likeable character, being more positive about their circumstances in contrast to Jeryon's cold pragmaticism.

The early part of the story includes a lot of conversation between these two viewpoints, but ultimately, the author falls on Jeryon's side--vengeance over forgiveness, and death over life--taking the story to its grisly end rather than the redemption and healing both Everlyn and I would have preferred.

The tone is consequently dark. Power does not shy from graphic descriptions of the carnage wrought by the dragon at Jeryon's direction, resulting in one of the most depressing dragon stories I've ever read.

Conclusion

I think Powers has talent as an author, but this was a poor example of it. The plot was predictable and the story of slaughter in a fantasy setting and tale of dragons does not appeal to this fan of the genre.

I much preferred A Natural History of Dragons and I even liked The Rain Wilds Chronicles better!

Friday, January 6, 2017

BBC's Sherlock Season 4 Review

Season 4 photo
Spoiler Alert!


When did a show about the world’s most famous detective become more about his personal life than his cases?


Sherlock Holmes has been a phenomena for so long and inspired countless adaptations and rip-offs because of his amazing detective work.


What made the BBC's adaptation so enjoyable was Sherlock’s interaction with the modern world and the bumbling way he connected with the normal world through his unique relationship with Watson. As the show’s producers and writers purse these elements, we see the original draw of the detective story get left behind.


BBC’s Sherlock is beginning to look like a soap opera. This may be entertaining to some fans, but I am growing tired of the stunts and the emotional roller coaster.


Ep. 1: The Six Thatchers (written 1/6/17)


When Mary was added in Season 3, I wondered how she would affect the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, which was so integral an aspect of the BBC adaptation. I was looking forward to watching Sherlock and his lifestyle interacting with the Watson family life.


When they made her into a super spy, I rolled my eyes, but wondered how the show would continue to develop her as a character.


Instead, she dies in the most cliche way possible at the end of the first episode in Season 4.


In addition to being an unimaginative ploy for “feels” and a clumsy way for the writers to hack themselves out of a corner, this move destroys the depiction of a healthy, happy relationship between husband and wife, obliterates the mother figure from the family, and keeps Watson and Sherlock off balance in their otherwise unshakable friendship.


I consider all of these things sub-optimal.


Furthermore, Sherlock did not solve the mystery. He had it wrong at first, and ultimately it monologued at him.


This episode also continues to undermine Sherlock as a great mind, proposing that he is too arrogant and sociopathic to function well as a detective, even though those very traits have been present (and enjoyed by fans) since the beginning of the show. Why are they suddenly a problem?

Ep. 2: The Lying Detective (written 1/11/17)

I finally got around to watching the next episode (no longer high in my priorities) and nearly cried I was so bored.

Once again, the mystery takes a back seat as Sherlock and John struggle with their problems.

The audience knows who the bad guy is from the beginning of the episode. The stakes are low, since we don't know if he has killed anyone at all and we never find out who his victims were. Despite the episode's title, we know Sherlock is neither lying nor mistaken, we just have to wait for the killer to explain everything.

However, the episode is chalk-full of personal drama for the characters. John is riddled with guilt over text-cheating on his wife Mary (an assassin) before her death. He even talks to his hallucinations of her.

Sherlock is also dealing with guilt because he believes Mary's death is his fault. At the end of the last episode, he received a message from her after her death which encouraged him to put himself in harm's way so that John could save him, thereby pulling himself out of his grief funk. This Sherlock does by taking drugs--making him crazier than usual--and taking on the most boring serial killer ever.

Meanwhile, even Mycroft is debating beginning a new relationship with his co-worker.

Oh, and the Holmes boys have a secret sister! Tune in next week to find out how that affects their emotions!

Ep. 3: The Final Problem (written 1/16/17)

Sherlock, John, and Mycroft go up against the secret sister Eurus revealed in the previous episode. Apparently Eurus is cleverer than both Sherlock and Mycroft, while understanding emotional context and morality even less.

This episode is flawed on a number of levels. Eurus' goal is vague, and even at the end it is unclear what she accomplished by putting Sherlock through these emotionally grueling experiments. The episode further degraded Sherlock's claim to fame as a great detective, casting him in the role of the "slow" sibling. The story again lacked a mystery, and a crisis--especially one taking place in someone's head--is a poor substitute.

My belief that this season in particular replaced the detective show with a soap opera holds true for this episode as well, however, my biggest problem with it is the assumption that if the Holmes boys had a sister, she would be the same as them. Boring!

Furthermore, using Moriarty as a sound effects library is an insult to Andrew Scott's acting and a poor excuse to include him in the trailers.

Conclusion

Steven Moffat and the other writers of BBC's Sherlock are less interested in giving their audience exciting mysteries solved by the world's greatest detective than they are in creating scenarios that give ample opportunity to wallow in emotional turmoil and allow fans of soap opera shenanigans to undergo their beloved mental torment.

As for me, this season will be my last. I think I'll go re-watch the first two seasons.

What do you think?

Am I being too hard on our beloved show? Or have you also noticed a falling standard and over-reliance on emotional provocation?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Read More in 2017

Bell on her TBR pile
Four days after New Years' and many of us have already given up on our resolutions. So, here is a better resolution to make this year!

Deciding to read more in 2017 is not like other New Year’s resolutions. It isn’t a chore or difficult to achieve because you get to read WHATEVER YOU WANT!

Forget whatever you’ve heard about being a well-rounded person by reading books you hate! That’s a different resolution.

Only like one genre? Read that.

Started a book and find yourself bored? Quit and read something else.

Reading a good book, but something else in your “To Be Read” (TBR) pile suddenly looks more interesting? Read that one instead and come back to the other later!

Resolving to Read More

With the internet on every device and click-bait titles vying for your attention, it is easy to become a passive reader: reading whatever is presented to you, usually in bite-sized pieces. This is like snacking, and, while just as time consuming, it lacks the substance of a true meal.

Resolving to become an active reader is what reading more in 2017 is about! Consciously choosing what to read and when, especially books over internet fluff.

Binge-Reading

Now, as a child, I would read everything I could get my hands on, often long into the night. I would read books in one long sitting. I still do that when I find a really good book. This is NOT the goal of reading more in 2017.

The goal of any New Year’s resolution is to form a healthy habit that integrates into your life in a balanced way.

Staying up until 2AM to read is not a healthy balance. Once in a while can be fun (if you can accept the consequences the next morning), but it is not a good habit.

How-to: Time

Reading does take a significant time commitment. However, it is also easy to break down.

1.  Replace a bad habit (or less optimal one) with reading

Try replacing the time usually devoted to a tv show or aimless internet browsing to reading. Think pro-actively about how you want to spend your time instead of allowing whatever looks interesting at the time dictate your day!

2. Build reading into your schedule

You’ve heard it before: the best way to form a habit is to build it into your schedule. Pick a time and stick to it reliably.

Personally, I can’t read before bed because it wakes me up instead of helping me wind down. However, it works really well for many other people. If you have 30 minutes in the middle of the day, read then! Whatever works with your schedule, keep it up!

During that time, relax! Don’t allow other tasks to encroach. There is always work that needs to be done, but reading is important, too! If you are having trouble justifying sitting and enjoying yourself, take some time to think about why reading is important to you and why you want it to be part of your life. A quick google search can give you numerous ideas!

3. Take it with you

My father-in-law has slowly been making his way through The Lord of the Rings only by reading in waiting rooms! Take a book along with you any time you go somewhere. When you find yourself sitting and waiting, pull it out and read a few pages. You’ll finish in no time!

E-books are a great way to carry reading material. Books can be cumbersome and heavy, and an e-book is a great solution to that problem.

Audiobooks are another way to take books with you. Listen while you commute, while you run, or while doing the dishes!

Other Helpful Tips:

1. Keep Books on Hand

You can’t read if you don’t have books!

2. Find a Referral Source

Keep a TBR list and keep it well stocked with books you think sound interesting.

Ask friends and family if they have books they recommend and check them out! Browse blogs like this one for ideas or try out a social network like GoodReads.

3. Keep a Log

I keep a journal of the books I’ve read that I can look back on for ideas on what to read next. It can also be very motivating to see what you’ve accomplished.

I even include books that I’ve started, but not finished. I think that they are important, too, and it is worth remembering why I didn’t like a book or chose not to continue.

4. Share with Others!

Talk to your friends and family about what you are reading and what you think of it! Find others who have also read the book and discuss it with them. Join a book club or find a reading partner. Return to your referral source and let them know what you thought of the book they recommended!

2017 Otherwise Fantastic Reading Challenge

I have drawn up a simple TBR List/Reading Log and included it as a complimentary PDF when you subscribe to my blog via email! You can use it to keep track of your reading by recording not only the title, author, and date you finish, but also a short “about” section to remind you which story went with which book title, a place to record your thoughts (liked it, loved it, hated it, etc.), and a place to note which referral source you heard about it from so you can return there and share those thoughts!

I am always happy to hear about what you guys are reading! Feel free to contact me via comments or email about your progress, and I hope you all resolve to read more this year!


Tells us about your reading goals this year!


Be sure to check out my 2016 Year in Review and my article on The Pros and Cons of Rereading!

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Year In Review


The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher (Jan. 2016)

Steampunk by one of my favorite authors! See my full review here!

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Werde (Jan. 2016)

An old favorite from my bookshelf. See my full review here!

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (Feb. 2016)

I really liked this book, and I hope the upcoming movie does it credit. See my full review here!

The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan (March, 2016)

The main character Sonea was interesting, but by the end of the trilogy, I was completely skipping the parts focused on Dannyl. Not only did he turn out to be gay (a lifestyle I have trouble identifying with) he had no impact on the central plot.

Sonea was engaging and level-headed--a trait I appreciate in a female lead. However, her romantic involvement with High Lord Akkarin came at the tail end of the third book with no previous hints of interest on the part of either of them. Not only was he over ten years her senior, he was the antagonist of the first two books and the even the beginning of the third. She hated him, felt dread and scorn towards him, and could not comprehend her classmates' interest in anything other than his great power. When he died, I didn't care. At the end when she announced her pregnancy, it felt contrived to imbue the conclusion with a sense of hope.

Brokedown Palace by Steven Burst (March 2016)

Didn't find it worth my time. See my full review here!

Girl Genius series by Phil & Kaja Foglio (March 2016)

Loved it! Went out and bought it after finishing the library's copy. See my full review here!

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (April 2016)

Novik is a great writer, but I was disappointed with this story. See my full review here!

The Chathrand Voyage Quartet by Robert V.S. Redick (April 2016)

A compelling series. I enjoyed most of it, but it seemed to lose momentum in the final book. I just didn't feel the sense of urgency any more, so I took longer to finish it. See my full review here!

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (May 2016)

The first in the October Daye series. An Urban Fantasy novel about a female changeling who is a detective making friends and enemies among the fae. Vaguely interesting story, but lacking the drive of the Dresden Files.

The Just City by Jo Walton

I really disliked this story, largely because I disagreed with its central themes. See my full review here!

The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood (May 2016)

A really compelling story. Loved it! See my full review here!

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (June 2016)

Interesting premise, but a lot happened that was merely weird rather than intriguing. There wasn't enough structure to the magic or drive to justify putting more explanations in a sequel. I thought the climax fizzled. It was unclear what was accomplished.

Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell (June 2016)

Swashbuckling fun! Read my full review here!

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde (July 2016)

As many fantastic ideas about the world of books crammed into a story as possible. See my full review here!

The Rain Wilds Chronicles by Robin Hobb (July 2016)

About half of the story is good. The parts of the books dedicated to the dragons' struggle to the city in their memories and overcoming their deformities was great! The parts about the humans and their various depressing relationships, not so much. See my full review here!

Age of Myth by Michael Sullivan (July 2016)

Loved this one, too! One of my new favorite authors. See my full review here!

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (Aug. 2016)

A fun blend of steampunk, and feudal Japan! See my full review here!

Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan (Aug. 2016)

Two books in one, loosely connected by characters and swords. I have yet to be disappointed by Sullivan! See my full review here!

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik (Aug. 2016)

A satisfying conclusion to the Temeraire series! So much better than Uprooted.

The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (Sept. 2016)

Another great dragons story! Ryan has a refreshing take on the concept of ingesting drake's blood, and the setting--particularly the lost civilization in the jungle, was well developed and interesting.

A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan (October 2016)

Enjoyable, although the narrator removes much of the drive and emotional investment. See my full review here!

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde (Oct. 2016)

More convoluted language barely decipherable as a plot. Still fun if you're a book nerd.

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown (Oct. 2016)

It was certainly dark, but I can't say I really enjoyed it. Face paced, but too dominated by ideas of betrayal, ignorance, and hopelessness. Ended well enough, but not as decisively as would make it pleasurable.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (Nov. 2016)

Always a good reread!

Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (Nov. 2016)

I always enjoy how monsters are treated with more than horror in their original texts. Erik is given nearly as much admiration as hatred in this story. He isn't merely scary; he has some depth of character.


Non-Fiction (a small sample)

On Writing by Stephen King

"Starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with the story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story." (208).

Second Thoughts by David Galef

"But even with immediate rereading comes change, at the very least a loss of spontaneity, at the most a series of distortions that seem at odds with the structure of the text. The first losses are the surprises in the plot." (19)

"The sacred and Profane in Fantasy Writing: Who Gives a F--?" by T.O. Munro

"It may bother others more than it bothers me, but the f-bomb is just another word. The test of authorship is not whether to use it, but how to use it, for each word must fight to justify its place on the final printed page." (fantasy-faction.com)