So, I’ve been spending more time these past few months over at IB, but I promise I haven’t forgotten La-La Land.  New Postcards are on the way, including reviews of the 80s classic Annie on my Mind, by Nancy Garden, and the more recent Lost Voices trilogy, by Sarah Porter.

In the meantime, I present the following video discussion between myself and two of IB’s other awesome contributors, Laura Confer and Jericha Senyak.  Our topic:  “How Young Adult Literature Made Me A Feminist.”  We argue that, despite the current trend of tacked-on romances, young adult literature — as well as fantasy, both YA and adult — still seems better at presenting strong female characters than books aimed at adults.   We talk fairy tales, sexual awakening stories, and we use the phrase “straight white male” a lot.  I also extol the awesomeness of Disney’s Frozen.

Note: some swearing, and a few SPOILERS for Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, and the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.

Cross-posted from IB.

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I like a good literary romance well enough.  Aw, who am I kidding, I’m the shippiest shipper in all of shipdom.*  I was on Team Ron/Hermione right from Sorcerer’s Stone (I swear I started this post before J. K.’s recent comments ^_^;; ).  Want to know just how Johnlocked I am (of course you do)?  See the “Sherlock” tag in my Livejournal.  And “As Long as You’re Mine” was my favorite song from Wicked – next to “Defying Gravity,” of course.

But even I have my limits.  Because for the love of Pete’s sake, if I read another summary that includes some variation of girl-finds-herself-irresistibly-drawn-to-some-“devastatingly handsome charmer” (yoinked that one from Amazon, re: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer), I will throw a mental fit.

I’m not talking about books in which the romance is the story, or an otherwise integral and organic plot point.  For instance, I consider the “star-crossed lovers” angle in The Hunger Games an important part of the larger goal, which is to stop the Games once and for all. I’m talking about those books in which the romance feels tacked on.  Books in which the primary plot is interesting enough without adding a love triangle or ill-fated coupling.  How many times do I have to get all intrigued by a potential TBR pile addition, only for the jacket flap to add:  Oh, and the heroine also has to choose between the loyal best friend and the exciting but possibly dangerous bad boy…?

Now, I’m focusing on male love interests because that seems to be the most common trope.  I’d actually be interested in seeing more stories with gay or bisexual women.  The following isn’t technically YA, but Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series (post An Artificial Night) is a great example — particularly her e-novella, In Sea-Salt Tears.  McGuire writes relationships like Jazz and May’s, and Liz and Annie’s, like there’s nothing unusual about both partners being female.  Well, ok, Toby is surprised at first when she meets Jazz, not having considered that her…let’s say surprise twin sister…might be a different orientation than Toby herself.  But after that it’s treated like no big deal.

Just to be clear, this isn’t an anti-men rant.  It’s an anti-cliché rant.  It’s an anti-“token romances”** rant.  What’s a token romance?  One of the best examples is actually in a movie adaptation; the book itself didn’t have the romance element in question.  In Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the movie-makers decided to make Susan and Caspian an item–I mean, if a few flirty lines and one kiss count as an “item.”  But hey, at least that’s more interesting than just a teenage girl using her mad archery skillz to help save a kingdom, while struggling with her faith in magic vs. the desire to be more grown-up, right?

Oh, that’s right — Susan’s growing up.  Of course she’d have a crush on the first human guy she meets upon returning to Narnia.

At least that’s what director Andrew Adamson thinks:  “The kids are growing up. If you look at Ben [Barnes, who played Caspian] and you look at Anna [Popplewell, who played Susan], it seems really implausible that they wouldn’t have some feelings for each other.”  Right?  I mean, you have a teenage girl and a teenage boy, and they’re both pretty attractive by Hollywood standards, so how could they not have the hots for each other?

boy_girl_sex

Yeah, so full disclosure – 2008!Nerija did have a mini-crush on Barnes as Prince Caspian.  And I did think his romance with Susan was sweet.  But was it really as inevitable as Adamson believes?  Would it really seem that unnatural for the two teens to just see each other as friends (as they do in the book)?

I’m all for believable characterization – even fantasy needs some tie to reality, to help the reader/viewer connect to the story.  It’s hard to feel really immersed if the author keeps inadvertently reminding you that this is just fiction.

But.  Is a YA female with a boy toy really more relatable than one without?

There are, I’m sure, plenty of readers/viewers who fall into the latter category, and who’d appreciate their own experiences being represented.  In fact, despite what we’re told by TV, movies, ads, and all those books with teen-and-older characters, there are even adults who feel little to no desire at all for a sexual or romantic relationship.  And they’re not simply choosing to be celibate, any more than sexual people choose who they feel attracted to.  Check outAsexuality.org if you’re interested in learning more.

The point (are you listening, Mr. Adamson?) is that of course it’s plausible for two characters – regardless of age or appearance or anything else – to not be attracted to each another.  “Growing up” doesn’t have to mean suddenly wanting to boink.  And as for relatability, if a character is written well enough – fully fleshed out, with clear motives and consistent behavior (but not stagnant, unless the point is to show the character’s inability to change) – any reader should be able to find something to relate to.  Remember that song from Sesame Street, about the things we all have in common despite our differences?

Now, I’m not saying characters without love interests have to be asexual.  I’d just like to see more stories that don’t rely on the romance trope to make their kick-ass females more relatable.  I’d like to see more stories that show how women can be awesome without boyfriends.  Stories in which the challenges don’t involve choosing between two guys, or falling for the forbidden guy, or hoping the super-popular guy will notice you over all those prettier/more popular girls.

Happily, there has been some progress.  The fact that Disney, the royal entity of romantic happily-ever-afters, created a princess who…

[SPOILER ahead for the end of Brave]

Merida

…remains joyfully single at the end is a huge step.  Merida – the first Disney princess without a supporting prince, or even a male traveling companion (if you don’t count her horse, Angus).  And there are some contemporary YA’s that focus on non-romantic conflicts.  Like Katya’s World, by Jonathan L. Howard.  Sj first introduced me to that one, pointing out in particular its lack of romance.  The fifteen-year-old protagonist, Katya Kuriakova, does interact with at least one guy close-ish to her age, but even when he stops being an obnoxious idiot, the most she feels for him is some sympathy.  The story is full enough of twists and thrills and drama without adding romance to the mix.

More of that, please!

What about you guys? Are you as tired of seeing young heroines’ stories centered around relationships as I am? Do you have any good recommendations for YA stories that don’t follow the same ol’ girl-meets-boy patterns? Leave ‘em in the comments below!

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*  The accuracy of this statement has not been confirmed.

**  The phrase “token romances” and its application to Prince Caspian were inspired by episode 125 of Rebecca Morse’s web-comic series, “Girls Next Door.”  Heh, no, not that Girls Next Door…

TheGirlsNextDoor_S4

Specifically, see the two speech bubbles at the very bottom of the comic.

I just wrote my first post over at IB!

Here’s a preview:

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… Note:  there will be SPOILERS.

*  *  *  *  *

The Fire New Year” – A poor man and woman are celebrating the New Year, making do with what very little they have, when a weary traveler knocks on their door.  He needs a place to stay for the night, and none of the other houses would accept him.  The couple agrees, and their kindness is immediately rewarded – the traveler is really the god Miruku, who’d been searching for a place to bestow his luck.

To the people of Okinawa’s Yaeyama islands, Miruku (“Miroku” in other parts of Japan) is a harvest god and bringer of good fortune.  “Miruku parades” wind through village streets during harvest festivals, led by someone dressed as the god.  And some believe that on New Year’s Eve, Miruku – in this case known as Hotei – sails with six other “Lucky Gods” to various towns “to dispense happiness to believers.”

Miroku is also a very important figure in Buddhism – he is a version of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who will save humanity from its most corrupt state.  It makes sense, then, that “The Fire New Year” also speaks of the old couple’s faith in the future – when asked whether they’d prefer wealth or youth, they choose youth, reasoning that money can corrupt one’s mind, while youth would help them work toward a better life.  In other words, they don’t ask for instant (monetary) gratification, because they trust that their future will be happy enough.

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See the rest here!  Go on!  There’ll be gods and goddesses, demons, fireworks and loud music! (not literally, but it’s still fun!)

[sigh]  Show of hands, how many of you saw this coming?  Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you.  It’s not that I’m quitting, per se, so much as canceling the central rule of the challenge.  Which…ok, that sounds like quitting, but it’s not.  I’ll explain…

About 5 and a half months ago, it was summer, and I was feeling super-ambitious.  And I decided to declare my super-ambition to the world:

finishALLthebooks

And by “ALL THE BOOKS,” I meant all the books I’d bought in the past I-don’t-know-how-many-years but haven’t gotten around to reading yet.  And to really push myself, I declared that until I did finish those books, I was not going to buy or borrow any new ones.

This worked fine with books I really wanted to get to/finish, like the final installment of the Unicorn Chronicles, or Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  Those were relatively quick reads.  And I was enjoying the twisted tales in this collection:

happilyeverafter

But unlike the above-named titles, Happily Ever After isn’t the sort of thing I can just plow through in two or three sittings.  Well, I could, but it wouldn’t feel right — I prefer to read up to five stories, then take a break to digest them.  Then I come back the following week, or maybe the following month, for a few more stories, and so goes the pattern.  To rush myself through so I could move on to the next “Finish ALL the” book would mean not letting myself really savor and digest the stories.  And that’s not my purpose here, is it?

Also there’s only so much of this –

The-Land-of-Painted-Caves-cover-2

– that I can take in one sitting.  As I mentioned to sj recently, I’m seriously starting to consider skipping the next 500+ pages and just read the final chapter.  So far, the Stubborn/Nostalgic shoulder-angel is winning, but her Practical/Impatient counterpart is very close behind.  It had to take some serious nostalgic loyalty for me to buy a book whose jacket-flap feels the need to include such exciting plot points as “searching for wild edibles to make delicious meals,” or the fact that Ayla and Jondalar “participate in hunts to provide food, in travels to Summer Meetings for decision making, and in social activities.”  Wow-ee, I’ve never seen them do these things in any of the previous books!   I’m especially excited to see Ayla and Jondalar participate in those social activities!

Of course, I could also be kind of a *cough* impulse buyer, which explains much of the unfinished book list in the first place *cough*

Aaaaanyhoo, my point is — there are new projects I want to try, new books I want to read (looking at you, October Daye!), and telling myself that I first have to finish those 30+ titles that aren’t all made for a quick, straight-through read just makes me feel like this:

finishallthebooks?

Look at those sad eyes.  How can I resist those sad little bug-eyes?  So I’m keeping the original challenge — to finish all those books at the foot of my bookcase (and I’m keeping them stacked there as a reminder) — but removing the no-other-books rule.  And THAT makes me feel like THIS:

ME SO CHRISTMAS!!  ME SO MERRY!!! :-D

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“[Verb] ALL THE [nouns]” meme (c) Allie Brosh

So, I saw Catching Fire on Sunday and felt pretty much like Chester from the Nostalgia Critic‘s “Bum Reviews” – the latest of which, incidentally, is Catching Fire :) (beware of spoilers)

(P.S. the NC reviews – though not so much the Bum Reviews – tend to include much swearing, just so’s you know)

OH MY GOSH this is the greatest book-based movie I’ve ever seen in my LIFE!

Jennifer Lawrence HAS TO be nominated for Best Actress.  HAS.  TO.  Her facial expressions alone are some of the best things in these movies.

CatchingFire Katniss

And of course the movie itself has to get a Best Costume Design nomination, and Best Make-up/Hair Design, and best Visual Effects, and Cinematography…

CatchingFire butterfly combo

Seems Effie’s finally twigged that there’s something not quite so delightful about the Hunger Games.

CatchingFire fog

Katniss… you know everything in the arena is meant to kill you… so why would you try to touch the ominous mysterious fog instead of running immediately?!

And re: its faithfulness to the book– but hold on.  Isn’t this…?  Why yes!  This is my 100th post!  [pause for cheers]  Yes, yes, it is incredible, isn’t it?  Let’s just soak it all in, shall we?  Why, it feels like just yesterday  Sorry.  I was having an Effie moment there ^_^;  But srsly, this has been a fun experiment so far!  Three years ago I followed a link from someone’s comment signature on deviantArt (sadly, I don’t remember their username, or I’d give them a shout-out), and discovered there was such a thing as a book blog.  I already loved talking about my favorite books; I’d even had a small, primitive website years ago (via expages) where I listed all said favorites.  That might’ve actually been the only page.

But now I realized I could do something a little more sophisticated (a little :) ), and make it feel a little more like a job – or at least a project.  And thus was born Postcards from La-La Land, an official “What of it?” to anyone who’d ever looked askance at my choice to spend much of my time in the Juv/YA section; I even wrote my fifth post on “The Juv/YA stigma.”

Now I’m not only writing about selkies and unicorns and RenFaire outings here at Postcards; I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to other book blogs, subbing for the awesometastic sj at Booksnobbery, and joining the contributing team at IB (both are more adult-audience-oriented sites with occasional swearing and, in the case of IB, \ge \!\, R-rated themes.  Just so’s ya know).  And on a related note, you can see how much skill I’ve developed in the art of shameless plugging! ;-D

Anyhoo, enough of that.  This post was supposed to be about how awesome Catching Fire was – but since this is a milestone and all, I feel like doing something a little more substantial.  So I’m going to list three of my favorite and three of my least favorite book-based movies.    

THE FAVORITES

1st place:  Catching Fire, because of the wonderful actors (I could go on and on about Plutarch and Haymitch and Effie and Cinna and Joanna, and Finnick…), costumes, sets, effects…and the umbrella over them all:  the movie’s faithfulness to its source material.  It’s the closest-to-the-book movie I’ve ever seen.  Just on the detail level, listen to Katniss’ conversation with Snow at the beginning.  It’s pretty much a word for word match with the book.  On a larger scale, the plot included everything I really wanted; the few small omissions (the story of Haymitch’s Hunger Games victory, for instance) didn’t bother me, because they weren’t necessary to the movie.  In the book, they added great context, but for a +/- 2-hour movie, they’d just be extra frosting on an already delicious cake.

2nd place:  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2  -  it’s certainly the best of the Harry Potter movies IMO, even though it still has some annoying omissions/changes (Whaddya mean, you’re not going to explain any more about Arianna Dumbledore?  And Ron and Hermione were NOT supposed to know about Harry going into the forest in that one scene.  Their reactions weren’t even touching or anything — they barely put up a fight!  Some friends!).  Despite those annoyances, it works just lovely as a finale, following the spirit if not the letter of the book.  I always get a little choked up during the “protego maxima” scene (where they build the dome over Hogwarts; it starts around 2:30).  I even feel fonder toward Slughorn in that moment.

Oh, and the music!  “Lily’s Theme” perfectly expresses the bittersweet feeling of finishing this wonderful, heartbreaking, epic story you’ve been immersed in for over ten years.

Here are some further thoughts from my Livejournal review back in 2011.  There are spoilers.

Howl'sMovingCastle poster3rd place:  Howl’s Moving Castle –  And now I shall perform the 180-degree flip!  I like this movie because it doesn’t follow the source material beyond its very basic concepts.  In fact, I’m kind of glad I saw the movie before I knew it was based on a book – saw it as a separate entity instead of having to think about how each scene does or doesn’t match the book.  With all due respect to Diana Wynne  Jones, Miyazaki’s version is more coherent.  In turn, the love story was more clearly developed.  As I said in my mini-review, if I hadn’t already seen the movie, the book’s romance element would’ve seemed out-of-left-field by the time I recognized it.

THE LEAST FAVORITES – in descending order of likeliness I’d watch them again.

Most likely:  The Clan of the Cave Bear:  So, I used to be kind of obsessed with Jean CotCBAuel’s Earth’s Children series in high school.  To this day, no other book on my shelf has as many creases in its spine as TCotCB did.  I was fascinated by the sign language system and the concept of shared memories that go back to the beginnings of humanity.  So when I saw the VHS with Daryl Hannah’s srs bsns face at my local video place, I was stoked!  Yes, I said stoked!

It was my first personally significant book-based movie experience.  Sure, I’d watched Bridge to Terabithia and To Kill a Mockingbird in school, but this was a movie whose existence I actually cared about (I know, I had such great literary taste).  And yes, there’d been the Sweet Valley High TV show, but I’m only talking about movies here.

So.  I rented that sucker and I put it in the VHS player, and I sat down, all butterflies-in-my-stomach and ready to see my favorite book happen in live-action.  [giant excited smile stays frozen for several long moments]  They mix-n-matched the timeline.  They turned that scene at the Clan Gathering, when the mog-urs have their going-back-through-the-memories ceremony, into something cheesy and cliché.  They Completely. Changed. The ending.

And yet I somehow considered the experience an overall enjoyable one.  Oh, I was appalled at the mixed-up chronology and the lack of mysticalness and how they freaking changed the ending!!  But I somehow decided I’d had fun watching it all.  I got to see Ayla and Iza and Creb and Uba and Broud and Brun and everyone, doing the things they did in the book – just not in the same order,  but hey, at least they were the same events!  Well, not exactly, but listen to that cool music!  That music is so cool!

A few months ago I found the movie on YouTube, and…it was kind of endearing.  It’s like an old home movie:  clearly low-budget (good grief, the wigs!), and not exactly Oscar-worthy acting (Daryl Hannah was alright.  There’s one small moment that sticks in my head – the way she says Iza’s name in the Death Curse scene.  It’s a small detail, but she sounds so genuinely plaintive).

And the music is still pretty cool.

Somewhat likely:  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:  Honestly, I had trouble deciding whether to put this in second or third place.  I feel more disappointment toward this one than toward the third-place movie…it’s certainly the most disappointing of the Harry Potter films.  Besides all the omissions and changes re: events in the book, it wasn’t even fun to watch as a movie – at least that’s how I felt when I first saw it in the theater.  On second or third watch, though, it didn’t seem so un-fun.  There were actually some really good parts, like the sea cave scene, and the late night visit to Hagrid’s (that thing Harry does, where he pretends his fingers are pincers, is hilarious).  And at least it follows the book more closely than the third-place movie.  A lot more closely.

Anyway, almost everything that bothers me about the HBP movie boils down to this:  it dilutes the book.  All of the scenes that are supposed to be intense and emotional feel watered down –

  • Hermione’s “Oppugno!” —  let’s de-italisize that, take out the exclamation point and have her just whisper the word, and then let the birds just vanish into the wall instead of continuing to attack Ron.
  • The Harry/Ginny kiss —  let’s forget the blazing eyes and running into his arms, and just make it one of those cliché teen-movie kisses.  And what’s that Ginny says?  Something like “You can keep me in here forever if you like”?  Score one for girl power, oh yeah!!
  • And the best one of them all:  “DON’T CALL ME COWARD.”  Yeah, let’s have Snape say that in regular old lower-case, as though he’s just brushing off a fly (“Don’t land there, these are brand new robes”).  It’s not like he has some tragic and guilty backstory that would make him react badly to any reminder of his mistakes.

Now, there was one other moment, besides the cave and the pincers, that I liked.  Loved, in fact.  And it just makes the movie’s lost potential that much more irksome.  By now, y’all know how much a single detail can matter to me.  [Spoilers ahead]  There’s this moment in the tower (it starts at 3:48).  For those few seconds, you’re almost relieved.  You think Dumbledore might’ve been right after all.  Snape is going to take charge and show that although he’s a jerk most of the time, and although you weren’t sure before about his allegiances, he’s ultimately got your back.  It’s like that moment in Prisoner of Azkaban, when the werewolf’s about to attack Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and Snape stops in the middle of telling Harry off to shield the three students.

Going back to HBP – what movie!Snape should’ve done next (since apparently movie!Dumbledore forgot or didn’t think it was necessary) was put some spell on Harry to paralyze and keep him silent.  Because no matter how seriously he promised Dumbledore he’d stay hidden, you can’t be sure Harry will just stare in silent shock when he sees Snape kill Dumbledore.  You can’t be sure he won’t instinctively cry out, whether in a brief Luke Skywalker “NO!” or the longer and more dramatic “NnnnnOOOOOOOOooooooo!!!!!” of Anakin Vader.  Which is exactly why book!Dumbledore does put a paralyzing spell on Harry; he knows the kid’s only human, and he can’t expect a sixteen-year-old to stay completely calm in these circumstances.  Especially if he has no idea what’s actually going on.

Eh…maybe.  Ella Enchanted:  Let’s take Gail Carson Levine’s unique interpretation of Cinderella, distill it to the most EllaEnchanted posterbasic concept, and then turn it into a dumb goofy comedy with bad acting and forced-in pop songs!  …*nose pinch*  The first time I saw this movie (on DVD, with my mom), I thought it was at least cute.  My mom did not – the moment they broke into a dance party ending, singing “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart,” she said to me:  “This is based on a book?  Don’t ever write a book like that.”  I quickly assured her that said book was actually very good; the movie just didn’t represent it well.  Like, at all.

I mean, it wasn’t offensively bad (I know some would vehemently disagree with me, and I totally understand your point).  Anne Hathaway does a decent enough job with what she’s given.  If I consider it completely apart from the book, the movie’s…still a dumb goofy comedy with bad acting and forced-in pop songs.  But it’s one of those things you could watch with a group of friends (hey, sj! An Ella Enchanted drinkalong? Eh?  No, wait! – we have to do a Labyrinth one first!  I already have a bottle of peach schnapps ready ;) ) and laugh together at all the ridiculousness.

A poisoned crown, seriously?

2013 Hall o’ Faves

Edit 01-06-14:  Cannot. Believe. I left out the Sherlock Holmes stories (Vol. 2 of the Barnes & Noble ed.; I read Vol. 1 in 2012). Cannot. Believe it. (Shut up, Naruto.)

Edit:  Oops! Missed one. Sorry ’bout that, October Daye ^_^;

……………………

I feel like this was a less prolific year for me, in terms of reading, so there are fewer titles for this year’s list.  Hopefully I’ll pull out of this slump soon (and finally finish that darn challenge — there are new books I really want to read, but my path is blocked by the 30-odd books stacked at the foot of my bookcase).  This will probably require a semi-cold-turkey stop in internet use …which may be just as well for January, as it’ll help me avoid even accidental Sherlock spoilers from those lucky UK folks who get season 3 three weeks before me).

Anyhoo, even in this desert year, I did find some sparkly, pretty gems.  As always, click on the cover for my review (unless there isn’t one, in which case don’t :) ).

Americas

if-not-for-the-cat-by-prelutskyLostMyHippopotamusJane On Her Own

LastHuntMartianChronicles

Where-the-Mountain-Meets-thWonderful Alexander

P.S.  I decided to include Wonderful Alexander even though I’m still not sure whether or not I’d already read it back in 7th grade.  I figure the “might not have” side is a strong enough excuse to include it here.

On a totally unrelated note, someone wanna get me this shirt?  Anyone?  ‘Cause this shirt is kind of awesome.

Inspired by Entertainment Weekly’s Best YA bracket game, sj of Booksnobbery made her own version a few weeks ago, with 120 titles suggested by her followers.  Readers voted, and sixty titles advanced.  Since then, an upcoming move and other RL commitments have kept sj very busy, so guess who got to take over Round Two?

So get yourselves over to Snobbery and vote!  The fate of the YA-verse depends on you!  Not really, but it’s fun!

finishALLthebooks copy

This is a Finish ALL the Books! update.  You can find the complete list of FAtBC titles here, and the ones I’ve finished so far here.

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Back in my 2012 Favorites post, I mentioned a few books I was looking forward to adding to this year’s Hall o’ Faves.  This is one of them:

LastHunt

Because UNICORNS! And NOSTALGIA!  And EPIC FANTASY ADVENTURE!

But first!

[switches to possible-side-effects voice]

If you are a Coville fan aged 10 or under (first, a high-five for your good taste!), or the parent of a Coville fan aged 10 or under, you should know that this book contains a few preeeetty violent scenes, some involving moderate-to-severe blood loss and/or death.  It’s not Game of Thrones or anything – it does, after all, maintain the enchanting, fairytale tone of Books I – III (and we’re talking about unicorns here, people.   How scary can unicorns be?).  But I thought I’d mention it anyway.

Anyway, UNICORNS!

A brief autobibliography.  Or: When Neri Met Uni (…corns):

IntotheLandoftheUnicorns

I started the Unicorn Chronicles in sixth grade.  I might’ve seen it in one of those 4-6 page Scholastic catalogs that my homeroom teacher handed out, or on one of their traveling book fair shelves.  A thin black paperback with a  silvery title and a unicorn on the cover – it was like an LED to a moth.  Oh, yes! said the moth.  Take me Into the Land of the Unicorns!

Of course I loved it.  Here was a land with “crystal streams” and silver-barked trees that smelled like cinnamon, and  characters like the Squijum (a squirrel/monkey-like creature who talks like this: “Good Squijum! Happy good hotcha-gotcha!” [1]), the Dimblethum (a creature half man, half bear), Thomas the Tinker, and a young-adult unicorn named Lightfoot (young adult meaning just over 100 years old).  And the land is called “Luster,” which is just about the prettiest name ever for a land.

It’s not all sparkly unicorns and cinnamon trees, though.  There are wonderfully eerie, shadowy moments, too, right from the start.  Just the way Cara has to enter Luster makes you hold your breath and wonder – if someone you trusted that deeply told you to do the same thing, would you?

The next books followed slowly, the longest wait being the nine years between Song of the Wanderer (Book II) and Dark Whispers (Book III).  And I’ll admit, I didn’t keep my sequel binoculars out for as long as I had with other series, like Harry Potter and Earth’s Children.  Between Books I and II, there were other obsessions to be indulged (my cat phase, my horse phase, my years of pining after Ocean Girl…), and all that starting-high-school stuff.  And in the nine years between II and III (plus the four years after it was published, when the Chronicles were still buried somewhere in my mind-attic) –

Mind attic/Mind palace.  Same diff.

Mind attic/Mind palace. Same diff.

–  there was college, grad classes, re-discovering Ocean Girl through the magic of it-was-finally-released-on-DVD.

It’s a mark of Coville’s talent that when the curiosity and finish-what-you-started bugs finally caught up with me last year, the world he’d created and the characters I’d half-forgotten pulled me back in as quickly and strongly as the first time.  The ominous Prologue to Dark Whispers was an excellent hook, and then The Last Hunt was just… yeah, I’mma say it:

The “e” word:

I know it’s been thrown around to the point of meaninglessness…

Oh, come ON.  What’s the next one going to be – “REALLY EXCITING”?  (fwiw, it was a cute movie.  With very pretty visuals – think AVATAR meets A Bug’s Life)

Oh, come ON. What’s the next one going to be – “REALLY EXCITING”?  (to its credit, it was a cute movie, with very pretty visuals – think AVATAR meets A Bug’s Life)

 …but the unicorn quartet deserves it.  The Last Hunt especially.

[puts on scholar glasses]

According to the Oxford online dictionary, the word “epic” means:

a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.

It may not be written in verse, but the series is framed as part of an ancient record – written by an official scribe (the “Keeper of the Chronicles”) according to the oral accounts he receives – of a world’s history, including its heroes and other great figures.

a long film, book, or other work portraying heroic deeds and adventures or covering an extended period of time

Yes, I’d say 1500+ pages (that’s all four books combined) = a long story.  A story in which some of the events and characters go back thousands and thousands of years.

heroic or grand in scale or character

As you progress through the series, you can see how the tension, the danger, the number of characters and subplots (which work brilliantly together, instead of making the story feel heavy and/or cluttered), and the size/character of the setting – our understanding of it, that is – build from one book to the next until everything crashes together in The Last Hunt.

Things are revealed.  Huge, incredible, amazing things.  (I wonder if Coville saw these things coming when he started the series, or if the muse of Twists! and Revelations! popped in midway?)  There isn’t even a Table of Contents this time, so readers won’t be spoiled by even the most vague chapter title.

particularly impressive or remarkable

See all of the above.

Now let’s get meta.

DarkWhispersCoville emphasizes the concept of storytelling like woah in these books.  Stories have played a huge role in Luster’s history – including in the creation of its greatest threat.

A lie grows into a legend…a legend leads to tragedy…and that tragedy sparks centuries of unicorn-killing.  But legends, memories, and bits of history also help Cara and the unicorns fight back.  The main goal of Dark Whispers, for instance, is for Cara to recover a stolen tale that has crucial information about the enemy.

Heck, just count how many times the word “story” is used throughout the series.

He paused, then said, “Also, I think something happened between the Dimblethum and the Queen.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get that story.” [2]

Grimwold didn’t look surprised.  “I knew there was a tale in all this,” he said.  “Well, come along.  We had best get on to the Story Room.  I’m going to have to make notes.  From the sound of it, I’m going to be part of this one, at least in a small way.  Earth and sky, but I hate it when that happens.” [3]

The Queen looked away for a moment.  When she looked back, her eyes were deep and strange and faraway looking.  “I need to tell you a story.  It is not one I am particularly eager to tell, for it does me little credit.  But it is time it was known.” [4]

The circles of flame indicated that Graumag was shaking her head no.  “Oh, I confess that I did consider her wicked for a while […] But that was before I understood her part of the story.” [5]

Notice the meta in quotes two and four?  As soon as Grimwold makes his statement, he becomes part of a three-layered story: the “tale” of Cara’s experiences, the Chronicles in which he’ll record that tale, and the Chronicles – the four-book story through which the previous two were already created.

Graumag, too, is Inception-ed into a multi-layered story:

  • the one she tells Cara, re: the events that brought her into Luster;
  • the Chronicles, which record that story and Graumag’s subsequent part in Luster’s history;
  • and the book (The Last Hunt) through which we experience the previous two.

It gets even better – if storytelling is a major theme of the series, fairy tales are the sub-theme.  During her first moments in Luster, Cara wonders if it’s going to be like the worlds she once read about in the Lang fairy books;  “she wondered if she would find an old woman here in the woods.  If so, would she be a cruel witch, or a magical helper?” [6]

And during her journeys through Luster, Cara hears many more stories – true stories, according to the tellers, but still folklore-esque.  Graumag’s pre-Luster experiences were retold through the centuries in her original world, until they were known only as a fairy tale (and here we get some commentary on how fairy tales are born and transformed, sometimes even cropped – perhaps because the storyteller/s forgot parts, or because they wanted to emphasize some events/ideas over others, or even because they didn’t like certain parts). 

Other fairy/folktale-esque stories include the tale of the Wanderer, and the story of the person who can live forever by binding his life inside a magic egg (kind of like Davy Jones’ chest, I just realized).  And then, of course, there is the story “from which springs all other stories” [7] – the story at the base of the Chronicles.  “The Legend of the Hunt.”

Well, I think it’s cool (some random things I like):

  • Cara’s grandmother is named Ivy, and her mother’s name is Martha.  Those are also the names of the two main characters in The Changeling, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder — my love for which I’ve mentioned here and here.
  • The original Scholastic cover for Song of the Wanderer.  Show me a romantic* title in gleaming silver text over a fairytale-ish illustration with spooky undertones and it’s moth-meet-torch time again.**  The reprint covers for Books I and II really don’t do it for me, even though they do make Cara look more like an 11-year-old.

SongoftheWanderer     SongoftheWandererAlt

             The unicorn on the Book I reprint looks too much like a real horse, rather than the “somewhat smaller and more  finely built” creature Cara meets her first day in Luster.  Now, on that note, I will give credit to the artist for Book II — that unicorn looks more otherworldly, with a hint of something spooky in those dark, expressionless eyes.   But the overall tone of both reprint covers is too dry; they don’t have that mystical feel of the originals.  Nay, my heart belongs to the dark cave; the misty, starlit forest; the rougher, curly-maned unicorn.

  • The movie-like flow of the final chapters in Book III (don’t worry, no spoilers).  The pace speeds up as they shorten into a single scene each, and you get that great tense feeling of watching  several critical events happen at once.
  • They emerged into twilight. [8]

This sentence from Book III is so simple, but the image fits so perfectly with the weary, low-spirited mood at that point in the story.  On the other hand, it also gives both the reader and the characters a moment of relief from the constant tension of the previous scenes.

Now, nothing’s perfect:

As beautiful and amazing as the series is, it does have a few not-so-amazing spots.  Three, in particular, from Dark Whispers and The Last Hunt.

  • There are a few moments when you think “The Guards Must Be Crazy” — when they’re  just a bit too conveniently incompetent / unobservant / easily-distracted / non-existent…
  • And some fun moments when Captain Obvious swoops in to say obvious things:

… [Proper Noun], [Proper Noun], and [Proper Noun] watched with mingled hope and horror.  The hope was because it seemed the [plural noun] might actually succeed in [verb]  …  The horror came as they saw [horrifying sight]. [9]

See, Captain, it’s just that we’ve already seen what the three watchers are watching, so…well, we kind of already know why they’d feel hopeful and horrified.

  • And, my favorite:  Write, rinse, repeat!  Somewhere around the second half of The Last Hunt, Coville switches to Selective Echo mode, which causes certain statements/ideas to repeat, and repeat, and repeat.  For instance, it’s really, really, really, really, really, really important that you remember how serious the situation is in the final chapters.  Really.  Serious.  Captain Obvious can’t stress this enough.

Now back to the praise-heaping: 

In the end, Bruce Coville is amazing and all of the wonderful things about the unicorn quartet — the world-building; the theme of stories (with the sub-theme of fairy-tales); the complex but well-organized plot; and the way he makes so many points of view (in Books III and IV) speak in a single, coherent voice — most definitely make up for the few annoying things.

If you’re interested, there are a few companion stories to the Unicorn Chronicles on the quartet’s official website.

______________________

* Romantic in the 19th-century literary sense.

** I may or may not mean “torch” in the British sense (i.e. flashlight).  As long as moths think it’s sexy, either works.

_______

[1] Bruce Coville. Into the Land of the Unicorns, New York, Scholastic, 1994.         pg. 77.

[2] Into the Land…. pg. 44

[3] Into the Land…, pg. 100

[4] Song of the Wanderer.  New York: Scholastic, 1999.  pg. 296

[5] The Last Hunt.  2010.  pgs. 204-5

[6] Into the Land… pg. 17

[7] Into the Land…, pg. 107

[8] Dark Whispers.  2008.  pg. 351.

[9] The Last Hunt.  pgs. 534-35

Edit 09-05-13:  Added a few more notes and one more picture.  Huge renovation, I know :)

. . . . . . . .

It was close this year.  Very close.  We slid in just before the doors rumbled shut, with time enough to grab our hats and not get our hands crushed.  What with life and stuff, and other things, my friend and I really thought this would be the year we’d miss Ren Faire.

And then, suddenly, she texts me — Want to go Monday?  So we made it for the final day of the Faire:  Labor Day Monday.

We got there later in the day this time, because I wanted to see the Danse Macabre that was supposed to happen closer to closing time.  In the meantime, we caught a bit of this group called VaNa MaZi in the Traders Wharf area, did our usual shop crawl (one of my favorites is always the chime shop.  I love listening to those magical ringing tones–the twinkling little ones that make me think of fairies, and the deeper, more mysterious, almost more mystical tones of the larger chimes…), and costumed-people-watched.  I feel like I saw a lot of Goth, fairy wings, and those beaded hip scarves for belly-dancing.

Anyway…

Nerija1

Here’s me sort of pretending I’m October Daye.  She’s…um… undercover at a Ren Faire in Southern CA, to find out what happened to a pair of fae who used to run one of the vendor stalls.  She’s not exactly digging the outfit May put together, but whatever, as long as she has her coffee.

Nerija2

I, on the other hand, happen to like my outfit very much.  The tunic I found at a local fair trade store, while the crown is the same from last year.  Of course I’d pick the one with yellow, green and red ribbons.  In fact, it does kind of look like the kind of crown that would go with a Lithuanian folk costume.

Source: Varena.lt

Source: Voruta.lt

Anyway. . .

GreenMan and lady

We met this pair at the outskirts of the crowd surrounding the big Drum Jam, near the end of the day.  They were kind enough to let me take this picture and share it here.

satyr

We also met a faun, who sometimes wandered about the Faire grounds playing his pipe, and sometimes took a break to juggle.  He didn’t speak; he wouldn’t even shake or nod his head in response to a question.  Instead he would smile, shrug, reach over to shake a leafy twig…  Some children standing near us said they understood his language.   Just as my friend and I were moving on, he tossed me a shiny sequin.

And we did catch bits of the Danse Macabre –

danse macabre

A line of dark, hooded figures passed the picnic area where we were having some fried cheese balls, and then there was the cluster by the Wishing Well, where we were hanging out after the Drum Jam.

Finally, it was 7:00, but people took that more as a guideline than a rule, and the Faire officials didn’t seem in any hurry to herd us out.  There were crowds still hanging around the Drum Jam area for at least another half hour, I think, meandering very slowly toward the Entrance doors.  It was a very nice, laid-back sort of atmosphere.

Yes, ok, all right, I know it’s not the most original thing.  I’m not the first, second, or even 33,333rd person to go to DisneyWorld.  But it was my first time, and it was a Juv/YA lit-and-folklore/fairytale-related experience, so by gosh, I will record it!

Being the dedicated blogger on Juv/YA stuff and folklore/fairytale-related things that I am, I had some goals going into this family vacation.  There were two characters, above all others, with whom I was determined to have my picture taken:  Ariel (obviously) and Belle (loves books, especially fantasy, especially fairy tales).

Now, I wasn’t going about this as just another tourist getting a character meet-n-greet photo.  In my head, at least, I had a role picked out for myself in relation to Belle and Ariel, respectively, and a sort of vague storyline about how we knew each other (some of which I actually just came up with while writing this post).  Again, none of this would be apparent to anyone else — to anyone watching, I was just a random tourist who happened to be wearing a blue dress, with her dark brown hair in a pony tail, carrying both a traditional book and a kindle. . .

Experiencing “The Little Mermaid”

We’ll begin non-chronologically with Ariel, who you see below with her mermaid friend Neri.  Neri lives in the lake that separates Epcot from the Magic Kingdom, and had just come up for a visit.  That’s why my–I mean Neri’s–hair is wet, you see, and also because it was raining outside.

This grotto was created by King Triton in Erik and Ariel’s castle gardens after the events of TLM2.  Melody had a lot of say in the design, since in addition to being a nostalgic nook for Ariel, it would also serve as a hangout for Melody and her friends.  And, of course, for future grandchildren.

The grotto stuff I came up with just yesterday.

*mentally files away possible fanfic idea*

Neri wears a simple land dress, which appears the moment she steps out of the lake (no need to make a PG-13+ spectacle here).

Ariel's Grotto

I think Ariel was doing some sort of seaweed wrap that day.  Something to keep her legs/fins healthy after a lot of human-to-mermaid-to-human transformations, maybe?

sparkly shoes

These are the sparkly sandals into which Neri’s fins transform when she leaves the lake.  She still lets some of her scales show, in the form of that glittery stuff.  And her toenails just naturally came out that way, yep.

. . . . . . . .

After catching up with Ariel, Neri decided to explore the Magic Kingdom a bit longer before returning to the lake.

   Passing through the tunnel/archway of Cinderella’s castle.

Cinderella's Castle1 close

Honoring the local custom of trying to pull a sword out of an anvil.  Apparently you get extra Looking Cool points for doing it singlehanded.

SwordStone2

Or maybe I just made that up.  Anyhoo, like most attempters, Neri was unsuccessful.

There’s one prophecy going ’round that some scrawny blond kid will pull the sword and then run off to become king of some other land outside the Disney grounds.  Another rumor says it’ll be a short blond kid dressed all in green, and he’ll disappear to some magical safe realm while we all get seven years of doom and gloom.

Me, I think they should leave the sword stuck and use it as a teaching tool for young knights — watch your aim or you’ll end up like this guy years ago who got his father’s prized sword stuck in a not-yet-fully-cooled anvil one night.  Rather embarrassing for him, of course, losing the duel he was dared into by his rival from knight school, not to mention the trouble he got for stealing his dad’s sword in the first place (didn’t have one of his own yet, another source of mockery from said school nemesis).

Had to be apprenticed to the metalworker as payment for ruining what would’ve been a truly impressive anvil.  And he didn’t even get to go to the next night’s dance at Katy’s place, where he was finally going to ask her out.  She hit it off with that git from knight school instead and their families agreed on a match within the year.

So.  Always watch your aim.

. . . . . . . .

 Finally*, in a spot called the Fairytale Garden, Neri met this feisty, friendly land princess named Merida.**

Merida1

Something tells me she and Ariel could get along well . . .

* in a storytelling sense, not a reflection of the actual sequence of events.

** This writer from The Telegraph talked a bit about the Scottish/European folklore behind Brave, soon after the film’s release.  Note: it’s a bit spoilery, just so’s you know.  Oh, and do keep scrolling after the “Related Articles” box; the article’s not over yet.

. . . . . . . .

Experiencing “Beauty and the Beast”

Our hotel was within walking distance of Epcot and the World Showcase, where some of the characters — Aurora, Mary Poppins, Belle, etc. — also held meet & take photo sessions.  And so, mes chéris, it is with greatest pride and deepest pleasure that I proudly present to you:  a story of book-love and time travel! (again, mostly conceived post-vacation)

The trailer begins with a clip of Belle and her future reincarnation (or descendant) deep in bookish discussion.

Belle

You see, Future!Belle, whether she be a reincarnation or descendant, has gone back in time to meet her ancestor/previous incarnation.  And yes, in case you were wondering, I did get that idea from Harry and the Potters.

Meanwhile, Disney!Belle has found that the magic hand mirror shows not only the present, but bits of the future!  Seeing a glimpse of Future!Belle, she somehow is able to go forward in time.  The two Belles meet somewhere in between, in a space that blends the quaint(ly remembered) look of the past with modern shopping and dining options.

Future Belle

Here’s Future!Belle enjoying a chocolate croissant and espresso while contemplating the much more froody vibes she’d gotten from Books 1-4 of the Hitchhiker’s Guide quintet.

Future Belle3

And lest you think Future!Belle reads only digital books– voilà!  The book she’s reading here, and which Disney!Belle was holding two photos up, is Diana Gabaldon’s VoyagerNO SPOILERS PLZ, I HAVEN’T FINISHED IT YET.

You know, I think Disney!Belle would have liked the Outlander series.

disney-belle-books

You’ve got your magic portals, your epic battles, your voyages across the sea… though, I wonder, considering that Disney!Belle’s time period may be roughly the same as Jamie’s, what impact would the story have on her vs. on Future!Belle?  Hmm…

*files away other fanfic idea involving the two Belles discussing their perspectives on the same book*

But anyway, magic!  battles!  travels to far-off places!

. . . . . . . .

Experiencing Alice in Wonderland

Besides Belle and Ariel, I did get in some other character interactions — you saw Mer-me with Merida above, for instance.  And in the English section of the World Showcase, I met a certain cheeky and curious young lady in a delightful gardeny setting.

For the purposes of this character meet, I imagined myself as a Wonderland resident, or perhaps someone else who wandered in by accident and has decided to stay a while (check out the whimsical t-shirt, yo!  A unicorn emerging from a rainbow! — the unicorn’s head is behind the tea cup.  Oh, and that’s a hat I’m holding in my left hand.)

Alice

Alice close up

Things were a tad awkward at first;  Alice assumed that the awesome triple-decker tea cup I’d just bought was for her, and I was unwilling to part with such an awesome and whimsical more-likely-to-be-used-for-coffee cup.  Alice sighed, and then moved on to a different topic, and agreed to take some photos before I ventured off into other parts of Wonderland (i.e. behind the house) while she stayed to greet more admirers.

But as I entered the back garden, my mind suddenly switched fictional ‘verses, because — a maze!  What?  It’s… close enough, at least for some photographic geekery . . .

hedge maze

hedge maze close

hedge maze closer

.  .  .