The Unfairest of Them All by Shannon Hale

The Unfairest of Them AllInformation

GoodreadsThe Unfairest of Them All
Series: Ever After High #2
Source: Library
Published: March 25, 2014

Summary

After Raven Queen’s refusal to sign the Storybook of Legends at the last Legacy Day, students have formed themselves in the opposing groups Royals and Rebels–those who wish to live out their parents’ destinies and those who wish to create their own.  Tensions are high, but then the Headmaster accuses Madeline Hatter of a terrible crime.  Can the students forget their differences and band together to save Madeline from Banishment?

Review

The sequel to The Storybook of Legends jumps right into the story, mostly ignoring not only the events of the last book but also many of the questions the premise raised.  Although Raven Queen refused to sign the Storybook and thus should have disappeared from existence, she remains at school along with all of her friends.  Aside from identifying themselves as “Royals” or “Rebels” based on whether they wish to relive their parents’ fairytales or whether they want to break from their tales and forge a new destiny they do nothing about the new state of affairs. (Presumably the “Royals” are so called, not just because of the catchy alliteration but because most Royals would naturally want to relive their tales, whereas the villains, for instance, might not be so keen on the grisly deaths that await them.)  No one questions why Raven has not disappeared and even Raven, despite her investigations into the implications of deviating from the story, does not notice the elephant in the room.

The problem with the premise is that no one is actually reliving their parents’ destinies–not if Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel are at school rather than growing up in isolation, not if Madeline Hatter and others are not living in Wonderland at all, not if the villains are not dying as specified in the stories but surviving to raise children who will become the next villains.  And one might assume that the marriages would eventually get awkward (Raven Queen has to become her roommate Apple White’s stepmother at some point), but no one addresses these problems, either.  At least in this book Raven starts to notice some of the cracks in the story–she realizes for instance, that Hansel and Gretel’s witch was not baked in her oven but escaped out the other end–but these implications are still not addressed in terms of the overarching plot.  Raven seems to find it a bit weird, but cannot make the jump to the sort of conspiracy that must be happening to keep everyone in order and reliving their tales.

Of course, this series exists to market a line of dolls, so getting to the point probably would not serve well in terms of marketing.  Thus this book proves nothing but a filler episode.  Madeline Hatter is accused of a random crime and sentenced to Banishment.  Apple and Raven must go on a random quest to save her.  Questions about whether the Royals or the Rebels are right are not really addressed until the very end of the book, when the discussion is abruptly cut short before it can become too serious.  After all, we can’t let this cash cow escape just yet.  No point in really looking at this whole “destiny” thing.  Not when we can have a random interlude about a Jabberwocky in the upcoming book.

The dolls have left other marks on the book, as well.  The author provides a lot of random descriptions about what everyone is wearing and things like that, apparently because little girls will want to a doll to dress up in her very own sparkly pink jumpsuit?  There’s a lot of random slang that makes little sense–”Castleleria” instead of “cafeteria”, for instance.  Never mind that “leria” says nothing about food and the pun cannot make sense in that world.  Fairy-tale slang is cool and will attract modern girls to the product!  And then there are the pets.  I cannot imagine why they exist, unless at some point they appear on shelves along with the dolls.  The characters do not actually take care of these pets.  Instead, they conveniently live in the forest where they fend for themselves and their owners forget about them until they can prove useful on a quest.  It is a bit disturbing to think that responsibility for pets is not required in this world, that pets instead are there mostly to make some sort of fashion statement.

I admit that, despite its many flaws, the book is kind of fun.  I mostly enjoy reading about Madeline Hatter and watching her interact with the Narrator, who desperately tries to keep Maddie from hearing the story when she is not supposed to.  Watching the other fairy-tale characters interact is rather fun, too, but sadly there are too many of them for Hale to focus on more than maybe four at a time.  This story highlights Cerise Hood.  In the future I hope not only to see Ashlynn Ella, but also Dexter Charming, who seems to have been a bit forgotten.

I do not yet know, however, if I will really continue on with the series.  The books are light and easy to get through quickly–something that works in their favor since the lack of logic might otherwise make me decide not to carry on.  However, now that I see that both books two and three seem to be filler, I worry about getting caught up in a series that will never end–not because there is a story to tell but because there are dolls to sell.

 

Top Ten Tuesday (80): Characters with Vision

TTT 2

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is:

Top Ten Top Ten Characters Who Have a Vision

1. Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: A wandering king fights to destroy a Dark Lord and reclaim the throne of his fathers.

2. Kelsier from Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson:  A thief turned rebel plots to overthrown a tyrant in a land of ash.

3. Prince Raoden from Elantris by Brandon Sanderson: Trapped in city of dying exiles, Prince Raoden works to bring his people hope.

4. Prince Caspian from Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis:  After hearing legends of the talking animals who once populated the kingdom of Narnia, a young prince fights for his inheritance and to bring equality to all Narnians.

5. Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery:  An orphan girl left with nothing but her imagination dreams of a family and a world where everything is beautiful.

6. Mud from The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy:  A young elephant who experiences visions attempts to lead her family to the “Safe Place,” where they will be harbored from drought and poachers.

7. Alanna of Trebond from The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce:  A teenage noblewoman challenges the assumption that girls cannot be knights.

8. Robin Hood from various legends:  An outlaw and his merry men seek to undermine a corrupt government.

9. Nicholas Benedict from The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart:  A brilliant man gathers a group of brilliant children to help bring down a ring of villians.

10. Aeneas from The Aeneid by Virgil:  A hero leads his people from the ruins of Troy to found a new city in Italy.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Mysteries of UdolphoInformation

Goodreads: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Series: None
Source: The Gutenberg Project
Published: 1794

Summary

Newly orphaned Emily St. Aubert is taken to her uncle’s isolated castle in Italy, where she must confront both ghosts and unwanted suitors, all while trying to return to the man she loves.

Review

The Mysteries of Udolpho has earned fame as the quintessential Gothic novel, full of all the essential elements and a must-read for fans of the genre.  From a literary and historical standpoint, it undoubtedly is an interesting and important novel.  In terms of entertainment, it falls a bit short.  Personally, I found the action picked up the most 80% through the book, when major elements finally began to be revealed and some new action appeared, as well.  The book contains a number of fascinating characters and plot points, but everything moves so slowly that an undetermined reader is at risk of simply giving up in favor of a more immediately rewarding book.

Though The Mysteries of Udolpho is horrifying in many respects (themes, scenes, imagery), the author also uses many tricks in order to build false suspense.  For instance, protagonist Emily will be horrified by something she sees in an early chapter, then subsequently be too traumatized by the event to think on the subject again—so the reader never discovers what upset her so much until the very end of the book, where the author lays out a mass explanation of events.  This way of writing may effectively keep readers wondering what all the mysteries of castle Udolpho are, but it ultimately feels like a cheap stunt.

Emily herself, though billed as something of the ideal woman of the time period, may also be frustrating for modern readers.  She spends an exorbitant amount of pages fainting or weep, or, occasionally, striving not to faint or weep.  (I suppose even she gets tired of it.)  This melodrama is in keeping with the Gothic drama, but too much of it becomes boring, and, since it continuously stalls the plot as other characters have to interrupt real action to revive Emily, it comes across as another trick to keep information away from readers.  So much time, for both the characters and the audience, could be saved if Emily could hold herself together for more than five pages and actually accomplish something.

Beyond my major issue with the length of the novel, however, I found few other problems and immensely enjoyed the Gothic elements when they arose.  Readers are treated to deaths, ghosts, creepy castles with secret passages, murders, bandits, and more.  Additional sensationalism comes not from these external elements, but from characters breaking societal standards.  Emily, for instance, must run from overly aggressive suitors, and a lot of the fodder for the ghost stories is built around rumors of extramarital affairs.

The Mysteries of Udolpho also features a bit of romance, drawn out as long as every other plot element, but sweet nonetheless.   The love interest is more complex than Emily and experiences an actual character arc as he falls from and then rises back into grace.  I suppose there may be room for feminist discussion here: Is it fair that Emily must constantly be the model woman, while the man gets to lead a dissipate lifestyle but ultimately be forgiven?  (Not that there are no terrible men and no terrible women in the story.)  However, from an entertainment standpoint, I simply appreciated the fact that this guy has more personality than Emily, even if she is a very nice girl.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is an enjoyable read, due to its intrigue and its brief moments of fine action.  It is not my favorite Gothic novel, however, in terms of plot.  I found The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, for instance, to be somewhat more hard-hitting.  Readers already invested in the Gothic genre will probably find The Mysteries of Udolpho a worthwhile read, but anyone interested in it for casual entertainment may find it grindingly slow.

Stacking the Shelves (3)

Stacking the Shelves

Stacking the Shelves is a weekly meme hosted by Tynga’s Reviews, in which bloggers share the books they have received in the past week.

This is our third time participating in Stacking the Shelves at Pages Unbound!  We probably will not post weekly, but we will occasionally keep you updated on what we’re reading and what we’ve recently acquired.

For Review

Red Riding Hood Gets Lost

Thanks to Netgalley and Scholastic for the second Grimmtastic Girls book!

Library

Some picture books about Ella the Elegant Elephant and the third book in the Pure trilogy!

Won

IMG_1015

 

My friends and I attended a YA author event, and I won this dystopian bundle!

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

DangerousInformation

Goodreads: Dangerous
Source: Library
Published: March 4, 2014

Summary

Maisie Danger Brown applies to astronaut camp never expecting to get in, but soon she’s on her way to the experience of a lifetime.  Not because of the advanced classes, the astronaut training, or even the boys, but because one chance exposure to alien technology means that saving the world is now up to her.  If she can figure out what the world needs saving from, that is.

Review

I looked forward to Shannon Hale’s Dangerous for a long time, not only because it features a protagonist who is half-Paraguayan and we need more diversity in young adult literature, but also because I wanted to see how Hale would write a superhero novel.  Superhero comics and movies make sense, yes, but a superhero novel is something rare indeed.  Interestingly enough, however, when I finally read Dangerous, I wondered whether this qualifies as a superhero novel at all.

Plot details on Dangerous were kept tight and, if you prefer to keep yourself in a pristine state free of spoilers, you may want to skip this review.  While I will try to keep the information I reveal vague, I cannot discuss my reactions to this story without at least outlining certain plot points.  This first plot point, is in fact, the plot.  (Please do stop reading now if you wish to be spoiler-free!)  From the lead-up to Dangerous, I had some idea that we would be getting a typical story where the hero is exposed to some sort of scientific anomaly, gains powers, and becomes a crime-fighting vigilante.  What we got was similar–Maisie is exposed to a foreign substance and gains unusual skills as a result–but diverged, I thought, into science-fiction territory.  (Here I reveal a detail of the plot that the plot thought was a secret, but that I think just about every reader understood from the beginning.) After all, the substance is alien technology and is designed to help the bearer fight off an alien invasion.  (Really, was anyone surprised that the book ended with an alien invasion?  One of those tokens is supposed to give extra intelligence, but no one in the book figured that one out?)

All this raised a question for me: what exactly constitutes a superhero story?  Shannon Hale clearly thought Dangerous qualifies.  After all, it features a girl with special powers who saves the day.  That is what superheroes do.  But once aliens got involved, I thought the story was science fiction.  Does that mean superheroes cannot feature in science fiction?  To say so seems not only overly broad, but also kind of silly.  After all, do not a lot of superheroes receive their powers from science gone wrong?  Are they not, then, sort of in a science fiction story?  One cannot really gain spider powers from a spider bite–that’s fiction!  Or maybe this means aliens cannot be in superhero stories?  But what about The Avengers?  Maybe, I thought, it was the vigilante business.  Maisie does not (to her best friend’s disappointment) start fighting crime on the streets.  She sees her mission as solely facing the menace that she knows is coming, thanks to the alien technology now lodged in her breast.  And that mindset  is what made me think science fiction.  Because it’s sort of like Ender’s Game, isn’t it?  A group of people using special skills to face an alien threat and then going home.  Case closed.  But maybe I am wrong or maybe the borders we have delineated around genres are too strict.  Whatever the case, I started becoming more concerned with this issue than with the story.

There was one other thing that bothered me about Dangerous, though–the romance.  Maisie falls hard for a boy anyone can see at a glace must be trouble.  He’s clearly a player, one of those stereotypical rich kids who likes to use women to boost his own ego.  One wonders when he goes after Maisie what it is he wants from her.  Throughout the story, however, Hale provides various clues as to his real motives and it is hard to decide whether he is “good” or “bad” or just playing the field for himself.  He often excuses his behavior by essentially admitting he has “daddy issues” and Maisie accepts that.  But even if one is inclined to forgive his worst moments, that does not, in my opinion, make him a suitable romantic partner for Maisie.  He may want to save the world or just himself, but underneath it all he still was–and, as far as I know, is–a player.  He says he cares about Maisie but he still uses her in various ways.  Fortunately, readers have one of those infamous love triangles to give them hope that Maisie will not end up with him at all.  (Spoilers about the result of this love triangle and other details of the romance.)  Like most love triangles, however, this one is not particularly suspense-inducing.  The second guy never really had a chance and Maisie ends up with the player.  The one who tried to get her to sleep with him while he was using her politically.  Isn’t that a nice take-away?  Guys can use women, say they are sorry, and have the women take them back.

Dangerous is an exciting, fast-paced adventure that kept me flipping pages until I had finished (really, I don’t remember putting it down, except maybe to eat and then just because society kind of expects that). And yet, in the end, all I remember is the cringe-worthy romance.  Very disappointing.

Movie Review: The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat ReturnsInformation

Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Release: 2002

Review

Studio Ghibli films are often filled with the inexplicable, but The Cat Returns may feature the most disturbing premise.  Shy high school student Haru saves the life of a cat on her way home from school one day.  The cat happens to be Prince Lune, heir to the Cat Kingdom, and the king attempts to show Haru his gratitude by sending her a series of unwanted gifts—culminating in the hand of Prince Lune in marriage.

As a child, I may have found the idea of a human’s marrying a cat a bit unusual, but not as troubling as I do as an adult.  There are certain connotations and, well, logistics that present some problems.  The film ignores these issues for a considerable amount of time until the cats reveal they do, in fact, have a solution.  (Spoiler alert!)  They are going to turn Haru into a cat, as well.  Viewers might be conflicted as to whether they find this plan relieving, or almost as troubling as the initial proposal.

Beyond all this, however, the movie is pretty fun—a crazy adventure where two cats from the Cat Bureau attempt to help Haru escape from the clutches of the Cat King back into her own world.  Exactly why Haru is told to seek the aid of the Cat Bureau is unclear, because they seem to have no relevant experience working in the Cat Kingdom.  In fact, beyond “helping people,” their mission statement and job are unclear.  However, their skills in intrigue and battle turn out to be extensive, and it makes their escape effort truly exciting to watch.

However the fun and the art are not the only points.  By narrowly avoiding life as a cat, Haru learns to know herself and to believe in herself.  She becomes confident and independent and is even brave enough to tell one of her rescuers she thinks she is beginning to like him.  (He happens to be a cat, too, so the oddity of the film never really ends, but it is something one ultimately grows to accept, or just ignore.)

The Cat Returns is not my favorite Studio Ghibli film.  There are ones with characters I like better and with more interesting premises, but it is a movie worth watching for Miyazaki fans, and for cat lovers.

Movie Review: Ponyo (2008)

PonyoInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Release: 2008

Review

Ponyo is an imaginative movie about childlike wonder and what it means to love unconditionally.  The story follows five-year-old Sosuke, who rescues a “goldfish” from a jar in the ocean and names her Ponyo.  However, Ponyo is really a magical fish-girl who has run away from her wizard father to see more of the world.  She eventually uses her magic to transform completely into a human, but Sosuke must prove he can love Ponyo in both forms, if she is to remain on land.  If Sosuke fails, she will melt into sea foam.

As in many Miyazaki films, some of the logistics of Ponyo do not make much sense.  Beyond the fact that adults in the movie apparently see no problem with five-year-old children running about a flooded town alone, there are some inconsistencies (or, at least, unexplained circumstances) with the magic.  Ponyo’s birth and existence as a fish-girl are themselves in question.  Her transformation to human form also somehow upsets the balance of the world, in way that is never entirely clear.  In the end, however, the movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief anyway.  It is, after all, about a magical fish-girl.  So most viewers likely will have no problem overlooking a few other mysteries.

I personally found most of the characters very likable.  Sosuke is an intelligent, thoughtful child who seems to have an open heart for everyone around him: Ponyo, his mother, the women at the senior center where his mother works.  Ponyo, as a human, can border on annoying since she has a penchant for repeating things, but her exuberance and wonder at all her new experiences are ultimately catching.  Even Ponyo’s father, the story’s “villain” has enough complexity and depth to allow viewers to understand the actions he takes to retrieve his daughter from the “evil” humans.

Ponyo’s father also has an obsession with saving the environment, particularly the ocean, which I thought would become a major theme.  However, it never truly did.  His concern about pollution ends up mostly explaining only his personality; there does not seem to be a larger message for the audience.  The real theme of the movie is actually love.  The plot focuses on the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, which Sosuke is asked to dramatically prove, but viewers see him exhibit the same type of unconditional love for other characters.  His actions ultimately become a model for the adults in the story, as well.

Ponyo is an endearing film that truly celebrates the innocence and wonder of childhood.  Many of Miyazaki’s films are about growing up, but Ponyo recognizes that children have valuable talents and worldviews that adults should consider emulating. Both fun and inspiring, this is a great film.

Note: The English subtitles were very different from the English dubbing, with the subtitles being more philosophical and focused on abstract ideas like destiny.

Waiting on Wednesday (15)

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine where bloggers share books they are eagerly anticipating.

I Am OtterI am otter

By Sam Garton

Release Date: April 29, 2014

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Summary: Otter lives with Otter Keeper and her best friend Teddy.  One day when Otter Keeper goes to work, the pair have an exciting adventure.

Why I Want to Read It: Okay, from the official summary I have no idea what this book is about, but I have followed Otter and Teddy’s adventures for a long time and I was smitten with the pair from the beginning.  It seems impossible not to love the charmingly ungrammatical Otter, even when she’s making a mess and blaming Teddy.  Dare I hope that not only will this become a series, but that there will also be plushies?

Movie Review: From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

From Up on Poppy HillInformation

Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Writers: Tetsurō Sayama (comic), Chizuru Takahashi (comic illustrator), Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa (screenwriters)
Release: 2011

Summary

Teenagers Umi and Shun fall in love as they work together to save their school clubhouse from demolition.  A secret from their past, however, threatens to tear them apart.

Review

From Up on Poppy Hill possesses a rare, quiet beauty, the kind that does not fully reveal itself until some time after the story has ended.  In part, this stems from the quiet nature of the story itself; it unfolds so simply and so naturally that one hardly feels a spectator of a work of art.  Instead, the viewer seems a part of Umi and Shun’s world, a sharer in their joys and in their sorrows.  Not until the final scene has faded does the full power of the story hit.  Then it is a swift, sharp blow: it hurts in its intensity.

Plot-wise, not everyone may find something remarkable about From Up on Poppy Hill.  Two threads intertwine to form the story: one follows the budding romance of Umi and Shun and the other follows the proposed demolition of a beloved school building.  The world has seen both before.  It is the characters that set this tale apart.

Umi and Shun’s story so easily could have turned into a turbid affair, some sick thing reminiscent of Greek myth or tragedy and its often illicit longings.  But the young lovers are so unassuming, so comfortable in their own sense of right and wrong that their very natures forbid such an occurrence.  Instead they soldier on, determined to the right thing and not to succumb to despair.  Their choice is as uplifting as it is, perhaps, unexpected.  And somehow their tears bring light to the hearts of the viewers.

Providing some welcome comic relief to this troubled romance is a whole host of characters, as varied as any could wish.  From the sleepy college student who boards in Umi’s house to the somewhat socially inept philosopher to the archaeology students who so desperately want to be “cool,” there is no dearth of endearing quirkiness among the ensemble.  None of them, however, ever becomes a caricature or a stereotype; the love the creators feel for each (no matter how minor a role they have) imbues them with individual life.  Soon, one feels acquainted with them all, as if they were people and not pictures on a screen.

From any Studio Ghibli film one expects exceptional quality—beautiful art, sympathetic characters, and a whisper of magic.  From Up on Poppy Hill, however, gained a special place in my heart.  The quiet uprightness of Umi and Shun, and their youthful innocence, contrasted with the confusion and vitality of their schoolmates, enchanted me.  They promise viewers that there are still good people in the world, people who long to do right.  And they inspire viewers to take a little bit of their courage and their integrity with them.

Movie Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery ServiceInformation

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Eiko Kadono (novel), Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
Release: 1989

Summary

At the age of thirteen, witches set out to live independently for a year in another city.  Young witch-in-training Kiki is excited to live in a city by the sea, but she worries that the only magical ability she possesses is to fly.  She therefore starts a flying delivery service, but her continued insecurities lead to a loss of her powers.  Will Kiki learn to believe in herself before she loses her magic forever?

Review

Kiki’s Delivery Service enchanted me the first time I saw it and it loses none of its power with age.  I remember the film fondly as fun and bright, a tale that includes a talking cat, an endearingly awkward boy, and an exciting air rescue.  But now when I watch it, I see past Kiki’s bubbly exterior to the deep uncertainty that dogs her every step.  She may approach the world with an almost wild confidence and a certain admirable recklessness, but underneath it she’s only a thirteen-year-old girl and she cares more about fitting in with her peers than she does about training.  How funny that I never realized before how muck Kiki hates that black dress and what it seems to signify–a separation from other children, an “otherness” that can’t be bridged.  After all, from my perspective, who wouldn’t want to be Kiki, setting off for new adventures, soaring fearlessly through the sky on her broomstick, and talking, actually talking, to her cat!

From my new perspective, I realize that a certain poignancy pervades the film.  Kiki arrives to an intially hostile city, yet quickly (almost miraculously) settles in, finding herself a place to live, an easy way to earn money, and an invitation to friendship.  And yet the entire time she fails to see the things that are in front of her eyes, choosing instead to isolate herself in her high room.  Kiki’s aversion to Tombo never made sense to me–he’s the male lead in this film, he’s clearly nice despite his almost stalkerish tendencies, right?–but now I understand that it was nothing Tombo did, but only Kiki’s fear of discovering he didn’t want her after all.  It was the same with the children in the car.  Like them, I used to think they must have said something Kiki somehow found offensive.  But again, Kiki’s only enemy is herself.  It is a dark realization.

I mourn a little bit my lost innocence.  I remembered this film as having a rather standard plot–the one where a plucky girl momentarily loses belief in herself, but then saves the day.  Instead I find a bittersweet story about the tensions inside a young girl as she struggles to gain her independence and to accept herself while always remembering that she is dependent on others and that she will always be different.  It’s difficult not to feel pain watching Kiki unwittingly sabotage herself time and again.

And yet, this is a bright and fun story, one where people can fly, cats can talk, and miracles can happen.  Kiki lives surrounded by the most extraordinary people, from the couple who take her in with no questions asked to the artist who helps her listen to her heart.  This is a world mostly full of love and trust.  Time and again Kiki walks into people’s lives and their homes, fearing nothing and finding herself rewarded with friends.  Sometimes, now, I find it almost too good to be true.

Though my cynical older self may have more difficulty accepting Miyazaki’s world, I cannot deny that it is one in which I very much want to believe.  I want to believe that Kiki can fly, that she has accepted herself and that that makes all things possible.  I want to believe that people are inherently good and that in approaching others I will always find a friend.  I want to believe that bright cities by the sea exist, untouched by the horrors of war.  And maybe that’s the point.  Maybe if enough of us believe, like Kiki, we, too, can achieve the impossible.

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