A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.

Sorcerer to the Crown

By Zen Cho

This has been a trying couple of weeks – I’ve been obsessively reading twitter and facebook until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I read fiction until I can’t stand being away from social media. Zen Cho, however, has been a real comfort during these times, though.

jade-yeoThe novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features a Malaysian woman trying to make a living as a journalist in Victorian-era England. It is short and funny and touching, all told through her journal entries. It just felt very much like a story by a woman for other women.* The male characters, both good and bad, are only given context in relation to Jade, and the story focuses primarily on her growth as a young adult trying to establish her sense of self. So, this was extremely comforting in these worrisome times.

sorcerer-to-the-crownSorcerer to the Crown, the full-length novel, starts slowly and in very high-fantasy fashion, set in a magical version of Regency-era England. It reminded me almost immediately of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but luckily it picks up the pace much more quickly. Zacharias Wythe, as a very young boy, proves his extraordinary magical ability in front of a large panel of sorcerers, who promptly all lose their shit. This is not because Zacharias shows such promise so early, but rather because he is a freed African slave. The lead sorcerer adopts him and trains him to be his successor as Sorcerer Royal, the position he holds at the time the book.

A large contingent of white sorcerers actively work against him, even against their own self-interest, solely in order to oust him from his position by spreading outrageous rumors and innuendos. As the story revolves around an extremely thoughtful and conscientious black man trying to navigate the world of magic through difficult times, while surrounded by white men who are actively rooting for his failure, it became much less of an escapist fantasy.

Zacharias then runs across a young woman who shows strong magical abilities, and decides to train her, in the face of all traditional lore saying that magic is beyond women’s understanding. Reading about this black man conquering his enemies and silencing his naysayers, while working with a woman to do the same with hers, just about broke my heart. We didn’t get the ending we deserved, but at least this fictional world did.

the_dressmaker*If I can be excused a diversion for an additional recommendation – a few months ago I saw “The Dressmaker,” and I absolutely loved it! It is an Australian film that didn’t get a lot of showings, even though it stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The preview looked amazing to me – a haute couture dressmaker has to move back to her very rural Australian town in order to take care of her elderly mother – but the reviews were mixed. The negative reviews all tended to revolve around uneven storytelling and shifting mood, and I started to formulate a theory that this movie might be telling a story in a more traditionally female way, one that focuses on relationships and character growth, rather than a single-trajectory action sequence. Seeing the movie absolutely confirmed that for me, and it felt amazing to see a movie that was so clearly by women about women and for women.

 

Marvel Comic Books

My comic book binge continues!

The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past

Book CoverMy partner and I are big fans of superhero movies, and really enjoyed the most recent X-Men reboot. When the previews for this summer’s sequel came out, though, I couldn’t make head or tails of the storyline, and Tom recommended that I read the comic books that it is based on. The storyline was originally published over two issues of The Uncanny X-Men in 1981 and released as a trade paperback in 2011.

I have repeatedly mentioned that artwork is very important to me, and I found the 80s aesthetic a little trying, but the dystopian future and desperate intervention from the past plotline was quite engaging. (Also, the dystopian future is set in 2013, and I wonder if they originally aimed for a release date last year.) Ultimately, though, I don’t know that reading the book helped with my initial issue, since I believe the movie is taking a lot of freedoms from the source material. The primary one being that now Wolverine is the pivotal character instead of Kitty Pryde. The comic book fan in me is attempting to argue that this change is just due to Wolverine being very popular, but the feminist in me isn’t totally buying it (not least because both sides of me suspect that Wolverine is starting to be played out).

The All-New X-Men: Yesterday’s X-Men

Book CoverReleased just this year, the “Yesterday’s X-Men” trade paperback is pretty much the mirror image of “Days of Future Past.” My X-Men reading heyday was many years ago, so a lot has happened since I stopped checking in monthly. Comic books are similar to soap operas in a lot of ways: a set roster of characters rotates through years of marriages, breakups, feuds, and deaths. This book actually builds on all of that, and references the past craziness in very nice and often humorous ways, without overwhelming the reader with past references.

The basic premise is that so much craziness has happened and the X-Men have gotten so fractured that Beast decides that he needs to bring the teenage X-Men from the 60s forward in time so that the current X-Men can face their past selves and recognize where they have gone wrong. This does not work ideally, of course, and the play between the two sets of X-Men is very interesting and entertaining. (And the illustration is some of the best I’ve seen recently in the big superhero comics—everyone is of course in peak physical condition but no one is ridiculously stacked in either musculature or T&A.)

Hawkeye: Little Hits

Book CoverRebecca previously reviewed Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon, and I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it. It is so different from any other superhero comic I’ve read: Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) is just trying to get by in life when he isn’t with the Avengers, and is only somewhat successful at it. I was initially taken aback by the bleak and almost noir-ish world, but I think it is quickly becoming a favorite. Life is not easy for Clint Barton, partly due to circumstance and partly due to personal poor decision-making, but he perseveres, and I enjoy reading about it. (Oh, and not to harp too much on disappointing girl-power comics, but Hawkeye’s female protégé is so casually tough and independent that there’s no need to make a big deal out of it in the writing.)

“Little Hits” is the second volume, released just last year, and does some very interesting things with the comic book medium, including an issue entirely from the point of view of Clint’s dog, using a series of pictograms to communicate thoughts. The back of the book also includes several pages from the artist’s sketchbook, along with a description of his very minimalist approach toward color and it was fascinating, as well.

—Anna