Monday, June 1, 2015

Sara's Library: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
Knopf 2014
Aurealis Award for Best Children's Fiction 2014 (nominee)
Grade: C

Summary from Goodreads: Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help.

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy, everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.

When I first read the synopsis of the book, I was very excited for this Snow Queen story.  A skeptical girl, a boy-out-of-time,  a mysterious museum, and the Snow Queen?  Yes, please!

Unfortunately, the parts don't quite fit together, resulting in what I found to be a rather disappointing read.  The only element of Mr. Andersen's classic fairy tale that remains is the Snow Queen herself, in the form of the museum curator, Miss Kaminski.  There is no troll, no mirror, and no female companion to help Ophelia with her quest.  Ms. Foxlee has taken only the most basic elements of the original tale and uses those elements (the ice palace and the queen) rather poorly.  Miss Kaminski reads more like a slightly more sinister version of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Natasha than a truly threatening villain.  Most of her scenes involve her trying to seduce Ophelia's recently widowed father or manipulating Ophelia's sister.  Her only truly evil act is her use of a soul-sucking machine on young girls (including the aforementioned sister).  

With the exception of the villain, the adults are portrayed as oblivious and unhelpful, which seems to be a common trend in modern children's literature.  Even Ophelia's adolescent sister does her best to channel Susan Pevensie and ignore Ophelia until it's nearly too late.  It would have been refreshing to have helpful adults in such a book for once.

As for Ophelia herself, she's very stodgy.  There is healthy skepticism, and then there is Ophelia's refusal to believe in magic when it is staring her in the face.  She's a rather flat character and, unfortunately, most of her characteristics are taken from the nerd stereotype: glasses, asthma (constantly using her "puffer"), extremely rational.  Had Ms. Foxlee done something to develop her character beyond these traits, Ophelia may have become likable, but as written, she's just annoying.

The titular Marvelous Boy and the passages narrating his capture by Miss Kaminski are the only sections of the novel that feel like the belong to a fairy tale.  The writing there has more character and less didacticism than that of the main narrative, and perhaps even a hint of whimsy.  If more of the book had followed the example of the Marvelous Boy, it would have been considerably better.

As it was, despite being fairly short in length, it felt much longer, except for the end, which was extremely anticlimactic.  I'm truly curious how this novel was nominated for any major fantasy awards, as there were definitely better middle grade fantasies in 2014.  I would not recommend this novel.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dream Factory: Galavant

Original airdate: January 2015
Original US broadcaster: ABC
Episode total: 8
Availability: Streaming on Hulu
Grade: C+

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: "A medieval hero fights to win back the love of his life, Madalena, from the evil king who stole her in this musical comedy."

At a length of only eight episodes, Galavant manages to cover a significant amount of plot with numerous twists along the way.  Within the first two or three episodes, the synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB has been discarded, as Galavant shifts his focus to helping Isabella, the princess of Valencia, rescue her parents from King Richard, who has overthrown the kingdom along with his new bride, Madalena.  Add numerous side plots, ranging from land pirates to an adorable relationship between Richard's cook and Madalena's handmaid, and there's almost too much stuffed into each 22 minute episode.

Despite the pedigree of the show's composer, Alan Menken, the majority of the tunes are woefully forgettable with a few exceptions (the title song, which is reprised so many times it's impossible to forget,  and a riff on Sweeney Todd's human pies sung by the cook and maidservant).  I don't believe it's Mr. Menken's fault, however.  It's the format that's damaging.  Stuffing 3 or 4 songs into 22 minutes seldom works for children's shows, let alone adult fare, and here many of the songs fall flat.  While the writing on Smash may not have been the best, nearly every song on the show had a purpose, which is something that cannot be said of the songs on Galavant.  Perhaps in its second season it will expand into an hour-long format and combat this problem.

My other qualm with the show was its plethora of potshots and cheap jokes.  Given its renewal and vocal fanbase, I'm apparently in the minority, but I was expecting witty dialogue, puns, and wordplay for some reason, not sex jokes and stereotypes (see the episode where the group visits the squire's Jewish village for reference).

Regardless of the issues I had with the show, I am glad to see something on US TV that's at least trying to break the mold, even if it's not entirely successful.  Here's hoping season two is better. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dream Factory: Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Director: Rob Marshall
Original release date: Disney 2014
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy 2015 nominee
Rating: PG
Grade: B

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: Into the Woods is a modern twist on several of the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests. This humorous and heartfelt musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel -all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife, their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch who has put a curse on them.

As an aficionado of both fairy tales and musicals, I had been anticipating the release of the film version of Into the Woods for some time, especially since it's an adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim musical.  Of course, I knew that there would be changes since Disney was marketing it as a family film, but there were still more than I expected.

A number of songs have been truncated or excised completely to shorten the length of the show, which I feel is to its detriment.  Some of the songs that were removed included "Ever After" and "No More,"  which both appear only as instrumentals.  The reprise of "Agony" has also been removed and with it the subplot of the Princes' respective affairs with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.  I suppose it was to be expected that the "adult" subject matter would be removed or significantly toned down given Disney's involvement, but it muddled the plot in regard to Cinderella's decision to leave her prince.  It should be noted that the violence has been altered, as well.

I appreciated that this version of Cinderella's story used her dead mother's spirit instead of the fairy godmother that has become so iconic. I had worried that it would be changed for the film.  It's worth noting that Rapunzel's prince is still blinded, but Rapunzel neither bears a child nor dies in this version.  

As for production values, the costumes and sets are all fairly detailed and the effects, such as the bean stalks and the Witch's transformation, are pretty impressive.  There's also a good mix of celebrities and stage performers who all do a good job performing the songs.  I don't think Meryl Streep deserves awards nominations for her role here, but considering the shoes she had to fill, I still enjoyed her performance.  

All in all, Into the Woods is a good film that may serve as a great introduction to Sondheim.  It can't replace a live performance, however.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sara's Library: The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
Original Brazilian edition: Rocco 1988
First US edition: Harper Collins 1993
Translated from Portuguese by Alan R. Clarke
Grade: C-

Summary from Goodreads: This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

I've seen The Alchemist on various suggested reading lists for a number of years and finally decided to read it.  While the work is incredibly short, and thus I didn't spend too much of my time reading it, I still want that time back.  To me, this is one of the most over-hyped books I have ever read.

Essentially, this is a reworking of "The Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream" from The Arabian Nights.  The difference is that the details are fleshed out with a lot of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-spiritual nonsense meant to inspire the reader to follow his dreams like the Shepherd.   While the style is meant to emulate the sparse style of folktales, Mr. Coelho didn't enrich the original tale with some new insight previously missing from prior incarnations, but instead muddled it.  The characters are flat, serving only to spout maudlin dreck found in the types of self-help books endorsed by reality TV stars, and the prose itself is only serviceable, though this may be a translation issue.

I cannot recommend this book.  All I can do is hope that my thoughts on it prevent someone else from wasting time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sara's Library: The Young Elites

The Young Elites by Marie Lu
Book one of The Young Elites trilogy
Putnam 2014
Grade: A

Summary from Goodreads: Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all. 

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen. 

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

What an incredibly long book-jacket summary!  To summarize in one sentence: X-Men meets the Inquisition.  If that doesn't sell you on this book, I'm not sure what will!

I had previously read Ms. Lu's Legend trilogy, so when I first learned she was planning to write a fantasy novel, I immediately added it to my to-read list.  As in her previous work, the chapters are written from one of three perspectives: Adelina, Teren, or Enzo.  The majority of the chapters come from Adelina's perspective, which is somewhat detrimental as it leads to less nuanced characterization for the other players.  While the secondary characters are less well-rounded than I would have liked, I believe the intent here was to present a character study of Adelina, and in that way, the novel is incredibly successful.

Adelina is not meant to be a likable protagonist.  She second guesses everyone's intentions toward her (rightfully so, as we learn!), envies her sister's normality, and has such little control over her powers that she frequently endangers the other Elites.  Her only redeeming quality seems to be her love for her sister, although this is used against her throughout the first installment.  But it is precisely because she is a flawed character that The Young Elites is such a compelling read.  We've already read about the perfect girl-next-door type dozens of times, so it's refreshing to read about a girl with so much self-doubt that it actually fuels her power.

X-Men fans will likely notice character similarities here.  Enzo as Magneto, Raffaele as Xavier, Teren as Jason Stryker, and Adelina as Mystique (especially as depicted in the recent films).  Even with these similarities in mind, the ending came as a surprise for me.  I applaud the book for that alone, as it's usually so easy to predict the outcome in YA novels.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of fantasy and cannot wait for The Rose Society to be released!