delphipsmith: (queenie)
We went out for dinner with some friends last night (mmmm, seared ahi tuna...) and while yakking about this and that, B. pointed out something I'd never noticed before. Not one of the Disney princesses has a mother. She said that that's why, in the new live-action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson, they added a sort of "vision" of the past where Belle has a chance to see her mother and learn what happened to her.

Of course, given that the Disney princess stories generally draw on fairy tales, and girls don't often have mothers in the fairy tales either, perhaps it's not so weird. But even the non-fairy tale ones -- Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Pocahontas, Jasmine (Aladdin), Elsa and Anna (Frozen) -- don't have mothers.

The only two exceptions I could think of are Merida (the red-haired Irish girl who wins her own hand at the archery tournament) and Mulan (the Chinese girl who learns fighting from her father and goes off to war). So basically the only ones that have mothers are the ones who apparently don't need mothers because they're off doing "boy" things.

Isn't that weird?
delphipsmith: (magick)
Today I discovered the Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Not only does it have almost 5000 folk tales, fairy tales and fables from all over the place -- 5th century Greece, 13th century Holland, 19th century Germany -- you can view them in their original language or side by side with a translation, so you can practice your middle Dutch or your 5th c. Greek.

"Hvad vil du nu med det fyrtøj," spurgte soldaten. "What are you going to do with the tinderbox?" asked the soldier.
"Det kommer ikke dig ved!" sagde heksen. "None of your business," said the witch.

Don't you love that the Danish word for witch is "heksen"?

It also incorporates the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) classification system, with descriptions, so you can go from a classification to representative stories, or from a story to its classification type. For example, The Devil's Three Golden Hairs is ATU 461.

I know, I know, this is SO geeky, but I love it. The only drawback is it's heavy on Western Europe and Scandinavia (thank you, Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm). There are a scattered few from Africa and South America but not many, and nothing from China, Japan, Russia, or the Middle East. Not all the stories have an English version, either So if you know any folk tales from Japan, or if you speak Hungarian, Polish, Icelandic, or Danish, hop on over there and get to work!
delphipsmith: (Cicero books)
The Mythopoeic Society just announced their nominees for this year, and I want ALL THE BOOKS. The Gospel of Loki and Songs for Ophelia (because poems!!) both look outstanding, plus there are the two scholarship (aka "meta") categories with tasty things like Michael Saler's As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality and Monika B. Hilder's C. S. Lewis and gender series. ::drool::
delphipsmith: (queenie)
because real life has taken over for the moment, but I had to recommend this article which rebuts accusations that the new Cinderella movie (which is AWESOME, how could it not be because KENNETH BRANAGH) is anti-feminist:

...What absolute rubbish. Once again, the idea of “feminist media” has been twisted around, so that anything short of sassy female characters dishing out one-liners and kicking butt is seen as “weak” and “anti-feminist.”...Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape...

Read the rest ==>
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
The Game of Kings (The Lymond Chronicles, #1)Top-notch historical fiction is hard to find. Top-notch adventure fiction is hard to find. Well-written witty anti-hero protagonists are hard to find. Good historical adventure fiction with a well-written witty anti-hero protagonist is...well, you see where I'm going with this. Game of Kings gets two thumbs up and five stars -- once I started it I couldn't put it down. I can't remember who told me I should read these books; I wish I could because I would send them lots of presents in deepest gratitude.

The story arc is not entirely original: a brilliant but dissolute younger son and a stolid older one with bad blood between them, dissolute younger son turns out to be not so dissolute after all (I shall say no more for fear of spoilers). But Dunnett executes the tale with flair, energy, inventiveness, and a remarkable level of historical detail. The 1500s is one of my favorite time periods for historical fiction -- so much going on in politics, religion, philosophy, science, an immensely active and fertile time so she's got lots to work with.

Part of my love for the book is of course due to the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter. Accused traitor and leader of a band of outlaws, yet somehow one can never quite believe the worst of him; one suspects there is more (oh how I do love a misunderstood hero). If the facts did not prove me wrong I would suspect Dorothy Dunnett of being Dorothy L. Sayers, because Lymond is very much like Lord Peter Wimsey. Lymond is less high-strung and more physically active (as you'd expect in the 16th century!), but both are aristocratic, highly (perhaps over-) educated, single-minded in pursuit of a goal, prone to quotation, chronically underestimated by their opponents, and exceedingly intelligent with a fierce sense of honor and loyalty. Both are also excellent musicians and their own harshest critic.

The supporting cast is just as much fun, particularly Will Scott, younger son of the Earl of Buccleuch, whose evolving relationship with Lymond forms one of the more interesting strands of the book. Will has been off at school in France with detrimental results:

"Moral Philosophy, that's the trouble," said Janet with gloomy relish. "They've taught poor Will moral philosophy and his father's fit to boil...He's quoting Aristotle and Boethius and the laws of chivalry and the dreicher spells of the Chevalier de Bayard on loyalty and the ethics of warfare. He's so damned moral he ought to be standing rear up under a Bo tree. And he won't keep his mouth shut. I grant," said Lady Buccleuch with a certain grim amusement, "that the pure springs of chivalry may be a little muddy in the Hawick area, but that's no proper excuse for calling his father an unprincipled old rogue and every other peer in Scotland a traitorous scoundrel."

As you can perhaps tell from Will's mother's speech above, the book's female characters are also excellent: intelligent, active, strong-willed, sensible, and perfectly willing to go behind their menfolk's backs if that's the most efficient route to the most sensible solution. (Mary Queen of Scots has a cameo as an inquisitive four-year-old to whom Lymond teaches a naughty riddle!)

The interweaving of the adventures of the Master of Culter as he tries to clear his name with the Byzantine twists and turns of Scottish, English and French politics makes for a swashbuckling story complete with duels, spies, pitched battles, cattle raids, explosions, murders, archery contests, mysterious lovers, and more. There's at least one death that will make you cry and the conclusion -- which is in doubt up until about the last ten pages -- will make you cheer.

And yay, there are five more!!

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That HappenedThe subtitle is "unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" and yup, they're all here.

I've been a regular visitor to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half blog for several years and many a visit has ended with me in tears and unable to speak for laughing so hard, so I was delighted to hear she was publishing a book. I was not disappointed :)

About half of the stories had been previously published on her blog, the other half are new for this book. "Depression" parts one and two, where Brosh recounts her struggle with depression, introduces a more serious note than, say, "The God of Cake" but manages to be both funny and poignant, particularly in its blunt illustration of why well-meaning friends and family are so often utterly unhelpful in the case of true depression.

As always, Brosh's artwork (done in Paint, which if you've worked with it you will know the crudeness of the medium!) is primitive but energetic and engaging, at time truly hilarious -- much livelier and more original than the vast majority of graphic novel/comic artwork which all looks very much the same. Nobody would mistake Brosh's alien-looking self-portrait, with its bug eyes, tentacular arms, pink dress, and blonde horns of hair for anyone else's work, ever, likewise her dogs with their tilted heads and mildly panicked gazes.

The stories that accompany the illustrations are endearing, funny, self-mocking, and most of all very human -- her foibles, flaws and difficulties are easy to identify with. Unfortunately I recognized a lot of myself in "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult"!

Painted DevilsEerie, atmospheric, almost Victorian, Aickman's stories are all about hints and omens, tension and suspense. Very few of the mysteries in these stories are solved; instead one is left with an uneasy sense that there are some Very Nasty Things out there. Just around the corner or down the alley. In the dark.

I think my favorite was "The View," in which a man recovering from some unspecified illness goes on holiday, on his doctor's recommendation. On the boat over to the island that is his destination he meets a young woman who invites him to stay with her in her huge estate; he accepts and, although initially installed in a guest room, they are soon sleeping together. However, the ony fly in the ointment is that the view from his window keeps...changing. Between one day and the next things appear and disappear, or move from on place to another...

This collection also includes a classic "living dead" story ("Ringing the Changes"); a ghost story ("The Houses of the Russians"); one, or possibly two, "monster children" stories; the title story, an unnerving tale of a painter, an old woman and her daughter; and several more.

Aickman's stories share with those of H.P. Lovecraft a delicate balance between too much information and not enough -- too much and you get gore/splatter with nothing left to the imagination, too little and you get ho-hum, a story that doesn't compel or intrigue. There is a difference between horror and terror; Aickman is a master of the latter. He takes you by the hand and leads you to the very doorstep of seeing what's lurking out there in the dark...and then turns out the light.

(Bonus: The dust jacket is illustrated by Edward Gorey!)

The Fox WomanThis was a beauty of a book, a mix of myth, fairy tale, love story, and cautionary tale. The kitsune, the fox-woman, is a well-known figure in Japanese folklore and myth; here, Johnson places the story of a fox who wishes to become a woman against that of a young couple whose marriage is faltering under the weight of artifice and constraint. Above, in the house, Yoshifuji and his wife Shikujo communicate by writing each other haikus open to multiple interpretations, neither knowing what the other wants or thinks; beneath the floor Kitsune, the young fox, comes into season and mates with her brother because, well, that's what animals do. Kitsune wants (or thinks she wants) the trappings of humanity: to learn to read, to write, to understand art, to wear beautiful clothes and speak from behind a screen. Yoshifuji watches the foxes from his window and wishes he had their freedom.

Telling the story in diary form allows you to see through the eyes of each of the three main characters in turn, which gives the story both the immediacy of first person and the complexity of a multiple POVs.

Of all of them, though, I felt sorriest for Kitsune's mother and brother, dragged into this transformation mostly against their will; if I had one complaint about the book it's that Johnson doesn't offer a compelling explanation for why they have to pay the price for Kitsune's obsession with Yoshifuji.

Although the ending is left open, leaving me uncertain as to what if anything Yoshifuji or Kitsune learned from their experience (are they wiser? or more determined?), this was a real pleasure to read. Johnson is an artistic writer with a gift for description, evoking seasons, settings and the life and attitudes of Old Japan with a light touch and a painterly eye for detail.
delphipsmith: (George)
1. Kenneth Branagh (squeee!) will be directing a live-action version of Cinderella. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother (so, presumably, not a crazy hag -- surprise! Though she's also playing Miss Havisham, so maybe this is an anomaly).

2. Chickens: the Steadi-Cam of the animal kingdom

3. Miss Piggy wearing the Hope Diamond. Yup, the actual Hope Diamond.

4. The Secret Life of Bees and The Necromancer's House (yeah, I need to write a proper review, but trust me on this: they're both -- in very different ways -- fantastic.

5. New Pope rocks.

6. Queen + physics = Bohemian Gravity:

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delphipsmith: (live live live)
Reveals went up a little while ago at [ profile] hp_friendship so I can now cop to being the author of "To Understand and To Be Understood," which explores the friendship between Molly Weasley and Tonks. [ profile] squibstress (thank you!) wrote the most wonderful prompt which allowed me to incorporate different aspects of friendship, bits of canon, wolves in fairy tales, and some pet theories about magic, power, gender and Muggle-borns. It was great fun to write and I got some lovely thoughtful comments, which is always a joy for a writer :)

Title: To Understand and To Be Understood (on LJ) (on AO3)
Characters: Molly Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks; cameos by Mad-Eye Moody, Fred and George, Dumbledore and one or two others.
Rating: PG
Warnings: Character death (canon)
Word Count: ~8800
Summary: "One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood." -- Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Original prompt, from [ profile] squibstress: "They appear to be close-ish in canon. What kind of friendship is it? A few ideas: Maybe Molly sees Tonks as the woman she might have been if she'd made different choices. Does she urge Tonks to pursue Lupin, and maybe get pregnant, out of supportive friendship, or is it something else? Or take the opposite approach: Molly sees Tonks making the same choices she did, and tries to talk her out of it. Or maybe Molly wants to convince Tonks that she doesn't have to choose one or the other--maybe Tonks has choices that weren't open to Molly."
Author's Notes: Thanks to my speedy and eagle-eyed beta, [ profile] nursedarry, for her Britpicks and excellent suggestions. Text in bold was taken directly from Rowling's books. Molly's line about having children being "to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body" is from author Elizabeth Stone. The information about what happens when two werewolves mate under the full moon comes from
delphipsmith: (magick)
A man has died of rabies from a kidney transplant. After seventeen months. Yay, now we can worry about long-incubation period rabies! The lesson here I guess is take good care of your kidneys so you don't need a new one.

The Infinity ConcertoSo, The Infinity Concerto. I loved Greg Bear's Blood Music, and the title, summary, and about the first third of this book intrigued me very much, which made me all the more disappointed when it all went flat. Bear incorporates some excellent fantasy elements -- Lamia, the Crane Women, humans confined to a sort of ghetto in the realm of the Sidhe, the mystical power of music -- but he never seems to effectively meld the components into a coherent whole.

The most obvious example is music: the title has the word "concerto" in it, Michael's translation into the Realm is instigated by a composer, nearly all of the humans in the Realm are there because they experienced a mystical response to music (either playing or listening), no musical instruments are allowed in the Sidhe realm and it's mentioned more than once that the Sidhe dislike human music, etc. But in the end, all of that is completely irrelevant. Music plays no part whatsoever in the central conflict of the book, either in its unfolding or resolution. That was a major "WTF?" for me.

Another example of apparently important but ultimately unincorporated story elements is Eleuth: she loves Michael to the point that she dies for him but in the end her death means nothing, since he learns nothing from it and it has no effect on his quest, his training, his knowledge, or even his emotions! Many of the other characters such as Nikolai, Lin Piao, Savarin, the Sidhe horse, even Lamia suffer from this same lack of integration into the plot. As a reader, if I spend time getting invested in characters -- learning not only their names but little things about them -- I expect that investment to be returned somehow. The ROI on 95% of the characters in this book is about zero.

It wasn't just characters that floated about unattached. Since the main character is initially completely at a loss about what's going on, so is the reader. This is not a problem if the main character slowly begins to piece together the puzzle, carrying the reader with him or her. That didn't happen here, at least not for me. The back-story about Mages battling each other and turning each other into Earth(?) animals was intriguing but I had a lot of trouble following how it was connected to the Michael's story, what with the muddle of humans, Sidhe, gods and Mages who are, or pretend to be, each other, or something else. There also seemed to be a lot of extraneous information that wasn't integrated into the story (interstellar Sidhe travel, for example, and the weird brass cylinder floating in the Maelstrom).

This is at bottom a quest tale, which by definition means that the main character undertakes a journey, with a goal, and he changes along the way. Here again, Michael's journey and growth seemed to be largely unconnected to the climax of the story. His goal was never clear even to himself; his training consists of a lot of running, learning to generate heat so he doesn't need a fire, and throwing shadows to distract attackers. The "power" he uses at the end to defeat the Isomage is that he's a poet - but he was a poet from the beginning, so nothing about his journey has anything to do with it.

As a minor nit, I totally stopped caring about Biri when it's revealed that the first task he's assigned on joining the Sidhe version of the priesthood is to kill his horse, and he does. Maybe it's Bear's shorthand for demonstrating that the Sidhe are irredeemable bastards, but I think there are more sensible ways to demonstrate it. Besides, it doesn't really jibe with their other characteristics, such as nature magic and becoming trees after death.

This is a lot to say about a book that I didn't much like, but I think it's because it had so much potential and it vexes me that the potential was unrealized. (By comparison, Andre Norton's Dread Companion is a similar story about a human being translated to the Faerie Realm, but it does a much better job (maybe because it doesn't try so hard). I re-read that one on a regular basis.)
delphipsmith: (magick)
I've been madly trying to get caught up on fest reading ([ profile] sshg_exchange, [ profile] hoggywartyxmas, [ profile] hp_holidaygen, [ profile] mini_fest, whew!!). I'm doing fairly well, though I still have a long way to go on [ profile] mini_fest, but I have also on occasion been seduced into other channels.

The most surprising and fascinating was Seven for a Secret (AO3). I have no recollection of how I found it, because I was following links upon links upon links (you know, like you do) and the trail is long gone cold, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that these are marvelous, dark reimaginings of seven fairy/Disney princess tales. Jasmine finds out the punishment for stealing in a Middle Eastern country; Belle witnesses the French Revolution; Sleeping Beauty awakes only to find everyone around her falling into a new kind of sleep, and more. They are disturbing, yes, but so creative and so beautifully, vividly told -- as good as Angela Carter's The Bloody Tower, or Tanith Lee's Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Luckily they're short-shorts (the total word count is only 6390) so you can get through them all during, oh, tea-and-a-cookie-or-two.

Speaking of cookies, I got a couple of Barnes and Noble gift cards for Xmas and promptly ran out and bought the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. IT IS FABULOUS. Tons of new recipes that aren't on the website, gorgeous photos, and it really does lie flat on the counter when it's open, just like advertised. Much cooking will ensue in the New Year!!
delphipsmith: (magick)
An early work by Hans Christian Andersen has been found at the bottom of a box near the Danish fairy tale writer's home city, experts say. How amazing is that? A brand new fairy tale by THE author of fairy tales! Apparently it's called Tallow Candle and is about candle that's all neglected until someone notices its worth. Sounds a bit like a wax Velveteen Rabbit (which that one always makes me cry -- I can't even explain the Velveteen Rabbit to somebody without crying).

So yay, new fairy tales :)
delphipsmith: (meh)
Saw Snow White and the Huntsman this weekend. Visually stunning, excellent black feather cloak (WANT), pretty horsies (WANT), pleasing Thor eye candy (WANT), and the dwarves were quite funny. Otherwise -- dialog, script, acting, character development, plot, etc. -- all meh.
delphipsmith: (BuffyVlad)
These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales: StoriesReviews of this book said it was "irresistibly droll," "wickedly dark," and "wildly entertaining." I beg to differ. As someone who's read widely in and on fairy tales (Kissing the Witch, Red as Blood, Snow White, Blood Red, The Uses of Enchantment, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, etc.) I found it sadly lacking. I would even say lame. I don't care whether your retellings are dark, light or total fluff as long as they're well done and respect the spirit of the story. These don't. These are Beavis and Butthead do Grimm, dragging fairy tales down into juvenile sniggering bathroom jokes. The writing is technically adequate (though if you want masterful gritty slang I'd point you to The Best of Damon Runyon, he does it much better) but the head and the haunch and the hoof of these stories is "life kinda sucks, so let's just wallow in the worst of it."

Most frustrating: the opening tale, where Satan designs the world. This is an elegant, clever, biting, funny alternate creation tale, which I loved. Everything that followed fell terribly, terribly flat. I might have dislike the rest less if the preface hadn't set the bar for my expectations so high.
delphipsmith: (classic quill)

The Magician King
Finished Lev Grossman's The Magician King, sequel to The Magicians. Holy freakin' gods (almost literally). I think I barely breathed through the last 50 pages.

Sometimes sequels live up to their predecessor. Very rarely they are better. Almost never are they exponentially better, managing to not only be awesome in their own right but also actually go back in your head and make the first one better retroactively.

This one did. It's dark, intriguing, brilliant, horrifying, sad, joyful, grim, seductive...a little bit of everything in just the right mixture. To quote another of my favorite books: It has "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..." It also has heroes, gods, dryads, sex, cruelty, lies, fear, true friendship, justice, mercy and death (real death, not the fake fantasy kind). Anything I could say about it wouldn't do it justice, so just go read it.
delphipsmith: (magick)
I actually had no plans to read this but got it for Christmas by accident, as Spouse bought it for someone who turned out to already have it. It was OK but different from King's usual product in that there were zero supernatural elements in three of the four stories (the exception was the Devil); the slightly not-normal element in one of the others (rats, again -- he does have a thing for rats) might have simply been hallucinations. The first story, "1922," was just deeply, deeply sad (and a little heavy on grossness/gore), although I was expecting a very different ending for the son so props for the unexpected there. "Big Driver" I thought could have been about 30% shorter (many many pages on her crawling through the woods and down the road, and the excuse given for her not reporting the rape was pretty thin). But "Fair Extension" was great -- a traditional deal-with-the-devil story, with the twist that the man doesn't end up regretting it at all; what he bargained for turns out to be exactly what he wanted and he enjoys it thoroughly (though it isn't nice at all). And the last one, "A Good Marriage," was fantastic -- old-fashioned tension cranked up wire-tight in the best Hitchcock tradition, reminiscent of Gaslight, perhaps. Ten of ten for that one.

This was interspersed with a long, long, LONG overdue re-read of the Fionavar Tapestry. Every time I fall into those books I'm more in awe of his skill in story-telling, world-building, character development, and evocation of raw emotion. He's like Tolkien in the grand sweep of the story, but totally unlike him in that Tolkien's main characters are primarily "little people" both physically and in terms of power (apart from Gandalf and Aragorn, of course), while the Fionavar books are crammed with kings, gods, half-gods, legendary and mythic beings, larger-than-life men and women. I mean, King Arthur and Lancelot -- come on! And yet they're all so human, so vulnerable, so bound up with our most human elements: bitterness, hatred, despair, fear; love, hope, courage and trust. And freedom -- cutting across it all is the randomness of free choice, the knowledge that above and beyond anything else, we still have a say in our fates.

Exponentially different as King and Kay are, I envy both of them their sheer productiveness and their mastery of their chosen forms of the craft.

Up next: Sandman, The Wake. And possibly a re-read of the awesome and heavily-fictionally-footnoted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Yay for vacations and massive stretches of unallocated time!!
delphipsmith: (roses)
Spent the holiday weekend doing THINGS I WANTED for a change. Go me :)

♥ Worked on first SSIAW* for my writers' group; story has a beginning and an end but way too much middle, and the far end of the middle doesn't yet connect with the end. Not sure how to rein this in, and I only have until midnight tomorrow night to sort it out.

♥ Got all my fic posted to Archive of Our Own. I'm impressed with the site thus far -- design, functionality, features, layout, everything.

♥ Spent a radiant half an hour laughing myself into hiccups over Hyperbole and a Half's latest gem, on the Four Levels of Social Entrapment ("Trying to end a conversation in the grocery store is like battling a sea monster that has an infinite capacity to revive itself..."). Go. See. Giggle.

♥ Positively devoured more books than any human being should in three days, as follows:

- Sister Emily's Lightship, a terrific collection of retold/reimagined fairy tales by Jane Yolen. Since it's SSIAW in my writers' group I'm trying to soak up all the tips and tricks I can on short stories, but beyond that she's a great writer. Some of the stories were in the Ellen Datlow/Terry Windling fairy tale collections (e.g. Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears) but most were completely new to me. The title story turned me off -- just a bit too off-beat -- but the rest were excellent.

- The Book of Lost Things, an excellent story that includes remaginings/retellings of fairy tales, by John Connolly. Reminded me in many ways of a darker, more mature version of The Poor Little Rich Girl. His version of the seven dwarves is positive genius! Get the later edition that includes his notes at the end on the various fairy tales, plus the original Grimm versions.

- Faithless, by Joyce Carol Oates. I'm trying Oates yet again, having failed with two of her other novels (them and I forget the other one) and been left permanently scarred by one of her short stories ("Where are you going, where have you been"). So far it's not looking promising. She's an excellent writer, that's clear, but the characters are all so unlovable and unlovely, so damaged or stupid or just plain unpleasant, that it's hard to enjoy spending time with them.

- The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. Doris is another one that I sometimes have trouble with. I disliked The Golden Notebook, was moderately impressed with A Survivor's Tale, and was captivated by her Shikasta series (which I still haven't finished). With this one I can't tell if it's meant to be a metaphor for the compromises one makes as one gets older, and the pain that results, or if it's meant to be literally about an evil changeling child. Either way, it's gripping, horrifying, and very, very desolate at the end.

Sadly, tomorrow it's back to work and flailing madly in a sea of emails and meetings. Blech.

*SSIAW = Short Story In A Week
delphipsmith: (shiny)
A catching-up post:

Overclocked by Cory Doctorow is awesome, especially "When sysadmins ruled the earth," a dark post-apocalypse short story on the power and risk of the internet(s), and what really matters when you come right down to it. On a related note, Doctorow has an interesting recent essay on science fiction as "radical presentism" -- in other words, what speculative fiction is really about is the tensions of the present, extracted and highlighted by projecting them into a [ ] near [ ] alternate [ ] distant (pick one) future. "Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present...Science fiction is a literature that uses the device of futurism to show up the present."

Pastorialia by George Saunders. Clever and entertaining but not his best. Most of the stories are written in the same breathless, stream-of-consciousness narrative, meandering about from hither to yon -- the fun is in the trip; the destination isn't always that great. I liked "Sea oak" (nothing like zombie grandmas aunties to really make a point) and of course the title story with the characters stuck playing cavemen in a human zoo, which somehow manages to evoke office politics and the cubicle farm despite the sheep carcasses and the mutual social lice-grooming. Both Civilwarland and The brief and frightening reign of Phil were better. In persuasion nation of course was fabulous and still my favorite (that might have been the one that got him the Macarthur Genius Grant).

Beauty by Robin McKinley -- seriously ho-hum. Not bad, just ho-hum. Another fairy tale retelling, obviously, but so much like the Disney version I had a hard time swallowing it. Since this was published long before the Disney version it's entirely possible Disney got ideas from her, or maybe they both used the same source text (Perrault, maybe? It has a definitely French flavor to it), but it's lamentably simplistic even given that it's published under HarperTrophy, a children's imprint. (I have a hard time with HarperTrophy books anyway because I always think of "hypertrophy" -- not what they were going for, I'm sure, but there it is.) For this particular fairy tale I still have to name Tanith Lee's short-story version in her Red as Blood collection (ignore the horrifically cheesy cover and trust me -- it has sexy alien leopard cats, woohoo!) and Sheri Tepper's Beauty.

Let's see, this leaves me...three more, one of which is the Harvard Lampoon's spoof of Twilight. Will do those tomorrow.
delphipsmith: (books)
Another reinvention of a fairy tale, Robin McKinley's Spindle's End takes a new approach to "Sleeping Beauty." Rosie, the princess-in-hiding, is definitely a new spin on the main character -- totally uninterested in clothes, dancing, or any other highbrow stuff, it turns out her true calling is as a "horse-leech," a job made much easier by the fact that she can talk to animals. The talking-to-animals was a nice addition to the story, and I loved McKinley's characterization of the "voices" of the different species: cats are elliptical and always talk in riddles, bugs speak in a kind of clicking code, foxes "generally wanted to talk about butterflies and grasses and weather for a long time while they sized you up," dogs bolster their conversation with lots of physical action, etc. Especially wrenching: Lord Prendergast's best stallion (used as a showpiece and stud, and never allowed to run or get dirty) and the huge white bird that lives in the rooftree of Woldwood, when they speak to her of their yearning to be free of the constraints they live with day in and day out.

Her writing style is unusual. I was struggling with it a bit at the beginning, I kept having to go back and reread paragraphs because I was getting lost in the sentence structure. She favors long sentences with lots of clauses and parenthetical digressions. Then, at some point about halfway through when I was playing online, I ran across this piece from Ursula K. LeGuin, where she draws an analogy between story and movement. There's the running kind of story, where you put one foot down after the next because you can't stop because you're leaning forward, rushing ahead -- page-turners. Then there's the walking story, where "you fall into the flow of the gait and cover ground while seeing everything around you, scenery you may never have seen before; and the walk may end up somewhere you've never been." And finally the dancing story, where you're led on for the simple joy of movement and things might seem pointless but beautiful, "and yet if the dance is true to itself, all the movements are connected and every one follows from the last, not predictably, but inevitably." And there was my problem: I was reading Spindle's End as though it were a running book and clearly it was a walking book. Or she's a walking writer.

Unfortunately the book was marred by a couple of places where there was no good reason for something to happen other than that the plot required it. For example, Spoilers! ).

I also took issue with the nature of the ending -- I don't object to happy endings, but the way they achieved it dissatisfied me, and the more I think about it the more dissatisfied I am. More spoilers ).

The idea of baby-magic (very young children unable to control their powers, therefore a bit of a trial to live with) was clever and cute, like a nicer version of the theory of poltergeists being generated by the pangs of adolescence. I also enjoyed the whole magic-thick-as-chalk-dust ambiance of the place, so that mugs spontaneously turn into frogs and people spend a lot of time asking things to stay what they are (laptop, stay laptop...). The story never explains why the country's that way, though, when none of its neighbors are. There was also no explanation of the roots of Pernicia's vengeful nature -- is she just a Bad Hat, or was there some conflict behind it? A simple insult like not being invited to a christening might suffice for a Disney villain but in a full-length book I expect a little more meat to a rage and fury that's been festering for centuries.

I'd like to try more of McKinley's books to get a better sense of her as writer; one of my colleagues at work has The Blue Sword and one of our interns was a big fan of Sunshine, so maybe I'll give them a try.
delphipsmith: (magick)
Wow. This was awesome. Got it on loan from a co-worker and tore through the whole thing last night and this morning. The subtitle is "Old tales in new skins" and boy does it deliver! Thirteen classic fairy tales stunningly reinterpreted, from "Beauty and the Beast" to "The Little Mermaid," linked together in a chain of stories. The female characters are clearly the stars of the show, and although they're not all heroines or self-rescuing princesses or even wise, some of them, they're most definitely three-dimensional, real, vibrant women. Like Tanith Lee's Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, it's as if someone shattered a book of fairy tales and created a mosaic out of the fragments -- shivery, sensual, disturbing, wonderful, frightening, exhilarating, and infinitely intriguing.
delphipsmith: (Default)
Am currently overdosing on retellings of classic fairy tales -- Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling's Snow White, Blood Red and Black Thorn, White Rose, and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Fairy tales (which are not tales about Tinkerbell, nor do the female characters remotely resemble the Disney princesses) are so endlessly flexible and malleable, as though they're a Platonic ideal of "story-ness" and all other tales derive from them. Tons of ideas percolating now (Red Riding Hood but with a male as main character? Rapunzel as a mother who refuses to let her daughter grow up? What if the seven dwarves were kidnappers? What if renewing magic in the world really did require human sacrifice? What if Prince Charming arrived too soon, or too late -- and what if he wasn't charming at all?). Am hoping to coax a few to emerge in a coherent form. You never know what you'll get when you dip into the great simmering soup of story!

Also, cannot let today pass without noting this afternoon's very funny (and honest) episode of "You Must Read" on NPR, by "a tweed-clad ectomorph" who reads Rosemary Rogers.
delphipsmith: (magick)
Little, Big was an excellent book. Like the house at the center of the story, the inside is much bigger than the outside, and the further in you go the bigger it gets. It's got an old (in the good sense) theme, that of renewal of Faery by humans, but the characters in the huge sprawling family are wonderful. The prose in places is more like poetry, like Carlyle's French Revolution, which you don't read for the history but for the beauty of his language. Bit puzzled as to Holy Roman Empire references, though. All in all, two thumbs up and likely to get a re-read from me in a year or so, to get the bits I missed the first time through.


delphipsmith: (Default)

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