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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn


cropToday's image isn't super exciting, but I'm exhausted (so glad I had the following queued up...)

Today's ruminations are yet another entry in this week's loosely connected series of how romances —idealized love—has been changing over the years. The films below, like the books I wrote about earlier this week, are the feel-good flipside of the horrifying allegations of #metoo that nevertheless illustrate that however slowly, women are gaining more agency.

Like the film I discussed yesterday, Crazy Rich Asians belongs on my list of films that work much better than the book. The author stated flatly that he was attempting to recapture a life that he grew up in, albeit on the margins; and only a few pages of endless descriptions of shoes, clothes and other accoutrements quickly convinced me that I wouldn't like the book as much as the film. One hint came early on, when Michelle Yeoh requested some deepening of her antagonist Tiger Mom's character; if the third most important character (and certainly the one at the center of the story's conflict) was a boring stereotype, then my expectations (for the novel) were already diminished.

Her character thus becomes the one with the most dynamic arc. Even a woman as steely as this still had to bite her lip when her own, oh-so-sweet-n-gentle mother-in-law observes sadly that the dumplings of a very successful and hard-working businesswoman who probably hadn't done any cooking for years weren't up to snuff. (I was first taken in by this two-faced presentation in Red Lantern; we have our sweet-as-sugar trope in Southern Ladies, but no-one's under any misapprehension about their motives from the get-go. The Asian version seems to favour a longer reveal behind the facade.)

But one of the reasons I really enjoyed this film is that the lovers, while they may have misunderstandings and disagreements they arise naturally; and the man respects the woman as his intellectual and emotional equal. More than one reviewer has noted this isn't a particularly feminist or progressive film; it's a Cinderella fantasy. Yet, the protagonist decides, on her own terms, what she will and won't accept; and she gets to keep her life.

More than one person has expressed a bit discomfort with a film that seemingly celebrates the 1%. But, rather like the first Iron Man film, it's pretty carefully set up for interpretations that align with assorted viewpoints, including discomfort or even outright dismay with the 1%. Even the kindly portrayed best friend and his fiancee, whose wedding festivities are the reason the protagonists go to Hong Kong, and which drive the plot, belong to a set that squeals over clothes, leaves dead fish in the bed & giant nasty lipstick scrawls on the window of an innocent outsider, and throw bachelor parties so over-the-top that the guest of honour soon wishes to escape.

Perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed person who actually “buys into” (heh—I can so do puns, if only by accident...) the lifestyle still feels compelled to hide her shopaholic tendencies and has the saddest character arc in the film, as her relationship with her spouse slowly disintegrates while the main characters’ strengthens. In fact, she and the protag Rachel are having a heart-to-heart in the dark while the others in the bachelorette party are mindlessly geeking out over fashion none of them needs in a noisy, colourfully lit background. Similarly, the best man and the male protag, Nick, hang out on a beautiful, deserted islet, admitting their feelings for their respective loves while their cohort dance and drink themselves silly over strippers on a barge in the middle of the ocean made of shipping containers.

Better yet, it's part of a trend.

(Also, I thought the early opening sequence, during which Nick's community spreads the news of his girlfriend via various cell phone apps, very clever. The only part I didn't get was why it took them a year to notice he was dating this woman.)

I adore love stories, but I loathe helpless heroines that can only be rescued, as a sort of prize, and whose fights with their beloveds are ‘dishonest.’ Nick may horribly disingenuous in keeping secret just how really rich he is, but he's not an arsehole. I deeply appreciated that.

Because we both felt completely out of energy, after this film, the wizard and I went home and immediately watched another film, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. One part of Crazy Rich that didn't really do it for me were the settings. The wizard thought they were somewhat incoherent; I thought, frex, the interior of the Nick's home did a reasonably good job of capturing an old money with antiques feel (bearing mind that I'm nowhere near any kind of real money, old or new) but the exterior did not look like something people who'd been rich over a hundred years and who had developed gobs of real estate would live in. (Though in fact it evidently was a turn-of-the-century hotel.)

To me it looked like a reasonably good candidate for McMansion hell. Granted it didn't have the tacky gold fountain that was supposed to cue the audience as to the provenance of the vulgar nouveau riches friend, but perhaps the problem is an insoluable one, given its history: because of the British occupation starting in 1815, any houses built in the 1900s would've likely shown a strong western influence, and then how would USian audiences know this was a rich Chinese family? Given that they're Christians, it seems just that much more likely there'd be a strong desire to disassociate themselves from traditional shrines & the architecture associated with them.

But I still thought the house was ugly:)

Ultimately, it doesn't matter, as Nick leaves his family to live with his beloved in NYC, where he has more space to be himself.

The Literary Society, otoh, is a period piece, set a few years after WWII on Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans. Still desperately poor after the war, one of the members of this group, noticing a London address in one of his hand-me-down books, writes to the former owner, hoping to get the address of a London bookshop. She does him one better, sending the book he was hoping to purchase; and is so intrigued by his letter that she dashes off to the remote island to find more about him and his literary society.

The group, formed as ruse against the Germans, still survives, but its core member has left some mysteries, not least of which was her wartime disappearance. The protagonist, a writer who detests the fluffy humour that nevertheless is her current bread and butter, needs to write an article for the Times (to get out of a book tour supporting said fluff.) Much to her delight and surprise, the society reads not her fluff, but a serious monograph on one of Brontes (that flopped.)

In major contrast to the rather disparate scenes of Crazy Rich, the cinematography is all-of-a-piece, and gorgeous. Much of it is shot on Guernsey, of course, but even the bits set in London have very much a vivid, if somewhat melancholy look to them. The gorgeous clothes don't hurt, either. Even I noticed a couple of the protagonist's costumes—one elegant full-length gold gown, and another severe navy (in both senses of the word) suit that perfectly sets up the scene in which the person wearing it rejects the engagement of her rather rich bullying military man.

There are a number of parallels, however. Like Rachel, Juliet, the female lead, has a successful career; becomes engaged; travels to a beautiful, remote location, and must overcome the suspicion of the locals, though in this case, they're ruinously poor rather than disastrously rich. Juliet starts out with a rather haughty prince (military man Mark, who is awfully pushy about her wearing this giant rock of an engagement ring) and ends up with a Cinderella who shares far more of her literary interests (she's a writer.)

It's not clear whether Juliet is going to live on Guernsey, but presumeably she'll still travel back to London to promote her career, just as Rachel returns to NYC; neither needs her prince, but both welcome lovers who not only treasure them and want to be married to them, but also treat them as equals.

It's a trend I quite like.

And it was nice to go down memory lane, and some new wildflowers I hadn't encountered before.


cropAfter seeing Manhunter I was inspired to read the book; and quickly concluded the film worked much better.

It was the first film where I realized that seeing it in the theatre really made a difference: it has a lot of scenes either at dawn or dusk—with rather the colours, at least in memory, of today's shot—which television, at the time, simply could not render. And that lighting had a surprisingly large impact on my opinion of the quality of the storytelling.)

(I take photographs to remember; and the reason the disappointment stays so vividly in my mind is that I wanted to share my fascination with it with another, and couldn't, because of the lossy quality, so to speak, of the medium: it came out in 1986 and I suspect, both from internal details of the memory, and its poor box office, that it showed up relatively quickly after release: thus, this memory is one of the rare, persisting, vivid ones: probably about three decades old. The weird part is the memory is a sort of snapshot, though I would have had to experience the film in real (reel?) time to make the judgement, here—though I don't think it took very long, only a few scenes.)

So, here's a photo shot at dusk. I doubt the colour matches exactly what my eyes saw, but it's effective nonetheless.


cropSo I've been picking up various (mostly) YA comics/graphic novels at the library, and someone was featuring volume 3 of Brody's Ghost by Mark Crilley; actually all 6 have been published but we've only got the first three. Crilley draws in what I think of as the ‘western manga style’ exemplified by Scott Pilgrim and the like, and the story is lively, with humour and good pacing. Evidently it was supposed to be set in Tokyo, originally, hence the ancient Samurai master with temple, which stuck out like a sore thumb in modern NYC; it's not that I can't accept that there wouldn't be Shinto or Buddhist shrines in New York, merely that I found the idea of a centuries-old samurai ghost hanging out in one a little unlikely.

The less charitable might put such an inclusion down to Orientalism.

There's a lot to like in these books about a slacker musician who is recruited by a teenaged ghost so she can get out of purgatory & into heaven and he can earn half a million dollars apprehending the ‘Penny Murderer.’

But (spoiler) here's the sort of thing that drives me bonkers when it happens in romance novels (as I was complaining yesterday): the character breaks up with his girlfriend, goes into a depressed spiral of letting his life go (literally as well as figuratively) to crap; he goes on a training regimen, loses the gut, gains some pecks, burns all of his possessions (including his guitar) and lives like a monk. Yeah, ok. Whatevs, glad to see you have a purpose in your life again.

All this asceticism is to develop his nascent psychic powers, so that he can track equally psychic clues to the murderer, who, you guessed it, has his eye on the ex. Naturally, Brody can't tell the person who just a few short months ago was the most important person in his life (judging by the way he let it go to pot after they broke up) that he's developed provable psychic skills, including a flash of procognition that sees her dead in the near future. So of course she calls him a creepy stalker while he's trying to protect her and is even madder at him.

Now compare his behavior with his cop buddy, to whom he demonstrates said powers & promptly recruits the friend's (illegal) help in tracking down the murderer. Better yet, Brody pretends to be a police officer himself in order to interview a relative of one of the victims & handle her possessions, which struck me as rather skeevy.

You can see why the author made these choices: to ratchet up the tension of the hero racing to save his ex from this horrific person he's obligated to stop in order to save the soul of another pretty girl (who possibly was also murdered by this guy...) But by concealing his motives, the author skates by some difficult conversations, both with the victim's family and his ex for an easier, more conventional story.

But it means we have sexism, however unintentional, potential fridging and women as victims, which undermines the sprightly female protag, and disrespects other female characters who evidently just aren't worthy of honesty. Blergh. It's too bad.

Overall: engaging enough that I'd be willing to order the last three volumes through interlibrary loan or request the library purchase, with some hope that the author will wise up & subvert the developing cliches.

Also visually similar is Faith Erin Hicks’ The Nameless City, also about a street-smart girl and a boy being trained in martial arts. However, he's not actually that interested in them, preferring to read, especially history. And her rooftop ‘street rat’ skills are equally the match of his more formal training. She's not asking him to save her soul (though she's happy to accept plenty of food, though she's the one living with the ascetic monks...) and they each bring skills—and backgrounds—to the table that they hope can avert political tragedy. I note, in contrast to an out-of-place samurai we have the observation that many different kinds of people live in this multi-cultural city, and all call it by a different name, thereby underlining a major theme of the book, that everyone needs a voice for such a society to function well.

So, nice drawings, engaging characters, good pacing & a nicely developed universe, but one in which I felt little sexist tropes weren't being substituted for difficult moments. The next one is due out later this year, and I'm looking forward to it.

Or, we have this photograph...


cropSo somewhere or other—mebbe NPR?—I stumbled across a best 100 books of 2017 (or 2016...) on a variety of topics and one of the recces was a very traditional looking romance, Pretty Face, by Lucy Parker, which is actually the second in her series of ‘London Celebrities’. The premise sounded unappealing: a TV film star playing a sexpot bad-girl role decides to switch to high-end stage theatre, run, of course, by the irascable director who despises her current career choices, her appearance, her vocal issues...

London celebrities? Really? I actually went to the Goodreads review site, because I was so dubious. But once again, was assured by the folks there: yes, really, worth your time. By people, like me, who just couldn't stand reading romance anymore. I love the idea of romance, but most of them marketed under the label make me really annoyed, because the characters don't talk to each other, don't have organically arising issues coming out of their situations and personalities, and usually fail the feminism test, hard.

This book doesn't.

It's delightful. The wizard kept comparing the dialog to screwball comedies, and while the language certainly isn't on the level of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer (both of whom are cited as strong early influences, and are beloved by so many readers, so why, I wonder, are editors convinced no-one will read that kind of language anymore...?) the wit and comedy certainly give a strong nod.

So I immediately ordered the other two, the one before, Act Like It and after Making Up, which are nice, fun, punny titles. I'd say this 2nd one is definitely the strongest, partly because of the one character's professional handicaps, but also because the characters’ families play such an important role, and their interactions with the protags give the both main characters and the plot its richness. That's somewhat attenuated in Act Like It and nearly missing altogether from Making Up, which I thought a shame, as I figured a story featuring a nerdy POC special effects makeup artist would be hugely intriguing. Instead, it veered dangerously close to the ‘big misunderstanding’ territory.

Another, minor weakness is that seemingly all of the main (female) characters: (a) stress-eat (usually chocolate) & despise healthy eating (b) detest exercise (but still have good, if not perfect figures) and (c) are somewhat into sf. Plus fabulous shoes. Oh, and they all rabidly read gossip rags, but I suppose that goes with the territory. I suppose the being into shoes is as well. At least their hair colour varies! Give credit where it's due, one is at least an artist as her hobby and another is into cool (?) cars. But I'd expect one to be into the healthy regimen, mebbe, the next not so much, etc.

And speaking of repetition, today's post is on the same item as yesterday's, though with a focus on its manufacture rather than photography.


cropHm, it's been a month, mebbe I should post something. I have been doing more than just live under a rock—I actually wrote the review, below, in July, frex—but it sure doesn't seem like it. So to make up, a bit, today's goodie is something of a twofer.

Let's start with a disclosure: some Scalzi fiction I really enjoy, others I bounce. (I consistently enjoy his essays, particularly those incorporating social-political observations.) So, frex, I never finished The Collapsing Empire, because I didn't like one of the characters, who, to be fair, was even by the author's admission, a raging asshole. —But for many readers, and the writer, an entertaining one!

However, I really liked both the setup & main character, Chris, who so far has appeared in two (of what I'll call) Hayden universe novels. The basic premise of these books is that a mysterious, communicable disease swept through the population, locking in perhaps 1% of them inside their own heads, unable to interact with the rest of world except by way of mechanical bodies or a virtual world called the agora.

Originally heavily subsidized, corruption and time combine to reduce public support for victims of the condition, and as the series begins, most hadens, as they're called, are scrambling to make ends meet for their expensive, round-the-clock care, their robot bodies (called threeps), and the computational cost of their virtual spaces.

The narrator, Chris, is happily free from these immediate economic concerns, being the child of a billionaire sports icon on one side, and Virginia-style US political royalty on the other. In that sense, the stories are kind of like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter, in which the sleuth has enormous resources to throw at the mysteries; being an FBI agent means some nice, meaty problems come Chris’ way.

The entertaining asshole slot is filled by Chris’ more-experienced partner, the nicotine addicted not-quite-alcoholic Vann whose (off-stage) personal life is just chaotic enough, evidently, to keep her in the relatively low-level position of being Chris’ partner. Between Vann's expertise—not only in the crime-solving part of the job, but navigating bureaucratic politics, and Chris’ financial security, it's simply not that big a deal that Chris routinely trashes threeps (which provide a lot of the action & keeps the pacing moving along) which would otherwise soon land Chris’ ass on the curb. Just as Wimsey has his various experts, so too does Chris, in the form of roommates who can conveniently provide medical and especially computer hacking assistance.

Wimsey is perhaps my favourite detective, and just as Sayers’ balanced his charm, wit and wealth with a roaring case of shell-shock (PTSD), Chris, of course, has to deal with haden's. Nevertheless, the relative ease and comfort of the characters’ situations helps to balance the often grim aspects of the stories—the fact that they're murder mysteries in particular, and that the author can't but help highlight some of the issues of society in general: sexism and rigid class expectations in the Lord Peter stories, and shrinking safety net for the 99%—most especially, health care—in the Haden Universe.

One of the reasons I've found the Wimsey stories so hard to match is that Sayers, in order to humanize him and keep the books from descending into soul-less puzzles, has set up a strong recurring tension between Lord Peter's uncontrollable curiosity and the consequences of ‘getting murderers hanged for your enjoyment’ which inevitably triggers his shell-shock (PTSD), worsened by the fact that, by the time he discovers ‘whodunit’ he's often quite sympathetic to the objects of his investigations.

This is something that Scalzi starts to dig into with this book: nearly everyone, in this book, no matter how villainous, is trying to scrape by, to pay their mom's medical bills or gain their father's approval. The whole stupid situation, a profound waste of lives and talent, comes, ultimately, from the culture in general, and the corruption arising inevitably from big-money sports in particular.

I enjoyed this book, despite the rather downbeat/ambiguous ending, but once again couldn't help thinking, for all the author's focus on the various oppressions, mostly structural, and their effects on the characters, this would be a very different story if a disabled person who actually required 24hour attendants had written it. It was very clear, for example, by the time I was half way through the YA If I was your Girl (which is excellent, btw, excepting the grammar in the title—I'm old-fashioned) that its author was trans, because of the little telltale details.

And I still think the Agora, as a hadyn only space, really needs to be developed more.

Certainly these new french beaded flower ideas need more development, which alas they're unlikely to get anytime in the near future. Ah, well.


cropI don't always diss the stuff I review: here are a couple of excellent YA fantasies I've recently read. First up, Sarah Rees Brennan's In Other Lands, featuring 13 year old Elliot, who would be happy to go to magic school (or at least, school in magic lands) so long as it has lots of mermaids and other cool sophonts and not so much weapons practice. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't quite work out that way.

It's pretty clear that Brennan was having some fun poking fun at the canon of teenaged protagonists magically transported to magical places, but thirteen year old Elliot, in all his snarky, bitter too-smart-for-his-own-good glory is the heart of this book. He immediately falls for a beautiful elf named Serene Heart in Chaos of Battle and tries his damnedest to fix her interest before everyone else's hormones catch up with his. Oh, and, in the tradition of this sort of book, also befriends the sunny, blonde, good-at-everything Luke, who forms the last third of their trio.

Elliot—who knows from bitter experience that he will never be anyone's first choice, nevertheless has genius levels of insight to how other people, both individually and in aggregate, tick, and deploys that comprehension with a bravery verging on suicidal while allowing the author to make more than a few points on—among other things—the pointlessness of war and cruelty of bigotry in general and misogyny in particular. While being as obnoxious as possible, because he's gonna tick everyone off anyways, so he might as well do it on purpose, hmmmm?

Someone or other said they're pretty much convinced this is the best sf&f novel of 2018, and while I'm no expert, I'd say it's as good anything I've read in quite a while. Superb.

Naomi Novik also has an entry in this year's crop of YA fantasies, her Spinning Silver. “The real story,” the main protagonist begins this loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin observes, “isn't half as pretty as the one you've heard. The real story is, the miller's daughter with her long golden hair wants to catch a lord, a prince, a rich man's son, so she goes to the moneylender...and decks herself out for the festival.” But her beau marries the woman picked out for him, she marries the town blacksmith right quick, and gets the village to run the moneylender out of town so's she can keep her borrowed finery for a dowry. Miryem should know, since she's the daughter and grand-daughter of moneylenders, one of the few occupations open to Jews.

Miryem's kind parents aren't stoned or run out of town, but her gentle father is unable to collect what's owed, to the point that his daughter is starving and his wife slowly dying; so she takes over, becoming hard and cruel and cold, as frozen as the ice king who courts her for her ability to change silver into gold. Likewise, Irina, an ambitious duke's daughter who hopes to marry her off to a merciless tsar, and Wanda, the harsh silent, unloving child of a horrendously abusive father, also are cold—both in other's perceptions and their own, and for much the same reason: to survive at all.

This is Novik's second fairy-tale set in a magical Poland/eastern Europe, and I'd agree with this review's assessment of its quality; moreover, I feel that it's more successful than her first, Uprooted, which everyone except me seemed to feel was perfectly splendid. (I mean, it won the Nebula...)

The fey —the ice people and their king—including their marauding behaviour, past and present—made sense. (Really, the The secondary characters and their unwinding motivations in particular underwent some interesting shifts for the reader. I know some readers really appreciate the understated romance subplots, which I still found a tad on the subtle side, but at least the evidence was there (though in one case one character is so horrifically abused I wonder whether a healthy relationship would even be possible without a boatload of therapy they were unlikely to get.)

The additional viewpoints added in as the book progressed struck me as a bit untidy from a strictly aesthetic point of view but I didn't otherwise have a problem with them. Though not as overtly political as the Brennan, it too deals with sexism, classism—and anti-semitism.

Wasn't able to find the precise version of the ice king fairy tale that is combined with the rumpelstitskin, but I dorecall another fairy tale adaptation I read in the last year or so dealt with similar themes (in fact, I think the author blurbed this book, actually...); in any event, Novik has enjoyably combined the two. I'm curious to see how her handling of fairy tales progresses, as it seems likely she'll be doing more of them.