There must be something in the water in Oxford. It was once the literary stomping ground of writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia series) who formed part of a writer’s group called the Inklings and met regularly at the Eagle and Child pub to discuss their writing. And Lewis Carroll was inspired to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while living in Oxford. Now Philip Pullman, who resides in Oxford, can easily be added to this rich literary heritage as an author who creates such detailed, fantastical worlds.
Philip Pullman has just released The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage (what a mouthful). It is set in an Oxford that’s similar in appearance to the one we know, but is quite different. Pullman’s Oxford still has students, academics, colleges and pretty countryside but there are some magical differences. Every person has an animal companion called a daemon who is an extension of themselves and can talk, think and feel. Children’s daemons can change into all sorts of animals, reflecting their moods and needs, but once maturity hits the daemons settle into a particular animal form. In this alternative world there are also witches and other mythical creatures.
Ah, romances between paranormal creatures and young women. There have sure been a lot of books falling into this genre over the years. Vampire romances, witch romances, werewolf romances, alien romances … and now zombie romances. I read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion because I wanted to go and see the movie (which I still haven’t seen yet) and because I was curious about how a zombie (a rotting, brain-eating, moaning corpse) could be made to be desirable. I’m not sure too many people would fantasise about this particular creature.
I was expecting some sort of angst-ridden, Twilight-style romance but instead got something that had a bit more substance. Warm Bodies tells the tale of a zombie called ‘R’. Like all zombies, he has no memory of who he was when he was alive or what his name was. All he recalls is the letter ‘R’. R is more articulate than most zombies in that he can string together a few words at a time. Most of his kind just stand around moaning at each other. He lives in an abandoned airport on the edge of a post-apocalyptic city. The airport houses a big nest of zombies and R calls a 747 his home. On the outside he likes hunting for humans and eating their brains, but on the inside he is capable of deep thought about his situation.
One day R goes on a raid in the city and eats the brain of a young man. In doing so, he finds himself seeing the young man’s memories and hearing his thoughts. Then he does something extraordinary – he saves a young woman from being eaten by the other raiding zombies. The woman, Julie, is the ex-girlfriend of the man whose brain he just ate. He takes her back to the airport and an unlikely relationship develops between them.
Julie is a tough cookie and hates zombies but she can see that R is different. As they begin an unlikely friendship, the world around them begins to alter. For if R is capable of suppressing his zombie-like tendencies, is it possible that other zombies will follow? And can they convince the humans barricaded behind the walls of the stadium that there is still hope for the world?
Warm Bodiesis imaginative, funny and touching in equal parts. I can’t say I’ve ever had an interest in zombies as a subject matter, but I really liked this book. Now I have to see the movie.
I went to the movies and saw Snow White and the Huntsman the other day. It was the perfect combination of fantastical special effects and very scary acting from Charlize Theron. It seems like re-worked fairy tales are all the rage at the moment. From the other Snow White movie to the TV series Once Upon A Time to books like Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (a retelling of Rapunzel). There’s even going to be a Sleeping Beauty movie told from the perspective of the evil Queen, played by Angelina Jolie (Maleficent). As well as a reworking of Hansel and Gretelas witch hunters (coming out in 2013 starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton).
Perhaps fairy tales never go out of style. They are always there waiting to be retold. In our shaky economic times, it’s nice to escape into worlds of pure fantasy.
When it comes to my favourite fairy tales, growing up I always liked the original tellings that were a little on the dark side. The one that still breaks my heart is The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. I always thought it was tragic that the Little Mermaid gave up the sea and her voice for a pair of legs so she could be near the prince she loved. And every step she took felt like stabbing knives. Then the Prince ends up marrying someone else. Her only chance of becoming a mermaid again is if she uses the sea witch’s knife to kill the prince. But she can’t and tosses herself into the sea instead. No wonder Disney dramatically changed the animated version …
There were also many fairy tale movies that I loved when I was growing up. In fact, I still love them:
• Labyrinth– A very young Jennifer Connelly wishes that her annoying baby brother would be taken away by the Goblin King, played by a very creepy, big-haired David Bowie. It is just a comment made in the heat of the moment, but the Goblin King hears her and takes her brother away. To get her brother back she must set off into the treacherous Labyrinth that surrounds the Goblin King’s castle before time runs out. Along the way she meets lots of colourful characters from Jim Henson’s puppet workshop. I’m not ashamed to admit that I still know all the words to all the songs.
• The Princess Bride –This film is based on the book written by William Goldman. It has all the fairy tale elements you could hope for: a princess called Buttercup, an evil prince, a giant, a swash-buckling pirate hero, sword-play, romance, magic and lots of classic one-liners from the likes of Billy Crystal.
• Ever After – Drew Barrymore stars in this retelling of the Cinderella story. I put this DVD on from time to time when I want to watch a light, non-taxing film.
• Ladyhawke – A classic film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Two lovers have been cursed by a powerful Bishop. The man is a wolf by night while his love is in human form. And she is a hawk by day while he is a man. They seem doomed until a young thief played by Matthew Broderick agrees to help them lift the curse.
• Enchanted – I thought this was a clever reworking. Amy Adams plays Princess Giselle who is transported from her cartoon fairy tale world into the harsh streets of real world New York. Hilarity ensues – especially the scene where she gets rats and pigeons to help her clean her rescuer’s apartment.
To wrap up this homage to fairy tales, go and visit the blog ofEmeline Morin. I stumbled upon her blog this week. It is devoted to fairy tales and their reworkings. I particularly like the beautiful artwork in this post.
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashoreis a brick of a book. I could literally use it as a doorstop. I’ve always had a soft spot for weighty tomes. It gives me a real sense of satisfaction to turn the final page on a mammoth read. What first struck me about this fantasy read, apart from its size, were its pages. It has beautiful illustrations and maps throughout. I thought it was a lovely touch which enhanced my reading experience.
At a time when books are facing an uncertain future, it’s nice that a publisher decided it was worth adding extra pages of illustrations. I wonder if we will start seeing more instances of fiction books being printed with more care – a start to books as objects of beauty you want to physically own over an e-book version.
Now to the story … Bitterblue is set in the same world as Kristin Cashore’s previous books Graceling and Fire. I had read Fire previously but remembered little of the plot. While it might help to read Graceling before reading this book, I haven’t read it and was still able to follow the story.
Eight years have passed since Princess Bitterblue and her country were saved from the vicious rule of her father, King Leck. Bitterblue is now the Queen of Monsea, but the influence of her father lives on. Leck was a Graceling – a kind of mutant – whose power was mind control. He could get anyone to do anything and then wipe their memory clean if he chose to. Or he could force them to do horrific deeds and leave them to live with the memory. He had a whole kingdom under his influence – including Bitterblue and her mother. Her mother helped Bitterblue escape into the safe-keeping of a group of Graceling resistant fighters and was then killed by King Leck.
Now all should be well. But Monsea is still under some sort of spell. There are many missing pieces to put together and Bitterblue doesn’t know which of her advisers she can trust. She begins to sneak outside the castle walls in disguise. There she meets two thieves Saf, a Graceling who doesn’t know what his grace is, and Teddy. Bitterblue soon learns that there is more to this pair than meets the eye. They are trying to uncover the past that was clouded for so long by Bitterblue’s father.
I enjoyed Bitterblue, although it took me a while to get through. There were plenty of mysteries and ciphers to unravel and people who weren’t what they seemed. The character Bitterblue was believable as a very young Queen trying to find her feet and fix her devastated kingdom. But at times the plot rambled on and then there was a hurried ending which left me hanging.
The reviews on goodreads are all conflicted. Some readers give it five stars and herald it as a masterpiece and some give it two stars and a lump of their disappointment. I am somewhere in between. I didn’t race to the end. I sort of limped along and felt a bit relieved to get to the last page. Bitterblue didn’t capture my attention as much as Kristin Cashore’s Fire, but it was still a worthy and entertaining read.