I didn't get much reading done this month, as I was a little swamped with work and studying. Luckily some of my assignment actually involved reading books aimed at young audiences and reviewing them afterwards (see earlier posts) which at least forced me to find the time to explore some new material.
Other than that, I wrapped up two new seasons worth of pirates and secret agents, and dropped two more post-apocalyptic shows. In fact, the latter left such a bad taste in my mouth that I think I'll be avoiding the genre in the near future. Let it be known that the dystopian fad has run its course. It's time for some happiness and light.
Other than that, I've been continuing (and enjoying) my trip back to Eighties fantasy films, though some have certainly held up better than others.
Forman, Gayle. (2015). I Was Here. Great Britain, London: Simon & Schuster.
"I regret to inform you that I have had to take my own life." That is the first line of Meg Garcia's suicide note, sent to her friends and family on a time-delayed email. By the time they realize what she's done, it's too late to help her.
Cody has been Meg's best friend since childhood, and is haunted by guilt in the weeks following her death. How could she have not seen this coming?
On the behest of Meg's parents, Cody drives to the University of Washington to pick up Meg's belongings. Once there she begins to investigate the mystery of her friend's death, suspecting that someone else was involved in Meg's decision to end her life.
Like The Nest, the story is told in first-person narration, but is also written in present tense, giving events an immediacy that suits the YA target audience. The author confronts the issue of suicide head-on, but also references drug use, sex and parental abuse.
Forman doesn’t flinch from the difficulties Cody faces in coming to grips with her friend's suicide, and never speaks down to her audience. Using the first-person narrative means Cody's thoughts and feelings are conveyed directly to the reader, and Foreman provides a sense of hope and closure to her narrative without a trite happy ending.
Oppel, Kenneth. (2015). The Nest. New York, USA: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division.
It's unusual to describe a book aimed at middle school children as a "psychological thriller", but that's exactly what The Nest is.
First-person narration is provided by Steve; a boy old enough to not want a babysitter, but young enough to still be afraid of the dark, and whose family is currently struggling with the congenital illness of Steve's baby brother.
While his parents remain preoccupied with the newborn, Steve begins to have strange dreams in which angels promise him they can fix his brother and restore happiness to his family. All Steve needs to do is say "yes". Butyesmay not mean what Stevethinksit means.
Because the story is told from Steve's point-of-view, the reader is privy only to his limited understanding of the world around him. He can record his experiences but not their wider context, such as his parents' visits to the hospital, their whispered conversations, and the fraught atmosphere of the house.
There's also evidence that Steve suffers from anxiety and OCD, but Oppel never explicitly spells it out. In keeping certain details opaque, he can explore heavy subjects such as death, duplicity and human imperfection by "concealing" them within a story that focuses on more fantastical elements.
Jon Klassen's evocative graphite illustrations are also worth mentioning – like Oppel's prose, they're crafted as though through the eyes of a child; from low angles that make everything seem large and vaguely threatening.
Henkes, Kevin. (2015). Waiting. New York, USA: HarperCollins Children's Books.
There are a lot of children's stories about toys, most famously A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Pixar's Toy Story trilogy. Kevin Henkes's Waiting follows in their footsteps, a picture book that depicts the daily existence of five toys upon a windowsill.
There is a pig, an owl, a dog, a bear and a rabbit, each one waiting for something in particular. But what? For the owl it is the moon, for the dog it's the snow, and so on.
Henkes portrays a tiny world that contains only the toys and the windowsill they live on. The contrast between the smallness of the sill and the vastness of the sky beyond the glass is a lovely representation of a child's limited worldview – and in fact there are a few hints of an unseen child nearby. Sometimes a toy is taken away, only to be returned later, and sometimes other bits-and-pieces (like shells or stones) appear on the sill.
The prose is very simple, as are Henkes's illustrations; all rounded edges and soft colours. Some pages have no text at all but are full-page spreads of the toys watching thunder or fireworks from their vantage point.
Altogether the book manages to be rich and thought-provoking despite its unlikely subject matter: waiting.
Downton Abbey has aired its Grand Finale in America, which means the show now feels as though it's truly come to an end. In the lead-up to the big event, I've been playing all the show's previous seasons as background noise while going about my daily tasks, just to get a big-picture sense of what the show was and where it ended up going.
Back when it first started, I recall Michelle Dockery saying in an interview that the show's appeal lay in the popularity of literary period dramas (such as those based on Jane Austen and Charles Dickens) but with the significant bonus of nobody knowing where the storylines would go. Everyone knows the plot of Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, but Downton Abbey's originality lent the show a genuine sense of suspense in the progression of its relationships, scandals and character arcs.
It's as good a reason as any to explain its popularity, though having watched through all six seasons (and the Christmas Specials) it's obvious Julian Fellowes was flying from the seat of his pants much of the time. Let's say, from season two onwards.
I recently reblogged a Tumblr post that simply stated: "Y'all want complex female characters until you actually GET them."
It neatly sums up fandom's response to Lexa, the young Commander of the Grounder tribes who is either a heartbroken racoon or a manipulative bitch depending on who you think Clarke Griffin should be shipped with. As it always does, the truth to her characterization lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes, and it's the pity the ongoing shipping wars are undermining what is one of the most fascinating female characters on television in recent years.
Lexa has been groomed since childhood as the future leader of her people, and since ascending to that role has managed to unite all twelve clans into an unprecedented Coalition – and that's before the audience even meets her. We first see Lexa when she's pretending to be a meek and mild servant girl, integrating herself among two potential enemies to gather information about what their true intentions are, and when her true identity is revealed we're left just as flummoxed as her prisoners.
From that point on we see her as a competent and even brutal leader, though her softer side is explored at the same time her sexuality is introduced: in a conversation with Clarke she discloses her personal history with a girl called Costia, captured and killed by the Ice Nation. It's a backstory which neatly explains her "love is a weakness" mentality, but also serves as a starting point for her walls to start coming down ... at least until her duty to her people once again takes precedence.
It's this ongoing tension within Lexa between her head and heart that makes her so compelling, and her relationship with Clarke so volatile. A lot of this is down to Alycia Debnam-Carey's incredible performance as a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, her expressive eyes the only window into what she's actually feeling at any given moment: steely resolve or desperate vulnerability.
I know very well that she's a controversial character in fandom, but screw it – I think she's one of the show's best characters. The scenes in which she drops her stoic façade and expresses genuine emotion are riveting, as are the scenes in which she's in full-blown Commander-mode, glaring out at the world through war-painted eyes. Though I certainly don't want the rest of the cast to be short-changed, I also dare to hope that somehow the show finds a way to upgrade her from guest star to regular.
I got caught up in my studies this month and so didn't have anawfullot of time to spend on reading – though having said that, it's a bit scary to look back and realize how much material I managed towatch. I'm currently writing a sub-series for my column on Helen Lowe's blog called "Fantasy Movies from the Eighties that Weren't that Bad," which gave me the perfect excuse to revisit some of the movies I grew up with, and Ifinallygot around to installing the requisite apps on my Tablet so I can access ebooks from the library.
But it was a varied month, with stuff dating from 1985 to 2015: murders in India, intrigue in Ancient Egypt, romance in South Africa, and politics in a galaxy far, far away.