Category Archives: Books

Looking for a copy of our book?

I’ve done some sleuthing online today, and it seems a few people are still selling our Werewolves book–mostly at wildly inflated prices.

So – I am finally shifting (geddit?) the ones that have been living on my study floor so long that I should be charging them rent. You can find copies of Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture here – signed by both of us, no less!

I’ve also listed some copies of Ros’ brilliant single-authored book, Apocalypse in Australian Fiction and Film: A Critical Study. 

[Disclaimer: This sudden and uncharacteristic burst of decluttering and organisation may or may not be a form of procrastination related to our next book manuscript being due at the publishers in a few short weeks …]

procras


The shapeshifting Snow Queen and all things Frozen

Shameless confession time: I love Frozen.

frozen cast

There, I’ve said it, I’ve aligned myself with every six year old girl on the planet, and I don’t even care. It’s a great movie. The songs are catchy (painfully so). Elphaba and Veronica Mars sing in it. It’s a lot of fun. And there’s a ridiculously cute snowman.

olaf

Less fun is the creepy animation with the girls’ unnatural looks. Come on, Disney, enough with fake Barbie looking characters. (Beware the link; as an article about unrealistic body images for women, the lingerie ad that appeared when I read it was slightly ironic.)

frozen sisters2

Also less fun is the way “Let it Go” gets stuck in your head, or hearing every single small girl around the world sing it. Literally. I have been walking in Spain and heard a little girl singing it in the street. They were screening it in Norway when I was there (and you can go tour the places that inspired the film). Flying back home to Australia, I listened to another young girl singing it in the plane as we waited for take off. And for a while social media was awash with variations on “Let it Go” (and variations on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). You can even sing along yourself.

Okay,  I don’t love it that much. Please, make it stop.

For anyone awakening today from a coma some years in the making, Frozen is a Disney animation based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen”.

In the original, parts of a cursed mirror fall into people’s eyes and distort their vision so they can no longer anything good or beautiful in the world but only what is bad and ugly. A boy, Kai, falls victim to the mirror, and begins to hate everything around him, even his best friend Gerda. He’s taken by the Snow Queen far, far away but Gerda’s a plucky girl, and battles her way through to save him with her love. It’s a great story.

The_Snow_Queen_by_Elena_Ringo

In Frozen, Disney has shaken up the story by making the Snow Queen a young queen called Elsa, who cannot control her ice-making powers and fears hurting those around her. Rather than offering her snowmaking services to local ski fields in need of some fresh powder, she runs off to set up camp on her own, far away from the rest of the world. She’s saved by the sacrificial love of a sibling rather than a suitor. Nobody gets married in the end. Is this a first for Disney fairytales?

frozen_anna

The Snow Queen has been a pretty popular lady lately, appearing in a range of popular texts. In Frozen, she’s a very sympathetic character who just wants to control her abilities without hurting anyone.

Frozen

She pops up on Once Upon a Time, the fairytale television program we’ve blogged about before, as a villain who turns out to be not such a villain after all.

Once upon

And she features in Jackson Pearce’s fourth book in her modern fairytales series, Cold Spell, a series we’ve previously blogged about. I shall not attempt to explain the complicated shapeshifting world in this series (seven sons, twins, triplets, mermaids, snow queens, gypsies, bad werewolves, misunderstood werewolves all appear), but suffice to say in this case, the Snow Queen is evil and has hidden herself away from society on a frozen island. She recruits a man-harem since she is desperate for love, men that she uses and abuses and turns into werewolves, until one day she gets her comeuppance from a plucky girl Ginny with a lot of love in her heart for one of the man-harem members, her best friend Kai. Cold Spell follows the original story more closely than other iterations, in a modern setting, and tries to engender some sympathy for the Snow Queen, though certainly not to the same extent as in Frozen.

cold spell

We’ve blogged here before about the current popularity of fairytales and how some have morphed over time into contemporary representations, as with Snow White and Red Riding Hood. The villain-misunderstood outsider-hero Snow Queen is yet another shapeshifting fairytale character to be recast in contemporary stories in more sympathetic terms. Based on the song and clothing choices of little girls around the world, Elsa from Frozen is the clear favourite of the current crop of Snow Queens.


The BBQ Line

I went to my high school reunion this past weekend. As I’ve noted elsewhere in cyberspace, I went to school in Lithgow, and that’s kind of like the real world equivalent of Old Lima Heights in Glee (I once had a rather senior academic tell me I was “quite impressive,” right after he asked where I’d gone to school. The “~for someone from Lithgow” was kind of left hanging, unspoken, in the air between us. Um, thank you, but no. There are some bloody funny, bloody smart people in any school with 1200 enrolments, and water finds its own level).

"Everyone you wanna be, prob'ly started off like me"

You may say that I’m a freak show …

The other thing I should flag before we go any further, is that almost no-one used their real name in Lithgow, so when I use derivatives of people surnames here, they’re not pseudonyms. They’re what I actually call these people, to their faces, except in front of members of their immediate family. So, having had nowhere near enough sleep but being in a reflective mood, I’d like to share a couple of the best pop-culture related moments of the evening.

First up, I caught up with a very dear mate I actually haven’t seen since, oh, about two months after we left school, which would be about when we all buggered off to various institutions of learning or work. I asked Shep what he’s doing now and he mumbled something about it being boring. I teased – does it have a job title? What’s on his payslip? And he prevaricated. He said has a job title but it doesn’t describe what he does. And I told him he needs a BBQ line. The “BBQ line” will be familiar to PhD candidates. You spend ages coming up with some lexically dense abstract that describes your project in terms that will make academics nod their heads sagely and say things like, “Hmmm, I think that might have legs.” But then you need a totally different, accessible, short line that you can use at the family barbecue in order to explain exactly how you are wasting your life spending your study time. Preferably before the relative with the tongs nods off and the snags get burned beyond recognition.

I reminded him that he’d recommended that I read Raymond E. Feist’s Magician. This was my first “adult” foray into the Fantasy genre. Sure, I’d read Narnia and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–and I loved them!but I had kind of compartmentalised them as kids’ books. So here we were in Year 12 and I was being my complete stresshead self and he suggests I bugger off into an alternate world for a bit.

So I did.

And then I went to Uni and took Richard Harland‘s Fantasy subject where I was introduced to the wonders of Anne McCaffrey. (One of my classmates was the wonderful Adina West, by the way, if you’d like to check out some contemporary Australian Fantasy of the blood-drinking or shapeshifting persuasion).

And now, as I explained to my friend, one of the things I get to do is write about Fantasy.

And that’s my BBQ line. And for a moment we just stood there, grinning. Because it is kind of cool to realise that a conversation in a shared study period can actually lead somewhere totally unexpected.

Later in the evening, I was standing next to Shep’s best mate, Del. Actually, I was standing next to Del for much of the evening. He has an uncanny knack of finding the funny in everything and sometimes it’s borderline inappropriate, but because he’s always been supportive and incredibly kind, I let him get away with it. So at one point he’s in conversation with the other EngLit PhD from our year, who also happens to be a highly successful YA author. And they’re talking books. Oh yes, I was at the nerds’ table, and I’m owning that. I loved every minute of it. Anyway, so Del says how he read Feist’s Magician and that started him reading a whole bunch of Fantasy stuff. And so there was more grinning, and by now I’m thinking Shep should be getting some kind of commission from Feist’s publisher.

(And both lads, bless them, asked where they could find out more about what I’d published. You should find links scattered through this blog, fellas. We’re all about the shameless self-promotion, here. Plus, I’ve got half-a-dozen signed copies on my shelf at work, ready for sale, because I didn’t want to store them at mine and Ros moved halfway across the world so I’ve got her sale copies, too. Just sayin.’ No pressure).

Still later, I had a very earnest conversation with my mate Phoopie about the strengths of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, while our rather sober (in both senses of the word) friend Ols stood behind us rolling his eyes at said earnestness.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

We didn’t spend the whole night talking books or cult TV, and I won’t regale you with all the you-had-to-be-there jokes. But I did feel as though I was on Graham Norton’s couch for a while there. Specifically, the night he had Bill Murray on. The conversation was smart and funny and self-deprecating and I really hope I don’t have to wait another twenty-something years for the next burst.

But on the long drive back yesterday, I was thinking about my BBQ line. And if I focus on that, it really does seem like I have the coolest job in the world. But lately I haven’t been feeling it. Some of my teaching is incredibly cool, too. I work with the most disadvantaged students in the Uni, and while I would be lying if I said that I was always able to make a difference, when I do see progress, it’s spectacularly rewarding. So this week, I am going to try to focus on the BBQ line, rather than the mire of the day-to-day, and see if I’m less of a stresshead by escaping that way. Failing that, I’m going to escape into a Fantasy novel.

* This post is dedicated to the memory of our library mate, Ben R. We wish you were at the nerds’ table with us this weekend.


Book reviews: Taken by Storm (Jennifer Lynn Barnes), and Fathomless (Jackson Pearce)

In our book, we have a chapter on gender where we discuss a couple of YA series of novels that were unfinished at the time of (our) publication. Since our book has been released, two of these series have had a third volume published, and so I want to share some thoughts about them in the general context of what we discussed about gender and shapeshifting. I’ll also recap, briefly, the previous books in the series.

The first of these is a series of novels by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Raised by Wolves and Trial by Fire. The series is aimed at a YA audience and tells the story of Bryn, a human girl who was saved by a werewolf pack after a “Rabid” wolf killed her parents.

Bryn is quite literally raised by the werewolves, and the first book is about how she leaves the pack after discovering the pack’s Alpha, Callum, has lied to her when he said the Rabid was killed. In fact, the Rabid’s still out there wreaking havoc and is changing humans into wolves, which Bryn thought was impossible. She disobeys Callum’s orders about a new wolf, a teenage boy Chase, and has to face pack law with a brutal beating. That leads her adult human guardian Ali to take off with Bryn away from the pack. A couple of Bryn’s friends also team up with her, and Bryn and her merry band of friends track down and stop the Rabid, and Bryn becomes Alpha of her own pack.

Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

We put our discussion of this series in the gender chapter of our book. The reason for this is that the series touches on some of the power aspects of wolf pack hierarchies, and much is made of Bryn’s difficulties conforming to pack life. When she becomes Alpha, this is really interesting because she is: female, and human – two things that are slightly unusual for alpha wolves in many current iterations of teen werewolf literature. The second book is about Bryn trying to lead her pack despite being human, and dealing with a threat to her pack from some supernaturally gifted humans nearby.

Trial by Fire by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

At the time of writing our shapeshifting project, the third book Taken by Storm had not yet been released, so I thought we should discuss it here since we weren’t able to do so in the book. I had assumed that this would be the conclusion to the series but it is still open ended, and the events of this book don’t really move much beyond Book 2 if we consider how each ends. However, Barnes has said that she’s not planning to continue the series in the near future – but hasn’t ruled it out, either. So although this third book is apparently the last, it may not be the end.

In Taken by Storm – soap opera connotations of that title aside – Bryn is still struggling with being human as a leader of the wolf pack, and still under threat from others, still fighting off otherworldly forces trying to attack her lupine peeps. There is another Rabid on the loose and Bryn is worried it may be one of her own wolves, so they have to do some more detective work to figure it all out.

Time to insert the usual warning of ***SPOILERS*** ahead, so please stop reading if you don’t want to know the plot.

As in, stop right now and look no further.

***SPOILERS***

Okay, so moving on to the interesting bits.

Killing off the romantic interest is not exactly common in YA literature, so Chase’s death was unexpected. And, just quietly, not unwelcome, but then again I am not exactly in the target demographic, so I expect teenage readers would feel differently, as they should.

As we wrote in our book, Chase seemed to be a “ghost” figure who hardly played any role in the narrative. And now he’s dead, so I think we were a little prescient there. Not prescient enough, however, for just as Trial by Fire introduced “psychics” (people who can enter dreams, have supernatural abilities and the like), here we discover ghosts literally exist. Perhaps not quite literally, since ghosts are not alive by definition, but nonetheless here they are. Given Chase’s minimal influence on narrative, killing him off in the series doesn’t make much of an impact on the plot or on me personally, but full props to Barnes for doing this when some readers would no doubt be disappointed. On the other hand, if this is genuinely the final book, I’m not clear why he died. Being boring is a terrific reason to eliminate a character, but since most readers probably disagree with me here, there has to be a better reason than that for them to accept it. If it’s a motivating factor for Bryn to go on and do something, that’s good, but here it feels a little pointless.

We learn some more about wolf politics here, but it feels tantalisingly shallow, as if we get a glimpse of a much more detailed, interesting world that is being signposted for future books, but apparently not. There is plenty to work with: despite finding the musical-theatre loving wolf Devon irritating for most of the series, I found him much more interesting in this final book as he leaves Bryn’s pack (on good terms) to become Alpha of a neighbouring pack, while rare female wolf Lake is another character who could carry a story.

So how does it end? Bryn is unhappy and still determined to be changed into a werewolf so she can better protect her pack. In the second book she had asked Callum to do it, and as this novel ends he is about to attack her as per their agreement so that she can become a werewolf. Apparently he’s the only one she trusts to do it without actually killing her. So he leaps at her. The end.

As in, the end. That’s it, apparently, for the series. Romantic lead dead. Protagonist pretty miserable. Novel closes as Callum is about to strike.

Not, perhaps, what readers would like, and I rather gather from Barnes’s comment on this subject I mentioned earlier that she has received feedback along this line. Barnes points out that there is some kind of resolution because Bryn is finally on her way to werewolfdom, which is kind of a metaphor for growing up and learning to make hard decisions and be an adult, although I don’t know how far we can push that metaphor. But certainly it’s not resolved in many other ways, and I think that just as readers protested the end of The Hunger Games’s Book 3 Mockingjay for leaving Katniss in a kind of endless despair with only some bits of “hope” given, Taken by Storm also seems a downer (not on the same scale at all, I must say).

Where does that leave the gender politics? As we discussed in our book, Bryn’s power seemed to stem from her humanity given her ability to exist outside pack hierarchies, and it is unusual to have a lead female character involved with her subordinate, but these two aspects are undermined in this third book when Chase dies and when Bryn goes ahead with becoming a werewolf to gain more power for her pack. However, these wolf books still offer a refreshing change because the female character does not abandon everything for the love of a hot supernatural boy: these books are never simply about the romance, and this at least offers one alternative for readers who tire of Bella’s worship of Edward in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series or Grace’s obsession with her werewolf beau in Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver series.

Moving on to the second author, Jackson Pearce’s series that retell fairytales in modern settings with werewolf themes continues. We wrote about Sisters Red and Sweetly in the same chapter on gender where we were asking if these hybrid identities of human/ wolf allow the female characters more latitude to escape conventional gender norms and power relationships.

Sisters Red Cover

SWEETLY cover

These books take the Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel fairytales and give them a spin by turning the lead female teenage characters into wolf hunters: no longer victims waiting for a man to save them but kick-ass heroines a la Buffy, angst and all. The werewolves are called Fenris and are cast in the mould of villains: totally evil monsters who kill young girls. Pearce therefore uses werewolves differently to the sympathetic misfits we more commonly see in contemporary iterations, plus it’s an attempt to subvert some of the conventions around female victims and male predators.

Each of the books is a standalone and has different main characters (but linked in some ways, as we discover), and there is an overarching plot connecting all the books, a plot that concerns the werewolves. To this series we can now add Fathomless, which tackles The Little Mermaid tale.

Pearce_Fathomless_H#80EB7D9

In this book, we have three triplets, each with a power of touching someone and knowing their past, their present, or their future. The main character is Celia Reynolds, one of the triplets (and readers should recognise that last name and deduce that these girls are siblings to Silas and Samuel Reynolds, who each were hero wolf-hunters in the previous two books, and loosely based on the woodcutter of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, and the seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son idea as well).

The other main character is Lo, who is an ocean girl, which is the role of the little mermaid/ Ariel but in this version she has legs but lives under the sea (cue that Disney music in your head); leaving the sea is extremely painful when she tries to walk on land, but it is possible.

Again we have a revolving narrative where we take turns reading the perspectives of different characters, as in the previous two books, a device that never excites me as a reader and still doesn’t, though others may like it. In fact it becomes even more complicated in this book because Lo has a different name and personality when she is inside and outside the sea; inside the sea she finds it hard to remember her human identity, and her job is to try to keep hold of her humanity and not succumb to the monstrosity that eventually overtakes the other ocean girls.

Lo is one of many ocean girls living underwater, and Pearce here also pulls in sirens mythology, because Lo and the other girls have the power to lure men to their deaths by singing: men are almost incapable of withstanding that attraction and they go out to sea and drown. The belief is that the ocean girl who does this can then win her humanity back, but Lo has discovered this is not the case and that it in fact removes more of her humanity.

Celia meets Lo and tries to help her keep her humanity, so the novel is about Lo’s attempts to retain her human identity, as well as Celia’s efforts to find her own identity outside her triplet sisters. Like Taken by Storm, Pearce’s novel ends on a bit of a downer (but relatively speaking, it’s reasonably happy): the triplets can’t save Lo so she remains an ocean girl but they’re all good friends in the end so that’s that.

The other two books gave some hints about how werewolves become wolves and what happens to the girls who vanish, and so on. In Fathomless it becomes a lot more complicated and we learn that the Fenris take some young women alive, dump them in Ariel’s playground under the sea where they lose their human identity and eventually go off to join the Fenris when they have lost all humanity and turned into monsters.

But there is still much Pearce is not telling us about these Fenris, and that is probably to be revealed in later books, with the fourth book to be based on The Snow Queen fairytale and due for release later this year. I hope this next one provides some clarity: Fathomless is rather aptly titled in that I (and possibly not I alone?) was left in the dark about much of the Fenris mythology, and it’s easy to get a bit lost in all the bits about twins and triplets and ocean girls and Fenris and souls and so on. Given that gender is such a significant theme in these books – male villains, female victims, female heroes, male sidekicks – it will be interesting to see what Pearce does with the villainous Snow Queen.

Perhaps other readers found more clarity in Fathomless or have other points to make about these series (or other related novels) – if so, feel free to share your thoughts.