Category Archives: Reviews

Things You Said: Talking Pop Culture with Rob Thomas

So, we’ve established that I’ve got a wee bit of a soft spot for Rob Thomas.  This is not a new thing – my love affair with the music of Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 has been going slightly longer than the one with my husband. I’ve long joked with people who react with disbelief to learning that I named my only son after him, “well, it’s not like they’re ever going to meet.”

Except that last Friday night, they did.

With massive thanks to Live Nation, I scored complimentary tickets to the State Theatre show, along with a hyperventilation-causing meet’n’greet opportunity. You had to share your favourite Rob Thomas story to win, so I told the story of my boy’s name, and won–which also made it pretty easy to decide who got the other ticket.

winning entry

The other competition winners were lovely people, and the excitement was palpable. We had to wait in the tiniest corridor you’ve ever seen, and Rob was supposed to walk straight past us. Except he didn’t: he stopped and said hi to the lucky few waiting to meet him. We were then led in two-by-two. I went to shake hands, hoping that was allowed. Rob Thomas put out his arms and gestured for a hug. It would have been rude not to respond.

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it took approximately two seconds to transform the self-diagnosed Aspie with clinically-diagnosed anxiety from someone who was afraid of throwing up or passing out in front of an idol, into the relaxed, smiling person chatting in the photos below.

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Look at me, making small talk! With a famous person!

Rob Thomas (the musician) then extended his hand to my son and said, “Hi. Rob” (We both resisted the urge to say, “I know.”). My son replied in kind, also extending his hand and saying, “Hi. Rob,” and then Rob Thomas the musician looked at me in confusion and Rob Thomas (aged 14) and I both said, “Rob Thomas” in unison. And then Rob Thomas (musician) got really excited, and said he’d only ever met one other Rob Thomas (the TV guy). (I think he missed the bit about these being the boy-oh’s given names, but the conversation moved into interesting territory pretty quickly, and it probably meant I didn’t seem quite so stalker-ish as I otherwise might have).

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Wait, you named him WHAT?

So suddenly we’re on solid ground, because Rob Thomas (the TV guy) is something of a pop culture icon. He’s the man behind Veronica Mars, which was discussed at great length at our school reunion (I’ll watch it soon, Phoopie, I promise!), as well as the reboot of 90210, which Roslyn and I will be looking at in some detail in our next book, Mental Health on TV: Representation and Reality.

And then, Rob Thomas (the musician) starts talking zombies. Because Rob Thomas (TV guy) is now running iZombie  on the CW (the network that is also home to  The Vampire Diaries).

iZombie-Season-2-Trailer

And Rob Thomas (musician) and Rob Thomas (TV guy) became friends on Twitter over their shared name, and now Rob Thomas (musician) is going to have his brain eaten in an episode of iZombie when he returns to the States. So watch out, folks, we may be about to see another sexy zombie soon.

So after that little bit of excitement (my son took charge of retrieving my iPhone and our signed photos from the lovely staff, because, in his words, “I knew how you’d be”), we used our complimentary tickets (thanks again, Live Nation!) and headed into the iconic State Theatre for what was billed as “an intimate audience with Rob Thomas.”

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Now, I admit I was a bit overwhelmed by this whole experience, and maybe that explains how I had missed the point that the State Theatre concert was going to be markedly different from the arena-spectacular-esque Melbourne version at RLA a few days earlier. This turned out to be a pretty good thing. I feel incredibly blessed to have seen both “versions” of #theGreatUnknownAussie16  tour.

The RLA performance was high energy, and two of the highlights–David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Rob running through the crowd in the closing minutes–were not really able to be replicated in this stripped back show, where Thomas was backed only by long-term collaborator Matt Beck, and guitarist Frankie Romano. No thumping drum beats here, which is probably one of Mr 14’s favourite things, but instead we got stories behind the songwriting process, which is definitely one of mine.

Oh, and Rob Thomas played Little Wonders. I’ve actually seen “my” song played live, and it was awesome, and I don’t even mind that it was inspired by what is probably the most mundane part of pet ownership. 😉

All in all, this was a fantastic evening and an experience I’ll remember  ’til they’re blaring Little Wonders over my casket.

 

UPDATE: Apparently TV Insider “broke the news” of Rob Thomas’ iZombie appearance on March 4 (which is March 5 for us, because as Charles M Schultz once reportedly said: Don’t worry about whether tomorrow will come. In Australia, it’s already there.

You read it here on Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, first.

 

 

 

 

 

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Are zombies the new vampires? Part 2

Someone rather foolishly once wrote on this blog that vampires and werewolves are easily cast as romantic heroes, while zombies languish as the unwanted and rejected lovers, unable to ever meet anyone because they always want to eat everyone.

Okay, that was me, and I was wrong. An astute reader of this blog (thanks Frank) pointed me towards a film called Warm Bodies (2013), a romantic zombie comedy film (rozomedy?) about a teenage girl’s romance with a “sensitive undead” after a zombie apocalypse.

Sensitive undead? Apocalypse?

Sign me up right now!

So it is time to admit my error – sorry, two readers of this blog – and update my previous musings on the topic of paranormal suitors.

Warm Bodies takes place in a post-apocalyptic North American setting, 8 years after the usual kind of vague apocalyptic plague thingy happened. We begin with R, a zombie suffering existential angst as he wanders around an abandoned airport now inhabited by fellow zombies. He wonders about the meaning of life now that he has none: he feels alone, longs to connect with other people, and wonders if his life would be better if he worked on his posture and had more respect.

Nearby, humans are living in a fortified urban enclosure, worrying about extinction, and occasionally venturing outside to find more resources and medical supplies. A human team sent outside encounters R and fellow zombies who are out for a stroll looking for food. They fight. Zombies eat the humans. Well, most of them.

The humans include a girl called Julie and her boyfriend, and R eats her boyfriend’s brains but saves Julie and takes her back to his crib (an abandoned plane). R is embarrassed about his love of eating brains but he also relishes it … bad pun, sorry … because when he eats someone’s brains he captures their memories and feelings.

So, when he kills Julie’s boyfriend, his initial interest in Julie takes on an added dimension because of those captured feelings. Cue unexpected romance between our leads R and Julie, Shakespearean connotations and all. He plays her bad music, occasionally summons up an actual word or two instead of his usual grunts, and struggles to understand her. In other words, your typical man and woman attempting to date.

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The movie gives us levels of zombie-ness: R is unusual for the fact that he has some thinking and caring abilities despite his love of eating brains and limited speech, and over the course of the film he and fellow zombies gradually become more human. The bad zombies are those who have lost all humanity and turn into skeletal CGI “bonies”.

It’s a funny movie in a low-key way. There’s plenty of self-referential humour about the zombie genre and wordplay on life and death. “Welcome to the dead zone,” graffiti announces to the human team exiting the compound, “Look alive out there!!!!” “This date is not going well,” R thinks as he struggles to communicate with Julie. “I’m going to die all over again.”

At one point Julie holds up to R the DVD cover of Zombie (1979), the very image I chose for my earlier blog post to illustrate how unromantic most zombies would be as heroes, which is a nice contrast for this current post.

So was I wrong about the romantic lead thing? Maybe. R is appealing in the way of all awkward, socially inept characters whose communication skills might be lacking but whose sincerity can’t be doubted. Which makes a nice change from those uber handsome, rich, smooth talking vamps that so many teenage girls love. And the film’s celebration of brainy girls is worth some props.

OK so it’s kind of completely undermined by the busty blonde pose, but hey, let’s give them points for trying to be funny anyway. And, like the similar meme running round social media that there’s nothing hotter than a man who reads, they are sentiments we can heartily subscribe to here. But such sentiments mean the typical non-Warm Bodies zombie still remains unattractive as the thinking woman’s romantic lead, since most of them can’t exactly think, let alone read.

If nothing else, though, R has nailed the zombie version of the intense leading man stare, so maybe there’s hope for lonely zombies yet.

 

 

 

 

 


Pompeii: a disaster movie in more ways than one

It’s long overdue for a thoughtful, well-researched review on here of a provocative piece of cinema. This is not that. Instead: Pompeii.

Where to begin. That’s easy: the accents. Pompeii is a deeply entertaining film if only for the accents. I don’t know why we’re in the ancient Roman world hearing British accents, but okay, let’s go with it. But the entertaining part is how the actors attempt to do a British accent. Playing the villain, Kiefer Sutherland adopts a mystifying British accent that involves gratuitous amounts of lisping and negligible amounts of actual British accent. Take a listen here, if you can stand the ad. It’s a deleted scene but amply illustrates the pain the viewer suffers.

And lisper of bad British accents.

Look, I have fond memories of the first few seasons of the TV show 24, and Kiefer Sutherland in it, so I prefer to think he is doing the accent ironically.

Then there’s the main guy, Milo, to whom I objected for many reasons, primarily because his name belongs either to an iconic Australian drink, or one of the animals from that movie Milo and Otis. So, I can’t take him seriously for those two entirely valid reasons, but also for others: why is he whispering every line?

Why is he oiled up all the time and how did he get that six pack when he was a slave? I didn’t think slaves could choose their diets and spend hours in the gym, but hey, I’m no ancient Roman citizen, so maybe they could.

I have learned that this guy (Kit Harington) is some kind of big name in the Game of Thrones TV show, a role that apparently extends his acting range a lot, or so these pictures tell us.

Then there was the bewildering subplot that took up too much time at the start. So Milo’s family is slaughtered and that seems to be some kind of motivation for something, I guess revenge, but really, people, a volcano’s about to blow. A volcano! Apparently the volcano bit wasn’t enough, they thought we have to come up with a grand revenge plot of a slave taking on the evil people who murdered his family, while simultaneously sticking it to the evil Roman empire. Ha! Take that, evil Roman empire!

Pompeii Photos

But then, everyone dies in Pompeii, including our whispering hero and lisping villain, so I dunno if the evil Roman empire even got that memo from oiled up Milo sticking it to them.

And finally, the romance. This is how it goes. High born girl travels in a carriage, pouting about her sad, sad life. Horse falls over. Slaves wandering by at the same time look on at fallen horse. Oiled up slave Milo breaks the fallen horse’s neck and high born girl falls in love. As you do. Well, who doesn’t dream of meeting Mr Right while bonding over killing a horse. HOT!

Somehow, these two kids manage to meet up in Pompeii, give an entirely unconvincing performance of falling in eternal love, and then in the most baffling of baffling parts, they start riding off to escape the volcano (yes, gentle viewers, eventually the filmmakers remembered the volcano the film is named for), and then decide, hey, let’s not out-run this volcano lark, let’s just get off the horse and stand here and kiss instead while dying. Because it’s soooo romantic.

The end. And fortunately for you, gentle reader, this review is ending at this point too. Feel free to disagree and point out some of the good things about the movie instead…


Iconic shapeshifters: Peter as the wolfboy in Jumanji. And, fake monkeys!

So a couple of corrections immediately: Peter’s not exactly an iconic shapeshifter. And he’s not really a wolf boy. He’s kind of a monkey boy. But there really are fake monkeys!

I want to blog about this because in a recent review of our book – which was very nice, thank you – the question of text choice came up. Our book covers a lot of novels, film and TV, but we never wanted to do a comprehensive survey of every shapeshifter, instead we wanted to pick some texts and discuss them in the context of particular themes. We also chose to focus on relatively recent texts from the last decade or two, because that’s what most readers are familiar with.

 But it did make me think about some texts we might have missed, and that will have to function as my segue into the topic of this blog post: Jumanji.

I have a weakness for this movie. Don’t judge me. Jumanji is a 1995 children’s fantasy film directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, and Kirsten Dunst, and, most importantly, Bradley Pierce, our almost-wolfboy. You can watch the trailer here.

If you’ve not seen the film, the plot is about a couple of kids who find a board game called Jumanji, which brings jungle life to the real world: dangerous creatures appear, there’s a stampede, monsoonal rain, and even a nod to Australia with a giant crocodile and enormous spiders.

Well, that’s what I call a Hollywood nod to Australia anyway. So when the kids play, one of them gets sucked into the game (literally), and 26 years later emerges when 2 new kids find the game and start playing it. They then battle the jungle terrors together until one of them manages to get to the end of the game, which returns everything to normal.

The movie is notable for the fakest looking monkeys ever (that is an entirely unsubstantiated claim and I’m willing to see faker monkeys if anyone wants to find them).

They were probably okay for 1995 but honestly, I kept looking for the bits of string holding up the paper monkeys being moved around the set.

There’s a lovely moment when the monkeys pass a shop with a television screening a scene of the flying monkeys on The Wizard of Oz, and they get quite excited.

As I watched this again recently I realised that there is an element of shapeshifting in this film that I didn’t remember: the boy, played by Bradley Pierce, turns into a half monkey in the film after he cheats at the game. I think it’s a half monkey but initially I assumed it was a half wolf, because the sudden hairy hands/face and pointed ears look like most other human-wolf hybrids on screen.

Also, the boy’s name is Peter, hence another lupine connotation. But then you see the big tail and no, it’s a monkey. He stays as this human hybrid until the game is over and everything reverts back to before.

If we were to position this film within the other texts discussed in our book, we’d probably include it with other shapeshifters who have been turned into an animal as a punishment; ie, shapeshifting functions as a moral lesson. Remember Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the Chronicles of Narnia? His greed for gold turned him into a dragon. Only once he’d learned his lesson could he return to being a human. Many shapeshifters these days are framed in terms of redemption, where they are trying to overcome their darker side, and sometimes they have become shapeshifters because of wrongdoing. And so we have Peter, who cheated in the game, so he lost part of his humanity and became part animal.

 The thing is, he’s a very cute little wolf/monkey boy and it’s hard to shake your head for his lost humanity when you see this:

This is one of those blog posts without a real point, which I was hoping to disguise in cute pictures of the little wolf/monkey boy, but as I reach this point I think it’s best to just ‘fess up and say it’s just for fun. Anyway, here’s to the forgotten wolf/monkey boys and other shapeshifters permeating our popular culture texts that didn’t make the final cut for our book.


Breaking Dawn Part 2: Movie review

The usual disclaimers apply, beware of spoilers in this review, though most people keen to see the final instalment of The Twilight Saga were lined up at the midnight screenings back in November when the film was released, unlike me, who waited a leisurely few weeks to see it and an even more leisurely couple of months to post a review.

Nonetheless: **Spoiler alert!**

I should preface this by explaining that I come to this series with mixed feelings, having enjoyed the first film and novel, but not so much the sequels. So I’m by no means a devoted fan, but neither am I a(n entirely) scornful critic.

The film is based on the last part of Book Four, with the powers that be having decided to split the final book into two movies for reasons of commercial gain artistic expression. Bella has married vampire Edward Cullen, their half-human half-vampire child Renesmee has just been born, and Bella has survived being turned into a vampire. The plot builds towards a confrontation between the good vampires (the Cullens and friends) and the bad vampires (the reigning Volturi and friends), and our vampire lovebirds are now in danger (again).

We discussed the Twilight novels (and briefly, the films) in our book, and specifically we looked at how the novels use some of the werewolf characters in regard to adolescence, gender, class and race (just a few minor things, then). I’ll talk about those aspects briefly and then move onto less serious things.

However, the werewolves were downgraded to bit players for this film; none of the formerly major wolves appeared in human form except Jacob and, briefly, Sam. There was an odd Christmas scene where the characters formerly known as Seth and Leah were positioned carefully so we never saw anything but the back of their heads. Perhaps the budget was a bit tight so they brought in some hair doubles? Very odd.

So it’s difficult to really add anything here about shapeshifting in the series because the wolves do not feature as much. Adolescence isn’t really approached here, since Jacob and his Quileute friends are fairly stable by now in their lupine identities and able to control their aggression.

Gender is interesting only insofar as the book and film both describe Bella’s increased physical strength, which for a time is greater than anyone else’s strength. Bella’s mental power is also an important factor in the book because of her ability to control her lust for human blood and her discovery that she has a supernatural ability to “shield” herself and others from supernatural harm, but this film struggles to bring in all the plot threads so this isn’t as big a theme as it might have been. So while it might be worthwhile exploring how the series constructs Bella at long last as “equal” to those around her (and most importantly, in her eyes, almost equal to Edward), by virtue of her change into a vampire, the film doesn’t really add anything different to what we already talked about.

Class again doesn’t come up sufficiently for discussion because we’re almost entirely in the lap of Cullen luxury in this film, with a notable exception of Bella’s father Charlie and his Quileute girlfriend, and I say notable because it is a striking visual contrast between the Cullen conspicuous displays of wealth and Charlie’s working class background with respect to their appearance/clothes/houses, which is the same with the class divisions between vampire/werewolf (or, white/ Indigenous) in the series.

Finally, race. In our book we talked about how the Quileute wolves learn in the climactic scene of Book 4 that they are not “real” werewolves but shapeshifters. How do these Indigenous people learn this crucial part of their history? The white ruling vampires tell them. We mentioned in the book that this is a little odd (if not suggestive of neo colonization) that white people need to explain to the Indigenous group their very existence and history, but there’s no need for concerns here when that entire subplot becomes just one line: “But those werewolves are our natural enemies!” protests one bad Volturi vampire as they leave peacefully instead of fighting it out as they wished.

Now that I’ve shown such fortitude in taking the film seriously, I have to talk about the superficial:  some of those aspects of this movie that were just a bit too silly and provoked laughter where it presumably wasn’t intended.

It might have been the opening scenes of Bella’s red eyes and flitting about the forests in a pristine blue evening dress while devouring beasts with her bare teeth.

Or was it seeing these characters run at superhuman speed through forests and over cliffs, which has just not gotten any less silly from the first movie.

Maybe it’s Jacob’s “imprinting” with Renesmee, which the film tried to gloss over as quickly as possible, and yet somehow nothing can take the ick factor out of pairing an adult male with a little girl no matter how much Jacob insists “it’s not like that!” (no, Jacob, it’s not like that. Yet).

Or perhaps the endless close ups of vampiric red eyes, which unfailingly displayed the faint circular rim of the coloured contacts the actors were wearing?

How about Jacob’s strip tease for poor old Bella’s dad? Words failed me. Stifled laughter did not.

Renesmee’s name? Renesmee’s nickname?

Or those CGI wolves, who just looked fake most of the time?

Carlisle’s very uncool haircut and colour that turned him from Forks’ nicest looking doctor to its frumpiest?

How about the motley cast of red-eyed International X-Men: Vampires and their assortment of odd super powers?

Or what about the characterisation of Bella? It’s business as usual here, displaying a range of emotions from frowning over a grim future, to frowning over Alice’s cryptic note, to frowning over Jacob and Renesmee’s romance (though I’m with you on that one, sister), to frowning over making her psychic powers work. But she does smile sometimes (see that earlier picture of her running super fast with Edward?).

Several things struck me as weird. These vampires are supposed to be dazzlingly beautiful, quite literally. So why were many of the actors in obvious, heavy make up? One wouldn’t think gorgeous young sparkly things should need so much eyeliner, lipstick, eyeshadow, foundation, false lashes, ad nauseum, but apparently so.

How are we supposed to reconcile the inconsistent ethics in the series, where the Cullens are constructed as “good” because they choose to abstain from human blood no matter how badly they want it, but where the same good characters will watch, without a qualm, another “less-good (but not entirely evil)” vampire kill a human?

Other parts were much better than expected. For instance, I was, quite frankly, nervous about seeing Creepy Renesmee on screen, but the filmmakers did an okay job of turning the freakish vampire-human hybrid into an entirely unscary, cute little girl. Probably not showing her little girl teeth dripping with blood helped with that.

Several parts of the film were effective. The battle scene trick was quite convincing (I have heard others heap scorn on it, but it worked for me), I sat there thinking for a moment, Hey, this is a lot more gory than I remember in the books, and since when did Carlisle and Seth and Leah all die, did I somehow miss that in the books? When we were shown those deaths were not real but just one of Alice’s visions, I found it oddly comforting. And then I found it deeply disturbing that I found that comforting, but there you have it. Mind you, the fighting was still weird to see people flying and fake wolves jumping around and magical powers being used, and all so very gory, with the opposing forces finding a vast number of ways to detach heads from bodies.

The end was a nice strategy of paying tribute to the previous saga instalments, showing Bella finally learning to share her thoughts with Edward, which was a neat way not only of showing her increased power over her abilities but also of showing a montage of scenes from the earlier movies.

If anyone else has any thoughts on this film series – or the novels – please feel free to share, even if the film feels like a long time ago now!


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.

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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.


Snow White and the Huntsman, and other modern fairytales

Fairytales have been getting a fair run lately. TV has given us Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and in cinema just this year we’ve seen two versions of the Snow White tale in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. In novels the Red Riding Hood tale has been cropping up in a lot of teen werewolf romances, or in other novels where Red just kills the wolf herself, as is the theme in Jackson Pearce‘s Sisters Red; her sequel is a retelling of another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly).

I managed to catch Snow White and the Huntsman as its run ended here in Australia. Partly out of interest as a “new” fairytale, partly out of dedication to our loyal two readers of this shapeshifting blog because the promos suggested the Queen might just be a shapeshifter, and partly because there was a Hemsworth in it, and we are nothing if not patriotic here.

The villain of this film is the Queen, of course, named Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron channelling fellow blonde-powerful-beauty-in-fantasy-land Cate Blanchett’s Spooky Galadriel Voice from Lord of the Rings, although Charlize was much shoutier, to less effect.

Theron upon discovering the script calls for the Huntsman to kiss that Snow White upstart, not the Queen.

And of course, when both women are faced with the temptation of power, Galadriel’s answer is no, while Ravenna’s is a resounding yes, and her desire for power is her motivation throughout the film. Interesting ideas in the movie – and of course in the fairytale – about the importance that we as a society can place on outward appearance: Ravenna is stunning for much of the film as a woman obsessed with gaining immortality, and not just any old immortality but the kind that comes with Botox and perfectly shaped brows. She spends a lot of time sighing and pouting in the front of the mirror (yes, The Mirror) and worrying about looking tired and drawn (ie, like the rest of us).

They’re called wrinkles, Ravenna, and it’s going to be all right.

The heroine is Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart. Ravenna is after Snow White because The Mirror decides Snow is now the prettiest girl in the land, and that Ravenna can only win back the Miss Fantasy Universe title if she kills Snow White and takes her heart, with immortality as a bonus prize. I found the casting of Snow White or perhaps the film’s interpretation of the character unconvincing: the part seemed to call for someone warmer and more obviously embodying the qualities (fairness of character, kindness, love) that were supposed to represent Snow White. In fact, in this iteration of the fairytale Snow is quite literally the source of “life” in this world; restoring nature back to itself, winning forest creatures over, basically undoing the evil Ravenna has done.

But to my mind this was a rather remote, cold Snow White who was hard to really barrack for. This made it hard to engage with the character, and certainly when it comes to her big speech where she rallies the army to her side to fight against Ravenna, I was left cold when presumably we were supposed to feel inspired and excited.

Snow White demonstrating the passion, warmth, and charisma that made everyone fall about themselves to help her.

As is the case in so many fantasy narratives (and not just fantasy), Snow has somehow inspired love in two courageous handsome men and at least one very creepy man without many clues given as to why.

One of these is a drunken Aussie putting on an accent, I don’t know which – Scottish? Irish? – and I’m not sure he knew either. Okay, it’s the Huntsman of the title, and he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who along with the Queen seems far more interesting than Snow White. The drunkenness seemed to serve no real point in the narrative, and the romance was unconvincing, but again I’d wonder if that’s due to the Snow White characterisation, where she just didn’t seem to exhibit much warmth or interest in anything.

It was also a mystery as to why the Mirror never named the Huntsman as the fairest in the land, when quite clearly Hemsworth eclipsed everyone else on screen for pouting good looks.

Hemsworth is not the only Huntsman trying to win The Mirror’s vote for Fairest Of Them All; Once Upon a Time also boasts (boasted? One never can tell who is dead, not dead, or only temporarily dead in these sorts of universes) a huntsman determined to out-pretty Snow and the Queen, this time played by Jamie Dornan, who actually is Irish (from Northern Ireland, apparently).

Are you sure you’re the fairest of them all, and not me?

The movie itself probably needed a little more sharpening in its story focus; it felt like there were a lot of really interesting ideas searching for development and cohesion, and I’m not convinced everything came together as well as it could and should have. For the looks of it, the special effects were good, and the scenery was quite stunning at times, but I couldn’t help but see the inheritance from the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter and other fantasy-horror movies, though of course it’s hard to be terribly original in this genre. For instance, Ravenna seemed to be a vain Dementor in sucking the souls/lives out of young girls to steal their beauty; the white stag moment seemed fairly similar to Aslan’s role in Narnia; and as noted earlier, Ravenna seemed to be a fan of Galadriel.

Give a Dementor a mirror, and look what happens.

As for shapeshifting, the Queen does shift shape a little, when she appears to Snow in the form of one of Snow’s allies, and transforms into herself/birds, so it’s linked to deceit and evil here, playing on the theme that you can’t trust appearances (with, apparently, the exception of Snow).

Can we compare this with how Once Upon a Time has tackled the same fairytale? Obviously the latter is a TV show with plenty more space to develop storylines and character arcs, and it is very different for the way we see dual stories between the characters in their fairytale lives and their modern day versions where they can’t remember who they are. And let’s be honest, most viewers probably can’t remember who the characters are either, it’s all so complicated. Apart from the pretty Huntsman, Ravenna is Regina (Lana Parrilla), another beauty who wasn’t brought up to share and play nicely with others, and Snow is the traditional character as well as the modern Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), both interpreted in a much warmer way.

Both these iterations turn Snow White into the kind of post-Buffy butt-kicking heroine we find everywhere these days: they’ve got swords, they’ve got courage, and don’t need “rescuing” in the same way the traditional fairytale characters do.

Okay, so he might be prettier than me, but my armour’s shinier.

Back to shapeshifting, Once Upon a Time offers us a new version of Red Riding Hood: whereas in most modern versions she will just kill the (were)wolf herself, in the TV series she is the wolf, though she is unaware of her lupine alter ego until after she’s killed her romantic interest, Peter. So the danger to young women comes not from men in most of the modern versions (not all of them), but from herself.

So why all these fairytale revisions? Part of the popularity is probably linked to this imposition of contemporary ideas about gender and identity and power onto classic narratives. Maybe storytellers are getting lazy, where every second movie seems to be a remake, reboot, or a sequel. Have we really run out of ideas for new stories? With news of a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe we have.