Since The Dark Crystal has been occupying so much of my creative space these last couple months, it seemed worth sharing my review of the new Jim Henson biography here. As a creative person, I found the biography to be inspiring on many levels — in its reassurance that even cultural icons faced drawbacks and rejection, and in the knowledge that it really is possible (although perhaps rare) to be successful and to stay true to one’s artistic and moral compass. I feel honored to be participating, even in the smallest of ways, in Jim Henson’s great legacy.
I wavered between giving this a high three stars or a low four. It was beautifully written, with believable characters and motivations. For me its main drawback was how long it took to get going; for half the book, it’s really just literary fiction rather than fantasy or fairy tale retelling, which makes the occasional fantastical elements feel out of place. The writing style in the beginning half also felt a little distant to me, similar to the writing in fantasy classics like the Narnia series, which I’ve never really loved.
The book really picks up in the second half, though, and here we see Anne Ursu’s fantasy writing skills on full display. Hazel’s trip into the woods leads her through one surreal experience after another, many of them enough to cause a lingering shiver when you think of them. The woods are also rich with metaphor, longing, and darkness, where things are not what they seem. This is “hero’s quest” writing at its best; it changes the character and tests her mettle, and you know nothing will ever be the same again.
The winter ambiance was also incredibly rich. No surprise that the author lives in Minnesota! One comment on the audio version, which is how I read this book: they made the odd choice to have a male narrator even though the story is told almost exclusively from Hazel’s perspective, making a female voice seem the more logical choice. The reader did have a good “storytelling” voice, but that may have contributed to certain parts of the book feeling a tad distant as well.
This book makes its point well: that it is possible to self publish a book that is high enough quality to compete with traditionally published books. The writing here is clean, direct, and clear, and the formatting is impeccable — no small feat in an ebook that is being delivered across multiple devices.
The content is useful as well, although I didn’t find a lot here that I didn’t already know. It mostly offers an overview of various terms associated with self publishing, as well as different services and opportunities available for self publishers. The approach the authors take to self publishing is realistic, too, not a “get quick rich” sort of approach, acknowledging the success stories while also cautioning that they are not the norm. I think this book, while being a treasure trove of information for someone totally new to the concept of self publishing, might also be overwhelming to those same people. Still, I expect to eventually incorporate some of what I learned here into my own self publishing plans.
What annoyed me most about this book, and the main reason, aside from the lack of truly “new” content, that I gave it only three stars was its tone. There’s a sort of smugness in the writing, as well as a bit of latent judgment about various writing processes (I ranted a bit about the inherent judgment toward authors who write without an outline here, which is just one example). The shameless promotion of Google, Apple, and Amazon also got to be a little much, especially since it came without any mention of the “darker side” of any of these companies to balance it out (privacy rights, proprietorship, monopolies).
The authors have put together a good resource of which they can be rightfully proud; it’s just too bad that so much of the book, while conveying useful information, also feels like a protracted opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back.
This book had nice pacing, a good narrative arc, and perhaps most importantly, a good balance between its two primary storylines — the continuation of Cinder’s story, and the introduction of Scarlet. Initially I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as Cinder because I didn’t like Scarlet as much as I liked Cinder. I think I still prefer Cinder, but by the end of the book, Scarlet had grown on me.
I think what I really love about this series is the way that it melds so many different genres that I like — although it’s science fiction with spaceships and androids, it’s “light” science fiction, so I don’t have to feel stupid if I don’t get the “hard” science. The retold fairy tales bring something new to the table, but they also stay true to their source material. I felt a little ambivalent about how closely this one skirted toward the paranormal romance genre, but it’s still loads better than “Twilight” or even “Sisters Red.”
While these books have a nice balance of plotting and character development, I do feel uncomfortable with how cavalier they are about death. Characters who are vitally important to the protagonists die in both books, and their passing doesn’t seem to engender the kind of bereavement that it should, feeling too much like a plot point and not like a devastating loss. These books maintain my interest and my emotional investment, but they don’t bring me anywhere close to tears — which they should. Instead, the deaths make me feel indignant, like the character has been dealt an injustice not only in losing their loved one, but in not being allowed the emotional resonance that the situation calls for.
Still, I loved the way Marissa Meyer managed to intertwine Cinder’s and Scarlet’s stories, and I look forward to seeing how she will continue to weave ever-more fairy tale threads together in future books.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I relied upon imagination throughout my life to get me through tough times. Because of this, and because, as a writer, my inner life is still very rich and active, one of my favorite themes to see addressed in books and movies is the exploration of that changeable line between fantasy and reality. Recently, I read Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which deals with this issue in a way that is especially concrete. The book explores the trauma a boy feels when his dad throws out the toys that represented his best characters in an ongoing story he was playing with two of his friends. That trauma reverberates to his friends, who also suffer the loss of those characters and all the stories that remain untold. The book really resonated with me, because it was the stories I created with my dolls when I was younger that first revealed to me the addictive power of imagination. I also had an ongoing story with my sister and a close friend, so I also appreciated Holly Black’s handling of the nuances and vulnerability of sharing a created reality with someone else. (You can read my review of the book here.)
This was the main issue I was grappling with in my own middle-grade novel, Ever This Day, although Holly Black has accomplished it more directly and more elegantly than I have. In Ever This Day, a 13-year-old girl discovers an angel in the grove behind her house, and she quickly gets sucked into a world she shares only with the angel and her two-year-old sister, her strongest link to the childhood she is moving away from.
I’ve sort of kept a running list in my mind of books and movies that follow this theme, and I have a lot of books on my “to-read” list that also seem to address it.
- Glint by Ann Coburn. This book follows two parallel stories, one that is happening in “real life” and one that is happening in an imaginary realm. My review is here.
- Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. This book manages to be beautiful despite its brutality. I loved it for its writing and its deft handling of the theme, and it’s an added bonus that it’s also a fairy tale retelling. Back when I was a Teen Services Librarian, I led a program where teens used Animoto to make book trailers. I made my example trailer for this book. (And you can read my review here.)
- Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of my top-three favorite movies. It’s a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny until subsequent watchings; the first time, I was too enthralled with its handling of the subject matter.
- Ruby Sparks. I admit it — I was drawn to this movie because the premise is so similar to Lars and the Real Girl. And any writer will appreciate the complications that can ensue when you fall in love with your own character … and find that she’s literally “come to life.”
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I’ve never seen this film, but the play had a lasting effect on me.
- The Wild Hunt. This is the most disturbing of the movies listed here, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it; it’s definitely a darker “take” on what can happen when the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred.
- Pete’s Dragon. One could argue that this movie doesn’t belong in this category, if one makes the case that Elliot was not imaginary. For me, that’s beside the point. I’ve found this movie to speak eloquently to the theme of needing to give up something magical and special that has helped you cope in hard times, in exchange for something more solid, real, and equally wonderful.
And of course, this list would not be complete without The Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps the true gold standard in this category: “Once you’ve become real, you cannot become unreal again.”
What books or movies have you come across that address this theme? I’d love to add them to my list!