The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

I Don’t Like Reading – Lisabeth Emlyn Clark

First Published: 21st August, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Forthcoming

Harry doesn’t like reading, because he finds it difficult. It turns out he’s dyslexic.

I wanted to read this picture book as I’m dyslexic, so I was interested in how it presented that. This is the new edition of the book. The old one has a boy called Lloyd, so they’re easy to tell apart.

There were things that I related to in the book, like the worries about reading out loud, and the difficulty of trying to write things down. I also benefit from tinted backgrounds for reading (yellow/tan is my preference). But some issues meant it didn’t really feel like the story was for dyslexic children. The pacing is one of the issues. Someone struggling to read needs something to hook them very quickly, which doesn’t happen here. The build is slow and is likely to frustrate a child who finds reading difficult. Seeing multiple layers of teachers and specialists may be realistic, but it would have benefited the pacing to go straight to Harry meeting the final one.

The layout also reinforces my feel about the intended audience. Some pages are fine, but some have weird writing where all the fonts are mixed up. The words sometimes overlay pictures and appear in odd places on the page. It looks like an attempt to show non-dyslexic people what reading might be like for dyslexic people, which is not helpful for a dyslexic reader.

Some wording choices gave this the feel of something written by an educational specialist aimed at non-dyslexic parents of dyslexic children. One is referring to dyslexia as having a dyslexic profile, which sounds very clinical. Another was Harry’s comment that he was told “it just means I have to try harder”. It’s not unusual for non-dyslexic adults to tell dyslexic children that they’re lazy and aren’t trying hard enough. I cringed when I hit that part.

There’s a repeated statement about it being okay because dyslexic people can be clever and successful. Harry is said to be a very clever boy. This falls into the idea that disability is great as long as it’s offset by being exceptional. This is not a comfort for the dyslexic child who is not exceptional.

I also would have preferred an ending that showed things improving for Harry, but not looking like a complete solution where he can read with no problems. I was around fourteen before I finally got the hang of spelling. I was in my mid-twenties when I figured out organisation and study skills (a lesser discussed aspect of dyslexia, as it doesn’t impact young children). It was my late twenties before I reached the point of being able to write at a professional level. Today, I still need regular reading breaks and I still hit writing I just can’t process. There does need to be a balance between encouraging dyslexic children that they can learn things and minimising their problems. It’s a long road, and even when we’re great at reading and writing, it doesn’t mean we’re not dyslexic anymore.

This book tries very hard. It’s clear research went into things like how words could look to a dyslexic person and reading strategies. It shows finding things that work for Harry, rather than stating there is one method that works for everyone. But it feels too much like it’s a book aimed at adults who think it’ll be educational, rather than one for children. The layout choices are a dyslexic nightmare, but may also be a struggle for other children who are still learning to read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Power Rangers (Film)

Alternate Titles: Saban’s Power Rangers
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Film
Main Creative Team: Dean Israelite (director); John Gatins (screenplay); Matt Sazama (story); Burk Sharpless (story); Michele Mulroney (story); Kieran Mulroney (story)
Main Cast: Dacre Montgomery; Naomi Scott; RJ Cyler; Becky G; Ludi Lin; Bill Hader; Bryan Cranston; Elizabeth Banks
First Shown: 22nd March, 2017
Available: Cinemas

Five teenagers find coloured coins, which lead them to an alien spaceship. It turns out they’re Power Rangers and only they can save the Earth from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This reboot of the franchise shows the formation of the first team of human Power Rangers. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is the Red Ranger and the leader of the group. Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is the Pink Ranger and a former cheerleader. Billy (RJ Cyler) is the Blue Ranger and is a nerdy tech genius. Zach (Ludi Lin) is the Black Ranger and is a carer for his sick mother. Trini (Becky G) is the Yellow Ranger and a loner. They come together by being in the same place at the same time, where they find the coins that give them their powers.

Consequences are important in this story. Jason is introduced with a prank gone wrong, which leads to animal abuse and reckless driving. It’s lucky that no one dies. Kimberly has also behaved badly towards others. Initially, it looks like her former friends are being randomly mean to her, but it becomes apparent that she did something to cause that reaction. There’s no magic to put things back how they were, but it is possible to rebuild. It also shows a more grey approach to characters, where generally decent people can do awful things.

The rangers all start out as strangers to each other. There’s a lot of friendship building going on. Jason and Billy get the most development time. I also liked that Kimberly and Trini are shown hanging out, and offering each other support, after Trini’s initial distance from the group. It’s interesting to see how different friendships develop within the group.

There’s some suggestion of romance between Kimberly and Jason, but it felt natural that they’d identify with each other, given their situations. It also doesn’t go beyond a few looks and comments. There may be a kiss in the trailer, but this isn’t in the film, which is a good choice. I’m all for a bit more slow building in relationships.

I had mixed feelings about the camera angles used. There’s a lot of switching around views on things like car chases. It does create the feel of confusion, and the difficulty in staying aware of surroundings, when in such a situation. I did generally like the sets and shooting choices, but this one was a little difficult for me as someone who gets motion sickness.

There are a number of differences in the casting compared to the original series. Jason is the only remaining white character in the new team, though I’d note that he’s also the leader and the one set up as the initial character the audience meets. I realise this can come from a place of trying to get through the system, where a film with an apparent white lead is more likely to get funding, but it’d still be nice if this wasn’t needed to play the system.

In general though, the group is more diverse than the original series. The positive is that the new casting means Billy is African American, Trini is Mexican, Kimberly is South Asian and Zack is Chinese. This does broaden it out from the source material, and avoids having the Black Ranger as the black character, and the Yellow Ranger as Asian. The negative is that Trini used to be played by a Vietnamese actress, and there are no new East Asian girls in any role, so that’s an area where representation was lost. This is always a difficult issue, as the change will mean some people will see themselves who wouldn’t have before, and some won’t see themselves the way they did before. It’s a problem with media in general lacking diversity, that any such changes can have a big impact. This film is what it is in terms of who is shown, but I’d hope they’ll consider continuing to reimagine characters. I would love to see them consider an East Asian girl for the new ranger hinted for the sequel.

Billy is autistic and states directly that he’s on the spectrum. He describes himself as having a different way of thinking, rather than describing himself in negative ways. There’s a lot that I related to with Billy, from the tendency to monologue during difficult tasks, using scripts to introduce himself, and not liking to be touched. It’s also notable that he’s black, as portrayals of autistic people are often white people. This relates to wider problems, such as the underdiagnosis of black autistic people and issues faced dealing with groups like the police. It’s important for people to realise that autistic people can be anyone.

Trini is queer of some description. Zack guesses she might have girlfriend problems, based on her reaction to him assuming she has boyfriend problems. It’s uncertain exactly how she identifies, and the feeling I got was she was questioning. She’s figuring out labels, which aren’t the ones her family want for her. There are arguments both ways for having a clearer statement. On the one hand, films often avoid using the words, so it’s nice when it is made clear. On the other, this is the first section of a longer story, so it’s possible they’ll pull off questioning turning into figuring things out.

There were bits I didn’t like. The opening scenario with the prank was my least favourite part, because it felt like I was supposed to find it funny. It’s pretty hard to find something funny when it involves an unhappy animal.

Another part I wasn’t fond of was Kimberly stripping down to a bikini as Jason watches without her knowing. This is so she can swim, and if she’d later shown her awesome swimming/diving skill, it might have fit. But this isn’t shown again. I’d compare that to Trini, who is a hiker, being the first to figure how to use her powers to move quickly across terrain. There isn’t a similar swimming/diving moment with Kimberly. There could have been, given the locations used. So she appeared to be in her bikini in order to be seen by Jason.

There’s some throwing around of terms like crazy and lame, though the crazy part is more a description of the rangers rather than their opposition. Rita is mainly described as evil, rather than crazy.

The armour designs do have the thing where the girls get rounded breast plates and the boys get angular ones, though at least their armour covers them equally. The exception is Rita’s armour, as apparently the more evil a person gets, the sexier their armour and the less skin it covers.

There’s a little bit of swearing, some sexual references, and violence. It does take care to have monsters raised by Rita as the main opponents. In other words, opponents that aren’t sentient. The scariest parts are down to Rita, who threatens and murders people. That could be a little heavy for younger viewers, though most in the suggested range of tweens and up should be fine. I’m noting this because the original series was aimed a little younger, which some may not realise when deciding on this film.

I was pleased they did actually say, “It’s morphin time!” It may be a small thing, but I will never forgive Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for not including, “To me, my board!” Some catchphrases really need to be there.

It was a fun film. It had the colourful action expected from the franchise. The serious aspects covered a range of issues that teenagers can face, without getting too heavy. Combined with the diverse cast, it means a lot of children and teens will be able to see themselves, as well as enjoy the action. There were some scenes I didn’t like very much. There are also a few things I hope they develop in the sequels, such as Trini’s identity story, and how they cast future rangers. I will be on board to see where it goes next.

Hidden Figures (Film)

Genre: Biography / Film
Main Creative Team: Theodore Melfi (director, writer); Allison Schroeder (writer)
Main Cast: Taraji P. Henson; Octavia Spencer; Janelle Monáe; Kevin Costner; Kirsten Dunst; Jim Parsons; Glen Powell; Mahershala Ali; Aldis Hodge; Olek Krupa
First Shown: 10th December, 2016
Available: Cinemas

NASA needs to figure out how to put someone in orbit and stop being racist.

This film is based on the real stories of black women in the early days of NACA/NASA, as written about in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a fictional version of those events, though the general core of the story is there. My focus is on the story as presented in the film, rather than a comparison to the real events.

There are three main storylines, following the paths of the three leading characters. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius. When they need a computer for the main team, Katherine is the one who gets the job. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) decides to apply for a job as an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has been working as a supervisor for the colored computers department, though hasn’t been given the job officially. She also realises their days are numbered, as NASA prepares for its first mainframe.

Discrimination is shown in a variety of ways in the film, from general society things such as separate water fountains, to the working environment in NASA. Katherine faces issues as the only black woman in a department of mostly white men. Someone sets out a coffee pot marked “colored” after she uses the general shared coffee pot. There are no toilets for black people in the building, so she has to travel back to her old work place. It’s a hostile working environment, designed to make it harder for Katherine to do her job.

Dorothy and Mary don’t face issues from their direct co-workers, but hit problems when it comes to the system. Everything is designed to make it harder for them to advance, which is explained away as only being fair. Their stories highlight how systematic discrimination means that everyone doesn’t start from the same place.

I liked that it touched on the ways that marginalised people can both help and hinder each other. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) uses his own experiences as a Polish Jewish man to empathise with Mary. He encourages her to apply for the engineering position. On the other side, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a white woman, does not use a shared identity as a woman to empathise with the additional issues the black women face. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a black man, is initially dismissive of Katherine working at NASA on the basis of her being a woman. Sharing one marginalisation does not automatically mean understanding another. Intersectionality can be complicated.

I did raise an eyebrow at Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s new boss. His presentation seemed very much for the comfort of white audience members. He doesn’t hold racist or sexist attitudes: he just wants the best person for the job. He’s the one who eventually takes a sledgehammer to the signs on the colored bathrooms. He’s the person that white people can feel they would be, because they wouldn’t support segregation and they’d do something about it. However, it is notable that he doesn’t notice what’s going on until Katherine tells him. If any message should be taken from that, it’s that being anti-prejudice in personal beliefs is not enough to stop discrimination. Seeing what the system is doing to people requires paying attention and talking to those it impacts.

It’s a polished story, with decent pacing, and good performances by the actors. I liked all the casting choices, and noted that Karl was actually played by a Polish actor (this is an area where casting often falls down, as Western Europeans get cast for all European roles). I’d had concerns that it might be difficult to watch with the discrimination themes, but there are moments of triumph to break up the tough sections, and it ends on a positive note for the main characters. There is always a bittersweet element to this sort of story though. For every person who succeeds, there will be numerous people who never made it over those extra obstacles. For every person who gets the spotlight showing what they did, there are others who’ll remain obscure. I find stories like this a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Can You Find My Robot’s Arm? – Chihiro Takeuchi

Robot CoverFirst Published: 4th July, 2017
Genre: Children’s Science Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Two robots search for a missing arm.

There’s nothing unexpected about the plot. The robots look for the missing arm, as well as trying out other possible alternative arms. It’s a story based on repeated actions (going to a location and trying a new arm), where the fun is seeing where they go and what they try next.

It’s set in a world populated by robots. The narrator searching for their robot’s arm is also a robot. It’s unclear if “my robot” means literally owning the robot or a family member. However, the pictures suggest it was intended in a family context. They live in a family home, search together, and one doesn’t act as though working for the other.

Some of the animals also appear to be robots or cyborgs, as they have gears inside. Others have bones and appear to be biological animals. I don’t know why the robots need a sweet shop, and other food items, but maybe some of the robots are powered by biofuel or they’re also cyborgs. These are things I would have asked about when I was five, so the biofuel/cyborg answers might be useful when reading this to a science-minded child.

The art is paper cutouts with dark shapes on a light background. Some of these scenes are very detailed, so there are a lot of little things to find. I liked the variety of places searched, including a factory and aquarium. This also means the possible alternative arms are all sorts of things, many of them very silly. The arm’s fate is shown, though not mentioned in the text.

Most of the language is easy, so it would be ideal as a book for learners to try reading themselves. It would also be a good book for reading aloud, though the story is likely to be a little too simple for older picture book readers.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]