Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

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

The Demon Girl’s Song – Susan Jane Bigelow

Demon Girl's Song CoverFirst Published: 20th September, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Andín’s dreams of the future come to an end when she gets an ancient demon stuck in her head. But it might be there are bigger problems in the world than one demon.

The setting is a secondary fantasy world at the start of its industrial revolution. There are factories and trains, alongside magic. Motorcars are just starting to appear in places, though not to the point of replacing horses. Socially, it’s a time of change. Women have few rights, which is first seen when Andín is unable to go to university. Her father thinks it would be a waste to send a girl, and instead wants to send her brother. It’s expected that Andín will marry and her brother will hold down a job. Yet these attitudes are being challenged, not only by Andín herself. At a larger scale, there’s a push away from emperors and monarchs towards democracy in some of the countries.

Things are a bit rocky at the start of the book. Neither Andín nor the demon come across as pleasant, with a lot of random angry outbursts. Some of these didn’t make sense, and still don’t even after thinking about them. I’d have expected the demon to be a little more cunning given his age, rather than giving away his presence through tantrums. A few extra lines in places might have clarified these reactions.

Once the initial mystery of how Andín ended up with the demon is resolved, it starts to really get going. I’m glad the book didn’t consist solely of the demon mystery, as it would have stretched a bit thin. It also gives them something else to be doing as they get used to each other.

The characters do get more interesting as they settle. One thing that’s particularly interesting is how the demon changes to having a new host. After years of inhabiting men, he initially thinks of himself as a man trapped in a girl. This starts to shift as the two merge together.

The cast is diverse, with non-white, lesbian and bisexual characters. There are some references to insanity as a shorthand for bad things, though it’s not as bad as most books in that regard.

This is a standalone book. It wouldn’t require a sequel to make sense. The choice of an industrial revolution setting is less common in the genre, which I appreciated. However, the slow start and initial difficulty getting to know the characters does make it harder to get into the story. Once I did, it was an entertaining read.

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

The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Hello, Cupcake! – Karen Tack, Alan Richardson

Cupcake CoverFull Title: Hello, Cupcake!: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make
First Published: 24th April, 2008
Genre: Cookery Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a book about decorating cupcakes. The designs tend towards the whimsical, with cute critters, cakes that look like other food, and similar things. I can’t fault the layout of the book, as it’s very clear. There are decent photographs of each design and templates for shaped parts where needed. The opening explains basics like how to ice in different ways and how to turn a food bag into an icing bag. However, the proof in the pudding (or cake) is trying the instructions, which is what I’ll focus on in the rest of the review.

My first attempt was the design called “Rabbit Holes”. These are the back ends of rabbits, placed among other cupcakes that look like grass. I tweaked the design a little, as it used crunched up chocolate biscuits for the bunny fur. One of the family doesn’t like chocolate biscuits and I don’t eat crunchy textures. So I swapped that out for white chocolate curls, and made white/pink Easter bunnies instead.

An issue that came up in the preparations is this is an American book and I live in the UK. The feet of the rabbits were circus peanuts, which is something I’ve never seen here. I used fondant icing and shaped my own bunny feet as an alternative. Corn syrup, used to stick the bobbles on the bunny tail, is also not a UK product, but that’s quite often available in the import section of supermarkets. I did use corn syrup, but would have got the same result with a little basic icing (icing sugar and water). This would also avoid buying an item when such a small amount was needed.

Overall, this is a very forgiving design. The sprinkles to make the rabbit fur hide any mess in the icing below. The iced grass cakes can be messy without it looking bad, as grass doesn’t have to follow any set pattern. I found the instructions clear, and it wasn’t difficult to modify as needed.

Bunny Cupcakes

Image Caption: Rabbit and grass cupcakes. The rabbit cakes are the back end of a bunny, with white chocolate curls as fur. A bobble tail (coated in pink nonpareils) is in the centre of the bunny cakes, with two back feet made of white fondant icing and pink chocolate details sticking over the edge of each cake. Around them are grass cupcakes, with piped green buttercream, and jelly beans and chocolate eggs on the grass.

I also tried the “Pumpkin Patch” design. The base cupcakes baked flat (more on that later), so mounding the icing as described was a challenge. I wasn’t happy with the result. My usual cupcake recipe would likely rise better, making the mounding process easier, and meaning it wouldn’t require too much icing to achieve.

Another problem with the pumpkins was the writing icing I used didn’t really match the orange of the chocolate curls I used to coat the pumpkins. This was a supply issue rather than being anyone’s fault, but not being able to get the right colours matters a lot more with this design. There isn’t as much room to use different colours or tweak the design.

All that said, the family thought they were good, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. But designs like the rabbit holes are much more forgiving when it comes to having to use alternate items.

Pumpkin Cupcakes

Image Caption: Pumpkin cupcakes. Orange cupcake cases contain mounded cakes covered in orange chocolate curls. Darker orange icing marks out the segments of the pumpkin. A piece of green liquorice with a pink centre is on top as a stalk.

I’d say the ease of the designs is going to depend on how easy it is to get the items used. Americans will find it a lot easier to follow the instructions. Even there, the claim that anyone can make these is an exaggeration, as it does take a bit of skill to get a cake looking reasonable. I also think some of the designs would be daunting to a beginner, as they used so many different items. Some of these could be simplified down and still look and taste fine.

Though this is mainly a decorating book, there are a few cupcake recipes. I’d note my standard recipe for cupcakes is to use equal amounts of self-raising flour, sugar and butter, with an egg or two. The recipes in this book were somewhat different. Partly due to cultural differences, as self-raising flour isn’t a thing everywhere, so it uses plain flour with raising agents added. However, some of the differences didn’t make very good cakes, in my opinion.

Vanilla cupcakes are a staple in my family, as they are one of the few that everyone likes. The recipe here uses butter and vegetable oil. The latter turned out to be an issue. It made the cake mix very runny, which was harder to handle. The cakes baked very flat, which wasn’t good for the pumpkin cakes, and meant they weren’t as fluffy. Also, the oil leached into standard paper cases, which didn’t look very good. They need thicker cases or foiled cases to work. There can be a bit of this with any cupcake baking, but it was much more pronounced using vegetable oil.

I sort of tried the lemon poppy-seed cupcakes, but I altered the recipe before using it. This is because the only lemon included is a bit of grated peel. This recipe is something I’d expect at fancy restaurants, where stuff only tastes of a hint of whatever it is, because bland is fashionable. With my whole working class upbringing thing, I like my lemon cake to actually taste of lemons, so I swapped the cream cheese for lemon curd.

I didn’t feel inspired to try the other cupcake recipes. I did try the almost-homemade vanilla buttercream, but it’s a little strange that it uses marshmallow fluff. Buttercream is very simple to make from scratch. This takes that and makes it more complicated. Which is a comment I’d have with a number of the recipes. It was interesting to try the variations, but they aren’t what I’d give a beginner, and I didn’t notice any improvement in taste or texture for the extra hassle.

When it comes to cake decorating, there’s a lot to like in this book. There are many cute designs, which can act as inspiration even if they’re not directly followed. It explains basics like how to ice things, and I particularly liked the tip of using food bags as an icing bag. I do think there’s a bit of a mismatch in places between the intended beginner audience and the complexity of the projects. Also, the recipes are something I’d skip.

Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.