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]

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.

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.

Tales from Perach – Shira Glassman

Tales from Perach CoverSeries: Mangoverse, #5
First Published: 19th July, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a collection of short stories linked to the main novel series. The original edition contained five stories. I read the updated edition, which also contains two stories previously published as Tales from Outer Lands. I haven’t read the novels, though mostly the stories worked on their own and had self-contained plots. An exception was “Every Us”, which came across as more of an extra scene for people who know the characters.

“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is the strongest in terms of standing alone. Rivka needs money, so ends up taking on a job to rescue a woman. I liked that Rivka and the woman she rescues use their shared faith to communicate: they don’t speak the same daily language, but do know the same stories and prayers. This is also the odd one out in the collection, as it has a fair bit of violence.

The rest of the stories had a generally lighter tone, though I didn’t always react to them in that way. There are microaggressions and threats, which made the stories where they appeared rather more uncomfortable. The one that particularly didn’t work for me was “Aviva and the Aliens”. It’s otherwise a very silly story about hungry locust aliens. But the aliens have all the same attitudes as the men on the planet below, so there’s a forced marriage threat. It changed the tone of the story with a jolt.

I enjoyed the domestic focus of many of the stories, such as running a business and family celebrations. “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” was a particularly fun story, about two children gathering flowers to surprise someone. There’s some interesting fairy lore in this one too.

Many of the characters are queer. This includes trans, bi, lesbian and gay characters. One story has an asexual aromantic supporting character. I appreciated seeing these characters getting to have happy endings. I also liked that their Jewish faith was shown in a positive light. Religion was part of their daily lives.

There’s a lot to like here, but I felt there was an overall mismatch between how I reacted to the stories and what was intended. These are billed as being fluffy, which I could see for some, but not for others. Situations where rape is threatened, leering and microaggressions are all things I find decidedly non-fluffy. It’s not graphic, but those themes are there in some stories.

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

Yitzi and the Giant Menorah – Richard Ungar

yitziFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The people of Chelm receive a giant menorah as a gift from the mayor of Lublin. As each night of Hanukkah passes, they try to think of ways to thank the mayor.

The story is based on the Jewish tales of the people of Chelm, which often focus on their comedic antics. This sets the scene for the sort of things they attempt to do as gifts for the mayor. There are funny moments, such as trying to give snow as a gift. It’s also paced well, by limiting the number of failed gift attempts (I did wonder if there’d be one for every night, which would have been a little heavy).

I’d have liked a little more focus on Yitzi, as he’s the character providing a child’s perspective. He does eventually get to solve the problem, but most of the story happens around him rather than including him. I don’t really know what he thought about it all, other than wanting to sing songs and not being able to until the mayor had been thanked.

The illustrations are watercolour monoprints. They have vibrant colours and patterns, which really capture the feel of the menorah lights in the darkness. Each of the villagers is a unique person, rather than having generic crowds. There’s a lot of detail to explore on each page.

The language level is for more advanced picture book readers, or to be read aloud, as there are several paragraphs of text per page. The book includes “The Story of Chanukah” from PJ Library (Harold Grinspoon Foundation). This is a page with a retelling of the origin of Hanukkah/Chanukah, for those who need a bit of background.

Though I wanted more of Yitzi, I did like the book. The illustrations are great, with a post-impressionistic feel. It’s a sweet story about how to thank someone for their kindness.

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