Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Never Alone

Never Alone Cover: Nuna (a girl in a fur-lined coat) and Fox (white arctic fox) in the snow

Developer: Upper One Games, E-Line Media
First Release: 18th November, 2014
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short
Links: Game Website

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is a side-scrolling platform game, produced in collaboration with the Iñupiat (Alaska Native peoples). When endless blizzards stop her community from hunting, a young girl (Nuna) heads out into the storm to find the source. She’s soon joined by an arctic fox.

Most of the game mechanics will be familiar to players of this type of game. Nuna can move objects, climb ropes and throw a bola. Fox can scrabble up walls. The difference comes in how the mechanics fit into the game. Air currents used to help or hinder jumps aren’t uncommon, but here the gusts of wind are the ever-present blizzard at the centre of the narrative. Moving platforms are common in the genre, but these platforms are in the form of spirits, which Fox calls and can direct. They fit naturally into the game world, rather than seeming like something that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t needed for the game.

The atmosphere and story of the game are its strong points. It successfully creates the feel of the tundra and beyond, and the artwork used for the spirits is lovely. The story is a re-telling of a traditional story, with additions and changes to expand it for the game. This is reinforced with narration in the Iñupiaq language and cut-scenes reminiscent of scrimshaw art.

The cultural insights are also a great feature. During the game, there are a number of owls. Reaching the owls unlocks a cultural insight, which can be watched at any point. These are mini documentaries with Alaska Native people talking about their lives and culture. The insights explain various aspects of the game, including how the story is different to the original story. There are also quotes from this story on loading screens. So without leaving the game, the player understands how the game story was constructed (a notable change is turning a man into a young girl and her fox), and the people and culture behind it.

There were some aspects of the game controls that were a bit clunky. In single player mode, it would be very useful to be able to tell the other character to stay. For some puzzles, the AI would walk them into dangerous places (they wouldn’t jump to their death or anything, but would stand in the path of moving dangers). It wasn’t game breaking, as the AI could be dealt with by leaving the other character in a different place. But this could be smoothed out in future releases from the developer.

Experienced gamers will likely find the gameplay on the easy side. However, the atmosphere and the cultural insights made it stand out. I loved exploring the world as Nuna and Fox, and would be on board for any of their future adventures.

This Strange Way of Dying – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Collection CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2013
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection has stories mostly set in Mexico, with speculative and folkloric themes. My favourite was “Maquech”, about selling live beetle jewellery. The beetle is the last one decorated by a particular crafter, and brings with it dreams of the jungle. Yet it has to be sold to cover basic living costs, to a rich person who only wants it as this season’s shiny thing.

It’s a strong collection, with a range of themes and approaches. Recommended for those who like stories of the quietly strange.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

After Earth

After Earth Cover (UK)** The review contains some mild spoilers, but not the major twists or ending **

Humanity damages Earth so much it isn’t habitable for humans, so they leave for a new world. This is attacked by aliens who track humans by their fear pheromones. But the aliens are beaten back after the emergence of Cypher (Will Smith) – a solider able to feel no fear, so he’s invisible to them.

As the film begins, Cypher is close to retirement, and has a strained relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith). In an attempt to patch things up, he takes Kitai on his last mission, but the ship is damaged and crashes on Earth. With Cypher badly injured, it’s up to Kitai to travel through the wilderness and send a distress call. In the process, father and son have to face their differences.

 

General Thoughts

After Earth got very bad reviews, but the premise interested me enough to watch it anyway. I really enjoyed it. It’s not the action-adventure the marketing suggests, but a story about a father and son working through their issues (with some action backdrop).

There’s a lot of attention to detail in this. All the characters speak an invented futuristic accent, showing how language has continued to develop. The design of the colony avoids the excess and waste of the modern world, and their energy comes from turbines, as might be expected from a species trying to avoid making the same mistake twice. The changes in colour and texture of Kitai’s suit is also a nice touch.

Add in that this is a rare science fiction film where non-white/people of colour get the starring roles, and there’s a lot to like. This is not one of those futures where anyone brown mysteriously disappears, possibly because the aliens think they’re extra tasty.

 

Ecology

Earth is initially abandoned because humans made it uninhabitable (for humans). It’s placed under a harsh quarantine, which states that everything on Earth is out to get humans. I was worried when that was announced that it’d be like the King Kong remake, where animals attack humans in a single-minded way. But the quarantine is an exaggeration.

Given my interest in animal behaviour in films, I liked the different animal reactions. The spider Kitai first meets has no interest in him and doesn’t bite him. The first larger animal is checking to see if Kitai is a threat. Each animal has its own reactions, rather than being generic meatbags who want to kill all humans at any cost.

Reading Moby Dick, and the themes of hunting it contains, is used to overlay this. In the absence of humans, Earth is thriving, and species driven to near-extinction are abundant. The implication is the quarantine isn’t really to protect people. It’s to protect Earth.

As a criticism, I’d note that the timescale isn’t long enough for some of the adaptations shown to have evolved. Mimosa-like plant movement wouldn’t be a quick thing, for example. But it’s probably better not to overthink how the climate and ecology is really working.

 

Women

There are also scenes with Faia (Sophie Okonedo) the mother and Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) the daughter, but the primary focus isn’t on those relationships. In mild spoilers, because you find it out shortly after the opening, it’s clear something happened to Senshi. I felt the family reaction to this was good, rather than it being a throw-away tragedy to activate the plot. What I mean by this is the plot isn’t tragedy occurs so let’s kill aliens and never mention it again (looking at you, Starship Troopers film). It’s tragedy occurs and family has to deal with the emotional fallout.

That said, I wish we’d seen more of the Faia’s reaction to this. There’s hints she’s struggling to deal with it, but it’s not fully shown.

One common Hollywood trope is most side characters are men. There were women and girls in the crowds, but they didn’t get lines. This may seem a small thing, but it does detract from the realism.

If there’s a sequel, I hope they deal more with the family as a whole. And mix up the side characters a bit.

 

Disability

There’s a point when a solider who lost a leg in a previous battle thanks Cypher for saving him. This has good and bad sides. The good side is it shows the man is enjoying his life after becoming disabled. He’s genuine happy that he got to go home to his family. Life after disability shouldn’t be a rare protrayal, but it is. It’s often shown as a fate worse than death (and therefore death as a mercy).

However, the thing about wanting to stand to salute Cypher was rather over-hammed. He should have been able to stand with crutches, but he didn’t have any. I see how they wanted to link it in thematically to Cypher’s later injuries, but still… he could have had crutches.

 

Conclusions

I suspect some of the negative response was it not being as actiony as suggested. Someone expecting a kill-all-the-aliens war film will be disappointed. But I’m suspicious some criticism comes from the invented accent. People could think, “This accent is new to me. It’ll take some time until I’m fully able to get the tone of the speaker’s voice and notice small differences.” Or they could think, “This accent is weird. They must be terrible actors.” The latter is unfortunately the one people go for a lot of the time.

This isn’t hypothetical, given that people with composite accents in the real world tend to get those sorts of criticisms. Like the situation where Amal El-Mohtar’s accent was described as feigned and false.

However, if you like family tales with science fiction settings, an attention to detail, and Will Smith, you may well enjoy this film.