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.

Crowdfunding Arrivals: Mewshrooms and Vampires

I have been known to support crowdfunding campaigns, which means I sometimes get shiny things. Or very fungusy things. Here are my crowdfunding rewards crops for the season.

First is the mewshroom by Stitchmind (Andrew E. Yang). The mewshroom is a mushroom cat toy, who quickly settled in helping with the decorations.

Mushroom cat toy with tinsel

Image Caption: A cuddly toy mushroom cat. The cat has a large red head with embroidered white spots, a white body, frill just under the cap, and a fluffy ball on the end of its tail. The mewshroom is playing with tinsel on a festive plaid backdrop (red and green with gold strands).

Mushroom cat toy with snowflake ornament

Image Caption: Mewshroom faces forwards, showing two dark eyes and an embroidered nose. It stands on a sparkly snowflake ornament.

I backed the campaign at the level for just the toy, though also got a sticker and badge thrown in. The fur is soft and it does stand up despite the huge cap. They come in other colours, but I went with traditional red. Stitchmind has a website where the toys are on sale, and a Zazzle store with related merchandise.

Second is an ebook of Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This is a vampire novel set in Mexico City. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll review it when I do. Tinsel probably doesn’t say horror and vampires, but it has some black in it so I’m sure that counts. I own a lot of tinsel.

Silvia has a website with more about her writing, and the book is for sale on Amazon.

Book cover on an iPad with tinsel around it

Image Caption: An iPad on a background of silver/black tinsel and cloth. The screen shows the cover of Certain Dark Things: a face in black and white, with fire and red patterns overlaid. The iPad camera is covered by a sparkly mushroom sticker.

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse – Jason Hazeley, Joel Morris

Zombie Apocalypse CoverSeries: Ladybirds for Grown-Ups
First Published: 20th October, 2016
Genre: Humour / Fictional Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon UK

The old Ladybird books covered a wide range of subjects for children. They were small books with hard covers, with the general layout of a page of text opposite a full page picture. People grew up with these books, which led to the adult realisation that there were some unintentionally funny things about them. Ladybird decided to get in on the action, by producing their own satirical versions for adults. This one tells grown-ups all about the zombie apocalypse.

My reference book for this review was Life of the Honey-bee, one of the genuine old Ladybird books for children. Funnily enough, one of the bee pictures is included in The Zombie Apocalypse. The pictures all look like they’re from the original books, but with new text to put them into an apocalyptic context.

The text is in the classic cheerful tone of the books. Some pages are more general, but many focus on a character and what they say or do. The language is simple, with a few short paragraphs on each page. Ladybird books did vary in how they were written (my bee book is a little more wordy and doesn’t focus on characters), but this is a reasonable reproduction of how the books were put together.

I liked the book’s opening statement that there are still interesting things to do after the zombie apocalypse. Also, that the police may be very busy. There’s a polite optimism about the end of times, as well as educational discussions about the nature of zombies. My favourite potential zombie cause was: “It could even be a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, but one that explodes mushrooms through your face and makes you eat everybody.”

There are some other nice touches when it comes to making this look like one of the old books. There were little series within the series, which were given a number. The bee book is part of Series 651, which had four books. This information was listed on the back. The zombie book has copied this, putting itself in Series 999 with five other pretend titles. Though if they really published The Martian Invasion or Giant Underground Worms, I’d be there.

Inclusion in the art is the same as the old Ladybird books. That means it’s mostly nice middle class white families. Everyone is dressed very neatly and they’re usually smiling (or looking horrified in an over-the-top way, which was not originally because the images were intended to be people thinking about zombies). There’s usually a father, mother, one son and one daughter. Boys often have dark hair and the girls are blonde. There is one black family and also some construction workers on one page, because that was as far as diversity went in the Ladybird era. Everyone else fits into a stereotype of the perfect British family, in the sort of way where you might wonder when someone was about to get murdered in the village. Ladybird books and cozy mysteries are really the only place this family exists.

It’s also notable that the few pictures rebranded as zombies, where there are people who are either shot or attackers, have darker skin. One shows tipi frames in the background and another looks like the zombies are wearing buckskin clothing. I’d assume they were originally intended as scenes of Native Americans, which is pretty messed up considering their skin is darkened in a way that looks distinctly unnatural. They’re not brown, but more of a greyish-black. They really do look more like zombies.

As someone who grew up reading these books, I appreciated the humour. I also think there’s something here to appeal to those who’ve never read a Ladybird book, as the satire works as a general poke at the way children’s books (and the apocalypse) are presented. However, it does make me reflect on how Ladybird books were very much products of their time in a bad way. The perfect stereotype family contrasted with everyone else was a common theme of the books. The racism in the imagery went largely without comment when I was younger. This is something that works as satire for adults, but it’s something I hope we leave behind for children.

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

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