What’s Making Me Happy: February 2016

February isn’t quite as bleak as January. At least in February we get the soft, sweet reds and pinks of Valentine’s Day (and chocolate, lots and lots of chocolate, on sale at discount prices). This shortest month of the calendar year has brought its share of pleasures.

The Pool of Two Moons, the second in Kate Forsyth’s “Witches of Eileanan” series. After Forsyth won my allegiance with Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, I decided last year to begin her multi-volume epic fantasy series, and so far, as I progress through Book 2, I’m finding in it much of what I love seeing in the genre: a world apart from our own, with a distinctly Celtic tinge in the landscape and culture; nonhumans both trustworthy and treacherous; a strong sense of danger and conflict; and capable, important female characters, both young and old, positioned all along the moral spectrum. I’m very glad I have plenty of books left to enjoy this world and its people.  (And thanks for the Twitter follow, Kate!!)

Tower of Thorns, the second in Juliet Marillier’s “Blackthorn and Grim” fantasy-mystery series. If this series doesn’t quite reach the stylistically lyrical heights of Wolfskin and the original Sevenwaters Trilogy, it doesn’t really have to. I love the two central characters. Big, bulky, wise, and generous Grim is one of the most purely sympathetic male characters I’ve seen in a while; he’s the series’ beating heart. As for Blackthorn, I love her because she isn’t always lovable. In some ways she strikes me as a younger edition of Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, a weary, cynical, observant, and sharp-tongued woman who would be worse than she is if only Fate and her own inner core of decency would let her. It’s a pleasure to see a heroine who’s such a mess, bitter and distrustful yet still capable of kindness and empathy. Besides, on a much shallower note, I just think Blackthorn is a cool name for a heroine.

The return of The Muppets. When the show changed showrunners and was said to be undergoing “retooling,” I admit I was a little worried, but what I’ve seen so far of the season’s second phase has given me little cause for alarm. Some commenters have complained that the show has gone “sappy,” but I see in it the same mix of sharpness and sweetness that I loved about the first phase, and that I’ve always loved about the Muppets in general. A recent episode delighted me with its showcase of the friendship between Miss Piggy and her swaggering, hammy dresser Uncle Deadly (my new favorite Muppet). Any tip of the hat to male/female friendship is bound to win points with me. Plus we got to see Uncle Deadly in a blonde wig aping Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless performance. There’s no way I wouldn’t love that.

Spotlight. From the quirky and often ridiculous I now move to the deeply earnest. My husband and I saw this one at Cine in Athens, GA, our favorite art-house movie theater, to get ready for the Oscars. Whatever the Academy voters end up doing, I’m very pleased to have seen this one. Like recent Best Picture winner Argo, this movie features a group of dedicated professionals banding together to right a great wrong, and I have a soft spot for such stories, old-fashioned as they might seem. All the performances are solid, but I have to mention Rachel McAdams as the woman on the team, another heroine I can root for. I can never have too many of those.

The return of Blindspot. This one comes back tomorrow night, the very last night of February, so I can’t say too much about it. I just know it will make me happy.

One more thing: my husband insisted that I get an iPhone so that I can use Twitter appropriately.  Why not give me a follow at @nanmonroeauthor?  Thanks!

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The Nightmare Lullaby 2: Meet Valeraine

“My name is Meliroc, and I am your servant.” When the terrifying white-skinned eight-foot apparition shows up at the door of sorcerer Cedelair and his apprentice Valeraine, Cedelair would naturally rather be left alone. But Valeraine, whose imagination has been fed by a steady diet of action-adventure fiction, sees the giant’s appearance as the call that might start her on a hero’s journey.

Valeraine is a round-faced, doll-like blonde, the sort prone to being underestimated. Artist Kaysha Siemens captures her perfectly, with the wide-eyed, eager expression and the precious book tucked in her arms. (Anyone attempting to get between Valeraine and her book would soon learn the error of underestimating her.)

In this excerpt, Valeraine and her master debate what should be done about the mysterious Meliroc:

 

Brave Bennelise and the Cursed Mountains beckoned from her bed. Beside it, her wooden penny-flute whistled to her. Both would surely speed her journey into slumber. Yet how could she content herself with reading of Brave Bennelise’s victory over the bloody-toothed Giant of Cormboise, when a giant now lurked outside her very window? The towering ivory woman with the heart of coal-fire meant adventure at hand. How could Set-in-his-ways Cedelair want to be rid of her?

“We cannot keep her,” he had pronounced, his jaw set in stone. “I will not have some ghastly hulking golem from who-knows-where haunting my home.”

All politeness, she’d pointed out, “Sir, we may not have much of a choice. She’s obviously under a geas. Let’s just give her a few tasks to do. Where’s the harm?”

“There may be quite a bit of harm. We can’t be sure of her real purpose here.”

“We could find out quickly enough.”

Master Cedelair had locked withering eyes upon her. “How?”

“The Seventh Tongue.” Her words had shrunk to near-silence under his gaze.

She’d felt the snap of his ire. If she wanted to see his face redden, she had only to mention the Seventh Tongue. “A last resort,” he’d insisted, his voice sharp and deep.

“Sir, we wouldn’t have been given the Seventh Tongue if we weren’t meant to use it on occasion.”

“Not now.”

“But the point remains, she’s under a geas. What better way to be rid of her than to remove it?”

“That can take time.”

“Time well spent, I think, the chance to do a good turn.” Valeraine’s chest had swelled with the spirit of Brave Bennelise, her mentor in print. “Sir, would you let me try? She can be my servant. You wouldn’t have to bother with her at all.”

He’d chortled under his breath. “Do you imagine looking after a giant will be as simple as looking after a lost puppy?”

“Far from it, sir. But I’ll learn all the more.”

Cedelair had flexed his jaw as if gnawing on some idea. “You’ll have your answer tomorrow. Now, off to bed with you.” He’d turned his back to her, unwilling to hear another word on the matter.

He was not truly an old man. A night’s hard thought on the question of the giant could rouse a dormant spark of adventure in him. So Valeraine hoped, as with a cool breath she pored over the pages of her book and saw and felt with her mentor, Brave Bennelise.

Valeraine for Kelley AWA 09_small

The Nightmare Lullaby 1: Meet Pierpon

If everything goes as planned, Spring 2016 will see the release of The Nightmare Lullaby, the second of my “Magic Music” novels. As one can tell from the title, nightmares play a significant role, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the first of the four main point-of-view characters the reader meets is Pierpon, an imp whose responsibility (until recently, that is) has been the crafting of nightmares. He’s proud of his job, believing that a good nightmare can rouse the conscience of an erring human. Unfortunately, after his dark visions failed to frighten the fearless young sorcerer-apprentice Valeraine, he was kicked out of the dream realm, given corporeal form, and bound to Valeraine until he can find a way to scare her. It’s in this state that we meet him.

The drawing of Pierpon is done from a description I based on an earlier draft, in which he was more surly and out-of-temper than he ended up being in the final version. Still, the black curls, the big dark eyes, and the porcupine mustache are on-the-nose accurate. Many thanks to Kaysha Siemens.

The following excerpt from Chapter 1 shows the result of Pierpon’s ill-advised attempt to run away:

“Pain seared through Pierpon, turning his breath into daggers of ice in his chest. His eyelids froze shut. In his mind’s eye he saw the winter-devil of so many nightmares, its gaping mouth sending forth a cloud of bitter breath to sting him. Then a balm swept over him. A hand, he realized after a moment, warm as a hearth-fire, lifted him free of the smothering cold.

Nearby a drunkard swung from a bell-pull, creating a head-pounding clamor.

Water dripped from Pierpon’s eyes. Through the blur he could discern the outlines of a massive woman in a long black cloak. As his vision cleared he found green eyes staring down with cat-like curiosity. A tremble started in his toes. In his exile he’d grown used to the idea that only magicians, with their supernatural sight, could see him. This creature was either a sorcerer or something other than human. Perhaps both.

Clad in the simple style of a traveler, she wore black boots and trousers and a high-collared indigo tunic under the cloak. But it took him two good blinks and a rub at his eyes to make out anything like a face, near-invisible as it seemed against the snow. Her skin and her long, tangled hair were white – not pale, but the absolute white of an ivory statue given life by a demigod.

She had a clear brow, a sharp, slender nose, upswept cheek-bones, a delicate mouth, pointed chin, and slightly pointed ears, a little like his own. Her elfin face seemed out of tune with her gigantic stature. From his vantage point of four inches, ordinary humans looked enormous, but he took the measure of the folded legs, along with the length from her waist to her head. She was an authentic giant, at least eight feet tall. Such towering brutes lumbered through slumberers’ nightmares, swinging their clubs and threatening to roast any flesh-bearing thing within reach. He rolled in her palm, glancing about for an escape path.

She did not look hungry. A muted glow in her eyes suggested distraction. Her head tilted toward that ringing row nearby.

She set him down upon her leg and scooped up a handful of snow. As she breathed upon it it dissolved into water. With her free hand she helped him to sit and brought the water to him. He sniffed at it. ‘It’ll warm my insides, it will,’ he remarked with a pat of his ribs. Pierpon for Kelley AWA 09_small‘Much gratitude, ma’am.’ He lapped up the water from her palm, and by the time he’d drunk it dry, the last remnants of the killing cold had left him.

With a self-conscious twinge he attempted to smooth the wrinkles from his damp gray smock and breeches. He bowed from his waist. ‘Master Pierpon of Jicket-Castle, at your service, madam.’

The giant put a finger to her smiling lips and shook her head. He read her gesture easily enough. Pray keep quiet for now. He followed her gaze to a ledge a little above them, where sat a wagon with a shining silver roof. The wagon’s sides quivered whenever the racket swelled. Something inside it was making this noise.

The faces of a listening crowd in the valley beneath echoed the giant’s rapturous look, though perhaps less intense. Among them he spied a familiar lace-trimmed straw bonnet and under it honey-gold ringlets, a dimpled face, and a bell-skirted gown of bright coral taffeta standing out amidst the dark woolen coats and scarves and caps like a pink rosebud sprouting from a patch of brown leaves. Like the others, Valeraine stood stock still, attention riveted to the racket-making wagon. What did she and the rest hear in it that he could not? At least, distracted by the clamor, she did not miss him, and would never dream he’d managed to slip out of her basket hours ago.

The row faded to silence. Pierpon’s rescuer gazed at him with friendly eyes. A soft voice sounded in his ear. ‘Pier-pon.’

Five things I love about… Peggy Carter

In my earliest childhood, as far as I can recall, female heroes were not entirely unknown in action-adventure television. There was Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. I ate up those shows in all their cheesy glory, though then I couldn’t have told why. I also adored Charlie’s Angels, though I can see now the show was pretty terrible. That they were presented in a jiggly fanservice light meant nothing to me at the time. They kicked butt. That was all I cared about.

Then I moved into adolescence, and my badass action heroines went away. It was the 1980s, and unless I wanted the realism of Cagney and Lacey, I was out of luck. Thankfully, the ’90s saw a resurgence, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess paving the way for what we have now: heroines everywhere, from Supergirl to the tattooed Jane Doe, from the inhuman Daisy Johnson and unstoppable Bobbi Morse to the insightful undead Liv Moore. I love them all, but one stands proudly as my favorite: the capable and classy Agent Peggy Carter, as played by the capable and classy Hayley Atwell. As 2016’s all too brief season of Agent Carter draws to a close, the time is ripe for me to highlight five things I love about Peggy, the character.

In Captain America: the First Avenger, she’s never a distressed damsel.

This fact alone sets her apart from the legions of superheroes’ love interests whose basic purpose is three-fold: put the superpowered man “in touch with his humanity,” get kidnapped by the bad guy, and get rescued. I’m hard pressed to think of another superhero movie, aside from the first Avengers film and Pixar’s The Incredibles, that doesn’t adhere to this love-interest formula. The Spider-Man movies are notorious for it, and of course, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we’ve seen the return of Lois Lane, who, no matter how talented and independent different writers try to make her, will always exist chiefly to be saved by Superman. Even when the heroes’ love interests have skills or even powers of their own, somehow they always manage to end up in need of rescue.

Not Peggy Carter. After seeing the first Captain America film, I felt a thrill at the realization that I’d just sat through two hours of superhero action, and in all that time, Peggy never once fell into Red Skull’s clutches. Rather, she maintained her strength in the thick of the action, taking out her share of Nazis with high-powered weaponry that she knows how to use. It should come as no surprise that fans saw this character’s potential to be the hero of her own story and pushed the creators to “do more” with her. After all, try to imagine Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson (as depicted in the movies, not in the comics) getting a TV show in which she’s the one to take down villains. Tough, isn’t it?

She’s smart as well as tough.

Peggy can use a gun and can hold her own in hand-to-hand combat. I always watch with an ear-to-ear grin when she uses her speed and strength to take down fearsome opponents. But I love her most when she’s chasing down the answers to crucial questions and using her role-playing abilities (it’s always a treat to hear her talk with an American accent) to sneak into forbidden spaces. When she’s in a tight spot, she’s as likely to think her way as to punch her way out of it. I’m rather surprised that Peggy hasn’t been criticized for being a “Mary Sue,” like Rey in Star Wars VII. But as with Rey and with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, I love her for it.

She gets along with other women.

True, she faces off with evil women, but she’s also quick to befriend smart, decent women like Angie the aspiring actress in Season 1 and Jarvis’ wife Ana in Season 2. The friendship chemistry with Angie was such that quite a few fans haven’t gotten over their disappointment at Angie’s failure to return for Season 2. Interaction with Peggy gives Angie the chance to be a hero as well as an actress. Similarly, in Season 2’s two-part opening, Ana makes her contribution, and in the most recent episode, Peggy is instrumental in giving short, plump, bespectacled secretary Rose a chance to be part of the action; she turns out to be as adept at role-playing and butt-kicking as Peggy herself. It’s telling that when Peggy learns that her colleague Sousa, who pined for her throughout Season 1, has a serious relationship with a new girlfriend, she approaches this young woman not with catty jealousy, but with honest overtures of friendship. More female-buddyships, less catfighting — just what I like to see.

Her most important relationship with a man is a friendship, not a romance.

In the second season, we’ve seen a little romance come into Peggy’s life, but the love interest is not her central focus. The man she can count on, the man who has her back on those few occasions when she does need rescuing, and the man with whom she shares the most screen time is the happily married Jarvis. He’s a fun character, taking on a variety of challenges to his sophisticated dignity, and he gets his own opportunities to be awesome, proving that male characters need not be weak or dull in stories that center around female heroes.

With Peggy around, I can enjoy the villainesses.

In an earlier blog post I mentioned that the pleasure I take in watching or reading about the wicked antics of a villainess depends entirely on what the heroine is doing. If a story juxtaposes an evil woman who kicks butt with a good woman who gets kidnapped (leaving the responsibility of defeating the evil woman to the male hero), I know that story is not for me. The stories I love best show powerful and resourceful women on both sides of the moral spectrum, and that’s just what we see on Agent Carter. Peggy’s heroic presence helps me appreciate the dark complexity of characters like Dottie Underwood, a Russian spy hardened by a brutal upbringing (a Black Widow who, unlike Natasha Romanoff, has never had her conscience awakened), and Whitney Frost, a scientific genius who is sick of being valued only for her beauty. They’re the kind of interesting villains who are heroes in their own minds, and I can enjoy watching them, knowing they won’t eventually be “put in their places” by some righteous male hero. Peggy and Rose (what a delightful surprise Rose turns out to be!) are there to show us that women need not crush their moral compasses underfoot in order to be powerful.

For Valentine’s Day: Favorite Romantic Movies

This Valentine’s Day weekend, the major big-screen movie releases are Deadpool, Zoolander 2, and How to Be Single. Here we find proof positive that in Hollywood, romance is dead, or at least on life support. These movies may have admirable qualities — a number of my friends have seen Deadpool and enjoyed it immensely — but I doubt most sensible moviegoers would go to these films expecting a well-told love story. Mainstream Hollywood films that give us such are very few and very far between.

But it wasn’t always so. Most of my romantic-cinema daydreams are in black and white. I thought it fitting on this Valentine’s Day 2016 to pay tribute to a few of my favorite movie love stories from classic cinema.

That Hamilton Woman (1941). This movie tells the story of Admiral Lord Nelson’s illicit affair with Lady Emma Hamilton — not so much historical accuracy, but a whole lot of romance, thanks to Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in their gorgeous prime, a smart, sweet screenplay by R.C. Sheriff, and a sweeping, heartbreaking score by Miklos Rosza. In real life Emma Hamilton may have been an unrepentant social climber, but Leigh plays her as an engaging heroine, a shallow airhead who becomes smarter, wiser, and better as a result of her love for Nelson and who rescues him from distress on several occasions.

Now, Voyager (1942). Paul Henried may not be the most charismatic of actors, but he’s charming as the witty, sophisticated, unhappily married man who brings some much needed romance into the life of abused ex-mental patient Bette Davis, whose relentless emotional abuse by her mother has left her with a crippling lack of self-esteem. Davis blossoms, becoming a confident woman who can face her mother (a hissable Gladys Cooper) without fear (I love the expression that comes across her face as she says, “I’m not afraid,” and realizes she means it) and who can envision and plan a future for herself even if Henried can never be hers. Favorite line: “No one has ever called me ‘darling’ before.”

Random Harvest (1942). 1942 was a great year for the romantic drama. Here we have a soap-opera plot of an amnesiac World War I veteran (Ronald Colman) who finds love with a big-hearted showgirl (Greer Garson), only to forget her when he recovers his original identity. Corny, right? Wrong! Colman and Garson bring this drama to life with sympathy and style, and as we watch it unfold, we totally buy it. Colman gives a solid performance in essentially two roles, as his personality changes when he gets his original memories back and fails to recognize Garson when she re-enters his life. And Garson radiates warmth, compassion, good sense, and good humor. I like her performance here much better than her Oscar-winning turn as the titular Mrs. Miniver the same year.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). My Fair Lady notwithstanding, this film features my favorite Rex Harrison performance as the ghost of the title, a salty sea captain with a sentimental streak that comes out in surprising ways. The female lead, Gene Tierney, may seen a little ordinary by comparison, but this story does not fall into the Twilight school of depressingly colorless human girls who fall for dashing, charismatic nonhuman guys. Tierney’s Mrs. Muir reveals a solid base of courage, sense, and even humor as we get to know her. Like Davis in Now, Voyager, she grows in confidence and wisdom as a result of her relationship, but in the end she must find a way to live without him. Both heroines come out strong.  Helping the movie work so well is a lush score by Bernard Herrmann. (Never underestimate the power of a beautiful music score.)

All This, and Heaven Too (1940). In case it’s not already apparent, I like my movie love stories poignant and sad. Of course I get a kick out of a good romantic comedy (It Happened One Night, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain), but the tragic romances have my heart, and this one, in which nobleman Charles Boyer and governess Bette Davis fall in love as his possessive, paranoid wife makes life increasingly intolerable for him and his children, is the saddest of the films on this list. If you’re not in the mood to cry, don’t watch it. But if you are, sit back and enjoy a love story that develops slowly, steadily, and movingly, as Davis for once gets to play opposite a leading man who can match her in charisma. Barbara O’Neill is downright horrifying as Boyer’s wife. We can see all too clearly why Boyer is so inexorably drawn to the smart, gentle, empathetic Davis. We root for them even though we know their story cannot end well.

 

 

Rambling Reflections on Matters of Taste

I find it hard at times to hear the stories I love (books, movies, television, or music) disparaged. I try to avoid taking too active a part in debates over matters of taste — at least when they concern what I love; when I hate something, I may not hold back as much as I should. I can explain in detail why a particular book or movie or show is emphatically not for me, but when it comes to explaining my love in the face of skepticism or outright disapproval, I find myself tongue-tied. Okay, I know that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens may be little more than A New Hope in new skin and the writers may skimp on character development. Just let me love it, okay?

Sometimes a clear-eyed look at the flaws of a beloved thing can actually strengthen the love. At other times we may find ourselves considering whether we ought to let go of that love. Two people can read the same book or watch the same movie/show and come away from it with starkly different impressions. When is one clearly right, and the other wrong? Are there times when there is indeed a point to disputing matters of taste?

More than once in my blog I’ve expressed my admiration for Naomi Novik’s stand-alone fairytale novel Uprooted. It was my favorite read of 2015, although Wexler’s The Shadow Throne gave it close competition. (Here’s my Goodreads review of the book.) Novik’s beautiful prose, especially her descriptions of the workings of magic, seduced me. I took ungainly heroine Agnieszka to my heart and rooted for her to succeed. Yet in my delight, did I miss things that ought to have bothered me more? Feminist author and blogger Foz Meadows, whose posts I’ve enjoyed more than once, posted a scathing review that classed Novik’s work with Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey as sending dangerous, toxic messages about “romance” to impressionable female readers. In Novik’s book, she argues, the abusive behavior of an “alpha male” is glorified and, in the end, rewarded. Were Meadows to confront me face to face, I doubt I could justify my enchantment with the book. Most likely I would keep silent, head hanging.

Because I’m honestly not certain who’s right, or whether there is a “right” in this matter. The book I read, or the book Meadows read — will the real Uprooted please stand up?

A less troubling, because less vehement, criticism of something I love came to me in an article sent to me by a good friend from high school with whom I now keep in touch via Facebook. When she posted it to my wall, she wrote that she was “dying to know my opinion.” It examines the amount of dialogue spoken by male and female characters in Disney films since the late-80s “Renaissance” (including my favorite, Beauty and the Beast) vs. the films Disney made back when feminist consciousness was very far from the studio’s mind. The article shows that female characters actually speak more in those early pre-feminist Disney films than they do in the more recent movies touted as having “strong heroines.” The conclusion drawn is that those recent movies aren’t quite as female-positive as they might at first have seemed.

About this one I’m not quite as shy about speaking up, possibly because as a long-time Disney fan, I’m used to anti-Disney sentiment. Beauty and the Beast has come under harsher fire than this article, having been cited often as a prettified but still toxic example of “Stockholm Syndrome” (a female captive falling for her male captor), a worse offense than an imbalance of dialogue. I’m still not sure what to say in response to that charge, but the dialogue imbalance I can address:

The article is mistaken in its suggestion that the imbalance automatically undoes the films’ feminist credit, just as it’s a mistake to conclude that only a movie that passes the Bechdel Test can be a satisfyingly feminist movie. The main impression I come away with isn’t so much that the studio has done badly, as that it can do better, and it can start by addressing one of the biggest problems the article highlights: the lack of female supporting characters in these “strong heroine” Disney movies.

I may love Beauty and the Beast (after all, the original tale was one of the inspirations for my novel Atterwald) but I still think Mrs. Potts should have been given more to do than just sing a sweet song. More crucially, why couldn’t Chip have been a little girl teacup? Why couldn’t the friendly tiger in Aladdin have been female? (Granted, the character is mute, but she might still have been a majestic female presence.) Might Mushu from Mulan, burdened with a jarring, lackluster vocal performance from Eddie Murphy (who was soooo much better as Donkey in Shrek) have worked just as well, or even better, as a female character? Did the plots demand any of these characters — or Merida’s mount in Brave, or the chameleon and the horse from Tangled — be male? No, but they’re all male anyway, because male is what most characters end up being when their gender is not specifically important to the plot.

The movies may still be good, but the use of male as the default setting for gender-irrelevant characters is an issue that demands a closer look. I’m not saying that all such characters need to be female. Just a few of them would be nice, just to show that we can indeed have female characters whose stories don’t turn on the fulcrum of gender, supporting though they may be.

We don’t have to abandon our affection for certain books, movies, or TV shows just because we become aware of their flaws or recognize that widely divergent, even opposite, readings are possible. We don’t all experience stories the same way. We bring our own hopes, expectations, and histories with us as we co-create the meanings of the stories we consume.

Perhaps, then, there is a point in disputing matters of taste. At any rate, such debates aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and I need to be ready for them.