Monthly Archives: October 2011

Ginie Reviews Books: Shanghai Girls


Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical
Rating: 3/5

So who’s a sucker for 1930’s Shanghai? I am not going to lie, I do find this period of history very fascinating, (although actually I find most of 20th century China fascinating) I think I find Shanghai fascinating in particular because it was this city that was just a world apart from the rest of China, a city that existed in its own little cosmopolitan bubble until of course, the inevitable happens and everything collapses in a drastic way.

But this book isn’t merely about Shanghai in the 30’s – it actually covers a good fifty years with the last couple of decades spent in the States. Shanghai Girls tells the story of two sisters who lead privileged lives in Shanghai modelling as “beautiful girls” for calendars and adverts when their father forces them into arranged marriages in order to pay off his gambling debts. This happens at about the same time that the Japanese have started invading Shanghai, and their lives are changed forever. The novel follows the girls through their attempts to escape China via Hong Kong and how they end up at Angel Island, the prison/immigration centre set-up to deal with the sudden influx of immigrants that arrived thanks to the outbreak of the war; as well as how they attempt to make a life for themselves in the US amidst all the racism and political tension brought on by Mao’s Communist victory in China.

I did enjoy this book, but I do also have quite a few mixed feelings about it. I feel like sometimes there is sometimes quite a sudden jolt in narrative – for instance the very beginning of the book starts with the narrator explaining about how bookish and ‘ugly’ she is and how her parents love her sister best, and yet within the same chapter she’ll describe at length how beautiful her and her sister are as they prepare to go model for the artist Z.G.

So I guess my biggest problem with the novel is that I don’t always feel like the narration is very well-done or particularly strong. It is still a page-turner though, and the characters do get a lot of development so don’t let any of these things put you off (I get quite pedantic about narrative voice, so probably no one else will notice). As one might expect from a novel that deals with war, class and racism it does get quite depressing in parts – but none of this bothered me until the very end. I think how the sisters’ relationship pans out in the very last scenes is really harsh, and this did leave me feeling pretty down – so I guess if you’re likely to get upset by betrayal amongst close siblings and best-friends then just be aware of that.

All of this said, the amount of historical detail in this book is very impressive and definitely one of its strengths – especially the descriptions of life in Chinatown during the mid-20th century for Chinese people in L.A.; and especially how this played out both in the media with stereotypical portrayals of Chinese villains in Hollywood movies and how it played out in real life, with Chinese people being refused work or rent outside of Chinatown. One thing in particular that really caught my attention was when a wealthy American lady attempts to develop Chinatown by making it more tourist-friendly. She doesn’t this by contractually obliging those who worked in Chinatown to wear “traditional” Chinese clothing and speak broken English – in other words, as long as they conformed to what a Westerner would expect Chinese people to look and act like, they could continue living and working there. If anyone needed to know why Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls give me lots of uncomfortable mixed feelings, this would be why. Because contractually obliging people to act as stereotypes of their race isn’t cute – it’s a practice that is as old as time and very, very ugly.

So if you’re at all interesting in Chinese culture or history do pick up this book – the history seems very well-researched and very realistically conveyed.

Ginie

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Ginie’s Top Ten: Fantasy Fiction with Fantastic Heroines

Anyone who has taken a gander at my website will probably have guessed by now that I do love my fantasy fiction. And you know what else I love? Girls who kick ass and take center stage in epic adventures. This list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s pretty much a personal one. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments for any great books I’ve missed out with great female characters in the lead role!

1.) Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle

This entry won’t surprise anyone who knows me. Dianna Wynne Jones is one of my all-time favourite writers and Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my all-time favourite books – mainly because I love Sophie utterly to bits.

Sophie Hatter is a plain, quite mousey timid girl whose life gets turned upside down when she accidentally challenges the witch of the waste. What I like best about Sophie is that she’s not necessarily a very obvious heroine – yes she’s mousey and has a handsome man fall in love with her, which seems to be the standard set-up for most YA stories/romantic comedies/etc. and yet Sophie’s story is very different from all of that. For a start – she’s an old woman for most of the story, which means that for most of the story it isn’t like she’s all pretty but just doesn’t know it – she’s actually an old woman. I like how becoming an old woman actually liberates Sophie because she feels like she has nothing left to lose and everything to gain by becoming more assertive and forward, and best of all I like the fact that Sophie’s heroism is so understated. She doesn’t brandish a sword or physically kick-ass –  and even when she’s at her most dramatic, nobly stepping aside so that Howl can be with Ms. Angorian because she believes it will make him happy she does it in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s easy to forget just how much she sacrifices in that moment. She’s extraordinarily brave and at the end of the day she is the one to save both Howl and Calcifer.

2.) The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

I’ve probably said all that can be said about Kate and The Hollow Kingdom in my epically long review here – but to sum up: Kate is a clever and brave protagonist who looks out for her sister and regularly outsmarts the Goblin king. She resists all attempts by her vile uncle and by the Goblin King himself to remove her of her own agency and for all of these things I find her to be a very heroic character. (The less said about the two sequels, the better. I absolutely adored this book and couldn’t believe how disappointing Close Kin and In the Coils of the Snake were.)

3.) Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Our first sword-wielding heroine on the list! And also a Katherine. Apparently Kate is a very popular name for girl’s populating fantasy worlds. Anyway, Kate is on my list because aside from being a sword-wielding badass she also matures a ridiculous amount throughout the course of the story, in more ways than one.  I also like that contrary to actually quite a few of the other stories here, Katherine doesn’t have a clear love-interest per se, [spoilers] and when she does end up sleeping with Marcus it’s not made out to be like this massive deal. She just did something she enjoyed and felt right doing at the time and that was that. Which I think needs to be done a lot more in YA. Seriously, people make sex out to be like this momentous, terrifying world-changing thing and in a way it is, but once you’ve actually had sex you kind of realise that all in all, it’s not nearly as world-changing as you thought it would be and that you’re very much the same person you were before. If we didn’t make such a big deal out of it all the time it wouldn’t cause nearly so much anxiety for so many girls (myself included, back in the day). [End spoilers] Also yey for LGBTQ representation!

4.) Tithe (Modern Faerie Trilogy) by Holly Black

If you like creepy faery-lore and you like urban fantasy you should go out and get this book now. Tithe tells the story of Kaye, who has always been able to see faeries since she was little, her discovery that she’s actually a changeling and how she ends up embroiled in a political plot between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Anyway, what I like about Kaye is that  she’s flawed, but she’ll always call others (and herself) out on their bullshit. Also more LGBTQ representation!

5.) The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip

Changeling Sea is a nautical fairytale, of course I’d adore it. Peri grew up by the sea, and has always resented it for taking away her father and driving her mother into deep depression. Little does she know that she’s about to become much more familiar with the sea-folk and it’s denizens, including a pair of mistaken princes. Peri is resilient, curious and brave – though I remain unconvinced by the love story.

6.) Matilda by Road Dahl

I’m including Matilda on the fantasy list because of her telekinesis – and also just generally because how awesome is Matilda and how much did I want to be Matilda as a kid? (Answer: a lot). She’s crazy-smart, she loves books and she stands up for herself – even against bigger foes like her parents and Miss Trunchbull. What’s not to love?

7.) The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

It was honestly a very long time ago since I read this book, but I do remember liking it and Aerin (the heroine) does fight a lot of prejudices to go on and become a sword-wielding dragon-slayer. ‘Nuff said.

8.) Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and Hemlock is a modern re-telling of Tam Lin, and true to legend it is the up to the heroine (in this case Polly) to save her beloved Tam Lin from the clutches of the Faerie Queen and her court.  As with anything involving faeries, it isn’t enough just to be brave – you also have to be cunning, because outwitting them is your only means of survival and Polly does just that; despite a whole host of other real-world issues such as a disintegrating family life and the fact that the faerie-folk have messed around considerably with her memory. Interesting FYI about this book, DWJ was very conscious that while she wanted a female heroine she didn’t just want to write a girl into a traditional “boy’s” part. And this  is why DWJ is awesome. Because strong female characters are well-rounded and defy stock-character-types and tropes.

9.) The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones

There’s a lot of Dianna Wynne Jones on this list. I feel like some of her lesser-known work needs more love, and just generally I love her stories. The Dalemark Quartet was my favourite for the longest time – the story covers different time periods and spans four books with a rich cast of characters, a believable country and landscape that (unlike some fantasy novels) has all the political and cultural complexities of a real country; and a pantheon of gods that are every bit as fascinating and multi-faceted as the pantheons that exist in the real world. I think what I also like about Dianna Wynne Jones is that she doesn’t shy away from unlikeable characters  – like actual people they always have a sympathetic side, it’s true, but she never falls into the trap of giving them some sort of “redemption” and they’re all the more realistic for it. Notable heroines include: Tanaqui and Maewen.

10.) Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marilier

Set in Transylvania and based largely off the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Wildwood Dancing tells the tale of a girl called Jena and her four sisters. While their father is away, he has left his estate in the care of his two eldest daughters – but when her father unexpectedly dies, their uncle steps in and relieves the girls of their responsibility, deeming them unfit to manage their own estate. Intrigues occur when the balance between the villagers, the creatures of the woods and the creatures of the night is disturbed. Basically this is an adventure involving Transylvanian legends, faeries and vampires, a talking frog and the awkwardest (read: cute) budding love-story ever.

And that’s it! My top ten. I realise there are some massive gaps, like I’m sure a few of you will cry “but how about Hermione?” (alas, she isn’t the main character of the story) or “where’s Lyra?” (alas, I’ve never read His Dark Materials – blasphemy, I know. But you want to know what’s funny? I’ve read every single other of Phillip Pullman’s novels. No joke.) All I can say is once again that this is quite a personal top-ten (also limited by what I actually remember – most of these I’ve read in the last couple of years, with only a few exceptions). Honourable mention goes to Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy, that I actually really love and find fantastically creepy but refrained from putting on this list because if I were to be honest I find the girls very dislikeable. This isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case I also found the friendship between the girls hard to believe – they’re almost always absolutely vile to each other, I find it hard to see why they’d bother remaining friends.

Also: Twilight will never be on this list. That is all.

Ginie

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Retro Review: David Greig’s Peter Pan @The Barbican

So “Retro Review” is a little series I’m going to be doing when I find reviews I’ve written before  on one of my old blogs that I think are still worth sharing. I don’t expect there to be many Retro Reviews on this site, but there’ll be a few.

Play: Peter Pan by David Greig (originally by J.M. Barrie)
Directed: John Tiffany and David Greig
Date: May 2010

To watch an excellent video about the making of this production click here.

On Sunday I was fortunate enough to get to see the new production of Peter Pan that’s currently on tour in the UK – basically, since this year is the 150th anniversary of J.M. Barrie’s birth the National Theatre of Scotland with playwright David Greig have re-visioned Peter Pan in honour of this special anniversary. To quote Greig and everyone else involved, they tried to re-imagine Peter Pan in a way that was closer to Barrie’s intentions, rather than the pantomime-horror-show it is often portrayed as (thank you Disney), and they’ve taken out some of the “twee Edwardian elements” that arguably got in the way of some of the messages and themes of the story. (We’ll have more of my opinion on that later) But basically they’ve made some exciting changes! (As well as some changes I was decidedly less happy about). And because J.M. Barrie’s story is so dear to my heart you can now prepare yourself for a potentially obsessive nit-picking of the show.

Well the #1 exciting thing about David Greig’s version of Peter Pan is that it’s set in in Victorian Edinburgh instead of Edwardian London, bringing the whole story back to Barrie’s Scottish roots. It gives a whole different feel to the story, making it considerably darker but also very exciting and quite pagan (sorry ducklings, the word “exciting” is going to pop up a lot in this review – get used to it). Instead of having Big Ben in the background, the set/skyline is dominated by the Fourth Railway Bridge which plays a pretty integral part into Greig’s re-imagining of the story. The play also starts off with what is possibly the coolest stage entrance done by anyone ever – Peter Pan appears almost out of nowhere in the upper-corner of the stage-frame and then proceeds to walking/crawling down the wall (the flying is done in a really cool way – think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonstylized-movements) as he sneaks into the Darling’s nursery. And Tinkerbell is a ball of fire! Which is obviously unspeakably awesome in so many ways.

Anyway, what I absolutely and utterly LOVED about this show was the use of music – sea shanties, work songs, Scottish folk songs – this production just had the most amazing soundscape. The work songs work especially well for the beginning scenes at the Railway bridge. Mr. Darling is an engineer working on this bridge, and as you would expect from Mr. Darling he is more than just a tad bit proud of himself. The boys working on the bridge are the same actors who later play the Lost Boys. What I really loved about this scene was the how Greig had the ‘rough’ working boys flirting with Wendy. She’s got her nose in a book and they call things out to her, making snark remarks about how little-miss-well-brought-up wouldn’t condescend to look at them, so they go about doing daring things to show off – foreshadowing some of the later stuff with the Lost Boys, like crowing and jumping off high things and it was just so spot-on because obviously this story is ultimately about Wendy, ultimately about her learning to let go of childhood but also to come to terms with becoming an adult and all the things that that means. Having the Lost Boys being linked to the boys who lost their childhoods working on that railway was also a beautiful touch, I think. It just worked really well, and to me in many ways does highlight the inherent tragedy that is in the story of Peter Pan.

The boy they got to play Peter Pan himself was just fantastic. He really captured the savage side of Peter Pan, and you definitely get a feeling of Peter Pan as a feral child. I guess if you want to sum up this play – everything has been roughened, and it works really well. He’s still charming, but he’s the sort of charming that hides an imminent danger and I really like that. My only beef with Peter is that there are some astonishingly important lines he doesn’t give anywhere near enough importance to – lines like “To die would be an awfully big adventure”, or even the scene where Peter Pan is imitating Hook’s voice and there’s that inter-change: “Are you a mineral?” “No” “Animal?” “Yes” “Man?” “No!” “Boy?” “Yes!”  – I realise it must sound like such a small thing to get annoyed at, but those lines were completely fluffed (or re-written? Seriously Greig, stop re-writing Barrie’s best lines . More on that later.) but it is just one of those small things, those seemingly unimportant interchanges that actually reveals so much about Peter Pan as a character. There are also some very clunky scenes I feel, but those aren’t the actor’s fault so much as Greig and his rather heavy-handed approach to smacking us across the face repeatedly with high-lighting the important themes of the story. More on that later.

Wendy is also great – I love how well the actress captures her reluctance to grow-up, but also her reluctance to play mother to the Lost Boys. I guess this is what they meant when they said they were removing “twee Edwardian” elements – Wendy isn’t some simpering girl who just wants to be a mother, and I don’t think anyone who’s read Barrie’s book seriously could honestly believe that that’s all there was to her. I also think she expresses her attraction and longing for Peter really well – admittedly this is once again made a bit awkward at times, and I don’t think it’s necessarily Peter’s fault but the way the director has asked him to be played. But otherwise the interaction between them is pretty heart-breaking.

Another interesting change is Captain Hook – a Charles I inspired dandy no longer! Instead we have:

 

 

 

A skin-head tattooed bad-ass MOFO. Oh yes.  I actually love the way they’ve re-invented Hook’s image, I think it’s pretty sweet. My only issue with Captain Hook is that he’s not nearly as bad-ass as he looks, which is such a shame especially considering the lengths Greig and co. have gone through to capture the darkness in the Peter Pan story.

So, as you may have noted – I have an issue with Greig’s script. It’s not that it’s bad – at least for the entire first half of the play it was actually pretty freaking genius. It’s when Wendy & co. get to Neverland and meet Tiger Lilly that it all starts going to hell. This is mainly due to the way it’s been plotted. Greig’s basically taken out lots of scenes I would argue were essential (like the scene where Capt. Hook tempts Wendy to join the pirates) and he’s added a whole bunch of new ones that a.) seriously play havoc with the pacing of the play and b.) are completely stupid. Like when Capt. Hook has Tiger Lilly hostage and Wendy the Lost Boys beat the pirates in a fight and rescue her, the pirates basically decide to abandon Capt. Hook in the most half-arsed mutiny you ever did see.

Pirate #1: Fuck, we lost.
Pirate #2: I’m so sick of losing to Wendy the Lost Boys.
Smee: Yeah, what they said.
Capt. Hook: What is this? Mutiny?!
Smee: Erm…yeah. Basically. So whaddya say Cap? Gonna come join us? We’re thinking of running away to some corner of Neverland where Pan won’t bother us anymore.
Capt. Hook: Screw you, Pan is mine and I want him dead!
Smee: *shrugs* Suit yourself.

Seriously. This is what I mean about Captain Hook not being nearly bad-ass enough – and like I said, it’s not at all the actor’s fault. In the scenes where he is allowed to be a bad-ass he totally shines. But it’s stupid unnecessary scenes like this that ruin it all. Could you seriously respect a pirate Captain that lets his pirate crew walk out on him like that? (Or any Captain for that matter?) And then when he captures Wendy and has the pirates back on his side again there’s no reprimand or punishment for them having walked out on him in the first place. This is not at all in character with the Capt. Hook I imagine Barrie had in mind. Barrie’s Capt. Hook was a gentleman, true – but he was also ruthless. And you can’t fear a pirate who is ultimately defeated by tinkerbell.

 I kid you not.

And this leads me back to Pan. Sometimes Greig tries to hard to hammer home some of the symbolism of the story, and the result is clunky. Towards the end there’s a scene where Capt. Hook is threatening to kill Wendy, “Pan’s only weakness”. Peter acts indifferent, and he tells Hook that actually, this could work out very well for him. If Wendy dies in Neverland then she’d have to stay here with him forever.

Yeah. I have no words. Yes, Pan can be seen as a psycho-pomp of sorts, but however Greig & co. may feel about the “twee Edwardian” elements of the story, they cannot deny that J.M. Barrie certainly had a way with words, and when it came to the treatment of precisely these particularly deep and delicate subjects he did so in a way that was poignant and beautiful and not at all clumsy or belittling. Basically Mr. Greig, if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it. That said, a touch that I really did like was Peter Pan desperately trying to save Hook as he falls off the side of the ship and gets swallowd whole by the crocodile. The Lost Boys and Wendy rejoice and having defeated the evil Hook – but Peter mourns, for who will he have to fight now that Hook is dead?

Also Re: removal-of-Edwardian-twee – another instance where it didn’t quite work. First of all: Tiger Lilly. Now I totally understand what they tried to do and would certainly applaud them for it – caricatures of exotic cultures = Edwardian Twee at it’s most awful, and I’m glad they tried to change it. Basically they had Tiger Lilly played by two actresses as a sort-of pair of she-wolf queens. Which could’ve worked….but once again, I think it’s a script-fail. I just found them kind of irritating, but this may be because they seemed to have been given a.) no point and b.) stupid dialogue.

And then there was the ending. I can’t tell you how much this story means to me, and how much the ending always makes me tear up. It’s just so horrendously sad. Peter Pan’s inability to mature emotionally, his unconsciousness of the passing of time and his unawareness of just how permanent death is makes him ultimately quite a monstrous character, but he’s also a character filled with so much tragedy; and I think the last scene where Peter Pan encounters a grown-up Wendy is one with the most potential to be heart-wrenching. Greig’s script-fail almost struck again – he’d re-written it so that the whole exchange between Peter and Wendy dragged on far too long and made the show lose momentum, but the actor playing Peter Pan was so brilliant in the end he really did make it work – and turned it into quite possibly one of the most beautiful ending scenes I’d seen, and it did actually have me in tears. The actor who plays Peter Pan does a most wonderful job of displaying the unexplainable hurt and anger he feels, when he finally breaks down and cries. In the bed you see Jane wake up, and in the background very softly, but slowly getting louder is music. You know the one – the music which tells you excitement is on its way, the music that tells you an adventure is about to begin. Jane wakes up. She wakes up and she asks, “Boy, why are you crying?” Peter jumps up to his feet – startled but delighted at the sight of Jane. They smile and that’s when you know a new adventure is about to begin.

So that’s it – my epically long and horrendously detailed review of David Greig’s Peter Pan. I know I complained about a lot of things – but seriously, if I nitpicked so much it was only because it was so freaking fantastic and oh-so-painfully-close-to-being-the-most-perfect-thing it hurts. And as I said, Peter Pan is a story so close to my heart. I can’t quite rightly explain the emotional impact this story has for me. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t try to review this immediately after having seen it, because my review would undoubtedly have been even more long and non-sensical than this one is. To sum up: basically I loved it, and if anyone is in London and they are a fan of Peter Pan then they should try and see it if they can, because it really is just too gorgeous for words.

Ginie

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