Keturah and Lord Death

ImageDeath has taken on many forms in literature, from a spectator of the human world in Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief to Charles Dicken’s “Ghost of Christmas Future”. There are images of death that even children are familiar with—Jack the Ripper, for example. But in her book Keturah and Lord Death, Martine Leavitt presents a new personage for the thing that all men fear the most. In Keturah and Lord Death, Death is a lord, a young man, cold, but not without feeling.  He comes unaggressively to take people from this life into the next, and one day he comes for a girl named Keturah.

Keturah is sixteen years old and lives with her grandmother in a small village. She is kind and caring, a gifted storyteller with humble dreams—a chance to find true love and raise a child of her own in a small cottage to call her home. Her future plans, however simple, become unattainable when she wanders into the forest following a special hart and becomes lost. Death comes for her, and even Keturah, who has been no stranger to death having lost her parents and grandfather, is surprised to find that Death is a handsome young man. But despite her fear of Death, Keturah is not ready to give up her simple dream of finding true love, and she uses her gift of storytelling to barter for one more day. Keturah makes an agreement with Death. She has one day to find her true love, otherwise she must go with him and be his bride. By the next night, she must return with her true love and an ending to the story she began for Death.

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Martine Leavitt

Keturah returns to her village and enlists the help of two of her friends to find her true love. From there, Leavitt weaves a tale full of numerous, vibrant characters, colorful writing, a fantastical supernatural element, and a surprise ending. Keturah and Lord Death is not a long book, but in the span of only a couple hundred pages, Leavitt tells an original, deep but entertaining story of romance and fantasy. One of the most wonderful things about Leavitt’s book is the writing. The story reads like a fairy tale, a la Hans Christian Andersen or some other writer from long ago. The story is quick and to the point, direct and subtle at the same time. With fewer pages than most authors, Leavitt creates a diverse and lively cast of characters. The story flows flawlessly from one scene to the next, and readers are caught up in the plot, eager for Keturah to finish her story for Death and for her to find her true love. Also like a fairy tale, Leavitt’s book is not moralizing, but its message is pure and true.

Keturah is kind, merciful, honest, and loving, as is her story. This book will leave readers wanting for nothing—a delightfully unexpected read. Leavitt’s masterful writing and characters transport the reader into a world of romance, the supernatural, adventure, and true love. This is the stuff Disney movies are made of.

Realistic Magic

ImageThe Walt Disney Company is in the midst of a slew of highly anticipated films—from the animated fairytale Frozen to the reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty tale Maleficient. But out of the many films that the Disney Company will release in the upcoming months, perhaps none is so special as Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the man himself—Walt Disney.

Well, Saving Mr. Banks is actually primarily about the author P.L. Travers, the pen name of Helen Goff, author of the Mary Poppins books. For twenty years, Walt Disney approached her asking for the film rights to her books. And for twenty years Mrs. Travers turned him down, determined that her beloved nanny would not become a sparkling animated character. But at the start of the movie, Mrs. Travers finds herself in a delicate financial situation, so she flies from London to Los Angeles to consider a movie proposition from Walt and his movie team—the songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman and scriptwriter Don Da Gradi.

The entertainment, joy, and the heart of this movie are all in the characters—their stories and their actors. Paul Giamatti is Mrs. Travers’ friendly driver. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are Richard and Robert Sherman, respectively, and both actors give subtle, yet stellar performances as the musical geniuses behind the songs of many a Disney movie. Schwartzman in particular is spectacular in such a simple way, like in the scene where Richard Schwartzman plays the song “Feed the Birds” to Walt Disney for the first time, famously Walt’s favorite Sherman brother’s song.

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Novak (left) and Schwartzman (right) as the Sherman Brothers

And of course, Tom Hanks was a great Walt Disney. He was charming, but with an agenda, a businessman but also an imaginative visionary. Hanks played both Disney’s determined realism and his childlike imagination combined in an honest portrayal of the creative mogul. Likewise, Emma Thompson also balances the complexities of her character P.L. Travers. Thompson doesn’t sugar coat her performance. Travers is hard to please, a stickler for details, and sometimes simply rude. But at the same time, she is endearing and the audience sympathizes with her. Much of this is due to the many flashbacks to her childhood, where Travers drew much of her inspiration for her Mary Poppins books.

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Hanks and Thompson as Disney and P.L. Travers

And on this note, I cannot overlook the characters of these flashbacks. Colin Farrell gives a great performance as Travers Goff, P.L. Traver’s alcoholic but doting and imaginative father, and Ruth Wilson is also good as Traver’s mother.

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Annie Rose Buckley as a young Helen Goff (P.L. Travers) and Colin Farrell as Travers Goff.

Every single actor in the movie gives a perfect performance—genuine, subtle, and emotional—because both the story of Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks are geunine, subtle, and emotional. They are both stories about people, people who have a lot of flaws but a lot of love. Mrs. Travers may harbor disappointment and resentment at life, but she loves her nanny with the talking umbrella. Walt may be willing to do anything to get his way, but his movies are labors of love. Flaws make these people realistic, but their love makes them magical. And that is Walt Disney’s true gift—magic. It’s only fitting that a movie about the man behind the mouse also be magical.

Desolation

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Thranduil, played by Lee Pace

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out, I went to the midnight premiere with my friends, counted down the days for months, and if I had had any of my old Lord of the Rings costumes with me in New York, I would have worn one. Needless to say, I was very excited for the first Hobbit movie. This time around, however, it was a little different. Maybe I wasn’t as excited because the anticipation hadn’t been building for ten years. So I waited for my brothers to come home from school and we went to see it together.

Many reviews said that this Hobbit movie was better than the last—and it was, in so far as there was more action and the pacing was a little better. But I feel that the first movie, though not entirely representative of Tolkien’s vision in The Hobbit, was closer to the spirit of the book than this movie. But first, some things I did like about The Desolation of Smaug.

Thranduil. One of my favorite things about Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is the flawed characters. Thranduil is one of these flawed characters. In the book, Thranduil holds the dwarves prisoner in Mirkwood, and when Thorin becomes king under the mountain, Thranduil demands a share of the treasure. Even though he is an elf, and supposedly wiser than other mortal races, Thranduil demonstrates the same mistrust and greed that Thorin demonstrates. Lee Pace did an excellent job portraying Thranduil as a flawed character in The Desolation of Smaug, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the third film There and Back Again.

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Bard, played by Luke Evans

Bard. Who doesn’t love Bard? He is, after all, the one who slays the dragon. Bard lives in Laketown, where the Master of Laketown is a shady and rather useless fellow. In the absence of a strong leader, Bard steps up to lead the people of Laketown and rebuild the city of Dale. In the movie, Luke Evans plays Bard as a family man and a widower, a man who takes care of the people of Laketown while the Master takes advantage of them. Bard’s prime concerns are the safety of his family and the safety of his people—true qualities of leadership. Plus, he’s not bad-looking.

Overall, the movie was entertaining, but there were a few things that strayed too far from Tolkien’s story. One of these things is glaringly obvious because she wasn’t in Tolkien’s story—Tauriel. I entered the movie theater determined not to prejudge Tauriel. I tried hard to like her, I really did. But I just didn’t. It’s like Jackson tried to make her a warrior like Eowyn, a love interest like Arwen, and a wise elf like Galadriel, but unlike her three predecessors, Tauriel didn’t add anything to the story. The love triangle with her was unbelievable and kind of ridiculous.

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Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily

Another character portrayal I was not too fond of was Beorn. I love Beorn in the books, a skin changer who can shift into a bear. He helps the dwarves along their journey and also appears in the Battle of the Five Armies. But in the movie, Beorn’s scene was short, quick, and almost pointless. And he didn’t even look like a bear.

Next is Smaug. Actually, Smaug belongs in the category of things I did like. I thought the screenwriters did a fair job of making his dialogue with Bilbo true to his character in the book, which is why I thought there should have been more of Smaug, or more precisely, more of Smaug and Bilbo. One prolonged scene was not enough. The movie is called The Desolation of Smaug, and the book is called The Hobbit. So where was all the screen time of Smaug and the hobbit? It was allotted to other storylines, like the scenes at Dol Goldur and the never-ending orc chase. As Jordan Jeffers writes in his review of the movie, “The Hobbit is no longer actually about the hobbit. It’s grown much too big for him.”

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Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman

It’s not that I don’t like the extra scenes about the White Council and the return of Sauron. On the contrary, as a total Lord of the Rings nerd I love these scenes. But somewhere along the way in The Desolation of Smaug, everything that Peter Jackson and his team has added overshadowed our little hobbit (played excellently by Martin Freeman, as always). An Unexpected Journey contained these extra storylines about the White Council and Dol Goldur, but the movie still centered around Bilbo. The Desolation of Smaug lost sight of that storyline. That isn’t to say that the movie is not enjoyable—it is, and Hobbit fans should go see it!—but I would have appreciated a Hobbit film more about a hobbit. As Jordan Jeffers also says, “Tolkien’s book is not a story about superheroes. It’s a story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, one of the smallest of folk, shorter even than the dwarves—a fat, ordinary person who does a lot of brave, ordinary things.”

Every Girl

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Kerstin Gier

Two words: time travel. You’re probably thinking Dr. Who, but I’m actually referring to German author Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red Trilogy—Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue, and Emerald Green. Ruby Red, the first novel in the series, was a best seller in Germany and is quickly gaining popularity in America, translated into English by Anthea Bell. It’s no surprise given the popularity of sci fi/fantasy YA novels featuring a female protagonist. But Grier’s Ruby Red stands apart from other YA novels because the heroine successfully fulfills the most important character trope of the YA heroine—she is both plainly normal and incredibly special.

ImageGwyneth Shepherd is the most normal heroine I’ve ever read about, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Gwyneth is the girl next door. She enjoys movie marathons with her best friend Lesley and playing with her younger brother and sister. She has no exceptional talents or interests. She is, in every way, normal. Her family, however, is anything but normal. The Montrose (her mother’s maiden name) family is the female line of time travelers, meaning that one girl in each generation carries the time traveling gene. The female time traveler works with the male time traveler, from the de Villiers family, traveling back and forth to different time periods under the instruction of the mysterious Count Saint-Germain. The girl time traveler from Gwyneth’s generation is supposed to be her cousin Charlotte. Charlotte’s spent her entire life studying languages, history, etiquette, and other similar subjects to prepare for traveling to other time periods, while Gwyneth has lived the life of a normal teenager. So it’s a big shock to everyone involved when it turns out that Gwyneth can travel back in time and Charlotte cannot.

Now Gwyneth is hardly normal—she’s a time traveler, and not just any time traveler, but the “ruby”, the last and most important traveler. Of course, Gwyneth is hardly prepared for everything expected of her, and it doesn’t help her that none of the Guardians, the time traveling inner circle, seem to trust her. Or tell her anything useful that could help her. All Gwyneth knows is that her cousin Lucy Montrose and Lucy’s husband Paul de Villiers stole the chronograph, the “time machine” per say, and are hiding in the past. Everyone seems intent on finding Lucy and Paul, and even more intent on “closing the circle”. But all Gwyneth has to go on are snippets of an old prophecy and the internet research of her best friend Lesley.

ImageMuch like in The Hunger Games, Twilight, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, Kiera Cass’ The Selection, and other YA novels, Ruby Red is about a normal girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances—Katniss into the Hunger Games, Bella into a world of vampires and werewolves, Alina into the Grisha, and America into the Selection. This is the foundational premise of YA novels targeted a female audience, and not without reason. Books like these promise girls who feel ordinary that they are indeed special and are capable of great things. It’s an important and valid message. The whole point is that the reader can relate to the heroine and identify with her, because the heroine is supposed to be every girl. But how relatable are some of these YA heroines? It’s hard to see Katniss as “every girl”. How many of us can identify with what she went through? And hopefully real girls are a little more interesting than Bella Swan. Not every heroine really seems to quite fit with the “every girl” trope of the YA heroine, which makes her difficult to relate to.

But Gwyneth is different, perfectly representing the dichotomy of normality and specialness of the heroine. She has common interests—movies, books, music. She has a normal girl’s life—friends, school, family. She leads a remarkably typical teenage girl’s story, boy problems included. This makes her an incredibly relatable character, which makes the time traveling adventure part of the story even more exciting. Unlike other YA heroines, Gwyneth fulfills her promise to her audience that even the most normal girl is in store for an exciting adventure and is capable of greatness and courage.

ImageThere are other wonderful aspects of Grier’s story. The love interest storyline is up and down, keeping it more original than most YA novels. And rather than focus on the romantic relationship, Grier places just as much emphasis on Gwyneth’s relationship with her best friend Lesley and her family. The series reads more like one big book than three books, and it is full of delightful twists and turns. Grier weaves together character, plot, themes, and setting in a beautiful way that makes Ruby Red a fantastic read. And the heroine shines out in a sea of YA characters female protagonists. Gwyneth is you. Gwyneth is me. If I may, she’s the Martin Freeman of YA heroines. She’s the most extraordinary normal girl you’ll ever meet.

P.S. There’s a movie too. Trailer. Full movie.

A Sister’s Love

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Sisters Anna (left) and Elsa (right).

This Frozen review is happening a week after I saw the movie because I had a difficult time putting my thoughts into words. Now I’m going to try, but I still don’t know if I’ll be able to contain my feels. After waiting so long for Disney’s next animated princess movie, it felt like Christmas morning when I finally woke up on the day Frozen came out. I was nervous that the movie would disappoint all of my expectations, but people aren’t lying when they say Frozen is up there with Disney classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the movie with minimal spoilers. It is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, but it’s as close to the original story as Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Elsa and Anna are princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa, the oldest, was born with a special power—she can create snow. However, after she accidentally injures Anna, Elsa becomes afraid of her power and hides it as best she can. The king and queen decide it is best if they close the doors of Arendelle until Elsa can learn to control her power, and in order to protect her sister, Elsa distances herself from Anna. Fast forward a few years and Elsa is being crowned queen and the doors of the kingdom are being opened. But something goes wrong at the coronation and Elsa runs away, leaving Arendelle frozen in winter. Anna sets off after her sister, teaming up with ice harvester Kristoff. Adventure ensues.

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Prince Hans meets Princess Anna.

I can’t possibly talk about everything I want to with Frozen, so I’ll break it down into sections—the characters, the music, and the themes. First, the characters. I loved them all! I think the most surprising character was Olaf. When I first heard that Frozen would include a talking snowman, I thought it was too ridiculous. Boy was I wrong. Olaf was funny, heartwarming, and added a valuable part to the story as the representation of Elsa and Anna’s childhood friendship.

Anna is Disney’s most adorkable princess ever, genuine, persistent, funny, kind, and brave. She’s a very relatable princess and very endearing. Elsa is also extremely relatable to anyone who ever felt like they had to hide part of themselves. Elsa’s actions are motivated by her love for her sister, just as Anna’s actions are motivated by her love for Elsa. Kristoff is also endearing, especially when communicating with his reindeer Sven. He helps Anna find Elsa’s ice castle and is one of the few people who is an awe of Elsa’s power rather than afraid. And Hans, the prince who comes to Arendelle for Elsa’s coronation, is a major plot twist so I’m not going to say anything. But I liked it.

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Kristoff, the ice harvester who helps Anna travel up the mountain to find her sister Elsa.

The music was incredible, the songs (by Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) and the score (by Christophe Beck). Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa and the original star of the musical Wicked, has an incredible voice, so it is no surprise that her song “Let It Go” is amazing. The animation during this song (Elsa letting her power go and building an ice castle) is stunning and complements the music superbly. Most people know Kristen Bell (Anna) as girl detective Veronica Mars, but now everyone knows that she can sing! She has the quintessential Anna voice, perky and sincere, especially in the song “For The First Time In Forever”.

Emily and I saw Santino Fontana (Hans) on Broadway in Cinderella, so we both knew that he had a stunning voice. His duet with Kristen Bell, “Love Is An Open Door”, is a very fun love duet.  Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) also has an amazing voice, though he only has one small song, “Reindeer Are Better Than People”. There are a few chorus numbers in the movie, an opening song performed by ice harvesters that sets the tone of the movie very well and “Fixer Upper” sung by the rock trolls. People might be surprised by how many songs there are in Frozen, more than your typical Disney movie. The beginning seems to move from song to song, but they are all amazing so I didn’t mind!

Lastly, the themes. The story of Frozen is entertaining, heartwarming, and quite deep. Unlike most Disney films, the central relationship in Frozen is not romantic, but rather the love between the two sisters. This is not only refreshing, but deeply moving. In one scene, a troll tells Anna and Kristoff that only an act of true love can save them and the kingdom, but this act of true love ends up being Anna’s act of love for her sister. It’s heartwarming to see Disney acknowledge that there are different, but just as important, types of true love besides romance. That’s the theme surrounding Anna—unconditional love for her sister.

ImageThe theme surrounding Elsa is how she handles her power. After she accidentally injures Anna, a troll tells her that fear will be her greatest enemy. Elsa lives in constant fear that she will hurt her sister, and in her fear she fails to control her power. Alone on the mountain, Elsa gets the chance to “let it go”, but when Anna finally finds her, Elsa still hasn’t learned to control her fear, and she injures Anna again. It is only after Anna’s act of love that Elsa realizes that as long as she lives in fear she will never control her power. Once she understands that love is more powerful than fear, she saves Arendelle and herself.

Kristoff, like Anna, is a wonderful example of unconditional and selfless love. Hans is also wrapped in so many themes but I can’t because spoilers. Just go see the movie. It is truly Disney magic. It is charming, funny, heartwarming, and visually stunning. I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it again! And to see what Disney does next. We may be seeing a Third Golden Age, people.

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