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Book Review: Iron Hearted Violet

15/60 books in my Goodreads challenge! 25% of the way, yay to myself. Kelly Barnhill‘s Iron Hearted Violet is exactly my type of reading: young adult fantasy with a strong female heroine. I lapped it up in a couple of hours. The Who Girl Who Drank the Moon also by this author blew me away, so I decided to try this earlier book. Before proceeding: Spoiler Alerts!!!

It’s interesting that you can really note how an author advances in his / her writing, as the prose in Iron Hearted Violet is not as smooth as The Girl Who Drank The Moon. Some changes happened rather quickly without solid reasoning or explanation, and sometimes characters were introduced and re-introduced (the Captain Marda) without a certain reason as to why the special treatment if they were only minor characters.

A Fantasy to Challenge Beauty Ideals

Princess Violet was born ugly, unlike her beautiful Queen mother. But what she lacked in looks she overflowed in wits, energy, and vitality. The country loved her until an old creature called the Nybbas saw an opportunity to use Violet’s looks against herself and everyone else. The schemes of the Nybbas sowed insecurities inside the Princess, and soon our heroine starts to self-destruct. Something worth mentioning is that in the illustrations, Violet looked just fine-she didn’t look ugly at all.

I liked that the ideal of beauty was challenged, but I did not agree with the choice of the challenge. In Iron Hearted Violet, real princesses had to have long beautiful hair. Of course Violet then asked this from the Nybbas, and later found out how annoying it was to have long beautiful hair. I personally don’t have anything against it. In fact, in some Native American and shamanistic cultures, hair was recognized as part of the person’s very soul and energy. That’s why shamans grow out their hair.

A Plethora of Supporting Creatures

The stable boy Demetrius proves a great supporting character, while the Nybbas is truly a villain. There was no gray in-betweens in Iron Hearted Violet. The antagonist was a dirty lying creature to its core. Any sympathy you show the creature will be used against a you-just look at what happened to the Mad King of the Lowlands. His body basically was eaten from within by golden fire breathing lizards that were armies of the Nybbas.

There is an old wise, fairy/leprechaun lady called Auntie who continuously calls another younger fairy/leprechaun “idiot.” This kind of language doesn’t sit right with me, even if I know the context is love. Maybe the word “silly” will do?

The star of the book was, of course, the dragon. The last dragon left in Violet’s mirrored world was ancient, old, broken, and frankly in a deep depression. Violet manages to befriend the dragon and operate a procedure that returns its youth and power. Together, they defeat the Nybbas.

Having just watched Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, I realized how very different are portrayals of dragons in western fantasy literature in comparison to eastern fantasy literature. This fascinating topic deserves a blog post to itself, but suffice it to say for now that anything with girls, dragons, calm reliable supporters, and magic is a recipe I like.

The execution though could have been more polished. My rating is 3/5.

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Book Review: Omoiyari

Omoiyari by Erin Niimi Longhurst is the 12th book I read this year. The 11th book was The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, which I reviewed on my TikTok account.

I usually buy and read books on my super antique Kindle (I got it way back in 2008!). So I go to bookstores and later buy the Kindle version because it’s often cheaper. This one, however, had such a beautiful cover that I could not resist. My husband Cung was familiar with Ryo Takemasa as an illustrator, so I thought if I’m going to buy a hardcopy, might as well buy a beautifully colored one.

Lovely Illustrations

The photography and illustrations did not disappoint. They were very well chosen with the philosophies of Japanese culture that the author brought up. A delightful book for my eyes.

I always enjoy learning more about different cultures (well this whole book is about another culture) so I was satisfied with learning about concepts such as omoiyari, kintsugi, and senzaburu (a thousand paper cranes) from the author.

The Reader’s Historical Background

Photo from teamtouring.net

Looking deeper into myself however, I realized that this book triggered some things inside. Being Indonesian, I am exposed through our history to all the horrors of the Japanese invasion from 1942-1945. There was a lot of horror during those years. When the author talked about forest-bathing as Japanese culture, I think of Taman Hutan Raya Djuanda, the forest in Bandung that I regularly walk at. In this forest, there are caves and tunnels called Dutch Caves and Japanese Caves where Japanese soldiers hid their ammunition.

It also evokes a book I read last year titled The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See about the haenyo (female divers) of Jeju Island. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, including Jeju. Oh goodness, some of the stories were too painful to read. 

So for me, as much as I enjoyed learning about the compassionate side of Japanese culture, I also remember that there are two sides to everything. Even the most beautiful cultures have committed dark atrocities.

I suppose that is just the reality of this world.

Have you read Omoiyari? What did you think?

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Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Five Stars. I haven’t been this excited about Disney since Frozen (the first one) came out back in 2013. And I hope Raya and the Last Dragon goes the way of Frozen in terms of popularity. Before I gush on about why I love Raya, let me go over two minor factors I wished was different. Before you proceed: Spoiler Alerts!!

Music

We all miss the Disney musical magic when it hits the right spot with songs. I can imagine how awesome it would be if it was a full blown musical with sounds of traditional Southeast Asian instruments such as gamelan, angklung, kendang (the list goes on because there is so many) mixed with the modern orchestrations of James Newton Howard.

Ending

Everyone that was altered by the Druun (a form of negative energy that turns living beings into stone) returned back to their original form in the end. Okay, so we probably saw this coming, being a Disney children movie and all that, but it’s cliché. Every one comes back to life? We know that’s not what happens in reality. I mean, so far not one person I know that has died has ever managed to come back to life, no matter how much I decide to trust other people…I guess once you have experienced death, your outlook on everything changes (read about my discussion on coping with grief). One might argue it’s a children movie, but children face death, grief, and loss just as much as adults do.

One might argue it’s a children movie, but children face death, grief, and loss just as much as adults do.

That’s it. Now moving on the the reasons why I cried buckets until my eyes were swollen afterwards.

Southeast Asian Culture

As an Indonesian, I know the richness of the culture in this area of the world. It’s one of the hotspots of cultural diversity, and I have always wondered when Disney would create something from Southeast Asia folklores. FINALLY, it does so with a bang in Raya and the Last Dragon. I loved all the little cultural details they depicted, like taking off shoes as a sign of respect, soup which looks like tom-yum (my favorite Thai soup), Tuk-Tuk (a term for a vehicle which is a cross between a motorcycle and a car), even the con baby. Yes, they use con babies here to beg money from you in the streets. It’s a sad but true sign of the large socio-economic disparity you can see everyday on our streets.

My favorite cultural detail was how they incorporated wordless gestures as a sign of respect. When Namaari passed the garden of the stone dragons in worshipful silence and showed the statues the circle hand gesture of respect – gorgeous.

Female Power

There was no trope gender issues like in the recent Mulan. The females here were skilled, trained, and powerful. There were no problems that the Chief of Fang was a woman, nor that Raya was to be the next Chief of Heart after her father. Cute old Grandma was the meanest mafia boss Talon had ever seen, and of course, baby Noi steals the show!

Humor and Richness of Emotions

So much joyful humor, especially from the dragon Sisu as voiced by Awkwafina. The young entrepreneur (boatpreneur?) Boun was also a lovingly hilarious treat. His character shows the optimistic, youthful entrepreneurial spirit that exists all across Southeast Asia.

The emotional intensity of Raya and the Last Dragon lays in trust and betrayal of that trust. Everyone who has ever been betrayed or stabbed in the back will understand Raya’s internal struggle.

Sense of Wonder

What cemented this movie for me was Namaari’s love and sense of wonder for the dragons. That look on her face when she saw Sisu for the first time-I know that look. It’s the look on my face when I dive and see a mola-mola (the elusive sunfish) for the first time, or when a whaleshark suddenly appears in the deep blue.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.

Rumi

Disney hit this on the nail. In the midst of brokenness, there is astonishing unexplainable beauty for those who still seek it.

Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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Movie Review: Radioactive (2020)

“I have suffered much more from a lack of resources and funds, than I ever did from being a woman,” says Marie Curie in the 2020 retelling of her life: Radioactive. Directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) with Rosamund Pike as the brilliant scientist, this movie aims to be an inspiration to young girls.

How is Radioactive inspiring young girls?

Marie Curie’s life is already an inspiration; 2 Nobel prizes in the field of physics and chemistry. Satrapi adds into this her bold directing vision: cutting and lurching to scenes in the future which are completely unrelated to the plot. Right after Marie Curie announces their discovery of two new elements-radium and polonium-the scene launches to a doctor in Cleveland, Ohio, explaining a new medical treatment for cancer called radiation. At one of the most heart-wrenching moments of Pike’s acting, the scene cuts to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986.

Some movie lovers will despise this style of storytelling. I, however, found this reinforcement of dichotomy to be brave and daring, showing how the actions in one person’s life can create such impact (for the better or for the worse) into the future. Marie Curie directly impacted her daughter Irene (played by Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit), who went on to win a Nobel prize of her own. Indirectly Marie Curie impacted humankind all around the globe forevermore. To me, this gives the extraordinary message that women do have power.

To me, this gives the extraordinary message that women do have power.

Despite all odds, the headstrong Marie was able to find a husband that respected and supported her science. For a moment, at least, it was possible to have both love and a dazzling career. I find this to be another powerful message for a world which tells women that we have to choose. We can have love but we must clip our wings, or we can choose a glorious career but stay a spinster until old age.

“I wasn’t a very good mother, was I?” Marie admits to an adult Irene as they are heading into a World War I battlefield. Mothering is difficult. Put on top of that being a single mother and juggling a world famous career. How does one play all these roles? Is it even possible? Or are these illogical demands we put on girls and women who long to have both kids and a CV? And yet, Irene Curie turned out just fine in her own accord.

Finally, I was most taken aback by the line that Marie Curie suffered more from lack of resources than from being a woman. This is so fresh. Satrapi’s Curie never victimizes herself as a woman dominated by men. She is confident with her mind, her values, and her worth. And this is why I find Radioactive so inspiring.

Have you seen Radioactive? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Series Review: His Dark Materials (Season 2)

Season 2 of HBO’s His Dark Materials just finished on the 21st of December, with a 7th episode that will not disappoint fans. After a slow build up throughout this season, the last two episodes have been fast paced as everyone intersects in a world inhibited by soul sucking creatures known as specters (think JK Rowling’s dementors).

In this world, a weapon called The Subtle Knife was made which can slice through anything: even the veils between universes. Here Will Parry, destined Bearer of the Knife meets our heroine Lyra Silvertongue. Here also their budding relationship starts, triggering events which will lead to The Fall of Eve. The witches know that Lyra is Eve, so they rally to protect her.

How Does the Show Compare to the Book?

HBO largely preserves author Phillip Pullman’s masterful storytelling, with the exception of how one of the character’s die. HBO also took more liberty to dig deeper into Mrs. Coulter’s psychology, but who wouldn’t with such a bravura performance by Ruth Wilson?

Would I Recommend to Friends?

Not if you are a religious conservative. Unlike The Golden Compass (2007 film with Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter), HBO stays true to Pullman’s main views about freedom of will, the importance of celebrating physical and natural senses, and the unjust tyranny of, well, God himself. If you’re more open to such view, then this is an epic series absolutely worth your time.

What Did I Like Most?

Amir Wilson as Will Parry! He carries the brooding outcast-warrior character well.

What Did I Like Least?

What in the multiple worlds happened to our heroine? Lyra was clever, confident, and relentless throughout Season 1. Here she gets more and more subdued towards the end of Season 2. She questions herself, the aletheometer, makes too big a deal of her mistakes, and lets her fears dictate her decisions. Is it really necessary to put her into such a corner? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Do you follow this series? What did you think?

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Series Review: The Queen’s Gambit

Easily one of the best Netflix series in 2020 is the fictional story of Beth Harmon, child chess prodigy. Told in 6 episodes, The Queen’s Gambit had me completely hooked since the first move to the last checkmate. I am a chess lover and amateur chess player, so I could really appreciate the interplay between the game and her life.

“It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

Beth Harmon, The queen’s Gambit

In chess every player begins with the same pieces. The area is defined, the rules are clear. Everyone is equal in the game. How different it is in the real world, especially in a society that downplays women! There are so many factors which daily put women at a disadvantage, making it seem like a woman is fighting not just one, but several different armies at once. As a chess master, Beth actually does this a couple times throughout the series. This display shows off not only her chess skills but all of the challenges she has to overcome in order to be the world champion.

Beth enters into a special mental state in order to visualize the chess board on the ceiling. It is a state of deep concentration. Relaxed yet focused, calm yet ready. Many athletes, performing artists, and writers will be familiar with this state of mind. It can be practiced daily with meditation techniques. Beth thought (wrongly) that she could only get to that special mind place with substances. She became addicted, and her addiction could have destroyed her life if not for unexpected friends who stepped in just in time. What a lesson about friendship. It reminded me of how a couple of friends helped me survive and move past my own eating disorder, which lasted a whole decade.

All in all, I loved the Queen’s Gambit, and would recommend it to anyone, even those who don’t like chess.

I didn’t read the book though, so if anyone has read the book, please let me know in the comments what you thought of the novel?