Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

The Raven and the Reindeer – T. Kingfisher

“Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.”

Her whole life, Gerta has been infatuated with the boy who lives next door, Kay, despite him being rather cold and inconsistent and just a little bit cruel. When he is spirited away in the night by the Snow Queen, a creature of dark myth, Gerta feels she has no choice but to go and rescue him.

As she journeys to the far north she encounters witches, plant dreams, a talking raven, and a magical reindeer (sort of). Oh, and a bandit girl who kisses her, quite unexpectedly 😉 No matter what happens when they reach the Snow Queen’s palace, Gerta will never be the same again.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read the Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, and if so I don’t remember all that much. And the movie Frozen is probably best glossed over, tbh 😉 None of that really matters, though, because Ursula Vernon (writing here as ‘T Kingfisher’ to keep the darker works separate from her children’s books) puts her own – invariably far better – twist on everything.

I’ve followed Ursula’s blog for years, so I know well her love for plants and animals, and both shine through her work. Thus we get a raven who can speak, but remains resolutely raven-ish and all the more fun for it. He – aka ‘The Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God’ (I mean, how fabulous is that?!) – provides some much-needed levity in an otherwise rather dark tale.

Despite the dark overtones, I really enjoyed this tale. A little bit of research shows that most of the original elements are present, but given a modern spin and thus far less objectionable to the poor women involved! Indeed, all the main characters, and most of the minor ones, are female here, with the main male reduced to the role of ‘princess who needs rescued’. Refreshing!

Kindle: 191 pages / 40 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: could be loosely linked with other fairy tale retellings, Bryony and Roses, and The Seventh Bride
Read from 19th-21st December 2016

My rating: 8/10

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”

Deep in rural Rus(sia) – some 200 years before the rise of Ivan the Terrible – Vasilisa is the youngest child of the local lord, allowed to run somewhat wild after her mother dies in childbirth. Life is hard in the cold North, but Vasya’s (yes, prepare for all those strange Russian pet-name forms!) life only grows difficult with the arrival of her new, young stepmother. The two are the only ones who seem to see the domovoi, the household spirits, but their reactions couldn’t be more different.

When an ambitious and charismatic young priest is sent to the village, hell bent on driving such superstitions out of the local populace, it isn’t long before darker forces begin to gather, looking for a way in…

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely mix of a fairy tale and a history lesson. With all the classic elements – evil stepmother, helpful sprites only the heroine can see, etc – it would be easy to turn this into a cosy folklore retelling, which would be interesting enough especially with the Russian setting.

However, the story becomes something that much more powerful by being full of excellent (or so I’m told) historical detail. The sense of this being a real place and period of history stops the fairy tale taking over, giving the whole thing that much of a darker edge.

That too, though, is the weakness. It took me several chapters to settle into reading this, largely because the history and level of detail makes for a rather slow read. As Vasya grows up, there is a very unwelcome hint of sexual violence, particularly as girls became women at an age we’d find shocking now, and just the general less-than-pleasant treatment of women ‘back in the day’ (hah!). That she overcomes so much and remains so staunchly a feminist hero as she takes on all the real and un-real worlds can throw at her just feels a little like wish fulfilment.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The pacing is a little slow, and the occasional switch of viewpoint doesn’t help with a consistent tone, but overall the world building is superb, and the story both sweetly familiar and nicely just a bit different.

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / 28 chapters
First published: January 2017
Series: the author says on GoodReads that there will be two sequels – yay!
Read from 22nd November- 6th December 2016

My rating: 8.5/10

The Seventh Bride – T. Kingfisher

“Her name was Rhea.”

Re-tellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales have been all the rage for quite a while now, and to be honest, if you’re feeling a little bored of all that then I don’t blame you. But perhaps you could put that aside for just a few minutes, and consider T.Kingfisher – the pseudonym for the wondrous Ursula Vernon’s not-for-kids work – and this charming little tale.

For a start, it really helps that the fairy tale in question isn’t one of the obvious ones. Bluebeard is a typically nasty children’s tale, about a serial groom and his string of vanished wives. Kingfisher’s version adds a good twist to the idea, a large dollop of magic, and a hedgehog.

While this definitely isn’t for younger readers, as per Ursula Vernon’s e.g. Hamster Princess series, it inhabits that odd place between that and a ‘grown up’ book. It’s still very much in the fairy-tale realm, with an added dark sensibility. If I had to compare it to anything, it’d be Neil Gaiman, and possibly his slightly younger-skewed work. Which is a compliment!

Although the ending felt a very little flat compared to the bulk of the book, and I can see how I’d have to be ‘in the mood’ again to really enjoy the style, I did love the language and telling enough to want to go and buy the rest of the T. Kingfisher catalog.

eARC from NetGalley: 183 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: could be linked together with Bryony and Roses and The Raven and the Reindeer
Read from 18th-20th February 2016

My rating: 7/10