‘The Grownup’: Gillian Flynn’s Rubin vase

You know that optical illusion where you swear you see a vase but your friend keenly sees two faces. That’s the kind of story Gillian Flynn’s “The Grownup” is.

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“The Grownup”
By Gillian Flynn
62 pp. Crown Publishers. $9.99 US.
2014.

Originally published as part of George R. R. Martin’s “Rogues” anthology under the name “What Do You Do?,” “The Grownup” is like the Rubin vase exercise, holding two images in the same frame.

The main character is an wannabe writer who is a voracious reader. She catalogs great lines for her memoir and begins with this one: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Written in first person, “The Grownup” is a classic story about an unreliable narrator. We don’t ever find out her name, but if we believe the narrator, she grew up conning people out of their money, telling them stories that they wanted to hear. Now she’s a fake aura reader who also gives hand jobs for money at this joint called Spiritual Palms.

This becomes problematic when she meets Susan Burke, a wealthy client whose family moves into Carterhook Manor, an 1893 Victorian mansion. Susan thinks the house is haunted and our heroine would love the extra cash; the latter, however, isn’t as easy as it seems.

At 62 pages, “The Grownup” is a slim novella. Yet within those 62 pages, Gillian Flynn (author of book-turned-movie “Gone Girl”) skillfully maneuvers the twists and turns she’s so well known for.

While “The Grownup” is a quick read, it’ll have your second guessing what you believe.

‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Mortal Engines’ in ‘Seeker’

Editor’s Note: This review is based on an Advanced Reader’s Copy obtained from Delacorte Press, a children’s books division of Random House LLC. Price and page count are tentative.  

For George R.R. Martin fans, the format of Arwen Elys Dayton’s upcoming young adult steampunk/fantasy novel, “Seeker,” is familiar. Like “Game of Thrones,” each chapter alternates points of view, shedding light on teens inheriting their birthrights.

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

“Seeker”
By Arwen Elys Dayton
448 pp. Delacorte Press.
$18.99 U.S./$25.99 CAN.
Feb. 10, 2015

There’s 15-year-old Quin Kincaid, a strong and pale, dark-haired beauty who could have been a heroine from a Tamora Pierce novel; 15-year-old Shinobu MacBain, Quin’s handsome half Japanese third cousin; and 16-year-old John Hart, Quin’s brown-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend. The three are vying to be Seekers, mysterious sworn assassins who topple evil dictators and right wrongs. Armed with time traveling stones called athames (pronounced ATH-uh-mays), Seekers have “the power of life and death.” But as these young Seeker apprentices soon learn, the boundaries of good and evil aren’t always clear.

Dayton creates a promising world, rich with history, betrayal and revenge that it might remind you of a cross between Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series and Phillip Reeve’s YA steampunk “Predator Cities” quartet. John’s family is from a long line of Seekers whose prestige has been stolen by Quin’s father, Briac Kincaid. John’s quest for vengence brings him to the Kincaid’s large, pastoral Scottish estates, where he trains to be a Seeker — hoping to regain his family’s former wealth and power.

Like other YA novels, “Seeker” is build on unsteady foundation and the insecurities of rash, naive and volatile teenagers. The love triangle between Quin, Shinobu and John is present and unnecessary — as if Dayton’s trying to follow the footsteps of “Twilight,” “Hunger Games” and dozens of other successful book-to-movie YA franchises (“Seeker” already has a movie in the works). This makes the book unbalanced as the characters compete for dominance.

While multi-perspective stories can work very well if the world and people are fully fleshed out, “Seeker” is more plot driven than character driven. Sure, Quin, Shinobu and John have loose motives, but unlike Jon Snow the bastard, Tyrion the dwarf or even Jaime Lannister (later in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series), Dayton’s characters are missing those endearing character flaws that make George R.R. Martin’s characters so memorable.

Instead, Dayton relies on gimmicky out-of-sequence chronology to make her trilogy unpredictable. She jumps from present to past to future, teasing us before launching into the characters’ backstories. One minute, Dayton’s young heroes and heroines are fighting on Scottish estates. Eighteen months later, they’re flying airships and diving into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.

Despite its formulaic plot device and lack of focus, the mystery surrounding the Seekers may compel readers to finish the 448-page novel. The most fascinating character is Maud, a young “Dread” — one of the keepers of the Seeker’s rich history (She’s introduced about a third into the novel).

“Seeker” may be a very diluted retelling of “A Song of Ice and Fire” — trying to build another fast-paced young adult book empire. Unfortunately, it might not have all the answers we’re seeking.

“Seeker” was written by Arwen Elys Dayton and will be released on February 10, 2015. 

Magnificent ‘Maleficent’

Fractured fairy tales often recycle the same tropes (look at “Frozen” or “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but Robert Stromberg’s “Maleficent” is a beautiful, new rendition of an age-old story.

Written by Linda Woolverton (who worked on half a dozen Disney movies including “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice In Wonderland”), “Maleficent” does with “Sleeping Beauty” what Gregory Maguire did with “The Wizard of Oz.” Woolverton re-imagines the story from the villain’s perspective.

Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell and the magnificent Angelina Jolie) is a good, peaceful fairy, who guards and protects the magical land of Moors. She falls in love with a human boy (Michael Higgins and Jackson Bews) who becomes a greedy man (Sharlto Copley) that rules the human kingdom.

King Stefan rapes Maleficent to earn his title. And thus, Maleficent becomes Charles Dickens’ Miss. Havisham from “Great Expectations” — the jilted old woman in her wedding dress. Her “Estella” on men is her magic. So she curses Stefan’s only daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to an endless sleep upon her 16th birthday.

Stromberg — an Academy Award winning visual effects artist whose credits include  “The Hunger Games,“Life of Pi”, “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — makes a stunning directorial debut with “Maleficent.” The scenes in the Moors are heavenly — full of vibrant colors and creatures. He (along with more than 500 visual effects artists) shows off Jolie’s high cheekbones, piercing eyes and plump lips.

Jolie, herself, is radiant in this role — vengeful and glowing with wicked glee as she gifts Princess Aurora. But this Maleficent is also forgiving and fierce; sweet and savage; motherly and mischievous. She saves a raven whom she turns into a man (Sam Riley). And she’s not too different from Khaleesi from George R.R. Martin’s epic “Game of Thrones” saga.

Though Maleficent’s certainly ethereal, she’s more humane than her human counterparts. Copley’s character longs for a seat on the Iron Throne; his obsession with the crown rivals those playing in the “Game of Thrones.” All would be well, of course, if he’d give Maleficent her dragons.

“Maleficent” was directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton. The movies based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” and Jacob and Wilheim Grimm’s “La Briar Rose.”

The fault in Season 2 of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” Cassius tells Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Ceasar.” That, too, seems to be a recurring theme in Season 2 of writer Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black.”

The 13-episode second season of the highly anticipated prison drama — based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” — was released for streaming on Netflix last Friday.

After serving months in the Litchfield Correctional Facility for her association with her former drug-dealing girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is transferred to a Chicago prison, where she awaits trial.

Her new bunkmate’s (Rebecca Drysdale) an astrology nut who believes destiny’s in the stars. “Typically, people in prison are led astray by a powerful outside force,” she tells Piper.

But these women dug their own graves.

Kohan’s episodes feature flashbacks into the lives of the Litchfield inmates. There’s Miss. Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) — a terminally ill cancer patient who used to rob banks; Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) — an ex-communicated Catholic nun known for her activism; and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) — an orphan whose closest person to a mother is Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a conniving criminal who’s back in jail.

But even if these woman are underlings, their faces and voices aren’t forgotten. We fall in love with Kohan’s characters — played by a wonderfully diverse and talented ensemble cast. It’s a smart, calculated formula. Kohan can seamlessly introduce and kill off new characters like George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thones.” And while we curse the injustice, we’ll still be binge-watching.

So it’s no coincidence, of course, that Season 2 of “Orange Is New Black” was released the same day as the film adaptation of John Green’s teen cancer novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.” Kohan (who also created Showtime’s “Weeds”) fills her script with pop culture references — from World of Warcraft to Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.”  One of the inmates is even reading “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Like Green’s story, Kohan’s is hauntingly beautiful — filled with hope and heartbreak. Because no matter where the fault lies, prison’s supposed to be unjust.

“Orange Is the New Black” was written and created by Jenji Kohan.

‘Bella Swan’ and the Huntsman

Although Robert Pattinson has made great strides to overcome his fame as the “Twilight” saga’s Edward Cullen (with leading roles in films such as “Remember Me” and “Water for Elephants”), it’s hard to see Pattinson’s “Twilight” and real life love-interest, Kristen Stewart, as anyone other than Stephanie Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan. This is most apparent in her new movie “Snow White and the Huntsman,” where Stewart is typecast as another pale, damsel in distress.

This newest adaption of the classic Brothers Grimm tale has Stewart as the fair princess Snow White and Charlize Theron as the evil queen, Ravenna. After being told that the princess rivals the queen in beauty — and also that consuming Snow White’s heart will keep her youthful forever — Ravenna becomes keen on capturing and harnessing Snow White’s heart. However, although Snow White has been locked in the castle since her father’s death, she manages to escape into the dark forest after a blunder with the queen’s brother (Sam Spruell). Furious with the turn of events, the queen summons the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to apprehend the princess. However, once the Huntsman finds the princess, he decides to protect her journey her rather than arrest her for the queen.

Although the film is titled “Snow White and the Huntsman,” perhaps the movie should be called “The Queen and the Princess” (this movie trailer seems to agree, portraying Queen Ravenna as the lead and Snow White and the Huntsman as supporting characters). Theron carries the movie as Ravenna: a queen as cruel, vicious and human as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the ice-cold blond queen from George R. R. Martin’s and HBO’s “Game of Thones” series. While Stewart’s performance as Snow White is lackluster, Theron as Ravenna is hateful. In one scene she is surrounded by dead bodies she just consumed. “I should have killed her when she was a child,” Theron confesses in one scene. “Where is she?” she demands madly in another. However, as much as you want to hate the Queen, you can’t help but feel empathy for her.

“I, too, lost my mother when I was a young girl,” Ravenna tells a young Snow White. “I can never take your mother’s place, ever.” Some of Ravenna’s late mother’s parting words: “You’re beauty is all that can save you, Ravenna. This spell will make your beauty your power and protection.”

With touching scenes like this, you almost feel sorry for the queen.

“I was ruined by a king like you once,” Ravenna tells the king right before she stabs him in bed on their honeymoon. “I replaced his queen, an old woman. And in time, I, too, would have been replaced. Men use women, they ruin us and when they are finished with us they throw us to their dogs like scraps.” (With King Robert’s favorite hobbies as whoring and hunting, I think wife Cersei Lannister would agree with these sentiments, don’t you?) If sympathy is not what you feel, at least you understand her motivations.

As much as the character of the queen is fully fleshed out, other pieces in the movie don’t add up. For example, the movie begins with a narration by Hemsworth the Huntsman, but doesn’t conclude with one. Instead, it concludes with Stewart’s awkward smile (smirk? grimace?) as she sits before her full court. It is also unclear how the relationship between Snow White and the Huntsman resolves — even though it’s the title (and therefore subject?) of the film. Most of all, however, it’s unclear why Stewart was cast in this film.

If not for the flattering statements and reactions from the cast supporting her, it would be hard to see Stewart’s “rare beauty” and “fairness.” Sure, Stewart has moments with children and forest animals (she growls at a monster, dances with a dwarf and pets a great white stag’s muzzle), but perhaps it’s too hard to see Stewart as the epitome of good (especially when it’s easier to see her smooching her vampire boyfriend). Instead, her pureness is suggested, coaxed and reinforced through words and repetition: “She is life itself,” says Muir, one of the dwarves. “… Where she leads, I follow.” After all, how would Stewart’s cry for blood and war be moving if not for the people (or dwarves) rallying in support of her? If not for the undying love of William (Sam Clafin), her childhood friend; and the Huntsman — who both kiss her, hoping to revive her from the queen’s poisoned apple? If not for the queen — who considers the princess to be her greatest adversary? Stewart’s acting seems stale as the apple she chokes on, but perhaps that’s because the viewer’s mind is poisoned by “Twilight.”

“Snow White and the Huntsman” was directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini.