Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

Book Review:(S)mythology by Jeremy Tarr

Article first published as Book Review: (S)mythology by Jeremy Tarr, Illustrated by Katy Smail on Blogcritics.

(S)mythology bills itself as a contemporary fairy tale and that it is: a very whimsical, very adult fairy tale. This dark, yet touching tale stars Sophie, a dreamer and innocent naïf who searches for her ideal love. (S)mythology features a quirky cast of characters who both help and hinder Sophie in her classic Hero’s Quest, including Poseidon, a Guru, mermaids and all manner of fish and fowl, both fair and foul.

Many of the ideals of love are up-ended here. Sophie looks for love in the archetypal, bump-into-a-stranger on the street style and that is exactly how she meets Smyth, in a fateful rickshaw accident. They fall in love and wish to live happily ever after, except…Sophie is cursed. Anyone who loves her and looks upon her is turned to stone. She craves love and stability and a family, but she ends up with a collection of statues instead.

Like Orpheus, she goes into the Underworld to rescue Smyth. She fools Death once, but Death can only be fooled once. Without ruining anything I will tell you that people die and bad things happen to good people, as they do in real life (and in fairy tales). There are some sequences that are squeamish and not for the faint-of-heart, but the redemption of the story is worth enduring the dark bits.

One common theme in the book is eyes, and sight or seeing/not-seeing. Often, the blind characters see far more clearly than the seeing ones do. Sophie allows her ideals of love to get in the way of seeing the true love she actually possesses. But all ends up as it should, with lessons learned and an ending that is both delicate and sweet, like the last bit of summer’s ice cream melting away.

The website (http://www.smythology.co.uk/) is quite clever and deserves a visit on its own merits. You can read an excerpt from the book and visit the different locations (including Londontown and the Underworld).

The stylized and whimsical artwork by Katy Smail deserves its own special mention. This is a new breed of illustrated book, a novel with lots of pictures (64 illustrations in total). The illustrations capture the ups and downs of Sophie’s quest and blend with the story perfectly; it is a magnificent synergy of art and writing, one in which the one almost could not exist without the other.

I highly recommend (S)mythology for those who love the work of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and those with fairy tale sensibilities, those who know that when life intervenes to prevent the ideal, it sometimes offers a happy ending anyway.

Published by The Big Head.
http://www.smythology.co.uk/

Music Review: Handmade by Hindi Zahra

Article first published as Music Review: Hindi Zahra – Handmade on Blogcritics.

Most people would say four or five focused listens would probably be sufficient to write an album’s review. As far as Hindi Zahra’s Handmade (Naïve Records), I passed that threshold weeks ago. I can’t stop listening to it. I keep it in my car; no matter where I go, I find a song which speaks to my mood. To date this is easily my favorite album this year, at once sophisticated, exotic and evocative.

Though she would likely be categorized under “World Music,” Zahra fuses musical cultures freely to create her own sounds. A Berber girl born in Morocco, she takes her own musical heritage and seamlessly integrates it with blues, jazz and gypsy, among countless other influences.

As a breakthrough album, Handmade is nothing short of astonishing. Zahra wrote the songs, played instruments, sang and self-produced with a restrained hand. Each track offers slightly different tones and shades, like a rainbow scarf slipping through your hands.

“Beautiful Tango” makes you want to dance barefoot, a swirl of silk tied on, arms jangling with a hundred bracelets — rather like Hindi Zahra: “Come speak the secret words in Spanish / Where the night turns out the light of day for us to show some courage,” she croons, against a backdrop of hand-claps and hand drums.

You should listen to “Fascination” in the car with the window down, wrist swimming against the wind. Listening to her pronunciations is a pleasure; she says “sou-ven-ir,” reminding you of the word’s French origin. “Set Me Free” feels like a modern update of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: “Come on and break those chains / and leave me alone baby / ‘Cause you don’t know how to give me good love / And mine is never enough.”

“Imik Si Mik” has a faint Paris Combo flavor and is so upbeat that you can’t help but bounce along, despite the faint melancholy of its lyrics. With its chill and dreamy vibe, “Kiss & Thrills” is mesmerizing. I don’t so much as listen to this song as I do feel it, and it’s jolting when it ends.

At first I thought the live set offered at the end of Handmade might strike me as a little redundant, as several of its songs are repeated. I was completely wrong. In this unplugged context she reinvents the studio versions, stripping out the production to offer more old-school interpretations.

Zahra quite possibly is the love child of Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, alternatively warm and then cool, her voice ululating with suppleness. If Casablanca was remade (as problematic as that would be), I’d instantly want her cast as a torch singer in Sam’s Place. I want to hear her cover all the War-era tunes, starting with “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” Another standout is “Don’t Forget,” rendered in the style of Doris Day or Billie Holiday.

I spend a lot of time listening to music from past eras, and so I was slow to realize the uniqueness of the sound this young musician creates. In comparison with much of today’s frenetic, auto-tuned beats, Hindi Zahra’s music feels relievingly classic, like dipping into a pool of fresh, cool water.

Handmade was heralded as one of the most anticipated albums of the fall by New York Magazine. Do yourself a big favor and purchase this album. Share it with your friends; they’ll think you’ve been clairvoyant once Zahra achieves the massive commercial success she deserves.

Handmade will be available on Amazon.com as a digital download on September 26. Visit Hindi Zahra’s official website and YouTube channel for more information.

3 Question View – Ananda

This post is the eighth of a new series, highlighting talented artists whose work I admire. You can find quick links to the other 3QV’s on the right-hand sidebar of the blog.

I call it ‘3 Question View’ because it’s limited to three questions (Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three) and it’s a rather truncated inter-view, designed to elicit three compelling answers from each artistic mind.

3 Question View – Ananda 
(Guillaume Ananda Coantic)
Singer/Songwriter, www.followananda.com
Anna:
Your influences have been global, as your French parents met in India and you have lived in places as diverse as Ghana and New York. How have the places you lived shaded the ideas and rhythms of your music? Where would you like to live next?
Ananda:
Traveling and meeting new people is definitely a key source of inspiration. The time I spent in Ghana was such an experience and I’ve learned a lot recording with the Pidgen Music label. It was also fantastic to go on tour with such amazing West African musicians.

Working with Tony Graci in New York was unforgettable and the recording of We Will Go was such a smooth process. Tony is a talented music producer and an incredible musician. I love the energy of NYC; it is very powerful.

Now I’m planning to spend some time in Nashville and very much looking forward to that.

Anna:
You started playing instruments at the age of 12. In your video “You and Me”, you play piano quite lyrically. When you are writing a song, how do you decide what will accompany your voice? Do you choose the piano versus the guitar based on mood? Which is easier to write for? What is an instrument you would like to learn?
Ananda:
Thank you. Actually, I like to compose and play on both guitar and piano. It’s just a different way to express my feelings, like using different languages to sing. Now I’ve started to play the banjo and it’s a great instrument; it can bring a certain mood, a very unique feeling.

Anna:
Your newest video is called “Standing Alone”. The lyrics are simple (“I’m standing alone now / Alone”), but the imagery communicates a vast feeling of solitude and yearning. What was the inspiration for this song and video? In your creative process, what is the part of being alone that you like best? And least?

Ananda:
This song represents for me a new way to create music. I’ve been working with a twelve-musician band in Ghana and then I started to compose the album We Will Go, which is more personal and mainly based on guitar-voice combinations. Also, I like to be alone in nature, that helps me to find some peace of mind. It’s really useful when writing songs!

I like writing songs on my own, but then at some point it’s vital for me to play with musicians.

Ananda
You can visit Ananda’s website: www.followananda.com
Follow Ananda on Twitter: @followananda
Follow Ananda on Facebook: www.facebook.com/followananda
Purchase We Will Go on iTunes

DVD Review: The Thomas Hardy Collection

Article first published as DVD Review: The Thomas Hardy Collection on Blogcritics.

To many people, the name Thomas Hardy will draw a blank, but he is quite well-known through the titles of his books: Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thomas Hardy wrote of 19th century rural England and the conflict that ensues when the poor bump up against the wealthy. The Thomas Hardy Collection is a two-disc DVD set, containing imaginings of two of Hardy’s greatest works, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1998) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (2001).

Of the two, it’s easier to love Tess as a protagonist. Justine Waddell is an inspired choice and believable as a period heroine, all billowy clouds of brown hair and pure pale skin. Her Tess evolves from glowy farm girl to hollow-cheeked beauty ground up by poverty and then finally to fae-like impulse child with nothing to lose. Arguably one of the most believably written women in the English language, Tess appeals to modern audience with her bold independence.


Justine WaddellThe first time Tess leaves home, she tries to improve her family’s situation by approaching the wealthy D’Urberville family, to whom she mistakenly believes she is related. She staunchly refuses the advances of the master of the house, Alec D’Urberville (an excellent Jason Flemyng).

There’s a charming sequence involving Tess trying to whistle at the songbirds, at the request of the eccentric Lady D’Urberville: “Mother won’t be happy with you unless you can whistle to her birds”, teases Alec, whistling before he kisses her on the cheek. She pulls away and he snappily retorts: “I taught you whistling, cuz, and one day I’ll teach you kissing.” As a Victorian tragedy, though, such repartee does not lead to happiness.

Tess takes takes a job as a milkmaid, which offers a second sighting of her first love – Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn). This film version will introduce you to the unexpected romance of milking a cow, the sideways glance along the haunch. Symbolism of the natural world and its dangers abound: the sharpening of a scythe, the pricking of rose thorns. Watching love’s petals unfold for Angel is touching, but Tess has been compromised and happiness is all too brief.

The ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is abrupt after such an epic travel, but oh, what a journey. Both books (as well as the movie adaptations) are set in the semi-fictional part of England known as Wessex, based on Hardy’s homeland of Dorchester.Tess of the D’Urbervilles features idyllic artistic visuals, from May Day dances to gloriously golden brown harvests, industrial age machines contrasted with peasants bent-back from scything.

Contrasted with Tess’ indomitable resourcefulness is the character of Mike Henchard. Henchard is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, a believably flawed man who is the sole disruptor of his own happiness.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard starts off as a drunken sot who sells off his wife and infant daughter for money to drink. This leads him to vow off alcohol for a period of 21 years and he manages to build himself a life of respectability as a prominent corn and grains merchant.

Ciaran Hinds
Henchard, played by the ever-astonishing Ciaran Hinds, is by turns unfaithful, fickle, cruel and unjust. A chance at redemption arrives in the appearance of his formerly-sold wife and their now-adult daughter. They are destitute and so move to Casterbridge where she poses as a widow and he “marries” her. He confides in his new manager, the confident and charming Farfrae (James Purefoy), of his past shame.

Lucetta (Polly Walker), a wealthy widow loved and abandoned by Henchard, seizes her chance at happiness and marries Farfrae, who up till now had courted Henchard’s daughter. Henchard sees both of the women he loves being lost to Farfrae and jealousy blooms, leading him to a series of bad business and personal decisions.

One consistent thread through the The Mayor of Casterbridge is the female characters’ anxiety about their public reputation and lack of control over their destiny; this is shown in moments like the suspenseful delicacy of opening a highly-anticipated letter.

Lies are told, secrets are kept, and shame is hidden until publicly exposed. Henchard’s weaknesses lead to the loss of all he holds dear; the plot rivets your gaze, like a carriage crash in slow motion.


This 2-DVD set is the perfect addition to any literary film buff’s library. Watching The Thomas Hardy Collection made me wish to go back and reread the books…and what greater gift can a literary movie adaptation give?