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A Lesson in Vengeance: Time for the Mental Health Discussion Nobody’s Having

Amazon.com: A Lesson in Vengeance: 9780593305829: Lee, Victoria: Books

So, I wasn’t going to write a review of this book. But I finished it over a week ago and can’t stop thinking about a few key issues. I’ve read other reviews – both negative and positive – and am a little miffed to find that no one else seems to have latched onto something I find to be an incredibly problematic part of the story.

Prepare yourself for a bit of a rant, and a lot of former psych major hypotheizing. This was a novel that I didn’t enjoy in the end, for a number of reasons, but it will certainly stick with me, and unfortunately, not in a good way.

First: I chose A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee because the theme for my book club last month was academia, and I figured dark academia was much more interesting, and this book seemed to have it all – troubled student returning to elite boarding school after traumatic incident, shadow of rumors of ghosts and Salem witches, secretive cliques, and prodigy author researching her next book on creepy campus. Ah, yes.

Well. Not quite.

The story begins with a flowing, erudite, compelling style that successfully introduces the narrator, Felicity, and her tale of woe; following a tragic mountain climbing accident, her best friend is dead, and while there’s only circumstantial evidence, rumors abound that it was murder. Dun, dun, dun!

Combine this with the legend of mysterious, unexplainable deaths among former students who were supposedly witches (oooooooh), and with a new enrollee being a prodigy bestselling teen author who wants to research this mystery for her next publication – while not believing in the witchcraft aspect for a second – and Felicity growing rather unsure what’s reality and what’s her PTSD, all of it comes together for a very atmospheric Gothic-esque tale.

Now, while remaining as spoiler-free as possible (and that’ll be tricky, but I swear I’m trying here), as we proceed further into the story, there are more and more hints to the Big Reveal, and honestly, everything’s going swimmingly – until the narration starts twisting back on itself to become unreliable.

Here begins my literary-quality rant for this book and on this ploy in general: Unreliable narrators do NOTHING beneficial for the story, or for the reader. I don’t mean when you realize the person you hoped wasn’t the murderer is, indeed, the culprit. I’m talking about when writers spends 100, even 200, possibly even 300 pages building trust between themselves and the readers – only to turn around and throw all of that away (generally in the vein of pouring a ton of gasoline to the established relationship and aiming a blow torch at it), by revealing that, in fact, the character you’ve been sympathizing with is a certified grade-A psychopath.

So, without sharing any details on what actually happens in A Lesson in Vengeance, I will say, definitively, that although I was truly enjoying the story – the flow, the tone, the building of the plot – until a little more than halfway, when it all came crashing down for me, it crashed so hard, I’m the one with the matches now.

On to the psych major rant portion of this post:

A million years ago, before I became a spouse and a parent, I wanted to major in psychology, and eventually work with at-risk children or something similar. Therefore, I have taken several classes in the overlapping subjects, and am informed enough to be able to determine when the mental health/mental health treatment rep in YA fiction is problematic. And oh, boy, is A Lesson in Vengeance one for that category.

I don’t think the author did any actual research on what the symptoms of PTSD following a traumatic incident are; Felicity doesn’t really act like someone who was so shaken by a friend’s accidental death that she was, in fact, committed to an institution. There are no scenes describing behavior or actions that would have pushed Felicity’s mother to arrange for the commitment. We certainly get the idea Felicity is depressed, and anxious, but it seems much more at going back to school, knowing everyone is whispering about her. When Felicity wonders if the ghosts of the witches are haunting her, it’s much more because of sudden bumps in the night and little unexplained – coincidental? – things. And Felicity’s guilt, and her apparent belief that she deserves to be haunted, is used as the reason for all of her jumpiness. The later explanation is that Felicity feels guilty because she and her best friend were arguing, and had been drinking, when the latter fell from a great height – and, yes, this would be extremely difficult to reconcile with oneself. However. Wouldn’t most people decide returning to the same school – with all the memories, especially the terrible ones – was just plain a bad idea? Even most fictional people? Wouldn’t most people with a psychotic diagnosis not be allowed to go back to their pre-trauma lives, with little supervision – no, I don’t care that Felicity’s mother is filthy rich and that’s “why” she gets to return to an average teen existence – seriously, doesn’t the psychiatrist have a say in this?!

So, the stage is set through most of the story that Felicity is a “misunderstood” young woman suffering from grief. And then the author throws in some very disturbing twists regarding other characters that make the reader question everything.

Again, no more details, for anyone who wants to read for themselves.

But I can’t recommend this title in good conscience, because of how irresponsible it is with the discussion – or lack of – around mental health. Yes, treating survivors of trauma with compassion is right and absolutely helpful. But ignoring unprovoked violent tendencies and hallucinations (both of which Felicity admits to) are the total opposite. The author claiming that Felicity was all but implicated in a murder and just released back into the world because “her mother’s filthy rich” doesn’t fly in the 21st century. In fact, given the family’s financial status, it’s MUCH more likely that Felicity would have been kept in a private residence, with a live-in therapist on hand, and that her treatment would have been swept under the rug, so no one at the school gossiped about the crazy girl who killed somebody.

And when Felicity does return to campus, she gets involved with Ellis, the “prodigy author”, who is, clearly nothing but a toxic, gaslighting, deeply disturbed individual from the first page of her introduction. If the author had taken a different turn in writing the girls’ developing bond, if Lee had capitalized on the opportunity to highlight the troubles of toxic friendships – especially for adolescents – then I might have felt differently about big chunks of the plot. Might. Too much else was already set up to go in the wrong direction.

I also didn’t like the way the legend of the witches was used as a scapegoat – of course Felicity would think she saw a ghost because of all the stories about the school’s past. Of course there would be secret meetings where the current students tried to emulate whatever debacherous activities the “witches” engaged in. (Not at most boarding schools, I imagine.) The line between what’s real and what’s not about the suspected witches is constantly blurred as well, and the author seems to keep coming back to it only to insist there was no way these girls were anything but smart women in an age when smart women were demonized. While there is a lot of evidence from the Salem witch trials to support this theory, to passively take this perspective only muddies the plot waters further. There are plenty of books and movies that have used this topic as a premise, and the individual tales have either concretely said: A) Yes, the witches were real, and using good magic is how you defeat them; or B) No, none of it is real, and the “hauntings” were staged by nefarious humans trying to gain something or cover up a crime. Victoria Lee never completely determines if the Dalloway Five were actually witches or not, and her being so wishy-washy about what, the dust jacket insisted, was a big part of the story, really grated on me.

And in the end, the title itself was a misnomer – there was no clear answer as to who sought vengeance, for what, why someone needed to receive it. Maybe it was because a murder really did take place? But again, since no one still living knew about it, who would be after revenge?

I will admit, the most dramatic twist towards the end made me wonder if that was where the title came from. (And, yes, it’s almost impossible, but I did promise no spoilers!) Though, at 25 pages from the final scene, I found that concept rather difficult to hinge an entire plot on. Unless the author always intended to write the tale in this sort of backwards way…

Ugh. My brain hurts.

I guess what I learned from this experience is: I shouldn’t read thrillers. Or dark academia. Or bad mental health rep. Or any fiction about the Salem witch trials.

Or, maybe, authors should just learn to write better about these subjects.

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The Invisible Moth Watches…

Watching TV - Cat - Tote | TeePublic

So, since my household got a streaming subscription during the pandemic, I’ve been hit hard with a string of big disappointments. I’d heard such ravings about Netflix originals, that I couldn’t wait to dive in. But, Stranger Things, The Umbrella Academy, The Order, Fate: The Winx Saga, and Enola Holmes all let me down in one way or another (in some cases, several). Therefore, I returned to thinking programs on streaming weren’t for me.

Then my kids stumbled on a string of winners: The Last Kids on Earth, Kupo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Dragon Prince, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, and the amazing Hilda. And I decided to give the search function on Netflix another go.

A few weeks later, I am here to report success.

Fresh Movie Quotes — Kodachrome (2017)

Kodachrome

Yes, that is in fact Scarlet Witch playing a role that is not Scarlet Witch or Avenger-ish in any way. In Kodachrome, she’s a nurse for a cancer patient, an elderly bastard of a photographer with an attitude issue and earned regrets. The patient wants his estranged son to take a road trip with him to the last place in the country that develops Kodachrome film. There were some snippets about the changing face of professional photography, but for the most part this movie is about dysfunctional families and dealing with loss, trying to make up for mistakes, letting go of terrible hurts and learning to forgive and love again. This is a realistic, raw, definitely adult and not always nice portrayal of what brings people together, drives them apart, and draws them back to individuals who have wronged them. This is so good.

There are also some great scenes discussing pop music and the industry, as the old man’s son is a record label executive, struggling to keep up with the changes in his own field. Thanks to this movie, I was reminded of one of the best 90s songs in existence, “Lightning Crashes” by the band Live. I do believe it’s the first time I’ve ever heard Live music used in a film as well, so major kudos to the crew for hunting down this forgotten gem. I found that, despite it being easily 21 years since listening to the song, I remembered all the words, and that its power has not diminished. This is also so, so good.

While Kodachrome isn’t one I’d recommend for the masses, if you don’t mind R-rated content, appreciate grunge music and pop psychology, and can handle the subject matter, I absolutely am shoving this one in your face. It’s got a fantastic cast, terrific writing, and the directing never feels heavyhanded. Completely a thumbs-up from me.

The Chair

The Chair | Netflix Official Site

This show is my top adult 2021 recommendation. I loved it. The Chair is an honest, realistic portrayal of being in academia in the 21st century, the struggles women — especially women of color — still face in higher education, and the challenges subjects such as Literature are being forced to reckon with in the era of no one wanting “useless” degrees.

Since leaving Grey’s Anatomy, Sandra Oh (who played Meredith Grey’s best friend for 10 seasons, and always was second fiddle in that cast, let’s be frank) has become a leading lady in her own right. While I found her crime drama, Killing Eve, WAY too unnerving in the end, Oh’s role in The Chair hits such a sweet spot. As Professor Joon Yi, she capitalizes on her ability to be serious and funny and clever and vulnerable all in the same series. The chemistry between Joon Yi and her co-worker Bill is undeniable. And the personal issues all the characters face — whether it be career-focused or family-related — ring so true and poignant. Bill lost his wife; Joon Yi has a troubled adopted daughter; Yaz wants to change teaching methods for the better, while Joan is caught between her comfort with the past and the intrigues of the present. I am hardcore fangirling over this show.

Nothing is left off the table, either, when it comes to the plot — the dangers of cancel culture; the pain and irrationality of grief; the obstacles of bi-racial adoption; hanging onto a vanishing way of life, deciding whether to embrace the new with impartial compliance, or whether to forge the path ahead for yourself. Again, this is rated TV-MA, and I totally understand if that’s not someone’s cup of tea. But if that doesn’t bother you, and you’re at all interested in academia, then start watching this as soon as humanly possible. It’s a short season (only 6 episodes, I think), and it will totally leave you wanting more (NOW!), but, OMG, is it GOOD.

There better be a second season coming up before I even have time to ask about it.

The Loud House movie

What time is The Loud House Movie coming to Netflix?

Thanks to Muffin for discovering this. The Loud House used to be one of his favorite shows on Nickelodeon (and honestly, the only reason he stopped watching it is because he simply watches YouTube and Netflix much more than any network channels anymore). It’s a modern cartoon, with some of the pitfalls one comes to expect from any children’s programming (the occasional episode that just doesn’t make sense, even for an animated universe; tropey characters overdone; recurring plot points that begin to feel dusty). But it’s not often nowadays that a cartoon with truly endearing characters and a more believable premise comes along, and in that regard, The Loud House stands apart. Also, it’s very uncommon for movies based on kids’ shows to be at all decent, and this was certainly a breath of fresh air; this feature-length story goes in a new direction plot-wise, while maintaining the concrete traits of the characters, and not relying too much on slapstick or the tropes to carry the tale. Well done, I (get to) say again; well done.

Not new, but one hundred percent worth the mention: Monty Python, Labyrinth, We Bare Bears

Monty Python and the Holy Grail | Netflix
Is Labyrinth (1986) on Netflix Switzerland?
we bare bears netflix philippines - Cheap Online Shopping -

None of these are Netflix originals, either, important to note; but when other streaming services or on-demand providers stop offering back-catalogs of older shows or movies (that are still plenty popular) (looking straight at you, Cartoon Network), I’ve found Netflix is doing a pretty good job of keeping a lot of oldies-but-goodies in the lineup.

Cancel culture has especially come down hard on comedy and satire, and Monty Python is a perfect example of content that might be shunned by other channels or platforms. So the fact I was able to add The Holy Grail to my list the other night really warms my heart. Like almost anyone who has already watched that film approximately 14 times, I still have a number of the lines memorized, and after re-viewing am seized by the sudden desire to terrorize innocent townsfolk by shouting “Ni!” at them as I gallop past, clapping my coconuts together.

(Bonus points for anybody who gets those references.)

As an unapologetic Jim Henson devotee, I am so excited that Labyrinth is now available on streaming. I haven’t watched it yet, but it is in the queue, and I will be ready with tissues and my singing voice!

Since We Bare Bears got cancelled (and I can’t afford DVD box sets lately), having this show at the touch of a few buttons has been great for the kids. With its infectiously-catchy theme tune, lovable misfit characters, and offbeat humor, this is a winner for all ages, I feel.

And there we have it! Congratulations on making it to the end of this rather long post! Now go watch the recommendation of your choice!

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How to Mess Your Readers Up (Not in a Good Way): House of Earth and Blood Review

House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City): Maas, Sarah J.: 9781635574043:  Amazon.com: Books

Have you ever impulsively purchased a doorstop of a book (hang on, let me finish), dove into it straightaway, gotten about 200 pages in, felt that you hit a wall, and put it down…but then couldn’t stop thinking about it?

I’m not referring to the general disappointed feeling we’ve all experienced when we discover that newest addition to the TBR just isn’t for us. I don’t mean that moment of going, “It was such a good idea, too bad the _________ just stunk.” Rather, I refer to the syndrome of If-I-Don’t-Finish-This-Title-It-Will-Haunt-Me-But-I-Can’t-Say-Why. (Yes, I’ll think of a better name, I promise.)

And then once you start reading again, you can’t stop until you reach the final pages… Even as the bottom drops out and you realize that foreboding sense you had early on was in fact a reliable indicator of things to come…

This is exactly what happened to me with Sarah J Maas’ latest release, House of Earth and Blood.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the title alone grabbed my attention rather than turning me off? Explicitly violent and erotic and constant rude language content generally isn’t my thing, and I know all of these can be expected, if not guaranteed, in an urban fantasy by the author of A Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses. But I also absolutely judge a book by its cover, and I was totally sucked in by the aesthetics of this new series.

And, 3 months later (yes, of course it took me that long, it’s 800 pages!), I have this to say about House of Earth and Blood:

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

I. ALSO. HATED. THIS. BOOK.

And now I don’t know what to do with it, or myself.

We’ll start with the good.

(Warning: Spoilers!!!)

To begin with, the worldbuilding of this story is INCREDIBLE. Set in a more or less modern place that sounds like California, but called Crescent City (or Lunathion), this universe establishes right away that faeries, shapeshifters, witches, vampires, merfolk, and humans all live together, under the rule of a group called the Asteri (but in laymen’s terms, angels). The Asteri have near god-like status, and no one really dares to mess with them — except a group of human rebels that started a war that’s still raging in another country.

So the main focus of HOEAB’s setting is life in Crescent City, which blends magic and technology, normal stuff like restaurants and cell phones and tourist destinations, but the industries and culture and history all swing in the favor of the Vanir (all the non-human creatures described collectively). So shapeshifters walk the streets in their animal or bird forms; the Vanir run the city government and police force; the witches are basically doctors, because of their healing abilities; the local sport is played by fae and shifters, with plenty of human fans.

The depth and breadth of thought put into how this system works was ASTOUNDING. It was really easy for me to picture the city and its inhabitants as I read, and get a pretty good idea of what their lives could be like. The protagonist of this tale, Bryce, is a half-fae, half-human woman, working for a sorceress who sells and buys magical artifacts on the black market. (WOW – no sarcasm, things like this were SO well developed.) Anyway, in the prologue, Bryce and her best friend and roommate, Danika (a wolf shifter) are party girls in their early 20s, forever loyal to each other, more like sisters, and then something terrible happens. BEGIN SPOILER ALERT.

I loved most of the characters:

Bryce Quinlan is a sassy on the outside, soft inside heroine. She used to dance, wanted to be a professional ballerina (OMG, YES), but was told she didn’t have the “best body type” for the stage, so eventually, she quit. (RELATING SOOOO HARD) Early in the story, she suffers a traumatic loss, and her grief is palpable. The writing of Bryce’s agony, avoidance, and angst following the brutal murder of her best friend is SPOT ON. Grief isn’t logical, it doesn’t take the same path for everyone, and Bryce’s behavior is raw, realistic, and so easy to feel. Two years after the crime, she’s put herself in a routine of work, exercise, and cheesy television, so that she can keep going, but all she wants is to erase her present and have her past be real again.

The love interest, Hunt Alathar, is introduced in the prologue, but really enters his role when a murder mirroring the one that gave Bryce PTSD occurs in the city, and Hunt is assigned as guard duty and investigator. Hunt is an angel, but he’s a slave to the Asteri, because there was an angel rebellion centuries ago, and he was on the losing side, so since then he’s been punished for rising up against his masters. (HOLY EXCELLENT LEGEND RETELLING, BATMAN!) Hunt’s conflicted feelings about wanting to complete his sentence so he can be free, while not really regretting the rebellion, while being very aware he could be killed for any tiny infraction, and mourning those already lost to the cause — was all AMAZINGLY written. Hunt considers himself a soldier, not a killer, and the author brilliantly captures the trauma he’s already endured along with a pushing desire for revenge.

There’s also Ruhn, a faerie with family connections to Bryce, and he is the definition of a LOVABLE CINNAMON ROLL. He’s the heir to a massively influential and powerful throne, and he doesn’t want to be, and he hates his father, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his father, and he loves Bryce, who’s mad at him AND SOBBBBING!

Let’s totally bring up SYRINX, who is Bryce’s pet chimera (ENOUGH SAID), and Lehabah, a sweet little fire sprite, who has Bryce’s back no matter what. THE FEELS, MY SON, THE FEELS. Ruhn’s besties, Declan and Flynn, are awesome, too — I really wish they got more time on page! And we can’t forget Bryce’s college friends, Juniper — a faun who’s a dancer in the city ballet!!! — and Fury, a totally badass assassin who is completely there for Bryce at the eleventh hour.

My biggest issues with the characters were how underdeveloped the wolf shifters were, after hints in the prologue that they’d be a much bigger part of the story; and how the antagonists were, generally, just chewing the scenery. Only Jesiba, Bryce’s sorceress boss, was more than one-dimensional, but Jesiba was legit so hateful I simply waited to see someone kill her, kill her a lot.

Okay, now onto the bad:

The romance between Bryce and Hunt did not click for me. As their relationship developed from not liking each other — for no apparent reason, I must add — to tolerating one another to lust on steriods and then of course LURVE, I really felt the LURVE aspect didn’t fit. By the halfway mark (page 400 or so), I could absolutely see them becoming close friends, maybe like cousins, NOT as a couple. Something about the author’s insistence that they found each other hot-hot-hot…turned me off the notion.

None of the antagonists had believable motivations. Sabine (Danika’s mother) did not act one bit like a grieving parent; she was just a bitch, all the time. Her biggest character trait was slut-shaming Bryce (when the narration suggests Bryce had a few past boyfriends and a couple of one-night stands — erm, o-kay???). The Autumn King (Ruhn’s father) was a cardboard cutout of an all-powerful Fae king — who did nothing when his city was in dire peril. Even the Viper Queen, who seemed interesting at first, really faded off the scene as a murder suspect — or as a secret ally — until the very last minute, as if the author forgot about her for 27 chapters.

Even when the real Bad Guy behind the murders was revealed, it wasn’t surprising. It wasn’t even coherent, as — SPOILER ALERT! — the person in question was reputed to be so powerful, he WOULDN’T HAVE NEEDED THE ARTIFACT HE CLAIMED HE DID TO END THE WAR. That was the other MAJOR letdown on the plot — that the civilian murders tied in to the war against the humans, WHICH WASN’T EVEN HAPPENING IN CRESCENT CITY. Which DIDN’T EVEN NEED TO BE A PLOT POINT, since, if the Asteri were really practically divine, they could have JUST SMITED ALL THE REBELS AND BEEN DONE WITH IT. The concept doesn’t hold water against the established rules of this universe. Especially given the fact that Maas never provides us with reasons why some of the humans are fighting the Asteri. All the humans in Crescent City seem to like being around the Vanir just fine. Where Bryce’s parents live, in basically the suburbs, humans seem to have a bias against Vanir that’s akin to racism, but again, no reasons for this are presented. Some of the Vanir don’t like Bryce for being half-human, indicating the bias might very well go both ways — but, once more, we need reasons for the discrimination, and those never take root.

So, here we are at the worst moment of when-it-all-fell-apart for me:

THAT. ENDING. Holy Crow and all of the Raven Cycle, WHAT HAPPENED to the narration?!?! For the majority of the text, we switch back and forth between Bryce’s and Hunt’s POVs, so we get a pretty good understanding of what’s going on and who knows what. BUT THEN, somewhere around page 600, the author drops a BOMBSHELL that turns Hunt into a possible Bad Guy. And then does THE SAME EXACT THING about 50 pages later WITH BRYCE. It’s revealed — in a really lazy style, in the manner of, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention” to the reader — that BOTH HAVE BEEN LYING TO EACH OTHER, and the author KEPT THAT FROM HER AUDIENCE. So now, we don’t know who to root for, whether they should end up together because they’re both so awful, or if it’s all a trick leading up to the Big Reveal in the climatic action (which wouldn’t be cool, either, by the way).

This meant I couldn’t cheer for Bryce as (MASSIVE SPOILER) her hidden power came out to save the city. I couldn’t cheer for Hunt as (MASSIVE SPOILER) he finally defeated those who enslaved him.

I felt Bryce didn’t deserve Danika’s loyalty, or Ruhn’s. Bryce’s mother, who I admired, turned out to be a CONNIVING BITCH. Bryce had kept from Ruhn information he NEEDED, for YEARS.

I felt Hunt didn’t earn his release from slavery. I didn’t support the other angels and Heads of the City rallying behind him. In fact I wondered who had had a lobotomy when.

I was so disgusted with their behavior that I wanted to see the other Vanir take down our two main characters.

I wanted to throw the book. I almost threw it in the recycling bin. I did toss it on top of my donation pile. Then I thought of Syrinx, and Ruhn, and Juniper, and moved it to a corner of my bookshelf.

I could literally CRY with the feeling of betrayal I’m experiencing.

The author is a jerk, for using a “surprise, they’re keeping secrets!” technique as a “twist” — plain and simple.

It actually HURTS. I connected to these characters, and now…I want them written out.

This is messed up. Seriously. WHY would an author obviously spend a great amount of time and energy developing such an intricate world, with so much worth exploring, draw us in, get us invested, and then — literally ruin it??

I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way. I’ve disliked characters for being whiny, shortsighted, selfish, making bad decisions, using people, and even having questionable taste in music — but never I have felt like an author earned my trust and then stuck their middle finger up to it.

YOWCH.

YE-OWCH.

Anybody want to help me figure out what to do with my copy?

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What I Learned from Being the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

HD wallpaper: fantasy art, water, anime, sky, night sky, stars | Wallpaper  Flare

Between August 2020 and August 2021, I was the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything — I was 42 years old. Just hush with the reminders that it’s only a joke in a science fiction novel; like many other fans, I had already decided that this number would be significant to me throughout the year. I was ready to have cosmic wisdom bestowed on me.

So, what did I learn while I was 42? The fact we were in the midst of a global pandemic did make for some interesting circumstances and situations to mull over or to seek information from. This also meant that how I would usually have defined my personal goals for a 12-month period needed to be adjusted — without any guilt or blame directed towards myself if I happened to fall short.

That would probably be the first big lesson: Let plans change and don’t feel bad about it. If lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing taught us anything, it should’ve been that being able to adapt to a sudden, uncontrollable shift in one’s environment is healthy and helpful. While I absolutely would rather have been in the dance studio and writing more than attempting to homeschool Muffin, the situation was out of my control and I shifted my expectations and priorities to cope. I didn’t have to release a new book; I didn’t have to hit that next follower mark; I didn’t have to read every hyped publication. And all the things I wasn’t doing should have no effect on my self-esteem.

If you aren’t where you thought you’d be by now, it’s totally okay. When I was 35, I decided that I’d like to open my own dance studio by 40. Obviously that hasn’t happened. At 41, I was kinda sad about this. But there were many valid reasons why the resources just weren’t available, and needing to push back a goal I really wanted to stick to became easier and easier to accept. I hadn’t failed; I hadn’t let anyone down; there was no one I needed to worry about disappointing or messing with. Not even myself.

Knowing what you like, how you are, and sticking by it is completely all right, no apologies required. I’ve been approaching this pretty steadfastly for the last few years, but now it’s quite stuck in. There’s nothing wrong with me liking light-hearted fantasy, television and movies that ask for a suspension of reality, and YouTube channels that revolve around video games I’ll never play. I don’t have to defend my talking to Muffin’s stuffed animals while making his bed. I won’t be ashamed that puppies and Baby Yoda always make me smile — no matter what else has gone on in the day. I choose to be a glass-half-full person, approach tough times with a bit of humor, a lot of sarcasm, and vast stores of hidden bravery, and the world can just deal with it.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. While I knew this refrain for most of my life, I don’t think it really kicked in until recently how it applies. I have to accept if someone ends a friendship I’m not done with. I have to accept that some people will never like my tastes, my preferences, my views. I won’t win any friends or favors by pestering people to concede to my opinions. If there are ideological issues that will only result in hitting a brick wall, then cutting ties, letting go, and wishing others well is a mature and compassionate path forward. (By the way, I’m not targeting anyone specific with these remarks — I think we can all relate after such a year of division.) I don’t need to try to change beliefs that I hold steadfast, to, either, to find more online community; I’m doing myself a great disservice fighting to fit into a mold that I break. Connecting with folks that I get along with and who listen and show respect will fill my inner well a lot more.

Life is what you make of it. I’m disabled, with a chronic illness; I have children that sometimes test the very limits of my patience; I have many daily frustrations. I could be bitter and complain and rage constantly. Or I could smell the roses, pet the cats, look for the unicorns hiding in the forest. I could seek peace and growth. In some ways, I do feel rather zen these days about determining what matters and what I can let go of.

When I passed the torch to whoever may have turned 42 this August 14th, I did experience a bit of sadness at the mantle being lifted. But more so I felt proud, and grateful. Whatever the cosmos and the divine hoped to teach me during my 42nd year of life, I hope I got it.

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The Lunar Chronicles: A More Proper Review and Some Musings

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer - Evanston Public Library

So, a little while ago, I mentioned I was reading The Lunar Chronicles for the first time, and enjoying it. And I didn’t go into much further detail, as at the time I hadn’t yet finished the final book, and was waiting until I had to do a full review. Last week that goal was achieved, so here I am.

This is a series that’s been on the radar of YA/sci-fi/fairytale retelling/crossover fans for a number of years now. Many of us read it ages back, and I’m late to the party; but in this case it means I got to read everything at once, and appreciate the well-done tropes from a non-cynical point of view.

In the 2010s, I was so over fairytale retellings; the niche genre had really started gaining steam, and they were everywhere. So, while I like fairytales as much as the next former childhood-dress-up princess, I avoided these novels — and that included Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter.

Then, finally, last year, I bit the metaphorical bullet; now that the series has been published for a while, sets of all the paperbacks are cheaper than they used to be, and it was lockdown, and… I think everybody knows how the rest of that sentence goes. Anyway, onto the review already!

Cinder isn’t your typical rags-to-riches Cinderella-inspired story. For one, it’s very realistic, set in the future after a huge war, and lot of the problems society constantly struggles with — poverty, inequality, lack of resources, political trickiness — totally exist, and therefore the setting is quite relatable. Cinder herself is in fact a cyborg — basically half human and half robot — and her stepmother (not evil, but certainly nasty and unpleasant) resents having to buy her upgraded parts when something malfunctions or wears out. So, in the early chapters of the first book, Cinder is an excellent metaphor for disability and prejudice — neighbors and colleagues don’t completely trust her, for no reason other than her cyborg status; she’s deemed inferior by her stepmother, and only worthy of being assigned the chores no one else wants to do. The way this sentiment is expressed, in this context, is powerful. For all of us who couldn’t really understand why Cinderella was so put upon — they made her scrub the floors and stoke the fire because she was…pretty?? — Cinder is an infinitely more relatable figure.

While the most familiar elements of the original fairytale are present — there’s a handsome prince and a royal ball the servant isn’t allowed to attend — the rest of Cinder includes plot twists worthy of gasps, such as a worldwide plague of mysterious origin, a colony on the moon, a monarch who uses mind control to maintain power, and rumors of a lost princess. Despite a lot of heavy content, the writing style keeps an easy, flowing pace, with enough introspection that we get to know Cinder and the other characters pretty well, but don’t get bogged down in armchair psychology. There are some scenes that deliberately don’t reveal enough — seeing as it’s the first in a series — but the reader doesn’t feel lost or too puzzled.

The next book takes up where Cinder left off, and introduces the next protagonist, Scarlet, who’s a Little Red Riding Hood-ish figure. Scarlet lives on a farm with her grandmother — a very different setting from the big city Cinder lived in — so we get to see another perspective of this future Earth. Scarlet’s grandmother has gone missing, and while searching for clues to her loved one’s whereabouts, she encounters an unlikely ally, interestingly nicknamed Wolf.

Again, the familiar components of the fairytale have been turned on their head. Instead of a red cloak, Scarlet wears a red hoodie; Wolf looks human, but acts like an animal; the grandmother is hardly an innocent bystander, but has classified information that secret super soldiers from the moon colony would do almost anything to obtain. The result is that Scarlet is an exciting adventure that delves deeper into the lore of this universe, keeping up as well with Cinder’s new endeavors (now that she’s fled her city and been labeled a “cyborg fugitive”).

Author Marissa Meyer did a great job following her major plot threads through the series; before the end of Scarlet, we’re seamlessly introduced to our next heroine, Cress. Although there are now 3 storylines meeting in Cress, Meyer pulled it off. Here we add a Rapunzel-type to the mix; instead of a tower in the woods, Cress lives in a satelite, orbiting the Earth. She’s a prisoner of and unwilling spy for the evil Queen of Luna (what the moon colony is called). Due to a combination of factors, Cress’ satelite crashes in the Saharan desert, and after a lifetime in space, Cress finds herself on Earth.

As we proceed on this never-dull journey, the pieces don’t get convoluted, and rarely challenging to follow. All of the adventures lead towards going to the moon for justice and revenge in the final installment, Winter, named for the Lunar princess who is rumored to be more beautiful than the power-hungry Queen.

While I usually support trilogies over longer series, I could absolutely see the necessity of having a fourth book in The Lunar Chronicles. There were many hints to Snow White references in Scarlet and Cress, anyway. However, for the first time, I felt that the author struggled to maintain all the plates she had spinning.

It doesn’t help that, for me, Winter is the least likable main character in the robust cast. This book is the first occurrence of Meyer telling rather than showing, so the refrain that “all the Lunar people love their princess” falls flat. Winter is presented as rarely leaving the palace, and rumors run rampant that she’s going crazy, so how would the citizens be fond of her? The author also can’t seem to decide whether Winter in fact is losing her mind, or faking it to encourage her stepmother’s (the evil Queen) perception that she’s flaky and harmless. There are many written scenes which contradict each other, first indicating it’s all a trick, then detailing hallucinations Winter has out of nowhere. Before the halfway mark, Scarlet definitely feels Winter isn’t playing with a full deck, and Scarlet has been proven a reliable narrator. Then why does the Queen determine Winter should be killed, as she presents a threat to the evil throne? What threat? Being too corny?

The last third of Winter is where a lot of the premise fell apart for me. I really enjoyed the story, and the characters, until then, and the introduction of new narrators and subplots didn’t throw me off. But the turn taken around page 400 of Winter (yes, it’s an astoundingly long book) revels far too much in Hunger Games-like sentiment, the plan of fostering a revolution to overthrow an unjust leader… Which was, quite honestly, totally unnecessary in this monarchy-based universe.

Yes, Levana is quite evil, and guilty of many reprehensible crimes, and should be removed from power. But, because she’s a queen, you don’t have to establish a citizens’ rebellion — especially since the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth on Earth finds the lost princess of Luna, and can legitimately invade the moon with an army and someone else with a claim to the throne. All the chapter after chapter of subterfuge and falling into danger and getting captured and risking innocent civilian lives is just…dumb, and it sends the last book off the rails for me.

It also means that valuable dozens of pages spent on rejecting Suzanne Collins’ nihilism (not sorry) were wasted, when there was so much backstory on the Lunar royal family we needed to get. It’s never once mentioned who the father was of the lost princess, what happened to Levana’s sister (other than she died in suspicious circumstances), why no one on Earth ever tried to overthrow Levana… The reasons that Earthens and Lunars don’t really trust each other are vaguely suggested, never cemented, and there are so many pieces regarding this history that were underdeveloped, and getting more information on that would’ve been a much more interesting finale.

And so, I finished The Lunar Chronicles with a bittersweet taste; I’d still recommend it to others, but I’m not sure I’ll re-read it. I do appreciate what it did for the genre of crossover fairytale retellings, but I’m not inspired to read any more of the category. Despite stretching the writing of Winter out to 800 pages, Meyer left a lot of loose ends for her character arcs; hints at a sequel are provided in spades, but the very last page literally says, “And they all lived happily ever after.”

I am aware there’s a graphic novel (called Wires and Nerve) that does follow the further adventures of Cinder and Kai, Scarlet and Wolf, Cress and Thorne, Winter and Jacin. But I highly doubt I’ll ever read it, since graphic novels are a struggle for me; and I have to say, leaping from one format to another to tell the same story seems…a bit convoluted?

Besides, as we all know, there are plenty of other books already on my TBR.

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I’m Not a Poser, You’re the Poser: A Few Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Hidden Kitten - Cats & Animals Background Wallpapers on Desktop Nexus  (Image 2185870)

Imposter syndrome is tough. We’re all tempted to compare ourselves to others in our occupation or field of passion, and find ourselves lacking. With creatives, there is a slightly bigger risk to this happening, because (just for example) self-published authors can, at the click of a mouse, be scrolling through the accomplishments of a traditional author on multiple bestseller lists, and feel we will never reach that level of achievement.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t “real” writers, though. By definition, a writer is someone who writes. So if we manage to write a book, then we have succeeded in earning this title. Trad or indie pub is another matter entirely. (Oh, yes, I’m getting to it.)

Since many writers are also avid readers, it’s pretty inevitable that we’re going to read a book in our genre, authored by someone else, and determine it’s amazing, and worry we’ll never be able to write something as amazing. In a way, this is normal. In a way, this can even — hear me out — be positive.

No, I don’t want us all beating ourselves up and wailing in agony as we burn unfinished manuscripts in an 18th century-style fireplace. But there’s a big difference between feeling we’re inferior — and realizing there’s more to learn and aspects of the craft to hone, and becoming determined to grow in our own expertise.

Sometimes that sort of motivation — “If I can capture metaphors the way so-and-so does”, “I’d love to know how to plot backwards, just like what’s-his-face” — can indeed help us perfect our own art.

Competition is a tricky thing when it comes to the arts. As creatives, we’re all individuals, even when we’re in the same discipline or style. So comparison isn’t a fair game from the start (it’s literally an apples to oranges scenario), and we have to be careful that we don’t crap on ourselves and what we can bring to the medium, and its audience.

Being inspired by those already established in the field is just going to happen, and that’s a really excellent thing. Reading Maggie Stiefvater showed me the value in subtly revealing character interaction and growth. Neil Gaiman left me with a distinct impression of knowing how all the pieces fit together. Terry Pratchett taught me that you can deliver a powerful message without building a soapbox.

Rather than trying to imitate our heroes, we need to find what about following their methods uncover our own strengths. Don’t write like Tolkien or Diana Wynne Jones to become the next them. Use the formulas or techniques that most inspired you to better shape your work.

Don’t shame your fellow creatives, either. You don’t have to like every single self-published book; you can still be supportive of indie authors. Just don’t accuse people who have poured their heart and soul (and quite frequently at least a few gallons of sweat, tears, and blood) into what is a massive accomplishment of “not being a real author.” Just because you catch a few typos in their social media posts. Or feel they aren’t “mature enough” or “educated enough” or…whatever “enough.” If the subject or style of their work isn’t for you, VALID. But LET THEM HAVE THEIR MOMENT. Even if you may never read their book, be HAPPY for them.

The same goes for yourself. So your finished product is 200 pages and you had to do all the editing yourself, and you know there were grammatical errors that slipped through because it was getting late and you have a learning disability. SO WHAT. You published it. Random people you’ve never met HAVE left 5 star reviews of it on Amazon. So your sales are about a tenth of Rick Riordan’s or Marissa Meyer’s. DON’T CARE. You are impacting lives: maybe just as a fun beach read, or possibly by shining insight into a tough situation, releasing some pent-up guilt or regret, even encouraging readers to change a challenging behavior or tackle an important goal.

The only way you’re an imposter is if you’re deliberately re-writing the ending to Twilight and slapping a different title on it (cough, cough, Fifty Shades of Grey); or playing Among Us. Taking your favorite dystopia premise and throwing in classic Shakespeare tropes simply means you’re doing what we all do — sharing, borrowing, mixing, and reinventing genres.

So be as imaginative or formulaic as you wish — there are markets for both. Write what you love; be aware of your audience’s expectations, but if theirs and yours don’t line up letter for letter, let theirs go. To thine ownself be true, always. What you love to write is part of who you are — don’t go changing to try to please people.

Oh, and if you happen to be around people who want you to change what you write — find a new community. If you’re happy with your choice, and they’re not, you aren’t the problem. Trust me on this.

There shouldn’t be any need to dive under the covers and never come out; whether it takes you five months or fifteen years to complete your manuscript, crossing the finish line is worthy of celebration and joy. Whether you have an agent or not, it’s all real. Graphic novels, poetry, short stories, it all counts. Your contribution to the world will exist.

So be brave. Be you.

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Everything Great About…

Great Wallpapers - Wallpaper Cave

I’ve been complaining a fair amount lately, about the state of what passes for entertainment in the current age (and, yes, making myself feel pretty old and cynical). Since I’ve done my fair share of whingeing, I thought it wouldn’t go amiss to balance that out with a post about some happy stuff I’ve encountered in this period of much grouch.

The Good Place

The Good Place' Creator Mike Schur Breaks Down Season 2 - Rolling Stone

This not-so-traditional series about the afterlife is one of the best things I’ve stumbled on post-its-cancellation. I never saw it the first time it aired, and binge-watched all 4 seasons on Netflix a few months ago. Definitely not a stereotypical sitcom, The Good Place features a recently departed soul, Eleanor, who befriends an immortal being named Michael (no spoilers, but it isn’t what you think), and tries to become the best version of her human self, which never materialized before her sudden passing. There were plenty of laugh out loud moments, plenty of tearjerker scenes (and I mean free-flowing tears), and lots of surprises. Sure, some of the plot was a little contrived, and some of the jokes fell flat. But the character growth (across the cast) was REAL, and bold for a mainstream program, so very genuine and therefore all-the-feels-producing. Much of the dialogue was witty and engaging, most of the characters were purposeful and used well, and the whole story arc felt very satisfying. Whenever I’d start to get a little frustrated or worried with where it might be going, the writing would change direction, and not once did they fail to convince me that the new move was decent. Some of my favorite shows were ruined in the last season by a twist I found totally unnecessary, so The Good Place not disappointing me was a stellar moment.

Hilda

Silvergate Media Launches Licensing Program for Netflix Series 'Hilda' |  Animation World Network

This amazing adaptation from the graphic novel series of the same name has stolen our hearts. My kids and I have watched each episode at least twice, and the joy just keeps growing. The graphics are beautiful and evocative, the main characters so sassy and human and relatable, the music just fantastic, and the voice acting never wooden or rote. Set in a world based on Western European traditions and myths, Hilda feels at once current and timeless. Its biggest themes are determination, loyalty, and personal growth, but there’s also a strong focus on taking responsibility, learning flexibility, and finding strength through adversity. Despite the title character being a 10-year-old girl, Hilda is a cartoon for all ages.

The Gaming Beaver (YouTube)

Gaming Beaver Funny Montage #1 - YouTube

My kids are responsible for the fact this YouTuber is ever-present in our house, specifically Muffin, since he wanted to watch stuff about dinosaurs, and most of what I found on YT was either terribly old and boring (think the National Geographic documentaries from the 1980s), or wildly inaccurate and inappropriate (humans, I tell ya). Gaming Beaver is different; he’s a dinosaur enthusiast who wants to play games with accurate representations (or at least relatively close to what palentologists say), and he has filmed himself doing so for several years now. This gave Muffin a huge archive to feed his Jurassic Park obsession, and most of Beaver’s content is sans super-bad language, and includes very informative, light-hearted and even hilarious commentary. Honestly, I’ve spent many an evening with a Gaming Beaver video on in the background, and I have no regrets about that. (He also plays a lot of ocean/shark games, and does plenty of unboxing-dinosaur-toy videos as well, which certainly gives me a heads up on whether the items on Muffin’s Christmas list are worth the money.)

Doctor Who novelizations (9th and 10th Doctors)

The Clockwise Man - Wikipedia
The Stone Rose - Wikipedia

These are not new publications, but ages back, a library patron donated a bunch of Doctor Who (the reboot) novelizations, and I meant to read some of them and never did — and then when we were discarding the collection due to space issues, I jumped at the chance to take home however many I wanted. I selected all the ones with the 9th and 10th Doctors and Rose, my favorite companion. (For some reason, though, on all the covers, they either have Rose pouting or looking terrified. Lol?!) Anyway, one of my biggest gripes about anything published after 2017 is paper-thin characters, an extreme lack of coherent plot, and too many unnecessary and tangential passages. Because these stories were written in the early 2000s, and by a private entertainment company, they don’t fall prey to the pitfalls of soapboxes and overdone tropes and half-baked subplots. The novelizations aren’t based on broadcast episodes of the show, but are written so that one can easily imagine these familiar and beloved characters in new scenarios, and the only political commentary is mild and relevant to the situation (as we expected from Doctor Who between 2005 and 2010). I recently finished The Clockwise Man, and have quite a few to go — I’ll be taking my time getting through this TBR!

Baby Yoda

Amazon.com: Star Wars Baby Yoda Doll from The Mandalorian The Bounty  Collection The Child Collectible Toys 2.2-Inch Baby Yoda Toys for  Blanket-Wrapped Mini Figure 5-Pack: Toys & Games
Happy Dance | Official Star Wars Tee - TeeTurtle
Star Wars Baby Yoda 8" Plush : Target

I don’t care that his name is technically something ridiculous starting with a G. To me The Child will always be Baby Yoda. The pictures are of a set of mini figures and a t-shirt from my aunt, and the plush that was a gift from my husband. I have arranged the mini figures and the plush on my bookshelves, for maximum sighting and continuous satisfaction. Being able to go through my days frequently getting a dose of big-eared adorbs never fails to lift my spirits. I haven’t seen a single episode of The Mandalorian (because we only have one streaming service right now, and it isn’t Disney Plus!), but The Child provides a sense of meaning and enjoyment that reaches beyond the Star Wars universe fandom.

(My desire to watch Loki, however, will definitely test my wallet and my resolve to keep the number of subscription services down.)

So, that’s it for now! Go find yourself a comfort show worth bingeing, brew that tea, pop that popcorn, and grab your favorite plushie for ultimate coziness!

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa 5k, HD Artist, 4k Wallpapers, Images,  Backgrounds, Photos and Pictures

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Worldbuilding Matters

Worldbuilding: 6 Steps to Captivating Settings

Contrary to how it may seem in this blog, I do not have super-high expectations as a reader. Not every novel has to provide astounding dialogue, heartstring-tugging characters, pulse-pounding plot, and intensely profound revelations. Nope, I’m legit fine with a fun and engaging storyline, at least two-dimensional characters, and believable conversations. If you add in a few moments provoking genuine laughter and tears, even better. But since I read mostly for enjoyment, not every single title I select has to be Pulitzer Prize worthy.

This does not mean I don’t have standards, though. And my standards aren’t aiming for the moon; however, they are rather set in stone — and, quite frankly, far more reasonable than, it appears, many authors can handle.

One of the cornerstones for me is solid worldbuilding. Again, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; just reliable. There needs to be a trustworthy framework to which I can refer back when wondering why a character develops a certain motivation, or if I’m unsure where this city is in relation to another. And, despite this not being rocket science — isn’t it covered in every Creative Writing 101 class? — worldbuilding is an element I find distinctly lacking in most current publications.

For example, I couldn’t finish The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue because there simply wasn’t enough context around the premise to fully draw me in. The plot and characters seemed to exist outside of any rules that governed their universe — and when you’re talking a story of Faustian bargains and space-time-bending curses, rules are important. And The Humans — the 3rd novel by Matt Haig I’ve tried and flopped with — made absolutely no sense within the first 20 pages; I can’t be expected to accept that aliens who can travel at light-speed are unaware Earth folks like to wear clothes in public.

My most disappointing latest is The House on the Cerulean Sea, which I had only heard glowing praise of, but which made me want to cry (in a bad way) before the halfway mark. For one thing, its main character is completely maudlin, to the point of being actually depressing, and this is hardly what I’d call a “comforting” or “inspiring” read (as some of the reviews claimed). Another — and major reason — there isn’t a whit of credibility in the premise. Children who possess magical abilities are just taken from their parents, or rejected by their families, and become wards of the state in group homes where they may or may not be treated decently, and as long as they don’t blow up the planet no one really cares??? This idea disturbs me deeply. Even if some people would hand over their children in such a scenario, many simply would NOT, and anyone who doesn’t believe this clearly knows nothing about human nature. Also, there’s no indication presented that a precedent was set prior to the start of the story for the government to determine all of these children were dangerous. So even that thread doesn’t have much to stand on.

In the spring, I read The Lunar Chronicles, and found that to be a good example of having a solid world to set foot in as a reader. The setting isn’t “just a dystopian future”; there are actual discussions about which war it was and some references to specific events. Main characters know the relevance and importance of the history, and even when backstory is provided through exposition, the conversations flow pretty naturally, and don’t seem constructed purely as a way of info-dumping on the reader. There were some flaws, and a few things where I felt the author could’ve either let something go or tied two elements together a little tighter. But these books were FUN, and I don’t regret the time I spent with them.

And sadly, that’s become rare for me.

So, what is the deal with slipshoddy worldbuilding recently? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why editors and publishers have decided it’s all right to let their authors slide on one of the most basic essentials for good writing. My first guess is that releasing books in a timely manner can become an issue — mostly because editing and re-writing does require brainpower and often more than 30 seconds — and in the interest of keeping business going (meaning printing and actually selling books), maybe publishers don’t necessarily care if each story is the best version of itself, as long as it’s good enough copies. Yes, that’s a slightly cynical view; but the field of literature has definitely turned into an industry, and the primary goal of any industry is to produce profit or whatever keeps it afloat.

The difference, many people who love literature feel, between something like reading as an industry, and other retail businesses, is in the core of what the field’s meant to be. Literature has been used as everything from a passing hobby to change the world by sharing all manner of religious, political, and philosophical thought. There’s nothing wrong with reading just for relaxation and escape; reading to enrich your mind and broaden your knowledge base is also excellent.

But literature has set the bar pretty high, and is held to a different standard than, say, mountain biking as a technique for bettering oneself and exploring the world.

When the publishing industry itself starts lowering the bar, I get concerned.

So, while your fictional worldbuilding does not have to be amazing, can we please try at least a bit harder?

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Do Classics Really Stand the Test of Time?

Books Wallpaper

The answer to this question isn’t a simple yes or no. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I’ve noticed that we’re still having the same debate when it comes to school curriculums and literary circles. The argument seems to be stuck in this place — the classics are THE CLASSICS, and they deserve respect; versus they’re ancient and unrelatable and more boring than that weird old comment about drying paint. As a parent, a former childcare assistant, and now a library aide, and a lifelong reader and writer, I have a broad perspective on the topic.

The short of it, I feel, is: The classics are not relatable to much of Gen Z. The world they’re growing up in is SO VASTLY different from Western society even 50 years ago, and certainly 100 and 200 years ago, I really don’t see the point of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Twain being in academic curriculums right now. I’m not talking about teaching history. History has important value, and it’s often separate from literary merit.

I do believe many teachers have taken advantage of trying to combine the two subjects. But I truly don’t feel this is effective. There’s a major problem with attempting to view history through the lens of literature penned in a particular period; cultural ways and ideals shift over time, and constantly thinking of an author as prejudiced or bigoted based purely on the century or decade they were living in means many current readers find no redeeming value in their fiction.

The best English teachers I had were the ones who focused on the common threads of greatness — how certain authors portray themes and characters that resonate with all different sorts of people — while also making it clear these authors were flawed human beings.

So, if I’m insistent on temporarily removing history from teaching the classics (a tall order, I admit), which titles can we find to still have relevance and connection in this modern age?

My first thought is to replace (at least for a couple of generations) the books (with definite merit) that have simply been discussed to death. Let’s expand our list of possibilities.

Instead of To Kill a Mockingbird (which I love, by the way), how about Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which presents a broader and more contemporary conversation on slavery and racial relations.

Rather than Frankenstein to cover the fear of mortality (dark and gross and scary), let’s use Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, which has a charming, thought-provoking, and heartstring-tugging plot and characters.

Charles Dickens (one of my own favorites) and the Brontes are guaranteed to come up in any classics list. So let’s give them a well-deserved rest, and explore The Book Thief for our dose of orphans and tragedy. (Erm, sorry for saying it so plainly?)

Animal stories like Call of the Wild are frequently used to teach us more about being human. But too many of these involve pets dying, often tragically, and just traumatize readers of all ages. Can we take these out of the equation altogether for a while? Let’s all read the original Winnie the Pooh instead.

Long-suffering dystopias such as 1984 and Farenheit 451 have absolutely been succeeded by a big new crop of modern publications, The Hunger Games of course being one of the most famous. But my personal choice is Legend by Marie Lu or The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

Mental illness and disabilities have notoriously received terrible representation since, well, forever; so I think this is another area where we should be quite careful with selections, especially with classics. Honestly, since we’re still having issues with proper rep even in titles released in 2021, the jury of me remains out on how to address this glaring discrepancy.

What can we keep?! (I hear some of you yelling). Consider works that haven’t received as much of the spotlight — Brave New World (Huxley); Far From the Madding Crowd (Hardy); Northanger Abbey (Austen); The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde); and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens) come to mind.

And of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is an ongoing conversation that we’ll undoubtedly revisit at least once or twice more in my lifetime alone. The “next wave” of what we value as a society is nowhere near cresting. Issues that we only began approaching in literature 30 or 40 years ago are still developing (acceptance of disabilities are a definite example here). I’m sure that by my retirement, even the definition of “classics” will have altered, maybe dramatically.

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Setting the Record Straight

Stained Glass North Yorkshire, Caryl Hallett

I’m about to discuss a topic that I never thought would be considered controversial, but here we are. The subject is whether or not my writing counts as religious fiction purely because I include mentions of angels and demons, the Bible, and church ceremonies in my books.

In the last few years, I’ve received some criticism for writing “Christian fiction that isn’t Christian enough,” as well as for writing “Christian fiction that makes use of magic and fairies.” On the other side of the coin, I’ve also gotten negative reviews based on the fact I wrote “fantasy that mentions Christianity.” All of these remarks really rankle me, for different reasons — but also for one very big, very important, common factor: None of them are correct.

And here’s why: I don’t write Christian fiction. I’ve never marketed or branded myself as a specifically Christian author. My religious and spiritual beliefs do fall under the Judeo-Christian umbrella; I was more or less raised Catholic, and that influence has stayed with me strongly as an adult. But I’ve always intended my writing to focus on the plot and the characters and their story. I don’t have an agenda; there are no hidden messages in my work.

I simply write mostly clean fiction because: A) Many people I’m related to read my work, and the idea of my children/parents/aunts and uncles reading lots of swearing and love scenes that I penned makes me feel very weird; and B) I don’t prefer that sort of thing in my own reading. I tend to select other authors’ titles with a PG-13-ish rating. I’m not one for censorship, but I’m also allowed my personal preferences.

And the major reason I included mentions of the characters’ religion or their families’ religious backgrounds is purely because it’s part of life. An estimated 85% of the world’s population subscribes to some sort of religion, whether in traditions and rituals, an active spiritual faith, or a combination thereof. So the idea of ALL fiction characters EVER just not being religious in some capacity simply due to it not presently being “politically correct” is moronic.

In the case of my fantasy series, most of the characters come from Jewish or Catholic or Protestant ancestors, so that’s their frame of reference for morals, traditions, holidays, and the like. They don’t discuss their personal beliefs or speculate on theological matters, because that’s not part of the plot. I consciously made that decision before I started drafting. I wanted to tell the tale of a family who runs a warehouse of magical artifacts for a secret organization that keeps humans safe from dangerous otherworldly creatures. Period.

My readers tend to range from admittedly religious to not-at-all-but-clean-fiction-preferring. I’ve received praise from teenagers to senior citizens. I have readers who love fantasy in many forms, and those who are new to the genre. All of them either appreciate that I don’t shy away from the fact an Anglo-Saxon family living in Ohio would — demographically alone — most likely have a Christian-ish background, and that I include references to Jewish holy texts (because my secret organization was founded in ancient Israel); or they don’t seem to take offense to it.

The fact that I’ve been called either “too Christian” or “not Christian enough” by a few critics — on both sides of the “fantasy should/should not include religion” debate — indicates to me it isn’t my work that’s the issue; it’s the gatekeeping of literary genres based on human-led schools of thought.

My work can’t be easily pigeonholed when it comes to the evangelicals, since I don’t outright bring up God, in a specific or non-specific format. The same could be said for the apparent atheists who feel fantasy doesn’t need to be “spoiled” with mentions of (gasp!) a church holding a funeral.

When it comes to my sales, I’ll be very blunt: I would much rather sell to readers looking for a fun fantasy than to people who will only buy a title based on the author’s religious affiliation. I do know some of my readers greatly appreciate I’m not afraid to bring in references to the Bible or the Torah, in the same book as faeries and magic. And I’m not afraid to mix the two; I really feel it doesn’t constitute a crisis of faith or church practices, as traditional teachings warn against humans getting too involved in cosmic powers they can’t understand or control, and all the magic-users in my series are non-human creatures, or hybrids that are only half-mortal. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis broke the mold, and set the standard for mixing religion and fantasy, long before I came along. They were facing the same questions, and nowadays are considered sin-free, “Christian fantasy” authors.

However, like Tolkien, I’d prefer to be known as a fantasy writer first.