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10 Book Challenge

I was challenged to share the 10 books that have most affected me as a reader on Facebook by my friends J and P.  I then spent at least the last few weeks paralyzed every time I tried to compile the list because it’s SO hard to do.

Keep in mind that this list could change over the course of an hour, much less over a day or a week, but here we go–In no particular order, 10 books that profoundly changed my life.  The links will take you the goodreads page for each book.  I’m going to cheat and use a lot of series to count as a single book

 

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 3.16.18 PM#1–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

I have already done a blog post specifically about Magic’s Pawn and how profoundly it affected me.  The short recap, though, is that Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met, and in knowing him I became a better person, and I was better equipped to deal come to terms with my own queerness (I’m bisexual).  The importance of that can’t be overstated, and I only wish that I could tell Brian–the clerk at my local Waldenbook’s who handed it to me–how much I appreciate his bringing Vanyel into my life.  I reread this (and then usually the other two Last Herald-Mage books) every year or two.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 12.48.27 am#2 Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With the Wind makes this list because it was the first super long book I ever read.  There are very valid critiques of the book, including a dangerous romanticizing of the antebellum South.  When I think about Gone With the Wind, I think about how I have viewed Scarlett over the years each time I reread it.  When I first read it, at 11-ish years old, I thought Scarlett at 16 was amazing and headstrong.  I then reread it every 3-5 years.  Most recently I read it around the age of 30, and I thought Scarlett was an idiot teenager and a pretty horrible adult.  In rereading this book, I have watched myself grow up and mature.  My understanding both of the actual setting of the book and the context of the time in which Mitchell wrote it have grown as well, and that allows me a more nuanced read of the book each time I’ve read it.

While I’m not sure I will read it again, or how many years will pass before I do, it stands as one of the important books from my transition from child to teen to adult.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.54.50 PM#3–The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin (link is to book #1)

Considering I’m re-reading and snarking these books, I don’t their inclusion will come as any surprise.  The BSC books were the first series I felt passionate about.  They were the first books whose release I awaited with rabid desire, and that I devoured on the day I bought them because I HAD TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.  I’ve felt this way about many book series over the years since, but they were the first and while I mock them, I do so from a place of deep, deep love.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.03.17 am#5–The Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce (link is to book #1)

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, but even as a young reader I noticed a certain lack of estrogen when it came to heroes and adventurers.  Alanna changed all of that for me.  A girl who disguised herself as a boy to earn her shield, does so, comes out as a woman and faces a lot of misogyny, AND who has sexual agency (having three sexual partners over 4 books–off screen because it’s YA, but still) was a revelation for me.  Not only could women star in fantasy novels, they could do so as complex and rich characters.

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Tamora Pierce is an amazing author.  She’s also incredibly gracious–when a writer for XOJane wrote an article about (among other things) meeting Tamora Pierce, I had to comment on it.  And Tamora Pierce commented back!  (She actually engaged with almost everyone on the comment thread, which is just so awesome of her.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.18.45 am#6–Fraud by David Rakoff

My first acquaintance with David Rakoff wasn’t on paper, it was through the NPR show “This American Life,” to which he regularly contributed.  I loved the stories he told there so much, I went out and bought Fraud (and eventually his other books).  Rakoff is a masterful storyteller and his essays, whether on the page or the radio often made me think as well as laugh.  Sometimes they made me sob, much as the last essay in Fraud does.  Listening to him and reading his work has made me a better storyteller.

“I used to bank here, but that was long, long ago” is about Rakoff’s early battle with Hodgkin’s disease which, when it came back years later, killed him.  You can here him tell that story here, or read a transcript of that episode of TAL, including the essay here.  I strongly encourage you to listen to him tell it.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.27.44 am#7-Pandora’s Box 2 by Black Lace books

The was the first (second?) erotica title I ever read.  It my introduction to any number of fetishes that helped me unlock my sexuality.  Given that I’m now a professional erotica author, I’m sure it had some impact on me professionally as well, in setting the bar far above my crappy online erotic fanfic.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.34.40 am#8 Man from Mundania by Piers Anthony (and Xanth books 1-20)

The Xanth books by Piers Anthony make this list because of their bad puns.  Anthony would have his characters walk by some seashells and the eyes of the shell would SEE them.  I started reading these around 9/10 years old and the fact that I got the puns in an “adult” book–although really they’d be better classified as YA at best, they were shelved with the adult sci-fi/fantasy books.  They made me feel smart because I got the puns, and in a way made me fall in love with words.  I’d always loved reading, but the Xanth books with their puns and later the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun which used massive vocabulary words made me love words and language.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.41.20 am#9–Phantom by Susan Kay

I was already an Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera fangirl (or phangirl as we’re known) when I found this in my local library. Kay’s extension of the Phantom character to a full life story (and a far more satisfactory ending) is just awesome.  This is one of my favorite books, period.  It makes the list because it’s okay to be an obsessive nerdy fangirl.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.46.33 am10–Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

This books looks at how the Civil War lives in on in the modern American South.  My BA is in history, and the intersection of history and memory is very interesting to me.  The reason it makes the list is that it highlights some fairly odd/disturbing aspects of this living history within Southern Culture but never makes it a cartoonish representation that you can then disregard.  Horwitz brings humanity to his subjects and shows them as fairly complicated people, not caricatures.  It’s also an incredibly readable book for a layperson.  One of the reason I didn’t pursue history at the PhD level was that I hated the level of depersonalization I had to do to write about history.  Horwitz isn’t a historian, he’s a journalist, and that impacts the flavor of the book in a positive way.  (Which is not to say that historians don’t write good books, it’s just that it wasn’t how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.)

So there you have it…for this second anyway.

If you want to play, consider yourself tagged.  If you blog it, please link in the comments.

And Tango makes a banned book

I’m crossposting this from my expat blog because the subject of book banning is worth addressing more than once.

Expat Bostonians

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Dear parents who challenge this book

I too, am a parent.  I too have had my children bring over books that I am not comfortable with them reading at their current ages.  The difference between you and I is that I tell my children to put the book back because it’s not right for our family,  while you choose to tell ALL children that they may not read the book.  Your family’s “just right” books don’t trump mine.

You argue that it is oppositional to your faith.  I would counter that all religious texts are oppositional to mine.  Yet I am not asking the library to remove children’s Bibles because they have no place in my faith.  Your faith does not trump mine.

You say that this book promotes a “homosexual agenda.”

  • Firstly I am curious what you think a homosexual agenda is.  I’ll let you in on a non-secret–I’m…

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Snarking Nostaligic: Prom Dress by Lael Littke

I delayed posting this in hopes that I could find the fraction of a story I wrote in 1994 called “The Curse of the Silver Teddy Bear” about a cursed necklace with a teddy bear charm.  I’m pretty sure I was ripping off Prom Dress, “Friday the 13th: The Series,” and all the other cursed item media I consumed in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Sadly, while I know it still exists, I have not been able to locate it.  I do promise, though, that I will share it in all its terrible glory one day.

prom dressProm Dress by Lael Littke

Originally Published 1989

Robin is too poor to buy a new dress for the prom.  Then she finds a perfect, beautiful dress in the attic of her mysterious employer’s house.  She “borrows” it to wear to the prom…and dances into her worst nightmare.

Then Felicia finds the dress.  The price she pays for wearing it is more than any girl should pay…

But Nicole is too smart to be caught by the dress.  Isn’t she?  Poor Nicole!

And then there’s Gabrielle, Robin’s little sister.  Did she find the dress?  Or did the dress find Gabrielle?

Can anyone stop the fatal attraction of the…Prom Dress?

OHMIGOD you guys—could this book BE any better?  Maybe, but only if it were longer.  I LOVED it.  So much love I can’t stop with the CAPSLOCK.!!!!111!!!!111!!!!1!!

I hope you guys were all fans of soap operas back in the day because this plot has a lot of run-on explanations that only work if you’re willing to pretend we’re in Salem/Pine Valley/Port Charles.

Robin is a new-to-town gold digging social climber dating the hottest/richest boy in school–Tyler.  Tyler drives a red Trans Am, which I think is supposed to compensate for him saying things like “Between your dancing and your working, I hardly get to see you.  Where do I rate on your list of priorities?”

Alas, Robin must work because Daddy’s dead and college tuition doesn’t grow on trees.  Apparently, though, new houses DO grow on trees.  Right around when Robin’s Dad died, her mother inherited a house from a family member who also died at the same time which is great because they couldn’t afford the mortage on the old house they’d lived in with her dad, and so they moved because this house was free because there are no inheritance or property taxes and who the hell knows—just go with it.  Dad died, they moved, they’re broke–but they live in a mansion next to an even bigger mansion.

gold diggerHe’s talking about you, Robin

How very lucky for all of us that Tyler ‘s girlfriend needn’t slum it at McDonalds.  In the mysterious mansion next door lives Miss Catherine.  She’s an elderly recluse with a scarred cheek from when her twin sister Rowena threw acid on Catherine’s face because Rowena was jealous of Catherine’s hot boyfriend Michael who never looked at Rowena even though Rowena had all kinds of lustful thoughts for him.  Robin is Miss Catherine’s lackey, and her job duties seem to consist of keeping Miss Catherine company and talking about how hot Miss Catherine used to be before “the accident.”

One day Miss Catherine and Robin get to talking about how Robin is going to be in some dance show doing the Charleston and there might be college scouts there to give out college scholarships.  She has to find her own costume–and Miss Catherine has the perfect dress.  All Robin has to do is go upstairs, find the secret closet, and take out the flapper dresses—being certain to NOT TOUCH the white prom dress that JUST HAPPENS to be the only other thing in that closet.  Don’t even LOOK at it, Robin.

Duh, of course Robin looks at it, and instantly wants it. She’s going to be Tyler’s prom date and if she shows up in anything less than the perfect dress, he’ll dump her because she won’t be worthy of being seen with him or something.

The dress was made of deep scallops of creamy lace.  It had long sleeves and a high lace collar.  Like the flame colored dress, it had a dropped waistline, but the two dresses were worlds apart.  While the red one called out blatantly for excitement and dancing the braying of horns, the lace one spoke softly of elegance and muted music and romance.

puffed sleevesWhat girl wouldn’t want to sport this while dancing to Milli Vanilla and New Kids on the block ?

She asks Miss Catherine if she can borrow the Prom Dress.  HELLZ NO, Miss Catherine says.  She got the scar on her cheek while wearing that dress–it’s BAD.    Robin decides that the ends will justify the means and when she borrows the flapper dress, she “borrows” the prom dress.  Did she see a shadow on her cheek when she took it?  Nah, it was just a trick of the light.

Apparently Robin looks smokin’ in the red flapper dress at the Charleston contest.  Tyler tells her that his dad thought Robin was so hot that he’s sending them to a top shelf restaurant before prom, and is going to throw a limo their way.  Robin says she could get used to this lifestyle, and I contemplate that she’s chasing the wrong man–it’s Tyler’s dad who controls the purse strings.

They go to Prom—many more mentions of how the dress is so gorgeous that every girl there is jealous of it and that Robin is so bodacious–and are crowned Prom King and Queen.  But just as Robin is about to take her throne and accept the pinnacle of high school success, the stairs crumble and she falls.  The throne she was about to sit on falls too and lands on her legs and feet, crushing them.

No more dancing for Robin.

Robin is taken to a hospital, where her nurse is a woman named Felicia.  Felicia is a reformed slut who is now in love with a divinity student named Mark.  She wants to grow up and be Mrs. Mark, future minister’s wife.  The first major hurdle in reaching her goal is impressing Dean Goudy at a special dinner he throws for his divinity students.  Apparently the dean evaluates all potential spouses, and if the spouse doesn’t measure up the marriage isn’t going to happen and the student will be penalized for even thinking about dating such an unworthy candidate.  No pressure.

If only Felicia had the right dress…

It was to be a dress-up affair, and the only fancy dresses she owned were bare backed or off the shoulder or spaghetti-strapped.  What she needed was something sweet and demure.

Something like Robin Wilson’s dress.

slutty nun dressSadly, this little number will need to stay in Felicia’s closet.

Felicia asks Robin if she can borrow the dress.  Robin says no.  But during a drugged out dream, Robin’s eyes flicker open and she sees Felicia holding the dress up to herself.

Felicia is looking in the mirror–and thinks she sees a smudge on her cheek.  Gee–is it shadowing or FOREshadowing?  Felicia steals the dress.

Felicia goes to the dinner and is all demure and shit.  But the dress keeps feeling tighter and tighter.  So tight she can’t breathe.  But when she looks in the mirror, the dress looks just like it did–it’s not too tight at all.  But she can’t breathe.  Finally, she excuses herself and goes upstairs to the “bathroom.”  Felicia goes into the Dean’s bedroom and rips the dress off her body.

Oh noes!  Now she’s in her underwear and the dress HAS to get back to Robin tonight because otherwise she’d be a bad person or something.  So instead she steals some clothes from Mrs. Goudy to wear.  But why stop there?  She steals a bag to carry the dress back to Robin.  She tries to sneak out, but Mrs. Goudy shouts that someone is fleeing the house with her BLUE BAG!

Felicia runs for the bus stop and the RIGHT bus just HAPPENS by at the RIGHT MOMENT.  What luck!  She hops on the bus and feels so lost and upset.  Now what can she do?  Telling the truth is clearly out of the questions–it is a FAR better solution to change back into the dress, sneak back into the house, and go back downstairs saying that she had glimpsed a man running off with a blue bag.  NO!  NO!  What she should REALLY do is go to the hospital and return the dress and throw out the clothes and….I don’t know, say that God had taken her from the house to the hospital because she was more needed at the hospital?

Before she can get off the bus, Felicia needs her shoes.  She reaches into the bag for her shoes…and discovers a velvet bag with pearls in it.  I know I leave my expensive jewels in a random bag in my closet instead of a jewelry box or a safe.  Oh NOES!!!

People get onto the bus–and it’s Mark and another guy from the party.  Rather than confess and do penance or say some hail marys or whatever, she says

“Mark.  The man with the cap….  He took it.  He made me take the dress off at the house and he put it in a blue bag that he found in a closet….  He got off a few stops back.  ….  He made me come with him.  He said he’d hurt me if I didn’t come.  He threatened all sorts of awful things.  I didn’t dare call out or anything.  I just did what he said.  I’m sorry he got away.  But I was afraid.  See, I’m still shaking.”

Mark is incredibly dumb and believes her.  He escorts her from the bus, while she plays sad maiden.

The bag is left on the bus.

No more integrity for Felicia.

Nicole is a genius.  Her high school academic decathalon team is taking the exact same city bus to a rival high school for a major competition.  Her foot bumps something under the seat, and she finds THE BLUE BAG.  Inside is the dress and some gorgeous pearls.  It’s just what she needs for the dance that night.  Maybe then her teacher will notice her and become her boy toy and they’ll live happily ever after.

snapeI will open to page 394 any day of the week, Professor Snape….

That night she goes to the dance, and she looks totally gnarly.  She thinks she sees a shadow on her cheek momentarily, and only the dullest reader can’t see what kind of karma is heading her way.

Mr. Waring asks her to dance and they flirt.

School would be out soon; that would end the student-teacher track they were stuck in right now, which of course would never allow dating.  Mr. Waring’s strong code of ethics would never allow it.  But, after graduation, they’d be free to date.  Nicole could help him get over the terrible pain of losing his wife and child, and they could be married.  She wondered if he’d mind if she went to college after their marriage.  Very likely he’d insist on it.  Maybe he’d go back for more graduate work.  Maybe they’d both go to college.

Nicole was thinking happily of a wedding gown very much like the dress she was wearing.

Just then, Nicole sees her frenemy talking to someone and pointing at her.  Proving she’s the Girl Computer with the giant brain, she makes the obvious intellectual leap that the cops must be here for her.  They must have figured out….somehow…that the dress and jewelery weren’t hers.  She runs away and bumps into a very tall pedestal.  The bust of Einstein falls off and smacks her in the head.

Poor Nicole, no more brains–it’s amnesia town for you.

Luckily for Felicia, Nicole is brought to her hospital.  She’s able to put the dress back into Robin’s closet.  She confesses everything to Mark and surrenders the jewelry back to Mrs. Goudy.  Mark dumps her lying ass.

Felicia and Robin have a heart to heart about the evil of the dress.  Felicia thinks they should destroy it–her first smart choice of the book.  Robin persists in being a moron and says it must go back to Miss Catherine.

Robin tells her little sister Gabrielle to take the dress back to Miss Catherine.

Did I mention that Gabrielle thinks that Tyler is totally choice?  Gabrielle loves to play piano and Tyler sometimes accompanies her when he’s waiting around for Robin.  So she jumps at the chance to get a ride home from him, and asks him to come play piano with her.  They could even do a duet FOR ROBIN when she finally comes home.

sister's boyfriendThat boy is mine, yo

Robin finally comes home and it’s so sweet how Gabrielle and Tyler have clearly practiced playing together over and over and over and over.  In fact, they’ve gotten so used to playing together that they’re going to do a paid job playing together.  Playing PIANO—stop with your filthy minds.

Robin takes the garment bag with the dress inside it back to Miss Catherine and confesses.  Miss Catherine begins to laugh hysterically and confesses that it was her evil plan all along!  BWAHAHA–she’s not even Miss Catherine….she’s ROWENA.

“I cursed every stitch of that dress.  I started it for myself, you know.  I thought Michael was going to ask me to the prom.  But I had the birthmark, you see, and Catherine was the beauty.  That was the most important thing in the world to her, just as Michael was to me.  I saw them sneak around together, and when he asked her to the prom I finished up the dress for her, because I knew it was the last time she would ever be beautiful.”

Rowena jiggled up and down.  “When they came home, I threw acid on her face.  But not on the dress.  I didn’t want to ruin the dress.  She was wearing a cloak, so it didn’t get on the dress.  I didn’t want to hurt the dress.  I did it right there, in the foyer, on our little stage,” Rowena gave her a mirthless laugh.  “And after that she was even uglier than I was.”

And just look–there goes Gabrielle to her job, with Robin’s boyfriend….WEARING THE DRESS!!!  Rowena taunts Robin to just let her go, that the dress will punish her sister just as it did Rowena’s so long ago.

Robin suddenly develops a backbone and ethics and struggles to her feet, even though they’re both in casts and she’s supposed to be in a wheelchair, and even standing hurts with the fury of a thousand suns she struggles to the door, screaming even though Gabrielle and Tyler can’t hear her.  As she gets to the door, throws it open, and screams her sister’s name one last time just as Gabrielle is about to get into the Trans Am, and passes out from the sheer pain of it all.

She wakes up in the hospital—her fall stopped whatever tragedy was about to befall Gabrielle.

Rowena was taken away and the full story comes out.  After her stay in a mental hospital post-acid throwing, she was released into Catherine’s custody.  The two women went away and were recluses.  “Rowena” died in a fire, tragically.  “Catherine” came back to the hometown and the old house.  But “Catherine” was really “Rowena”–and the scar was from her gouging out her own birthmark so that it would scar and look like the acid burn.  She was the EVIL TWIN!

evil twinEVIL TWINS….EVIL TWINS EVERYWHERE.

The book closes with an epilogue all in italics.  A woman buys the dresses for her second hand store.  A girl named Natalie goes shopping at said store, and sees the dress.  She’s an aspiring actress and it’s perfect for the upcoming audition.  But it costs too much.  So she slips it into her bag and steals it.

Tomorrow she would wear the dress!

The book ends, and I stand up and applaud.

This.

Was.

AWESOME.

 

Next week we’re back to Stoneybrook.  It’s time for Mary Anne’s book….I wonder if we’ll hear about how her mother is dead?

This week in the world of reading

Every so often, I’m going to want to highlight various news articles I find about various literacy related interests from who’s banning what book to where I bought a cute book-themed t-shirt for the girls.

Things making me very happy this week

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(US) Harper Lee has given her approval to e-publish “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is one of my all time favorite books.  Expected publication is July 2014.  Read more here.

(International) The extended trailer for “The Fault in Our Stars” is out.  The movie is being released, and in the face of all the disappointing movie adaptations that have come before it, I am STILL very excited to see this.

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(USA) Free comic book day is May 3d!  Don’t forget to take your kids to the comic book store and help them get hooked.  Dear parents who get their underwear in a twist over comic books–your kid is reading.  Full stop.  Read more here.

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(FRANCE) Mo Willems is writing in Paris.  Or at least sketching the passersby of the cafe in which he’s writing.  He is one of the household’s favorite author.  If not for the article–watch the video (or BOTH).  He wants you to know that being a child sucks.  Here

 

Things infuriating me this week

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(USA) Parents successfully banned “The absolutely true diary of a part time Indian” (one of the most banned books in the US currently–and on my reading list) in a school district in Idaho for, among other things “unChristian content.”  Students at the school organized a petition fighting the ban.  People in Washington raised money and donated 350 copies of the book to a local bookstore to hand out to teens who wanted to read it.  A parent called the cops to arrest (?) the people handing out the free books.  Read more about it here.

 

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(CANADA) Someone (a “patron” or “a father’s rights group” depending on your source) attempted to have Hop on Pop banned in Toronto libraries because it advocates violence against fathers.  It was unsuccessful.  Read more here

 

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(UK) There are both international and local efforts forming to ask the British government to reconsider its ban on sending prisoners books.  Read more here and here.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 9.47.53 PM(CHINA) China has started arresting male/male slash fanfic writers.  Most of them are young women. (slash–homosexual pairings in fan fiction like Kirk & Spock)  Read more here.

Book Review: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 3.46.36 PMCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White

5/5 stars

Ellie likes read alouds–she likes picture books, and she’ll sit in for her sister’s board books.  But over the past year and a half, we’ve slowly started to introduce chapter books into the read aloud repertoire.  This past week we finished “Charlotte’s Web.”

First I’ll let Elanor talk to you about the book.  This is a longer video than the past two have been, and I provided more scaffolding.  Given the length and complexity of the book, Ellie needed support.

In reading chapter books to Elanor, I’ve had the opportunity to look back at my childhood.  Some books like Fantastic Mr. Fox are much scarier, others are badly written (see my snarking nostalgia column), and some books–like Beezus and Ramona–are just boring.

Charlotte’s Web is sadder.  So. Much. Sadder. than I remembered it being.  Reading it as an adult, and knowing what’s coming makes you so much more alert to nuance.  More than once, I felt choked up or found myself blinking back tears.  Prepare yourself accordingly.

As a child, I don’t know that I appreciated the richness of the language that White uses throughout the book. Words like salutations, injustice, and languishing are a welcome change.  You won’t find overuse of the word “said” as you do in other children’s literature.  It is a joy to read.

I remember appreciating that he didn’t dumb the book’s vocabulary down just because kids were going to read it–or the subject matter.

Wilbur’s life is in danger from the first chapter, and the reader knows that Wilbur may actually end up on someone’s plate.  Few expect Charlotte to die.  I’m relatively sure that this is the first book I read in which I lost a beloved character.  Some kids will need preparation–others may surprise you.  I was a bit concerned about reading it aloud to Elanor–she’s a really sensitive little girl–but she was fine while I was tearing up during Charlotte’s death scene.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to show Ellie the animated and live action versions of Charlotte’s Web so that she can give you her opinion about which she liked best.  I’ll introduce the idea of faithful adaptation so that she can evaluated if they are faithful.  I don’t really remember if the cartoon is terribly faithful, but I do remember loving the music.  I’ve never seen the live version so I have no idea what I’m in for.

I think five is about as young an age where this is a good real aloud.  The upper limit of the age depends on the purpose for which you’re reading it.  This is a book that belongs on any bookcase, whether you have children or not.

Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

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Rating 4/5 stars

I have a weakness for dystopian YA fiction,and have since I read Pretties by Scott Westerfeld.  I have a new fondness for zombies thanks to The Walking Dead.  Dystopian YA Fiction WITH Zombies?  YES PLEASE!

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot–in this case, my brother Shaun–deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.  As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked.  This isn’t a surprise.  It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to be technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.

When the infected first appeared–heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand–they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave.  The only surprise was that this time it was really happening.

There was no warning before the outbreaks began.  One day, things were normal; the next, people who were supposedly dead were getting up and attacking anything that came into range.  This was upsetting for everyone involved, except for the infected, who were past being upset about that sort of thing.  The initial shock was followed by running and screaming, which eventually devolved into more infection and attacking , that being the way of things.  So what do we have now, in this enlightened age twenty-six years after the Rising?  We have idiots prodding zombies with sticks, which brings us full circle to my brother and why he probably won’t live a long and fulfilling life.

This has to be one of the better openings to a book I’ve run into recently.  I knew I probably wasn’t going to put my phone down until I was done with the book, if it lived up to those first few paragraphs.  It did, and I cheerfully spent the next week or so devouring all 3 “Newsflesh” novels and the 3 Newsflesh Novellas.

George (Georgia) Mason is our main narrator.  She’s a newsie (non fiction news and op/ed piece blogger).  Along with her brother Shaun Mason, an Irwin (named after the croc hunter Steve Irwin)-a blogger who takes risks for blog hits and ratings, and their friend Buffy (Fiction and all things Tech), they run the website After the End Times.  Buffy is actually Georgette (all derivations on George became the most popular names post zombies, in honor of George Romero, whose zombie movies were suddenly like instruction manuals) but in her own words “I’m cute, blonde, and living in a world of zombies.  What do you think I should call myself?”  She’s a Joss Whedon fangirl, and sighs that no one seems to get it.  (Side note, one of the Newsflesh novellas takes place at Comicon 2014 and features a booth of browncoats–referencing the fans of Whedon’s Firefly–Grant is obviously a fellow Whedonite.)

The zombie apocalypse began in 2014 (yay, something to look forward to this year!).  Two viruses (the cure for the common cold and the cure for cancer) combine and infect the world with what becomes known as Kellis-Amberlee. No one gets cancer, no one gets a cold, but everyone turns into a zombie after death.  While the trope of “we were trying to cure cancer and made monsters” is an old one, Newsflesh does it well.  I like the competing viruses setup, and over time we learn more and more about them and how we got from cures to zombies.  Grant is a student of virology and her knowledge shows in the material…and her spin on the trope comes off as plausible.

Zombies, however, aren’t the only danger in a post-Rising world.  The US (where the book is set) has reacted with what feels like a very realistic set of  “safety measures.”

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Some of the ways the US has given itself over to fear include…..

  • Lots of places have blood tests at the entryway.  All blood tests are rigged to send an automatic signal to the CDC if they come up positive, so that you can be rounded up/shot before you finish amplifying and go on a little terror spree.
  • Public schools require 3 blood tests per day.
  • The government has declared certain towns and the state of Alaska lost.  They are impossible to secure, so you don’t go there (or need permits to go there and understand you’re not likely to make it out alive).
  • There is a law-The Biological Mass Pet Ownership Restrictions–currently under debate to outlaw animals over 40 pounds (the minimum before you can be turned into a zombie–so horses, cows, moose, etc can become zombies, but the average housecat or chicken can’t).
  • Lots of houses have voice prints.  The Mason’s also requires that you read a non sequitor sentence on a pad to prove you still have higher cognitive function.  If you fail, the house’s system will incinerate you.
  • Clothes are washed in industrial grade bleach.  People are also hosed off with bleach.  George is contrary in that rather than accept the inevitable blonde hair due to the bleach, she keeps dyeing it brown.
  • The country is divided into biohazard zones.  Rules are different in each of thezones.
  • Apple has branched out into blood tests, and makes the most expensive/high end ones–because of course they have.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 8.57.05 PMGeorge Cosplay suggestions by Shaylabauwf

George and Shaun are the adopted children of the Masons–originally a Berkley professor and his wife–who lost their child in the early days of the outbreak.  They were some of the earliest blog star to come out of the Rising.  Everything they’ve done since then, including adopting George and Shaun has been done with an eye toward ratings.

Numbers slipping?  Go for a field trip to a zoo.  That’ll get you right back to the top.

After the End Times is chosen to join with the Ryman Presidential Campaign as bloggers.  They’ll be trailblazing as bloggers haven’t ever been invited to be part of the process before..  Although bloggers have become the more reliable media post-rising, official things like campaigns have used the traditional print and video mediums.  Ryman (who comes off in the spirit of all young presidential hopefuls–the JFK/Obama/Clintons) has decided to invite them along as sponsored media.

Since the blogs and website are such an important part of the book, we see Grant talking about  things like blog comments, traffic, editing in a way that feels authentic to the characters and part of the narrative, rather than expository blather.  This is a refreshing change from authors who info dump in the most boring way possible.

Peter Ryman comes off as smooth.

Shaun settled with his back to the wall, affording him the best view of the room.  He may seem like an idiot, but in some ways, he’s the most careful of us all.  You can’t be an Irwin and not learn somet things about keeping your exits open.  If the zombies ever mob en masse again, he’ll be ready.  And filming.

Buffy took the seat nearest the light, where the cameras studded through her jewelry would get the best pickup shots.  her portables work on the principles defined during the big pre-Rising wireless boom; they transmit data to the server on a constant basis, allowing her to come back and later and edit at her leisure.  I once tried to figure out how many transmitter she actually had on her ,but wound up giving up and wandering to do something more productive like answering Shaun’s fan mail.

……

–His tone easy and assured “I’m not going to beat around the bush.  I read your public reports, you op-ed pieces, everything before I agreed to your application.  I know you’re smart and won’t forgive bullshit.  That doesn’t,” he held up a finger, “mean I’m going to be one hundred percent straight with you, because there are some things no reporter ever gets to be privy to.  Mostly having to do with my home life and my family, but still, there are no-go zones.”

The first major campaign covered is an event in a civic center, where Georgia notes that the press outnumber the public two to one because the public doesn’t really like things like political rallies with a bunch of strangers anymore.  Or being anywhere with a large group of people.  We see some of the various segments of the population like the woman who asks him about the Rapture–the zombie outbreak has inspired some to religious fanaticism.  Another asks about the death penalty (especially given that that death penalty is a little different post zombies).  Another brings up public health-because again, this is a different level of priority post-zombies.  And so forth.

However, we see exactly why the public is scared of this sort of event when a zombie outbreak happens post meeting.  None of the alarm systems function correctly, and George is almost taken out among others.  It’s the first in a series of sketchy events that eventually mean our intrepid reporters have a conspiracy to report upon….

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 9.43.55 PMMira Grant’s author picture, which is one of the better I’ve seen.

If you like your books smart, skeptical of the government, and full of zombies, you’ll enjoy Feed and the rest of the Newflesh books….

Book Review–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

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Magic’s Pawn   by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 5/5 stars

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.  Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.

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Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.10.08 PMMercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.