Star Wars: A Love Letter

So. This is the first of a series that we are going to have here called Love Letters. Basically, it is our gushing in the direction of things that we love. A lot. Things that have had particular impact on our lives as nerds and in general. Not much more I can say really, just be prepared for a lot of high pitched squeeing. So without further ado:

Star Wars: A Love Letter

Everyone has some idea about Star Wars, whether they like it or not. Even if they have never seen it, the space opera has been so deeply embedded into our cultural psyche it’s impossible to escape. With the release of The Force Awakens, that presence has been stirred up again, and the Star Wars train is at full steam ahead for the foreseeable future. And I plan to ride that train all the way to a pandering blog post. Choo choo!

luke-skywalker-on-tatooine
So Romantic!

My Star Wars story is similar to a lot of other fans’ experiences. I was introduced to the movie by my parents when I was tiny, and it’s one of the earliest movie watching memories I have (along with Beauty and the Beast…I feel like this reveals a lot about my personality). My biggest memory is being scared shitless when Luke comes home to find Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s burned bodies (spoiler alert?). But I also remember the sheer enjoyment of the films, as well as the camaraderie I felt with my brother while watching them. We didn’t get along too well back then, but we always seemed able to watch movies together. And Star Wars (and the beloved Ewok movie of course. Ahem.) was a common choice.

On a side note, my Dad recently told me an anecdote about my Grandmother who passed away last year. Apparently she wasn’t that impressed by the movies, but went on and on about how much she loved the opening, how the words scrolling diagonally and disappearing into the distance was the coolest thing ever. I just thought that was sweet, and somehow very her.

I was 12 when The Phantom Menace came out. I preface the next part of this story with that fact because I would like to say that as a 12 year old I might have had questionable tastes. Meaning, I liked the movie when it came out. I saw it several times in the theater, bought a lot of the merchandise, hung posters on my wall. Basically, I was the target audience for that movie. I am not (that) ashamed of liking the first prequel because I think that while there are probably plenty of 12 year olds with great taste, taste is something that can change dramatically as you grow. While The Phantom Menace holds a special place in my heart, I don’t think of it as a movie that I love, and I have the vocabulary to back up why. But we all know why the prequels are weak. Maybe a blog post for another time.

But the real reason I am not ashamed of my Phantom Menace period is because it shaped me as a fan. I began to create art seriously for the first time, from tracing magazine photoshoots featuring Queen Amidala’s fabulous wardrobe, to drawing my own Jedi characters. I began writing and reading fan fiction. While I had been dabbling in writing since about age eight, fan fiction was actually an important step in the process of my original writing. I was engaged creatively in the Star Wars universe, and I grudgingly have to thank George Lucas for that.

Another, probably more important byproduct of this mania (a mania that would re-emerge with subsequent fandoms, but maybe never to the same extent) was that I found my people. Before the movie even came out, I connected with two girls at my school who already loved Star Wars like me. And we were excited. We would talk about the details excessively. We would make up cooperative stories. We would geek out about the expanded universe and about how cool Mara Jade was, and how Luke was so whiny, and oh my gosh they actually get married? (as I have gotten older I have grown to love Luke a lot more than I used to). It was my first experience of how loving something could be so exciting, and how you could share that excitement with other people, and make real friends.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Star Wars allowed me to be the kind of girl that I think is not encouraged in mainstream society. That is, I could be a girl, but still kick ass. I could like spaceships and lightsaber fights, but still think Ewan McGregor was so dreamy. I could want Princess Leia’s hair, but still think it was so totally awesome how she took charge and just ruled everything. While Star Wars still has some representation problems (something being beautifully addressed in the Force Awakens), I think it’s a good place for girl nerds to start realizing that they can be a girl and a nerd, whatever that means for them.

I realize all of this is very idealistic and maybe ignores some of the major problems with the franchise. I plan on writing some other blog posts about that, but this was really an exercise for me to understand how fandom fits into my life, especially a fandom that has affected so many other people.

So yes. I plan on doing a couple more blog posts on Star Wars, but in the meantime, thus endeth the inaugural love letter.

XOXO

Review: Control

Title: Kang, Lydia. (2015). Control. New York, NY: Speak.

Book cover with metallic background.
Mutated genotypes are so fun!

Keywords: Dystopian thriller, genetic mutations, orphans, unconventional families

Caution: Plot Points Ahead

I read Control in two weeknights. I tend to read fast but this book read very quickly. I did have difficulty engaging with the novel at first but once I met the supporting cast of characters (around Chapter Three), I finally settled in to finish the novel.

Control is a YA novel set in a dystopian future of the United States, where in 2150 AD federal law is in abeyance and the States have since coupled up to form regional entities (and identities). The main character, Zelia, describes this phenomenon in offhand asides, such as Inky (Indiana and Kentucky) and Neia (Nebraska and Iowa). Zelia is also quick to inform readers that manipulation of the human genome is legally prohibited, and those with diverse or mutated genotypes are destroyed. Thus, we have the ingredients for a dystopian futuristic thriller.

Teenaged Zelia has a beloved younger sister Dylia, and a mysterious, almost absentee physician father. Often left to their own devices, both sisters are directed to study a variety of disciplines by their father for unknown reasons. The family also moves around, never settling in one place for longer than ten months at a time. The sisters are orphaned early on in the novel, and then separated into different foster environments. At that time, Zelia meets new housemates and a new love interest — all of whom have unique genotypes (some of which are expressed in the character’s phenotype, too). It is then no surprise to the reader that Zelia, too, has an unusual genetic trait.

Lydia Kang, the author, is a practicing physician, a poet, and non-fiction writer. Her medical background clearly informs her choice in plot and characters, and the breakneck pacing and the accessible vocabulary made the pages fly by. I had one problem that, really, is not central to this novel: the cliffhanger ending which separates young lovers that I see so much of in the YA thriller genre. This means that the reader has to wait until the next novel to discover more. Personally, that particular plot device drives me mad. I like an ending that feels as though the character has resolved something. Furthermore, the brooding bad boy love interest felt textbook.

Excitement Level: I’ve got the next book on order at the library.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: All the Rage

all the rage

Details: Summer, Courtney. (2015). All the Rage. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Keywords: Young Adult, Contemporary, Abuse

Review:

I have to start out this review with some major trigger warnings, that of rape and pretty extreme bullying. I know that doesn’t really bode well for the rest of the review but I want to make sure everyone knows what this book has in store if you decide to read it.

I knew what I was signing myself up for, having read the summaries and reviews. But I don’t think there is really any way to prepare for the emotional response you will have to a book like this, even if you haven’t gone through these things personally. It’s more than hard. It is devastating.

I am not going to spend so much time summarizing the story. As hinted at above, the main character, Romy, has been sexually abused by a classmate’s brother at the beginning of the book. She has had a falling out with her best friend and is chastised and mistreated not just by her classmates, but other members of her community, who think that Romy is lying. This is in part because her abuser is a “golden boy,” and the son of the sheriff.

The most compelling, and the hardest thing about this book is Romy’s inner life. She is not only scared and unhappy, but she is filled with understandable rage at what has happened to her. She has shut down in many ways but the more volatile feelings cause her to act in ways of self-preservation. It’s really hard to put all of this into words because my reactions to Romy’s experience were on a much more visceral level, but I guess what I am trying to say is that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of trauma. Even when Romy is making choices that seem unwise or even unfair to others, based in what she has gone through, it makes sense. Courtney Summers does not shy away from the really grim realities of Romy’s life.

I think that books like this are extremely important on many levels. First, as mentioned above, just giving a voice to the victims of sexual assault, of what the experience actually is, rather than just becoming a statistic or a news item. It humanizes this experience in a way that while it is extremely unpleasant, is necessary to understand that this is a common place experience for many people, and, in my opinion, can bring more compassion to the experiences of others.

I also think that the actual themes that this book grapples with are vital, especially when you remember that this book is intended for a teen audience. Not only is the harming nature of toxic masculinity a major point in this book, but there is a lot of attention placed on what it means to be a girl in our society, how you are meant to act, who your body really belongs to, how you are treated. One of the repeating thoughts is that “there is more than one way to kill a girl,” which just about broke my heart. Because it’s so true. The myriad of ways that girls are mistreated and abused, even if it is not physically, is so important to get teenagers to understand. Maybe if they are aware, they can make the changes in their own lives.

On a lighter note, the writing in this book is brutal but beautiful. Summers does not use more than she needs to in her writing and it really serves the story. The flashbacks are done in an interesting way, in that while the story is written in first person, the past is almost dissociated from the main story, but intertwines with it. The characters were well developed, though my one criticism is that I wish there had been at least a few allies for Romy besides her mother. It seems like there would at least be one other person who believed her. But maybe that is just naive of me.

Read this book if you can. I won’t say it is enjoyable, but it is extremely well written and important in the themes it discusses.

Excitement Level: Five emotionally draining stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.

Review: Scarlett Undercover

Teenage girl in red hooded sweatshirt.
She’s more Veronica Mars than Nancy Drew…

Title: Latham, Jennifer. (2015). Scarlett Undercover. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books.

Keywords: Mystery, young adult, Muslim-American, thriller, suicide

Scarlett Undercover features a Muslim-American Veronica Mars who does not wear a hijab, or observe all haraam practices, in the fictional city of Las Almas. Jennifer Latham’s debut work adopts the gumshoe patter of the mystery genre, and sprinkles the novel with literary or historical allusions, such as the Baker Street Bridge (Sherlock Holmes) or the librarian named Melvin (likely a reference to the founder of the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey). Hired by a young child to investigate her brother’s strange behavior after his friend’s suicide, amateur detective Scarlett (a teenaged orphan who graduated high school early and lives with her medical resident sister Reem) probes the suicide and the brother’s behavior, and of course, discovers more than she bargained for.

Scarlett is tough, confident, smart, knows the martial art of Muy Thai, and is surrounded by a truly diverse cast of supporting characters. In addition to having a parental older sister and a detective friend on the local police force, she also has a (somewhat forced) romance with a hot Jewish love interest

Oy yeah.

At different moments throughout the novel, I discovered instances of “…too much______.” For example: Some of the dialogue was too pat; Scarlett was rendered too tough; and the surrounding environs too gentle for their purported level of scary. These instances broke my suspension of disbelief long enough to register the disruption. That being said, the story was engaging and sheer fun. I sped through it.

While this novel undoubtedly belongs in the YA genre, I wasn’t sure if the novel was a young adult mystery novel – or a young adult fantasy novel. I’d be fine with either, or both at the same time. But the introduction of jinn and demons halfway through the novel felt like a potential turn aside from what was promised to the reader at the outset. The fantastical elements were voided, in the end, by rational skepticism: “I remain unconvinced.” Furthermore, the novel (with its very rich backstory) felt like a second novel within a series rather than a debut. The pacing came across as though all of these characters had been established in a prior novel. While I do understand the purpose of in medias res, I would have appreciated exploring Scarlett’s origin story in more detail.

Scarlett Undercover, which features a Muslim-American teenager of Sudanese descent in a contemporary setting, is written by a white, middle-aged woman. Rather than get into the nuanced and complicated debate about whether white people should write characters of color (for which I do not have a satisfactory answer), I do want acknowledge that Latham obviously did her research on Islam and on the contemporary Muslim-American experience. Furthermore, in the afterword, Latham writes that she reached out to a friend and colleague with more knowledge than she to assess the novel for misrepresentations or inaccuracies. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” for white authors to write characters of color, I appreciate the effort and the thoughtfulness she employed in ensuring that she wrote a nuanced and accurate character.

Excitement Level: Half a Maltese Falcon. Or, three solid stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.

Review: Among Others

8706185

Details: Walton, Jo. (2011). Among Others. New York: Tor Books

Keywords: Faeries, Wales, Diary Style, Fantasy, Magical Realism, Books

Review:

I can’t remember how I originally heard about Among Others, but it was one of those books that started showing up everywhere. I noticed it at bookstores, people I knew reviewed it or mentioned it, so I figured the book gods were trying to tell me something. Never ignore the book gods.

I’m not even sure where to start with this book because it is one that kind of sneaks up on you. It’s very quiet, written in journal form from the point of view of fifteen year old Morwenna, a Welsh girl who loves—LOVES—to read. She can also see faeries and do magic.

Let’s start with the faerie thing since it’s the most obvious selling point of the book (it’s where my mom went “ooh” when I was giving her a summary so, I am guessing other people would be intrigued by that too. Hi, mom). The magic in this world is subtle, more of a nature magic that exists only for those who believe in it. I’m actually surprised this is categorized as a fantasy book because it reads much more like magical realism.

Being able to see faeries and do magic, mostly to protect herself from her evilish mother, is certainly important to Morwenna, but it serves more to shore up other things happening in her life. In this way, the book would be perfect for someone taking tentative steps into fantasy as a genre, especially if they come from reading a lot of literary fiction. (While I love Tolkien, he is a lot to spring on someone new to the genre. Manys the time I have heard the complaint “so much description! Too many landscapes!” Welcome to high fantasy, nerds.)

Another treat this book delivers is the aforementioned love of books. Morwenna mentions hundreds of sci-fi and fantasy books, enough to make any book loving heart go pitter pat. The LOTR references alone are glorious. And since the book is set in 1979-1980, it’s a snapshot of that time in the genre (plus a mandatory Star Wars mention). Someone on Goodreads had enough foresight to make a list of all the books mentioned in the book. I do love a good book list.

As it’s in journal form, the book recounts a lot of everyday, sometimes mundane activities. But rather than slowing the story down, it makes it very rich in character and setting. Morwenna’s life, rather than her struggle with her mother which is what I was expecting to be the main point of the book, is what’s most important. The plot is secondary to Morwenna’s inner experience and it is totally compelling. I happen to like books like this though so be warned: there’s not a lot of action.

My criticisms are that I wanted more details that showed the seventies as the setting. The only real clue is the books that Morwenna reads. In fact, with the boarding school setting and Morwenna’s sometimes old fashioned voice, I sometimes caught myself imagining the story set in the 1930’s or 40’s. I also think that some of the relationships needed more development. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Morwenna’s twin sister is dead from the beginning of the book. I would have liked to have seen more of an emotional tie to her sister as they were obviously close, and her death triggered some important plot points. The same goes for the romantic relationship. It almost felt like it was shoehorned in at the end and I would have liked to see it developed more fully. But this could also be a byproduct of Morwenna’s personality. All of her connections to people seemed a bit standoffish, which makes sense considering her circumstances.

On the whole, this was a great book. I am definitely going to check out Jo Walton’s other books.

Excitement Level: Gorgeous frolick with the faeries

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the library and reviewed it on my own impetus.