Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Mad Max: Fury Road Movie Review

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Review:

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Wowie zowie, counting Cinderella and Age of Ultron, I’ve now seen THREE movies in theaters this year, which may be more than I’ve seen in the previous three years combined. It’s tough getting to the theater when you have a toddler and no babysitter! However, now that he’s in daycare three days a week it’s a lot easier, even though I still feel kind of weird going to the movies in the morning.

Cinderella was a treat for my daughter and Age of Ultron went without saying, thanks to my current Marvel obsession, but Mad Max: Fury Road I went to see for political reasons. I’ve never seen the original Mad Max or either of its other sequels and the trailers for the current sequel/reboot looked weird in a way that was off-putting to me, so before its release I really had no intention of seeing it at all, let alone shelling out seven bucks to see it in theaters. But then the film opened, and people started saying stuff like this about it:

I didn’t expect to see the best female character in an action movie I’ve seen in over a decade.

(Source)

the heroic characters in fury road are literally–LITERALLY, I’M NOT IN ANY WAY EXAGGERATING–fifteen women and tom hardy. i can’t believe this is a movie i saw with my eyes in the year of our lord 2015.

(Source)

The most violent death in the movie was the death of the Bechdel Test, which they dragged behind the car the entire time.

(Source)

The whole movie is about a group of women fleeing toxic patriarchy only to realize that the only way to escape is to topple that system.

(Source)

I like to vote with my pocketbook for stuff, and better female representation in film (especially action and sff) is something I feel pretty strongly about, so clearly I needed to re-evaluate my previous stance on seeing the film!

In fact, Hollywood, I’m going to say this explicitly, just to be sure I’m not misunderstood: I decided to spend $7 bucks to see Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters despite originally having almost zero interest in it because you gave us a movie with a badass female lead who was never sexualized or thrust into an unnecessary romance or love triangle, as well as so many supporting female characters that the Bechdel Test became completely irrelevant. Thank you. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.

Though I wouldn’t describe Mad Max: Fury Road as groundbreakingly feminist, it hit a lot of feminist notes dead-on in a way that threw many other films and TV shows into kind of stark relief for how much worse they are. For example, one of the things that stood out to me, as someone currently trying to decide whether I want to continue watching Game of Thrones or not in light of its tone-deaf treatment of rape as a trope, was the fact that even though the film makes it 100% clear that the “wives” (several – possibly all? – of whom are pregnant by the revolting Immortan Joe) are escaping a life of sexual slavery and rape and will be subjected to more of the same if they return, their abuse is never shown onscreen and thus is never made titillating or voyeuristic in the way violence – especially sexualized violence – against women so often is in Game of Thrones and (to be fair) many, many other films and TV shows.

Moreover, although the women are treated as objects by Immortan Joe and the other male leaders of the Citadel – and they rebel explicitly against this treatment with the repeated line “We are not things” – the film also balances this treatment of its female characters by making it clear that men are also used as objects. Max himself is literally used as a living blood bag for part of the movie, and though the “warboys” might initially seem to have higher status than either Max or the wives, it’s clear that they are, in fact, regarded as nothing but cannon fodder by the higher status men. As The Verge points out, “When [warboy] Nux encounters the “wives,” they’re the ones who end up trying to help him — not because of women’s civilizing influence, but because they already understand how rigged the system is.”

Aside from the refreshingly feminist themes of the film (bonus points for the subtler environmentalist messages as well), the action scenes were also fucking incredible. The movie is essentially an extended car chase and it reaches new and impressive heights in the art of controlled chaos. As Unfogged points out (I recommend the whole post, which also includes a funny smackdown of the MRA boycott of the film):

The new Mad Max movie may be the most guy movie ever made. The plot is literally Tom Hardy (Mad Max) and Charlize Theron (Furiosa) rescue scantily-clad supermodels. If you asked me when I was 15 to list movie ideas, the list would have gone something like: scantily-clad supermodels, 18 wheelers, guys getting shot, guys getting blown up, fist-fights on top of an 18 wheeler, guys with chainsaws, guys getting run over by 18 wheelers, guys with guitars that shoot fire, and cars crashing into 18 wheelers and blowing up. This list is basically the script for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only thing missing is a helicoper piloted by velociraptors crashing into an 18 wheeler. But there’s always the chance of a sequel.

Though probably not to the degree of a 15 year old guy, as a woman with a weakness for the Rule of Cool, this is the sort of movie that makes me really wish I had design skills – any design skills – because my god, does it look like the design team had fun. Kudos on the awesomely spiky demon cars in particular, though the flame throwing guitar should not be overlooked. The cinematography was also stunningly beautiful, especially the scene as they’re racing towards the dust storm.

On the less pleasant side of things, there was some pretty gross body horror stuff, which is largely what originally turned me off the film after seeing the trailer. I don’t handle body horror very well at all, and there were a couple scenes that made me cringe and hide behind my hands.

Other than that, my only complaint about the film was that there were some poor music choices. Mad Max: Fury Road has relatively little dialogue and a couple of the few scenes with anything approaching a monologue had rather melodramatic music that made the lines seem way more on-the-nose than they would have with something a little subtler and more understated.

The lack of dialogue does, however, give lots of opportunities for some pretty impressive acting with body language and eyes, something I’ve become more attuned to since being bowled over by Sebastian Stan’s work in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both Hardy and Theron are equally impressive here.

Overall, one of the best action films I’ve seen.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

More commentary I’ve enjoyed:

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Agent Carter Series Review

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Review:

I absolutely loved the character of Peggy Carter in the Captain America films, and was delighted to hear that she was getting her own show. It took me awhile to finally sit down and watch it (the fact that ABC offered only episodes 4-8 on their streaming website didn’t help matters, thanks for nothing ABC), but I finally finished the series yesterday.

I thought the show’s greatest strength was its characters. Like I said, I love Peggy Carter and it was great to get to spend so much time with her. Dum Dum Dugan’s guest spot in episode 5 was a treat as well. (I’ve always wished Captain America: The First Avenger had more Howling Commandos and less Red Skull.) I also loved Jarvis, Angie, Sousa, and even Dottie, and while I can’t say I liked Thompson, I found his character pretty interesting and one of the most complex in the show.

The plot didn’t wow me as much. Peggy’s efforts to clear Howard Stark’s name, the stuff about Leviathan and the Battle of Finow, the info about the early days of the Black Widow program – all were interesting but suffered a bit from lack of emotional engagement. For example, we know Howard’s name will be cleared because he and Peggy are going to found SHIELD together, so there’s no real urgency there. I was also annoyed in several episodes by smart people making inexplicably stupid mistakes just to advance the plot. (I’m looking at you, Howard Stark. Although not only at you.)

Despite the lack of emotional engagement for much of the series, they did successfully turn it on full blast for the finale, which made me tear up not once but twice, watching both Howard and Peggy have to come to terms with losing Steve Rogers and move on without him.

Despite its weaknesses, Agent Carter was a fun and entertaining show to watch, and a bunch of the action sequences were good. There’s a post (several, actually, but that’s the most detailed) going around Tumblr that points out that Peggy’s fighting style is pretty similar to Steve’s, to the point that it’s likely she taught him how to fight, which is a nice new bit of headcanon.

I hope it gets renewed for a second season.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

PS – If you like fanfiction, I have some good Peggy fics listed on my Steve/Bucky recs page, including Steve/Peggy, Steve/Bucky/Peggy, and gen.

Criminal Minds Series Review

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Review:

I started watching Criminal Minds on the recommendation of a friend. Despite the fact that I love mysteries and crime dramas, it took a little bit of persuading, because Criminal Minds follows the  FBI’s (real but fictionalized) Behavioral Analysis Unit – profilers – a group that deals frequently with criminals who are the sickest of the sick: serial killers, serial rapists, pedophiles, etc. Quite frankly, I was afraid the show would give me nightmares, and this turned out to be a totally legitimate fear, because it has given me nightmares on multiple occasions and to this day there are certain episodes I can’t rewatch because they’re just too horrible.

Despite this, I ended up really enjoying the show and watched it until partway through the 6th season. I broke up with it rather reluctantly and still sometimes think about going back and picking it up again, but so far have not. I stopped watching because I thought there was a noticeable decline in the quality of the cases starting in season 5 and there started to be too many arcs I didn’t like (spoilers, click to view): fridging Hotch’s wife, for example, and the whole thing with Prentiss.

I remember the show as a whole pretty fondly, however. Most of the cases were interesting and well-written, but what really made the show great was the team dynamics. Though I was never a huge fan of Gideon, I adored the rest of the team. Penelope Garcia, the team’s hacker, is probably my favorite, because she is adorable, but it’s such a tough call, because Prentiss! Morgan! JJ! Reid! Hotch! I love them all so much, and they work so well together as a team that it’s hard to separate them in my head.

One of the things that helped persuade me to give the show a shot despite my apprehension about how well I’d be able to handle the nature of the cases was several excellent meta posts by fans and I wanted to quote a bit from a post by Synecdochic for you, because it’s totally true and also part of what makes even the most nightmarish episodes in this show bearable, at least one time:

For a show that’s about the horrible things that human beings can do to each other, it reinforces — over and over and — that even victims (especially victims) still have agency. The victims who fight are the victims who win. The victims who give up and lie down to die are the ones who don’t make it. One of the most awesome statements that keeps running through the whole show is that even when there are things you can’t control, even when horrible things are being done to you, you do still have power — even if you might have to squint to see it — because the person who’s doing it needs something from his or her victim, and that gives the victim power. Part of what the show is trying to do, I think, is trying to show the watchers that when you only have a little bit of power in a situation, you can still use it. No matter how bad the situation is.

This is an incredibly powerful message, and not just if you happen to get snagged off the street by a serial killer.

A couple other meta posts I recommend were written by the SFF writer Elizabeth Bear, who’s also a fan of the show. This one discusses thematic elements in the show, and this one discusses some of the very interesting things the show did with gender expectations in the early seasons, including its tendency to cast male characters in traditionally “feminine” roles and female characters in traditionally “masculine” ones and then play against type even then. For example:

Mom and Dad. Because if the team is a family (and they are, complete with sibling spats and looking out for little brother) then Mom and Dad are the two senior supervisory agents in charge of the zoo. And again, they are totally cast against type. Because Hotch [Thomas Gibson] is a three-piece-suit and wingtips, marksman-qualified, stern, unsmiling, ambitious piece of work. And Gideon [Mandy Patinkin] is soft-spoken, manipulative, casually dressed in soft colors, with a cluttered office full of pictures of the children he’s helped save.

Gideon is Dad and Hotch is Mom.

Anyway, all three meta posts are thoughtful and interesting and I hope they’ll inspire you to check the show out as much as they did me, because when it was good, it was really good.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Pride and Prejudice Book Review

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Review:

It’s probably safe to call Pride and Prejudice my favorite novel. It comes down to Pride and Prejudice vs Middlemarch, but while I consider Middlemarch to be the slightly better novel, I’ve read P&P a lot more times. And watched the BBC adaptation a lot more times, as well as most of the other film adaptations, including the modern AU, the weird black & white one with the 1840s fashion and the totally OOC Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the Bollywood version.

I get that it’s a totally predictable and boring choice for favorite book, but it really is just that good. And I don’t just mean the romance, although the romance is obviously wonderful. Jane Austen was freaking hilarious and an extremely astute observer of life, so even if you don’t like romance in general, you should give this book a try for the satire.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Harry Potter Series Review

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Review:

Unless you’ve spent the last 15 years in a cave or something, Harry Potter needs no introduction, and I doubt that there’s anything I can say that would convince you to read them if you haven’t already. However, I’m supposed to be reviewing everything on this blog, and the Harry Potter series actually ended up being a big part of my life, so I feel like I’d be remiss not to.

I remember first learning about the series in a Newsweek article about it back in the late 90s, about the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. The premise intrigued me, and I ended up getting the first book as a birthday present for my younger brother. It was a hit with the whole family (minus my mom, who doesn’t like the fantasy genre and refused to try it until years later, when my daughter cajoled her into reading the first book out loud together). Soon after finishing the second and third book, I went off to college, where I was delighted to discover that a bunch of the other girls in my dorm were fans, too. There was an empty room on our floor and we had fun making it “Harry and Ron’s Room” and leaving messages on the whiteboard from Hermione, You-Know-Who, etc. One of my friends even wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (including a fic that ended up being pretty popular), but I didn’t understand the appeal at the time and never really got into it.

A few years passed and I graduated, got married, and continued enjoying the series. Then my husband and I moved across country for the first time, leaving behind our family, friends, and my job. I started working at home, picking up assignments as a freelance writer, but I still had long hours to kill at home while my husband was at work because we didn’t have any children at that point and I was, frankly, too terrified of California drivers to go anywhere. (I learned to drive on the type of rural Nebraska backroads where you wave at other cars as you pass and anything more than three in five minutes qualifies as a traffic jam; Southern California traffic nearly gave me a heart attack.) I was lonesome and bored a lot, and one of the things I missed was talking with my brother and friends for hours about Harry Potter. So I joined the Harry Potter forums at FictionAlley Park. I was intending to hang around for discussion of the books, not fanfiction, but one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t the only person who’d always secretly suspected Remus Lupin and Sirius Black of being something more than simple friends. From the HMS Wolfstar threads it was an easy slide into Wolfstar fanfiction, and from there to reading other Harry Potter fanfiction, and from there to writing it myself.

I’ve never looked back.

Although I’m not really an active member of the Harry Potter fandom anymore, it was my gateway fandom and still my most intense and obsessive fannish experience. I miss it.

What was it that so captivated me about the Harry Potter series?

Probably the biggest single factor was the worldbuilding. Despite its periodic issues with dark wizards, anti-Muggle racism, and the like, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is a fantasy world that you want to be a part of.

Rowling’s heavy use of whimsy and clever wordplay gave the wizarding world a rather old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that felt simultaneously cozy and limitless. Especially in the early books, she did an incredible job capturing Harry’s wonder and awe as he explored his new, magical world.

The characters were another major draw. With a huge and diverse cast of characters to choose from, practically every reader is guaranteed to get attached to someone. Personally, I got attached to many. As a feminist, I especially appreciate the many wonderful and memorable female characters.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Review

The Harry Potter series got off to a great start with this book, which introduced us to Harry and the Wizarding World and made us instantly fall in love with both. As a fan of both the fantasy and mystery genres, I also enjoyed the clever use of mystery elements in the first three books.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

The weakest of the early books, but still quite good. A much creepier mystery than the first book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

My favorite book in the series. The best and most tightly plotted mystery, plus the introduction and largest role for my favorite character in the series, Remus Lupin.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

Amazing as it is that JK Rowling had children the world over reading a book longer than The Canterbury Tales, I think Goblet of Fire is where Rowling and her editor started to lose control of the series a bit. The mystery elements were not as well plotted and there was lots of stuff that seemed kind of superfluous and unnecessary. Still enjoyable, but a step down from the previous.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

I have seriously mixed feelings about Order of the Phoenix. On the one hand, there are few tropes I hate more than prophecy plots. (Ugh.) One of the few happens to be plots that wouldn’t exist if people just sat down and TALKED to each other. Basically the entire plot of this book wouldn’t exist if Dumbledore had just sat Harry down and told him what was going on, and it drives me nuts every time I reread it. Frankly, it ruined my opinion of Dumbledore and I’ve disliked him ever since. Forcing Snape to give Harry occlumency lessons was also inexcusable, imho, both because Harry wouldn’t have needed them so much if Dumbledore had simply told him what sort of manipulations Voldemort would attempt and because Snape is a terrible teacher at the best of times, and even worse than usual with Harry.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favorite subplots and scenes it’s probably the book I reread most after Prisoner of Azkaban. I especially love the stuff with Dolores Umbridge (by far the best villain in the series, and one of the best ever written, imho) and the Order itself. As a big Neville fan since book one, it was lovely to see him get to come into his own more with the Order’s help, and I also adored Luna Lovegood, who was introduced in this book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

My least favorite in the series. I disliked it so much that it’s the only one I’ve never re-read, so I don’t even remember entirely why I disliked it, but a big part of the reason was the amount of focus on Voldemort, who is boring, and Snape, who I hate. The romantic entanglements of the characters were also more annoying than interesting.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

Better than Half-Blood Prince, but just not as satisfying or fun as the early books.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

The Redwall Series Review

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Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.

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In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.

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Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

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Macdonald Hall Series Review

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Review:

When I was about 12, my mom attended a reading conference where Gordon Korman was a guest speaker. She was so impressed, she brought home a bunch of his books. We read This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! out loud together, and my sister, brother, and I have been Korman fans ever since.

The incredible thing is that Korman wrote the novel in 7th grade English class, and it was published in 1978, when he was just 14. Although not as polished as his more recent works (the man is ridiculously prolific and has written more than 85 books total), This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! is shockingly good for a novel written by a kid, and absolutely hilarious.

The Macdonald Hall series revolves around two roommates at an all-male boarding school in Canada. Melvin “Boots” O’Neal is the more studious and well-behaved of the two; his friend Bruno Walton might best be described as a hurricane in human form. Despite their differences, the two are inseparable friends, but in the first book, the school’s headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka The Fish) decides that Bruno is a bad influence on Boots and decides to split them up. Wacky hijinks ensue as they try to get back together.

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It is exactly as bromantic as it sounds, up to and including sneaking out at night to meet up, but despite the powerful central bromance and the single-sex setting, the series also does have several fun female characters, including Diane Grant and Cathy Burton, two students at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the road, the grandmotherly Mrs. Sturgeon, and Miss Scrimmage herself.

None of the characters in the Macdonald Hall series is especially well-rounded or complex. In fact, many of the secondary characters are little more than a single characteristic come to life. For example, Sidney Rampulsky’s personality is “clumsy” and Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s is “obsessed with food.” However, the different personalities bouncing off each other make for lots of hilarious dialogue and misadventures, and despite their simplicity, you get attached to all the characters, from Bruno and Boots themselves to crazy old Scrimmage.

Although the series is currently out of print, copies of the books can still be purchased on Amazon and other websites. My favorite novels in the series include:

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This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!

The book that started it all. I recommend starting with this one, but the rest of the series can be read in pretty much any order.

Go Jump in the Pool!

Macdonald Hall keeps getting creamed in swim meets, so Bruno and Boots decide to raise enough money to build the school a pool. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The Zucchini Warriors

A wealthy former student donates the money for a fancy new football stadium, but unbeknownst to him, his star quarterback is secretly a girl! More wacky hijinks ensue.

Beware the Fish!

Bruno and Boots accidentally set off a police investigation into the activities of an operative known only as “The Fish.” Seriously, this series is basically the embodiment of “wacky hijinks ensue.”

Have fun!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Game of Thrones Review

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Game of Thrones Review:

Seeing as A Song of Ice and Fire is one of my favorite fantasy series, I was super excited when I heard back in 2007 that HBO would be making a tv series out of it. I think they’re probably the only channel that could do the books justice. Unfortunately, with four full seasons already aired, I have to admit my feelings about the actual execution are more mixed than I had hoped they would be.

I love watching Westeros and Essos come to life on screen and the production quality of the show has been astounding. The amount of care and attention to every detail is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies. For example, just check out these close ups of some of the costume embroidery created for the show.

The casting has also been almost universally perfect. There are a few roles that have gone to people that I don’t think are great actors, but the vast majority are not only good actors but embody their roles better than I ever dreamed. I want to give special kudos in this regard to Maisie Williams (Arya) and Sophie Turner (Sansa), who were both total unknowns before being cast in Game of Thrones and have knocked their respective roles completely out of the park, and to Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), who by all accounts is as nice a guy as they come yet who portrays a monster so convincingly he’ll probably be fending off people who want to punch him in the face for the rest of his life.

However, some of the plot changes have inordinately annoyed me. I’m not a purist – there have been plenty I liked. For example, I spend most of Ygritte’s scenes in the book wanting to punch her in the face (that is how annoying “You know nothing, Jon Snow” gets after awhile), but in the show they toned her down a bit and made her actually likable. I also loved the expansion of Bronn and Gendry’s roles, the greater insight we’re given into Margaery’s character and motivations, and the clever choice to have Arya be Tywin’s cup-bearer, which didn’t happen in the books at all. Some of the others, like swapping out the non-entity Jeyne Westerling for Talisa, I’ve been indifferent to, and still others I’m waiting to decide about – the changes to Tyrion and Jaime’s final scene together in A Storm of Swords/season 4, for example.

Unfortunately, there have also been too many that I’ve actively loathed. The worst include:

  • the changes to Danaerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding night
  • making Littlefinger, who is so close-mouthed in the books that you know almost nothing about him or his plans until the end of book three, into a talker, and not only that, but the kind of talker who would spill his deepest secrets to a pair of prostitutes(!)
  • the amount of totally gratuitous naked boobs in general
  • the changes to Jaime and Cersei’s scene in the sept

What’s bothered me even more than the changes themselves are how tone-deaf the writers (and in the case of the Jaime/Cersei scene, the director) have been in how the changes affected the ongoing plot and character development. For example, switching Dany and Drogo’s wedding night from consensual sex in the book to rape in the show means she falls in love with her rapist instead of a man who went out of his way to obtain her consent. (Given what a charming and reasonable fellow her brother is, the scene in the book may in fact have been the first time in her life that anybody gave Dany the power to declare what she wanted.) The changes made to the Jaime/Cersei scene were even worse – neither writers nor director seemed to realize that they’d just derailed Jaime’s redemption arc in the eyes of many viewers.

Overall, I enjoy the show, but I don’t love it as much as I expected and hoped to.

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My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review

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Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

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Book 3Book 4


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Book 5Box set


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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)