28 March 2016

You Can't Catch Me

You know what's really awesome about being friends with writers? They recommend other authors to you that you end up adoring. It's true! It's literary networking at its finest. For instance, Kelly Oram told me I should read some books by Cassie Mae, and boy, that was a good move for me! This voracious reader ate up How to Date a Nerd and Reasons I Fell for the Funny Fat Friend in a matter of days. So when Cassie Mae came over to Kelly's FB fan page waving eARCs, my hand was totally one of the first ones up.

From Goodreads:
"My body suuuucks. After lounging around on my butt all summer (okay, so maybe that was my bad), this body decided to become something completely foreign. So now I’m trying to make the track team and I feel like I’m a baby learning to walk again.

A couple pounds wouldn’t have been so bad. Work those off, run like a mad woman, no problem, yeah? But no. I’ve also developed a couple of things that I definitely didn’t have before. And now my guy friends are all sitting in a pool of drool as they not-so-subtly stare at my chest.

Combine all that drama with the fact that the new track coach is getting major flack for being a little chunky, and all I’m trying to do is convince the team that I’m not running slower because of her coaching style.

Oh, and did I mention that I’m totally falling face-first in “like” with some guy I met in a cemetery? And no one understands it just because he’s also a little chunky. But he’s also adorable and wonderfully weird and I don’t care what they say, his look sure does it for me.

But… I don’t know… how can I be in “like” with someone, when I have no clue how to like myself anymore?"

 In a word, You Can't Catch Me is adorable. I loveloveLOVE Ginger's voice. She is such a hoot and amazingly confident in her quirkiness. The story handles her new insecurity (her sudden development into a more womanly shape) with grace and compassion. Ginger reminded me of being a teenager and looking at my body while yelling, "I used to know how to operate you! What is up with this?!!!" Granted, my problems were of the tall girl type--constantly knocking my elbows and feet into things. It's pretty amusing to watch my 12-year-old go through the same issues.


The voice. Oh my heavens, the voice of this story! Not only is Ginger funny, but her relationships with the boys around her are fantastic. I especially love how she connects with Oliver and his own weirdness. It allll just meshes beautifully into a story about accepting yourself as you are. I've read it twice already because I loved it so much! THANK YOU, Cassie Mae, for bringing Ginger to life and sharing her with me. It's been a privilege to read this book.

GENTLE READER ALERT: Ok, so this is a story about a girl dealing with the fact that she grew some boobs. So. Deal with that, because it's funny and you'll totally relate to it. Other than that, I found nothing of concern.

24 March 2016

SHOWDOWN: The Damsel in Distress versus The Distressed Damsel


I was struck by an Instagram post the other day, in which the poster was defending her love of Twilight and Bella in particular: "Personally, I love Bella & the fact that her character was sometimes weak & awkward, like myself, but strong when she needed to be, making her more relatable. She's sometimes called 'the girl who did nothing', and that's okay, too! Not every female character should have to save the world to be accepted & liked."

If you've been my friend in real life for any amount of time, you know how I feel about Bella (here's an academic paper I wrote on her, just to make it official). Her transformational journey is EPIC in my eyes, especially as it is motivated by love and her entrance into motherhood. I never saw her as a damsel in distress, but more as a distressed damsel, one who is overwhelmed by circumstances that were out of her control. (More on that later.) Then, the other night, I was watching Jupiter Ascending and during a slow part (good movie that needed work--it happens), I read a comment on a review of the movie that Jupiter was a typical damsel in distress. That made me mad. Jupiter was in a UNIVERSE where she had little to no power and no knowledge to draw on. Yeah, she was in distress! But that didn't mean she was making stupid decisions--she was doing the best she could with what she had. 

So, combine that mental snit with the very entertaining-yet-informative blog post that I read earlier this week from Ilona Andrews--Brief Analysis of Alphahole in Romantic Fiction--and suddenly this blog post began to roll around in my head. I'll also be referring to Heather Farrell's great post The Reason You Love Jane Austen and I Bet You Didn't Even Know It, which clarifies what a maternal feminist is, among other things. Trust me, it's important. 

There. Necessary contextual clarifications are now out of the way. 


In media, there are several kinds of female characters--take charge women who can save themselves, damsels in distress, distressed damsels, solely-the-love-interest heroines, the funny fat friend who provides the important information at just the right time, the missing mother, and so on. There will be shades of both, because there is very little in this life that is completely black and white, and there will be variations of them all that will amuse us, but I think that a distinction needs to be made between the two damsels.

To me, a damsel in distress is a main character who is confronted by a conflict that they *could* take on but that they choose not to handle, instead waiting for a stronger, more knowledgeable character to swoop in and save them. On the other hand, a distressed damsel is a main character who is confronted by a conflict that is *out* of their control, does their best with the power, knowledge, and resources available to them, often to the point of self-sacrifice, and are saved by a stronger, more knowledgeable character (often an alphahole who has been put in touch with their humanity--thank you, Ilona Andrews, for giving that character definition).

Examples of a damsel in distress, according to the above definition, are therefore limited to two characters that I can think of: Disney's Snow White and Princess Buttercup. 


Snow White is an absolute IDIOT who *will not* listen to the advice of the more experienced people around her and gets into trouble because of it. (Maybe she's a dwarfist. Anyway.) She proceeds to fall into the arms of the stranger who rescued her and agrees to let him take her away. No character growth there. She doesn't take steps to defeat the villain or learn to look outside herself or improve herself in any way.

Princess Buttercup is pretty much the same way. I have always questioned what Westley found in her to love, since she is an absolute LUMP. She allows herself to be moved from position to position, like a pawn on a chessboard. Her only redeeming action is when she jumps ship to swim away from Vizzini and crew. Even then, she doesn't evaluate her surroundings--she is merely looking to get away. Same with her suicide attempt after her marriage to Humperdinck--her attempt to end her life wasn't to achieve some greater purpose, but to remove herself from the situation, even after she had reassured Humperdinck that "...my Westley will save me." She does nothing to slow events down or make it easier for Westley. She has completely ceded control of her life to the men around her. (I must say, I do love the movie. But it's not because of her!)


On the other end of the heroine spectrum are characters like Rey from The Force Awakens. They have the power, knowledge, and resources to save themselves--and they DO. I like them. But I'm not talking about them.


Then there is the distressed damsel. A lot of so-called "damsels in distress" actually fall into this category. They are characters who are thrown into situations where they lack one or more key things: knowledge, power, or resources. However, when faced with the inevitable terrible choices forced on them by the antagonists, they do the best they can, even if it means a sacrifice of self or of something they love. They are often saved by a protector, often an alphahole who has found a new side to himself after encountering the distressed damsel and seeing the world and his situation through new eyes. It's important to note that the alphahole/protector chooses to protect the distressed damsel because they have the potential for an ideal relationship, as demonstrated in Jane Austen's novels over and over again, "...a relationship where both the man and the woman were intellectual and moral equals and treated each other with mutual respect and equality," (Farrell, The Reason You Love Jane Austen...). This ideal relationship will often cross a kind of boundary that would normally be an impediment to the relationship, but the distressed damsel and the alphahole will set aside their prejudices to make this match of equals work. 

 For this post's sake, I'm going to just use three characters--Sleeping Beauty, Bella Swan, and Jupiter Jones--to demonstrate the classic distressed damsel.

Sleeping Beauty (Disney version)--OK, first of all, fairy godmothers are the *worst* pick for guardians/protectors EVER. When it comes to knowledge, power, and resources, they could have armed Aurora with a complete understanding of the curse on her and made her aware of the consequences. Instead, they tell her not to talk to strangers. NOT HELPFUL, LADIES. Then they suddenly inform her that she's a princess and now she needs to leave the only life she's known--as a peasant!--to take up her new role. Because that's something you can just step into! So, Aurora has no knowledge. She has no power, because she doesn't have the magic to counter or avoid the curse. And she has no resources because she was a princess for AN HOUR before everything went to pieces. Therefore, she is a distressed damsel. To his credit, Prince Phillip met her before everything went nutso, so for him to protect and defend her makes sense--she didn't end up just falling into the arms of a stranger, a la Snow White.

(Image from fanpop.com)

Bella Swan--First, we have to identify the antagonist here. It's Victoria and the Volturi--they're the ones who seek to destroy Bella's way of life, who have the power and the resources and the knowledge to do so. Some would say that Edward is abusive because he's controlling, but as Ilona Andrews puts it in her Alphahole post, he's a caretaker with alphahole tendencies:

 "...note that caretaker hero type falls closer to alphahole on the a-hole spectrum than to beta male. Caretaker hero is driven by an overwhelming urge to protect and take care of the heroine
 and in the name of keeping her safe, he might exhibit serious alphahole tendencies, 
as demonstrated by Edward in Twilight series." 

Edward is using the knowledge and strength and resources he possesses to protect his true love, Bella. He isn't seeking to dominate her, but to keep her safe when she cannot, because the enemies they face are SO powerful. When Bella becomes a vampire, she comes into the knowledge, power, and strength she needs to take care of herself--and she does so. She not only protects herself, but her family and everyone she loves. The distressed damsel, when she had the power and knowledge and resources, handled it.

Jupiter Jones--same story, different universe. Jupiter has no idea she's the exact genetic match of semi-alien royalty, she doesn't know that she has inherited a vast amount of property, she is schemed against by the very people (her genetic predecessor's children) who should be imparting knowledge so that she can properly use her resources and the power they bring. She doesn't receive any more powers, but at the end of the movie, her protector, Caine, shared the tech that he could with her and the viewer sees that she's learning to use the resources of the new world she is now aware of. Caine may have saved her from various dangerous situations, but every time he was aided by the fact that she was doing the best she could with the knowledge she had--even to the point [SPOILER ALERT] of willingly sacrificing her family and herself to save the Earth [END SPOILER]. Jupiter was a distressed damsel, but she was handling it.


The difference between the damsel in distress and the distressed damsel is important. It can affect worldviews and the values we hand down to our children. As a maternal feminist, I see the value in stories that show men and women working together to solve problems, as well as stories where the woman saves herself. They both have value and resonance, and stories of the distressed damsel show that it's okay to ask for and to accept help. Asking for help or allowing someone to help her does not devalue her contribution--it means that she had the humility and the self-awareness to know that the situation had gotten beyond her. 

So, the moral of the story? (TL;DR!) 

It is perfectly acceptable to allow other people to help! It does not decrease your value, your worth, or your contributions. And it certainly isn't anti-feminist.


23 March 2016

Mycroft Holmes

My eye is almost always caught by interesting dichotomies. For instance, seeing this cover prominently displayed on the New Book shelf in my library:

Unexpected, no? I grew up hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's name announced over the background of athletic shoes squeaking across hardwood floors and the shrill of referee whistles. But here he is on the cover of a book about Sherlock's brother? This I must see.

From Goodreads:
"Fresh out of Cambridge University, the young Mycroft Holmes is already making a name​ ​for himself in government, working for the Secretary of State for War. Yet this most British of civil servants has strong ties to the faraway island of Trinidad, the birthplace of his best friend, Cyrus Douglas, a man of African descent, and where his fiancĂ©e Georgiana Sutton was raised.

Mycroft’s comfortable existence is overturned when Douglas receives troubling reports​ from home. There are rumors of mysterious disappearances, strange footprints in the sand, and spirits enticing children to their deaths, their bodies found drained of blood. Upon hearing the news, Georgiana abruptly departs for Trinidad. Near panic, Mycroft convinces Douglas that they should follow her, drawing the two men into a web of dark secrets that grows more treacherous with each step they take...

Written by NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and screenwriter Anna Waterhouse, Mycroft Holmes reveals the untold story of Sherlock’s older brother. This harrowing adventure changed his life, and set the​ stage for the man Mycroft would become: founder of the famous Diogenes Club and the hidden power behind the British government."

I love Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles gave me nightmares when I was 11, but no other detective could compare to Sherlock's observational skills and quick mind, not even Encyclopedia Brown (though good ol' Encyclopedia Brown did NOT disturb my slumbers with red-eyed slavering dogs chasing after me). I've read the majority of Conan Doyle's Sherlock canon, Laurie R. King's continuation of the Sherlock lore, and watched avidly as both Robert Downey Junior and Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the fierce, unemotional detective on the screen. I wondered if Mr. Abdul-Jabbar could do his brother justice?

In a word, yes.

My husband tells me that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is a well-known Sherlockian fan, so the novel is not that great of a leap. And it shows in the storytelling--the plot is tight, with echoes of Conan Doyle's ever present theme of the past catching up with the miscreants of now driving the story. The characters are well-drawn, and I'm curious to see more of the Holmes' dear mother, who is portrayed as the perpetrator of their difficult personalities. The new characters of Georgiana and Douglas fit well into the milieu and lend spice to what could have been a very bland narrative. This was a truly enjoyable read, gripping, with remarkable attention to character detail and some very cleverly disguised info-dumping. Well done.

Gentle Reader Alert: Mycroft has to deal with some harrowing situations (see the dead children referenced in the plot synopsis) and there is some period swearing, but it was not overt or offensive to me.

22 March 2016

Vivian Van Velde

There should be a saying in the book world, something equivalent to "Better late to the party than never to have attended." I've seen Vivian Van Velde's name slung around in different places, but hadn't really paid attention, often because when it comes to book recommendations, I have the attention span of a gnat.

Thankfully, her name stood out to me again when I was perusing my little library's bookshelves, desperately trying to scratch the current literary itch (still urban fantasy, thanks).

My wandering hands jumped to this book, Heir Apparent, and the description seemed like it fit my needs, so I gave it a shot.

From Goodreads: "In the virtual reality game Heir Apparent, there are way too many ways to get killed--and Giannine seems to be finding them all. Which is a darn shame, because unless she can get the magic ring, locate the stolen treasure, answer the dwarf's dumb riddles, impress the head-chopping statue, charm the army of ghosts, fend off the barbarians, and defeat the man-eating dragon, she'll never win.

 And she has to, because losing means she'll die--for real this time."

First of all, I love playing point and tap games on my tablet. I'm in the middle of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! and loving it--and reading this book was a lot like watching someone else play the adventure for me. BUT BETTER. Why? Because I loved Giannine's voice. She was level-headed and stubborn but willing to learn and NOT an inexplicable genius at this one thing (bonus points!). The game itself was intriguing and compelling. The story was adorable and superior--the intertwining of the virtual world and the real world was well-played. I was rooting so hard for that girl to make it through! All in all, I found Heir Apparent to be a very satisfying read--as have both my daughters, who are 10 and 12. (Gentle Reader Alert: I found nothing of concern.)

Since it was such a favorable experience, I picked up Deadly Pink the very next week.
Same world as Heir Apparent, but the players are much different, and the tone is a bit heavier. Not darker, necessarily, but heavier.

From Goodreads: "Grace Pizzelli is the average one, nothing like her brilliant older sister, Emily, who works for Rasmussem, creators of the world’s best virtual reality games. The games aren’t real, though—or at least they weren’t. Now Emily has hidden herself inside a pink and sparkly game meant for little girls. No one knows why, or how to convince her to come back out, and the technology can’t keep her safe for much longer. Grace may consider herself average, but she’s the only one who can save Emily. So Grace enters the game, hoping to talk her sister out of virtual suicide before time runs out. Otherwise Emily will die—for real."

Yep, suicide. However, I found this to be a great springboard book--the threat of suicide isn't violent or imminent, and it will give me a chance to talk to my daughter about why people sometimes think ending their lives is the right choice, and what we can do about it. My 12-year-old has eaten this up, partly due to the video game world that the Pizzelli sisters have to conquer (I love the bits with the angry pixies--they made me laugh), but partly because as she gets older, she's beginning to understand that people are complex and make decisions for many reasons, not just one. Ms. Van Velde handles the situation with dexterity and grace and compassion, much as Grace herself does. (Gentle Reader Alert: There's no swearing or sex, but one of the main characters is trying to commit suicide by video game--a pink and purple video game filled with fantasy characters....)

And since I was having such a good time with Van Velde's stories, I picked up Stolen too, despite the horror-centric cover. The 10-year-old is into mild horror, so I thought I'd preview this one for her. I didn't expect to LOVE it.

From Goodreads: "The same day that the villagers of Thornstowe finally hunt down a witch with a reputation for stealing children, a 12-year-old appears in the woods with no memory of her past. Is there a connection between Isabelle, the girl who doesn't know who she is, and the girl the witch stole six years earlier?

One of the few things Isabelle remembers is a chant that keeps running through her head: Old as dirt, dirty as dirt. Ugly as sin, mean as sin. Don't let the old witch catch you!

 Could Isabelle have been stolen by the old witch of the woods, or has she lost her memory as the result of an accident? And what about the baby the witch stole right before the villagers attacked? Did either the witch or the baby survive the fire the villagers set?"

There is so much twistiness to the plot of this story--I did NOT see the end coming--and the characterization is spot-on. Absolutely adored it and have NO qualms about handing it off to the 10-year-old. I think she'll really enjoy it too. (Gentle Reader Alert: I found nothing of concern, but I would definitely keep it for more mature middle-grade readers. Trust me.)

Do yourself a favor. Pick up a story by Vivian Van Velde sometime soon and get lost in it. You'll enjoy the adventure.