EXPeriencing ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Cover image (and a more comprehensive review) via.

As an introduction to Zadie Smith, Swing Time may not have been the best choice. While I did enjoy the novel, Goodreads comments tell me it’s not as good as her earlier White Teeth or On Beauty.

That said, as a standalone novel without the comparison to Smith’s other works, I thought it was a fascinating coming-of-age tale of two girls—one who fancies herself a dancer, and one who truly has talent—who become women with quite different lives. From the narrator and her best friend’s childhood dance classes, to the narrator’s work and subsequent dismissal from her job as a pop star’s assistant, Smith jumps back and forth in time to paint a picture of how two similar childhoods can become very different adulthoods.

One of my favorite narrative elements of Swing Time is that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the entire novel. I find this to be a masterful storytelling technique, that 400 pages can go by, you know the entire life of a character, and yet, you never learn her name. This of course is a far cry from many of the stories I tried to write as a teenager that started with my main character examining herself in the mirror so as to perfectly describe her features before her mother calls her name telling her to come downstairs…

I also found Swing Time to be an important read simply because most of the main characters are people of color. In our new America, it’s more important than ever to read books about brown women written by brown women.

It’s taken me a while to write about Swing Time, and in the time since I read it, the characters haven’t really lived with me. I finished the book and they faded from my thoughts rather quickly. The story sucked me in, but it spit me out pretty fast.

If you like coming-of-age novels and want to read more books by and about people of color, I do recommend Swing Time, but maybe start with another one of Zadie Smith’s novels if you’re more curious about the author’s storytelling than this story’s characters.

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EXPeriencing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Spoiler-Filled Review Pt. 2)

Cover image via.

This review/stream-of-consciousness digestion of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is going to be full of spoilers. You have been warned. You can read my non-spoiler review here.

There is a lot to unpack in J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne’s play. So much, in fact, that this is less a review and more of a list of reactions I had while reading. I’ll expand on some of my thoughts, but since this is full of spoilers, really I’m just here to share my thoughts. And there were a lot of them.

Seriously, if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child yet, turn back now. Spoilers are coming.

Part One, Act One

  • That the play started exactly where we left off on Platform 9 3/4 in the Epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows makes my heart so happy. An effortless marriage of old and new.
  • As we follow Albus and Rose on the Hogwarts Express, it is clear Rose takes after her mother.
  • And we meet Scorpius. And he is my favorite. He’s funny, and we later learn he’s smart and loyal. All the things Harry found in his friends on the Hogwarts Express.
  • OMG, Albus Potter is sorted into Slytherin?? Did we know this before? Did this play reveal this information? Omg. I’m uncomfortable. But then… I’m thrilled. I’m a Slytherin myself, and as Harry said, the bravest man he ever knew was a Slytherin. Let’s see where this goes.
  • Why are there rumors that Voldemort had a child? That’s weird.
  • It’s also weird to picture Harry and Hermione with jobs. I have a job. They’re supposed to epitomize my childhood. And they have jobs.
  • Wait. Is Hermione… Minister of Magic? Duh. Of course she is.
  • “Huh, another new character. I wonder who this Delphi character turns out to be?” she thought, not knowing her own foreshadowing.
  • Oh boy, time turners.
  • The confrontation between Albus and Harry before Albus leaves for his third year is… rough. I still remember hating everything and everyone as a 13 year old. But now, while I don’t have kids, I see where Harry’s frustration is coming from. I’m at a very odd spot in adulthood where I still feel so connected to my childhood, but all my friends are having babies. I feel for you, Albus. I feel for you, Harry.
  • Can we talk about the Trolley Witch?? WTF is happening?? And how the hell do they pull that off on stage?
  • Can a Potter not break into the Ministry of Magic? And can someone please put some stricter regulations on polyjuice potion ingredients? Hello.
  • Also, again, how are they accomplishing these effects on stage?

Part One, Act Two

  • Ugh, time travel. This is not going to result in anything resembling good. At all.
  • There’s no way sabotaging Cedric Diggory will go well for you, kids.
  • Oh. I don’t think I needed Dumbledore and Harry emotions today.
  • “What’s that, Albus? You’re in the wrong Hogwarts house now and you ruined at least one family? However could that have happened?” she thought sarcastically.
  • Oh good, we get Harry/Dumbledore and Harry/Malfoy drama! Just what we need. Although, that was pretty classic and entertaining.
  • We also get some classic, heart-wrenching Hogwarts student bestie fights. Ahh, wouldn’t be a Harry Potter book without them!
  • I just love the Scorpius/Albus BFFs.
  • WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN, SCORPIUS? You brought Umbridge back! Your best friend disappeared! FIX IT.

Part Two, Act One

  • Wow, Draco, the absence of Voldemort and the addition of your wife really made you a better person. In the correct timeline, anyway.
  • DID HE SAY SNAPE?
  • Honestly, I can’t process the horrors that come about from humiliating Cedric out of the Triwizard Tournament. It hurts my heart. Just fix it, Scorpius.
  • Oh thank god. Thank you, Snape. Thank you, Scorpius. Thank you.
  • How is there still an Act and a half to go??
  • Seriously, Albus/Scorpius may top Harry/Ron/Hermione. They’re my favorite.
  • Ah. Delphi. You’re back. That means you’re not good.
  • Friendship will never be a weakness, Delphi. Only evil people think that. You take after your father so well.

Part Two, Act Two

  • It’s truly incredible how far Voldemort’s tendrils spread. It will take so many generations to erase all that he did. You know, if Delphi doesn’t do it right now and elimiate everyone we know and love.
  • Albus and Scorpius are a pretty unstoppable team. I love the message in a blanket. Not only is it really damn important to inform Harry where and when they are, it repairs the most painful scene in the whole play.
  • This is going to be an uncomfortable series of scenes, isn’t it?
  • Yup. Harry was just transfigured into Voldemort. I’m uncomfortable.
  • Oh. John. Jack. J.K…. No. Don’t do this to Harry. Don’t do this to his family, his friends. Don’t do this to me. Why.
  • BRB, sobbing.
  • Harry Potter continues to break my heart. But then, thankfully, it mends it, too:

SCORPIUS: Are you heading to Quidditch? Slytherin are playing Hufflepuff—it’s a big one—

ALBUS: I thought we hated Quidditch?

SCORPIUS: People can change.

And:

HARRY: I think it’s going to be a nice day.

ALBUS (smiles): So do I.

I melt.

EXPeriencing ‘Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens’

(Image via Reddit. Warning: Mild spoilers below.)

In March of this year, I blogged about how I became a Star Wars fan. I concluded that post saying I was “pretty freaking excited” to see The Force Awakens in theaters. How excited was I? Excited enough to go without my husband, the much bigger Star Wars fan, because he’s an introvert and didn’t want to see it in a crowded theater opening weekend. By the time all my friends and their brothers had seen the movie Friday evening, I couldn’t wait any more. I bought a ticket (to a really cool movie theater in Carmel called FlixBrewhouse) and saw The Force Awakens on Monday the 21st.

It was amazing.

I’m not just saying that because zOMG Star Wars!!1! I like Star Wars a lot, but I’m not so devoted to it that I can’t see its flaws–or rail on said flaws over and over and over again. After my first viewing of The Force Awakens, though, I found very few flaws, and the plot, characters, acting, and immersion were stellar.

I can’t recite the original trilogy word-for-word like my husband can, so I rewatched Episodes IV, V, and VI before seeing The Force Awakens. I’m glad I did because Episode VII really felt like a continuation of that trilogy. Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, things aren’t as we thought they should be: there’s no new Jedi order, stormtroopers of the First Order are wreaking havoc on the Resistance–two groups it didn’t seem like we’d have or need at the end of Jedi. While some people who are devoted to the now non-existent extended universe may be salty that there aren’t a hundred Jedi running around, the militaristic stormtroopers of the Empire/First Order versus the scrappy pilots of the Rebellion/Resistance fit well in the universe. The classic good versus evil fight is still going from 30 years ago, but we still recognize that 30 years have indeed passed.

I think my favorite thing about The Force Awakens is that blend of old versus new. It’s in everything from the ships to the characters. Hello, Millennium Falcon! Hello, Han and Chewie! Hello, Easter eggs that call to the original trilogy! But these “old” settings and characters don’t just pander to Star Wars fans. They provide the perfect bridge to all the new–new worlds, new characters, new powers. For instance, I am a huge fan of Finn and Rey. Finn, the stormtrooper turned good, and Rey, the lost girl on Jakku who, well, I won’t get that spoilery on you. Their dynamic with each other, with Han Solo and Leia, and with the bad guys makes the movie fun and fresh. I like the uppity kids dynamic versus the old rogues, because what were Luke, Leia, and Han 30 years ago but uppity kids themselves?

And as I’m talking about the characters, I just have to take a minute to fangirl over the fact that they actually got Harrison Ford to come back for the part of Han Solo. He’s always said he never liked the character and he’s been famously tight-lipped about talking about Star Wars. As in, he never talks about it. Ever. So to see him on the screen–with some significant screen time–made my Harrison Ford-fan heart flutter. And just like the blend of old and new characters, the “old” and young actors make a great dynamic. John Boyega, Daisey Ridley, and Adam Driver pair well against Harrison Ford, et al.

(Well. Kylo Ren/Adam Driver doesn’t pair all that well against Han Solo/Harrison Ford… If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll leave that at that.)

The Force Awakens was an overall exciting movie experience. It’s absolutely something that should be seen on the big screen, and more than once. There’s humor, there’s sorrow. There are space battles, the Force, and some sweet lightsaber action. I laughed often, and I cried a little, too. If you like Star Wars, $20 says you’ve already seen the movie. If you don’t care one way or another about Star Wars, but want a good movie night, I’d go see it. It’s fun, and you don’t need to have Yoda’s every line from Empire memorized to enjoy it.

EXPeriencing Go Set a Watchman

Cover photo via Entertainment Monthly.
It’s been more than two months since my last blog post, but after buying my first house and dealing with all the insanity that comes with that, I think I’m finally ready to dive back into blogging and keeping up with this little project. Thanks for reading!

What a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions I had with Go Set a Watchman. The initial exhilaration, trepidation, and anticipation surrounding the book’s announcement and release; hearing of Atticus’s racism; actually finally receiving the book and sitting down to read it—then stopping for over a month with just 100 pages to go while buying a house—and finally sucking it up and finishing it. Whew.

Now that I have finally finished the thing, I can give it my informed opinion and “rating”: a solid huh verging on meh. Of course, you can’t just leave it as huh-meh. It’s Harper Lee’s undiscovered manuscript! It’s To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft! Huh-meh doesn’t really take all that into account or give Watchman the necessary context to understand how it came to be. And indeed, I think you must take that context into account when you read the novel, or it could not only be a confusing reading experience for you, you could completely ruin To Kill a Mockingbird.

That said, you MUST read To Kill a Mockingbird before Go Set a Watchman. Even if you read TKAM in high school, I would highly suggest you read it again. And in this case, yes, even watching the movie would be acceptable. But you have to fully absorb TKAM again before you try to read Watchman. You also have to be aware of and understand that Watchman is the first draft of TKAM. I think that context is vital to understanding not just how novels are created, but how TKAM came to be in the first place. I also think it’s important to understanding the vibrant characters of Scout and Atticus and see where they came from in Watchman to how they became the characters we know and love from TKAM.

Which, examining the characters, is where some of the problem is in regarding Watchman as a fully-developed, publishable novel: the characters just aren’t quite there. You get a lot of internal thoughts and exposition from adult Scout (yes, I refuse to call her Jean Louise as she is mostly referred to in the book) as she comes to the realization that her father is not, in fact, an infallible god. However, there’s not a lot of additional substance to truly understand her heartbreak—if you don’t have the context of TKAM to draw on, that is.

In TKAM, Atticus is an infallible god (not just to Scout, but to all of us), so when Scout sees that he’s actually racist, you can see where her heartbreak comes from. But without that in-depth look at her childhood and her childhood vision of Atticus’s great deeds, his actions in Watchman—while on the deplorable side of his character—aren’t exactly world-shattering for the casual observer.

His actions are further played down when you read about the Tom Robinson trial. It’s reduced to four paragraphs in which there are no names, few details, and you learn “the only reason [Atticus] took this [criminal case] was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense” (109). Atticus knew the charges were false, and took the case so “he could live peacefully with himself.” Lo and behold, Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.” But Tom (or who becomes Tom) is acquitted because it was determined it was consent, not rape. “Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.” So yes, it’s great Atticus got the acquittal and can live with himself. But according to Watchman, he certainly didn’t like it: “After the verdict, [Atticus] walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath. He never counted what it cost him; he never looked back” (109-10). Those four paragraphs to attempt to convey, in part, what made Atticus infallible in Scout’s eyes as well as in ours, only to be left with a feeling of insincerity and disappointment. It’s certainly not a stretch to see Racist Atticus from this vantage.

But the book wasn’t all bad or mediocre. I actually did enjoy some parts of it, specifically the parts—the sparks—that are the building blocks of and become To Kill a Mockingbird: young Scout, Jem, and Dill playing; the background and explanations of Maycomb County and its history that are copy+pasted into TKAMScout’s recollection of childhood that causes her to come to terms with being an adult… Huge kudos to Lee’s editor who read this manuscript and saw the potential behind the story of young Scout and her childhood and had Lee build upon that. Because honestly, Go Set a Watchman is a solid first draft. Maycomb County is a solidly built world and the Finch family a solidly built set of characters. They make a decent story.

But how they were developed into To Kill a Mockingbird, now that’s a classic.

EXPeriencing Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms

Cover image via this review site that had a good, high-quality version. Never has it been more true than this series, but don’t judge this book by its cover. Mostly because nothing that’s happening on the cover has anything to do with the story, nor do the people even look like the characters.

Fantasy novels are my happy place. No matter what sub-genre they fall in (YA, fairy tale, high fantasy, modern), they always comfort me and transport me immediately to their world. If I just want to sink into something familiar–even if it’s a completely new world–it’s gotta have a good love story and there’s gotta be some kind of magic. Bonus points for realism even when everything’s fantastical. Extra bonus points for strong female protagonists. Give me someone to root for, give me a couple good kisses, and I’m a happy camper.

In high school, I had a Thing for faeries and fairy tales. A Big Thing. I loved them. I had just a few too many faerie statuettes and knick-knacks, and fairy tales were all I read for a while. I couldn’t wait to get to Ball State and join the Honors College so I could take their fairy tale class. Although I never did end up taking that class, and my obsession with faeries and their tales waned, I’ll still devour a good retold fairy tale.

One of the series I discovered in high school was Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection. Mercedes Lackey, of course, is one of the most well-known fantasy authors out there. Case in point, her bibliography has its own Wikipedia page separate from her author page. I haven’t read nearly as many of her books as my best friend has. She’s probably read most of the over 100 novels Lackey has written, to be honest. When we were in high school, I remember her telling me about the second novel in this series, One Good Knight, and I picked it up. I think it’s the only novel in a series I’ve ever read out of order, but I soon fixed that by picking up the first book in the series, The Fairy Godmother. Both are very good.

The premise of these tales are that the lives of the kingdoms’ inhabitants are dictated by The Tradition. Traditional tales we all know–Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty–are tales everyone in the kingdoms know, too. And since the stories have been told so many times, The Tradition forces them to keep playing out in real life again and again. For instance, in the first book of the series, the main character Elena should become a Cinderella. Her father dies and she’s in the clutches of her wicked step-mother and step-sisters. But there’s a problem. While The Tradition is trying to make Cinderella happen, Prince Charming is only a toddler. Not exactly compatible with the teenage Elena. So she takes charge of her fate by becoming a Fairy Godmother, a benevolent overseer in the kingdoms who uses The Tradition to help make sure the not-so-great outcomes of some of the Traditional tales don’t come to fruition, while simultaneously helping the good ones work. It’s a really fun twist on the tales we’ve all heard 18,000 times in 18,000 different ways. By acknowledging that yes, they do keep happening, Lackey is able to build a whole world out of these tales in a fresh way.

Until just recently, I had only read the first four books in the series, and I read them all in high school. I loved The Fairy Godmother and One Good Knight. The third book in the series, Fortune’s Fool, I remember literally nothing about. I just read the synopsis and only one scene came to memory. Usually I remember a little more about books, but having read this in high school, I’m not surprised it slipped my mind. The fourth book in the series, The Snow Queen, I remember somewhat, but mostly what I remember is that I really wasn’t a fan of it. It just felt forced and rushed, and I remember being glad it was over with.

If you’re thinking I’m not doing a great job convincing you this is a good series, let me bring it back from high school days. While at Barnes and Noble a couple weeks ago, I realized there are two more books out in the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms collection now: The Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Werewolf. I picked up The Sleeping Beauty and just finished it a couple days ago.

As it should be with all fantasy novels, I sunk right in. Is The Sleeping Beauty the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read? Nah. But it had everything I wanted for a quick, entertaining adventure. The premise is that The Tradition is trying to make two tales of sleeping princesses happen at the same time: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. This wealthy kingdom’s Godmother, Lily, has had her hands full for centuries trying to keep war at bay, and now on top of it, she has to help save Princess Rosamund from seven evil dwarves, keep her from getting murdered, and help find her a suitable husband so the five surrounding kingdoms don’t launch a massive attack. The solution to the last problem is to host a grand tournament of princes to win the princess’s hand and help rule the kingdom. It may sound a bit on the sexist side–like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette but, you know, Traditional–but Lackey does a good job of acknowledging and allowing her characters to acknowledge the implications of the tournament and what it means for Rosa as Traditional Princess but also Strong Female.

Lily and Rosa are intriguing characters who make a great team, if not particularly in depth. The couple of princes who show up and throw some wrenches in the Sleeping plots–for good and bad–also make a good team, and you of course end up rooting for the right prince. It’s also a pretty funny novel, which Lackey states at the beginning is something she’s going for. When you first meet the one of the princes, Siegfried, he’s talking to a bird:

“So, this Kingdom is rich?” he asked his companion, a little, brown, nondescript bird. Heroes didn’t usually have any interest in birds, and the names and categorization of them were generally limited in a Hero’s education to “good to eat,” “not good to eat,” and “singing while I have a hangover, kill it with a rock.”

I was also reminded that the unicorns in Lackey’s novels are… vapid, to say the least. The particular unicorn that ends up showing up in this novel, Luna, can’t say her L’s or R’s, so when she’s trying to convince the various heroes she can be of some use, it’s heartwarming, yet highly amusing:

“Luna, we’re going into danger,” he said, as gently as he could. “We don–“

“I know!” said the unicorn, stamping one hoof impatiently in the dead leaves. “I aweady know that! I’m coming wif you!”

The humor adds some welcome chuckles to the adventure.

While a bit predictable in outcome, The Sleeping Beauty is satisfying, which is sometimes just what I want. I love being caught off guard by a love story not going as planned, or someone dying who you desperately wanted to see live happily ever after. But, not always. Sometimes you want a fun adventure, some magic, some twists and turns (or just a couple of gentle bends), and a happily ever after. That’s what you get with The Sleeping Beauty, and it was well worth diving back into this world to experience.

Saga: Book One Cover

Experiencing Saga: Book One

Cover photo via Image Comics. And yes, that’s a baby breastfeeding.

In December, I came across a Mashable article titled “‘Saga’ is the must-have graphic novel of 2014.” Okay, you’ve captured my attention. I like graphic novels (despite the fact that Persepolis is the only one I’ve ever actually read… Oops). Though usually when someone says, “Go get this book/game/movie,” I take that advice with a grain of salt. But for some reason with Saga, I couldn’t get the article out of my head. I wanted the book ASAP, though I couldn’t tell you why. So I used some Christmas money and picked it up just after the holiday and sat down to start reading.

Saga2Chris Taylor, author of the Mashable article, does a great job of telling you what Saga is about and why it’s a compelling graphic novel. It’s about two star-crossed lovers who come from a warring planet and its moon who are trying to navigate the galaxy with their new-born daughter while being hunted by everyone who wants to destroy the “abomination” of their union. The mother, Alana, comes from the planet Landfall where everyone has wings, and the father, Marko, comes from Landfall’s moon, Wreath, and has horns. Landfall and Wreath have been at war with each other so long that no one knows why, but the conflict has been spread across the galaxy. Alana and Marko, who should be sworn enemies, have fallen in love despite, and maybe because of, this fact. Sound a little like Romeo and Juliet in space? You’ve got it. I would mostly agree with Taylor’s description of Saga as “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones meets Romeo and Juliet meets Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care,” though the Game of Thrones part only comes into play in that anyone could be killed at any moment, and you never quite know who’s safe and who’s not.

I tried very hard not to devour this whole collection (the first 18 issues of the monthly comic) at once, but it was hard. Each chapter ends on a great cliffhanger, and the characters and the universe just suck you in. I think my favorite part through this whole bizarre, complex universe is how easy it is to relate to the characters. Obviously I don’t have wings or horns, I’m not a ghost or a cyclops, but all the characters are written in a way that if they showed up in your living room, you could carry on a conversation no problem. Though you probably wouldn’t want them sticking around too long for fear of becoming collateral damage…

SagaI think I find the characters so compelling and relatable partly because the way they talk is so current. They talk like they’re coming from 21st century America, so when they drop some universal truths on you, they connect even more. Also, every character swears like a sailor, which I always appreciate. When you’re being chased by two armies and several mercenaries, you’re gonna drop an F-bomb a couple times.

I also really like the art. The illustrator Fiona Staples does a really beautiful job depicting backgrounds of new planets and outer space, but I think her best depictions are of the characters’ facial expressions. Combined with their voices, the characters’ facial expressions add a whole ‘nother layer to their realness that I don’t think just anyone could pull off. From page one I was drawn into the art as much as the conflict and the conversations.

Saga3

I’m not gonna lie, Saga is pretty weird. As Taylor writes in his article, Saga’s author, Brian K. Vaughan, has been “working on the details of the Saga universe since he was a kid; it first arrived on paper, apparently, when he was bored in math class. Given all those years he spent thinking about it, it wouldn’t be surprising for Vaughan to make a mistake common to the space opera genre—overwhelming us with detail, trying to impress us with all the world-building. In fact, he gives us just the right amount of background information—almost nothing.”

Sometimes, this “almost nothing” means you turn the page into an undeniable WTF situation. For instance, there’s a planet called Sextillion that is one giant red-light district brothel. Why is it there? Where did it come from? How does the character’s ship who’s visiting this planet get him there? We don’t know, and that’s just fine. I will also add, Vaughan and Staples don’t shy away from showing sex. Or blood and gore for that matter. If you’re not into graphic images or graphic language, I probably wouldn’t suggest this work to you. But if you’re like me and think that the realistic depictions of a bloody war and all the language that goes with it only add realism to an otherwise very fantastical world, this could be for you.

I really enjoyed Saga, every bit of weirdness and all. The ‘verse Vaughan has created is sprawling and intriguing, the characters are real and diverse, and the writing, illustrations, and storytelling are spot on. I need to go pick up the next few monthly issues that are out so I can continue the epic journey. I hope this saga continues for quite some time, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.