GeekyNerdy Book Club: Shockaholic

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Our late-summer selection for GNBC, hosted by GeekyNerdy Girl, is Carrie Fisher’s memoir Shockaholic.

Right from the dedication (to her daughter and the former president) you can tell this book will be entertaining.

This short memoir actually reads more like a series of essays than a chronological life story.  I ended up really liking the format because it was easy to pick up and put down.  Each chapter is a different topic, ranging from her family and friends to her mental and physical health.  There is very little mention of Star Wars at all.

Of course, I was expecting some discussion of her struggles with mental health, because I know she was a great advocate on that topic, but it is really only covered directly in one chapter.  However, I do think it was such a big part of her life that it bleeds over into everything she talks about, especially her family.

Carrie Fisher clearly had a unique sense of humor.  I actually put this book aside for a few days when I started, because it can be pretty dark humor at times and I just wasn’t in the mood for it.  But as I kept reading, I really appreciated it and laughed out loud a lot.  I thought the funniest story was when she went to dinner as a young woman with some senators in DC.  She refused to be intimidated by them, and I was totally cheering for her as she held her own with inappropriate humor.

I also really loved that there are personal pictures throughout the book.  And the captions are hilarious, rarely pertaining to the picture at all.  Instead, they sound like a historical documentary.  For example, her friend Michael Jackson reading her memoir is labeled as Harry Truman playing golf.

I didn’t know much about her family prior to reading this book, so learning about her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, as well as Eddie’s wife Elizabeth Taylor, really helped me understand her better.  She had such a unique perspective on fame, having grown up around such famous people; this seems to be one reason she was able to understand her friend Michael Jackson so well.  In fact, she was an extremely self-aware person, and this comes through in all her writings.

Reading this memoir in light of her death last year was interesting, considering that a good part of the book deals with remembrances of other people after their deaths, including her father, stepfather, Michael Jackson, and another close friend who OD’d basically right next to her.  It definitely leads to a sense of one’s own mortality, and feels very poignant now that she’s gone, too.  As I said, she was very self-aware, and left us this thought:

What you’ll have of me after I journey to that great Death Star in the sky is an extremely accomplished daughter, a few books, and a picture of a stern-looking girl wearing some kind of metal bikini lounging on a giant drooling squid, behind a newscaster informing you of the passing of Princess Leia after a long battle with her head.

It was a battle she continued to fight until, and even as, she died, and I think, as does her daughter Billie, that she would want to continue to be open about that battle no matter the results.  She was used to living her life for others, and she continues to do so even in death as an icon, not just in sci-fi, but also for those of us who also fight mental health battles.

 

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Regency Romance…with a bit of Magic

So I recently went on a months-long Regency Romance kick.  It’s been a wonderful escape from everything going on in my life and in the world.

The “Regency” period refers to a time in the early 1800s when Britain was ruled by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), because his father George III was deemed unfit. (This era also includes the Napoleonic Wars.)

Not actual Austen books

Jane Austen is of course one of the most famous authors of the Regency period, and I have read all six of her completed novels many times (my favorites being Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice).  So it’s no surprise that in the twentieth century a whole genre developed around writing similar novels, now as historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer essentially created the Regency romance genre, doing meticulous research to provide readers with accurate information about the period, using the same phrases people of the time would have used, and with the same worldview.  This has spun out into a large, varied genre whose books have varying degrees of historical detail, humor, intrigue, sex, and even sometimes a little magic.

Georgette Heyer

As I said above, for Regency Romance, there is no better place to start than the works of Georgette Heyer.  I am currently working my way through her thirty-some historical romance novels, and there are so many things to love.  She comes very close to Jane Austen in her dry wit and love of the ridiculous in her characters.  I am constantly laughing as I read them.  I love that she writes with 8367225such historical detail; I’ve learned so much about the culture of that time.

I also love that she has many varied plots and characters: she has some Gothic novels, some mysteries, settings in London and in the country, main characters that are young and silly, or older and more sensible, couples that have known each other forever or have just met.  Her romance is very clean, usually with some kisses at the end.

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

The Grand Sophy: The second of her novels that I read, and the one that got me hooked.  Sophy is a tour-de-force main character, the kind of person that can manipulate everyone around her into doing what’s best for them.  The ending gets a little ridiculous, 11727810but it’s so funny you won’t care.

The Quiet Gentleman: I liked that this one has some mystery in it as well as romance; the main character suffers several attempts on his life after returning home to claim his inheritance.  It was pretty easy to figure out who the culprit was, but I still enjoyed it.  I also liked that the heroine is very unromantic and sensible—a girl after my own heart.

Bath Tangle:  This novel features several couples, all with varying (but entertaining) 11689134personalities, and it is set mostly in Bath as the title implies.  I really enjoyed the interplay between as the characters as they all struggle to figure out what they really want.

The Alastair-Audley series: The three main books in the series (These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck) are absolute classics.  The heroes are not always particularly likeable, but the heroines are always capable of handling them.  These books probably have the most history in them, too, dealing with many important figures and events of the day.  The first two are actually set in the Georgian period just before the Regency which gives the series even great scope.

Lester Family series by Stephanie Laurens

The Reasons for Marriage • A Lady of Expectations • An Unwilling Conquest • A Comfortable Wife

24406970This is a series of “reformed rake” stories all centering around one family.  It’s not really necessary to read them in order, but I liked that they were all connected, and many of the same characters appear throughout.

The first book, The Reasons for Marriage, was probably my favorite.  It features an apparent marriage of convenience that turns into something more.  I particularly liked that the heroine Lenore was intelligent, independent, and even a little introverted; her eventual pregnancy is also part of the plot, which resonated with me currently.

These are actually the first Harlequin romance novels I have ever read, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  Though more racy than Heyer’s novels, they are fairly tame in terms of adult content.

I also started reading Laurens’ Cynster family series, and those are much more explicit in a bodice-ripper style.  As I told my husband, I was 7% of the way into the first book and there was already a hot shirtless guy running around.  For reasons.  Anyways, the Cynster books are not as much my cup of tea, but also feature some entertaining characters.

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

25320766I loved the intrigue and adventure in this recent, lighthearted YA romance.  It was just wonderfully fluffy and charming.  I also loved that the heroine Juliana is a scientist trying to get her work published!

The book was nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it was entertaining from the very first chapter.  The main couple was very cute.  There was quite a lot of stuff like Miss Telford had very nice eyes and a nice smile but Spencer wasn’t going to think about that right now.

The author also published another YA Regency title this year, Duels and Deceptions, which I have on hold at the library and hope to read soon.

Now…onto the magic!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

24737347On my quest to read more of the authors from the twisted fairy tale anthology I enjoyed last year, I uncovered this gem (pun slightly intended).

This one has all of the charm of a Regency romance, plus dangerous magic, adventure on the high seas, and assumed identities thrown in, too.  It was a wonderful mix of genres; I think it leans a little YA also.

The first chapter, in which Lady Newtington’s (Newt’s) emerald is stolen, read a bit like a short story, and then the rest of the book kind of goes off in a different direction in searching for the emerald, with a bit of shift in tone.  It was a little weird, but the book was so entertaining it didn’t bother me much.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the first in a series about a family of sisters that have some talent for glamour, aka8697507 magic, which is kind of considered a womanly art.  I really, really liked how the concept of illusionary magic was done here; it was interesting and could easily be explored further in the series.  Although the tone is more adult, I don’t recall anything more than a bit of kissing.

However, the characters and plot were rather average.  I read this several months ago and can’t even remember all that much about it.  The heroine Jane was interesting enough, but I did not take to the hero at all, finding him at turns boring and confusing.

So, in short, I don’t plan on reading any more of the series.

Do you guys have any favorite Regency stories (of any genre!) to recommend?

Star Wars authors at Origins Game Fair

Ohio has several good yearly conventions, and the one for gamers is Origins Game Fair every summer in Columbus.  My husband B headed down for four days to meet some friends and play some games.  While he was there, I discovered that two of my favorite Star Wars authors were also in attendance!  So I gnashed my teeth that I had stayed home and sent B to go meet them. 🙂

He went first to Timothy Zahn’s booth.  Zahn is best known for kicking off the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books with the Heir to the Empire trilogy, and he recently brought one of his best-loved characters back into SW canon with Thrawn (which is on my to-read list).

B got to chat with Zahn for a little bit, and with a promise of my undying love in return, he procured me a signed copy of one of his books.  Scoundrels is a fun little heist story featuring Han Solo and Lando; I reviewed it here a few years back.  B knew I already own the Heir to the Empire trilogy, and Zahn was kind enough to suggest that he sign bookplates for my copies of those novels as well.  There was a lot of squeeing when B got home with this surprise.

I asked B if he told Zahn that Mara Jade is my favorite EU character, but sadly he had not.

Next, he found Michael Stackpole’s booth.  Stackpole is known for his excellent Star Wars X-wing series, and I have read a few of his fantasy novels as well (check out reviews here and here.)  Sadly, Stackpole had already sold out of books, but B got to chat with him for a bit as well.  He was able to inform him that I named my laptop after his X-wing pilot character Corran Horn (it’s silver, like his lightsaber).

In retrospect, I’m not at all surprised that these two authors should be at Origins, because they are both known to fans as big gaming nerds and frequently attend cons.  They’ve both written in game universes like WOW and Starcraft; Stackpole just finished a novel set in the Pathfinder universe, a tabletop RPG setting similar to D&D.  Stackpole has also been a game designer his entire career and is a board member of GAMA, who runs Origins.

So, who knows?  Maybe next year I’ll make it down to Origins to meet them both in person. 🙂

 

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

the-handmaids-tale-coverThis month on the GNBC we are featuring Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’m a little late responding to this one, but you can check out the original discussion post here.

I actually went and bought this one in paperback because I thought this might be the kind of book I’d want to own.  It’s been back in the public consciousness recently because of the critically acclaimed Hulu adaptation, plus the fact that it’s been a number one seller on Amazon–unusual for a book first published in the 80s.

There is so much to unpack with this book; I can see why it’s frequently taught in universities and even high schools.  But quite frankly, I’m glad it didn’t come to me until now; I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.

This was a difficult book for me to read, and I mean that in several different ways.

First of all, it is slow.  The book is not plot-driven.  Pretty much nothing really happens until the midpoint of the book, just Offred going through daily life and thinking.  Thinking about her lost daughter, about her indoctrination into the Handmaids, about the past, about her room, about suicide.  Thinking is enough; it paints a marvelous picture of Offred’s world.  But I didn’t find it “gripping” in the way of other novels, which is one reason I never made it past the first few chapters when I tried to read it over ten years ago.

Second, Offred’s story is presented in first person, present tense (her remembrances of the past are in past tense).  This is currently all the rage in YA novels, and I am not a fan.  Luckily, Atwood is a good writer, and the narrative style is entirely purposeful.  From chapter seven:

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along….But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.  You don’t tell a story only to yourself.  There’s always someone else.

And the end of the story reveals that Offred has recorded her story on audio tapes which were later recovered and pieced back together.  This explains why the narrative jumps around so much, but it doesn’t change the fact that it can be confusing.  Sometimes I wouldn’t immediately understand what day it was or where in the flow of time the words I was reading took place.

I also had a hard time picturing the locations in the story as being overlaid on the localities in the modern day Boston area.  Maybe if I’d been to Boston for more than a few hours it would have been easier, but I could only see the community as something new, secluded in an unrecognizable place.  Making the connection between pre-Gilead and post-Gilead was hard to me.

But the most fundamental reason that this book was hard to read was the subject matter; it is disturbing.  And even now I am having a hard time writing about why it was so particularly disturbing to me now.  This book affected me like it wouldn’t have before because I am five months pregnant.  Everything that Offred goes through, her blissful existence in her past life with her husband and young daughter, her anguish at that being taken away, her life being stripped to an equivalence with her mere reproductive capabilities, her shifts between guilt, despair, and hope, hope of a new pregnancy, of a new child that will also not be hers–all of her thoughts and feelings felt deeply personal to me.

I believe in my empathetic nature, that the book would have affected me before, but now, as I start a family with my husband, I think I truly understand the stakes, how much there is to lose.  I was reading this book with a love note from my husband tucked between the pages as a bookmark.  Can you think of anything more ironic than that?  I’d like to pretend that it wasn’t an accident, but an act of defiance.

I thought it was interesting how Offred and Ofglen are presented as foils for each other.  Of the two, Ofglen is the revolutionary, the Katniss Everdeen of Gilead.  But she is not our main character.  We are following Offred instead, who is not a revolutionary.  In fact, she feels, well, almost satisfied, once her life is bearable.  It is enough for her, and she won’t risk it for the sake of others.  She stops being interested in the machinations of Ofglen’s secret group.  But for Ofglen, there is no “satisfied,” at least maybe until Gilead is done away with.  She is an amazing woman, but I think I am more like Offred.  I understood her perfectly.

I liked how the ending is ambiguous; we don’t know where Offred is being lead, and by whom.  I think it fit very well with the rest of the book, and I’ve always liked these kinds of endings (The Giver, Inception)–but I know some people hate them.  I remember people arguing in the sixth grade about whether Jonas lived in freedom or died at the end of The Giver!  The Historical Notes tagged on to the end provide a lot of interesting context to the story, but the tonal shift is so jarring; I am undecided whether the book is better with or without them.

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As I was reading some articles about the Hulu adaptation (which I haven’t seen; I don’t have Hulu), I came across one that mentioned that Offred is raped repeated by her Commander.  Immediately, my inner head voice said, No, that’s not right.  Offred herself says it’s not rape.  From chapter 16:

Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

But I pushed that knee-jerk reaction aside and thought about it some more.  Just because Offred doesn’t consider it rape, are we obliged to do the same?  Offred clearly doesn’t want to consider herself a victim; she wants to maintain control of her body, her life, her mind.  But what, really, was the choice she had, the alternative to having sex as a Handmaid?  Possible torture and death, from what I can tell.  This is exactly the kind of situation, the kind of dilemma, that we as a society consider rape all the time.  Just because the torture and death aren’t immediate doesn’t make them any less real.

In any case, perhaps the semantics are irrelevant.  The point is that no one should have to do what Offred has to do.  The perverseness of the social order of the Republic of Gilead is well-established by the novel, and will stick with everyone who reads it for a long time.

GeekyNerdy Book Club: As You Wish

51aluqonyfl-_sx329_bo1204203200_This installment of the GNBC features As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.  It is a memoir by Cary Elwes (who played Westley in the film) about his time spent making that film.  If you have never seen The Princess Bride…well, first of all, you should go see it, because it’s wonderful and funny and appeals to so many types of people.  But obviously this book is intended for fans of the movie, and as I consider myself one, I enjoyed it greatly.

I have been a fan of Cary Elwes in many roles, including his turn as a thief on Psych, and his role as a Robin Hood with an English accent.  He has always seemed like a very charming man, and consequently his book is very charming.  He comes across as very modest and gracious, (mostly) level-headed but with a spirit of joy in life.

I’ve never read a memoir from a film set before, so it was very interesting to me to learn not just about The Princess Bride, but how all movies are made in general.  Shooting on location, training, stunts, cast interactions, the whole process.  For example, the very first scene Elwes shot was the Fire Swamp, which involved setting Robin Wright (Buttercup)’s dress on fire, and then later practically improvising the stunt where Westley dives headfirst into the quicksand (he was originally just supposed to jump in feet-first).  He also trained with fencing professional for months to be able to do the swordfight scene with Inigo.  I was constantly telling my husband (also a fan) all these little tidbits I was learning as I went along.

The book also makes frequent use of perspectives from the other cast members (Fred Savage, Christopher Guest, Christopher Sarandon, Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, etc.), the director Rob Reiner, and the writer William Goldman (who also wrote the original book).  Everything that everyone says just gives you a sense that they all had such a good time making this film, that they put so much love into it, and it has a very special place in their hearts.  I think it really shows in the finished product.  Because of this happy energy, it is a fun, light read, and because of the format of vignettes and anecdotes, it is very easy to pick up and put down if you don’t have much time for reading.

The book covers many of the famous scenes from the movie, as well as some behind-the-scenes things, and it even covers a little of the release of the movie.  I always kind of figured The Princess Bride was considered a “cult classic,” because I had never heard of it until I was in high school, and the book outlines why this is.  Upon its release, the studio had trouble marketing it, apparently because of the mix of genres, and though the initial audience reaction was great, the movie basically flopped.  But once it started making its way onto VHS and getting spread by word of mouth, its popularity picked up,eventually becoming such that the cast had a 25th anniversary reunion screening at the Lincoln Center in 2012.  The movie is now thirty years old and just as popular as ever.

I think this book will definitely change the way I see the movie the next time I watch it.  I will now never be able to NOT think about the fact that Westley is actually getting knocked out by Count Rugen (no acting required!) and that he had a broken toe in some scenes, etc.  It does kinda pull the veil of movie magic back a bit, but I still find it entertaining, just in a different way.

Reading the memoir also inspired me to start reading the original novel, which I am also really enjoying.  Even just getting through the author’s forward is an entertaining journey.

Next time on GNBC we will switch back to fiction, so keep an eye out for a new pick soon.