If you liked The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, you’ll love Shadow and Bone

I mean that in the most sincere, best possible way. And I don’t mean that Shadow and Bone (written by my close, personal friend Leigh Bardugo) is irritatingly derivative of those young adult fantasy powerhouses. Rather, it is an incredibly original book that happens to share some of the qualities that make those books so seductive.

The author and me

True confession, while I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi fantasy in my film and television diet, I don’t read too much fantasy, and I haven’t tended to pay attention to young adult fiction until it crosses over. But that changed last week when I attended an event on the Fierce Reads tour, where I heard Leigh and fellow YA Fantasy authors speak about their books. Rob immediately got Cinder on audio, so I’ve been listening to that while driving, and reading my signed copy of Shadow and Bone in bed every night. Interesting parallels between the two, actually. Apparently there’s something happening in YA fiction with kick-ass girls who have the power to save the world. I’m cool with that.

Fierce Authors at Village Books

Shadow and Bone is the first book in The Grisha trilogy, taking place in an alternate world infused with a Russian folklore aesthetic, and layers of history and geopolitical intrigue that is surprisingly easy to follow. At the story’s core is a fight between good and evil (literally light and dark), magic and a love triangle.

Note: The following plot commentary does not spoil more than I would want to have spoiled for me before reading, but if you prefer to go in blind, you could go read the book before continuing on here.

Alina Starkov is the heroine (and yes, it’s totally fine that she goes by Starkov and not Starkova, okay, purists?). I found her as engaging, inspiring and relatable as my girl Katniss, and superior in at least one way. My one complaint about Katniss as a character is that she was awfully dense about Peeta’s feelings for her. Seriously? It never crossed your mind he might really like you like you? Alina, on the other hand, responds to the men at the tips of her triangle in a more believable way. She recognizes her feelings for Mal, and she has a perfectly understandable fixation on the Darkling. I found both relationships intriguing and would enjoy seeing her get it on with either (or both!) of them.

Alina is like Harry Potter because she gets sent to Magic Boarding School, but don’t worry, she doesn’t have to spend seven years there. Her transformation as a character, her coming of age, if you will, comes through as she learns to wield her power.

I loved every page. The action sequences, the description of the clothes and scenery, the relationship drama, the unexpected turns of the plot. I’m enormously proud and excited for Leigh and eager for book 2.

Special thanks to Village Books for hosting the Fierce Reads tour. Not only did I pay full price for Shadow and Bone (which I haven’t done since Mindy Kaling came to Seattle), I bought local!

Katniss, the best thing since Buffy

In my earlier post, Girls who kick ass, I disclosed my attempts to impersonate female superheroes.

Last year, Rob and I listened to the audio book for The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, and actually, that’s when I decided to dress up as Wonder Woman for Halloween. But it depressed me, this continued sexism in the world of Superheroes. I rewatched the entire series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and concluded that she’s the greatest girl superhero of all time. As much as I love Wonder Woman, her origin comic has her more concerned with winning Steve Trevor’s heart than saving the world. Buffy had boy problems, but she saved the world a lot.

In recent pop culture, there’s no feminine superhero franchise equivalent to Spider-Man. The Elektra and Catwoman films were considered failures. Most of the boy Avengers got their own movies prior to the upcoming release of The Avengers. Iron Man got two. Where’s Black Widow’s? Guess there’s no hope Scarlett Johansson could open an action flick, since Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry couldn’t.

Angeline Jolie, she can open an action flick, if Salt and Tomb Raider are the best we can hope for… but wait a minute…

A few months ago, Steven Soderbergh released the movie Haywire, written for and starring a beautiful athlete named Gina Carano. I’ve been fixated on Gina Carano for years; she’s the mixed martial artist who inspired the protagonist in my novel in progress. And did I mention she’s gorgeous? I didn’t love Haywire, but I loved Gina in it. The fact that Haywire exists fills me with such excitement about the future of female action heroes. I want Gina to be the female version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, crossing over into films. She’s not the best actress in the world, but she can do something Angelina Jolie can’t do. Legitimately kick your ass.

Which brings me to the woman of the hour, Katniss Everdeen, in book form and as portrayed by the luminous Jennifer Lawrence. While Twilight sent all the wrong message to the young women of today, The Hunger Games gets it right. Katniss may not have superpowers, but she’s a skilled huntswoman. (archery chick, archeress, is there a word for that?) She’s morally grounded and compassionate, and outcompetes adversaries who are stronger and more ruthless. She’s feminine, and yes, there is a love triangle in the series, but Katniss does not sacrifice anything of herself to win the hearts of her admirers. She earns their love without realizing she’s done it. She doesn’t even want a boyfriend.

So go ahead and buy into all that Hunger Games hype. I am fully on board.

Girls who kick ass

Rob and I like to dress up as superheroes for Halloween. In 2004, we were Rogue and Wolverine. From the X-Men movie, not the comic, because Rogue’s comic book hairstyle doesn’t translate so well to real life.

I include this picture, not because my Thai kick is executed particularly well, but check out those pleather pants. How flattering are they? Value Village, baby.

The next time we dressed up was in 2008, and I was Elektra.

In 2009, Rob wanted to reprise Wolverine and I went as Dark Phoenix, but of course, no one on the street recognized me as Dark Phoenix. That’s when I realized that there really aren’t any good girl superheroes anymore. And wondered if there ever were. So last year, I dressed up as the original Super Heroine, one everybody knows.

While Wonder Woman is the best, most recognizable superheroine costume, she has yet to have her own live-action movie. And the recent attempt to reimagine her TV series failed.

So, in these past 7 years of superheroine soul searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that my all-time favorite female superhero is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don’t think I’ll ever dress up as her, because I’m not blonde enough. My Rogue white streak was as far as I’m willing to go in that direction.

Anakin Skywalker: It’s Complicated

The original Star Wars movies are so firmly enmeshed in my childhood that I cannot write about them objectively. Generations of film geeks already have analyzed the series on so deep a level that nothing I can say could possibly be original. As Luke Skywalker says at the end of Empire, “It’s ImPOSSible!”

Rob and I watched the films in order on Blu-ray, so I’ve been forced to revisit some of my thoughts and memories. I have a different understanding of the politics of the galaxy this time around, which also seems imPOSSible, because I’ve seen them all multiple times. Of course, the first time I saw them in the order they were produced: 4-5-6-1-2-3. I watched Attack of the Clones the most consecutive times in the shortest period of time, because I saw it about three times in the theater when I lived in Prague. And had no idea what the aliens speaking in alien languages were saying, because those subtitles were in Czech.

I bought the whole series on DVD in Thailand (ahem! bootlegs) in 2005, and watched them in order at that point, but over a longer period of time than we watched them this week.

Rob gave up on the franchise after Phantom Menace, so he refused to see Revenge of the Sith with me when it came out. I saw a matinee on opening day in Olympia. After I got the bootlegs, I made him watch Clones and Sith, but he wasn’t into it.

So I was pretty surprised the last time I was in LA without him and he told me he was watching the Empire Strikes Back and explaining it to Leo. (I’m sorry, but every time I think about him explaining the movie to our dog, I just melt inside. I love Rob.) This viewing inspired him to get the Blu-ray set and watch them in order, our first time experiencing the franchise together. We’re separated by 5 years in age, and yet our early Star Wars experiences align. We both had the action figures in the Darth Vader carrying case. Didn’t everyone?

We diverged around the time Lucas rereleased the films in the 1990s with digital alterations. I was in film school at the time and I was, and am, a purist. You don’t get to go back and change your movie 20 years later! If I published a book with a typo, sure I’d want to go back and fix the misspelled word, but I wouldn’t get to go back and use new words that didn’t exist when I originally wrote it. J.D. Salinger didn’t go back and give Holden Caulfield a cell phone so he could text his sister. He didn’t say, “No, you see I wanted to have him text-message her originally, but the technology didn’t exist.” No. You published the book. It’s done. If you want to write about a character text-messaging his sister while having a manic episode in the big city, write another book.

Rob says, “I don’t mind the changes. They’re cool.”

When I say that it’s imPOSSible to write objectively about the films, I mean that I can’t tell you whether or not they’re good. I can’t imagine seeing Star Wars in 1977 as a standalone film. (I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw it was upon its rerelease.) I think the films all hold up better as a collective whole.

Watching A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, I was struck by the changes in Yoda and Obi-Wan’s personalities from the prequels. Yoda was a little more wacko than Ben Kenobi, but even so, Ben was known as that crazy old hermit on Tattooine. Clearly, both had gone a little crazy, living in isolation for twenty years. Yoda more than Ben, probably because he had NO contact with other living things except the reptiles on Dagobah.

Obi-Wan is my favorite character in the prequels. My affection for Han, Luke and Leia carries my childish crush and admiration. I can’t “like” Han Solo the way I appreciate Obi-Wan. It’s like I’m not the same girl. I can only look back and remember dreaming about Han.

We watched Return of the Jedi last night, and I did not have the sense of resolution that I hoped I’d feel. Yes, it perfectly ties up the original movies. But it is not a satisfying conclusion for Anakin Skywalker, and he’s the one we’ve been following from the beginning.

Here’s where I say something really outrageous. This time around, Revenge of the Sith was kind of my favorite. Of all six. I found it now, as I found it way back in 2005 when it was in the theatre, to be extremely heart-wrenching and in that way, emotionally satisfying. Anakin’s relationship with Padme, his relationship with Obi-Wan. Destroyed. Everything destroyed. I was affected by it, man. In a way that I was not affected when I watched Return of the Jedi last night. I did like watching Princess Leia choke Jabba, though. And yes, members of Team Luke, now I remember his appeal.

 

Polarizing Film: Drive

Many years ago, when I was a student of the cinema, I considered a couple of popular films to be litmus tests. You laughed hysterically at Flirting with Disaster? You’re a philanderer with a misogynistic sense of humor. Wept at The English Patient? You’re pretentious. Please, that film was bo-ring!

The other day, we watched Drive, which I’d heard good things about. Let me tell you that I hated it so much I had to get up, find my iPod and tweet about how much I hated it. And it got a 93% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes! What am I missing? I recognize that many women (and men) find Ryan Gosling very appealing. I saw The Notebook; I understand the concept. But in Drive? What a tool. I don’t think he’s mysterious because he doesn’t talk much; I think he’s an idiot.

I didn’t hate the movie because the main guy didn’t have clever dialogue, nor did I mind the stylish film-making. Kinda reminded me of Taxi Driver. I love Taxi Driver. You know why? Travis Bickle is interesting! Jodie Foster plays a child prostitute, and Bickle takes Cybill Shepherd to a porno on a date, yet Taxi Driver does not come close to demeaning women the way Drive does. Carey Mulligan’s character is an idiot, fawning over stupid Ryan Gosling, looking at him with goo-goo eyes after he’s done exactly nothing to earn her desire.

Another female character (and this is a spoiler because there’s only ONE other female character) gets her head blown off in glorious slow-mo spattervision.

Aside: I noted that Quentin Tarantino killed off a female character in Inglourious Basterds (I have to look that one up to spell it INcorrectly) more graphically and with more zeal than he killed off the men. It bothered me there, but I appreciated his violence as an art form. In Drive, it all struck me as gratuitous.

Speaking of gratuitous, what was with the topless girls sitting around Ron Perlman’s character while he takes a phone call? It was a phone call scene! He could have been anywhere!

I can forgive a lot of a film if it’s well-enough performed, written, directed or even scored, but I can’t think of a single redeeming quality about Drive. No wait, I can. I liked the way the title of the film appeared in the opening credits. It was all downhill from there.

They used to call me Mr. Glass

M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is highly underrated. When I saw it in 2000, it was the most realistic rise-of-superhero-and-supervillain that I had ever seen on film. A comparable film in theaters now is Chronicle. Both films answer the question, What would the world be like if superpowers were real?

* Kick-Ass is a great film addressing What would the world be like if we really had masked avengers fighting crime? But no one has superpowers.

In Unbreakable, Sam Jackson has a disease that makes him especially frail. i.e. They call me Mr. Glass.

Bruce Willis can not be injured. He’s “Unbreakable.” He doesn’t get a cool superhero name, just goes by David Dunn. A name so forgettable I had to look it up.

For several years now, I have identified with Mr. Glass. Breakable as a starfish. I broke my foot doing step aerobics two years ago, and it’s still not all the way better.

I developed a stiff neck from carrying a heavy camera around my neck for an afternoon. The stiff neck lasted weeks. I had to do physical therapy.

I suffer from TMJ; I lack the jaw strength to chew food.

You know those self-esteem exercises, or whatever they are, where people identify the thing that makes them most self-conscious? Then they “own it” by wearing it on a T-shirt? It was on the “Born This Way” episode of Glee. That’s a thing right?

I thought about what my “flaw” is. Sure there are some physical things I’m self-conscious about, but none that haunt me enough that I need to wear it on a T-shirt. I realized that the word I should own was “weak.” The thing I like least about myself that I wish I could change. I want to be able to train in martial arts without aggravating my foot or my neck. I don’t want to be the girl who sank to the ground crying because she couldn’t make it to the Bat Caves in the rain. Oh, but waitaminute, I conquered that demon last September. I proved to myself that I’m not weak.

This is risky to put out there in the universe, because it’s only been two days, and maybe the whiplash just hasn’t set in yet…

…but I cannot freaking believe that I am not in more pain after being rear-ended on the freeway.

The chiropractor kept shaking his head in amazement. “This could have been so much worse.” It was actually embarrassing filling out the form. What level is my pain? Oh, about a 2. Which is less than it is on an average day. Was my body so out of whack that the collision simply knocked everything back into place?

I’m taking the preventative measures of chiropractic, acupuncture and massage therapy. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Any day now, I’m going to wake up and not be able to move. Since I have a history of chronic neck and back pain, I have every reason to believe this accident has done some damage that hasn’t manifested yet.

My point. Is. I do not feel like Mr. Glass today. I feel like David Dunn. I feel like I should have been really badly injured. And the fact that I don’t even have a bruise from my seat belt shoulder strap seems to me a minor miracle. Or like, really, really good luck.

The King and Queen of Pop

Last week’s episode of Glee and the Superbowl halftime show have me thinking about the roles Michael Jackson and Madonna have played in my life.

Michael

I remember my first time with Michael. My brother’s best friend introduced us to him circa 1983, via the video for Billie Jean. I thought the lyrics were, “Billie Jean is at my door.” We had the Thriller album on vinyl and I stared dreamily at his picture. I was eight. My brother and I eagerly awaited the premiere of the video for Thriller and then couldn’t watch the whole thing because it was too scary.

I couldn’t connect with his earlier album, Off the Wall, not until much later.

I remember Bad, but then for a stretch it wasn’t cool to love MJ, even before the child molestation charges. Let me add, too, that I don’t think Michael was a pedophile. I think he was deeply disturbed, a child himself. And parents should not have their children spend the night at his house.

I was on a plane to Southeast Asia when Michael died. I learned about it during my layover at Narita. Interestingly, the Americans I encountered during that trip all pretty much took the attitude, Oh yeah, Michael Jackson, that child molester. But the Europeans fairly universally thought of him as the legendary artist that he was.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough became an anthem for me after college, when it was used for the warm up in a hip-hop dance aerobics class I took on Monday nights. The opening music still makes me want to party.

So, even though I forsook him for a number of years, I look back on MJ’s career with admiration and affection. I loved the Glee episode featuring his music, most especially the video for Scream. At first, I thought it was practically a shot by shot remake. I didn’t realize the choreography was new, and I thought, man, this just shows what good dancers Michael and Janet were/are because I never realized how awesome this video was. But then I rewatched the original, and dammit if I don’t think the Glee video is better!

Madonna

I don’t have as precise a memory of my first exposure to Madonna. I think it was probably the Borderline video, around 1984. That was also the year lots of nine-year-olds like me learned what virgin was. I didn’t know who Marilyn Monroe was before I saw the video for Material Girl. I walked out of Desperately Seeking Susan desperately wanting a really cool jacket with a pyramid eye on the back. Friends of mine had Madonna lookalikes at their birthday parties. I became penpals with one. Her name was Denise.

Like MJ, Madonna was uncool in my circle for a few years, until I met a girl in 1990 who unapologetically worshipped her. That was during the Vogue/pointy boob/Dick Tracy era, and I had to admit, there was nothing uncool about her.

I’ll admit, I haven’t really paid that much attention to Madonna in recent years, since her arms became all scarily muscular. But I do enjoy her songs when I hear them, and I still admire her.

The only part of the Superbowl that interested me was her performance during the halftime show, and she rocked it.

I never saw Michael Jackson in concert, and I regret it. Maybe I need to get tickets to Madonna’s upcoming tour.

Getting rich quick on TV

I used to think Rob and I would kick ass on The Amazing Race. I’m an extremely savvy world traveler and he’s superhumanly athletic. However, I worried that my lack of strength and endurance might hold us back, coupled with the fact that I wouldn’t respond well to several sleep-deprived stressful days in a row. Plus, I don’t eat meat and he’s averse to strange food textures, so we wouldn’t excel at the weird eating challenges.

For that reason, I didn’t think Fear Factor would be our show either. We watched an episode the other day where the contestants had to drink a Crappaccino: Blended bugs topped with live bugs. Blech. Neither one of us could stomach much of that.

As the contestants approached the Crappaccino challenge, I asked, “What is it they’re hoping for? They know it’s going to be some gross eating challenge. Are they thinking, Gee, I hope this is one where we just have to sit in a tub of cow’s blood and carry beef hearts in our mouths, because I don’t think I’d be able to eat live scorpions.” I actually think I might be able to choke down live scorpions, and while beef heart is gross, I’m familiar with it; I feed it to my dogs.

The episode we watched today contained MY event. One partner had to sit in a vat fill with hundreds of live snakes while the other transferred snakes to another container using only their mouths. I’ve had pet snakes and kissed them. I could do either of those things easily, and Rob says he’d be able to lie with the snakes, so we would have killed at that challenge.

Plus, Fear Factor’s got these other stunts I think we’d enjoy. During each of the shows we watched recently, there were stunts that made me say, “Fun! I want to do that!” (Even if there weren’t a cash prize.) I totally want to put on crash gear and fly up through a five-floored structure. Catapult onto a rope grid suspended high off the ground? Sign me up. Can we get one of those so I can practice at home? Of course, I’ve also jumped out of an airplane three times and “fear was not a factor” for me then either. Guess I’m more of a thrill-seeker than I thought.

We’ve seen ads for another episode where some girl is crying while her head is being shaved. That happens a lot on America’s Next Top Model. I mean, I’ve cried over a bad haircut before, but if someone were paying me for it? I’d get over it.

I turned to Rob and said, “Something you should know: I’m not at all afraid of snakes, and I would totally shave my head for money.”

Under anesthesia, under the knife

I’m having my tonsils out tomorrow. I know, so retro, right? The procedure itself is supposed to be quick and easy, but the recovery is awful.

I’ve been under general anesthesia once before, to have my wisdom teeth out when I was almost 19. The only surgery I’ve had since was a ganglion removal in my wrist, for which I was given a local … and will boast to anyone who will listen that my dreamy hand surgeon said if he’d known how involved it was going to be, he would have put me under. I was such a champ.

I have been preparing for this week’s grand affair by acquiring a cool mist ultrasonic humidifier to keep my throat moist, Throat Comfort Yogi tea, Zico chocolate coconut water (you know, to rehydrate), and thinking of soft foods to eat: oatmeal, scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, smoothies.

Also, very importantly, I have loaded up a bunch of television series in my Netflix instant queue. People, Netflix isn’t charging enough! I can watch the entirety (or near entirety) of Buffy, Angel, Felicity, thirtysomething, Vampire Diaries, seasons one and two of Glee … and so much more.

So be prepared for such outdated observations as, “Seriously, how could Felicity ever choose Ben over Noel? Noel is the perfect man.”

You’d think in anticipation of having to spend as much as a week on heavy narcotics that I would have been more active over the weekend, but no. I had coughing and sneezing fits on Friday and Saturday. Even though I didn’t feel like I was getting a cold, I worried that this something would keep me from having surgery tomorrow. Certainly it would not be fun to sneeze with enormous tonsil scabs forming in the back of my throat.

Also, my neck’s been hurting, probably from sleeping awkwardly to accommodate two monster German shepherds in our bed. Yeah, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

As a result, I spent more time on the couch this weekend than I should have, dwelling in such questions as why in the world did Felicity obsess about Ben for four seasons, when beautiful, kind, smart, funny Noel was there all along?

I needed to talk to someone about this.

Me: Did you ever watch Felicity?
Rob: No.
Me: But you know the basic premise? There’s this love triangle …
Rob: All I know is that it starred a girl with curly hair.

In more current affairs, how do you think they got those zombies in the barn in The Walking Dead? Don’t you think Lori should just have the baby? I mean, the fate of the human race is at stake. And did you see The Simpsons? It was about writing a tween blockbuster novel by committee, structured like a heist film. Brilliant.

I paid full price for @mindykaling’s book

Mindy Kaling is one of my comedy heroines. Right up there with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

I always thought she was funny in her tertiary role on The Office, and was impressed when I noticed that she had a writer, producer and sometimes directing credit. I “liked” Subtle Sexuality on Facebook after watching the video for Male Prima Donna.

Following her on Twitter is what solidified our completely one-sided friendship.

When her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) came out a few weeks ago, I asked Rob to get it in audio form, because it’s so awesome to hear comedy writers read their own stuff. In the book, she talks about how falling asleep watching Dave Chappelle made her feel like they were friends. Well, that’s what it’s been like the past few weeks; Kelly Kapoor tells us funny stories every night before bed.

The best part is that Rob thinks she’s hilarious too!

His review: Once you factor in her creative talents in authoring & narrating humorous tales, Mindy’s hotness skyrockets through the roof. Gorgeous and brilliantly witty. She is the second smartest & hottest & funniest girl next to Kari.

Awww.

So when I found out she was going to be signing her book in Seattle, even though I’d already listened to most of it, and even though I can’t remember the last time I paid cover price for a book (sorry, authors), and even though the UW Bookstore required you to buy the book there to have it signed, we happily drove down there and paid $25 for the book and the privilege of saying “You’re my favorite Twitter friend.”

Know what else is cool? And I can say this with some authority since I grew up in Los Angeles and have seen my fair share of celebrities close up. Mindy Kaling is considered more of a “real person” than a “model/actress” type (which she notes in the chapter where she describes having to audition for, and be turned down for, the character of “Mindy” in a pilot she wrote!). And yet, compared to all of us schlubby Pacific Northwesterners, she looked famous. Glamorous and put together. And was so gracious.

/fanletter