Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Rebel Queen" by Michelle Moran (My review at last!)


So instead of the shiny Amazon thumbnail, you're getting a photo of my own copy of "Rebel Queen" (proof in my spinning wheel pedal on the side there), because I am still just so excited that I was given a review copy.

*Tiny squealing*

(Don't worry, I'm still going to give you a completely honest review. Just needed to be clear about the review status up front.)

I devoured about half the book in one night, because I was up with a nasty earache and needed a distraction. It worked excellently.

Let me tell you what this book is about. There's this girl named Sita, who lives in India during the mid 1800's when it was still under control of the East India Trading Company. Her mother dies and her grandmother wants to sell her as a temple prostitute to raise dowry money for her baby sister because girls are basically worthless in that time and place. Sita's dad, however, says 'HECK NO, I'm gonna raise my girl to be one of the queen's badass bodyguard ladies!' Everyone thinks he's crazy because there are only 10 of these bodyguards and hundreds of girls compete to get the place, but Sita's dad is an educated soldier and he's got his other talented soldier buddy helping them out and they train Sita how to fight with every weapon and how to read English and appreciate Shakespeare.

Of course when the time finally comes, Sita totally blows the competition out of the water and is whisked off to become one of the elite female bodyguards of Rani Lakshmi of Jhansi.

Now Rani Lakshmi is known as India's Joan of Arc, or the "Rebel Queen" of the book title, so it's no spoiler to say that Sita gets caught up in the rani's rebellion, including being part of the rani's delegation to Queen Victoria to plead for aid. (It was pretty funny to compare British and Indian ideas of modesty - the Indian's are horrified by how much bosom the English display, and the English are scandalized by the bare tummies of the Indian women).

The book is extremely tightly written - I have never seen such an engaging story manage to explain so many culture differences per page without once growing boring or confusing. I was so absorbed in Sita's story that the words and customs just soaked in without me feeling like I was 'learning'. It was great. The characters are also very awesome and well constructed, from Sita's family to the rani, her husband the raj, and the 10 women of the bodyguard.

I was, however, a little disappointed in two things. #1, the cover blurb is misleading. The rani does not raise two armies, "one male, one female." I was expecting the book to be about her recruiting hundreds of Indian women to fight the British. This doesn't happen. The rani does know combat, and she does train with her 10 bodyguards, but personally I wouldn't consider them an 'army.' This is pretty sad, since it is totally a publicity gimmick by the publisher and isn't fair to the excellent story Moran has written. So when you go in, discount the blurb entirely and you'll enjoy the book much better!

#2, the only actual problem with the story is in the climax, which strangely enough separates Sita from the rani and sends her back to her family at just the point when you are most invested in sticking with the rani. I'm not entirely sure why this choice was made. Sita did have ends to tie up there, but it felt like a letdown as a reader. As far as I can tell, Sita is a fictional character, so there isn't any historical reason why this happened.

Despite that, the rest of the book is so strong, that I'd recommend it heartily anyhow. I will point out that it is set against a rebellion with a lot of atrocities, which the book describes in (appropriate, not gratuitous) detail. If reading about innocent women and children coming to pretty horrific ends is a trigger for you, you might want to skip this one, or at least read the last quarter of the book warily. Personally, it was hard to read, but since I knew little about this part of Indian history, I appreciated understanding the full scope of what happened.

Final verdict? I will certainly read this book again and - apart from the climax - it might even be Moran's strongest book yet.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where have all the Villains gone, OUAT?

Once Upon a Time there were a bunch of heroes and villains and it all became a bit confusing about who was what.

Spoilers ahoy for OUAT 4.16 "Poor Unfortunate Souls"

All fairy tales have expanded origins in ABC's hit show, and "The Little Mermaid" is no exception. In last night's episode, we were treated to an Ursula/Hook flashback, where a young Ursula is no octopus, but the original "little mermaid," right down to that beautiful singing voice captured in a shell, and a sea king father (although her daddy is Poseidon, not Triton, which sort of makes her Ariel's aunt by Greek mythology rules).

Young Ursula is charming, thanks to excellent casting and great costuming, and overall the episode is a good one, with both Ursula's backstory and the Storybrooke present-day being enjoyable watches. However, there is a pretty big weakness, and that is that Ursula is never given a chance to truly be a villain. Sure, she's labeled as one, we see her hooking up with bad people, and we see her declaring to daddy dearest that she's going to terrorize the ocean... but we never see her do anything evil. And all it takes is a bit of good deeds by Hook and an apology from her dad and she's joyfully singing her way back to the ocean.

 Is OUAT taking their "every villain has an understandable and relatable backstory and with the right motivation they'll all turn good again" theme too far? How can we take their villains seriously when we haven't had a true baddie since Pan? Zelena and Ingrid were evil only to a point, with true repentance at the end, and we always could understand their motivations and sympathize with them.  So far we've seen backstories for Maleficent and Ursula that has us rooting for them far more than fearing them. When are we going to get a Cora level baddie again?

And no, I don't mean "turn Gold evil to fill the void." Gold must repent, truly repent, and prove himself worthy of Belle with true humility and honesty. Even if it takes another four seasons.

That said, despite wimping out on Ursula's villain-cred entirely, the episode gives us good moments, giving us a really nice Ariel cameo as well as some great August stuff. Furthermore it nicely upped the stakes by pointing out that if Killian is a villain, he's due to lose his happy ending and thus, Emma - and also that Gold is planning to fill Emma's heart with darkness so that the author can have control over writing the story once more and give all the baddies happy endings.

I have mixed feelings about this season's theme as a whole. Ariel says that evil never gets a happy ending because it goes about it the wrong way. But Hook points out that Regina didn't get her happy ending even when she reformed, which we now find out is because the author is no longer in control. In real life, of course, God is always in control, but while he wants what is best for us, we live in a fallen world and the truth is we're never guaranteed a happy life here on earth, no matter how many good deeds we do. It's our heavenly home that we're looking forwards to finding our happy ending in. Which makes it rather difficult to parse out the theology of a show based on fairy tales which (mostly so far) have their origins in a Christian worldview.

We'll see if I have anything more coherent to elaborate on when the season winds up and we see how they actually resolve this theme.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Familiar Faces on Once Upon a Time

The second half of Once Upon a Time's season four started off with a weak episode - but the story has been picking up momentum in the subsequent weeks, and with episode 14, "Enter the Dragon," things start to get really good - and SPOILERIFIC! You've been warned.

Regina goes undercover to infiltrate the Queens of Darkness, we thankfully get very little of Ursula, and our flashbacks are to the first team-up with Regina and Maleficent. Let's be honest, Maleficent's back story benefits greatly from the recent Angelina Jolie movie, although it gets in own twist - Aurora is not the original sleeping princess, that is her mother, Briar Rose. Interesting stuff...

We don't get any further details on last week's revelation of Maleficent's pregnancy, but we definitely get a more rounded character, thanks to excellent acting by Kristen Bauer van Straten. It's not anyone who could deliver a worthy follow-up performance to Jolie's big screen portrayal, but van Straten does an excellent job.

We also get a small appearance from Aurora, with good reason to expect more from her over the rest of the season. We also finally get to see more action on Hook's part... only to discover that, in a very clever ruse, it is actual Rumple disguised as Hook, manipulating Belle once more. Colin O'Donoghue does a wonderful job of infusing his face with Rumple, so that the clever watcher can figure out the truth before it is revealed onscreen.

We still don't really get any backstory on how Belle and Will are now dating, just six weeks after she cast Rumple out. It's not that it doesn't make sense (she explains why it is good to be with someone who is straightforwards with her), it just seems very sudden.

But all this is overshadowed by the return of a long-missed character. In a dramatic turn of events, Gold transforms the boy Pinnochio back into the adult August. Huzzah! Of course, that puts our villains a step closer to achieving their goal - force the Author to switch the happy endings of the heroes and the villains, and that isn't a good thing at all.

Now all we need is Robin Hood to come back (but with a morally good reason for being with Regina and not Marian) and things'll be hopping in Storybrooke once more!

Next week's episode is due to turn the spotlight on Ursula and Hook... while it's high time this happened, they're going to have to pull off something pretty spectacular to make Ursula shine more than her costume stinks.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society


Knitting novels don't have their own genre - yet. But we're getting there. This past year I've read several different fiber-centric stories, both knitting and crocheting, covering murder to romance. "The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society" is the best so far. Well-written, with engaging characters, southern charm, plus lots of knitting and classic novel love, this is a good book to pick up when you want solid fiction in a chick-lit setting.

Eugenie is the spinster librarian of Sweetgum, and she runs the Knit Lit socieety, a monthly meeting of multi-aged women who read one classic novel and complete a corresponding knitting project every month. However, her scheduled reading line-up gets a shake-up when she takes a troubled young teen under her wing. Turns out, 13-year-old Hannah has never read any of the 'classic' girl novels! The rest of the women aren't terribly thrilled to be reading "Pollyanna" and "Little Women" but they gamely join Eugenie's quest... and find themselves transformed in the process.

"Sweetgum" won't win any awards, but it's a solid notch above most chick-lit. While knitting and classic novels are a cornerstone of the book, you only need a passing knowledge/appreciation to understand how it all weaves together.

Beth Pattillo is a Christian, but the book doesn't read as a predictable "Christian Women's Fiction" novel. Being a small southern town, Christianity is certainly important window dressing, but this book isn't preaching at you.

Give it a shot... but be prepared, you might find your fingers aching for needles and yarn by the time you're halfway through!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Girl with The Aspergers


Okay, I'm about to get vulnerable, guys. I think this is an important topic to talk about and I really hope my story can be illuminating and helpful, but it's a little nerve-wracking to share, so if you leave comments, please use extra grace. Thank you! :)

 I was diagnosed with Aspergers seven years ago, but I only really began talking about it online in the last couple of years. That says a lot right there about perception and comfort. I mean, when the most common public image of an Aspie is Sheldon Cooper...

(I am going to use Sheldon for some examples despite the fact that he's never been officially diagnosed as an Aspie, because he's so widely known , as opposed to some more accurate but obscure portrayals from other shows. Although he's a very unique person, a lot of his quirks are good examples of aspie traits)

...but that's exactly why I feel I need to write about it. The truth about Aspergers is that it is complex and it varies from person to person and from gender to gender. Girls manifest Aspergers quite differently than boys do, to the extent that we don't actually know whether there is a gender gap in numbers. Girls do a better job of mimicking their companions behavior, and girls also tend to be more nurturing of the oddball in their group, which makes it really easy for female aspies to slip under the radar. 

Our perception of what Aspergers is pretty much "socially awkward rigid nerd who doesn't like physical touch and can't make eye contact." These are all certainly common aspects of Aspergers, but to have all of them is the exception, not the rule, and there are other symptoms that are less known, like stress management and stimulation factors. 

My Aspergers manifests in the lesser known ways, and further more, not only am I female, but also deaf. This means that I am an extremely good listener, and I naturally picked up a lot more about facial cues than most Aspies do. Furthermore, being homeschooled, the people I emulated were my parents, who are both very charismatic and socially educated people. This meant that I didn't get diagnosed until I was 19 years old. (My husband was shocked when he found out, he thought I'd been diagnosed when I was six or something. But no one knew about Aspergers when I was six).

 In fact the only reason I got diagnosed was because I had to live with five other women in college that I didn't know very well and who wanted the cleaning schedule to rotate every week. I had to share a bedroom, and I was pursing an English major. (I've learned since then that Aspies a) need their own personal space where they can go away when life gets too stressful and recharge, b) need to live with people who can give them a stable, consistent environment as well as a loving support system, and c) do better in concrete majors rather than abstract ones and English is tremendously abstract!). We actually thought the problem was stemming from my deafness, but when we went to the deaf counselor, she said "actually, everything you are telling me is indicating Aspergers." We went, "huh?" Because, like many of you, we had the public perception of Aspergers and didn't see the dots connecting.

The fact remains that many people who know me well, including my grandparents and former employer, have trouble believing that I have Aspergers because it simply does not manifest in typical, publicly observable ways (or at least, not since I've gotten old enough to manage that). On the one hand, this is nice because the last thing I want is people bringing preconceptions to the table about me. I'm not Sheldon Cooper (although I think he's adorable). My struggles are different, and tied closely to my hearing loss and health.  On the other hand, it's hard because I can't just say "I have Aspergers" and expect people to grasp what sort of extra struggles I have. Saying "I'm deaf" is easy, saying "I have Aspergers" is a whole 'nother can of worms. I prefer not to open that one until people have had a chance to get to know me without the label.

But... I'm grateful to have the label. Getting my diagnosis was both really hard and a huge relief. On the one hand, I felt "great, there is something else wrong with me!" but on the other hand I took a deep breath and cheered "I'm not a horrible person, My brain really processes X Y and Z differently!" Understanding how my brain works has helped me understand myself, give myself grace, and explain my needs to the people around me. It has helped me set the boundaries that I need, but also learn what areas I have to work on in order to have healthy relationships with my friends and family. 

While I have had some struggles with social understanding, it is pretty mild considered to what most people think of when they hear "Aspergers." I do have a personal space bubble, but I love hugging my love ones (even if I prefer being the initiator). Being a big reader has helped me understand other people, being an actor has helped me explore expressing myself, and being deaf has helped me be observant.

Another typical Aspie trait is obsession with a hobby or topic (think Sheldon and trains). I definitely had this when I was younger, although as I've gotten older I've diversified a lot and I've been well trained in being a good listener to other people and asking them questions about their hobbies and interest and not just pontificate about my own. 

My biggest aspie struggle is managing stress and stimulation. A common Aspie struggle is being able to healthily process stress, and it is not uncommon for them to bury negative feelings rather than process them, only to have it all flare up when that last straw gets dropped. The people around them are left thinking "wow, they are making a big deal about nothing" when really, it is a lot of unresolved issues finally leaking out of the punctured balloon. (In case you haven't noticed, I do not have trouble with that other common Aspergers trait - not getting anything that is not literal, like a metaphor!) This stress management issue is big for me, and because my body turns stress into sickness, it plays a big part in my every day life. Most people don't see me when I'm stressed and sick because I stay home, so they don't realize how much it affects me. 

One of the biggest causes of stress for me is unexpected change. This is a more typical Aspie struggle, and why Aspies can be seen as rigid or inflexible. I've worked extremely hard to become more chill, and more 'go with the flow', and it's made life easier, but I also have learned to accept that there are some limits to how much change I can tolerate before it overwhelms me. When I'm in control of the change it's not as stressful, which is why I can initiate a last minute change of plans and it doesn't bug me, but if someone else does, it can be difficult. When I was younger, this was a pretty sure-fire way to trigger a freak-out - it's gotten a lot better now, but I still really appreciate it when people give me as much advance notice for anything as possible.

The other big issue for me is external stimulation. Bright lights, loud or irritating sounds, uncomfortable clothes, too much movement, too many colors; all of these are extremely draining to my system. I like leaving the house and going places and hanging out with friends - but I tire much quicker than the average person (remember, I lipread everything too!). This is a big part of why it is much easier for me to have people over to my house (everything is familiar and set up comfortably) then to drive somewhere and experience a new or not-so-familiar place. Ironically, I actually really like exploring new places and trying new food, it's just that it really wears me down. I have to have the majority of my life be the familiar and comfortable so that I have the energy to do the new stuff sometimes. 

In a way, my type of Aspergers is kind of like depression, in that it's not something the outside world always knows exists, simply because when it flares up, you retreat to your fortress of solitude. 

BUT - there is a really big difference between Aspergers and say, depression or bipolar disorder. Aspergers is not an illness, it is not a virus or a cancer or a hormonal imbalance that there needs to be a cure for (although there are things you can do to help your body manage stress and stimulation better and you can learn strategies for understanding body language, etc,.). It is a different type of brain. You still have to learn to function in a world of neurotypical people, but very often being an Aspie also comes along with a superpower. (In fact, having at least an average and usually an above average IQ is a requirement of getting a diagnosis). Hyper-focus, for example, can cause problems, but it can also lead to major breakthroughs in the Aspie's field of interest - it's no coincidence that Sheldon Cooper is a very successful Ph.D!  For me, I believe my aspergers has played a role in how I have developed my sewing and also my ability to immerse myself in my writing and pound out a thousand words in an hour. 

And with great power comes great responsibility. An Aspie cannot expect the world to conform to them. They must do everything within their power to grow their own understanding, and to develop strategies for coping. People who are kind and caring will listen when we explain our differences, and will understand the need to adapt some of their own behaviors to help us, but it is up to us to learn how to articulate what we need, and to recognize that we are neither superior nor inferior, merely different. We can't ask more from people than we can give, but neither can we relinquish the responsibility to use every resource we personally have to learn to function in the world we live in - and to bless others with the gifts we're given. 

I wish my body could handle stress. I wish I didn't get overstimulated. I wish I never had to worry "am I interpreting this social cue right? Did I just say something hopelessly inappropriate? Are they judging my aspergers? Why am I getting so emotional about this little thing?" But I am grateful for understanding, both personally and in the people God has put in my life. And I'm grateful for the skills I've been able to develop because of this unusual brain. 

My personal observation is that it's better to know and understand who you are, so if you think there is a chance you or a loved one might have Aspergers, I would encourage you to seek a diagnosis (or encourage your loved one to get one, if you have that kind of trust relationship). It's not about labels, it's about freedom from misunderstanding.

I also strongly encourage anyone with an Aspergers diagnosis to take advantage of meeting with a counselor at their local autism society. Traditional counselors deal with the abstract, and can be frustrating for those on the Autism spectrum who deal in the concrete. A counselor experienced with Aspergers and endorsed by your local autism society will have specific concrete tools for you and your loved ones to figure out how to navigate life with both your superpower and your kryptonite.

Sharing weaknesses is scary, and it's taken me seven years to be able to write this post. My hope is that it can be encouraging and educational, both to those who might be on the spectrum, and to those who live in the same spheres as my fellow aspies. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Admiring Some Steampunk Book Covers

As "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" reaches the end of the initial writing phase, some e-mails have been exchanged about the cover. This has made me think a lot about book covers in general, but particularly those with fantasy elements and geared towards a YA market. Today I was over reading an article on Gail Carriger's blog and just had to take a moment to stop and appreciate the covers her books were given:


Here we've got eleven different covers spanning three series in the same universe. Each one has a distinctive and lovely them, and yet they are thematically harmonized. I love them. And I love them even more observing them grouped together like this. It's like a beautiful bouquet of books.

(Even though, yes, as a costume it drives me a little nuts that they used the same dress on "Changless" and "Blameless", and then another dress for both "Heartless" and "Timeless" and just colored them differently to make it look like they were different. Ah, well, period costumes don't come cheap.)

In case you are intrigued, I've already reviewed book 1 of her YA series (The Finishing School series) "Etiquette and Espionage." Book 1 of her newest series, (The Custard Protocol) "Prudence" is being released in eleven days, so I have yet to ascertain what audience it is suitable for.

Her original series (The Parasol Protectorate) is directed towards an adult audience and there is some sexual content and innuendo in the books, especially the first one, which is why I haven't formally reviewed it here. I adore the series and have read it multiple times, I just don't want anyone too young picking it up because of my inevitably enthusiastic review. However, if you're in the 18+ crowd and you're not phased by such material, the kindle versions are on sale right now.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Personality/Temperment and the Disability Factor

One of the keys to the successful relationship my husband and I have is our mutual interest in personality types. His preference is Myers-Briggs, mine is the four temperaments. Understanding each others personality from the get go was huge for us to understand how to communicate with each other. This saved us from a lot of misunderstandings in the beginning and continues to be useful to this day.

(also very important for relationship harmony- understanding and utilizing the five love languages).

However, while my husband's Myers-Briggs is pretty iron-cast, mine is more difficult to understand. This is because both my Aspergers and hearing loss affect my natural function, making it hard to pin down what I actually am. I seem to be an ENFJ, but Nathan sometimes thinks I'm a P, and other times that N can take on S tendencies. Also, I can fit the profile of either an ENFJ or an INFJ, even though I'm definitely an extrovert. Why?

Let's be clear, I love people. If I don't see people all day, I practically knock Nathan over in my excitement to see SOMETHING ALIIIIIVE. And I process everything aloud. If there is no one around to discuss my feelings with, I just talk to the air. And I write best when I'm in a busy coffee shop, surrounded by people.

On the other hand, if I hang out with someone for more than a couple of hours, my body starts wearing down from all of the lipreading, and if it's not someone I'm really close to, it can get stressful to go on interpreting body language for a long period of time. And going out in public for a long period of time exposes me to a lot of stimulation that is hard for my Aspie brain to process.

(For perspective on how big of an issue that stuff is: my audiologist has said repeatedly that he's never seen anyone function as well as I do with as little hearing as I have - and I have to sleep at least 10 hours a night to recharge from both the lipreading and the simulation stuff).

So that leaves me as a strong Extrovert who absolutely has to function like a strong Introvert to stay healthy and sane. Working from home is essential - but man, Facebook makes me soooo much happier.

I still find Myers Briggs to be tremendously helpful, because it does work for most people and understanding that someone is a P instead of a J is going to help reduce my stress when I know they're not going to arrive on time because P's just struggle with that. But because additional physical and mental factors can really affect the true personality, I rely more heavily on the four temperament system because it is applied rather differently and is easier to apply even with additional factors (for those who wonder, I immediately identified that Nathan was a Phlegmatic Melancholic, which proves more and more correct all the time. I am a Choleric Melancholic, but I am learning to be more and more balanced every year).