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Book Review: “Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures”

Yes, it’s true: scientists want to try and bring back the Woolly Mammoth, and they believe they can do so within the next few years.  Woolly, by Ben Mezrich, describes the effort involved in making that happen.  It’s another good piece of narrative nonfiction.  However, it does lean heavily on the “narrative” side.

Although the story hops back and forth between different people involved in the plans to bring back mammoths, Mezrich mostly focuses on geneticist George Church.  Church and his team have been analyzing the DNA from frozen mammoth carcasses to find the special traits that make it what it is, i.e. the long, shaggy red hair and the ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures without freezing.  Using isolated cells from Asian elephants, they experiment on splicing the DNA and inserting the genomes that would give an elephant these qualities.  Using an artificial womb to grow their creation, they would have a Mammoth-elephant hybrid that could survive in places such as Siberia.

And why should scientists toy with Mother Nature and resurrect a dead species?  According to Mezrich, the Woolly Mammoth used to play an important part in our ecosystem.  There’s a layer of permafrost that covers the Siberian plains of Russia, and if it melts due to global warming, it will release dangerous amounts of carbon gasses trapped underneath the earth’s surface.  Animals such as mammoths used to trample the earth and expose the permafrost to the extremely cold temperatures in Russia, thus preserving it.  So bringing them back could significantly help the environment.

Woolly is a very interesting read, but it also feels like a book published too soon.  Since nobody has been able to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth yet, the story remains incomplete.  A few chapters describe a team in South Korea that believe they found a mammoth carcass containing liquid blood, which would allow scientists to see a complete string of its DNA.  But we never find out if they really found a carcass with blood or not.  That part is left hanging.

Then there are chapters that take place in the hypothetical future.  They’re interesting to read, but since the conversations and meetings within them haven’t happened yet, there’s no guarantee that they will ever happen.  This damages the credibility of the book overall.

All that to say, I found the general topic fascinating, so I do recommend reading the book.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project, before or after reading the book, I recommend checking out the official website, Revive & Restore, or this National Geographic interview with Ben Mezrich.

Book Review: Dracula

Six years ago, I decided to give the classic horror novel Dracula a try, after hearing a couple of friends rave about it.  It has since become one of my all-time favorite books and I make a point of rereading it every October.

Many people know of Count Dracula, the vampire, but may not know the story behind Bram Stoker’s original work.  A solicitor named Jonathan Harker sets out on his first assignment after passing his exam: traveling to the ruined castle of Count Dracula to go over the purchase of his new estate in London.  The local villagers try very hard to persuade him not to go.  Since he’s not a superstitious person, he ignores them.  But as the Count forces him to extend his stay longer and longer, and Jonathan starts to pick up on weird things happening in the castle, he realizes that the locals were right and he needs to use all of his wits to escape.

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s fiancé, Mina, worries about the fact that she hasn’t heard from him in months.  Her best friend, Lucy, becomes mysteriously ill, as though she’s lost a lot of blood, even though there’s no sign of injury or anemia.  And so a group of characters, connected in various ways to Jonathan, Mina, and Lucy, come together to find the vampire and kill him before he can infect everyone in London.

Every time I read this book, I find new things to appreciate about it.  I love each of the characters, from the heroic, eccentric Professor Van Helsing to the brave, clever, compassionate Mina Harker.

Mina may be one of the most misunderstood characters in classic literature.  Whether in films, television, or the “authorized” sequel, it’s rare that she’s portrayed as she appeared in the book.  More often she’s either a crying damsel incapable of helping anyone, or she’s madly in love with Count Dracula and reluctant to help the heroes.

In the book, Dracula does target Mina, but not out of love.  He attacks her to punish her and the other heroes for trying to stop him.  After recovering from the traumatic encounter, Mina reacts by using her brain to outsmart him.  She’s shown to be one of the most intelligent characters in the story.  The men worry that she’ll fall apart because she’s a woman.  She is afraid- who wouldn’t be?  Yet she never lets it stop her or her friends.

As much as I love this book, I should warn you that if you’re looking for a page-turner, you’ll probably want to read something else.  Dracula isn’t a thriller with constant scares. However, it does have some disturbing moments.  The captain’s log from the ship that brought the Count to England reads like the plot of a horror movie on its own.  And Stoker draws out Lucy’s illness over several tense chapters, as she seems to recover each day with Van Helsing’s help, only to relapse after the Count comes to visit during the night.

It can be a slow read at times, but Dracula deserves to be known as a work of classic literature.  I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to read a book about a vampire that acts like a monster and not like a brooding love interest.  It’s perfect for a chilly fall evening!

Book Review: “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation”

Have you ever found yourself reading more and more books from a certain genre that you didn’t think you loved, and all of a sudden, you realize it’s your new favorite?  For years, I’ve told people that I read fantasy and science fiction over anything else.  But it’s time to face the music and lower my Ollivander wand.  My new favorite genre?  Narrative nonfiction.

It sounds ridiculous to go from Fantasy to Nonfiction, but it’s true.  That’s not because I’ve stopped loving everything related to magic spells, dragons, space battles, and aliens.  Rather, I’ve found that books about history can provide the same entertainment as books about magical worlds.  Both of them take me on adventures to places that I’ve never seen before with interesting people that I will never meet.

In the latest book that I finished, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, author Cokie Roberts describes the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States from the perspectives of the women related to the Founding Fathers.  These include Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, and Abigail Adams, as well as lesser-known women like Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah.

Each chapter covers a different span of years rather than a specific person.  Roberts bounces back and forth between the lives of the women who made contributions to history during the pre-war years, the beginning of the war, the end of the war, and so forth.  This can make the reading experience a little confusing because Roberts has so many stories to tell about each woman.  You might read about one family and then not hear about them again for a couple of chapters.  Luckily, the book has a “Who’s Who” guide at the end, which helps one keep track of everybody.

Founding Mothers has many entertaining stories to enjoy.  The mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of the Founding Fathers played a variety of roles for our country.  Some raised money for the troops, others wrote propaganda, a few enlisted in the army, and some acted as sounding boards for their husbands in Congress.   My favorite stories included the letters between Abigail and John Adams, and the life of Deborah Franklin, who had to endure her famous husband spending so much time in Europe that he wouldn’t even come home for his daughter’s wedding!  Alexander Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters also feature throughout the book, so Hamilton fans will have fun reading it.

That said, Cokie Roberts has a writing style that won’t work for everyone.  She tells each story in a conversational tone.  While presenting the facts, she occasionally adds her own commentary, such as:  “So much for the press and politicians!” (p. 36) and “Sounds like some elections I’ve covered.” (p. 260)  I didn’t mind, but if you’re the type of reader who would rather make your own interpretations, you may not enjoy constantly hearing the author’s opinions throughout this book.

Although Roberts’ style might not work for everyone, the content of the book makes it worth reading.  It’s a nice look at the women who helped make the United States a real, independent nation.

And the Oscar Goes To…

The 89th Annual Academy Awards will soon be upon us!  Although most of the nominees are currently unavailable, we do have some books and movies relevant to this year’s ceremony, which you may want to try reading or watching:

Captain Fantastic (DVD)

A man who has raised his six children alone in the wilderness is suddenly forced to introduce his family to the rest of society.  Viggo Mortensen received a nomination for Best Actor in this movie.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Book and DVD)

This movie is based on a true story about a famous New York opera singer…who couldn’t sing.  When she decides to hold a concert at Carnegie Hall, her husband has his work cut out for him to make the performance a huge success!  It’s been nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.  We have both the film and the biography about Florence Foster Jenkins.

Zootopia (DVD)

This year, Disney has two animated movies that were nominated for Best Animated Feature.  Unfortunately, Moana won’t be out on DVD until March.  But Zootopia is here and I recommend watching it.  It’s about a bunny named Judy who struggles to become a police officer, despite the world telling her that it’s only a job for large, tough animals.  In the process, she meets a con-artist fox named Nick, and the two of them must solve a kidnapping/conspiracy mystery in their city.  It’s a fun movie and the anti-prejudice message is very well-done.

Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism (Book)

At a young age, Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism and appeared to have lost the ability to speak.  But then his family realized that he had found a new way to learn language and connect with people: through Disney movies such as The Little Mermaid.  This incredible story was turned into a documentary that has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature.  Although the film hasn’t been released yet, we have a copy of the book that’s worth checking out.

O.J. Made in America (DVD)

Another nominee for Best Documentary Feature is the story of O.J. Simpson’s career and infamous trial for murder.  It’s actually an eight-hour, five-part series, but it should be fascinating to anyone who remembers following the story as it happened.  As someone who grew up in the ’90’s, I remember hearing about the trial through family and pop culture. But I was too young to understand it at the time, so it’s interesting to learn more in retrospect.  I also recommend the TV series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which is also available now on DVD.

Also, be sure to put your name on the waiting list for other movies coming soon to the West Chester Public Library, including Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Fences, and Moana!

Book Review: “The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold”

Like many boys and girls of a certain age, Harold has a problem: he’s not sure if he believes in Santa Claus anymore.  Little does he know that Santa has a similar problem.  His friends have convinced him that Harold isn’t real.

Mrs. Claus tries to convince Santa to keep believing in Harold, but Santa’s got evidence.  Harold’s handwriting looks too neat, like something his mother wrote.  He couldn’t put out milk and cookies because he’s not strong enough to lift a heavy milk carton.  Santa worries that Harold’s parents are tricking him.

So, while Harold decides to hide in his living room to see if he can spot Santa, Santa decides to hide in Harold’s living room to see if he can spot Harold.

As you can imagine, The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold, by Maureen Fergus, is hilarious.  Cale Atkinson’s adorable illustrations make it even funnier, particularly Santa’s grumpy, pouting expressions as he insists that there is no such thing as Harold.  Although some kids might feel bothered by the idea of Santa not believing in them, others will get a kick out of the sight of Santa hiding behind Harold’s couch and the silly reasons he gives for not believing.  I certainly did!

What I Read This Summer

Summer’s supposed to be a great time to kick back and read a book.  I brought seven books with me when I went to the beach for a week, but only managed to finish two.  So I might’ve overestimated my ability to read fast…just a little bit.

That said, I did manage to read a lot of books over the course of the summer.  Most were very good; some, not so much.  If you’re looking for any recommendations on what to read next, here are some of my thoughts on a few of the titles that I read:

The Heroes of Olympus, by Rick Riordan

I loved the Percy Jackson books, but my life became busy with work and graduate school when Rick Riordan started the follow-up series, Heroes of Olympus.  This summer, I finally put aside everything else on my reading list and devoted time to finishing all five books.  To be completely honest, I prefer the first-person narration of Percy.  But there’s plenty to love about the sequels: a good story with fun, modern interpretations on Greek mythology, and a wonderful, multicultural group of heroes.  Riordan’s books are perfect for kids and teens and they’re a nice introduction into different ancient mythologies.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron

This is a true story about a library in Iowa that adopted a kitten after they found him abandoned in their book drop on a freezing morning in January.  He had a special relationship with every person he met and became so loved that families from halfway across the country would come out to meet him!  The book has many sweet, funny stories about his antics, while Myron also writes about her life before Dewey and how he changed it.  It’s a perfect book for cat lovers!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and John Tiffany (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Yes, it’s a script, so it doesn’t read like a Harry Potter book should.  Yes, those plot twists you heard about on the Internet really happened.  Yes, Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, is the greatest addition to the Harry Potter universe since the theme park opened.

My biggest problem with the story was the lack of other characters from Hogwarts: The Next Generation.  We get to follow the lives of Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius, but barely see any of Albus’ brother and sister, Teddy Lupin, or Rose Granger-Weasley.  Otherwise…yes, the plot’s silly, but I was so happy to be back in Harry’s world that I didn’t mind that much.  It didn’t destroy my childhood and I don’t regret reading it.

Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, by Chelsea Cain

According to this satire, Nancy Drew was a real person whose life story was stolen by a bitter roommate named Carolyn Keene.  As she reaches the end of her life, she decides to tell the world what her adventures were really like.  I loved reading the Nancy Drew series while growing up and still play some of the computer adventure games.  Chelsea Cain does an excellent job of recreating the writing style and illustrations from the original series.  Some parts are pretty funny, i.e. Encyclopedia Brown demanding that the people around them guess how he figured something out every time he solves a mystery.  But I guess it just wasn’t for me because I didn’t laugh very much throughout.

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by Matthew Inman

I chose to read this book because I enjoy some of the comics from The Oatmeal and I recently started running myself.  Although I couldn’t relate to all of Inman’s experiences, I loved reading about them.  It’s very funny and even has some interesting side facts about how our bodies work and why we should run like crazy if we ever see a Japanese hornet.  Those who like to run and train for marathons will probably love it!

What did you read this summer?  We at the West Chester Public Library would love to hear about it!

The danger of referring to Harley Quinn as nothing more then a “cautionary tale”

Trigger Warning: abuse (physical and mental), and mentions of rape.

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With the Suicide Squad movie coming out, there has been a lot of talk about Harley Quinn. To be honest, a lot of it hasn’t been positive. There has been a lot of criticism about everything from her costume to her relationship with the Joker. Now, her relationship with the Joker should be criticized. It should be shown as what it is: an abusive, manipulative and unhealthy relationship. The problem that I have with a lot of articles that I have been reading is the victim blaming. It happens a lot in our society. Instead of addressing the fact that abusers should not abuse the people who survive the abuse are used as a “cautionary tale.”

First, though, a little background on Harley should be given for those of you, my gentle readers, who may not know much about her. She first appeared on Batman: the Animated Series in 1992 as the Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend. Well, at least, she was in love with him. He beat her, verbally abused her and tore her down at almost every turn. Of course, like all good abusers, he gives her just enough attempts at affection every now and then to keep her around, but more on the Joker later.

Harley, we find out in an episode and a comic called Mad Love, was actually Doctor Harleen Quinzel. She was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. She takes the Joker on as a patient to gain accreditation and fame. Unfortunately for Doctor Quinzel, the Joker seems to be the one who is better at psychology. She falls in love with him and becomes Harley Quinn, a play on her name that the Joker gives her.

So, how does a doctor become the cautionary tale that everyone is warning you about? Why did fans latch on to her if she is something that should be so loathed and avoided? I will answer the second question first: because she is not something to be loathed. Harley started off as a character in an animated series to add laughs. Harley has since gotten her own comics and has been heavily featured in other characters’ comics. Harley cartwheels and jokes her way into our hearts. She is smart and also surprisingly kind at times, for a villain. In short, Harley is complex. She is a human being with layers and flaws.

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That was an arc in the comics where Black Canary, a hero and often member of the Justice League, is fighting Harley when Harley realizes Black Canary is pregnant. Harley not only stops the fight then and there, but she also sits down with Black Canary to have a heart to heart. Later, when the baby is born, Harley comes in with ton of gifts for the baby. Gifts. For the baby of a women she had been battling with just months prior. In a different comic, a little girl stops Harley and Poison Ivy to tell them that a man is trying to hurt her. Instead of leaving the little girl, Harley defends her. She also loves animals and is upset when they are abused.

I think sometimes people forget all the abuse Harley has gone through at the hands of the Joker. I think sometimes they forget how sadistic he really is. The Joker, as well as Batman, were tamed down after the 1950s due to the Comics Code for a time and it has been hard for people to forget those versions of the characters. The Joker, though, has always been one of Batman’s most dangerous villains. His mind games are truly terrifying. I mean, if you really want to see how smart and insane he is, flip through The Killing Joke. He is also charismatic and, at times, funny. This makes the Joker even more dangerous, as he knows the best ways to break people down.

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That is not a loving relationship. It should not be painted as one. That being said, there are two people in this “relationship,” which brings us back to the question of why is Harley the cautionary tale while we hear so little criticism of the Joker? The honest answer is because she is a woman. As a historian, I can tell you, that with very few exceptions, cautionary tales are meant to scare little girls into behaving a certain way. We also live in a society where people would rather blame the survivor then look into the real problem of why people are committing the abuse.

If this were different, I would be reading articles of outrage about the Joker merchandise at Hot Topic and how people don’t want their children to have an abusive, rapist’s face on their t-shirts; that they don’t want Joker logos on the girls bows. That is not what I am seeing, though. All of the hate is directed at Harley. She is a “slut.” She is “stupid.” We can’t let anyone like her because then they would be “stupid sluts” as well. All this does is continue to allow abuse to happen. Instead of telling little girls not to be like Harley Quinn and fall for the Joker maybe we should focus more on tell our children not to be the Joker. Maybe then our society wouldn’t have to have so many cautionary tales.

In the comics right now, Harley is the one in a loving relationship with Poison Ivy. Actually, in two different comics that are currently in print she is with Ivy. Yes, she’s broken the cycle for now. Harley is the one moving on. Harley is the one growing and being loved.

That is the story you should tell your kids if you are worried about them seeing Harley Quinn. Let them know you can come back from a big mistake. Let them know that you can find love and friendship again. That you can save yourself and others.
Harley Quinn is not just a “cautionary tale.” She is a survivor.

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A Head Full of Ghosts Book Review

a head full of ghosts
Have you ever finished a book, sat back, re-read the last bit and then just made a vague “huh” sound? It seems to be the only thing to do when unsure of how to feel about the end of a book. That is what I had to do at the end of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay this morning. I also made a very strong cup of tea, which has not yet helped me to unlock my feelings about the end of the book.

A Head Full of Ghosts came to me very highly recommended. It is on multiple “must read!” lists. It has been lauded as both scary and well written on said lists. A good friend of mine kept me updated on her progress through the book. She had nothing but great things to say about it. I worry that I went into reading A Head Full of Ghosts with the wrong expectations due to too much hype. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t exactly what I read.

I am, in short, conflicted about my opinion after finishing the book. I expected it to be scarier. No, that isn’t correct per say. I expected A Head Full of Ghosts to be more stereotypical. I wanted to be throwing the book away at jump scares. I wanted to be unable to sleep at night as I relived moments from its prose in my darkened room. That SHOULD have happened, given the subject matter and from what I read of reviews.

Now, I am not saying it was a bad book. In fact, the more I allow my brain time to process, the more I decide I really liked A Head Full of Ghosts. Just not for the reasons that others have implied I would enjoy it.

A House Full of Ghosts centers around the events that happened to Merry years ago, when her father decided to allow a camera crew to film their lives as an exorcism is performed on her fourteen-year-old sister, who may or may not actually be a person living with Schizophrenia. It is now fifteen years later and Merry is telling her side. The story is almost a framed story in the sense that we know that Merry makes it out of the whole thing mostly unscathed because she is the main front of information for us. There are however stories within stories. Things that have been referenced in passing first and then are told in detail, weaving a confusing narrative in which the reader becomes trapped. The book starts with Merry beginning to be interviewed by an author who wants to write a book about her experiences. Merry warns us time and again, though, that she is not the most reliable of sources since she was only eight.

I started the book thinking I understood this written journey. Merry is alive. Merry witnessed her sister either become possessed or have a psychotic break. Merry was going to led me through these interviews, because she is grown up now and has no reason to lie, so I can totally trust what she says. I have been conditioned to do that by years of watching and reading horror and this story would result in nothing different.  I will go through reading a scary story about a scary topic. I will cringe through written jump scares. I will make it through the exorcism proper, which will be the climax of the book. There will be resolution that will end with one last scare. The golden rules of horror will be followed. Through it all, Merry will guide me. Always trust the Final Girl*. They will keep you safe. The book also gives us information about the show, the family and the exorcism through a popular horror blog and articles that break up the interviews.

To be honest, these blog entries are some of my favorite parts. First of all, the blog is titled; “The Last Final Girl.” YES. Tremblay gives the reader a horror blog written by a real horror fan. Karen, the name of the blog writer, lives up to what I wanted from her. She shares her love of gothic horror and uses it to help break down the “episodes” of the events that Merry is telling us her version of. She goes through years of horror and exorcism movies to break down the production side of the story. She calls out the tropes, the patriarchy and tools used for exorcism horror. I loved reading her snark;  I could have done with fewer of her comments in parentheses, but that point is moot.

The book was a slow burn for me. Actually, to be completely honest, I was never really scared by the book itself. Unease was probably what I felt the most. Again, I chalk this up to having preconceived notions of what kind of horror I was going to read. I was made nervous. I did have trouble sleeping, but that was mostly because the subject of exorcisms is a scary one for me. I have been made full of pop culture, religious fear and expectations. In retrospect, that was actually a very interesting way to read about an event that was also full of all of the above…or was it? I won’t tell you. I want you to guess the whole time. I want you to be sitting on the edge of your seat wondering which layer is truth or perception. The story goes so much farther than you think. So much deeper than whether or not a fourteen year old girl is possessed. Focus on the danger, because there is real danger in this book.

So yes, I am recommending it. I can tell you that while reading it as a horror nut I felt under satisfied by the lack on my expectations. As a writer and reader, I can tell you that now I am surprised at how well that feeling goes with the book’s theme.

Don’t go in because of the hype, especially from other horror writers. Don’t expect to be scared or not to be scared. I don’t know how you will react to this story. Just read it. Sit back. Re-read the last bit and say, “huh.”

Postscript: It is the day after I wrote this. I did not sleep last night. The last bit of the book did give me a nightmare. I give in. A Head Full of Ghosts is scary.

*A “Final Girl” is the usually female character who makes it to the end of the horror movie or book and is usually the one telling the story.

Cross posted to 9th Circle of Horror

The Darkest Part of the Forest Book Review

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black is one of my favorite books from 2015. It can be a hard sell when an excited reader first tries to describe the general plot of the book and Holly Black’s writing style. That conversation goes a little something like this:

“It’s a young adult book about a small town that is a tourist trap and weird attacks and murders start to happen!”

“Oh, really? Well that sounds like a pretty cool book.”

“Yah! And there are Faeries!”

“Faeries… Oh.”

Then you watch as their interest dies, even as you try to backpedal and explain how dark and complex the plot really is. Visions of Tinkerbell dance in their head, and alas, it‘s too late.

So what I want you to do is stop! Right now! Stop thinking about Tinkerbell and come back. Just stay with me a little while longer, because the faeries in The Darkest Part of the Forest are based off Celtic folklore. Trust me when I tell you that those faeries are definitely not Tinkerbell.

The book starts off with a boy asleep in a glass coffin who has been asleep for years. He is oddly beautiful, with horns and ears pointed like knives. Nothing has been able to disturb his slumber, which has been going on for longer than anyone can remember; long enough for the town to become a tourist trap because of him. When the boy suddenly wakes up, the two main characters, siblings Hazel and Ben, are then caught up in the events that surround him.

People start to disappear and die. It is obviously the Faeries doing. The people of the town have lived with the Faeries long enough not to be too concerned; however the secrets that Hazel and Ben hide are starting to catch up with them and every chapter brings more danger and twists.

The Faeries are powerful, mischievous, twisted, and dangerous. One of the main characters is gay and fantastically written. Hazel and Ben’s relationship with their parents is complex and a little bit disturbing at times. The characters are so real and flawed it hurts. You just want to wrap these kids up in blanket and tell them that they don’t have to fight the evil alone. But, of course, they do; and the reader is lucky enough to watch their train wreck of a hero’s quest.

The settings are rich and lend so much to the story. The Forest goes from being a place of fun and fantasy to something darker. The town goes from a safe haven to claustrophobic as the plot goes on. Even the school falls under attack.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a great example of the mundane and the magical weaving together without flaw. It is complex and satisfying. I would very much encourage anyone to read it!

On Fangirling and Carrying On

…Or Fandom, Nostalgia and Coming Out as a Fanfiction Writer

A lot can come to mind when the word “fangirl” is used. You may see images of rabid teenage girls; nerdy girls gushing on YouTube; or perhaps even a book that was written by Rainbow Rowell in 2013. None of these give you a clear definition of what exactly a fangirl is, though, or why it is often said with a sneer. Well, let’s go to Dictonary.com for an actual definition:

“Fangirl [fan-gurl]

Noun, Informal: Often Disparaging.

  1. An obsessive female fan, especially of something technological or from popular culture”

Wait… “often disparaging?” Well, ouch. No wonder I so often feel shame about admitting to being a fangirl. If I was not a fangirl, however, I never would have met some of my best friends. Without fanfiction and fandoms, my life would be very different.

I have been conditioned to feel shame for not only reading but also writing fanfiction. Yes, it is true. I, who am so totally cool, have written fanfiction. Not only have I written fanfiction, but I was also in an elite group of girls who wrote together. Before I go any further, though, I should probably explain what fanfiction is and why I would be hesitant to talk about it.

Fanfiction, or fanfic, is a fictional account written by a fan of a popular television show, book, movie or video game. Usually, it is used to explore themes that the original medium is not exploring. When I first started writing with my friends, it was back in the early 2000s, so we mostly wrote about what would happen if characters fashioned after us were placed in our favorite stories. Ah yes, back when original characters (OCs) were still considered novel and even encouraged.

Now, people groan at OCs, since so many of them have been written as “perfect” and/or overly magical versions of the writer. For example, my character in our Harry Potter fanfic was the daughter of Sirius Black, an American exchange student, with purple hair, who wore combat boots with her robes and ended up marrying Draco Malfoy. It didn’t seem so hard to imagine different endings for Harry Potter back then, since we were living in a magical time before the final book was published. The world was our oyster and the only thing that stood in our way was our imagination.

Our story starts, like all good adventures should, in a library. I had just begun volunteering in my high school library when a girl with curly red hair came in yelling to our librarian. I tried to hide behind a Scholastic Harry Potter display because I was new and shy (also, she was kind of intimidating, and would probably want it to be noted that she still is). I was spotted and it was discovered that I liked Harry Potter and we became friends. I hung out with her a little bit before she broached the idea of me writing with her and her friend. I looked them up online and read everything they had written. I was was more than a little nervous about the prospect of writing with two such talented people. At our first meeting, another author, who happened to be the main editor, looked me up and down like she was going to eat me for breakfast.

We added two other people to our group during the next school year. We shared a love of Harry Potter, anime, music and Anne Rice. The confidence and security I got from not only writing but also from just being with these girls was astounding. By the time I graduated, our group had grown and we had become a family. They are the first people I go to when I have a problem. They are the ones that I share the most jokes with. I am certain I would not be who I am without them. I didn’t fit in; not in the greater school or in my family at the time. I cannot discuss fandom without thinking of them. That is why I am always baffled by the flippant way that some people discuss fandom and “fangirls.” Fangirls are my family. Fangirls have saved my life.

I have been thinking about how true that last sentence is since I picked up Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell a few years ago. That book brought back so many memories; memories of my high school days, but mostly memories of college. I was a lot like Cath; so much so that I had to put the book down multiple times. At one point, a friend of mine found me with my head down, arms over it and the book slewn nearby. It was almost too much to be thrown back to that place during my Freshman year when I could hardly navigate my way through the dark and choppy waters of new adulthood.

Thankfully, I met other fangirls. I made friends with people who loved musicals and fantasy; girls who marathoned Lord of the Rings; girls who had long discussions about the values of different Hogwarts houses and where we belonged; girls who wanted to be Jedi or Superheroes; girls who loved horror movies and zombies as much as I did; and girls who loved talking history and politics.

These girls were there when I was given news that changed a lot for me. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety during my first semester. I was scared, mostly, because of the concerns of the councilor. She was very worried by the results of my test and, in a flurry, scheduled me to talk to someone. She even cleared some time to talk to me right then and there because she was that worried about me.

I had always known there was something. I wasn’t a happy kid, but I was good at faking it. Now, I couldn’t. Now, there was a real diagnosis and a very concerned professional staring at me. My friends banded around me instantly. No one said I was faking it or just told me to get over it. The fangirls became shields, shoulders to cry on and distractions, depending on what I needed. I would not have made it through this time without them. Therapy was difficult. Collage was even more so. If not for the support of fangirls and fandoms, I would not be typing this article.

I have met new fangirls since then. Some are coworkers, who have become friends and people with whom I can gush about books. Some are gamers, who have helped me evolve into a person I could never have imagined. I met two of them at a New Year’s Eve party. I walked in with a college friend to find an intimidating redhead and her good friend (who was her main editor) while I tried to find a corner to hide in. Sound familiar? Yes, I laugh about it a lot. I wasn’t even there for a half an hour before we got into a conversation about fandoms and they had decided I was their friend. Later, they invited me to take a role in their group about women gamers, which has led to so much growth.

I have a lot of fangirls who are my friends. I am lucky enough to be in a lot of fandoms. I was there when people thought that Draco Malfoy was going to be a Vampire or that Ron Weasley was the Seer*. Fangirl and Carry On, also by Rowell, had me in tears recently because of these fandoms; the memories of these fandoms; the magic of fanfiction; and how friendship and love really are more powerful than anything.  They helped me through school, they help me with depression, they helped me when my mother lost her battle with a whole slew of painful things I have gone through. I have shining memories of creating worlds and communities, some of which have been left unfinished (so sorry, Gundam Wing fanfic).

In short: fanfiction and fandoms made me a fangirl. Being a fangirl gave me ideas and worlds that I never would have had before. Being a fangirl gave me friends that I have needed in order to continue on my own adventure. Without fandom, I would never have made it to this point. Without these shiny magical things, I would never have been able to carry on.

This article is cross published with Real Women of Gaming

*Ps Ron totally should have been the Seer but that could be a whole other article.