The Graceling Realm Books: A Review

Over the last few days I’ve spent some time with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm novels. I had previously read both Graceling and Fire but never managed to get to the third book, Bitterblue. I reread the first two novels and finally plowed through the third. Now, I can finally blog about them.

First up, Graceling.

graceling

Katsa lives in the seven kingdoms, a niece to the king of the Middluns, and she is a Graceling. Gracelings are known by their eyes – which are two different colors. Every Graceling has a Grace – an ability that transcends both training and talent. Katsa’s Grace is killing and she works as the king’s bully. Graceling is the story of how Katsa frees herself from the chains of the king’s employment, learns the true nature of her Grace, and – along the way – falls in love.

This book is amazing. I devoured it the first time. I devoured it the second time. You want a book with a strong female character? THIS IS ONE. These books are technically YA but they don’t shy away from sex in the same way that most YA does. Yes, there is a love story here but Katsa is not a character who simply stops being a strong person because she falls in love. Instead, SHE decides what it means for her to love someone, what form that relationship should take, and how she wants to live her life.

This is a theme that runs throughout Cashore’s books. Women are strong. Women are capable. Women can CHOOSE how they want to live and who they want to love and what they do with their lives. This is true not just of her main characters but many of her ancillary characters as well.

What I find most gratifying about it is that Cashore doesn’t bash these themes at you with a jackhammer. They’re a simple fact of the world she built. It just is. The main characters may be slightly different than the average bear but they are not thought strange or unwomanly or off their rockers for being who they are. She doesn’t chose the trope of “women are like this, but my character is different.

The next book is Fire.

Fire_cover

Fire lives in The Dells. She is what’s known as a monster. She is marked as one by her hair, her beauty, and her powers of thought manipulation. She is the last living human monster and her life is dangerous and difficult. Fire is the story of how Fire finds a place for herself in a world that largely despises her. It is also the origin story for a character in Graceling.

Again, Fire is her own person, choosing to live her life in whatever way she sees fit, no matter the number of men who tell her not to. As the story moves, she learns how she believes her powers should be used and she takes action to use them in justifiable ways. The same themes that permeate Graceling are the underpinning of Fire but with a new cast of characters and a very different story.

I also devoured Fire both times that I read it. It may be my favorite book of the three.

Last, Bitterblue

bitterblue

Bitterblue is the Queen of Monsea, one of the seven kingdoms. She is the daughter of the psychopathic King Leck and her kingdom is still recovering from the ravages of 35 years of King Leck’s rule. Bitterblue is young and sheltered, not truly allowed to see what her kingdom holds, so she begins to sneak out of her castle at night to learn about her people and the history of her father’s reign. Bitterblue is this story; it is the story of how Leck warped a nation and how Bitterblue must fix it.

I liked this book. I did. But it is the weakest of the three. A friend of mine on twitter called this book, “A slow burn with payoff.” She was right. It is a slow burn. And there is payoff. But it was almost hard to get through. The plot didn’t really start picking up until the last third of the book – which was very different from Graceling and Fire.  Cashore could have easily dispensed with 200 pages of text and lost nothing of the plot.

Having only read Bitterblue once, it may improve upon rereading, as many of the threads that took forever to come together may be easier to take when one knows what’s coming. In that sense, Cashore does a good job of conveying Bitterblue’s own confusion – because the reader is pretty confused as well, for long stretches of the book.

This book is also the darkest of the three. There is torture, rape, murder, and suicide in Bitterblue. It is the least YA of the three. I don’t know that I would necessarily keep my kid from reading the book but I’d want them to be a bit older before they do.

While I have my problems with the pacing of the book, the story is good and the themes that ran through the first two novels are also present here. It was a satisfying way to tie all the books together. They are not a trilogy in the traditional sense but they are companions to one another, each building on the last. As much as Bitterblue took a good while to get moving, it is still a necessary piece of the whole. I don’t think the series would be complete without it.

If you’re looking for good YA fiction, something with strong characters, strong women, and good stories, check these out. Both Graceling and Fire can stand alone – they are full and complete stories in and of themselves. Bitterblue is much less so. Without reading the first two, Bitterblue would make no sense at all. So, if you’re hesitant about having a younger reader try these books, it’s possible to hold off on Bitterblue without leaving the story hanging off a precipice.

Advertisements

Listen To Your Mother: Mattie’s House of Wangs

Back when I set my goals for 2016, I said that the easiest goal for me to meet would be auditioning for Listen To Your Mother. And audition I did, on January 24th. It went really well, I thought. The ladies who run the Pittsburgh show liked my piece and laughed in all the right places.

Having met my goal, I was satisfied; getting cast would be a bonus. I had to wait a few weeks to find out if I would be cast in this year’s show. It turns how that I did not get cast – and that’s okay! They can only choose so many essays and I know they had a lot of people audition. It’s possible that my essay just wasn’t the right tone for what they were looking for or was too similar to something else they wanted to put in the show.

Whatever their reasons, it’s okay with me. I will still be at this year’s show to hear all the stories they do cast – and probably laugh and cry and laugh-cry.

So, without further ado, here is the piece that I wrote for my audition. I give you, Mattie’s House of Wangs.

————————————————–

I was born the second of two daughters.  This line of daughters in my family goes back generations. My great-grandmother, Nana, had a daughter, my Mormor. My Mormor had two daughters, my Mom and my Aunt. My Aunt has two daughters. My mother has two daughters. My sister has two daughters.

And then there is me: the mother of two sons. Always bucking trends – that’s me.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I imagined – no, I assumed – that I was having a girl. After all, that’s just what the women in my family did; we carried on the Matriarchy. It came as something of a shock when I learned at my ultrasound that I was gestating a boy.

I was growing a penis inside me. How weird was that?

But when that boy, my son Liam, was finally born, I knew it was perfect. It was just how it was supposed to be. My son.

We waited four years before expanding our family. In those years I had plenty of people tell me “Oh, a girl comes next!”

But I knew better. I knew what was coming.

So when I was pregnant with my second child, it was merely confirmation when the ultrasound tech told me I was growing a second penis.

Two boys. Brothers. “What could be better?” I thought.

There were some who assumed I would be upset or somehow unfulfilled to raise another boy. While in the hospital after delivering Jamie, my second son, I had a nurse on the maternity ward say in a very perky fashion, “Next time, you’ll try for a girl!”

People. I still had stitches in my lady business.  The very last thing I wanted  was to have my husband “try” for a girl.

And I knew we wouldn’t. Two was always what we planned and always what we wanted. Two was it. We were done. We made sure of that. *snip snip*

I was a stay at home mother for a decade. It was the right choice for our family and I’m grateful I was able to do it. But it can be an isolating experience when the only conversation you get for most of the day is in regards to which mouseketool Toodles should hand over to Mickey. Social media was my sanity’s savior and Twitter my chosen platform – where I go by the handle @mattieflap – a short form of the nonsense name Matilda Flapweezer.

In my decade at home, I found that raising boys is so, so different from raising girls. And while I know I would have loved any potential daughters I had and raised them to be strong, smart, independent women – just like their ancestors – there is something special about being a mother to sons.

Sometimes, though, sometimes I realize that I live in a house surrounded by wangs, the lone vagina in a sea of penises. And when I have those realizations I inevitably take to Twitter and use my favorite hashtag:

Mattie’s House of Wangs.

“Jamie just proclaimed his penis to be a pee gun,” I tweeted. “Welcome to Mattie’s House of Wangs.” And so the hashtag was born.

On another day I tweeted: “Thing I just said: Jamie did you just put your penis in your brother’s face?”

“Woke up from a nap. Greeted by toy fart gun.”

#mattieshouseofwangs

Overheard from the next room: “Jamie, I’d appreciate it if you kept your penis off my knee.”

“Liam got a stuffed dachsund the other day, complete with puppy. He named them both ‘wiener’ because they are wiener dogs. This has led to sentences like the following escaping my mouth: ‘So, did you play with Wieners at school today?’”

During the potty training phase, when Jamie was without pants most of the time, I once tweeted “Thing I just had to tell my son: We do not sit on Mommy’s lap and play with our penis. We just don’t.”

“Me: Jamie, start putting your clothes on. Jamie: start putting my penis on! *plays with junk*’”

On another day, “Jamie caught his penis in his zipper. He wants me to kiss it and make it better.”

Perhaps my crowning achievement to date was the day I tweeted “Because of Jamie’s speech problems, trying to get him to pronounce the ‘c’s’ in ‘chocolate’ means I’m basically teaching my kid to say ‘clit.’”

I wouldn’t trade my boys for anything, if only because of the hilarity they bring to my life. I was meant to be a boy mama. Maybe it’s really because I come from that long line of matriarchs; my job is to raise my boys to respect and honor women – or else.

When I tuck Liam in at night, I tell him “I love you” and he responds “I love you more” and I say “Just not possible, kiddo.”  It happens almost every night. When I’m hanging out at home with Jamie, he will inevitably run into the room I’m in just to claim a hug and a kiss. It is at these moments that I know that Mattie’s House of Wangs is my favorite place to be.

Dear Sarah Koenig

Disclaimer: If you haven’t listened to the first season of Serial, this is going to make no sense to you. If you have, read on.

Like millions of others around the world, I was fascinated with the case of Adnan Syed presented via the podcast Serial. I found Sarah Koenig’s investigation compelling and Adnan’s story even more so. When Serial ended, I was in the “innocent” camp and felt that, even if you thought Adnan was guilty, it was clear he did not receive a fair trial.

So, this week, Adnan has been in court for a Post Conviction Relief hearing. He’s been presenting witnesses that cover two topics: 1) Ineffective assistance of counsel, as evidenced by the failure of his lawyer to contact an alibi witness; and 2) the fact that cell data used to place Syed at the crime was interpreted incorrectly. The aim is to have his previous conviction vacated and be given a new trial.

Sarah has been attending this hearing and then releasing short updates of the podcast after each day’s testimony. And I have to say…

Sarah Koenig is a terrible reporter.

In the year since Serial debuted, there have been huge developments in the case. The Undisclosed podcast spent hours on the nitty-gritty of the case, uncovering misconduct from the cops to the prosecutor. I don’t know if Sarah has her nose out of joint that someone picked up the story where she left off, but it’s clear she hasn’t listened to that information or done even cursory research into what the actual issues are at this hearing. So, she’s been putting out these updates and focusing on tiny bullshit things that don’t matter right now and then being all “I don’t know, man! This could be bad for Adnan!”

Every other story on the case is covering the fact that the defense is destroying the state’s case, one witness at a time.

Asia McClain

Asia saw Adnan at the time the State claims the murder was committed. She said this 17 years ago. She says this today. Her story hasn’t changed. The defense attempted to have her testify at the original PCR hearing and the prosecutor persuaded her not to. Not so, this time.

But what does Sarah focus on? She focuses on the fact that Asia says it snowed on 1/13/99 and that cancelled school for the next two days thus fixing in Asia’s memory which day it was that she saw Adnan. But the weather records say it was an ICE storm that blew in that night, not snow. So maybe Asia is lying?

This is what Sarah gets stuck on. Really? What a fucking nitwit. Whether there was snow or ice that day has no bearing on the issue at hand which is whether Cristina Gutierrez ever contacted Asia regarding this alibi. Gutierrez didn’t. She categorically did not. No one, not even the State, disputes that. What the State is arguing is that it was a strategic decision on Gutierrez’s part to exclude Asia. Except that strategy can’t be formed without facts and you can’t make those decisions without talking to witnesses – and Gutierrez never talked to Asia.

That’s the whole ballgame, right there. Other defendants in other cases have been granted new trials on that basis alone.

But Sarah is hung up on the word snow?

Asia was 17 years old in 1999. She is not going to give a shit if it was ice or snow. What she’s going to give a shit about is the fact that school was cancelled for two days due to bad weather. On this point, she has never wavered. School was indeed closed on 1/14/99 and 1/15/99 because of bad weather. So Asia has her memory on straight. And quibbling about the weather conditions can happen at a new trial, the PCR hearing is for establishing the fact that Gutierrez never spoke to Asia.

The good news is that, according to all reports, Asia did well on the stand. The defense put on several other witnesses that supported Asia’s testimony and all attempts by the State to impeach Asia’s testimony fell completely flat.

The Cell Phone Evidence

This part is dry and so, so boring. In short, two calls supposedly place Adnan at the burial site when Jay Wilds claims they were burying the body. This is based on which cell towers were “pinged” when the calls came in.

There’s a problem though. All of the cell records came with a fax cover sheet that stated clearly that incoming calls were unreliable for location data. Only OUTGOING calls could be use to place someone in a general area. The two calls in question here were INCOMING calls and thus, according to AT&T in 1999, unreliable indicators of phone location.

Except that’s not how the state expert testified at trial. Because the State HID this information from the expert before he did his analysis of the cell data. When made aware of this cover sheet, the cell expert wrote an affidavit RECANTING key parts of his trial testimony.

Now, first of all, Sarah Koenig COMPLETELY MISSED this piece of key information whilst doing her so-called in-depth investigation of the case. She has always found those two calls pretty damning for Adnan. And when this started to come to light – months and months ago – she said NOTHING. It was like she was embarrassed for missing such an important piece of the puzzle. (As she should be.) So now, she really doesn’t want to admit that she was wrong.

The defense put on a witness that basically laid all of this out, laid out how the records SHOULD have been interpreted, and why. After that expert’s testimony, Sarah’s update was still very clearly “I don’t know, man. The State has something up its sleeve.”

So the State brings on its expert on this – a guy in the FBI. And he says the opposite of the defense expert. Says, nope, you’re supposed to interpret the data this way, not that way. The original expert at trial was right. It all worked out okay in the end, no harm, no foul with the cover sheet.

And Sarah buys it, hook, line, and sinker. Swallows it like a goddamn guppy. Sends out her podcast update that basically says, “Yep, State expert says the records are accurate.”

Drop mic.

Except totally not. Because the defense began their cross examination of this witness on Friday and made mincemeat of the guy. Without getting too technical, the defense lawyer basically said, “Ok, if we interpret the records the way you say we should, look at these two calls on 1/16/99. One pings in Baltimore. The other in Washington, DC. The calls are 27 min apart. So, if the data is accurate for location, did the defendant have a helicopter in order to get between those two places in 27 minutes?”

And here’s the thing – back in ’99 cell phones didn’t have GPS in them. So, in order to locate someone geographically on a cell phone you had to triangulate them. That is NOT was cell data records do. All they do is show what tower was pinged where for a particular call. And what THAT does is say “Okay, that person is on the East Coast, not Hawaii.” It doesn’t give you any real specificity on location because calls can switch between towers based on 100 different factors.

And that’s for outgoing call only. For incoming calls, sometimes the tower pinged as listed on the cell data is the tower the CALLER’S phone used, not the receiver. And so, Adnan receiving two calls that pinged off the Leakin Park tower is a giant load of BIG WHOOP because that could have been the caller’s phone. It doesn’t prove anything. (There is a lot of other evidence that makes it clear that Hae Min Lee was not buried in the 7:00 pm hour, which also makes these calls immaterial. But that’s evidence for a new trial.)

The defense didn’t get to finish its cross of the State’s expert because they ran out of time on Friday and the hearing will continue into next week. And Sarah, poor lamb, can’t be there. AND THANK GOD FOR THAT. Because she’s done a terrible job of representing what’s really happening in the courtroom.

What’s really happening is essentially a mini-trial. The judge is giving the prosecutor a shit-ton of leeway in his cross-examination questions – far more than is typical – and the defense is taking apart the State’s argument brick by brick. I am hoping that when the hearing is concluded and the judge makes his ruling (the ruling could take weeks to appear), Adnan will get a new trial. And at that time, I’m hoping the State realizes they don’t have any evidence with which to actually convict again.

You would never know it if you listened to Sarah Koenig.

So, Sarah? Stick to your dry, factual, boring exploration of Bowe Bergdahl and stay out of this case. It is fucking bullshit that you would podcast about this when it’s clear you don’t have any real idea of what is going on in the case.

Exciting Eleven

Once again, another birthday has rolled around for Liam and this time he turned eleven. Each year goes so fast! Eleven! Already!

Liam’s love of Star Wars and Legos lives on. He also enjoys video games, rolling around the house on his hoverboard, watching TV, not cleaning his room, and hanging out with his friends. He and Jamie have reached detente (at least most of the time) and play together happily (again, most of the time).

Liam is still a good student. He enjoys math and science but only tolerates English and reading. He gets along with other kids and makes friends with lots of different kids. I love this about him. He’s not afraid to befriend the kid that maybe has a harder time fitting in as well as the kid that is popular.

I’ve said before that I love having big kids and it’s still true. Being eleven is pretty awesome. Liam cracks jokes and helps with his brother and is slowly, but surely, becoming a tiny adult. He still gives hugs (and asks for them in return). I keep expecting that to change but I’ll happily accept them for as long as he’s willing to dole them out.

In short, Liam is a great kid and I’m grateful that I get to be his Mom.

IMG_5146