Networking!

I found this contest the other day and decided to enter!
http://tinyurl.com/pcmopmq
Here is my submission:

The remains of her mother’s memorial service littered the apartment. It had been hours since the last guest left; but time seemed trapped in a cyclone of well wishes. There were homemade vegan hors d’oeuvres that were brought with smiles of pity, hugs from strangers she didn’t want, and the strong smell of her grandmother’s Coco Chanel perfume that choked the air out of the room. Marin still sat where she’d been placed by her grandmother earlier that day, and she could feel the fibers of the small green armchair making a pattern in the back of her thighs. She kept still because moving made it all seem more real. Kat and Leia had been there, they’d wanted to take her out. There was no reason to get out because it wouldn’t help anything.
“It’s been two weeks,” Leia said.
“You’ve got to get out of this place,” Kat said.
“I’ve gone out,” Marin said.
“Studio doesn’t count,” Leia said.
“Not today. I can’t today.” Marin had seen them to the door with a fake smile and an empty promise that she’d be better.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and the Snitch

Philosopher's Stone

I’ve been asked my opinion about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series more times than I can count. My students are curious, the parents of students are curious, and even my peers when they learn that I am a Christian, are quick to ask me about it. For the past several years, I’ve tried to be subdued in my answers, but a series of circumstances (a huge one being that I now teach a Faith and Fantasy class) have made it clear to me that now is the time for me to express my feelings in regards to this controversial series. Before I get too far into this article, let’s talk about the giraffe in the refrigerator. My name is Alysha Mitchell, and I’ve read, and enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I do, however, recognize the weaknesses, and do agree that there are elements which could be red flags for families. There are also wonderful lessons and discussion topics that could be used by Christian families to glorify the Gospel, and honor Christ.

I cannot write an article about Rowling without at least touching on the element of magic in her books. I read several articles before attempting to write this one. Some discounted Rowling’s work as evil, and not worth the time of a Christian, and others swung the opposite way, trying to make every tiny detail in the books a Christian allegory. Having read the books, both extremes made me uncomfortable, and I continued to pray that God would give me the wisdom to express myself clearly.

I try to encourage my students to not be afraid of fantasy, but to be discerning. I’ve tried to show them that being afraid is not the answer, nor is inhaling any fantasy they come across. This same concept applies to my thoughts on Harry Potter. Christian families should decide for themselves whether or not they want to delve into the series, but I do not believe that they should be afraid of it either.

Now, there is the main red flag for many readers, the element of magic. As I was preparing for this article, it occurred to me that both C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien engage in the topic of ‘magic’ in their stories. Tolkien presents the idea of the wizard of the light (Gandalf) and the wizards of darkness (Sauromon, and Sauron). Good fights against evil, and the fantastic is embedded within the story. Lewis, presents the White Witch as an antagonist of the story and is set against Aslan, the King. Both stories deal with good verses evil, light verses dark. The Harry Potter books also deal with these elements, but are condemned because of the use of magic.

As I was mulling this over, I came across an interview with J.K. Rowling that  shed light on the subject to me. Elena Garcia, a reporter for The Christian Post, wrote an article in 2007 in which she discussed the themes of Christianity in Rowling’s work. Rowling herself admitted to pointing her story towards Christianity but also admitted that she did not want to reveal the Christian themes too early in case readers guessed the ending of her story too soon. In the same article Rowling admitted that she, herself, although a member of a prominent church in Scotland, still struggles with the idea of what happens to a soul after death. In the interview, Rowling states: “The truth is that…my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot,” Rowling admitted. “On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. [But] it’s something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.”

Now, for me, that passage was key. Rowling admits that she struggles with her faith, with her beliefs, and that it is obvious in her work. Writers write about what they know. They write to help explain themselves, they write to explore concepts that are too big to explain. The Harry Potter series was an exploration of Rowling’s faith, and her conclusion was ultimately inconclusive. Worldview is portrayed through a story, no matter how the author spins it, their ideas about the world will come through. C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien both wrote from a solid position of Christian faith. Their stories contain elements of magic or the fantastic but the Christian worldview shines through. Their stories are solid, and the characters rich in their human joys, flaws, and struggles. Rowling also has a pure divide between good and evil, but her own questions about faith show through her work. This to me would present a bigger red flag than the fantasy of the story.

That being said, the stories present wonderful examples of self-sacrifice, love, courage, and taking a stand for what’s right. Darkness is overcome by the end of the series, and love overcomes hatred. Rowling gives readers insight into complex characters living through highly intense circumstances where their true nature is put to the test. Not all characters choose the path of light, and there are consequences for that. Rowling portrays a world where darkness is overcome, and light wins out in the end.

Did I enjoy the series? Yes. I also recognized the weaknesses, particularly in the worldview. The series is fun, but students, especially younger students or people young in faith should be aware of Rowling’s questioning that is present throughout the series. Her series can be used as a starting point for many wonderful discussions about faith and the assurance of Salvation in Christ.

City of Bones

200px-City_of_Bones

Cassandra Clare’s novel, City of Bones follows a girl named Clary Fray as she discovers the supernatural world of “Shadowhunters.” They are a group of individuals blessed with Angel blood who destroy demons, and try to keep peace with various other mythical races (fairies, werewolves, warlocks…etc). Clary has grown up mortal, but is gifted with the “Sight,” a talent that allows her to see the Shadowhunters (who are normally invisible to ‘mundanes’) and to interpret their healing runes. (Intricate tattoos they give themselves in order to heal or defend).

I will begin by saying that it’s taken me months to gather my thoughts on this book. I’ve begun this review several times and scrapped it because I couldn’t articulate myself in the way I wanted. I actually debated whether or not to write this review, but I found out that some of my middle and younger high school girls read this series, and I decided I needed to share my views on the novel.

I began the book with high hopes. It came recommended to me by some friends who I trust when it comes to literature. I trust their judgment, but City of Bones was not what I’d hoped it to be. The story was highly entertaining, but I felt myself bored with many of the main characters, and felt the dynamics between Clary and her two love interests (Jace the mysterious Shadowhunter, and Simon, the sweet and quirky best friend) overdone and far too dramatic.

The premise of the story was fascinating to me, and I did enjoy the plot. I was saddened by the author’s portrayal of the main character. Clary had all the potential to be a unique and fascinating heroine, but she reacted to situations in juvenile, predictable ways: stomping her foot, rolling her eyes, or storming out of a room when she did not like what was going on around her. Yes, the author is writing a YA novel, but these actions made Clary seem younger than the author intended. Maybe this changes as she grows as a character during the rest of the series, but in the first book, these actions took me out of the story.

The style of the book, to me, left something to be desired. Sentences like “a small flower of apprehension began to open inside her chest,” and similes such as “the moon hung like a locket in the sky” felt as if the author were trying a bit too hard to find her voice. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were beautifully constructed sections of this story, but the overly decorated language distracted me, rather than adding depth to the story. I’d be interested to see how this progresses in the other novels. Cassandra Clare definitely has a knack for story, and I’d be curious to see how the writing style matures as the series progresses.

One aspect of the novel that did not sit well with me as I thought of my younger students reading it was the way in which most of the characters are so focused on whether or not they have a significant other. Many of the emotions in the novel were authentic, but there was one point when Clary’s crush Jace thought that Clary was cheating on him with Simon(which she was not), and instead of letting her explain the situation, he slinked off like a wounded animal. There is not much honest communication in the story. Maybe that comes later in the series as the characters develop…but it was severely lacking in the first installment.

Also, parents of teens might shy away from the moral ambiguity that many of the characters possess, plus the flippancy with which modesty is treated in the story. Clary, encouraged to bloom out of her ‘mundane’ self, gets a makeover and ends up in a short, tight dress that truly impresses her crush.

Overall, the story had potential but I felt that it stayed ‘safe’ in choosing to rely on surface level dialogue and character stereotypes instead of digging into the meat of the story and developing rounded characters. I do not like to write off an entire series by only reading one book, so I will read the rest.

Things to be aware of before reading:

There are many references to angels and demons, but instead of a Biblical account, the theology of the story is more of a “universal” church which involves many truths that come together to create ‘good.’ There was not much discussion of this, but the moral ambiguity has the potential to become spiritually threatening to younger readers who aren’t as grounded or familiar with different worldviews.

Also, the book does show open flirtation between two male characters. Again, as I said in another review, it is not just the fact that the author choose to include this, but what she did with the characters that I found inappropriate. The character in question was angry because the one he loved did not return those feelings. He only became less antagonistic when his feelings drifted to someone else. The message that our feelings dictate our actions is one that I did not appreciate. Yes, unrequited love is unbearably painful, but romantic love should not be the guiding factor in finding happiness or joy in life.

That wraps things up for now. The second book in the series will not be my next post but if you’re curious about the series, stay tuned and I will review it in the coming months.

I also take requests if there is a book you’d like reviewed, let me know in the comments section.

Thanks for reading,

A.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

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“When a great white bear promises untold riches to her family, the Lass agrees to go away with him. But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle. To unravel the mystery, the Lass sets out on a windswept journey beyond the edge of the world. Based on the Nordic legend East of the Sun, West of the Moon, with romantic echoes of Beauty and the Beast, this re-imagined story will leave fans of fantasy and fairy tale enchanted by Jessica Day George.”

–Amazon

I’ve had this book on my ‘to read list’ for over two years, and was thrilled when I received it as a Christmas gift this year. I had no idea what to expect, but the premise looked entertaining, and I already owned another book by the same author that I quite enjoyed, so I decided to take some time the day after Christmas and read a chapter or two.

By the second page, I was hooked, and knew I’d be reading much further than anticipated. Several hours (and too many Christmas snacks) later, I finished reading the book. I don’t normally have time to ingest a book in one sitting, and I don’t usually sit still long enough to do so, but I was utterly captivated by Jessica Day George’s story of a girl with no name and the adventure she embarks upon in this novel.

The story is a re-telling of a Nordic legend entitled East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but also has elements from several other tales including: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, the story of Cupid and Psyche from Greek Mythology, and Beauty and the Beast. In some cases, the blending of an original idea plus so many stories would be tedious, and seem contrived, but in this scenario, it was the opposite. The story was fresh, and although it held allusions to other tales, it was authentic in its own right, and extremely creative. It was clear the author did her research (there’s even a select biography in the back of the book), but the research only added texture to the story.

George spun her tale with apparent ease. The plot moved forward at a pace that was engaging, the prose was clean and crisp, and the characters developed as the story progressed. I will say that the style of the book is very ‘simple,’ in the way a fairy tale is ‘simple’ at first, but George manages to hide subtlety within the pages of this re-told fairy tale.

As in the tradition of fairy tales, some of the characters remain static (unchanging), and some felt a bit underdeveloped at times, but that is the way that traditional fairy tales go. The focus was on the heroine, and in this case, it worked for me. Our unnamed girl goes through a journey that forces her to grow up and look at how her decisions affect not only herself, but those around her in a wider circle. She learns the importance of honesty, humility, and of putting others before herself. George’s focused attentions on her main character were well spent. I went from liking the protagonist, to not liking her, to respecting her in the end.

Before I write any more on the subject, I need to submit my one and only hesitation about the story. This will include SPOILERS.

*** BEGIN SPOILER ZONE ***

The lass’s world is under a reign of terror from the Troll Queen and her daughter. The Troll Princess brings havoc on the lives of men. Every century or so, she decides to find a new husband, but no man would want to marry a troll, so she forces them. Her first husband struck a deal with her that once a husband is chosen, he may live away from the Princess for a year in a castle of ice. The only catch: the man is transformed into a polar bear by day, then back to a man each night (think Swan Princess). If, while in bear form, he can find a maiden to live in the castle as a ‘bride’ for one year, without looking at his face during the night, the spell will be broken.

When the heroine of our story goes to live at the palace, she is alarmed because each night, a stranger climbs into bed with her and sleeps there. There is no sexual promiscuity, they do not even kiss, or touch. He just sleeps in the same bed with her because the rule states that she has to be a ‘bride.’ It is very chaste.

There is also a scene near the end of the novel where the Lass rescues the Prince, but is locked in a room with him for a whole night without enchanted sleep. George has them talk, kiss once, and the Prince kisses her hands…there is no other explanation of the events of the evening.

***END SPOILER ZONE***

Would I recommend the book? Yes, I would, with one hesitation that I raised above. The book, as a whole, inspired me as a writer in the best way possible.

Thanks for reading! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

A.

The House of Hades – Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus Book 4

House of Hades

Yes, I’m kicking off this blog with a post about the fourth book in a series. Bad form? Possibly. But I couldn’t sit quietly by and let this opportunity slip past.

I have loved this author for about four years now. The majority of his works are wholesome, educational, and tremendously fun for the young adult (and even adult) community. If you are not familiar with the world of Percy Jackson, please visit the link below read about the first book, “The Lightening Thief.” There is a lot of information in that ‘Rationale’ but some of my favorite points about the first book, I’ve quoted from the website:

“The uneasy mix of Classical Greek and Roman heritage and Judeo-Christian values is the oldest conflict in Western Civilization. Understanding both strands, which blended to form our modern culture, is critical to becoming an informed member of society. The Lightning Thief explores Greek mythology in a modern setting, but it does so as a humorous work of fantasy, and makes no attempt to subvert or contradict Judeo-Christian teachings. Early in the book, the character Chiron draws a clear distinction between God, capital-G, the creator of the universe, and the Greek gods (lower-case g). Chiron says he does not wish to delve into the metaphysical issue of God, but he has no qualms about discussing the Olympians because they are a “much smaller matter.” The gods of Olympus are depicted as powerful beings who interact with their children and demand respect. They are archetypal forces deeply embedded in and inseparable from Western thought. However there is no suggestion within the book that pagan god worship be revived, or that it replace modern religion. Rather, the whole of Western culture is seen as a tribute to the enduring legacy of Olympus.

Similarly, the fantastical elements in the novel are drawn directly from Greek mythology, and thus operate at a deeply symbolic level. As with all stories based on the hero’s quest, The Lightning Thief presents monsters as external manifestations of the internal conflicts Percy must win to achieve his coming of age. The fight with Medusa is symbolic of the tension between Percy and Annabeth. The gorgon is the age-old grudge between their parents which the two children must put behind them. Facing the Chimera in the St. Louis Arch is really about Percy facing his own fears of inadequacy. The trip to the Underworld is central to Percy’s changing world view. When he returns to his family, he realizes he cannot simply petrify his step-father, as much as they loathe each other, because Percy now understands something about mortality and the responsibilities that go with his power. He appreciates the consequences of taking a life. Despite the trappings of fantasy, Percy is no magician. He must rely on his sword skills, his strength, and most of all his wits to think his way out of problems.”

— Source: http://www.rickriordan.com/my-books/percy-jackson/resources/rationale.aspx

That being said, I felt that Riordan crossed a few boundaries in his latest installment.

First of all, If you haven’t read the Percy Jackson or the Heroes of Olympus series, have no fear. I will give fair warning before any spoilers happen in this blog.

Secondly, I will be reviewing the Percy Jackson series book by book on here in the future.

Without further ado:

My review of The House of Hades.

(Note – most reviews will contain more plot/writing style/character development topics but there were some issues in House of Hades that need to be addressed).

After reading The House of Hades, I was stunned by the amount of violence that was in this book. Yes, the characters had to face many challenges, and they all proved worthy, but I was alarmed by the amount of anger that presented itself in most of the characters. They’re ‘growing up’ and losing innocence. I get that. I also get why Riordan pushed his characters to the breaking point. He took each one of them and made them confront their biggest doubts, fears, and insecurities. He had to do that as an author to allow his characters the maturity they needed for the final battle. Okay, that’s good character development, BUT, the way he left them straggling, taking on the adult roles, having to BE adults at 13, 15, 16, 17…etc. I did not appreciate.
A major theme in the novel was Anger. Each character had to make a choice to let anger rule them, or to let go of it.  Only one or two of the characters showed remorse for their anger, or really questioned the reason behind the anger. Once it was said that a character had to let go of anger or have it destroy them…but no way was given as to HOW that was possible.
Maybe Riordan will address this in the fifth book, maybe not. But I was disappointed by the tremendous reliance on anger and the lack of a way to process that anger.

Now on to the next point…once the story was finished, I immediately jumped onto the review sections of Amazon and Good Reads to see how Rick’s ‘surprise revelation’ about a certain character’s sexual orientation went over with the readers.

I’ve seen a good many people who are in full support of ‘Uncle Rick’ as he likes to be called by his readers, and many who have made a bold statement of never buying books from the author again.

Where do I fall?

Well,
First of all, let me say that I’m NOT going to send back my book, and yes, I will read the last of the series, but I am disappointed. The introduction to homosexuality is NOT why I’m disappointed, not in itself. I am disappointed because of the way it was introduced, how it was handled, and because the book had no parental warning or any pretext before the introduction.

After the ‘reveal’, a lot of people laid down the story and said goodbye to Riordan’s world. Many others whooped and cheered for an author who wasn’t afraid to be ‘real’ with his audience.

I kept reading, wanting to see how Riordan handled the revelation during the rest of the story.
My conclusion – there were probably several reasons why Riordan went the way he did, and there are also several reasons why I think he made a poor choice in the way he handled the situation.

1. Riordan was a teacher. He taught middle school, and even began his YA writing career by telling stories to his son at bedtime. As a teacher, it’s heartbreaking to see a student not connecting with others, because they feel as if they’d be bullied, shamed, or cut out if they let their guard down. You want to help them. You want to tell them that their identity does not lie in their sexuality(whether homosexual or heterosexual), that they are so much more than that. I feel for Riordan if he was trying to take a stand against the bullying, or the suffocating silence so many teens face today.

BUT — that being said: Rick could have (out of respect for his readers) put in a statement in the back of the book, put out a parental warning with the book, or could have done a written ‘reading group discussion guide’ so that families could have walked this path together. IF Riordan was trying to show that a character is more than their sexual orientation, to take a stand against bullying in schools, then he could have done so in a more appropriate manner.

2. As a writer, Rick Riordan, with the way he handled this, distracted from his own story.
Any artist – when they take yank the audience out of the ‘absorbing experience’ (whether in a visual medium, theater, music, writing…etc) to push an agenda, or to be ‘shocking,’ they break the author/audience trust.

As an artist, you have to know your audience, and respect the limitations your audience gives you. Yes, Riordan’s characters are growing up, yes they’re facing many challenges, but that does NOT mean that younger children aren’t still wrapped up in the series, and aren’t emotionally ready to dive into the discussion of homosexuality without some guidance. Riordan didn’t offer any of that guidance. I hope he gives his characters that guidance in the final installment to the series.

Riordan drew his readers out of his world, out of the story. Maybe that’s what he intended. Maybe he wanted to spark discussion between students, teachers, parents. I do not know. But anything that distracts from the overall story in such a way as to yank a reader out of the world of the book is not usually a good idea.

Let me say again, I’m not attacking Riordan’s character choices. I think the character that was revealed to be dealing with same gender attraction was and is a fascinating character, but the way in which Riordan created the ‘reveal’ did more harm than anything for the fan base.

3. The way the revelation came was dramatic, climactic, literarily gorgeous, but ultimately forced and destructive. Cupid/Eros, a malignant force, pulled the secret to the surface in a humiliating way. Love is deeper than anger. Forcing a secret of that nature from someone induces shame, fear, and regret. It victimizes the person. I feel that Riordan made a victim out of that character in this book by not allowing some resolution or peace to be given to the character.

As of now, so many readers are angry about the fact that someone has to deal with unrequited love. There is so much more to the story than romantic love. Friendship, acceptance, mercy, compassion, bravery, sacrifice…these are all themes of the story…but now the focus seems to be on whether or not everyone will have a date to the ‘Olympian Senior Prom.’

Would I recommend this author anymore? Yes. I would…but definitely NOT as unreservedly as I would have a few weeks ago. I would let any parent know beforehand about the violence and the character reveal so that they could read it, and choose for themselves if this series is right for their family.

Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts!

A.

Why Fantasy? Why Now?

The topic of fantasy is a ‘hot button’ topic in teen literature these days. You can’t really go anywhere without seeing an advertisement for a fantasy film or book. The genre is not going anywhere, and instead of trying to push away any aspect of ‘the fantastic’ Christians should instead look for the untapped resources this genre affords those who are willing to explore it wisely. The point is not to inhale fantasy without thought, but to teach this next generation about how to see past flashy characters and exciting plots to the heart of the story. What is being promoted? What sort of character is the author asking you to root for? In what sort of world are you immersing yourself? Young Adults need to be taught how to be discerning when it comes to this genre. When a new fantasy book comes to the shelves, they need to know how to do their research to find out what sort of worldview the book portrays.

I’m a teacher at a Christian Fine Arts school in Georgia, and one of the classes I get to teach this year is a Faith and Fantasy class for high school students. This has allowed me to continue my research of the fantasy genre and discover what exactly my students are reading; what really peaks their interest in this genre.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at an online conference on the topic of reconciling the Christian Faith with the fantasy genre, especially as it pertains to modern teen fantasy. It surprised me how little information there was out there for parents of Christian teens about the fantasy genre as a whole, and how adrift that left people who wanted to wade through the enormous amount of literature out there.

That’s where this blog comes in.

As I read through fantasy novels (or series) I will post my reviews on the books.

I will try to review the books in order in a series, but there will be times when I address a book out of order. When that occurs I will make sure that I warn people so that if you do not want spoilers you can avoid them.

I have a list of books that I’d like to read/review for this project, but I’d love to hear your feedback. Please let me know if there is a book or series that you’d like discussed on the blog.

If you’re interested in further reading on this subject, I’d suggest:

Frederich Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale

C.S. Lewis’ essay On Fairy Stories

J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories (Yes, they have the same name)

Two articles that I wrote on the subject that were featured in an online blog: Heart of the Matter Online http://heartofthematteronline.com/?s=faith+and+fantasy

Thank you all, and welcome to Faith and Fantasy!

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