Squirrel Girl Takes C2E2

I’ve been quiet for a while and I know I’m way behind on my book reviews, but I had to share a little about my amazing first cosplay experience yesterday at C2E2 (Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo). I had always wanted to try cosplaying at a con but never had, so when my coworker Julia brought up the possibility of getting free professional badges to attend Friday’s sessions, I jumped at the chance.

Beaker Bunsen Jar-Jar C2E2

Crazy things happen at C2E2.

At first I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. We originally considered both going as characters from Nimona, then I saw the trailer for the new Ghostbusters movie and was longing to be Kate MacKinnon’s impossibly cool character. But when I checked out the 1st trade of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, I knew immediately that this was who I had to be. I was able to piece together a good (although not perfect) representation of her outfit from a mix of things I already owned and things I bought at Target or through Amazon, but the tail was going to be a huge obstacle since I only had a couple of weeks to get ready. Luckily, I had a friend who’s a frequent and expert cosplayer who happened to have a perfect tail already made. All I needed to do was recover it in brown fabric and figure out an attachment system. I won’t lie, I had some pretty stressful moments the night before the convention when I wanted to burn the tail and curse the name of Squirrel Girl, but everything came together with some help from friends and I made my cosplay debut on Friday at C2E2!

squirrel girl cosplay c2e2

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: ready to eat some nuts and kick some butts!

Turned out pretty good, right? And I couldn’t have chosen better for a first cosplay experience. Everyone LOVES Squirrel Girl, I quickly found out, but I was the only person I saw cosplaying her on the floor yesterday. So I got asked to pose for lots of pictures, which was a pretty thrilling experience considering I’m normally pretty introverted and shy about that kind of thing. Seeing Squirrel Girl seemed to bring people a lot of smiles and joy, and that’s all I could ask for a convention experience!

squirrel girl cosplay c2e2 2

Another picture someone posted on Twitter of me in action as Squirrel Girl.

I loved walking around on the main floor and seeing all of the other amazing and creative  cosplayers out there. I have to highlight one moment that really made me smile, although I didn’t get a picture of it myself. A little boy, maybe around five years old and dressed as Flying Squirrel Mario, found me and was fascinated by my tail. So we both turned around and showed our tails so his parents could get a picture. He was adorable. I heard that there’s going to be another little girl cosplaying as Squirrel Girl on Sunday, and I’m so sad that I won’t be there to get a picture with her. I’d love to be able to spend more than a day at my next convention. Still, I couldn’t ask for a more positive experience as a first-time cosplayer.


Dr Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

mutter's marvels











This book could have been so much better than it was. Yes, it’s one of those biographies that attempts to get into the mind of its subject and attributes emotions and thoughts we have no evidence of to them, but while I enjoy a more straightforward style of biography I don’t really have anything against a writer using thorough research to write more creatively and expressively about a subject. But Aptowicz falls down on the research front, I’m afraid, and it becomes obvious a very short way into the book that while she obviously has a passion for her subject, she isn’t a trained historian and doesn’t subscribe to best research practices.

First of all, notes are few and sourcing is nonexistent – page numbers are not even given for each citation, so it’s next to impossible to actually track any of her quotes down. On top of that, each chapter seems to be drawn from only one or two main sources, very few of which are actually primary documents. Now, this lack of scholarly rigor is fine if you read the book more like a fictionalized version of Mutter’s life, but that’s not what it purports to be. I wish that’s what Aptowicz had chosen to do, actually, especially since her background is as a poet so presumably she’s much more familiar with creative fiction. If this were a novel, my review might change drastically, as Aptowicz does have a way with words and the story is fascinating. But ultimately, its disjointed tone and lack of proper sources makes it a disappointing tribute to a fascinating man who played a huge role in American medical history.


If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

if you find me

Carey and her little sister Jenessa have grown up in an abandoned camper in the middle of a national forest, hidden away by their mom when Carey was only four years old. Carey doesn’t remember much of her previous life, and Jenessa has only known the woods and the struggle for survival, with a druggie mom who disappears for weeks at a time and a food supply based mostly on canned beans and whatever game Carey can shoot. Suddenly, their lives are uprooted when Carey’s father discovers them and brings them back to civilization. Now Carey must confront both unheard of luxuries – running water, plenty of food, clean clothes, a real family – and terrifying new situations – high school, getting to know the father she thought her mother had saved her from. All while keeping a dark secret that she’s afraid will ruin her new life.

This is a tough one to review. Obviously, Carey and Janessa have gone through horrors, some of which I can’t reveal because of spoilers, and the book deals sensitively with the issues that come up after so many years of child abuse, isolation, and neglect. The story is told in first person from Carey’s point of view, and I liked her voice a lot, despite some of the questionable backwoods dialect the author gives her. She’s smart, defensive, angry, and also a scared 14-year-old girl. Her 6-year-old sister Jenessa is adorable and sweet, and the bond between the girls is clearly and skillfully depicted.

On the other hand, things seem to move awfully quickly. Within a couple of months of leaving the woods, Carey has found friends and a boyfriend, settled in at high school, and completely embraces her father and stepmother. It feels unrealistic to me that Carey would recover this quickly. Worse, nowhere in the book is the prospect of therapy for both Carey and Jenessa mentioned, even though both are obviously traumatized. Child Services is supposedly involved in their case from the beginning, yet beyond a simple quick court visit, they hardly appear in the story. I just have trouble believing that the girls’ reintroduction to the world could go so smoothly, without their story getting out in the news. It’s also difficult to believe that both Carey and Jenessa would be ahead of their new classmates by two grade levels when they were entirely dependent on what Carey could teach the two of them from the few books they managed to get a hold of in the woods. They’re both obviously smart, but I have trouble believing they really could have gotten that good of an education by themselves.

Despite my qualms, I think teens who aren’t bothered by some of the niggling questions I had while reading will really enjoy this story of survival, finding family, and adapting to new circumstances.

*This book counts towards my Mount TBR reading challenge*

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

girl sleuth

I was never as obsessed with Nancy Drew as some girls were, especially I think because I was growing up in the 80s and 90s when her popularity was starting to wane a little. I remember browsing the long row of yellow spines in the children’s section at the library, though, and discovering the more “grown-up” Nancy Drew Case Files series a few years later on my junior high library’s shelves. Whether or not you have fond memories of reading Nancy Drew yourself, there’s no doubt that just about every American girl (and a lot of boys) from several generations knows OF her at the very least.

I remember the slight feeling of disillusionment I felt when I learned that Carolyn Keane was a pseudonym under which several people wrote. (I felt almost as betrayed as when I discovered that Ann M. Martin didn’t write all the Babysitters Club books herself!) In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak traces the lives of the two women who had the most influence on who Nancy came to be. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was the daughter of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s founder. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was one of the country’s first book packagers (think Alloy Entertainment and its many book and TV series), creating well-known series and characters like the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, then passing off the writing of the books themselves to ghostwriters, who worked according to detailed plot outlines. Harriet and her sister Edna took over the Syndicate after their father died in 1930 and shepherded Nancy’s early years while another writer, Mildred Wirt Benson, wrote most of the first 30 books in the series.

I came away from this book with admiration for Harriet and absolute awe for Mildred. They both worked hard to carve a place for themselves in a literary world still heavily dominated by men and men’s taste, while still being very much women of their time. I got the feeling that Rehak liked Mildred a lot more than Harriet, and frankly, I did too. Harriet comes off as strong-willed, determined, intelligent, and successful, but also very much as a slightly vainglorious daughter of the upper class who fell prey to many of the prejudices common to that class and era. She went to one of the Seven Sisters colleges in a time when most women didn’t even think of higher education, worked in the women’s suffrage movement, took over her father’s company and built it into a juggernaut that ran successfully for over 50 years, and fought hard to maintain the rights to a character she felt belonged to her alone. But she also wanted to use the Nancy Drew stories to push a very upper-class set of values, and failed to understand the seriousness of the racist and sometimes sexist content that led to a major overhaul of most of the early books in the series in the 1950s (the yellow spine hardcovers that most girls remember reading are these revised versions).

Mildred just seems like a badass. She was an accomplished swimmer and diver and excelled in college athletics, became one of the first women to graduate from the University of Iowa’s graduate school of journalism, insisted on working after her marriage when middle-class women were expected to quit immediately, took flying lessons in her 50s, traveled the globe visiting archaeological digs well into her seventies, and was still writing a newspaper column up until her death at 97. Like I said, a badass. She sometimes found it hard to keep quiet about her role as “Carolyn Keane”, especially in later years when it felt to her like Harriet was trying to claim all the credit. I imagine Mildred as being an incredibly forceful personality that you admired and respected even while she sometimes drove you crazy.

To wrap things up, I found Rehak’s account of Nancy Drew’s creators and their lives and times fascinating and hard to put down. I only have a few quibbles. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the books themselves, and maybe more from the point of view of girls who grew up with Nancy. I know the book is meant to be a biography focused on the two women, but if you didn’t know about Nancy Drew you’d probably wonder why in the world such a big fuss was being taken over the authors of a children’s mystery series. In later chapters she does go a bit more into the cultural impact the books had, but I would have liked more for the earlier stories, as well. I think maybe what I’m really wanting is a critical review of the Nancy Drew books, so maybe I’m looking in the wrong place for this and shouldn’t fault Rehak. One other issue for me: the end notes are not very clearly labeled and organized, which sometimes makes it hard to track down her sources.  Otherwise, I found this to be a fun read, worthwhile to anyone who’s loved Nancy or is interested in the history of books for children.

Dusting this thing off

Wow, I had such good intentions back at the beginning of the year! Unfortunately, the winter blahs hit me big time, as well as a major reading slump. I am going to try to do better going forward, but for now here are a couple of quick mini reviews of what I did manage to finish in January:

leningrad    symphony city of the dead

Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II by Anna Reid
and Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

I read two books this January covering the siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II, during which the Russian city was entirely surrounded, few people or supplies could get in or out, and possibly a million people died in total. The first, by Anna Reid, was published about five years ago and covers the siege in great detail, using first-hand sources both from diaries written during the Siege and from interviews with survivors years later. One of the most fascinating parts of the book to me was the way the Soviet government’s treatment of the siege flip-flopped over time, from trying to bury knowledge of it as much as possible, to broadcasting the Leningrad people’s strength and resilience in the face of starvation as an effective propaganda tool.

Reid follows several people in particular, most of them members of the city’s intelligentsia, who to be fair had the most ability and inclination to keep a record of what was happening. One of the people she follows in some detail is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who is M.T. Anderson’s subject in his latest book, a weighty work of nonfiction aimed at a teenage audience, but which I think most adults interested in the subject will find just as informative and fascinating. Shostakovich wrote most of his 7th Symphony while living in Leningrad during the Siege, and its inaugural performance during the midst of the war became an international sensation, although Shostakovich himself faced repeating persecution by the Soviet government as power changed hands and he and his music went in and out of favor. Anyone who read Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books knows he can write moving and beautiful fiction about dark times in history, and Symphony for the City of the Dead shows that he can do the same in nonfiction. One big bonus that unfortunately isn’t found enough in nonfiction aimed at teens are Anderson’s notes and long list of sources, and his discussion of his process of writing and sifting through and evaluating conflicting accounts. I would recommend this to any teen interested in history, and most of those who think they aren’t.

*Both books count towards my Around the World Reading Challenge*

Coldness, S.A.D., and disaster

I realized suddenly the other day that I have a tendency to turn towards reading books about disasters and horrific events in history during the darkest, coldest part of the year, when I’m especially prone to some level of depression and anxiety. Last year around this time I went through one of the worst episodes I’ve ever had, and while I was at my worst I couldn’t rouse myself to read much of anything at all. But when I started to recover, it was while I was reading accounts of such happy events in history as the Donner party and the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin. This year, I haven’t struggled as much but I’ve definitely noticed some SAD-related symptoms. And what am I reading? Well, I just finished a book about the siege of Leningrad (review coming soon), which led me to Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War, about food and starvation during World War II.

This seems counterintuitive. Surely if I’m feeling down I should be reading funny, fluffy, cheerful stuff – the classic comfort read. And sometimes that is what I go for during bad times. But there’s a definite trend developing in which I seem to seek out the most horrifying disasters I can. Maybe misery loves company. Maybe the trainwreck, can’t-look-away quality of so many disasters helps keep my attention riveted and distract me from wallowing in my own feelings. Maybe it’s just nice sometimes to remind myself that no matter how depressed I’m feeling, there are plenty of people in history who have suffered far more than I have. For whatever reason, my winter reads are always considerably darker than what I tackle at other times of the year.

Does anyone else experience different reading moods depending on the time of year or other outside influences?

2016 Challenges

Part of my goals for reading in 2016 is to participate in several challenges that will push me to read a little outside of my usual. In addition to my general Goodreads Challenge goal of 130 books (the same as last year), I’m participating in these challenges, so far:

Bookriot is doing its second annual Read Harder Challenge, consisting of 24 tasks to complete throughout the year. Several friends did this one last year, and this year’s categories look interesting, so I’m giving it a go.

At the young adult review blog It’s All About Books, they’re hosting another year of the Around the World challenge, which does exactly what it says on the tin: encourages you to read books set in or by authors from all over the world. The nice thing about this challenge is that there’s no official number you need to reach. Instead, they ask you to set up a Google map with pins for each location you read a book from. There are also mini-challenges you can choose to participate in, like reading at least one book for each continent or visiting extreme points on Earth.

Finally, one serious reading problem I have is that of keeping up with my book-buying habits. I have several shelves-worth of books that I own but have never read. To try to tackle this, I’m participating in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge at My Reader’s Block. This challenge is set up with different levels, so you can choose the number of books from your to-be-read pile that you want to try and address this year. I’m choosing to do the Mont Blanc level, which is 24 books or 2 a month. To add a random element, I’m following the lead of Michelle at I Push Books and using an internet randomizer to choose my books for me from my “owned but not read” shelf at Goodreads.

So these are my plans for the year in reading. Wish me luck!