Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Pemberly: Mr. Darcy's Dragon

"Jane Austen but with dragons" is a premise that has potential to be terribly awful or terribly good. I'm very excited to tell you that "Pemberly: Mr. Darcy's Dragon" by Maria Grace is very good. So good, in fact, that I barely restrained myself from blogging about it before I finished the trilogy!

Elizabeth Bennet is the eldest heir of her father's ability to hear dragons. She is not, however, heir to his estate and its resident dragon. This dragon, Longbourn, is controlling and tempermental, and has directed Elizabeth that she must marry the heir to the estate so that she can stay on as the new dragon keeper after her father's death. Elizabeth has resigned herself to this fate, as the price of being able to hear dragons. However, when stolen firedrake egg is tracked to Hertfordshire, Elizabeth is tasked with helping the owner track the egg down. That owner is, of course, none other than Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy...

Unlike similar set-ups having to do with Zombies and such, "Pemberly" does more than 'fill in the blanks' of the original "Pride and Prejudice." Although using the same initial set-up and cast of characters, Maria Grace does an excellent job of transposing them into a world of dragons and imagining how events might transpire differently. Well written, well plotted, and well executed, the book is brimming with engaging new characters and accurate expansions of the originals. Although plenty of original book dialogue is left in, this is far, far more than just "Pride and Prejudice" with dragons and there are plenty of twists that take the story far beyond Austen's plot. This is done with great respect for both the original premise, Austen's characters and words, and the etiquette and expectations of Regency England.

Beyond that, the dragon lore is quite fun and well written. It is an integral and interesting part of the book, but the worldbuilding never hijacks the story. It is really fun to imagine the estates of Longbourn and Rosings as personified by a dragon! And the smaller, companion dragons that accompany Elizabeth, Darcy, Mary, Fitzwilliam and the Gardiners are amusing and delightful additions to both plot and character development.

I especially enjoyed the expanded roles given Mary, Mr. Collins, and the Gardiners. Although I do regret the almost complete absence of Jane and Kitty from the novel, and wish more explanations had been given for why Mr. Bennet married Mrs. Bennet, I do like Mr. Bennet's expanded role as well.

Elizabeth Bennet, one of the most perfect heroines to enter English literature, is a very difficult character for another author to take up. For the most part, Grace does well with this. There are a few times when I felt that Elizabeth was 'too' perfect, too extraordinary. However whenever I felt the accolades were coming too thick, Grace usually balanced it out with Elizabeth grappling with her faults.

Well...it's not a perfect balance...but, on the whole, I'd rather have Elizabeth be a little too perfect than a little too flawed!

There are many more aspects of the trilogy that I enjoyed, but I can't share them without giving away some major spoilers! I'll just have to say that it's well worth seeing the three books through to their conclusion.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Off to be the Wizard

A nerdy computer whiz discovers a computer file that allows him to manipulate the world around him...and promptly finds himself on the run from the government...in medieval England...where he uses his newfound 'magical' powers to pretend to be a wizard...what else is going to go wrong?

"Off to be the Wizard" by Scott Meyer is exactly as lighthearted and whimsical as it ought to be. Although light on the perilous stakes at times and a bit slow moving at others, the constant humor keeps the reader engaged.

Actually, my husband said he'd never heard me laugh so much while reading a book. I'm not sure if this is true because I don't think this was the funniest book I ever read, but it did provoke a lot of laughs and I breezed through the six book series in about a week.

It's also a reasonably clean series. Although a little sex is hinted at and there are some off color jokes, most of the 'adult' humor is reasonably subtle. It is definitely a series written for adults, but would be acceptable for most older teens. Book 6 stars a pair of teenage twins as the hero and heroine.

 I did have a few issues with the characterization of the women in books #1 and #2, (not dirty, just not well developed), but Meyer seemed to grow as a writer of females and by book #3 most of the issues were solved.

Plenty of nerd humor, a cast of characters spanning from modern day U.S. treasury officials, to the 'real' Merlin, to a female populated Atlantis, and a fun spew of different world-building gags revolving around the rules the 'wizards' set for themselves, this is the perfect antidote to the lockdown blues most of the world is currently undergoing (April 2020). Furthermore, the first 5 books are available on Kindle Unlimited, which is currently free for two months to anyone who is not already a subscriber (even those of us who have subscribed in the past).

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

How to Survive Quarantine (without going crazy!) Part 2

As I prepared to talk more about surviving social distancing and quarantine during Covid-19, I realized that my experience with being housebound goes beyond my own chronic ill-health, but includes being homeschooled in the country in a state with notoriously bad winters.

Right now that probably sounds really rough, right? But ACTUALLY it was great. We had so much space (physical and mentally) to learn and create, to have adventures and pretend! Socially it was difficult for the most intense period of that, but we got through it. And now I've got so much to share with all of you!

In my first post I talked about broad ideas for coping with being stuck at home. In this post, I'm going to discuss specific activities that have helped me deal with being isolated at various periods of my life. I'll also give you some resources to get started on anything that catches your fancy! And I've tried to throw in some pretty unique options that you might not have seen anywhere else.

Grow Plants
The #1 activity I suggest for everyone right now is to grow something. Whether it's starting an avocado tree, doing an herb or mushroom farm, some pots on a porch, or digging up your lawn, you'll get the emotional boost of nurturing new life and hopefully some tasty food! Plus if you ARE digging up your lawn, you'll get exercise and sunlight which are great for your immune system. I first started gardening as a chronically ill recluse four years ago when we moved into our house. Many days I could only work 10-15 minutes, but I gradually built up strength and the garden was healing AND helpful on our budget! I'm actually running a series of tips over on my instagram designed to encourage and assist anyone who wants to dive into starting a garden this year! Follow the tag, #gardeninthetimeofcovid19 on @elenatintil. You will be surprised at what you can grow on a very small amount of land! And yes, even in MN there are steps to start NOW!

Magic your Recycling into a Miniature Wonderland
One of my favorite childhood memories is the day my siblings and I created an entire miniature ski resort from cardboard, straws, string, egg cartons, and other bits of recycling. It was huge. We had the whole slope with a variety of obstacles, a ski lift, and a chalet complete with a little shop.

At other points in time we made a town and countless castles and houses of Popsicle sticks and glue guns. One time my sister made a complete Roman villa with intricate tiles and an elaborate fountain with 'water' made from hot glue.

Making miniatures is a popular hobby nowadays because it allows us to express home decorating and architecture desires without needing a lot of space or money. You really can get ridiculously creative with things you would ordinarily throw in the trash. Whether it's a solo activity or something you do with your kids, it's a great way to convince your mind that you are living in a larger world...at least for a little while!

Refashion Clothes
Shopping for new clothes (even thrifted ones) might be restricted for awhile. So why not jazz up your old ones? There are many tutorials and ideas across the internet, pinterest, and even my own sewing blog. Add some embroidery, beadwork, trim, fancy sleeves, or even turn some of your clothes into new clothes for your kids! You'll be surprised at how little technical skill you need to begin making some radical transformations.

Make a Webcomic to Share--with photos!
You don't need to be an artist to tell a story with pictures. Use your camera and something poseable--your kids, your animals, your Lego collection, and add captions. Continue the story every day and keep your mind working and your friends entertained!

Adopt a Pet
This one depends on your state and rescue agency and what is open right now. However, there is nothing like an affectionate furry friend to help get you through 'stuck-in-the-house' doldrums. My dog, Mateo, was the bundle of fluffy joy that helped us manage three really tough years. Of course, I only advocate adopting if you are in it for the long haul, regardless of future moves or family additions, and you'll need to make provisions for socializing and training your new pet without risking exposure.

Organize your Photos
Personally I find assembling photobooks online to be pretty addicting. You might even call it...a game! In today's world, we often don't bother to print out photos, however it becomes a real slog to dig through and look back at past years, especially if you've switched phone and computer operating systems over the years. Now is a great time to go through and make books of at least some special events. You can save them on the websites and wait for a good deal or a paycheck to come through before ordering.

Write a Fanfiction
Whether you are a professional writer or just a bored fan, Fanfiction is the perfect immersive activity to while away the hours.Fanfiction and freeform RPG story writing were activities that really got me through a serious stress of illness in my early twenties, particularly when my depression and brain fog were too heavy to work on my novel. It is especially fun to do as a group project, as waiting for new chapters to appear in your inbox gives you something to look forward to.

Write your Novel
Now if you have a dream to publish a novel, this period of being stuck at home is a really good chance to get a big portion written. After all, if you can't write it now...when?

That said, this is a really heavy time in our culture and it may be very difficult to write. If you can manage to make it cathartic or escapist, good, but if it's weighing you down and making this already stressful time worse, don't push it.

Perfect your Handwriting
There's a third kind of writing that you can do right now and it's literally the art of beautiful letters. Elegant or even legible handwriting has become an art of the past, but one that is still appreciated by many people. If you've ever dreamed of having nicer handwriting, now might be a good time to work on improvement. I decided I wanted my handwriting to look like Jane Austen's, so I downloaded a Jane Austen font and schooled myself in it, writing practice lines every night (from Pride and Prejudice of course!). Just 10-15 minutes a day can really improve your skills.

I've also had fun learning calligraphy, copperplate, and a variety of artistic lettering styles over the years. There are many resources and tutorials available online.

Learn how to Draw
Drawing is a hugely therapeutic activity. No matter your level, there is always something you can teach yourself using the many, many tutorials online. Long time blog readers will remember that my drawing skills made a massive increase after I had a major surgery and recovery in 2012, and I went on a dress design binge when my fibro and chronic migraines confined me to my chair for six months in 2015 and 2016. I experimented with pencils, pens, markers, acrylics, and digital mediums during these periods.

At the very least, you can use up those adult coloring books you bought back in 2015.

Make Costumes for Dolls/Toys
So here's the fun thing: you don't need to sew. Seriously. Glue, tape, pins, safety pins, or just rudimentary sewing skills...anything to get your fabric, paper, ribbon, etc, to stay in place. Make crazy costumes to amuse yourself, your kids, or your friends (online). Make them for action figures, barbies, or paper dolls. You can even make a paperdoll of yourself, your kids, or that coworker you want to annoy, and then create all kinds of crazy paper clothes for them.

Or just hop over to dolldivine.com and spend hours playing on their dollmakers. It's so addicting and very calming.

Review everything you've ever bought
If you go in your amazon account, you can find everything you've ever bought on the website and review it. Let people know what was awesome and what was not. Books, movies, clothes, baby paraphernalia...warn or encourage. Maybe even throw in some humor. With online ordering becoming even more vital these days, honest reviews are also a needed public service.

Do a staged reading of a play
A trend I'm seeing among my theater friends is to do acapella covers of musical numbers. But it would also be pretty fun to see staged readings of some open domain plays like Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde! Round up some friends, assign parts, and someone to edit it all together into your own recording to share...or not!

Learn how to do an archaic, old-timey skill
If you grew up reading Little House on the Prairie or you're into playing D&D, or you're obsessed with the Civil War, chances are there is some archaic skill that you've always thought "I should learn to do that." Why not now? Look up tutorials on YouTube, order some candlemaking supplies, and bust out that pottery wheel you got for Christmas ten years ago!

Or maybe, you know, learn how to darn those socks that have been sitting in the back of your drawer for five years.

Most of all, stay calm, stay cheerful, and have patience.
These skills don't come naturally, but are more important to cultivate than ever!

Friday, March 13, 2020

How to Survive Quarantine (Without Going Crazy) Part 1

With mass quarantine rippling out worldwide in the wake of the Coronavirus, I thought I would share some tips on surviving being stuck at home for long periods of time. As many of you know, I've suffered chronic health issues for over a decade and have a lot of personal experience in making the most of life in the same four walls for weeks or months on end. So if you are looking on how to preserve your sanity along with your health, this article might just be a lifesaver!

Not all of these are applicable if you are actively, seriously sick, and your energy should always be firstly on providing yourself and your loved ones with rest and nutrients. However, mental health remains important as well, so if you are in recovery, staying home to minimize exposure, or if you have a light case, or trying to keep your kids busy while you rest up, here are some ideas that I have found to be real sanity savers over the years.

Your Home is Your Sanctuary

The single most important concept of surviving intense geographical limitation is to make sure that the area you inhabit is an area that makes you happy. Peace and joy are immune strengtheners while stress and depression knock you down. So tidy up. Organize. Get that new piece of wall decor you've been eyeing. Wash the windows. Paint the room. Add mood lights. Get a plant. Wash or replace the curtains/furniture covers. Toss the clutter. Rearrange furniture to help the house feel 'new.' When you are sick, tidiness will slide, so make it a priority when you are feeling well, and keep your housemates/family on the same page.

Communicate...Long Distance

Be clear about your health and ask about the health of others. But beyond that, spend intentional time connecting with others. Write an email to someone you haven't seen in awhile. Fill them in on your life and ask about theirs. Schedule video chats. Call your mom. Start a virtual book club. Join some facebook hobby groups that are focused on non-COVID topics. Follow some uplifting tags on Instagram, and make sure to leave meaningful comments on social media photos of friends and family. You never know when you might reconnect with someone!

Communicate...Short Distance

If you have housemates or family members living with you, you might suddenly find yourselves spending a LOT more time together. Talk about what everyone needs in terms of personal space and time and figure out how to manage everyone's needs. Worry and sickness can make it more difficult to remain neutral and pleasant in conversation and you may find yourselves snapping at each other. Be mindful. If you slip up, apologize. An apology is such a heartwarming thing. Don't let the sun go down on your anger. Use "I feel" language instead of "you did this" language. Extroverts need to give introverts their space, and introverts need to mindfully initiate contact with extroverts. Take care of each other.

If/when you get sick...be kind to your caregiver. Say thank you. Be the patient for them that you hope they will be for you.

If you take care of someone else...be cheerful. Check in on them. Help them get better faster. Be the caregiver you hope they will be for you, if only in the sense of being clearly aware of what THEY need.

Innovate in the Kitchen

Between being stuck at home, finding finances tighter, and needing to fill yourselves with healthy and not junk food, you may find yourself getting really bored of your diet really fast. One of the best things you can do is use your energy to cook some meals that are healthy and delicious. Cook in bulk so that you have plenty of leftovers in the fridge and freezer, so that you have good, enticing food at home to eliminate the desire to go out and buy cheap, unhealthy craving food in germ-transmissable areas.

Streaming is Your Friend...When You Laugh

While it may be a good time to cut back on excessive streaming services, keeping one or rotating a few may be key to getting through this pandemic, especially when you are too sick to do much else. However, keep in mind that laughter is healing and stress is weakening! So skip the horror and suspense and keep to the hilarious and heartwarming. Rewatch old favorites and ask friends for recommendations. Swapping DVD sets now before Coronavirus hits your community might be wise, but DVD cases are also fairly easy to sterilize and dropoffs can be prudently managaged.

E-Books Don't Carry Germs

I love a good book when I'm sick. I've got a whole host of recommended titles over on this page. While I haven't stopped borrowing library books, it's probably wise to stock up BEFORE you have to go into quarantine and before your community gets hit, to minimize germs spreading from person to person contact. Once COVID arrives in your community, it's probably wise to let your books sit unread and untouched for a few days after picking them up, to ensure any germs sticking around are dead. If even that contact isn't a good idea for you, check into your library's system for borrowing e-books. Even if you don't have an e-reader, you can read on your phone or laptop. Amazon Prime members can borrow some books for free (I just enjoyed "The Mark of the Raven" this way), or you can subscribe to Kindle Unlimited for many more titles (my own novel, "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" is available in KU). You can also sign up for Bookbub, which sends you a list of new ebook deals (free or very cheap) every Sunday.

Audiobooks, podcasts, and webcomics are also excellent timefillers to amuse and enlighten.

Check Your Pinterest Backlog

Bored? Open your pinterest and start going through your boards. You might be surprised by the diy projects, family game ideas, and housecleaning tips that you pinned five years ago and never got around to doing.

Marie Kondo It

As your house seems smaller, you'll find more and more impetus to throw stuff out and create space! Might be an excellent time to sort through your wardrobe, bookshelf, or collection of shotglasses to clear things out. Just don't donate anything until you are well and the items no longer contain live viruses.

Go Green

As toilet paper disappears, your budget crunches, and you have some sedentary time to fold laundry, it might be a good opportunity to implement some new processes in your house. Family Cloth is rising in popularity these days as a toilet paper alternative...but if that is too extreme, you can switch to cloth napkins and use your paper napkins as backup toilet paper. Sewing your own cloth napkins could be a satisfying project, and easy enough for any sewing novices or youngsters in the household to assist with.

Family Game Night

I'm not talking Monopoly. Remember what I said about stress and the immune system? (And probably not "Pandemic" either, as much as I love that game!). However there are a bajillion and four tabletop boardgames to enjoy these days. I particularly enjoy cooperative games such as the Harry Potter "Battle for Hogwarts", however I'm always down for raising sheep and wheat in "Catan", building railways in "Ticket to Ride", or hoarding coins as Prince John in Disney's "Villainous." Facebook is a great way to crowdsource recommendations from people who know you personally, and you could swap games with friends as well, as long as you thoughtfully mitigate germs hopping along. If you live on your own, or run out of two-player options to play with your one housemate, you can register for an account on Steam or a similar service and play remotely with friends and family.

Go On Adventures Without Leaving Your Living Room

...and on a similar note, perhaps it's time to look into starting an Role Playing Game via video chat or an old-fashioned email chain? During the six years of our marriage, one way my husband and I coped with being extremely housebound was hosting a regular role-playing group with our friends. Although I could rarely physically leave my living room, I still managed to rescue victims, explore new cities, start rebellions, and exchange witty repartee with my friends. If you have a large family/roomie situation or one other household you can exclusively meet with, you can manage an in-person group. However I've also had great fun with video chat sessions, or text-based rpg via chat, email, or forums. There are many systems you can play for free, and dice rolls can be generated via apps, so there is little to no financial barrier.

Get started on exploring these options, or check out my second post of more specialized suggestions!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Mandalorian (Season 1)

We were supposed to start "The Mandalorian" on December 27th, 2019, the day episode 8 dropped. That was the plan. Wait until it was all out, then binge the whole thing! No nasty cliffhangers.

Then some friends basically said "here you go, have some Disney Plus, and WATCH THE MANDALORIAN."

Well. We couldn't argue with that.

For the most part I'm tremendously grateful. Except for the part where we watched episode 7 right before Christmas even though my husband had been spoiled and knew there was a nasty cliffhanger and I had to go into Christmas wondering WHAT HAPPENED TO--------- [redacted for spoilers]-----????

Anyhow, if you are reading this and haven't watched the show yet, unless you fall asleep or the power goes out or you have some pressing work commitment, nothing should keep you from going from episode 7 into episode 8.

Lucky you!!!!

Although let's be honest, at around 35 minutes an episode (with rather gratuitous end credits), this might be one of the easiest shows to binge watch ever. It's an interesting choice, as live action drama usually stretches 45-52 minutes here in the States. However it works surprising well in "The Mandalorian," perhaps in part because at least some of the creative team has been honing their skills on the animated Star Wars shows and are used to a shorter format. As parents catching the episodes during baby's naps, my husband and I appreciated the the length!

Preamble accomplished, what did I think of the actual show? Well, I thought it was exactly the STAR WARS show that we need. Something largely unconnected to the Skywalker saga (although with plenty of easter eggs), part episodic, part overarching plot, a fun callback to the western-style format (capture all those Firefly fans, y'know), a likeable, laconic hero with the cutest ever sidekick...

...we all know 2019 is going to go down as the year of Baby Yoda.

My largest frustration with the show was the glaring lack of female characters during the first three episodes. STAR WARS has come so far, and done such a better job in recent years with balancing things out (haha), that it just felt plain weird to have a single female speak during the first three episodes. And it would have been SO easy to make almost any one of the other secondary characters be female. I was confused, disappointed, and sad. Honestly, it helped me understand why there is such an outcry in general over representation in storytelling. I don't think I've ever felt so...invisible before. So, personal realization moment there!

Now, of course, the show DID redeem itself in that regard with episode #4 being extremely female-centric, and a couple of other good uses of females coming through later. Still, after episode #3 I was struggling, feeling that the showrunners were banking on keeping the female audience largely through Baby Yoda's existence.

I won't lie. I was watching mostly for Baby Yoda.

That issue aside, I really did enjoy the show. I thought it was engaging, funny, well-written for the most part (with a few mis-steps in the middle), and a good expansion of the cinematic STAR WARS universe.

My hands-down favorite two scenes were a) Mando's seige of the Jawa cruiser, and b) the opening scene of episode 8 which I won't spoil but totally had me in stitches.

I loved seeing some actual live action Twi-lek characters even though they were pretty weird. (I played a twi-lek in one RPG...and she had an older brother! ha...but she wasn't a Harley Quinn wannabe) I had zero interest in Mandalorian culture prior to watching the show, but now I have appreciation for why there are die hard Mandalorian fans (even though I'm also aware that the show portrays just one tribe of Mandalorians).

We were a little thrown by the appearance of Uruk Hai in episode 4 (which appears to have taken place in Minnesota, lol), and we appreciated the exploration of droids, the effect (or non effect) of the Rebellion, and the big reveal at the end which I won't spoil but certainly has interesting connotations for the next season.

I remember hearing, about fifteen years ago, that George Lucas wanted to do a live action STAR WARS show. My mind was blown. How could such a thing be financially possible? What kind of miracle would this be?

But now, honestly, in this day of superhero TV galore, the surprise is not that we have a live action STAR WARS tv show, but rather that it has taken this long to exist. That said, it was worth waiting for the show to be done right, and I personally don't think Disney could have done much better for their initial foray than they have with Season One of "The Mandalorian." Is it perfect? Clearly not. Is it perfect for what we needed right now?

Oh yes.

And I can't wait to see what they do with "Obi-Wan."