Saturday, December 29, 2012

Welcome our newest Torch Bearer!

Greetings, faithful readers.

As you may know, Katya & I have been looking for a new blogger to join our ranks in 2013. After a long and exhaustive search that rivalled the X Factor auditions (sort of), we found a great blogger who we're very much looking forward to having on board to share the joy/chaos/libellous cases with. So please welcome Christina!

My name is Christina, and I'm in my early thirties. I was born in South America, grew up in New Jersey, spent many years in Florida, and I currently live in North Carolina. 
While I enjoy any good book, I prefer stories that are a bit unusual, particularly horror and experimental fiction. I enjoy YA because it tends to be more daring than other genres, and I hope to see more positive books for young people to read rather than some of the sort of books that have gotten a majority of hype in recent years. 
Besides reading and writing, I love movies, music, edgy stand-up comedians, and professional wrestling.  
Currently I'm writing a YA novel that will probably become a series, as well as a few other books, screenplays, and plays. My mind never stops.

Christina can be found on Twitter at @writewilder and her Goodreads page is here. Here's to a successful 2013!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: "Thoughtless" by S.C. Stephens


“Thoughtless”
Author: S.C. Stephens.
Pages: 546.

Summary (taken from Goodreads): For almost two years now, Kiera's boyfriend, Denny, has been everything she's ever wanted: loving, tender and endlessly devoted to her. When they head off to a new city to start their lives together, Denny at his dream job and Kiera at a top-notch university, everything seems perfect. Then an unforeseen obligation forces the happy couple apart.
Feeling lonely, confused, and in need of comfort, Kiera turns to an unexpected source – a local rock star named Kellan Kyle. At first, he's purely a friend that she can lean on, but as her loneliness grows, so does their relationship. And then one night everything changes...and none of them will ever be the same.
I have a reputation for being something of a literary masochist. It’s my own fault, really. I began book blogging through a project where I would deliberately look for stuff that I knew I probably wouldn’t like – in this case, post-Twilight paranormal romance young adult novels – and review them in a highly critical manner not usually directed at the genre. I don’t really do this anymore (my dystopian YA review project is on hiatus due to extenuating circumstances) but the reputation remains. I’m fine with this because I do have this overwhelming urge to finish every book I read, no matter how much I hate the experience. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book. I’m not entirely sure why I’m prefacing my review with this weird disclaimer, but it feels necessary.
I have a very high standard for books like this and I see no reason why I should lower my standards because a book’s aimed at a younger audience, or is self-published. I’ve also been very vocal in my criticisms of the burgeoning New Adult category, and the inherent exploitation of its audience within. I’ve read a lot of awful, sexist, insulting, damaging and deeply disturbing YA novels in my time. I’ve seen the worst stuff passed off as romantic or normalised as part of the sexual teen experience.
But until I read “Thoughtless” by S.C. Stephens, I’d never seen rape treated as passionate and sexy. I’d never seen the heroine be kicked in the head and knocked unconscious by the man who was supposed to love her. These incidents were horrific enough, but what made it worse was the way in which they were so casually shoved aside, justified and dealt with by the characters, with almost no understanding of the real world or how basic human nature works. I’ve read a lot in my time, but nothing as truly loathsome and despicable as this book.
Let’s start with the basics. Kiera, supposedly over 21 yet possessing the emotional maturity of a seven year old, moves to Washington to be with her Australian boyfriend Denny, who she is completely devoted to despite not really having anything in common with him. They move in with Denny’s friend, local rock-star Kellan, and soon sparks fly between him and Kiera. It’s not long before Kiera falls into bed with Kellan and continues an affair with him right under her boyfriend’s nose.
I know many readers are automatically opposed to cheating characterised as romantic in such stories, but I hold no such prejudices. If it is handled maturely and imbued with the complex emotional and societal implications such situations involve, then it can make for an interesting story. Many great stories throughout history have included extra-marital affairs. However, what we see in “Thoughtless” is so lacking in dimensions that it’s almost invisible. Kiera and Kellan are incredibly unlikeable and immature characters, and spending over 500 pages with them is exhausting. You could write their motivations on the back of a postcard and still have enough room to write a few sonnets. Kiera is shallow, insensitive, cruel, selfish and incredibly stupid. She’s the blushing virgin without the virginity, the sort of woman who blushes at the very mention of the word “penis”, despite being over 21 and in a sexual relationship. I knew nothing about her or her interests, other than her boyfriend and her lover. She’s also a big fan of slut-shaming other women who even approach Kellan, who seems to be draped in adoring fans constantly. Kellan is your typical YA/NA tortured bad boy romantic archetype. There is nothing there that you haven’t seen a million times before. Denny, the adoring cardboard cut-out boyfriend, is entirely forgettable. His defining characteristics seem to be his devotion to Kiera and his Australian accent, which the author mentions almost every time he talks. We were hardly likely to forget. If you tell me he’s Australian once, I’ll believe you. the secondary characters are barely worth mentioning. Kiera’s sister is promiscuous and pretty, securing herself a job at Hooters, whilst Kellan’s band-mate Griffin literally does nothing but talk about sex. He’s beyond caricature. There’s a particularly charming scene about 10% into the book where he brags about shoving a bottle into an inebriated woman’s vagina. No character calls him out on this disgusting act, or enquires as to whether or not it was consensual. Here’s the scene in question. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions:
"...this girl, damn, she had the best rack I've ever seen." The bassist paused to make a crude gesture with his hands, as if the guys would need that statement clarified. "And the shortest skirt too. Everybody around us was completely wasted, so I ducked under the table and shoved that skirt as high as it would go. Then I grabbed my beer bottle and stuck--"
So she’s wearing a short skirt, has large breasts, and has been drinking, so that gives a man credit to do as he pleases with her?
“Thoughtless” suffers from fan-fiction syndrome. While not fan-fiction, which makes a change in this genre, the book did originally start life on FictionPress.com, the original work equivalent of FF.net, and as such, the same expected problems arise. The plotting is stretched out beyond belief to fill out aimless chapters that were clearly intended to be read on a serialised basis. This also explains the characters’ actions. The relationship between Kiera and Kellan is stretched out repeatedly, with both making idiotic decisions so the story can go on another 50 pages. It doesn’t help that Kiera’s relationship with Denny is so dull and incomprehensible. I had no idea why they were supposedly so in love, or why I was supposed to sympathise with them or feel any real angst in her decision. We know she’s not going to pick Denny because that’s how this plot-line works. There’s no tension here whatsoever, which is a shame because there is a slither of interesting plot here. It would be different and truly emotional to see a story where someone comes to the realisation that their partner, the one they’ve given up so much for, isn’t the one, and that they don’t really have anything in common. However, such a story would require a skilled authorial hand, one which is entirely absent here.
Now, we move onto the big glaring problem here.
Kiera isn’t a whore. She’s a cheater but she’s not a whore. Such terms are thrown around to hurt women for being sexual in any way. I’ve been pretty vocal in my opposition to such anti-women tactics in fiction aimed at teens and “new adults” (but still sold as children’s fiction in Amazon, may I add) because I think that, in the 21st century, we should be more progressive and considerate in these matters. There’s no excuse for calling Kiera a whore.
There’s certainly no excuse for Kellan doing so (he, of course, is a “man-whore” throughout the book, because that’s totally different).
The fact that Kiera forgave him for calling her a whore made me so angry.
I wish it was the worst thing he’d done to her in the book.
I’ve seen one reviewer describe the car scene as “vaguely rapey”. There’s nothing vague about it. It’s rape. Kellan drags Kiera into a car and begins to undress her, despite her repeatedly saying no. there’s this bullshit “My mouth says no but my body says yes” justification coming from Kiera’s unbearable narration throughout this scene, but it’s moot. What happens is rape. She does not give her consent to Kellan. She is very vocally saying no. Later on, she cries and apologises to Kellan, saying she led him on.
This is wrong on every level.
In real life, women are raped, and in the shockingly low number of cases were the charge actually makes it to court, it is common for the defence to shame the woman. She’s slammed for her actions in her everyday life, be in wearing revealing clothing, being drunk on the occasion or daring to flirt with other men. All these are used as defences of rape because they’re seen as indicative of the victim having led him on. That mind-set is present in “Thoughtless”, and it’s used to normalise rape as something more akin to a display of uncontrollable passion. The scene is hastily explained through some tears where Kellan apologises but Kiera tosses this aside claiming she is equally to blame for what happened, and then they continue as normal.
It’s not “vaguely rapey”. It’s rape. It’s not romantic. It’s rape.
And it doesn’t end there.
Once the affair is finally revealed, Denny goes from being the gormless nice boy to a full on rage machine, and practically tears Kellan to pieces. Before he can deliver a final kick to Kellan’s head, Kiera jumps in and takes the kick. She is hospitalised and almost dies.
She forgives Denny.
She is almost killed by a man she is supposed to be able to trust. This massive and entirely gratuitous event serves no greater purpose to the plot other than to drag out the ending for even longer. The event is barely discussed. Kiera does not seem particularly distressed by what’s happened. It’s all tossed aside.
The author used domestic violence for dramatic angst purposes.
This is not okay. It’s not tense or dramatic or angsty. It’s horrific, entirely unnecessary and, from a literary point of view, embarrassing to read. There is no subtlety to this story, or anything even vaguely resembling real tension. What we have here is a violent, confused and damaging mess disguised poorly as romantic drama. What we have here is the inevitable conclusion of a genre that has continued to romanticise and justify the most horrifically misogynist examples of rape culture for the sake of chasing trends and making money. I can say, without a hint of hyperbole, that this is the most loathsome and despicable thing I have ever read. From a literary stance, it’s shoddily written, badly plotted and filled with characters that make shadow puppets look well developed. New Adult literature is supposed to fill the liminal period between adolescence and adulthood, and deal with the emotional and social situations within. Instead, this book romanticises rape. Nothing could justify the content of this novel. “Thoughtless” is completely void of redeeming qualities.
0/5. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, this is a book that lives in a world where stars don’t shine.
I received my ARC from Edelweiss. Needless to say, I was not paid or compensated for this review.

Favourite 2012 Releases

It’s that time of the year again! The time when we stop our frantic reading/reviewing/writing/gummy bear consummation and think about the last twelve months and what they have brought us. The time for retrospective and introspective, cleaning up the shelves and making new resolutions. And 2012 will surely go down as one of the most hectic years in publishing.

Ironically, though, for as much drama as there was in the blogosphere (and please, please, please, for all that’s holy, 2013, ease up on the drama!) it wasn’t necessarily about the books. Oh, sure, some of it started from reviews of said books, but as the conversation went on, it moved away from the actual content and more towards the realm of “What’s the position of book bloggers?” and “What’s the position of authors?” and free speech and the right to express your opinion without being bullied for it.

These are all, undoubtedly, important questions. But at this year’s end, let us remember that Goodreads (and the rest of the book blogosphere) are spaces meant for book lovers to discuss stories and celebrate their love for reading.

So, without further ado…

Favourite Fantasy

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Nowadays, (and largely thanks to Twilight), we’re used to associate YA with lazy storytelling, lame plots and shaky worldbuilding that doesn’t go past the basic premise. Not so much with this book, though - Seraphina is a wonderful, ambitious fantasy, one that takes me back to when I used to read books like Sabriel and dream about creating rich worlds for my characters to have epic adventures in.

Favourite Contemporary

Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

It all begins with a stupid question:
Are you a Global Vagabond?

No, but 18-year-old Bria Sandoval wants to be. In a quest for independence, her neglected art, and no-strings-attached hookups, she signs up for a guided tour of Central America—the wrong one. Middle-aged tourists with fanny packs are hardly the key to self-rediscovery. When Bria meets Rowan, devoted backpacker and dive instructor, and his outspokenly humanitarian sister Starling, she seizes the chance to ditch her group and join them off the beaten path.

Bria's a good girl trying to go bad. Rowan's a bad boy trying to stay good. As they travel across a panorama of Mayan villages, remote Belizean islands, and hostels plagued with jungle beasties, they discover what they've got in common: both seek to leave behind the old versions of themselves. And the secret to escaping the past, Rowan’s found, is to keep moving forward.

But Bria comes to realize she can't run forever, no matter what Rowan says. If she ever wants the courage to fall for someone worthwhile, she has to start looking back.
 
I read that as an e-galley last year, but since it came out in February 2012, it counts.

Wanterlove is… special. Not just because of its premise (Backpacking! In South America! Awesome!) but also because of its characters. I’m one of those people who would give five stars to any story, as long as I connect with the characters, and this is no exception: I found Bria to be a charming, engaging, sympathetic and all-around relatable heroine, someone whose struggles I wholeheartedly understand and sympathise with.

More to the point, though, this is a mature book. There is a worldliness and understanding to it that’s (sadly) lacking from many YAs out there.

Favourite SciFi

Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard

The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.

Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career.

There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however; soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.

I reviewed this recently, so there isn’t much I want to add. I’m cheating a little bit here, since I haven’t read nearly any SciFi this year, and this has been the only recent release, but it’s worth pointing out again - this is the closest a comparison I can make to Philip Reeve’s work without feeling bad about it. Take it as you will.

Favourite Crossover/Fairy Tale Retelling

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

What can I say about Cinder that hasn’t already been said by everyone else? Or that I haven’t said already? READ THIS BOOK! If only because it has a kickass female heroine, read this book. Read it for the fairy tale retelling. Read it for the witty banter. Read it for the story. It’s worth the hype. I promise.

Favourite Sequel (TIE!)

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver / Spark by Brigid Kemmerer

I thought I should include this category, because there were not one, but two sequels this year that blew me out of the water. These are books I would not have picked up without the serious prompting of my GR friends, and I’m ever grateful for Kat and Wendy’s reivews as they gave me the shove I needed to give those books a chance. I’ve reviewed both for this blog, and interviewed the authors, but there is something a little extra that makes me wanna talk about those books in more detail, and why they work so well for me.

First of all, they both expand on the world and characters more. Pandemonium, in particular, added many, many wonderful layers to the Delirium universe, ones which were sorely missed before. Spark, on the other hand, allowed me to get to know a character I used to despise and actually made me sympathetic to his struggles, which really is something.

Second, they upped the stakes, making the danger appear closer and more immediate. Both novels were tighter and more urgent - Pandemonium because Lina was finally facing an actual antagonist, while Spark because the plot was more focused on Gabriel and Layne. The danger felt more imminent, and so I was more invested.

Usually, I’m not one who persist with a series after the first book (or, hell, the first half of the book) disappointed me. So believe me when I say that these two series are my great exceptions - absolutely, read on.

Note: Synopsis and image via Goodreads.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What's With All the Hate?

Why do women hate women?

That's a question I've seen in many magazines written for women, regardless of race. And it's an honest question. I've seen woman on woman hate in movies, video games, television, and yes—YA novels.

Yet some claim women can't be sexist against other women—when a woman voices her opinion on something that would dub a man a misogynist, she's merely speaking her mind. For the record, I would like to state that there are certain exceptions in regard to sexism and racism within groups of the same race/sex/ethnicity. It is a standard, not a double standard, unlike some would like to believe.

However, when a woman demeans another woman for having large breasts or a weave or enjoying sex or wearing make-up or simply wishing to become a housewife—that is sexist and there's no exception.

I've seen it too many times—

Why is she wearing those boots? They're slutty.
Look at those hooker heels.
Her ass is too big.
I hate when blonde bitches get all the guys.
Why is she wearing those shorts? Whore.
Is she wearing a weave? That can't be her real hair.
Why does she sleep with so many guys? Slut.
Her room has a revolving door.
She was all over my boyfriend. Bitch.
She's a dyke, for sure.
I only have guy friends.
I'm not "girly" like those other women.

All from women. Women who'd never, ever admit to being sexist.

And it's not surprising.

It's quite rare to find a legitimate female/female friendship in popular entertainment. There's usually underlying insecurity or jealousy. Usually over a guy. Look at Twilight—does Bella have any legitimate friendships with females? Alice does not count. Look at Hush, Hush. Look at most contemporary novels—girls typically have guy friends, and if they do have female friends, those friends are a) described as shallow and air headed, b) non-threatning, aka, not attractive according to the narrator, or c) they exist as a plot device for the narrator to become attracted to their boyfriend or vice-versa.

Even a favorite of mine, A Great and Terrible Beauty, isn't free of this. The MC's aren't truly friends. They're frenemies, a term we rarely see applied to guys.

Are there any friendships that don't have some jealousy and insecurity in them? Probably not. But when you compare the relationships between men and the relationships between women in popular entertainment, men usually come out on top. Look at shows like Bridalplasty—which pit women against each other to win plastic surgery—or Desperate Housewives, which is just about as petty as it gets.

Besides Thelma and Louise, I can't name any modern movies which portray dynamic female friendships to the extent that any recent bromance (50/50, Superbad) do. Online, I see hundreds of goofy GIF's about Supernatural's dynamic duo, but where is the female equivalent?

In YA books, it's become standard to see girls argue over guys (especially in YA PNR). We'll see the weakest excuses contrived to create animosity between girls.

A favorite short lived series of mine, Gotham City Sirens, paired up Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn—three iconic female characters whose lives revolve around men. For the purpose of this comic, they've come together to realize they no longer wish to be controlled by the men in their lives—Batman and the Joker, respectively. And, for a while, it works.

They overcome their own individual oppressions and come to terms with the abuse and neglect they've suffered through. That is, until the finale—when their friendship is destroyed by petty jealousy. These are some of the strongest female characters in DC history and ridiculous, contrived reasons are given for their separation. This was right before the DCU reboot. It's not even worth discussing the new editions of Catwoman and Harley Quinn. We know what happened. It was disappointing to say the least.

Another comic favorite of mine—an adaptation of the Teen Titans, attempted to show a strong friendship between Starfire and Raven. We get a few episodes of friendship devoted to them, but most fans will only come away remembering the dynamic between Robin and Cyborg or Beast Boy and Raven.

Over the history of comics, we've never quite seen a female pair as strong as Batman and Robin or the fan favorite Teen Titans line-up—Robin/Superboy/Kid Flash. The television adaptation of the Justice League attempted to give us something between Wonder Woman and Hawk Girl, but mostly, we received a lot of bantering between them. Granted, the show tried at times, but we usually came out with the short end of the stick. Most of the female/female relationships could not hold a candle to the male/male relationships or the male/female relationships.

I can't remember any Disney movies that feature popular female friendships, probably because the focus is usually on romance, aka, finding a guy to marry. The only example that comes to mind is in The Princess and the Frog. There are, however, countless memorable male/male friendships: Mike and Scully, Woody and Buzz, Kenai and Koda, Pooh Bear and Piglet, The Fox and the Hound, etc, etc.

On the topic of popular music—if we left Beyonce and Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift to speak on female friendships, we'd come away thinking all women were unattractive, stupid sluts without any taste in jeans or men. Even in pop songs where male rappers demean women, they seem to remain close with each other.

I applaud KA Applegate, author of The Animorphs, for giving us an honest, female/female friendship between Rachel and Cassie that did not come with the standard arguments we see between females in most entertainment. And I give a standing ovation to Judy Blume for presenting a variety of relationships between females in her novels.

More modern YA writers like Sarah Dessen make a point to include strong female friendships in most of their books. And author of The Friday Society, Adrienne Kress, made this statement in regard to her recent YA debut which I wholeheartedly agree with:
This is something sorely lacking in most media today. Even when you have a strong, positive, three-dimensional female main character, she is often the exception rather than the rule. Other female characters with lousy character traits are put around her to demonstrate just how amazing our lead character is, and often our FMC has contempt for most women in the story. The characters the FMC does relate to tend to be male.

On the off-chance that the FMC does have female friends, they are often represented as frenemies (I really hate that word). Relationships between women are evidently supposed to be catty, manipulative, and just all-around unpleasant. By contrast, there is a beauty to men’s bromance. It is held up as an important and wonderful thing, whether it be a Fellowship surrounding, say, a piece of jewelry, or someone to whom you can say I Love You, Man. But the female bond is derided, considered a necessary evil. Something to mock. It’s actually why I believe so many women love bromance books and films. We so rarely see our own friend relationships represented as high-quality and fulfilling, that we relate better to watching the way male relationships are represented.
So, please, YA writers, I ask you to try and put a little effort into the female friendships you write. And readers: demand more. Does every single female besides your MC have to be evil simply because she's attractive? Does every girl who catches your MC BF's eye have to be a bitch? I feel like I'm writing a PBS donation script, asking for money, but I'm serious.

These things are embedded into our society. They are directly tied to slut shaming and rape culture. And, as a writer (or reader), you can help others realize that women do have healthy relationships with one another and you'd like to seem more of them presented in our entertainment.

I, for one, am sick of seeing women pitted against each other in my books and in real life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - "Your Hymen is Not a Treasure!": Fetishising Purity & Sex.


I hated “Halo”, the first novel in a paranormal romance series by Australian teenager Alexandra Adornetto. The only reason it wasn’t flung against the wall in a fit of rage was because it was an electronic copy. I found the novel to be a terribly written, barely plotted mess that revelled in pushing a religious message regarding women and relationships, and in slamming feminists in one instance. My co-blogger Katya, a stronger woman than I, has read the second in the series and her review of “Hades”, which can be found here, confirms my worst fears as well as adding delightful new ones. Hurray for slut-shaming (and homophobia in the final book “Heaven”)! 

I try to keep author and text separate as much as I can when I review, although there are instances where I just find it impossible, and this is one such instance. Adornetto wrote this particularly disgusting piece for an Australian news website, where she describes virginity as a “gift” that “remains unwrapped”, talks of teenage girls as if they are too emotionally and intellectually stunted to make decisions for themselves, shames two strangers for propositioning friends of hers, and declares her support for professional misogynist and Australian politician Tony Abbott. Abbott received worldwide mockery recently after being on the receiving end of a fifteen minute smack-down from PM Julia Gillard regarding a steady stream of disgustingly sexist comments he has made throughout his political career, including standing by signs that called the Prime Minister a “witch” and a “man’s bitch”. I highly recommend watching the entire clip here. For the record, I wouldn’t trust Tony Abbott as far as I could throw him. Not just because I’m a woman but because I’m also a decent human being.

What Adornetto does in her work and in articles like this (including one where she declares Edward Cullen “has raised the bar” in terms of the perfect man) is almost deify a woman’s virginity. She stereotypes young men as well but her “concerns” are most definitely aimed at her own gender. This is an increasingly commonly used tool of the Christian right and one that should be examined very closely.

Let me get this out of the way before I continue – there is nothing wrong with remaining abstinent. If you choose that path for yourself then that’s fine. Nobody should pressurise anyone else into doing something they feel uncomfortable with. However, that also means that nobody should shame anybody else into remaining abstinent, particularly through lies, double standards and concern trolling. Personally, I don’t think one’s virginity is a “gift”, nor do I consider it my defining characteristic. As I previously discussed, the virgin/whore complex that paints anything resembling open sexuality as dirty and bad is incredibly harmful to women, and this worshipping of the hymen fits in perfectly with that mind-set.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, most YA writers aren’t so blatant in their approach. Once again, predictably so, I bring the conversation back to “Twilight”, the pioneer of YA abstinence porn. The “Twilight” series (still refusing to call it a saga) is an interesting series in many ways, because it spends three books orchestrating intricate circumstances and reasons as to why Bella and Edward can’t have sex (all of which could have been solved with the solution of having Bella on top, but I digress). Edward is so super strong that he could possibly kill Bella through the sheer power of his thrusting, and will only have sex with her once they’re married (side note but was anyone else annoyed with Bella’s desire to become an immortal vampire as soon as possible before she became a nineteen year old crone yet still considered herself too young to get married? Priorities, people!). Bella is essentially blackmailed into marriage, finally gets her fade-to-black moment, and then gets pregnant, giving a whole new meaning to the warnings of the “Mean Girls” health-class.

“Twilight” follows a similar path to “Halo” yet doesn’t deify virginity so much as the big event itself. While Bella actually wants to have sex, she and Edward explicitly remain virgins until they’re legally wed. It’s not difficult to read into the subtext there. The cherry popping is built up as the climax (no pun intended) of Bella and Edward’s relationship, far more so than their wedding.

Here’s another game for you to play: name five hobbies that Bella and Edward have in common, or five interests that they share. You can’t include school activities or homework. Name five ambitions they share for their future together. Honestly, I can’t name anything for any of these categories except for their mutual attraction. It’s lust, not love, which makes the building up of the sexual act itself unsurprising in context. “Twilight”, “Halo” and their ilk talk or true love and passion, but seldom actually depict it.

I actually started writing this post a few weeks before the whole New Adult and teen erotica talk started, and had forgotten that I hadn’t actually finished and posted this particular piece. The big scary issue around the topic of sex is about choice. Who chooses to have sex, who chooses to abstain, and are these choices backed up with the appropriate attitudes and support? Of course, the choice element is often pushed aside for dramatic effect. Bella and Edward physically can’t have sex because it might kill her. Ever and Damen in Alyson Noel’s “Evermore” series suddenly encounter a plot point that means a single touch from the heroine could kill her beloved. Turning the very act of sex, and even touching, into something killer is the world’s least subtle metaphor.

Building up sex, something that happens every day, as the payoff of your story, the climax (no pun intended), is hilariously low-stakes, but it’s also quite disturbing. The unhealthy contrast of fetishized virginity combined with portraying sex as the ultimate pay-off creates a completely unattainable double standard. Having sex doesn’t make you a bad person, and neither does abstaining. It’s your choice to do what you want to do, and I hope your choice is well thought out and responsible. Given the traditional elements present in mainstream YA of the past few years, I’m not surprised that sex is looked at so strangely, particularly when written by older writers. In contrast, Kody Keplinger wrote her first book “The DUFF” while still in high school, and tackles sex very head-on and unflinching. She looks at sex as what it is – sex. It’s not the Holy Grail, and it’s not the harbinger of the apocalypse. It’s a weird, awkward, fun but natural act of humanity. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Syrenas, No Means No, and the Intent/Execution Divide

Yesterday, I saw the cover for “Of Triton”, the sequel to Anna Banks’ debut “Of Poseidon”, for the first time. It was an… interesting experience. Not because of the cover itself (though it is pretty), but because just looking at it triggered a slew of memories I had about its predecessor and how it made me feel.
 
Some background: I read “Of Poseidon” in March this year, when Macmillan gave me access to a copy on NetGalley. I was reluctant to even write my review, as I didn’t particularly like the book, and I felt like there was nothing I could add to the conversation. In the end, I did write it, if only to purge the poison from my system.

Yet, nine months later, just seeing the cover for the sequel made me boil up.

So, here I am, writing about bad romance in YA. Again.

DISCLAIMER: From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you have not read “Of Poseidon” and would rather go in blind, now is the time to turn back.

Okay?




Okay.

“Of Poseidon” is the story of Emma, a girl who discovers that she is half-mermaid (or half-Syrena, as they are called) after her (black) best friend gets killed off by a shark. She meets Galen, a Syrena prince, who acts as an ambassador of sorts between humans and mermaids, and sparks fly. The plot gets thicker when they discover that Emma has an extremely rare ability.

But this post isn’t really about Galen and Emma (even though theirs can easily be described as a bad romance). No, it’s about Galen’s sister Rayna and his best friend Toraf. When the book opens, Rayna is avoiding Toraf, because he professed his feelings for her. As the story progresses Toraf not only follows Rayna around everywhere, but also goes to Rayna’s eldest brother (and current king), and gets married to her without her knowledge, consent or presence.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Also, before you ask, the Syrena society is structured in such a way that the notion of romantic love doesn’t factor in the choice of mates. Instead, they are chosen based off their mutual suitability, so in the context of the society, Toraf’s actions are not that unusual.

What makes them extremely unpleasant, though, is the fact that Rayna states, repeatedly and with great conviction, that she doesn’t want to be mated, EVER. Moreover, Toraf has known her since childhood and was, prior to becoming a stalker, her friend. The early chapters show that Rayna is outraged and dismayed that she was mated without her consent, but she also feels betrayed. And for a good reason - the one person she could count on to understand her turned around and did exactly what she didn’t want anyone to do.

And how does this pay off?

How, you ask?

About halfway through the book, Toraf uses Emma to make Rayna jealous, and it is revealed that Rayna never really objected to Toraf, that Rayna loves Toraf, and that she was only playing hard to get.

She was playing hard to get.

SHE WAS PLAYING HARD TO GET!

*deep breaths*

*deeper breaths*

Nine months later and it still pisses me off.

Okay, so for shits and giggles, let’s imagine this situation happening in the real world. Let’s imagine a guy, who has known some girl all her life and is aware that she’s not interested in a relationship, forces his feelings on her. He stalks her, makes inappropriate comments, invades her privacy, uses her family to get close to her and, if possible, marries her without her consent (okay, so that last one may not be possible in the Western world, but let’s imagine.)

Now imagine that the girl protests, loudly and repeatedly, against this treatment. Would you think that she’s not genuinely scared? Would you shrug off her concerns because you know the guy and you know his intentions are good? I’m gonna guess: No. Because this behaviour is truly, genuinely creepy.

Even if the girl really did like the guy, even if she turned around and said she was only playing hard to get, that wouldn’t make the guy’s behaviour any less sketchy. Because in the real world, this stuff is sick! It’s crossing boundaries. It’s violating the rights of another human being, and that’s not acceptable, no matter how good the intentions behind the actions are.

But you know what? I don’t really blame Anna Banks for writing this. No. As far as I’m concerned, she was following a standard story trope, one where a woman’s general air of “I dislike you” translates as “Take me, I’m yours.” Love-hate relationships have existed ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy lay eyes on each other (or maybe even before that), and they make bank hard core.

However, here’s the kicker: there is a line between a love-hate relationship and reinforcing the idea that no always means yes.

How do you tell the difference?

Love-Hate relationship: Lizzie and Darcy didn’t fall into each other’s arms as soon as Lizzie realised she’d been wrong. Both partners were shown the errors of their ways and took steps to becoming better people. Their romance didn’t happen overnight, but through a series of events that showed that both of them had grown and learnt from their past experiences.
 
No always means Yes: Rayna’s professions that she wants to be independent are only window dressing, because as soon as Toraf makes her jealous, she changes her tune. She and Toraf are not shown discussing their situation like grown-ups, she doesn’t even get to explain why she doesn’t want to be mated. Ultimately, her desire to break the paradigm and be independent are brushed aside as a selfish whim. Toraf, for his part, barely seems to understand how his behaviour might have upset Rayna, or how wrong it really is.

I think, in YA fiction, we don’t make the difference between intent and execution. I recently read a post by Foz Meadows on bad boy romance in YA , and it talked about how we, as readers, are supposed to ignore bad behaviour on the part of the male protagonist because he’s the intended love interest, and therefore, his motives must be good.

The problem, though, is that there is a difference between intent and execution.

If you, unintentionally, say something that hurts someone else, that other person will be hurt in spite of what your intentions were. If you break a dish while you’re setting the table, your intentions not to break the dish will not put it back together. If someone creeps you out, you won’t feel any less frightened if that other person’s intentions were completely harmless.

This is how things are in YA, yet even after years of talking about Twilight and how creepy it is to watch someone sleep, we see these reoccurring tropes in YA, again and again and again, even though reinforcing them means that we’re normalising such behaviour. Why is that?

Part of it, of course, is cultural. We see those tropes, and we’re prone to repeating them, sometimes without so much as thinking about what they really mean.

However, I feel that the intent and execution divide also plays a big role, this time when it comes to authors.

Ana Mardoll talked at length about the way our culture puts us in an all-or-nothing position: we can either be good or bad people, and, for the most part, we like to think we are all completely good. That’s why, when someone points out a faux pas (be it something we did, or said), we’re more likely to immediately go on the defencive, rather than see our errors.

This is especially true in YA. Authors don’t like being told that their work perpetuates a racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic stereotype, because, in their eyes, that makes them racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic. They might say that they didn’t set out to write the racise/sexist/albeist/homophobic thing, and conclude that they are not, therefore, racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic.

I get it. I really get it.

But here’s the thing: your intentions are not what matters in this case. It’s your execution. And yes, sometimes, you may do that racist/sexist/albeist/homophobic thing without even realising it - Western culture works in extremes and is not particularly big on nuance.

But at the end of the day, your work still perpetuates that stereotype, and you need to recognise that if you want to avoid perpetuating it again. If you’re an author and you inadvertently normalised a dangerous stereotype in your work, accept that. It doesn’t make you a bad person, just susceptible to the messages you’re sent through popular media. Learn from your experience, apologise, and don’t do it again.

I won’t judge you. After all, I’m human too.
 
Note: Image via Goodreads.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sex in Mainstream YA - Teen Erotica & The Importance of Good Sex.


I’m not one to brag (much), but when I wrote my post onpredictions for the YA industry in 2013, I theorised that erotica would be playing a huge part on the scene, be it through YA authors dipping their toes into the genre, so-called “New Adult” creating a nice stop-gap for adult YA readers wanting some more slap-and-tickle, or just a good old fashioned cash-in. Now, we have publishers running to the scene to beat an already dying horse into the ground before the year’s even over. Self-published YA author Abbi Glines is adding 10,000 words of “naughty” content to her book “The Vincent Boys” (thus making it “New adult” apparently, although Amazon still sells it as teen), and now we have “Irresistable” by Liz Bankes. The Independent describes this book as “Judy Blume for the Fifty Shades of Grey” generation, which is a late contender for the most depressing sentence ever written in the English language.

I firmly believe in good sex. Calm down there, dears. I firmly believe in the need for portrayals of accurate, responsible and serious depictions of teenage sexual relationships in young adult fiction. I think it’s important for the genre to reflect the concerns and desires of its targeted audience, and to show a little accountability in this area. Given that accurate portrayals of sex for surprisingly hard to come by in any form of entertainment, I’m not shocked that YA has as few depictions as it does. The scene is still highly conservative in many ways, as evidenced by the abstinence porn of the paranormal romance craze of the past few years, a topic I have previously discussed. Young adult fiction is also regularly challenged and banned for what is referred to as “explicit sexual content”, although the reality of a book’s content in comparison to what the banners claim is its content are often wildly different. As sex education in the so-called developed world regresses back to the sex-shaming days, we have to take responsible and accurate portrayals of sex where we can get it. Of course, it’s ridiculous to claim that literature should take the place of education on issues such as sex, but if we are shaped by the media we consume, then it would be the right thing to do for the genre and industry to take some responsibility for its content, and not just in matters of sex.

Then again, I don’t think responsibility is quite what they’re aiming for.

Brenda Gardner, managing director at Irresistible’s publisher Piccadilly Press, said: “Young Adult publishers have been looking with envy at Fifty Shades knowing we couldn’t do anything like that. Everybody was trying to work out what would be the next big thing.”
The publishing industry discussed the issue over the summer amongst themselves and with booksellers. “We thought there would be a way of doing it. But it’s not about graphic sex, it’s about passion,” Ms Gardner said. 
(Source: The Independent.)

Frankly, I think that word there says it all. “Envy”. This is all about business, as most things are. The publishing industry will do whatever it takes to stay alive, although I’m not sure their current business model of buying up self-published works that were often fan-fiction is a particularly effective one. Indeed, this feels like a trend that is rooted in fan-fiction. The insertion of sexual content into the story for purposes of “passion” rings a little hollow to me. Many of the defences of the burgeoning New Adult genre is that it would allow for the depiction of situations more common to older, college aged characters, yet so far what we’ve mainly seen the genre present to us is lots of sex. This would be somewhat more acceptable if the characters were in any way as mature as the content. One of my big issues with romance in contemporary young adult literature has been the utter failure of the genre to depict mature and respectful romantic relationships. The mould for the past few years has mainly involved a meek, passive heroine or a “strong female character” instantly falling for the utterly gorgeous and mysterious hero, often a “bad boy” or even worse. While sex has seldom been on the table for such relationships, sexuality has been at the forefront, mainly in the form of a very traditional gender balance. The man looks after the woman, his woman, and nobody else is allowed to touch her. I don’t think this is a particularly healthy dynamic to promote as romantic when it’s chaste, let alone when sex comes into the equation. Judy Blume’s “Forever” is a well written, sensitive and mature work that doesn’t tackle its subject matter for purposes of titillation.

I’m sure this will lead to accusations of pearl clutching prudery, but I worry about when the line will be crossed with this sudden craze for “sexy YA”. At what point does it go from being an honest depiction of teen sex to being pornography? Teenagers will always be interested in sex and will find media to entertain themselves in that field, be it literature, film, fan-fiction, and so on. However, they’re not so consumed by their hormones that they need to read about it 24/7. There’s something quite sad about the assumption that any romantic relationship is defined by sex, and that adding these scenes to YA makes them more identifiable for teens. It’s a strange U-turn from publishers lauding the appeal of the supposed innocence of YA romances such as “Twilight”, which in reality are as sex obsessed as anything else in the world. Apparently there is no middle ground between abstinence and porn.

Another thing that really bugs me about this bourgeoning genre is that once again we have YA/NA focusing almost entirely on the default mode of romance – pretty skinny straight white couples. The number of YA books with LGBTQ content remains shockingly low. If publishers are going to use the defence of realism for publishing their steamy teen books, then why remain so heteronormative? Queer teens have sex too. Don’t they need realistic and passionate depictions in fiction as well? My serious hope for the meteoric rise of self-publishing was that it would smash apart gender and sexuality depictions – there would be no need to appeal to what the traditional publishers and their conservative market demanded if the market was open to everyone. Sadly, everything remains as expected. The same level of slut-shaming and problematic content still exists in these works – “Beautiful Disaster” treats every woman that isn’t the protagonist as STD ridden slutty idiots, while Nicole Williams’s “Crash” series includes violence, threats and the romantic hero referring to a man he sees as a sexual threat as a “tight wearing fairy”. The industry may claim maturity, but in reality we’re still stuck in archaic roles and expectations.

I remain in doubt that this is actually a real craze, since I cling to my belief that such things are created organically and not by dying publishers. However, it’s still a strange and terrifying prospect. I’m also not entirely sure publishers understand what they’re dealing with here. They didn’t know what they were doing with “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sexist, damaging misrepresentation of the BDSM lifestyle. They just wanted money. It’s the same principle here. There’s no accountability for the content they pay for and publish here, and there’s no respect for its intended audience, but I would argue that the intended audience is probably more adult than anything else. With as many adults reading YA as actual young adults, it’s not surprising to see the industry giving into those demands rather than that of the audience the genre’s named after. Presenting a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences in young adult fiction is important and crucial to the genre. The audience deserves this. It doesn’t deserve to be pandered to, based on vague assumptions.

You can’t copy the “Fifty Shades” mould and just sell it under a teen label. The themes won’t work for that audience and it also sends a really worrying message about sexual agency. If teenagers want to read those books then that’s one thing. Hell, we’ve all done that. However, if a teenager wants to read something that is intended for their age group, that is intended to match their own experiences and realistically depict their lives, then they’re not going to get it through these so-called steamy passionate romances. I don’t know about you but my teenage years weren’t taken from the pages of Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins. These experiences are weird, scary, awkward, funny, often extremely confusing, and the whole gamut of emotions that I haven’t the words to describe. They’re seldom all-consuming and passionate affairs, and they’re very rarely erotic. They certainly don’t fall under the label of “explicit sexual content”. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Celebrating: My favourite anime picks

Hello, Internet!
 
It’s nearly Christmas time, AKA one of the few times when it’s okay to splurge because we’re technically getting pressies for other people. And though Black Friday is over, you can technically do your Christmas shopping all the way until the early morning of the 25th of December.

As the year ends, we on the Lantern will join the tradition of posting our lists of favourite 2012 books and can’t-wait-for reads of 2013. But, as recently someone decided to complain about bloggers and our girl cooties on the Internet, I thought that I should do a little rec list that is a/ NOT centred on books and b/ celebrates ALL THAT IS GIRLY. (Coincidentally, I’m also a bit of an otaku, hence why c/ ANIME!)
 
So, without further ado, here’s some of my favourite anime picks that would, coincidentally, make EXCELLENT Christmas presents.

Fruits Basket tells the story of an orphaned girl, Tohru Honda, who, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, is rendered temporarily homeless. She ends up living in the house of a mysterious classmate, Yuki Sohma, along with his cousins Shigure and Kyo. However, what seems like a reverse-harem comedy waiting to happen is quickly derailed, when Tohru discovers a shocking secret about the Sohmas.
 
I love this anime, so, so much. Even if a more seasoned otaku will tell you that the manga for this is a thousand times more complex and deep, I think the anime version stands very strongly on its own two legs. The story, though very magical realism-y (and the closest thing to a slice-of-life on this list, ye be warned!) deals with the very real-life issue of growing up and dealing with the shit life throws your way. The characters are relatable and quite wonderful in their own unique way. It doesn’t hurt that this anime can be enjoyed both by adults and children (though this can be a matter of mileage, check out a review or clips on youtube and make up your own minds.)
 
The aforementioned manga is also excellent, though much more dark and serious. If you’re interested in seeing the story develop, my recommendation would be to watch the anime around episode 24 and then move onto the manga. Also, Hope Chapman (aka JesuOtaku of the thatguywiththeglasses.com fame) is producing a Fruits Basket radio drama, available for free on the Internet (aaaand I just might link her review, because it is awesome). It’s an excellent adaptation of the manga, and quite useful is you want to get your children to sit quietly for twenty minutes or so.

Princess Tutu is the story of an everyday girl named Duck (yes, really) who studies ballet in the prestigious Kinkan Academy (*girly meter starts rising*), in spite of the fact that she’s not particularly good at it (*rising, rising*). She pines for her prince, Mytho, a skilled ballet dancer with less personality than Bella Swan (*riiiiiising*), and dreams of making him smile again. Her wish comes true when it is revealed that Mytho’s heart is, quite literally broken, and that she has the power of putting it back together (*girly meter hits the roof*), by becoming the magical girl Princess Tutu (*BOOM* broken girly meter is broken.)
 
Okay, in all seriousness, even if the premise of this anime promises nothing but pink fluff and sparkles, this is actually something that can be enjoyed by both genders. No, really. It can, and here’s why:
This anime is a fairy tale geek’s dream! Seriously, a dream, and I’m not just saying that because I love it. Princess Tutu is one of the most complex, most powerful, most enchanting stories I have ever seen, and it achieves that because of how is subverts and deconstructs fairy tale tropes (in fact, I’ve deconstructed its four main characters on my tumblr, so fans of the anime can enjoy the deconstruction of the deconstruction.)
 
 
And even if you’re not a fairy tale geek, there’s a lot to the story that you can appreciate without thinking too hard about it. Duck, Mytho, Rue and Fakir, and every other character inhabiting this story, are all incredibly likeable, and their interactions only add to the dark and metafictional world around them.

Haibane Renmei starts in a town inhabited by humans and the Haibane - girls with wings and halos who, for some reason, live separate from the humans and perform charitable deeds. The first episode shows our main character, Rakka, being born from her coccoon, and follows her as she learns more about the world and the Haibane, and the reasons for her appearing as one.
Ever wonder what to get for your teenage niece or nephew who has just discovered that teenage-hood doesn’t have to be vapid and antagonising and simplistic? Well, this is a good place to start, if only because of how thought-provoking and intensely symbolic it is. Haibane Renmei is an incredibly powerful story with tons of subtext, beautiful imagery and engaging characters. It’s the kind of story that would appeal to someone more fond of character studies then action sequences (though the downside is that I can’t talk in more detail about it.)
 
Not that there’s anything wrong with action sequences, mind you, which brings me to…

Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is the story of Utena Tenjou, a girl who dreams of being a prince. She gets her chance when she steps between a girl and her abusive boyfriend, not knowing that she’s about to get dragged in a conflict that has lasted for years and years.
RGU is, in some ways, just like my previous pick, in that it’s heavily symbolic (so much so that there’s an entire site dedicated to deeply analytical deconstructions of Every. Element. In. The. Show!) but with the added benefit of having more conflict and action scenes. In fact, RGU is easily the most adult thing on this list, and not just because of all the sex and the sex metaphors going on in there (ROSES! SWORDS! FAST CARS! PHALLIC OBJECTS! FREUD WOULD HAVE A FIELD DAY!) It addresses things like gender politics and growing up, but in a very roundabout, very complex manner. It’s definitely a very cerebral anime.

Also, since we’re talking about animes that are most definitely not for children:

Madoka Magica, a story of what it really means to be a magical girl. It follows Madoka Kaname, an ordinary little girl and her ordinary friends, who are offered to become magical girls and rid the world of evil beings. However, in order for them to come into their powers, the girls must first make a wish, which proves to be a big problem because Madoka is, indeed, an ordinary little girl who has never needed anything in her entire life, but she has the potential to be the most powerful magical girl, ever.
 
THIS IS NOT A HAPPY ANIME!
 
I cried through the last episode and I continued to cry steadily after the final credits had rolled, which is kind of weird because the ending itself isn’t horrible - it’s quite hopeful, actually. Disasters, people dying, cute puppies dying - I usually don’t bat an eyelash, and yet a 12-episode magical girl anime made me weep like a baby. If you’re rolling your eyes and glancing at the DVD cover suspiciously, don’t. Sit down, watch this, and if you’re not hooked until the end of episode 3, I’ll hand over my reviewing card and focus on marketing management.
 
This isn’t an easy story. It’s not deeply cerebral like Haibane Renmei, it’s not action-packed like Utena, not nearly symbolic as Princess Tutu and definitely not heartwarming like Fruits Basket. It’s a rare tragedy that, somehow, ends up the most hopeful of them all.
 
So that was my list of girly picks, featuring enough trauma, drama, sex and tears to last you a lifetime. And so here’s my last statement: stories aren’t gender specific. Complexity is not negated by the presence of a female main character, or the colour pink. And if you let those things stop you from enjoying a good story, then I’m sorry indeed. Very, very sorry.
 
Note: images via Wikipedia and Amazon.