Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: New Girl by Paige Haribson

First appeared on Goodreads, December 23, 2011.

It's hard to review retellings.

No, not parodies. I made my feelings about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies known a long time ago. Retellings are harder to tackle, especially when they're different from their source material, because you don't know whether to measure them by their own right or whether you should look at the original book and see how it holds up.

The story follows the "new girl" (whose name we find in the last pages) who moves from Florida to a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, only to discover that she is a pretty hot topic because she got the place thanks to the disappearance of another student, the golden Rebecca. New Girl has to put up with a lot of shit, trying to establish her identity separate from the one of the girl before her, dealing with a troubled room mate and somehow navigating the waters with Rebecca's ex, Max.

As its own story, New Girl is a pretty strong book. The characters are solid and three dimensional - the MC, Blake, Dana especially. The MC has a very strong voice and a very distinct personality and isn't about to take shit lying down (for the most part). The plot is poignant, not shying away from the more touchy subjects such as teen sex, under-age drinking and drug usage. 

However, I wasn't wild about Max. Yeah, he was messed up by Rebecca and things weren't going too well for him, but I couldn't help but feel like the MC should have stood up to him better. She has some instances when she draws the line with him, but not in a single instant did I feel like she might not get back with him. I didn't think he was so great - much like the Hitchcock movie, I felt like his character was revamped so that he would escape blame.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: Circle of Silence by Carol M. Tanzman

First appeared on Goodreads, July 30, 2012

The biggest story of my life could be how it ends
It’s my turn to run a Campus News crew, and I’ve put together a team that can break stories wide open. And Washington Irving High has a truly great one to cover, if only we can find a lead.

A secret society has formed in our school. It announced its presence with pranks: underwear on the flagpole, a toilet in the hallway, cryptic notes. A circle of silence keeps the society a mystery. No one knows its members, agenda or initiation secrets—until a student lands in the hospital under strange circumstances.

will blow this story wide open and stop others from being hurt... …or worse. And while my ex, Jagger, might want to help, I don’t trust him yet. (And, no, not because of our past together. That is not important to this story.)

But whether you find me, Valerie Gaines, reporting in front of the camera, or a victim in the top story of the newscast…be sure to watchCampus News at 9:00 a.m. this Friday.

Well, this was interesting.

I usually have a policy of not requesting arcs of sequels, if I haven't read the first book, but the reason why I haven't picked up dancergirl, the first book in the WiHi series, is because I didn't know any better. But, given what I've seen from this book, I should say the chances of me picking up Carol M. Tanzman's debut novel are pretty high.

Why do I start with this? Well, because my reviews are repetitive as all Hell and I needed to spice things up a bit.

Right off the bat, I was drawn to the premise. I mean, a teenage sleuth? A reporter trying to crack a secret society story? What's not to like? Valerie Gaines, our protagonist, is very much like Kami Glass in Sarah Rees Brennan's Unspoken - she's spunky and driven, determined to get that story and prove herself to her team, but she also has a bit of ruthlessness which I found rather pleasing. Maybe it's because I'm evil incarnate, but I like it when heroines know what they want and go after it. 

Val knew getting the story could be dangerous. Did she snivel, cower, or let the guys in the team handle it? Hell to the no! Granted, she gets in over her head, WAY in over her head, but she picks herself right back up and persists until the very end, which is very admirable.

The rest of the cast is pretty cool too - I loved Marci and Henri and Raul and Omar, and even Jagger, at first (more on him later). I found Val's twin brothers Jesse and James (really) to be hilarious, and the leader of MP was nicely developed. The plot moved at a good pace, and I never felt like we were focusing too much on something unnecessary, or rushed headfirst without taking a break. There were also a few red herrings thrown in which honestly made me wonder, and the actual revelations were pretty sweet. All in all, a very engaging read.

I do have some gripes with this, though, but since most of them are concerning a main plot twist and the ending, I'll put them under a spoiler tag.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington

First appeared on Goodreads, July 30, 2012

It's official! Hannah Harrington is now one of my favorite peeps for contemporary YA! Saving June was an awesome debut, but Speechless was a follow-up that blew the grading curve.

Chelsea Knot is not known for keeping secrets, but she never expected someone to get hurt. When a boy she outed as gay gets beaten up, she experiences a crisis of conscience, goes to the police, and then decides that the world would be better off if she shut up for good.

I don't know what is it about Hannah Harrington's books, but there's something about them that really sparkles. I'm like an old mother-in-law, checking the house to make sure her daughter cleaned everything up, and tutting whenever I realize that even the top of the drawers is dust free (totally stole that analogy from Terry Pratchett) - I feel uneasy reviewing books I love, but at the same time, I'm happy that an author I love has written another great book.

I love the characters. I love the dialogue. I love to see people maintaining their optimism and energy, even when things get tough. I love to see white guys not abusing their privilege, and ladies who aren't afraid of standing their ground. 

Of course, it's all a matter of personal preference, but Speechless strikes a pretty good balance between a coming-of-age story and a true portrayal of some real issues people meet every day. Granted, there were some parts that seemed a bit too cheesy or on-the-nose, and there were some characters I wish Harrington explored more, but that's more of a personal preference matter than one of general quality. And it is worth noting that even at its cheesiest, this book made me wanna fist-pump and sing "We Are The Champions" because I loved the characters so much!

But ultimately, this is a book about Chelsea's journey. Her vow of silence makes it possible not only for her to see what's important (I know, I know, bear with me), but also to step back and realistically examine the reasons why things happened the way they did. She acknowledges her blame and takes responsibility, but she also realises why she was never able to keep secrets to begin with. She's very stubborn and spunky, but by the end of the book, by the end, you can tell she came out as much stronger, more confident person.

And I think this is what really makes the book for me.

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

Note: Image via Goodreads.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: On a Dark Wing by Jordan Dane

First appeared on Goodreads, December 23, 2013

The story: When she was ten, Abbey Chandler was meant to die, but instead, Death took her mother. Five years later, Abbey is still trying to cope with her survivor guilt and dealing with her misguided, but well-meaning father. When someone posts doctored pictures of her and her best friend on an Internet cite, she decides to go with her dad to their family cabin for some alone time, and hopefully to escape the worst of it. But then weird things start to happen, not least of which is Nate, Abbey's crush of all crushes, suddenly seeking her out and declaring his love for her. Weird, because at the time, Nate is supposed to be climbing mount Denali and since we're allowed to look through Nate's eyes as well, we know that at the time, he's also dying in the snow after an avalanche. 

On a Dark Wing is a hard book to get into. Abbey is not your perfect heroine - she's boy-obsessed, she's self-centred and she's kind of a coward. Her best friend, Tanner, who was left paralysed after a bad incident, had a lot more guts than her, and in fact, he was a lot more fun to follow. 

But as the book progresses, I admit I kinda liked Abbey. Sure, sometimes I thought she was selfish and honestly a bit TSTL, but who wasn't at fifteen. And with the spins Dane puts on the story, you really can't blame her. I wasn't wild about the altering POVs (first person for Abbey, third person limited for everyone else), but I kinda see why we need it - otherwise, the story wouldn't make much sense.

I don't want to spoil much for you, so I can't tell you exactly what happens, but here are the things that would make anyone disillusioned with YA Paranormal renew their faith - the creepy stalker DOES NOT get the girl. How awesome is that? This book gets brownie points just for that! And it only gets better because the real love interest is bite-your-fist swoon worthy. 

Even better, though, is the fact that throughout the book, Abbey GROWS. She advances by leaps and bounds, and somehow, it's made to look realistic. She becomes very mature as the story progresses, and instead of ignoring her disillusionment, she embraces it to become a better person (for the most part). 

Some of the scenes that rang the most true for me, though, were those between Abbey and her father. Dane portrays their relationship realistically, creating a father - daughter experience which is not common in the genre. 

What can I say, it is a great book. Even when there are things I didn't like, it didn't bring down the experience for me because the overall product was good.

If I had to point out a specific problem, though, it would be the last chapter. I honestly don't know what to think of it, and it really depends on the interpretation. On one hand, it is delightfully creepy. On the other, it throws all the good stuff I said about Abbey's character growth into a loop. But given that she's fifteen, I can't really fault her.

NOTE: A copy of the book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

NOTE 2: Image via Goodreads.

Monday, November 18, 2013

“May the Profits Be Ever in Your Pockets”: How Promo for “The Hunger Games” Misses The Point.

Shockingly, for someone who models herself as something of a YA expert, I’ve never actually read the entirety of “The Hunger Games” series. It’s not because I don’t want to – I honestly do and I genuinely enjoyed the first book – but I have a serious case of series fatigue and too many books to read to get to “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”. I’ll definitely be seeing the film upon release since I thought the first one actually surpassed the book in many areas.

However, the world outside of the movie, the one making and selling it to the masses, have missed the point of Suzanne Collins’s series so wildly that I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t even bothered to read the books themselves.

I was aware of the Subway promotion before I ever saw the TV adverts, but nothing could prepare me for the jaw dropping it caused when I actually caught one of the commercials in an ad break for “Agents of SHIELD” (seriously, don’t get me started on that show). The irony bell that occasionally rings in my head cracked under the pressure. Here was one of the most successful and well-known food chains in the world promoting their sandwiches with a tie-in to a film about citizens of an oppressive society who are starved to keep them complacent. How did they miss that? The series is called “The Hunger Games”. It’s in the title!

Subway’s regional marketing manager continued the startling lack of self-awareness by saying, "We wanted to create an experience that would enhance the film even further, and give Hunger Games and SUBWAY® fans the chance to relive the film both in-store and online".

What part of the experience will fans “relive” by buying Subway’s reasonably priced meal deal? The desperation of hunger and Katniss trying to hunt to feed her family? The fear of fighting for one’s life as millions around the country watch forced child murder as a form of entertainment? How about the indignity of being paraded around in ridiculous clothing to please a privileged few who see your impending death as must watch TV? Actually, there’s already a makeup line and tutorial series for that. I don’t know about you but I am just raring to dress up like an abettor of child murder. Then again, I would understand this more if it came from the fans because makeup tutorials and cosplay is a very fandom centred activity. Having it packaged and sold by a multi-million dollar corporation spoils that for me. The tone they take would be more subversive if it didn’t seem to copy their usual marketing shtick word for word.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, both for “The Hunger Games” promo and that of film in general. As well as delicious sandwiches, you can buy luxury chocolate inspired by the series (who doesn’t want to eat candy inspired by President Snow, that idol among men?) Then there’s the rumoured theme park attraction, which actually leaves me fearing for the minimum wage staff who would be employed there. Would they be the tributes or the games makers?

Suzanne Collins has expressed her support for the film’s promotional campaign, which to be fair, has been pretty well done outside of sandwich shilling (that’s done by a separate team, I believe). Those posters really are perfect both in context of Panem and our world.

Some promotions I get. The dolls, for example, make sense within the world’s context because you know the kids of the Capitol would probably buy dolls of the tributes since they’re treated like TV action stars. However, the other instances are so staggeringly insensitive and unaware of the product they’re shilling that it leaves me feeling embarrassed for the makers of the film. In the end, it feels as though the very dark and heart-wrenching events of the series are being trivialised in order to make a few quid. People complain about how dark and adult the content of the books are, but nobody can deny that it’s managed to engage millions of young people in a commendable way, and led them to ask important questions on topics like war, violence and the media. Cheap adverts for meatball subs add a patronising edge to the proceedings, dumbing discourse down for the young folks. It suggests that Subway and company believe they operate within the world of Panem. Please submit all appropriate jokes in the comments.

This is nothing new, of course. Crass commercialism of entertainment, particularly for young people, has gone on for many generations. I’d wager we all bought a Happy Meal at some point in our childhood (or made our parents buy us one) so we could get a specific film related toy. Disney is an expert in this area, as is their latest acquisition over at Lucasfilm, the “Star Wars” franchise. There’s a lot of money to be made in this area. This is how the industry operates today when it comes to big budget blockbusters.  

It’s the inevitable but still sad state of affairs and one we must be aware of when approaching this subject: big studios make films to make money. If they happen to be good films, all the better but as long as they make money it doesn’t really matter. A big film can make up to a third of its budget back just from a successful promotional cycle. Sometimes, entire movies were made just to shill a product, like “Mac and Me”, the embarrassing rip-off of “E.T.” where the aliens must eat McDonalds and drink Coca Cola to survive.

When studios take a product that comes with a strong and large built in fan-base as well as crossover appeal, the challenge is to figure out a way to capitalise on that perfect storm. There’s a way to do it. A Harry Potter theme park is genius because it allows the fan to be part of a world that people actually want to be a part of.

This was not the way to do it.

This is like promoting “Up” with adverts for a chain of funeral homes, or doing special deals on sushi to promote “Finding Nemo”. It’s the kind of cynical heartlessness and stupidity that even Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would drown their sorrows over (eh, Pete Campbell would probably like this idea). The total disregard for the real product at the centre of it – a female led action drama for young people with a strong satirical edge and commentary on the glorification of violence and oppression of the masses. It’s a powerful message, and to have it so obviously dumbed down in favour of profit feels not only hollow but akin to the work of the Capitol. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wrecking Ball Feminism.

A joint post by Katya, Christina, Ceilidh & Cory.

Katya: Lots of people seem concerned about Miley Cyrus. From her VMA performance to the Wrecking Ball video, everyone is very, VERY concerned for Miley Cyrus. Doubtlessly, the concern will turn to vitriol now that she has declared herself a feminist, because (insert preferred reasons.)

I have one question though: For all of the concern people express, how many of them have tried addressing the cause of the problem? Namely, that they, in perpetuating the “save the children” myth have created a generation of young people that has been grown under a jar and then roughly thrust into adult life without so much as an instruction manual?

Maybe instead of clutching our pearls of what Miley Cyrus is doing we ought to start a conversation about the values we raise young people to. 

Ceilidh: I'm bemused, amused and highly offended by the same women who try desperately to convince young women to call themselves feminist sneering at women like Cyrus for taking up the mantle. We saw this a lot when BeyoncĂ© said she was "kind of" a feminist. Oh god, she can't be a feminist. She poses seductively on the front of magazines! She named her tour the Mrs Carter Tour! Tear away her feminist badge! Then again, these women are currently too busy fawning over Lily Allen, whose latest effort proclaims to be feminist and female positive yet comes with a dose of slut-shaming and a racially problematic accompanying video. It seems that some feminists are more equal than others. 

Back to Miley, it's often forgotten amidst her antics and accompanying publicity that she's only 20. Not only has she grown up in the limelight, she did it while under some extremely strict contractual obligations. That Hannah Montana long brown haircut she had? She was contractually obliged by Disney to have that exact haircut while working on the show. She was trotted out on TV sets, music tours, a book tour for her autobiography, and all under the happy mantle of the House of Mouse. Her dad, of Achy Breaky Heart and Hannah Montana co-star fame, talked openly about feeling more like her friend than her dad. She was hoisted to the position of role model for girls her own age and let's not forget the God fearing promise ring wearing "good girl" image she was forced to maintain. Can anyone blame her for getting a Twiggy haircut and licking a few sledgehammers?

Christina: If people want a perfect example of how damaging a life can be while growing up in the public eye, they need to look no further than Michael Jackson. He was often referred to as someone with "Peter Pan syndrome", often because the public didn't WANT him to grow up. He was to remain "little Michael", a sexless cherubic child with an enormous amount of talent. 

A more recent example is Britney Spears, who was held up as a role model for being successful, attractive, and a self-proclaimed virgin. She was also almost instantly sexualized, wearing a schoolgirl outfit while dancing provocatively in her video for "One More Time" and posing in her underwear for Rolling Stone before she was eighteen.

Miley Cyrus states that she is doing as she pleases and is not being coerced into dressing or acting a certain way. If this is true, is she indeed a feminist? Are those who condemn her slut-shaming her, or do they have a point? Is it possible to be a feminist while celebrating your sexuality as a woman?

That might be the key thing here. Cyrus is still seen as a little girl, not a woman. Also, her tone is more raunchy than mature. If she was to do a suggestive photo-shoot for a fashion ad rather than grinding on stage with a foam finger and sticking her tongue out, would this still warrant a discussion?

Katya: I think the major problem here is that people still see “feminism” as a passing fad, rather than an important social movement to bring about true equality.

If we truly didn’t need “feminism” because “we’re all equal”, we’d be able to see that women can be as varied and as unapologetic in their expression as men are without condemning them. We would be able to view BeyoncĂ© and Miley as artists first, women next, as we are supposed to view men. We would be able to discuss their work without having to descend into heavily polarised discussions because to each their own and (dis)liking either of those artists was just a personal choice, not a political/moral statement.

(Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why I’m baffled by people hailing John Green as the saviour of YA because he writes: “rich, complex characters” and “view MPDG as real people.” I mean, wow, a man who views women as human beings! All of the gold stars!)

Instead, we use a woman calling herself “feminist” either to fawn over her or to slam the movement. Which, incidentally, ends up supporting the status quo because it sets women against one another, and rather than them focusing their effort on kicking patriarchy, they kick themselves and feed into the stereotype of “emotional women” who can’t handle “serious subjects.” 

Christina: I'm also confused as to where the line is drawn, because clearly there is a line. It's "okay" for a woman to have a nude scene in an elegant drama, but not okay to pose for Playboy. It's "okay" for an older woman to flaunt her younger boyfriend/husband, but not okay for a woman to talk about how great her sex life is with anyone. Where is the line and why is it there?

Women who don't sexualize themselves are held up as the gold standard, but why? Miley Cyrus is an adult. If she did that performance when she was underage, that would be another issue. Why do we assume that when a woman shows off her body and sexuality, she is not doing so by her own choice?

Cory: I think it would also be important to consider the series of open letters between Sinead O'Conner and Miley, as well as the racial implications left by the performance if we're truly going to address Miley vs Feminism. I find the latter rather important as there seems to be a growing divide between white feminists and WoC, with WoC, choosing not to even identify as such. Also, with Sinead a while back being a rather large face of feminism choosing to slut shame Miley.

Also, Joss Whedon's recent weird little speech on Feminism vs Genderism. 

It is a rather large topic, IMO. Truly interesting that Miley would choose to identify as a feminist now but many major pop stars won't. 

Ceilidh: It’s still safer for pop stars, especially young ones, to play the “I’m not a feminist, but” card. Feminism’s still seen as radical hysteria fuelled by a desire to castrate men by a surprisingly large portion of the population. Then again, after decades of an overwhelming narrative pushing this falsified image, it’s not hard to see why, and it’s also not hard to see why women refuse the mantle. Feminism to this day is not an all-inclusive club of happy sisterhood: Trans women, sex workers, the working class, women of colour, uneducated women, disabled women, etc, all feel excluded from modern discourse on feminism. When the media spends its days declaring Joss Whedon, Lena Dunham and Lily Allen the saviours of feminism, I occasionally feel the need to jump ship myself.

It also doesn't help that nuance entirely fails a substantial number of commentators when it comes to an issue like feminism. There is a very strong argument to be made against Miley Cyrus, mostly in relation to her objectification of women of colour and the general mantle known as black culture in an attempt to promote herself. The twerking's been sneered at but there's a point to be made there. Unfortunately, it's one that's passed by so many because gender and race are seen as entirely separate issues. Nope, life is not a single issue to be solved, everything intersects. 

For Miley, we can't just look at her age and circumstances. We should also take a gander at her manager, the man partially responsible for Britney Spears in her jail bait titillating school girl number. We talk about sex selling but if that were the case every male pop star out there would thrust against hammers with their meat and two veg on show. Sex doesn't sell - sexualising women sells, and Cyrus's YouTube page views and single sales are a perfect example of that. 

Katya: Ah, yes, I believe Caitlin Moran was fawning over Lilly Allen for her “satire”, but people accuse Miley of being racist. White middle class feminists, who tend to be the “elite” for this kind of thing, don’t like talking about WoC, but they will gladly shame Miley for being racist because?

I have no doubt that Miley’s expression is racially problematic, but the fact that she’s the only one to actively promote the idea that feminism isn’t a monolith is a pretty big stand against the views expressed by the elite. Is that why feminists like Allen and O’Conner slam her? Because she dares to say that their little club should not be so exclusive? 

Speaking of the sex sells, can I say something about Wrecking Ball? I get why the fuss over the video, but has anyone actually listened to the lyrics? That’s some major cognitive dissonance right there. The song is about a strained relationship and the singer’s gradual disillusionment with the whole “save the tortured boy” idea that permeates our society; the video is only barely appropriate because it has the most literal interpretation of the lyrics.

Again, how many people slamming Miley for the video actually listened to the lyrics?

Christina: It's obvious that a lot of people are still offended by Cyrus's VMA performance, judging by the sheer amount of rage directed to her (particularly from other women). I myself saw it as an obvious marketing ploy and was therefore less than impressed. 

Take a look at this list of top ten MTV VMA shocking performances. Most of the performers were women who shocked audiences with their blatant sexuality. One of the more buzz-worthy performances was a kiss from Madonna to Britney Spears and Christina Aguliera, which Stevie Nicks called "obnoxious" and stating that Britney "dug a hole" forherself with the public kiss.

Ceilidh: The VMAs are an irrelevant little show that thrives on shock value. It always has. Cyrus fit the mould perfectly and did her job. The fact that so many people seem determined to beat this dead horse to dust (while ignoring the date rape song cohort of her on-stage shenanigans, Robin Thicke) shows how little our mainstream media actually cares about feminism, something they see as simultaneously too exclusive and not exclusive enough. 

The issue with the Wrecking Ball video that many have had (other than Cyrus’s inability to act) is the involvement of the director, Terry Richardson, a man who has received several accusations of sexual harassment from women who have modelled for him. The male gaze becomes more evident with Cyrus’s video when his involvement is acknowledged, or at least it does for me. Like Thicke using Cyrus for VMAs publicity, it leads to the question of how much a 20 year old woman is being used by fully grown men with more power for the purposes of making money.

Christina: What would be a way to combat this line of thinking? Do we as a society agree that a woman can make her own choices but is still a feminist? Why is a woman who wants to stay at home, raise her kids, and cook automatically not a feminist? Why is a career woman a feminist unless she's a sex worker who is happy with her job and her life? How can we get away from the knee jerk reactions and the vitriol, and can we even do so?

Katya: Engaging in a discussion about intersectionality, as well as an honest critique about the truly problematic aspects of pop culture (racism in the way the media treats Miley vs Rihanna, the fact that Macklemore, an admittedly gifted rapper, is only able to do his shtick (publish independently and reap amazing awards) because of some inherent privilege.)

Ceilidh: The issue, as with life in general, could benefit from a little nuance and some context. The intersectional approach is the right one too (I have no time for those who dismiss it or claim it's overtly complex). We also need to take some time to explain that women can and will make decisions that aren't necessarily feminist, and doing so doesn't relinquish them of their desire to be treated equally to a man. Miley Cyrus can lick her hammers and show her nipples and still be a feminist (but all the racial appropriation needs to stop now because that's definitely not feminist). It can be hard to always do or say the right thing when you're both blinded by your own privilege and living under the smothering awareness of generations of internalised misogyny and a patriarchy that compares wanting equal rights to Nazism. 

Feminism itself isn't an amoeba. It evolves, it's not made up of one united movement and it hasn't always done good. Look at the classism, transphobia, racism and shaming that still prevails in modern discourse. If you claim to be a feminist yet see nothing wrong with disparaging women like Cyrus for calling themselves as such while praising Joss Whedon's mansplaining derailing of so-called 'genderism' then you're a far bigger problem than a pop star licking a hammer.

Further reading.

Today, I am grateful for female characters in "Wither"

What if you knew you exactly when you would die?

In our brave new future, DNA engineering has resulted in a terrible genetic flaw. Women die at the age of 20, men at 25. Young girls are being abducted and forced to breed in a desperate attempt to keep humanity ahead of the disease that threatens to eradicate it.

16-year-old Rhine Ellery is kidnapped and sold as a bride to Linden, a rich young man with a dying wife. Even though he is kind to her, Rhine is desperate to escape her gilded cage – and Linden’s cruel father. With the help of Gabriel, a servant she is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in what little time she has left.

I admit, I was weary of this one.

I’d been there, read the reviews, scoffed, passed, was tempted, read some more reviews, passed it off again. I pride myself on being able to peg down a novel from the synopsis and this one… I wasn’t feeling generous.

But then something strange happened – some people whose reviews I follow liked it. And by liked, I mean wrote rave reviews, praising this thing off the wall and writing all sorts of intelligent commentary. Added to that is the fact that I’ve followed the author on various social media and she seems like an all-around cool person. So I made a note to give this one a chance if it came my way.

It did.

And I was very, very polarised.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

First appeared on Goodreads, February 10, 2012

Various Positions is the story of a deeply misguided girl and her attempts to find a little meaning in life through sex.

If you just imagined that Georgia turns into a nymphomaniac, congratulations, you totally missed the point. Then again, so does she. So does the entire book. 

Fair warning: This review contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. I cannot discuss it without spoiling it. If that bothers anyone, then sorry - I want to explain properly why I rated it the way I did. 

Georgia is 14 years old when she passes the audition to enter a prestigious ballet academy. She's thrilled, of course, because ballet is the alpha and omega of her life. There are hints about some troubles with her family early on in the novel, and that she only feels complete when she dances. Things get even better when she gets singled out by her very strict instructor as promising, and he encourages her to be the best in what she does.

Roderick is a strange subversion of the hot mentor trope, in that he has absolutely no interest in sex and actually considers it as a ruining factor for the dancers. Throughout the novel, he is especially cruel towards those girls who "don't have their priorities straight", which is fine with Georgia... until she becomes curious about sex. From there on, things snowball into disaster.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: I Am (Not) the Walrus by Ed Briant

Goodreads review, last edited February 11, 2012

I love contemporary YA. I love books centered around bands. And I especially love a realistic male voice in books. This book, thankfully, has all three.

Toby is one half of a two-man act playing Beatles songs. He and his band-mate Zach have just landed a gig warming up for a popular local band, but Zach believes that Toby's singing lacks passion. And also that he needs to fix his bass. 

Soldering a bass is easy enough to accomplish, but Toby's track record with girls isn't outstanding. Still, things aren't as they seem - he starts to banter back and forth with feisty Michelle, and while fixing his bass, he finds a note inside that leads him on an adventure.

Right away, I was struck with how good the writing in this story was. The plot moves fast, the dialogue flows, and the humor is of the laugh-your-arse-off variety. I loved some of the quips, and I enjoyed the banter between Toby and Zach tremendously.

Also, mysteries of previous owners is probably my favorite (and least popular) trope, and I can't tell you how much I liked it here. Toby's bass was originally bought by his brother, Shawn, but the note inside states that if anyone finds it, then that means the bass guitar was stolen. Toby is naturally reluctant to believe it, but feels doubt, mostly because his brother was known for having involved himself in more than one shady operation. 

In the end, this is a very good book that relies on some pretty amazing character studies and some very interesting histories. I only have two little problems, which can be overlooked, depending on how you feel about them.

The first one is that, though Michelle, Toby's love interest, has a pretty strong personality, her role in the book is not that great. She's mostly there to inspire him to do the right thing, which is a little MPDG-ish of her, but she has her own thing and pretty stands on her own, instead of serving as a tool for the hero to grow.

The other one is the ending, which, considering the build-up, was kind of lame. But it is cathartic for the characters, and in the end, we get a feeling of change, of hope for them. I recommend this. 

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Note: Image via Goodreads.

On Gender in YA: The Imagined Life of Joan Green.

There’s been a lot of talk lately in regards to the gender make-up of the New York Times Young Adult best-seller list. For all the pearl clutching panic and sexist sneering exaggerated panic claiming that boys don’t read YA because the market’s so female dominated, the numbers really don’t reflect that, as the wonderful and eye-opening research at Stacked shows.
The market, like publishing and basically every other area of life in general, is mostly male powered, even with Veronica Roth selling over half a million copies of “Allegiant” in the first week of release. This is no surprise for the women who have been talking about this for years. Look at Jennifer Weiner’s continued efforts to have the New York Times Book Review acknowledge the power of the female market in the face of mass ignorance and criticism. Stacked’s wonderful article points to a discussion that unfolded on Twitter between John Green, E. Lockhart and Maureen Johnson that revealed much about the blindness that comes with privilege. I’ll let Green’s words speak for him and tell you to check them out here but it also leads to a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Would Joan Green be as successful as her male counterpart?
Here me out.
A huge chunk of Green’s publishing power comes from the platform he created with his brother and their web-series. While I’m not a fan myself, it’s hard to deny that he’s created something that appeals to a huge audience who put their money where their mouth is. He’s a conventionally attractive, witty and intelligent individual with market savvy and it’s paid off marvellously when combined with his equally marketable and well received books.
But honestly, I’m not so sure this would be the case if he were a woman.
The number of women in the table of highest rated YouTube videos is disproportionate to the number of men (only 17 of the top 100 according to the Daily Dot), and it’s not hard to see why. Just look at the vile threats any woman in the public eye with a foot in the geek sphere receives.
Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian was threatened with rape, death and a whole host of other disgusting acts for daring to set up a Kickstarter dedicated to the theme of sexism in video games. Check out the sheer number of videos claiming to refute her claims that are basically just misogynistic spiels. Someone even went as far as to create a video game where users could beat her face bloody. When Gamespot’s Carolyn Petit called out sexism in the latest “Grand Theft Auto” game (after giving it 9/10), she received equal levels of abuse, including a hefty dose of transphobia, and a petition was even started by some offended men to get her fired from her job. Lindsay Ellis, the Nostalgia Chick from Channel Awesome, has talked of the sexist abuse she’s received in the past. Sex positive vlogger Laci Green took a month long hiatus from YouTube after the death threats escalated to the point where someone sent her photographs of her home.
I say all this because I think it’s important to understand the context which women are forced to work in. It’s 2013 and female writers still have to justify their work as being something other than ‘chick lit’ regardless of its subject matter. When the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton this year, the Times still focused on her appearance. And when articles are written on the saviour of YA by publications like Time, the mantle is still given to a man. It’s given to John Green.
John Green can make countless web-videos on a notoriously sexist website to comparatively little of the backlash his female counterpart would receive. He would certainly be subjected to far less rape threats, death threats and mockery of his appearance than Joan and Hannah Green, the Vlog Sisters would. The ‘fake geek girl’ title would undoubtedly be thrown around.
John Green is praised for accurately capturing the voice of a young woman and the diversity in his work. Joan Green is repeatedly questioned over the decision to write about young boys, whether this excludes potential young female readers and if she feels her voice still sounds female. (This also brings up a side point on the way we praise privileged white writers, both male and female, for including diversity in their work while overlooking the disparities in diversity of the industry itself. It’s all well and good for us to praise white writers for including people of colour in their stories, but maybe we should look beyond them to the writers of colour telling their own stories, as well as LGBTQIA authors? This is another post for another day.)
John Green talks about the need to “begin a conversation about why” the market is male dominated. Joan Green would have been leading this conversation for years with little to no attention paid to it. She would be called a bitch and a Feminazi where John Green acknowledging that women are real and exist is rewarded with praise. Remember Joss Whedon’s recent comments about feminism? Remember how angry they made you and remember the sheer number of people who defended a man trying to commandeer a conversation on something he’ll never experience because he made Buffy? Men don’t get a pat on the back and instant attention for pretending they care about sexism.
John Green receives a large amount of coverage from Time and Entertainment Weekly. The best Joan Green can hope for is one or two Shelf Life posts.
John Green is hailed as a saviour of YA. Joan Green is widely ignored or at best included in yet another conversation wondering why YA is so female dominated and how this will effect young male readers.
People talk about how adorkable and cute John Green is. Joan Green is too fat, too ugly, too plain, showing too much skin, who the hell does she think she is, tits or GTFO.
David Levithan’s collaboration with John Green spends weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. A similar book co-written by Joan Green doesn’t even chart. Don’t believe me? See his book written with Andrea Cremer.
John Green’s work receives gender neutral and simple covers with wide crossover appeal. Joan Green is subjected to kissing couples, pretty girls with their hair flowing in the breeze and a shit load of pastels. That or she’s forced to call herself J. Green.
John Green writes contemporary stories of drama, comedy, coming-of-age and romance. Joan Green writes romance.
This is hypothetical, of course, but given the trends we’ve seen time and time again appear in the publishing industry, it’s not hard to come to certain conclusions. I’ve lost count of the number of threats I’ve received online for daring to voice an opinion, and the things said about my appearance are best left from civilized blogs. Joan Green would never be able to benefit from a visual medium in the same way a man can because she can’t win. She’s either too ugly to exist to accused of slutting it up for men. Her literary merit would never stop being questioned because women still only write books for women that are full of kissing and therefore have no worth. I’m not sure John Green is aware of the immense privilege he possesses by being a man in publishing. If he does, it’s with a very narrow scope of the situation.

This isn’t really about John Green. It’s about an industry that continues to live with huge gaps in gender while shrouded in an assumption that equality exists. It’s about every other corner of the publishing industry that views women and their stories as second class and gives men’s voice instant authority. This is a far more complex and nuanced issue than I’m really able to discuss – the topic of best-seller lists, how they’re calculated, publisher clout, gender issues in wider media etc, are all there and must be acknowledged. Women can tell their own stories. We just need to listen.

Picture via Catherine.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Effort and Waste: Why is the market the way it is?

University is a strange place – in the space of one morning reading session you can ricochet between four or five disciplines, following a single thread of thought which you found interesting. This morning, when I sat down to get through my allotted articles for a subject, I ended up on the subject of consumption as means of asserting your own sense of self. Or, rather, consumption in order to create a self, or to compensate for a perceived lack of self.

“If I buy this coat/car/chocolate, I will experience this, therefore I am this person.”

Now, anyone who has gorged on chocolate during a particularly painful moment of their life can probably attest to the fact that this doesn’t work. In  fact, if you’re a woman, you’ve very likely to have felt even worse because after eating the chocolate, this perceived sinful food, you will immediately beat yourself up over your perceived lack of control or ugliness of character, or both. (Perceived, perceived, perceived, perceived, perceived…. Saying that out loud is a nasty mouthful, so please appreciate my multiple usage of it.)

Interesting stuff, but what I find relevant to this blog is this citation by Csikszentmihalyi (2000) in regards to marketers’ insistence on perpetuating the idea that happiness can be found through consumption. The findings are as follows:

“…that material possessions alone do not improve the quality of life… that excessive concern for material goods is a sign for dissatisfaction with life… that trying to avoid the mental chaos of everyday life by resorting to acquisitions and passive entertainment does not work very well… Yet we insist in the vain hope that we can achieve happiness through consumption.”
Csikszentmihalyi (2000: 271-2)

Put differently, despite being conscious and informed of the fact that this mode of thinking is incorrect, and often harmful, people continue to perpetuate it, not out of malice, but because they want to make it true. 

“If I keep doing this,” the reasoning goes, “eventually it will be true because I put the necessary effort into it, and everyone knows effort cannot go to waste.” Or, if we want to be more cynical: “If I keep doing this, and everyone else keeps doing this, it will be true because there is no existing opposition.”

I guess now we know why the YA market looks the way it does.

We at the Book Lantern (and this writer in particular) have often wondered why, despite all evidence of the contrary, the most common books your find on the market (or the ones getting the most limelight) are so alike – formulistic characters and narratives that barely engage with readers on a deeper level, or take advantage of their platform to discuss and challenge people’s perceptions. Why does the bad boy need to fight, drink, and have promiscuous sex, in order to be considered manly and serious? Why does the heroine need to save him, every time? Why do vampires sparkle and werewolves leave their teeth behind? Again and again, people have pointed out the problems with these tropes and the danger that comes from blindly perpetuating them, and yet the books that get the best marketing, and indeed, the ones that most often get published, are the ones that adhere to cultural norms.

My mistake (and a very common one it is,) was to forget that we are not always rational consumers.

Consider “Divergent”, a novel I discussed yesterday. “Divergent” is very much THE novel when it comes to cognitive dissonance between one’s perceptions and the reality of things. Tris goes to Dauntless, hoping to find self-fulfilment, but discovers that her new faction is just as problematic as the old one. She then spends the rest of the book trying to reconcile what she’s been taught her whole life with what she sees and feels.

The surface message of “Divergent” is that difference of opinion is vital for people’s personal development and that imposed guidelines are painful and complicated…. However, the “good guys” are the ones using brute force and fire power, while the “bad ones” are the cunning and the subversive, the ones acting behind the scenes and trying to take over with wit rather than with bloodshed. And yes, you can make the argument that it’s fairer when both sides go all out, face to face, duking things out in a one-on-one… but I don’t think it’s a very fair fight if one side is physically stronger than the other (and also has a gun.)

“Divergent” was hugely popular when it came out, and its sequels got tremendous amounts of marketing and hype (generated as well as spontaneous.) And yes, some of it was largely due to the “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” comparisons, but the fact that the novel remained one of the biggest and best-known during the dystopian wave of 2011 (does anyone know if “Eve” is going to be made into a movie? Do you remember the marketing campaign for “Crossed”? I sure don’t,) suggests there is something else going on under the surface.

And I think it’s the way the subtext is presented.

“Divergent” holds a positive surface message, and the subtext presented supports overall societal narratives: Difference is good! Difference is great! We must all strive to be different things, but in moderate quantities, (because extremism is bad!) And if some snake bastards try to take advantage of our trust and make fools of us, well then, it’s perfectly reasonable and proportionate that we settle the matter with brute force (and guns.)

And though “Eve” and “Matched” also fit that bill to an extent, neither of these novels has much in the way of graphic violence, or any kind of violent pushback against the subversive, so I guess they didn’t make as much impact.

Bottom line is, I get why things are the way they are. Really. People don’t like wasted effort. We don’t like being told that we’re wrong, that our parents are human, that our values can be perverted, that we are not MASTERS OF OUR UNIVERSE (see what I did there?) because that breeds uncertainty, which means that anything can happen at any time, and there is no clear protocol or guidelines to dealing with the unknown.

It’s scary as all!

But vested effort and emotion are not enough. And sometimes there is waste, and disappointment.

The trick, as researchers suggest, is not letting it get the better of us.

We must keep on pushing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Cliches Explained part seven: Acting When Forced To

People in fiction have it tough – that’s an undisputed fact. In order for us to have poignant, exciting, bite-your-nails, edge-of-your-seat, (and other dash-worthy adverbs,) stories, they need to have the stakes stacked high against them, be forced to make tough choices, and generally stomp out hearts out in the end so that we pick up the next book. (Or is it just me?)

That said, having the odds against you sometimes makes for a too-complicated situation. For example, sometimes the hero/ine might be faced with a lose-lose choice, or a morally ambiguous one at least.
Sometimes, they might have to do something that goes completely against their moral code, and so they wait until the last possible moment to act. That, in itself, makes for a fascinating read because then the audience watches the character struggle with having broken their own set of rules, and the moral dilemma that stems from such an action is a very interesting motivation.

However, as with all good tropes gone bad, the “being forced into doing something” is also often deployed as an attempt to make books look “edgy” and “dark” without the authors sacrificing the moral integrity of their protagonists.

Oddly enough, today’s examples of both good and bad usage of this trope come from the same book. 

Consider it an exercise in contrasts (as Divergent is known to be.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review: Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

First appeared on Goodreads, January 25, 2012

Cinderella meets Memoirs of a Geisha? I don't think so. This book is Cinderella meets Hamlet, Othello and Salome. 

Fourteen year old Suzume witnesses the murder of her father and the massacre of her whole household. The only one that survives is her mother, because she is away on some visit or another. Shortly thereafter, Suzume's mother remarries to one of her father's old friends. Suzume is, naturally, upset, and turns on herself in her grief. She also discovers that she has a very rare ability, but before anything else can happen, she learns something horrible about her mother and stepfather, and has to run for her life.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the setting. Apparently, this is not Japan, but a country that strongly resembles it. At first I was confused, not only because of the use of Japanese everyday words (Oji-san, miso, kimono) but also in the way the culture is woven into everything (seppuku, kyujutsu, gijo). It also surprised me that, for a culture that is so male-centric as it is in the Moonlit Country, there was surprisingly little racism. Or, if there was, the foreigners were rich enough for the color of their skin to be overlooked. 

What also surprised me was how poignant Suzume's characterization was, the depth of her grief. I won't lie, it was scary at times to see how self-destructive she was, how desperate. There's a good reason why I compared it to two Shakespearean tragedies - Suzume's devastation leads her to a point where she can only think about avenging her family, but to do so, she would have to give up everything she has.

Unfortunately, this is also Romeo and Juliet, if she woke up a little earlier or he hesitated with the poison. Not to spoil anything, but we get a happy ending. 

To those of you who follow my reviews, this should come as no surprise, as I have already established I have no soul. For those of you who haven't... well, I can't explain without spoiling too much. Suffice to say, much like Romeo and Juliet, the story's climax is built upon a misunderstanding. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, that misunderstanding doesn't lead to tragedy.

My other problem came from the fact that, much as I enjoyed the plot twists, a lot of it relied on coincidence (and no, I did not buy the "fate-throws-us-together-when-we-need-each-other" aspect of shadow-weaving). I mean, how lucky is it that Suzume meets the people she has most need of exactly when things turn sour. And why would Youta do the things he did? It made no sense to me.

Overall, this book tries to marry fairy tales with Shakespearean tragedy. Does it succeed? Well... more or less. I applaud it for making such a good picture of tragedy and describing so well what it might be like to lose your whole family, but I did not quite buy the healing aspect of it, and ultimately, the climax felt too forced. But I do recommend it, if only because this is how YA fantasy should be written - fast-paced, gritty and real.

Note: A copy of the book was provided via NetGalley for the purposes of this review.

Note no 2: Image via Goodreads.