Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Links: Roundup, 7/31

It's been a busy couple of weeks for fans of The Hunger Games
  • The movie script is being polished by veteran action movie writer Billy Ray, who is also adapting 24 for the big screen.
  • In NYC but not crazy enough to come to the midnight release? Suzanne Collins will be reading at the Scholastic store on 8/26. If you want your book signed at this one, you have to buy it from the Scholastic store (I hope you can buy it on 8/24 and bring it back on8/26!)
  • Hot Topic is producing a number of Hunger Games T-Shirts. I currently love the GIRL ON FIRE one and will buy it if I don't get around to making my TEAM KATNISS T-shirt. If you odn't see one you love yet, there are supposed to be more on the way!
  • Scholastic has also released the official trailer
Covers have also been a topic of conversation recently: The Guardian sees red over pink covers, and Shelf Talker has declared this the season of windblown hair in its collection of recent trends in YA lit covers. What makes me see red? The total LACK of POC visibility on Shelf Talker's entire page! The hands on Toads and Diamonds are the only non-white flesh on that page. Interestingly, I know that at least three of the books in the silhouette section are about POC. If ever you needed proof we need more diversity in YA fiction, just look at that post!

A collection of LGBT short stories as been the subject of censorship in New Jersey - Revolutionary Voices was removed from Burlington County Library System, citing "child pornography" and ignoring library policy (and professional standard) to subject the book to a formal review. Warning about the comments: while much is supportive, there are a couple of jerks in there claiming that being gay is a choice (my standard response, though I'm not wading into the comments, is who the hell cares if it is a choice? Religion is a choice and its a protected class, after all).

On a happier subject, Kristin Cashore has an awesome blog post about names and power in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. And another post about writing scenes with physical intimacy. This is why Kristin Cashore is easily one of my favorite author bloggers - there is always something interesting on her blog!

Via First the Egg, a writer for Ms is asking for community input on the best feminist YA books. The list is a mixed bag from my point of view - there's a difference between books that teenagers read and actual YA books for one thing. For example, I first read The Handmaid's Tale in high school but in no way would I argue it's YA. Also, how is the first Harry Potter book, let alone freaking Twilight, feminist again?

Another list: Persnickety Snark hast started posting the results of the Top 100 YA Books poll conducted back in April. I was quoted for The Knife of Never Letting Go!

April at Good Books & Good Wine has written a defense of average boys. You're not going to find an Edward Cullen for yourself - and really, that's probably a good thing!

YA author extraordinaire Laurie Halse Anderson is once again hosting Write Fifteen Minutes a Day in the month of August. She's done this for a couple of years now, and this time around there will be prizes available! How do you participate? Just write fifteen minutes every day next month! There's no sign up, no penalties if you don't succeed, and no official timekeeper. The goal is to get in the habit of writing every day. Anyone else participating?

Still want more to read? The July Carnival of Children's Literature is up with dozens of more kids and YA-related links! There's even a link back here buried in the middle of all that greatness.

What have you been reading lately? Share your links in the comments! And feel free to promote your own stuff :-D

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review: The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June by Robin Benway

Way back in December 2008, when I decided I wanted to start blogging the books I was reading, the very first review I posted was for Robin Benway's Audrey, Wait! I loved that book and was totally unable to put it down, so I was excited when I saw during ALA that Benway had a new book coming out, The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June. Even more exciting? It's definitely a worthy follow up to Audrey, Wait.

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, & JuneApril, May and June are sisters that are about as different as can be. April is serious and studious, May is more than a little goth and hates the world, and youngest sister June is bubbly and cheerful and on a mission to be Popular as they start the school year at a new school. It's been four months since their parents divorced, uprooting the girls to move to a new school with their mom while their dad takes off for Houston, Texas.

On the same day that their dad is going to leave, the sisters appear to spontaneously develop extraordinary powers. April can predict the future, May turns invisible, and June can hear people's thoughts. As far as super powers go, not the most exciting - but it's terrifying for April when she starts having visions of June at the site of an accident. And if hot-headed May gets excited or upset, body parts start disappearing at random. Only June seems adept at her power, using the shallow thoughts of teenage girls to turn them against each other and put herself in position to befriend the most popular girl in school.

As Uncle Ben says, with great power comes great responsibility - but to whom? Is it okay to use someone if it means keeping them out of a vision of a horrible accident? Is it immoral to follow your mom invisibly on her first date? What about following your little sister to a party? And just how reliable are these powers, anyway?

Growing up with sisters isn't easy under the best of circumstances - will these new abilities pull them closer together, or drive them apart?

The story alternates between the points of view of the three sisters, and I knew about two lines into May's first chapter that she and I were going to be BFFs. She's delightfully snarky and has maybe a dozen lines in the whole novel that aren't sarcastic. She's also got some serious problems, too, being the one that feels most abandoned by her dad.

I also thought youngest sister June was really interesting. How terrifying for your littlest sister to be the one who can read your mind at will! She's also determined to be popular, something neither of her sisters understand, and probably comes closest to using her powers for evil when she uses the private, catty thoughts of popular-girl Mariah's best friends to turn Mariah against them, leaving the perfect opening for June to take their place. I also really liked June's descriptions of other people's thoughts - an excited girl was glittery, while a stoned guy's brain was too smoky for her to even read. She also ends up improving her vocabulary throughout the novel, thanks to sitting next to someone who mentally practices constantly for the National Spelling Bee.

I had some issues with when and where the girls would discuss their newly found powers. There's an extended conversation in Best Buy when they're first trying to figure everything out - not exactly a secluded place. There were also some frustrating hints about the origins of the girls powers, but I think the frustration was intentional - it's implied that the girls' grandmother and great aunts had powers as well, but since their mom has never mentioned it nor shown any sign of powers herself, they never ask for more information. So the girls don't know any more than we do and since the whole novel wraps up pretty neatly, I doubt there's going to be a sequel where we get an origin story. Unless it's a prequel about the grandmother and her sisters. That'd be awesome.

In-depth, meticulous science fiction this is not, but if you want a family drama with a great trio of sisters at its core with a sprinkling of science fiction/fantasy elements (since it's not explained where the powers come from it could ultimately go either way), The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June is the way to go.

Reviewed from an ARC picked up at ALA. The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June will be released Tuesday, August 3rd!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: Free? Stories About Human Rights Ed. by Amnesty International

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/19

I'll admit, I'm not the biggest fan of short story collections - I much prefer to let myself get wrapped up in one long narrative. However, I'm always willing to give them a try if the theme of the collection seems interesting. Considering I'm big on social justice and human rights, I thought this one would be safe to try.

Free?: Stories About Human RightsThe stories are written by a variety of YA authors and touch upon many of the tenets of the UN's 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Just to clarify what rights were enumerated in the story, each one ends with the declaration (or two) it was themed around.

The collection stumbles, however, in the haphazard way some of these declarations are applied. One story, about a kid who stumbles upon a sweatshop of underage children, has someone at the end randomly note that now the kids can get an education - and that's enough for the story to cover the "you have the right to go to school" declaration, as well as one other. Other stories barely qualify as actual stories, being more vignettes - glimpses into someone's life without any actual conflict or action.

A few pieces stand out as legitimately good stories - a poem about the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a group of teens search for food and water in the ruined city stands out, as does another about a family fleeing Zimbabwe in the aftermath of contested elections. These were compelling and riveting stories, which just served to highlight the relative weakness of many others.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 5/17

The Civil War is the perfect era for a ghost story, especially considering the country's fascination with spiritualism - the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, often when appearing in the then-new photographic pictures. Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown capture the fear and uncertainty of the period in both text and illustrations in Picture the Dead.

Picture the DeadAn orphan, Jennie Lovell has long lived with her twin and her two cousins at the home of her aunt and uncle.  After the three boys go off to fight in the war, Jennie is left to fend for herself against her aunt who has never much cared for her. Jennie's position in the family becomes even more precarious after the family is hit by tragedy - not only does Jennie's twin die of illness, but Will, her aunt's favorite son and Jennie's fiancĂ©, dies in battle and Quinn comes home wounded. With no imminent marriage to cement her place in the household, Jennie knows she could be tossed out at any time, family ties be damned. Jennie tries to make herself useful, helping to nurse the bitter Quinn,  but takes on a role more akin to a maid than a family member.

Knowing her parents had ties to the spiritualist movement, Jennie's uncle asks Jennie to put them in contact with a photographer known to be a medium. While some of the family is skeptical of the results, Jennie is sure Will is now trying to contact her - how else to explain how she found a missing locket, or a letter Will left with a comrade before he died? Encouraged by the supernatural contact, Jennie is determined to discover the truth behind Will's death, no matter how Quinn tries to stand in her way.

Brown's illustrations really add to the story, giving us glimpses into the scrapbook that Jennie keeps throughout the story. My one complaint is that the writing in the illustrations, as Jennie keeps many letters and writes captions, is only readable if you're sitting on a couch in a well-lit room. I do most of my reading on the subway, so my books are constantly bouncing around, making reading the small, cramped letters almost impossible at times.

There's lots of interesting information on the period included in the book, and it was interesting to have a Civil War story that isn't actually about the war or its causes. Of course, the realities of war are inescapable, and without giving too much away I can say that we get a glimpse at life in Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville Prison. Readers curious about this part of the story should check out The Horrors of Andersonville Prison, which I reviewed for Nonfiction Monday last week.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/12

I think I'm just a contrarian, whether I mean to be or not. It's been a few weeks since I read this and didn't make any notes on it, so now I'm looking at the original Publisher's Weekly review (it's starred even!) that made me get this book, and I an't figure out what drew me to it in the first place, since I found it to be a rather underwhelming read.

StolenGemma isn't happy with her parents - but that doesn't mean she ever wanted to be drugged and kidnapped from the Bangkok airport in the middle of a trip with her parents and whisked away to the Australian outback by a guy who's been stalking her for 6 years.

Ty first saw Gemma in the park in London when she was ten years old, and has spent his life since then preparing to bring her to the beautiful outback. He's convinced her parents don't actually love her, certainly not the way he loves her, and he's sure she'll come to love the wild outback the same way he has.

Lucy recounts her life in captivity in a diary or letter addressed to Ty, detailing her frustrations, anxieties, and even the occasional moment of exhilaration so far from civilization, even as she desperately want to return home.

While the story itself is solid, I felt the pacing was way off throughout the story, as Gemma's captivity only lasts a couple of months, and we never see the complications in Gemma's emotions that she claims to feel at the end. She's diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome, but while she's in captivity Gemma feels no ambivalence, let alone affection, for Ty. Not to mention her escape from captivity feels like a big deus ex machina, coming out of nowhere even after she and Ty have negotiated terms for bringing her back to civilization. I would much rather have followed the story for six months, which would have allowed Gemma more time with her captor with the promise of release and thus more opportunities for complicated emotions to arise.

Ty was a creepy yet oddly sanitized villain and I never felt I really understood his motivations for kidnapping Gemma in the first place. I say sanitized because let's face it, how many real life kidnappings of teenage girls lack physical or sexual violence. Ty maintains he's a gentleman (despite taking a girl against her will) and even shows embarrassment when he has to see Gemma in a state of undress (she messes herself up a couple of times, requiring changes of clothes or even nudity in order to heal from things like extreme sunburn and dehydration).

There are a few brilliant moments of writing. Gemma's interactions with the camel Ty captures and tries to domesticate are heartbreaking, as she confides in the camel how they're both captives and Ty will try to break both of them. It's an absolutely tragic and apt parallel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: Girls Against Girls by Bonnie Burton

I've never understood the theory that girls can't be friends. Yes, I dealt with my share of "mean girls" growing up - but my support against those mean girls was usually other girl friends. However, it's undeniable that girls and boys go about dealing with interpersonal problems differently, and as we watch high profile cases of girl bullying like Phoebe Prince's tragic suicide, it's important that we arm girls with the knowledge of how to protect themselves while also encouraging healthy friendships between girls, rather than eschewing female friendships all together.

Girls Against Girls: Why We Are Mean to Each Other and How We Can ChangeThat's exactly what Bonnie Burton does in Girls Against Girls - while examining all of the ways girls can tear each other down and why, she also maintains a focus on healthy female relationships. The answer is never "cut yourself off from all girls," it's find out what's really wrong, leave if necessary, and then go find other awesome girls to hang out with.

The first two chapters look at the "why" and "how" of mean girls, first looking at biological, social and cultural reasons girls may be mean to each other (brains may be wired to be mean, learned it from older women) and then the "Methods of our Meanness" (silent treatment, gossiping, boyfriend stealing, cyber bullying, etc). The last four chapters are all variations on what to do when you're the victim, from when to report bullying to school or legal authorities to how to encourage healthy female friendships.

Throughout the book are quotations from women, mostly artists and musicians, about how they dealt with girl bullies or the importance of their female friendships.

While I found all of the advice to be spot on theoretically, I did think there was one glaring hole in all of the advice about involving outside help: the requires whoever you're telling to believe that the bullying is a problem. Too many people think bullying is just part of growing up, and it takes something extreme like Phoebe Price's suicide to bring people to their senses (and if you've read the comments on any of the articles on Phoebe Price and the legal repercussions her tormentors are facing, you know that even after a tragedy people still think "kids will be kids"). What do you do if your parents or the principal don't believe there's a real problem?

One thing I was impressed with was the short chapter on feminism, giving a super brief timeline of the three waves of feminism, definitions of various types of feminisms (though fashionista feminism? That's one I've never really seen, and the only results Google gives me are related to Sex and the City), and stating why feminism is so important in the struggle against girl-on-girl bullying - because feminism is all bout women banding together. It's an extremely simplified feminist argument, but I'm always excited to see feminists discussions in YA lit!

Girls Against Girls should be a must read for girls who are struggling with bullies - and the parents and professionals who care about such girls. 

Review copy received from publisher Zest Books

Nonfiction Monday

Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by
Shelf Awareness

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Thoughts: Of Ratings and Censorship

Common Sense Media is back in the news around the blogosphere again, this time thanks to an excellent editorial in School Library Journal. Previously, Common Sense ended up in our sights when short versions of their reviews and ratings showed up on Barnes & Noble's website, and notably they were way harsh on some classics like Are You There God, It's Me Margaret.

Coincidentally, Judy Blume's books aren't on the Common Sense website anymore.

Anyway, the SLJ article rightly points out once again that many of the Common Sense reviews really aren't so much common sense as taking any potential negative aspect of a book wildly out of context. For the Newbery Honor title The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, having a tomboy heroine who points out the injustice of enforced gender roles is only worth two out of five points under "role models" and apparently the grandfather's only contribution to the story is offering Callie some whiskey. I haven't actually read the book, but judging from blog-reviews I've read, the whiskey-offering isn't actually the point of Callie's relationship with her grandfather. Could've fooled me.

To get a better idea of how off-base their ratings can be, I looked up two books that I have read and loved and also gained a bit of notoriety as well as critical acclaim: Fire and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

For the most part, I agree with Common Sense's take on Fire, though I agree with SLJ's opinion that "for Common Sense's reviewers, children's literature is just one big minefield of scary topics, and their job is to comb through books for any offending passages," as some of the things "to watch out for" are incredibly minor. Yes, a parent might want to know that multiple men attempt to rape Fire - but the reference to "drugs used to prevent pregnancy" is minor in the story, and really I consider it a huge plus since I'd much rather safe sex be mentioned than everyone just magically not get pregnant. Also I find it terribly inappropriate that the birth control is in the violence section of the review. But otherwise, recommending the book for ages 15 and up isn't too far off. Sure there are plenty of kids who could handle it before 15, but as a general guide, I'm not going to knock it. So clearly, Common Sense Media isn't all bad, right?

Well, then I looked at Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which Common Sense calls "iffy" for 15-17 year olds, apparently based entirely on the language and the early scene in the porn shop. Never mind that it's one of the best stories of acceptance and friendship I've read in ages. Which reminded me of a blog post that generated a lot of attention back in January, Are Your Kids' Books Rated R?
"R" rating of Motion Picture Associa...Image via Wikipedia

In that post, the author proposed ratings on kids' books just like we rate movies, and much to my and other commenters' frustration refused to engage in any dialog that such ratings lead to censorship in film. All it would take is one major retailer to decide they weren't going to carry book that are rated "R" for publishers to start deciding not to publish any more R rated books - or books that might even possibly get an R rating from whatever rating board popped up (this was also something the original writer couldn't answer - who would make up the rating board? Would the publishers give the ratings themselves? So much for consistency in that case!). 

And of course that is exactly what would happen - look at the Silver Phoenix cover change after Borders and many B&Ns didn't carry the hardcover version thanks to its proudly Asian cover. The new cover shows a protagonist that is racially ambiguous at best - isn't that a form of censorship? Hiding or obscuring the content of the book?

Hiding behind the argument of capitalism and the free market doesn't get you any outs here, either. The Rated R post argues that not carrying titles with a certain rating would be purely a business decision and authors/publishers could simply take their books elsewhere - but at a time when independent book stores are becoming few and far between, authors rely more than ever on the chains in order to make sure the books find an audience. Refusing to carry books based simply on a rating is in effect a moral judgment on the book (even if you don't know why its rated R - after all, such a policy to ban all of one rating is done just so you don't have to evaluate individual titles on their unique merits), and making it as difficult as possible for others to have access to that book is censorship.

After watching the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, I take film ratings these days with a grain of salt, since it's clear the MPAA has some major biases - this is how you end up with gratuitously violent PG-13 movies but movies with a bit of loving, consensual sex get slammed with an R. Common Sense Media seems to be the same way, especially as context and the benefits of reading challenging material don't seem to be taken into account. As SLJ notes, Common Sense Media "aren't censors. But ... they're making censors' jobs a whole lot easier." Concerned about whether a book is appropriate for your child? Read reviews, talk to a librarian, or even read the book yourself. Parents always have the right to dictate what their child can or cannot read - it's when you want to decide what the other kids can read that I get squeamish.
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review: For The Win by Cory Doctorow

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/19

This image is a derivative work of Gamepad.svg...Image via Wikipedia
Gaming is a Big Deal in my family. As a kid, I loved our Intellivision II, until we finally upgraded to a Super Nintendo (still my favorite gaming system). In high school and college, I matured to playing table top role playing games (if you want to hear a story of the Worst Decision Ever made - like, the sort of decision that gets people killed in horror movies - ask about the first time I went gaming with my new college friends. Note: offer does not apply to my mother - I don't want to give the woman a heart attack). Through the man who's now my husband, I discovered MMORPGs - games like World of Warcraft and Second Life (not that he plays either of those - Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes dominate in our apartment). So when I heard Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, one of my tops reads of 2008), was combining MMOs with the sort of social justice stuff I also love, I was all over it.

For the WinSet in the not-too-distant future, For the Win follows several gamers from around the world, all of whom are employed in different ways in gold farming. They work in sweat shop conditions, mostly in India and China, playing for hours every day in order to collect gold and other in-game valuables that can then be sold for real-world money to first world players too lazy or inept to collect the treasures for themselves. The conditions are deplorable, but a step up from the dangerous factory work these children and young adults would otherwise be forced into.

A young woman who goes by the name Big Sister Nor recognizes that the conditions these gamers work under are dangerous and abusive - slave wages, dark and crowded work environments, and threats to family members are all part of the gold farmers' lives. Nor is determined to unionize these workers across the world, gaining the support of real world unions to help protect local gamer unions. But Nor isn't only working against the systems in the game (as gold farming is clearly against the Terms of Service in any game) - after all, she's taking on whole governments when she tries to organize workers in China, and even the small-time bosses in India don't take kindly to children demanding better treatment. It will take the resources and determination of dozens, even hundreds, of players around the world, to give the new system even a hope for survival.

Doctorow clearly knows his stuff, both when it comes to games and to Marxism. Unfortunately, this didn't always come out in the best way. More than once I had flashbacks to college discussions about the benefits of Marxism and unions and the details of various economic theories as characters sounded just like my professors - or worse, the text books. I was glad some of these topics were being explained, as a lot of readers will lack a working knowledge of at least one subject integral to the story, but the way the information was presented was too heavy-handed.

Editing was also a huge problem for this book. Shortly before I read this, Cindy and Lynn at Bookends posted about "bloated 500+ page books," asking where they'd come from. For the Win definitely could have been much shorter - and needed an editor to go through at least one time with a fine-toothed comb, as this had far more than the average number of typos and several repetitive phrases, including repeated definitions of PvP (made more awkward because alternatives like PvE and role playing servers were never mentioned) and warnings of Terms of Service so dense they retained the right to kick you off at any time for any reason (or no reason at all).

There were also way too many characters in play, few of whom got any real development. The cast is as diverse and multi-cultural as you can get, but the lone white American boy was the closest to getting an actual character arc. Also, while I appreciated the attempt at cultural diversity, a lot of the characters from all around the world felt and sounded essentially the same, making the different countries little more than window dressing and not actually an integral part of the characters' backgrounds. It's almost as though the only reason this wasn't just set in America with a generic cast is because you'd have to go a little farther in the future before we'd really believe the military would come in and kill people over a union trying to organize, but we know that happens in China right now.

So while I found the initial idea to be intriguing, unfortunately it fell apart in the execution for me. However, if you're like me and find your curiosity piqued no matter how many critical reviews you see, know that Doctorow not only talks the talk, but walks the walk when it comes to copyright issues, and the novel is available for free download in multiple e-formats, from plain text to Kindle.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/5

Only Louis Sachar could write a YA novel about bridge and come away with a fun, compelling novel. (Seriously, bridge?! Do you even know anyone who plays it? I sure don't)

The CardturnerAlton Richards just wants a quiet summer. After being dumped by his girl friend for his best friend, all he wants to do is stay at home, mope, and maybe pick up a part-time job. All that is thrown out the window, however, when his reclusive Uncle Lester calls, demanding to know if Alton knows how to play bridge. Alton doesn't have a clue, and so Lester, recently blinded, calls on Alton to serve as his cardturner at several bridge games a week. Alton's family is down on their luck and hoping for a generous inheritance once dear Uncle Lester finally kicks the bucket, and his mom insists that Alton take the job to make a good impression (and preferably not take any money for it, but Alton puts his foot down at that).

And so begins Alton's indoctrination into the world of bridge, putting up with his uncle's barbs and insults while quietly absorbing a working knowledge of the game, and planning on how to get Lester back into the national rankings of bridge players. Along for the ride is Gloria, Lester's bridge partner, and Toni, the very cute and possibly crazy girl who was Lester's cardturner until she insulted him by questioning a play in the middle of a game. Along the way, family secrets are investigated and revealed, romance blossoms, and Alton finds he just might have inherited his uncle's knack for cards.

Going into this book, I knew next to nothing about bridge - poker is my card game of choice. Sachar does his best to educate readers about the game, giving both long explanations and short recaps for readers depending on their interest in the mechanics of the game. I read through all of the long explanations (highlighted by an image of a white whale as an homage to Moby Dick and those ridiculous chapters about whale anatomy that appear uninvited throughout the book) and I still don't think I really get the game, but can definitely see its appeal. Hands are almost like communal logic puzzles, where you have to work with a partner to figure out the best answer while the other pair is working against you. Maybe I'll take up the game when I retire; it's gotta be better than bingo.

In the meantime, I'll stick with poker.

The quirky family dynamics that are a staple of Sachar's work are fully at play here. Alton's parents come across as slightly morbid as they are pretty obviously hoping that Uncle Lester will die and, thanks to Alton's help, will remember the family kindly in his will. Creepy. Alton's a good guy who refuses to play their game, and finds he ends up legitimately enjoys spending time with his uncle, even if the cranky old man thinks he's an idiot who doesn't know the first thing about cards.

The last act takes a slight turn for the weird, but so long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief for awhile, it's all fun.

The quirky characters and relationships are really what make this novel shine. Yes, bridge is a weird and random game, but for most of the story it fades into the background, and even at the climactic bridge tournament, the game is less important than the relationships it highlights.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

Found via: I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the hell do I read?
Book received at ALA June 2010

I saw this on Lee's blog back in April. It took my library months to get it in, and I finally got it through the library right before ALA...where I stumbled across Cheryl signing copies in the exhibits! Not that I need more books in my apartment, you know, but it's always nice to have a personalized copy to add to my collection.

ScarsGrowing up, Kendra was sexually abused in a horrific manner - so horrific, she completely blocked the memory of it until six months ago. Even now, after extensive therapy, she can't bring herself to remember the man who did these terrible things to her. To cope, she has thrown herself into her art, creating dark and emotional works that stand in stark contrast to the controlled and pretty landscapes her mother paints. Less healthfully, she has also turned to self harm, cutting herself up and down her arms as a way to control the pain and fear that well up inside of her.

Now, years after the end of the abuse, her abuser is back on the scene, stalking Kendra, leaving her threatening notes in her backpack warning that he will kill her if she tells anyone. Kendra reports this to her therapist, but finds there's no one else she can trust, especially since she doesn't know who he is - or how he's getting so close to her now.

The one highlight in Kendra's life is her budding relationship with Meghan. Meghan saves Kendra from one of the school bullies one day, and Kendra latches on, hoping at first just for a friend before finding that her feelings are growing deeper. Luckily, despite her reputation with the boys, Meghan returns Kendra's feelings.

The stakes for Kendra rise as trouble hits her family. Her father is in danger of losing his job, meaning Kendra may have to change schools, and even stop seeing her therapist, the only person keeping her from actually killing herself. Life has, perhaps, never been darker for Kendra, as her parents threaten to rip all of her supports out from under her. If she can only figure out who hurt her, and is stalking her again, she can find some peace.

I have to admit, part of what drew me in to this book, is the stark and rather disturbing cover. It's the sort of cover that catches people's eye, and then makes them do a double take - this is a side effect of all of that reading in public I do. It's not bright and flashy, but I think it's the one smooth and one horrifically scarred arm that draws me in. It almost looks like a horror movie poster.

And Kendra's life is like something out of a horror movie at times. The novel opens with her telling her therapist that she's being stalked, and I love that it's impossible to tell for awhile whether it's true or if Kendra is paranoid with the sort of unstable personality that could make something like this up. Kendra acknowledges that it sounds crazy, but remains convinced.

The descriptions of Kendra's abuse, both as a child and the harm she self-inflicts, are absolutely brutal. If you're squeamish about depictions of abuse, this might not be the book for you.

In some ways, this felt like a novel of extremes, with a lot of stuff crammed in. Occasionally it stretched credulity, for example there's a big stand off at the end that seemed to come out of nowhere. Also, very briefly at the end, and again in Rainfield's author's note, there's a mention of "ritual abuse," which both Kendra and Rainfield were subjected to, however there's no further explanation. There are support resources in the extensive readers' resource guide related to ritual abuse, which certainly have a place in a book such as this, but it felt like a rather random tidbit to be dropped in during the closing pages of the novel.

Kendra's relationship with Meghan is delightfully a non-issue in the story. Kendra has enough to agonize about without adding sexual orientation to the list, though her parents have some hand wringing over whether she's really a lesbian or if she's just reacting against the abuse. While I felt their relationship developed extremely fast (which happens to lots of plot points across the novel), Meghan's unquestioning support is a beautiful counterpoint to Kendra's parents.

GLBT Challenge

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

After a failed attempt to read the werewolf romance of the moment, Shiver, I shrugged off the burgeoning werewolf genre as not-for-me. Then along comes Sisters Red which is pretty much a bad ass book all around. Yay, werewolf hunters!

Sisters Red: v. 1Scarlett March has two missions in life: hunt werewolves and protect her little sister, Rosie. Luckily for Scarlett, fulfilling one mission usually involves fulfilling the other, as the Fenris hunt pretty young women like Rosie. Ever since a werewolf attacked and killed their grandmother when they were little, an attack which also took Scarlett's eye as she was even then protecting her little sister, Scarlett has been determined to exterminate the Fenris, and she has the scars, both literal and figurative, to prove it.

Rosie knows she owes her sister her life. Scarlett has sacrificed so much, even her own eye, that Rosie feels becoming a hunter like her sister is a small price to repay her debt. It isn't that Rosie dislikes hunting, in fact she's quite good at it and knows that without her many more girls would be horrifically murdered every month, but Rosie has never had the chance to discover if she even likes to do anything else. And now, back on the scene after a year away from hunting in order to visit relatives, Silas Reynolds is stirring up all sorts of complicated feelings in her young heart. Silas is Scarlett's hunting partner, or was until he left and Rosie took over, but does that mean he can never mean something to Rosie?

Silas is back just in time, as the Fenris packs seem to be congregating, concentrating their hunting efforts in a way the March sisters have never seen before. And there's whispers that they're looking for the Potential - the one man they can bite and turn into another werewolf, so long as they an find him before the next full moon. Silas and the March sisters know this is an unprecedented chance to hunt lots of Fenris at once, and maybe even learn more about how they increase their numbers - but that's about all they know. Hunting and killing werewolves is one thing, but learning how they tick might just be beyond even their formidable capabilities.

This is a book that uses the alternating POV chapters method really, really well. Rosie and Scarlett are so different that even though they're telling the same story, it's almost like we get two different genres. Scarlett's narration gives me the action and adventure story I love, while Rosie gives us a sort of paranormal-romance look at the same basic plot. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

I also love that these sisters have a real love and affection for each other, even when they don't understand each other. Even when Silas is in the picture, and the story threatens to go into love-triangle territory, the girls stay focused on their primary mission and the importance of their relationship with eachother.

Scarlett is far and away my favorite character, reminding me so much of Rachel in my beloved Animorphs books as she struggles with her warrior identity, but Rosie is no slouch and in fact had two of my favorite moments in the book. I don't want to give too much away, but when Rosie was trying to outsmart a whole pack of werewolves, she had me on the edge of my seat and cheering for her solution. And if this ever becomes a movie, I cannot wait to see her tango scene -it's such a small moment in the book, but the visuals and the soundtrack could make it awesome.

In some ways this is a very sexual book, but without actually ever showing any sex. Pearce has taken the Little Red Ridinghood story, with its warning about girls wandering alone and implications about male sexuality, and seamlessly put it in a modern setting. The methods Scarlett and Rosie use to attract the werewolves - perfume, fancy shampoo, flowing hair and the infamous red cape - could be the jumping off point for a long thesis for a lit or women's studies major. I have to admit, after writing my review for Flow, this is one of the books I was thinking of when wondering why we don't see more periods in YA lit. It seems like when you're dealing so blatantly with sexuality, a woman's period would affect how a werewolf sees her. And the girls are so short on cash you'd think someone would bitch about the price of tampons (because I always cringe to think of how much I'm spending on something that is made to be thrown away, and I don't have to pawn off my grandmother's valuables to make rent). The book covers a whole month, so surely one of them would have had a period!

But seriously, awesome book, and I can't recommend it highly enough! Two companion books are on their way, riffing off of different stories (Hansel & Gretel and the Little Mermaid). I hope to see more of Rosie and Scarlett (ESPECIALLY SCARLETT), but I'll take what I can get!

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Women Unbound Challenge

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: The Horrors of Andersonville by Catherine Gourley

Found via: A Patchwork of Books

The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Upper Grades)I love Nonfiction Mondays. I'm a big fiction reader, but a lot of that is just because it can be so dang hard to find a nonfiction book at the YA level. This is something that Nonfiction Mondays have actually highlighted for me - there are lots of great books being posted, but the majority of them are for younger readers. So I was very excited to see on the July 5th edition Amanda's post about The Horrors of Andersonville, highlighting not just a book appropriate for middle school and older readers, but also a civil war history, looking at the infamous Andersonville prison.

My own Civil War knowledge is rather lacking, though I've been reading everything I can since I read They Fought Like Demons and I'll Pass for your Comrade last October. The Horrors of Andersonville does an excellent job of informing relative newbies like me, while also providing an in-depth look at prison life, and the aftermath for many key players, including the commander of the interior of the prison, Henry Wirz, the only person tried and convicted of war crimes during the Civil War.

In a prison with over 30,000 prisoners, the story of the Andersonville prison could easily be a sprawling mess, but Gourley keeps the narrative steady by picking a few prisoners to follow as well as Wirz. To aide in clarity, Gourley gives us a cast of characters twice - a brief list at the beginning, and a short biography at the end covering both their actions during the war and what is known of their post-war lives.

The book is divided into two parts, first covering life in the filthy, squalid prison, and the second half focusing on the court martial Wirz faced, which was perhaps the most fascinating part. It's clear from Gourley's presentation that Wirz never had a chance at a fair trial, that the court was out for vengeance even though in all likelihood Wirz had very little control over conditions at Andersonville. She doesn't paint Wirz as a good guy - he clearly had anger issues and absolutely no love for the North - but he wasn't quite the monster the press and prosecution painted him as, and there were certainly others far more deserving of a trial (such as the president of the Confederacy, whose case was dismissed by the Supreme Court).

The descriptions of life in Andersonville were enough to make me gasp and gag. Why anyone thought Anderson Station would be a good place to house prisoners is beyond me, considering the very ground was infested with fleas before a single prisoner showed up. Eugh. Then there's the descriptions of scurvy many men suffered from, and the lack of treatment for wounds which often led to gangrene. Yuk, yuck, yuck.

Gourley presents lots of quotations from period sources, including letters and newspapers, and keeps the book accessible to all by defining unfamiliar words in brackets as they occur. No flipping back and forth to a glossary every time an unfamiliar word shows up. I also appreciated that sidebars and full pages that would describe situations outside of Andersonville appeared at natural stopping places in the text. It annoys the heck out of me when such an interruption in the main narrative occurs when a sentence is split between two pages, forcing me to turn the page, finish the sentence, and then turn back for the supplementary material. Here, such insets occur after a sentence has ended. Finish the sentence, turn the page to read about what was going on in prisoner of war camps in the North, then smoothly keep reading about Andersonville.

I also love Gourley's use of 21st century technology in the bibliography. When period books and letters are available online, through Google Books or other sources, she makes note of the link. This means I can download a PDF of John Ransom's Andersonville Diary or look at scans of the Harper's Weekly newspaper immediately after finishing the book, and know that I'm using the same sources the author did. I love living in the future!

This is absolutely a must for Civil War buffs, and anyone who is interested in asking questions about history and whether the dominant narrative is anything close to presenting "the truth."

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by In Need of Chocolate (which happens to sum up my attitude this morning). Make sure to check out the roundup of other nonfiction titles highlighted today!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project nominee

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is DoneI wanted to love this book so, so much. In high school I read Susan Faludi's Backlash for my AP American Lit class. After seeing the summer reading list was made up entirely of male authors, I asked if there were going to be women included in the actual class before I would agree to actually taking the class. The teacher assured me there would even be feminist literature as an option for our big mid-year report. When it was time to actually choose books for that report...they were all by men again. I basically asked the teacher what the hell, and she said I could read Backlash, warning me some of her positions might be "a little extreme." I ended up loving Backlash, even though it made my project much harder than it should have been (everyone else got to work in groups on fiction novels, so clearly there were some "separate but not-really equal" issues going on here), and when I saw Douglas cites Backlash often in her introduction, I was hoping this would be the early 21st century version of that book and, as it's nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list, some frustrated girl back in Holland might be assigned this more contemporary book instead.

Backlash (French Edition)Douglas' theory of enlightened sexism holds that it "is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism - indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved - so now it's okay, even amusing to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women" (9). It "is more nuanced and much more insidious than out-and-out backlash. As Susan Faludi amply demonstrated, backlash involves a direct, explicit refutation of feminism as misguided and bad for women. Enlightened sexism is subtler" (11). All well and good so far.

Douglas then goes on to painstakingly dissect what has happened in popular culture since Backlash was first published in 1991, focusing primarily on magazines and television programming, with a little bit of music critique thrown in (she wasn't happy when her daughter was a Spice Girls fan in the 90s, uncomfortable with the group's attempt to pass off their sexuality as a girl power/feminist message). Xena and Buffy are upheld as feminist TV standards. The original 90210 and Melrose Place, which aired at roughly the same time, were an anti-feminist wasteland when it came to portrayals of women, but feminism had clearly influenced the men as they were softer and more affectionate than previous generations of TV men. Shows like Murphy Brown were a grey area, showing a powerful woman successful in her career, but also bringing with it a lot of embedded feminism, as Murphy's achievements were presented simply as "part of the cultural landscape" and it was never mentioned how much she would have had to struggle to achieve such a position in the real world (9). Then Ally McBeal and reality TV came along and this was the beginning of the end.

Magazines for women and men are also skewered, women's magazines for their contradictory advice ("love your body!" on one page and "New miracle diet!" on the next) and male-gaze-centric advice (ever notice how all of those lurid headlines for better sex are about improving his pleasure?), men's magazines (primarily Maxim) for their soft-core porn views of women. She also focuses a lot on the celebrity tabloid culture that has arisen, including how even CNN was focused for days on the non-story of Anna Nicole Smith's death.

I have to admit, I found all of this interesting, but I also had a healthy feeling of "this is nothing new." I don't want to put another nail in publishing's coffin, but I wonder if books like Douglas' are going to be on their way out soon, because almost every topic has already been covered by blogs - and they've even taken some of her reporting farther. In the last chapter Douglas looks at motherhood and how stories of women "opting out" of the workforce have been greatly exaggerated, and the new books and blogs that rising showing women truly struggling with motherhood, not even trying to keep up the veneer of "having it all," and being celebrated for it. Well, that last bit sounds an awful lot like the bad mommy genre that was the talk of the blogs in May 2009 (Enlightened Sexism was published in March 2010). While the book gives a name to a lot of subjects I've thought about before (I particularly liked embedded feminism), for anyone who's been following the conversations on the major feminist blogs, all of this is old news. It's nice having everything in one location, but in the age of blogs, are books like this redundant?

But redundant or not, the most damning part of Douglas' book is...her tone. Okay, I totally cringe to use that word in a discussion of a feminist work, but I'm not sure what else fits here. Basically, Douglas sets up a lot of her arguments as an "us vs. them" battle - and I'm not talking men vs. women. No, for Douglas the "us" is older women (or "vintage females" as she bizarrely refers to herself throughout the text) and the "them" is every one younger who is implicitly held responsible for the popularity of tacky magazines and preposterous reality TV shows. In her conclusion, Douglas presents two possible scenarios of the future, one where a feminist grandmother is surrounded by ridiculous things like potty-training thongs for her granddaughter, who she's caring for while her daughter tries to figure out how to handle going back to work after 6 weeks unpaid maternity leave, and another future in which the feminist grandmother is part of a movement where all older women have risen up and renewed the consciousness-raising strategies of the 70s to revolutionize American culture. In both cases, women of my generation (mid-twenties), are left out of the solution.

I felt similarly about Flow when I reviewed it two weeks ago - how are these books getting nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list? Both are definitely feminist books, so they fit the list's first criteria, but I can't imagine any young woman willingly reading either of these and feeling like she was represented. Both books focus on the experiences and attitudes of women who are at least a decade past their teen years, and the Amelia Bloomer list's charge is to find feminist titles for young readers ranging from birth to 18. There's nothing here keeping a high schooler from reading Enlightened Sexism, and I think the average high schooler could learn a lot, but first she would have to get past Douglas' apparent bias against young women, and that just might be too tall of an order.

Women Unbound Challenge

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Links: Roundup, 7/17

Since starting this blog I've become more and more interested in reading non-fiction, so I'm excited to see what happens with the She Writes Passion Project, a contest to help an unpublished woman get her nonfiction project published.

In the July/August issue of the Horn Book, Ellen Wittlinger writes about the Lambda Literary Foundation's decision to favor LGBT identified authors in their awards, rather than focusing on LGBT content in the books themselves. Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic chimes in from an editor's perspective.

The Nation takes on the book-selling behemoth in The Trouble with Amazon, examining their predatory pricing practices (remember when Amazon pulled all the buy buttons from Macmillan titles?)

For my fellow Animorph-geeks, Katherine and Michael (the team that pseudonymously made up K.A. Applegate) are calling for video submissions from fans about what Animorphs meant to us. The videos will then be shown to the Scholastic sales team at the beginning of August (what I wouldn't give to get a job at Scholastic between now and then!).

And for my monthly self-promotion and nepotism...

I mentioned this last month before the show has started, but my sister-in-law is still going strong on The Big Break. Or that's what I've been told - I don't have cable and the show doesn't seem to be available anywhere online!

My husband is still going strong on his foray into blogging, posting excerpts of his latest writing projects. It's all paranormal/fantasy stuff right now - he'd love to get some feedback!

And if you love me so much that my daily reviews just aren't enough for you, I've started another blog (because this is what the internet really needs over on tumblr. It's for anything and everything, at least anything and everything that isn't related to YA books!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review: Pastworld by Ian Beck

Found via: Eating YA Books

In middle school, one of my favorite books was Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time. The day that the librarians (Cindy and Lynn) book talked it, someone else grabbed it first, so I begged my parents to buy me a copy.

Yeah, I really wanted that book.

So when I first read Jan's review of Pastworld, I looked past everything that had bothered her and focused on the parts that sounded like a more grown up Running Out of Time - a girl who has grown up in a theme park she believes really is Victorian-era London, living under the terror of a Jack the Ripper style serial killer.

PastworldPastworld is the world's most successful theme park, recreating the darkness and danger of 19th century London in the middle of London in 2048, courtesy of the Buckland Corporation. The rich and powerful pay for the privilege to dress up and become part of the scenery, experiencing life outside of the very sanitized 21st century - often taking grisly delight in the unofficial "murder tours," gawking at the crime scenes of murders committed by the Fantom, a mysterious masked criminal who started as a petty thief, but has escalated to committing heinous murders, decapitating his victims and removing their hearts.

Oblivious to most of this is Eve, who is one of the few who believes that Pastworld is real. Sheltered by her guardian, blind Jack, Eve feels stifled. She gathers her courage one day and runs away to join the circus, where she discovers she has quite the talent for walking the tight rope, and is immediately adopted by the circus folk.

At the same time, Lucius Brown and his son, Caleb, have come to visit Pastworld, summoned by a curious letter from Jack after Eve disappeared. The Fantom sets his sights on Lucius and his old friend, leaving Caleb to fend for himself in the unfamiliar city. Luckily, a petty thief with a heart of gold, Bible J, picks up Caleb, trying to shield him from the Fantom and the authorities.

The ongoing threat of the Fantom soon brings Eve, Bible J and Caleb together, all looking to save themselves, or the ones they love, from the end of his razor, even as the police themselves are closing in in an attempt to solve the mystery of where the Fantom comes from.

This book was a chore to get through most of the time. On Sunday evening I found myself 30 pages from the end, in the middle of the climax, and really not caring about how it ended. I forced myself to finish, but reaching that final page was a relief - it was all over!

The narration was all over the place, which made it hard to connect with any of the characters. Most of the book is told from a third person narrative perspective, with occasional first person insights from Eve's journal. However, each of these parts were so short that it was often hard to keep track of one narrative thread. For the first half of the book I was motivated to keep reading because I really wanted to learn how all of these different characters - an amnesiac girl, a blind man, a petty thief, a spiritualist fraud, a rich scientist and his son, a sergeant and inspector in Scotland Yard, and the criminal Fantom to name, well, most of them - were connected. I figured out some, but others were a mystery until close to the end, and quite frankly I just didn't care after awhile because it became so convoluted.

Eve's character also annoyed me a lot because she was written to be so passive. It turns out there's a reason for that in the end...but the scene in which that revelation is made isn't entirely satisfactory, either. To avoid giving too many spoilers, I'll just say that Eve is continually defined by her relationships with men. There's a short time where she seems to break free of that mold while working in the circus, until her love interest comes along and she is reclaimed.

Caleb, our other protagonist, isn't that well developed, either. He rarely acts, choosing instead to react to the madness around him. This makes sense initially, as he's clearly out of his element in Pastworld, but eventually kept me from ever becoming involved with his character.

Ultimately it became difficult for me to believe that Pastworld would be allowed to continue to exist the way it did. All of the citizens are essentially actors with permits to be allowed to live out their roles. This seems to be common knowledge, yet it's also common knowledge that people are routinely murdered while inside Pastworld. How could that be considered a tourist attraction? I never had a real moral qualm with people visiting the historical village in Running Out of Time because the visitors were told only the youngest children were unaware of the outside world and no one knew  vaccines were purposefully being withheld. Compare this with something like the titular prison in Incarceron, another instance of one society living inside another, unaware or unsure if there's another world outside. It makes sense that the prison exists as a circle of hell because the outside world is willfully ignorant. I'm pretty sure that if there were a serial killer in Colonial Williamsburg, the place would be shut down ASAP until the killer was apprehended. Unless the place is run by the mayor from Jaws.

So while the initial premise excited me, ultimately the story was bogged down by apparent implausibility and too many shallow characters. Also? You're going to have to work really hard to get me to really enjoy a book with only one major female characters, and among the other three, only one gets a regularly used name (the other two are the bearded lady and the cat lady). Was there a reason why everyone else had to be a dude?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson

The idea of the "preacher's kid" has always intrigued me - they're kids who end up being defined almost entirely by their parents' role in the community. Even more so than the rest of us (churchgoing or not), they're expected to uphold a certain standard of behavior constantly, no matter how they feel about their parents' job.

Saving MaddieSaving Maddie is the second book about a preacher's kid I've read this year - the first being Donut Days for the Nerds Heart YA contest. Between the two books, we see three of the possible iterations of the preachers kid: Emma is a good kid who disagrees with her parents, while Saving Maddie's narrator, Joshua, is a goody two-shoes and the titular Maddie is the rebel who has apparently turned her back on everything her father teaches.

Joshua Wynn is a good kid, the quintessential preacher's kid. He's active in church activities to the point of excluding all others. As youth leader of the church's youth group, he listens to the ideas of his peers before issuing a verdict that will fall in line with his father's beliefs. Joshua isn't always sure his father is right, but striking out on his own isn't an option.

Until Maddie returns to town.

Joshua and Maddie were best friends growing up, while her father was the associate pastor in Joshua's father's church. When she moved away in middle school, they swore to keep in contact, but eventually Maddie stopped returning Joshua's letters, and he stopped trying to reach out.

But now she's back, dressed in short, tight black dresses; wearing purple lipstick; and going by her full name, Madeline. It's quite a change from the quiet girl Joshua knew way back when, but deep down, Joshua knows she's still just Maddie. So despite the disapproving stares of the parishioners Joshua starts hanging out with Madeline, convinced he can "save" her from her fallen ways.

As Joshua and Madeline's friendship is rekindled, Joshua learns more about his friend's new life than he ever really wanted to know. She drinks, smokes, and fools around with guys much older than her. And worse, according to Madeline her dad is a Grade A jerk, and Joshua is concerned that his abuse might go well beyond verbal insults. As his parents worry that Madeline is a poor influence on him, Joshua openly defies them for the first time, and continues to spend time with Madeline despite their commands that he end the relationship immediately. Joshua doesn't know where exactly this relationship will end up (he's kind of hoping to make it at least to second base), but he does know that now, more than ever, Maddie needs him.

Joshua and Madeline have both been labeled by the time we first meet them - Joshua as a good guy and Madeline as the fallen woman, and we're reminded of this several times explicitly by the way people talk and act around the pair. When out at a party several youth group members are attending, they try to hide their drinks from Joshua, afraid he's such a good boy that he'll report their illicit activities to their parents. On the other hand, everyone immediately assumes the worst about Madeline, treating her as a sex object and a temptress to the surrounding young men (as if it doesn't take two to tango!). Even as Joshua and Madeline are labeled as opposites, they also react to these labels in opposite ways: Joshua is constantly trying to break free of his good guy image, while Madeline has heartbreakingly accepted that her only worth lies in sex.

That part of Madeline's character kind of bothered me, though I've known enough girls who feel the same way to know it's totally true. I guess it bothered me because I know it's not true, that no person should be defined by her sexuality, and no one deserves to be treated poorly because of her past sexual experiences. Joshua feels the same way (though he doesn't articulate it quite that way), but poor Madeline just can't see her own worth, which made the last few chapters very difficult to read as Madeline constantly beats up on herself.

Also horrible: Madeline's father. Holy crap. We never actually meet the guy in the text, but even if he's only half as bad as Madeline describes him, he's a terrible, horrible man who has no business being a parent or a preacher. In April, the New York Times asked if YA lit has a parent problem, and I argued that the article's examples were terrible, as the parents cited that I was familiar with were struggling parents, but by no means bad ones. You want bad parents? Look here and in Say the Word and King of the Screw Ups.

Huh. Just realized all of my "terrible parent" examples are actually terrible fathers. Am I just missing the books with abusive mothers? Dirty Little Secrets is the only abusive mother I can think of recently, and for some reason she doesn't pop into my mind immediately when I think "terrible parent." A bit of bias on my part, perhaps? Or is it just because the mother is dead when that book starts and her abuse may have been brought about by mental illness?

Complicated stuff.

The book itself deals with lots of complicated issues in thoughtful ways. Aside from Madeline's sexuality, there is also, of course, lots and lots of thoughts on religion, specifically protestant Christianity. I really enjoyed how Johnson showed Madeline still considers herself religious, even if she thinks organized religious institutions are bunk. Joshua also has a lot to think about, as much of his feelings on faith are tied up in his feelings about his parents.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Thoughts: Are objections to Twilight paternalistic?

Twilight SagaImage via Wikipedia
I really wish I no longer felt the need to think/speak/write about the Twilight series, but the thing is such a huge cultural juggernaut still that it's impossible to avoid. Case in point: I had almost the exact same conversation about Twilight twice this weekend - first with my husband, based on an internet post he'd seen, and second with a friend over brunch on Saturday.

Essentially the conversation was whether getting overly worked up over girls reading Twilight (and watching the films, etc) smacked of condescension. We don't get worked up over boys' media consumption, but one of the primary arguments against girls reading Twilight is that it's giving them a warped sense of romance and relationships and is doing them irreparable, real life harm. The same group of people that tends to get worked up over girls reading Twilight is the same that says playing a game like Grand Theft Auto won't turn kids (usually boys in this discussion) into car thieves. Are we placing more faith in boys over girls?

I was, and still am, of the opinion that Twilight is poor reading material at best, and is giving a damaging example of romance at worst. I can't comment on the films because I haven't seen any of them, but I gather they're following the books pretty closely. I also don't think GTA is creating a generation of car thieves, so I am the exact sort of person who is accused of not trusting girls and women - ironic right? But here's my argument, in two parts: first, the reactions we see from media consumers is different for the books versus the video games. Second, we need to look at why boys and girls are choosing these fantasy elements.

First, while both boys and girls immerse themselves in different fantasy worlds, when they emerge only one of these groups is generally saying they wish it would be like real life. When a GTA player has finished stealing cars, killing cops and beating hookers, they aren't saying "I wish I could do that for real!" There's a lot of controversy about whether or not playing violent video games leads to an increase in violent behaviors, but it seems at best to be a correlation, not causation - and there are lots of arguments attacking the methodology and conclusions of the studies that point even to the correlations.

With Twilight, on the other hand, we know there are girls who finish the story and wish it were true. Girls who say they're looking for their Edward or Jacob, and I really doubt that most of them are looking to be bit by a vampire. Instead, it's the romance they say they wish to recreate. But really, the relationships described in Twilight are far from healthy.

As the most prominent examples of their genres, both GTA and Twilight generate more than their fair share of attention and criticism. However, as these two have not only become emblematic of their genres (action video games, YA paranormal romance novels), but of an entire medium in many ways (GTA comes up in most video game discussions, just as a conversation about YA lit can't be had without mentioning Twilight), the source of the fantasies are also fair for critique. What makes these things popular - and does critiquing the game/book become a short hand for critiquing that fantasy in our culture?

For GTA, the main fantasy seems to be playing the bad guy. Especially in America, we've long has a media fascination with outlaws - wild west stories about Billy the Kid and Depression-era folk heroes/outlaws Bonnie and Clyde come to mind. GTA is an extension of these narratives into the 21st century, allowing players to participate in the story in a way previous generations were never able to.

And that "bad boy" aspect is also at play to an extent in Twilight. Bella's relationships with Edward and Jacob have an element of the forbidden in them, because of the boys' dangerous natures. The vampire and werewolves are external trappings, creating conflicts outside of Bella's romances, but the primary focus is Bella and her love/lust for these two boys.

And this is where Twilight freaks me out, because I am unable to see any way in which Bell and Edward's relationship can be interpreted as healthy (I can't comment extensively on the Bella/Jacob side because I can't make myself read past the first book, where Jacob was a minor character). There is no way to get around the fact that Edward stalks Bella. His warnings that he could hurt her sound way too much like threats. He tries to  control who she can be friends with based on his own biases, steering her away from Jacob far before Jacob shows he has a dark side of his own.

And if Twilight was the only story out there promoting this deranged view of romance, even if it was incredibly popular, I think I could let it slide, because there would be other alternatives out there. However, as Jos at Feministing wrote yesterday (after I started composing this post), Twilight is just one story with similar themes reaching ridiculous heights of popularity. Even if you're a fairly savvy young media consumer, it's pretty darn hard to find alternative stories to satisfy a romantic craving. This is why I'm concerned over the outsized role Twilight has in young adult publishing - it's becoming harder and harder to find romances where the girl doesn't become some kind of doormat.

I think it's very easy to fall into paternalistic/condescending traps when discussing Twilight under the guise of wanting what's best for young women - that doesn't, however, mean all concerns can be easily dismissed. Young women are interacting with these books we haven't seen young men interact with other objectionable media, and that is why there's more hand-wringing going on over girls than boys.
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