Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Thoughts: Why I'm Not Worried about Boys (or Men)

Twitter logo initialImage via Wikipedia
Ooh, provocative title is provocative ;-)

Last night was another meeting of the #YALitChat on Twitter. And part of me really wanted to join in, because I loved the authors being highlighted (Michael Grant, Scott Westerfeld, and Jay Asher). The other part of me wanted to avoid the internet for a couple of hours because the topic of the evening just grated my nerves in the worst possible way.

The topic? Why men write YA.

If nothing else, this was annoying because it's not a topic worthy of a two hour chat, because I can answer it in three words: they want to.

And I think it became quite clear that it wasn't a hot topic because while there were some great conversations going on, few of them that I saw actually addressed what was the main topic of the night!

Instead, there was a lot of hand wringing over what do boys want to read, and whether it's important to have male authors in order to appeal to them.

Which makes me roll my eyes, because I spent years in English classes reading nothing but male authors and fighting like hell to get to read women. For more on this, I direct you to Maureen Johnson.

I'm not saying what's good for the goose is good for the gander - that because my education sucked boys should now be forced to read nothing but Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and Twilight. That doesn't help anybody.

What bothers me is seeing authors talk about writing specifically what appeals to "boys" and what appeals to "girls." First of all, it sets up gender as a binary, which current scholarship on gender and sexuality doesn't support. Second, even if gender is binary, it implies that all boys want the same thing, and all girls want something totally different.

At one point I jumped into the chat when Scott Westerfeld asked if "the shift from paranormal romance to dystopian been correlated to more boys reading?" I replied that recent dystopian novels have all looked awfully romancey to me (which could be a whole other post - anyone interested in my thoughts on Whither?). I'd love to see a straight up dystopia again, in the vein of Uglies or the first book of The Hunger Games. Instead a lot of these books are paranormal romances, but with dictatorial governments rather than vampires or fairies or angels. Sarwat Chadda, of the awesome Billi SanGreal books, asked me if I thought dystopian was "real" or something bigged up by publishers. After fangirling for a second over a REAL LIVE AUTHOR actually asking MY OPINION on something, we got into a great discussion about dystopian lit, and paranormal, and paranormal romances, that culminated with Dawn Metcalf coming up with the best ACT vocab comparison of the night: "romance" is to "paranormal" as "lemony" is to "fresh."

However the most illuminating part of the dystopian/romance part of the convo was when fellow chatter mimicross said, in response to my point on dystopians becoming more like romance, "Well, if world is ending, what would you want to be doing?" And this got me back to my thinking on boy books vs. girl books. Because when I was in high school, I hated romances. Part of this was because I was more interested in dating other girls at the time and wasn't finding many books that addressed that, but even after I started dating my first girlfriend I wasn't all that romantically inclined (this may be why the relationship didn't even last a month...). Writing a book that is supposed to appeal to "girls" is likely to backfire on someone like me - I want explosions and guts and car chases. And I know plenty of boys and men that prefer more relationship-oriented books (maybe not straight-up romances...or maybe they're just embarassed to discuss such an 'un-manly' topic with me!).

It was especially troubling to hear authors talking like this. I expect the marketing department to worry about who is going to end up reading a book - it's their job to get it into the hands of the most profitable demographic. But as writers, why don't we concentrate first on writing an appealing story - and if you want to think about marketing, think about the type of person you want to read the book - is this for someone quiet and nerdy, someone brash and hyperactive? What about brash and nerdy? These are qualities that aren't attached to gender.

Ultimately my opinion of the night boils down to Twitter being a terrible place to have a nuanced chat - something that came up earlier in the day during the new #GayYA chat, where all of us were unfailingly aware of how limiting those 140 characters were (and the one time outside of a specifically feminist space I've heard people throwing around terms like "cisgendered"!) #YALitChat is great for promoting an author or a broad subject (why a genre is popular, how to break into the business), but delicate subjects related to gender should probably be left to overly-long blog posts.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Thoughts: Suspension of Disbelief, featuring Huntress by Malinda Lo and Captain America

If you ever read books or watch movies outside of realistic contemporary fiction, you're familiar with the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief, even if you haven't heard the phrase before. It's how when we're faced with a story with fantastic settings or characters, if there's something "real" in there that connects these fantastic situations with the consumer, we're willing to suspend our disbelief - the instinct to roll our eyes and say something is impossible - in order to enjoy the story. Wikipedia is telling me the term was coined by philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was saying that if writers could add "human interest and a semblance of truth" to their stories, readers would be willing to go along with whatever else was thrown at them.

Today, reading the comments in another blog, I came across what is allegedly the contemporary rule for the suspension of disbelief:
The rule of suspension of disbelief is that if you have something have to make everything else as true-to-life as possible. If you have little things which takes you out of the believability, you find it less likely to believe the fantastic things.

In this case, the media in question is the new Captain America movie, where it appears some of the military units have been integrated, even though in reality, integration didn't happen until after WWII.

While reading this, in my head I heard the proverbial needle scratch across the record. Because in the book blogosphere, I think we just had this conversation, in a more specialized sense perhaps, inspired by Malinda Lo's blog post on taking the homophobia out of fantasy. Lo's point is that when authors are creating fantastic new worlds, even if those worlds are often based in some part on our own, we have the ability to remove something that is unfortunately common in our society, and truly imagine some place fantastic. We don't have to "make everything else as true-to-life as possible" - to use Lo's books as an example (and I'll be sure to review Lo's latest, Huntress, this week), just because we have fairies and magic doesn't mean we also have to have an oppressively patriarchal and homophobic society. Lo does an amazing job in Huntress of making love between women just another romantic possibility - there's some good-natured teasing about who likes whom, but it's never a joke because of gender.

So rto go back to Captain America, if we're already going to re-write history to say the Nazis have some bizarre Red Skull on their side, and the US develops a super soldier serum that turns a scrawny guy into Captain-freakin'-America, why would the straw that breaks the camel's back be a black man fighting alongside the personification of American ideals?

Suspension of disbelief is a good rule to keep in mind when creating a fantastic setting - to continue another comic book movie conversation I saw this weekend, will our disbelief be shattered in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark doesn't call upon the other Avengers to fight the latest bad guy? It's also important we remember the less-than-perfect aspects of our history, and the real struggles real people went through in order to correct historic injustices, but I'm having a hard time seeing this particular argument as anything other than nerd!rage. Want to have a real conversation about re-writing history in a fantasy/sci-fi context? Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' examination about the dearth of people of color in X-Men: First Class. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying Captain America's look at what WWII could have been like, unless something realy ridiculous pops up - still not sure I'm buying the CGI that makes Captain America's actor look like a 98-pound weakling...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion: Audio thoughts on #YAsaves

I've mentioned a few times here that my internet life extends beyond this blog... I co-host a podcast with my husband about all sorts of geekery. This week we mostly talk about the new X-Men movie (go see it!), but I also take some time at the beginning to talk about #YAsaves! Check out the podcast here.

If you were under a rock this weekend and missed all of the #YAsaves news, I'm still collecting titles for my list of light #YAsaves titles here

Monday, June 6, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy by Albert Marrin

My fascination with the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 has been well documented on this blog, but one thing I've been looking for since reading my first book on the fire is a great, YA-focused nonfiction account of the fire. I love historical fiction as a way to introduce readers in a compelling, creative way to historical events, but eventually I start to hunger for some cold, hard facts. Finally, 100 years after the disaster, Albert Marrin provides me with the book I've been looking for.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its LegacyMarrin gives a detailed account of late 19th-early 20th century immigrant life, focusing on the Southern Italians and Russian Jews who dominated the workforce in factories like Triangle. Marrin goes back to Italy and Russia to look at the "pushes" that started the huge waves of immigration that brought these people to New York City.

From there we see life in New York's poor immigrant neighborhoods, how the livelihoods of the immigrants back in the home country affected what jobs they took in America, how insulated the neighborhoods were, and how textile factory work became the position of choice for young immigrant women.

And then comes the terrors of factory life, and the nightmare that was March 25th, when the fire broke out just before closing time. Marrin provides plenty of contemporary accounts, from brief quotations from witnesses to longer excerpts of written accounts. When I told my husband I was reading a book about the Triangle Fire his response was "Another one? Don't you know everything?" But there was a lot here I didn't know. For example, I knew the fire escape quickly proved to be useless, tearing away from the building under the weight of the terrified workers. What I didn't know was the fire escape was never truly designed to be useful - it ended directly over a skylight in the roof of the next building, and was surrounded with a fence topped with four-inch spikes. If falling from the fire escape didn't kill someone, landing on those spikes did.

Marrin ties the story of the Triangle factory into today, looking at the governmental corruption that was overcome in order to ensure some basic workplace safety and the right for workers to unionize (a right that is, of course, under attack again today). Marrin also looks overseas to modern sweatshops in Asia, looking at the ethical implications of boycotting sweatshop labor, since the women who work in these factories have so few other options. (For an alternative view, that I don't think will be presented in YA lit anytime soon, no matter how "dark" we're getting, check out this recent Slate article)

I appreciate that Marrin hasn't white-washed history. When explaining the ethnic makeup of the workers at the Triangle factory, he notes right away that African-American women were absent due to racism. And then during the Uprising of 20,000, he brings up the important decisions African American women had to make regarding their own opportunities for job advancement.

The Triangle Factory Fire was such a pivotal moment in American history, it's a shame it isn't taught about more often, and that the names of those associated with it have been generally lost. I'm so thankful that Marrin introduced me to Clara Lemlich through this book - she was a tireless labor organizer during the Uprising of 20,000 (a massive garment worker strike that ended a few months prior to the Triangle Fire), she was blackballed from the industry afterwards, but continued to dedicate her life towards social welfare and became what we now call a community organizer. She was so bad ass, that even when she was in a nursing home in her 80s, she encouraged the orderlies to organize and form a union! What an amazing person.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Chapter Book of the Day. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Thoughts: YA a different way

Late last night, the Wall Street Journal posted a terrible excuse for journalism in the form of Darkness Too Visible. The main thrust of the article is that today's YA books are too filled with darkness and depravity like "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation" (is it just me or is one of these things not like the others?).

The response on Twitter has been breathtaking. As I write this, the #YASaves tag is the second highest trending topic in the United States. I saw reports that we cracked top three in worldwide trending over night, and while the WSJ article has collected 26 comments, there are over 15,000 #YASaves tweets. This is why Twitter is an amazing tool! That tag is filled with amazing testimonies by teens, authors, librarians and parents about how some of these "dark" YA books have literally saved their lives. It makes for some truly powerful Sunday morning reading - a way better accompaniment to my Pop-Tart than the WSJ!

Last night, however, Justine Larbalestier posted a tweet that got me to thinking. She points out:
"Yes, @OfficiallyAlly, it's ironic. Majority of YA *isn't* dark. We've both written light funny books. We're hardly anomalies. #yasaves @wsj"

It's not just the deep, dark books that are "important." In YA, it takes all kinds - girls that love vampires, boys falling in love with other boys, people overcoming rape and abuse, as well as the class clown, the fantasy adventurer, and the silly group of BFFs navigating the silliness of high school.

So I want to start compiling some of those books. There are lots of blog posts already reiterating the importance of the books the WSJ article denigrates, and I'm in complete agreement with all of those blog posts! I contributed my own bit of #YASaves to the hashtag last night, and I think we all know someone for whom Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has been a literal lifesaver. I'm not downplaying their importance - only highlighting that these books aren't the only things going on in YA, and that there's more than one way to save a life. As others on Twitter have said, if the mom in the beginning of the WSJ article had been in an indie bookstore or library, she would have easily found something appropriate for her daughter.
    How to Ditch Your Fairy
  • How to Ditch your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier - Set in a fantasy world where girls playing sports is totally normal - as is having a fairy that grants you a special talent. Charlie has a good parking spot fairy and she does everything possible to get rid of the darn thing
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore - this is my go-to YA comfort novel. It's not hilarious and has some heavier issues like self-determination, committing violence, and that perennial favorite of moral scolds, pre-marital sex, but if the real world is weighing me down, Graceling has become my saving grace, letting me slip into a fantastic world where I already know everything's going to turn out all right!
  • Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson - love this light-hearted romp through experimental theater and living in a hotel in Manhattan, with a quirky family that legitimately loves each other, even as sometimes they find each other impossible.
  • Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell - I love this family summer camp story, where a girl and her family go to pioneer camp to live like it's the 1800s. The action comes in as Gen texts her friends back home with her hilarious observations about the camp through her illicit cell phone. The romance is chaste and far from the focus, which would probably give it even more bonus points for those who are so against darker explorations of teen life.
  • Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julia Halpern - A must-read for D&D gaming geeks everywhere, especially us girls and young women who sometimes feel like we stick out like a sore thumb around the gaming table! Another book with excellent family relationships (I still count Jessie's dad among my favorite YA parents).
  • The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander - This one has a dead parent, and a bit of racism, but Austin stays so positive in the face of adversity, even as she's chasing a rather meaningless prize (in the grand scheme of things). 
  • Geektastic ed. by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci - a collection of short stories that span the full spectrum of YA possibilities, from serious and heartbreaking to absolutely absurd. Another must-read for any self-respecting geek!
8 PM update:
  • Bookgazing queers up the list by suggesting Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, which I left off the first time because this is my personal #YASaves title, and thus I probably imbue it with more weight than it actually has. It is easily the one book that changed my life, in more ways than one, and I shall always be grateful for its existence. Bookgazing also adds Boy Meets Boy and most of the rest of the David Levithan bibliography, and A La Carte by Tanita Davis.
  • Dear @wsj#yasaves
  • @readjunkee suggests Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature and Fat Cat by Robin Brande; The London Eye Mystery by Dowd; How Not to be Popular by Ziegler; North of Beautiful by Headley; and "Anything by Jordan Sonnenblick, Roland Smith, Gordon Korman, Lisa Yee, Helen Frost "
Okay, I know my tastes to tend to skew more towards the dramatic, so leave your own favorites in the comments! I'll update this list throughout the day as I get more suggestions. And I've already decided this topic is getting covered on my weekly podcast, A Couple of Geeks, so check back here on Tuesday for a link to the podcast!

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Sci-Fi Friday Book Thoughts - Series, featuring Plague by Michael Grant

Welcome to the first of my experimental posts - provided I like how this turns out, and depending on feedback, more of my reviews might end up looking like this.

Series are a big thing in the sci-fi/fantasy world right now. Really, they've probably always been a big thing, and for good reason, at least from an author's perspective: you put all this work into creating a (hopefully) totally unique world, why wouldn't you want to stick around and play in it for as long as possible? Using your best settings for a one-and-done story doesn't seem like the greatest use of creative resources from some perspectives, I'm sure.

But there's a tricky balancing act that authors have to do when they're writing a series, and that is how to remind readers of what happened earlier. For one thing, not everyone is going to start with the first book of your series, usually through ignorance that there are earlier books (something that could often be alleviated through good design - I offer the new Uglies covers as a tangentially related aside on an awesome example of how to work the series listing into an awesome cover design). How do you re-introduce previous story elements so they stay fresh for your loyal fans, but keep your new readers from getting frustrated?

But then there are also loyal fans like me, who either have memories like a sieve or just read too darn many books in a year to remember every last detail from your last book. And this became painfully obvious to me when I was reading Plague, the fourth installment in Michael Grant's Gone series.

Plague: A Gone NovelGone kept me thoroughly entertained. Not the slickest writing or most original plot, but an entertaining new take on the "no more adults" genre. And after seeing him speak at an author's panel where he assured the audience that, unlike Animorphs (which he co-wrote with wife K.A. Applegate), he knew how it was going to end and what precisely had caused the FAYZ, I was excited to see where this series was going. But four books in, I'm afraid I have to give up - at least for now. Maybe, if I'm still curious, I'll pick the books back up when the final title is published, but until then I'm sitting out.

Why? There is absolutely no re-capping in these books. There's a huge cast of characters, and each book picks up shortly after the last one ended - with no look back at what happened last time. Through the course of the story some characters will think back on individual actions, but no details are provided. The tipping point for me this time when it was referenced that Astrid had killed Nerezza - and all I could think is "Who the fuck is Nerezza?!" Seriously, was she one of Cain's evil buddies? Was she a tool of the Gaiaphage? I don't know. And that's a problem.

Re-reading the other books before the new one comes out also isn't an option in this series, for me at least, because these are 500 page books. Life is too short to re-read a 500 page book six times because the author won't review what happened in it. At the very least, I need a cast of characters at the beginning of these books. While I'm sure the intention was to give us a diverse cast to illustrate multiple shades of gray morality, it just ends up feeling unwieldy and, of course, it's impossible to keep track of who did what across 2000 pages of story, now that we're through book 4.

So what are some books that have handled review well? The aforementioned Uglies series, for one. It's not always given to us upfront, in part because Tally gets a hard reset at the beginning of each book, but weaving the backstory in throughout the narrative is an organic way to catch us up. In some ways we meet Tally for the first time in each of the first three books (if you're unfamiliar with the series, the first three books are all about Tally, and then the fourth takes us out of the US and over to Japan to meet Aya, though Tally does eventually show up). The Hunger Games, of course, also gives us a fair number of reminders of what happened before - either through Katniss remembering something from the previous book, or the Capital broadcasting the film of what happened earlier. I just finished reading Eona, sequel to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and it opens with a preface that tells you all the major things that happened at the end of Eon, so even if, like me, you haven't read the book in two years, you immediately know the gist of the major events of the previous book, and then as necessary Eona fills us in on some character and emotional development that happened earlier. Is it an obvious tool to catch your readers up? Yes. Do I care? Nope!

Some books can get away with less review than others - I noted in my review of Behemoth that I didn't think it would be a good place for new readers to start, because it picks up immediately after Leviathan and is so action-packed there's never a chance to look back at what happened earlier. So why was I okay with that? For one thing, it's only the second book, not the fourth, so there was less for me to remember. There's also a smaller cast, with narration only being handled by Deryn and Alek, so it presents a more cohesive story. And the two books have had relatively straightforward, action-oriented plots thus far, unlike the Gone series which has multiple sub-plots for each character, and at least two major mysteries that may or may not be intertwined: what caused the FAYZ and how can the Gaiaphage be stopped. For all that Leviathan and Behemoth are set during the complex WWI, so far the main mystery seems to be what Dr. Barlowe has in those eggs and why does she want them delivered to world leaders. Much easier to follow than the freaking Gaiaphage.

With the market flooded with trilogies and series right now, it's a buyer's market for ongoing stories. Perhaps a series like Gone just requires a different sort of reader, but for now I'm going to stick with series that either can keep a firm grip on their wide scopes, or provide more in terms of reviewing what happened before so I don't need to keep a copy of Cliff's Notes (or Wikipedia) nearby.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan

Back when I first read The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I was sorely disappointed by how much of a romance the story was. I wanted zombie action, not romantic angst. Now, I realize this is my fault for not thoroughly checking up on the book before buying it, but it made me hesitate before reading The Dead-Tossed Waves. Perhaps it was a stronger book, or perhaps I just knew what I was in for, but I ended up enjoying that much more. Still, the memory of The Forest of Hands and Teeth lurked and I waited awhile before picking up The Dark and Hollow Places - would it be more like Forest or Waves? And was I really in the mood for any sort of romance story anyway?

The Dark and Hollow Places (Forest of Hands and Teeth, Book 3)
 Annah is alone in the Dark City. A place that promised safety after she and Elias were lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth, the forest where they abandoned her sister. And now Elias has apparently abandoned her, as he should have returned from his tour with the Recruiters months ago.

If he's still alive.

Just as Annah has convinced herself that the City is no longer the place for her, as she is about to literally cross the bridge that will take her out of the City, an apparent miracle happens: her sister is here! And she's brought a mysterious boy with her, a boy the Recruiters want desperately, and who the Unconsecrated ignore like he's one of their own: Catcher.

As an unforgiving Horde bears down upon the City Annah was once so ready to abandon, Annah must look inside herself to understand what it means to have family and friends, and to what lengths its acceptable to go to keep safe what - and who - is precious to you.

One thing I've found very interesting as this trio of novels has progressed, is the way the settings have changed. When a series is exploring the end of the world, the usual progression is to go from largely populated areas to smaller, as the population is decimated. Here the progression is the opposite, as The Forest of Hands and Teeth was set initially in a very small village and then saw the village attacked by the Unconsecrated, leaving just our handful of protagonist to wander the dangerous Forest. The Dead-Tossed Waves brought us to Vista, a small town with knowledge that they aren't the last people on Earth, as there are the Recruiters working to keep the population safe and wandering bands of religious fanatics that see the zombies as something akin to holy icons. The Dark and Hollow Places gives us our biggest setting yet - the burnt out husk of a once thriving city (and Ryan leaves just enough clues that savvy readers will figure out what city it is well before Annah does). The actual scope of these stories has remained the same; there's no sprawling cast of characters to keep track of and the zombies are merely a dramatic backdrop against which romantic melodramas play out.

So how does this story compare to Forest and Waves? In terms of my personal enjoyment, I think it'd be in the middle of the three books. Of the three protagonists Ryan has given us (and as an aside, I love that this is a series that gives multiple view points, rather than contriving a way for Mary from  Forest to have all of these experiences herself), Gabry is my favorite. She's just so normal. She's totally fine with the status quo in Vista and doesn't feel the need to wander that Mary did. Annah doesn't have much of a status quo to either support or rebel against, and ends up feeling like a very reactionary character for me, after her first big independent decision to leave the City is immediately reversed.
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