Monday, December 31, 2012

"A Song of Ice and Fire" and Feminism

I would like to start by saying that I have read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings and so far, I absolutely love A Song of Ice and Fire. I love the huge cast of characters, and the intrigue, and how Martin isn't afraid to be unflinchingly cruel, to the point where I actually believe that no character is safe. I love Arya Stark, and I want to have Tyrion Lannister's babies. If either of them dies (don't spoil it, please!) then I will go lock myself in my room and mourn for the rest of the week.

Also, this post contains un-hidden spoilers for both books, so if you haven't read or watched the first two books/seasons, then you might not want to read this.

With that said, there is something that may or may not be problematic about the series: its representation of female characters. Let's consider all of the major female characters in the first book, A Game of Thrones:

-Catelyn Stark: Devoted mother and wife, but also intelligent, brave, and practical. Probably the most positively-depicted female character in the series.

-Sansa Stark: The girly-girl. She's loves pretty things, romantic stories about knights, and is obsessed with Prince Joffrey. She eventually grows more disillusioned over the course of the first two books.

-Arya Stark: The tom-boy. She can hold her own in a fight and isn't bad at underdog strategy.

-Daenerys Tagaryen: Starts out in a position where she is brainwashed and forced around by her brother and the other men around her, but grows into a strong and capable leader.

-Cersei Lannister: The femme-fatale. Pretty, manipulative, and cold, but also a mama bear when it comes to protecting her children.

-Lysa Arryn: Paranoid and kind of insane.

Out of all of these characters, only three are generally positive: Catelyn, Arya, and Daenerys. Considering that they represent half of the characters listed above, that's not a bad ratio. (Not to mention that ASoIaF has no shortage of male characters who are weak, stupid, arrogant, manipulative, traitorous, or cruel.) However, Daenerys is very much at risk of slipping to "villain" territory. She has been raised to believe that her family is the true line of kings and that Robert stole the throne through savage cruelty (which is not entirely untrue.) Therefore, it is her duty to reclaim the throne. Even after Ser Jorah Mormont explains to her that the people don't really care who is king--they just want to be left alone (and she acknowledges that he has a point), she doesn't back down from her quest to reclaim the throne. (Not an entirely wise course of action either, considering that she won't have any heirs.) I just hope that she manages to stay sympathetic (and alive, please!) throughout the course of the books.

It's hard to say whether Sansa is a "positive" character or not. Throughout most of A Game of Thrones, she is naive to the point of stupidity--which is somewhat forgivable, considering that she is only eleven years old. (Although the actress they cast to play her in the television series is well into her teens, which makes her a lot less sympathetic.) She does have some moments of capability, like when she negotiates for her father's life, but for the most part, she is very much a damsel-in-distress. (Also, she's bad at math.) I hope that she goes on to play a more active role, rather than remaining a victim to the status quo.

So basically, the only unquestionably positive female characters are Catelyn and Arya. However, since Arya acts like a boy and rejects anything feminine, it's difficult to call her "a positive depiction of femininity." One criticism of modern feminism is that in order for a female character to appear "strong," she has to essentially act like a man (see this video by feminist vlogger Anita Sarkeesian). I really hope that this series doesn't continue to put out that message. So in that sense, Catelyn is the only character who is unquestionably an example of feminine strength.

Overall, I think George R.R. Martin's female characters are much more developed than in several other media that I can think of. And for that reason, I would like to continue to see more than damsels-in-distress, femme-fatales, and women who have no personality whatsoever. I look forward to reading more into the series (and of finding a way to watch the TV series without having to pay a ton of money), and I really hope that I don't come out disappointed.

Friday, December 28, 2012

"New Adult" Project 2012 Wrap-Up

Since I'm sick, I decided to forfeit book writing today and to focus all my energy on this blog post. I've been wanting to do a wrap-up post for the "New Adult" Project for a long time, so here goes:

In 2012, I reviewed 13 books featuring characters in the "New Adult" age bracket (18-25). Out of those 13, I read 12 of them in 2012 (The Magicians was the only book I didn't read this year.) and read 11 to completion. I read across various genres, from contemporary, to thrillers, to science fiction and fantasy, to heavier literary-type books.

Books I Enjoyed

Out of all the books I read, these were the ones I enjoyed the most:
-The Secret History by Donna Tartt
-Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
-Hushed by Kelley York
-Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
-Tempest by Julie Cross

I also thought I should include Spring Break, The Nanny Diaries, and Just Remember to Breathe as books that might appeal to other people who don't share my speculative fiction and/or literary biases. The Magicians might appeal to people who are looking for something a little more cynical (even though I myself had several issues with it). Also, although I didn't review it in 2012, I still feel like I should throw in a shout-out for I Am the Messenger.

Books That Best Encompassed the "New Adult" Experience

Not all of the books I read featured elements that were central to the "New Adult" experience. Some of them merely starred characters that were within the 18-25 age range. For that reason, I decided to make a separate list of books that most encompassed some aspect of the "New Adult" experience:

The Nanny Diaries: This is the only book in the "New Adult" project that significantly dealt with getting a job. The book centered on Nanny trying to balance fulfilling her employer's expectations and standing up for her own rights.

The Magicians: Disillusionment is a huge part of the NA experience, and no book encompasses disillusionment better than The Magicians.

Wanderlove: In the Absolute Write forums, Kirsten Hubbard herself mentioned that this book might fall into NA territory, so I feel justified in including it. In Wanderlove, Bria learns to be both practically and emotionally independent, something with which many of today's new adults  continue to struggle.

The Secret History: The Secret History takes a group of spoiled rich kids who isolate themselves from the world with their study of obscure classical texts and, through an act of manslaughter, drops them right back in the real world.

Psych Major Syndrome: Borderline NA. This is the only book I read that actually depicts the college campus experience. However, Leigh has the naivete of a sophomore in high school, something that doesn't exactly improve by the end of the book. Also, casual hookups are a common thing in college, so slut-shaming should have no place in this book.

Just Remember to Breathe: Another borderline NA. A veteran trying to return to normal life is a very NA topic. However, I would have liked to see more Alex's life as a college student in addition to the romance.

Now that's not saying there is no place for the other books in NA--after all, many of today's young adult books are all but irrelevant to the teenage experience. I would like to see more books with 20-something characters and college students, regardless of whether the NA experience is at the center of every book.

So what are my views on "New Adult" in light of the growing acceptance of the market?

In my intro post, I said that I didn't think we needed a "New Adult" shelf--just more "New Adult" books. I have somewhat amended that view. Since NA is being more widely recognized, then it might make sense (at least in the future) to have an NA shelf. However, I don't think that every book I've listed should be shelved there. A book should be shelved where it will find the most readers. Ready Player One and The Magicians were both very successful on the SF/F shelf, and I see no reason to move them. And many of today's NA readers would be incapable of getting through books like The Secret History or The Sound of Blue.

You also might have noticed that very few of the books on my list are "the most talked about" NA. I haven't read big indie hits like Fifty Shades of Gray, Beautiful Disaster, Slammed, Thoughtless, etc. There are three reasons for this: a) I am not a huge fan of romance b) these books are not available at libraries, and very few of them appeal to me enough to justify paying money for them. (although I do want to read Tammara Webber's Easy), and c) some of these sound appalling--I do not believe in paying money for books that glorify or romanticize abusive relationships.

I am very happy that New Adult is finally being recognized and that more writers are gaining the flexibility to write about this age group. However, today's NA seems to center on romantic contemporary, erotica, and Twilight for College Students. Personally, I would like to see more fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. I would love to see magical/futuristic universities, college students who care about more than boyfriends and sex, characters who struggle with job hunting, protagonists who are not afraid to have multiple partners or casual sex, and of course, much darker plots. I can only hope that as the New Adult market grows, these books will become available.

I have also decided to continue the New Adult Project into next year. My reviewing will probably slow down or stop around August, when I start med school, but until then, I'm still very invested in seeing where this market goes. (I have Hold Me Closer, Necromancer sitting in my car, and I also found a lesser-known book called Ovenman that I will need to re-read. Enchanted, Inc. and Easy are also on my to-read list.) As always, I am open to recommendations.

***

Full list of "New Adult" Project reviews

Book Recommendation: "Shadow and Bone" by Leigh Bardugo


Have you ever read a book and then felt somewhat uncomfortable because it shared some unexpected similarities with the book you were writing? This year, I've actually been seeking out books that had something in common with my book, but the similarities in Shadow and Bone snuck up on me in a mildly uncomfortable way. For one thing, there was a couple of characters who have magical abilities that are uncannily similar to a couple characters in my own book. (And both of them were powers that I congratulated myself on inventing.) In addition to that, there was a major plot twist that was also very similar to a plot twist in my, erm, series. And while, yes, yes, I know, nothing is original, everyone treats this story element differently, blah, blah, blah, it still made me a bit uncomfortable.

Maybe that's why I had reservations about enjoying this book. Back when I read Wanderlove, I recognized that it was a very good book, but because of certain insecurities that I was facing at the time, it was a bit difficult for me to enjoy it. I guess something similar happened with Shadow and Bone. It's a good book. It really is. But because of the similarities to my own book, I felt like I was judging it with much higher standards. The story overall is very good--good characters, good plot twists, interesting and unique world-building. But there were a lot of smaller issues that I had with it.

1) The magic and "powers" felt inconsistent. This is kind of weird to explain, but it seemed like there were no underlying "rules" regarding what kind of magic was and wasn't possible. While it was mostly X-Men style (ie, each character has one particular type of power), it seemed to work along the lines of following the author's whims. ("Okay, I need this kind of thing to happen, so I'm going to throw in this other random ability.") Like, for example, there's this random power called "the Cut" that only the most powerful Grisha characters have, and that's in addition to whatever power they have. Also some of the powers just felt silly (one girl has the ability to make people pretty). And what about Alina's power? How exactly does everyone recognize it if she's the only person in the world to have that power? Have there been Sun Summoners before her? The only other alternative I can think of is a prophecy, but the former seems much more likely. (Then again, this last part is something that might be explained in future books.)

2) The Grisha school (don't remember what it was called). I usually don't like  high school type settings because they're rife with unrealistic stereotypes. I mean, seriously, does every book need to have a token mean girl?

3) Alina's actions in the end were somewhat hypocritical/nonsensical. She is against the Darkling killing people, but she has no problem abandoning a bunch of innocent foreign ambassadors when she leaves the Fray. Also, I don't understand why she didn't tell Mal about the amplifier.

So as you can see, most of my criticism is over small things. But this is an enjoyable book, and I definitely want to read Siege and Storm. Especially since we get to learn more about the Darkling.

Edit 3/21/2013: Kendall at Blogging for YA picked up on a lot of problems that I missed. And now I realize that I completely agree with her. So maybe I wasn't just experiencing competitive high standards. (I still want to read the next one, though.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"New Adult" Project review: "Blame It on Paris" by Laura Florand




Goodreads Summary:

Can an insecure American woman find happiness with a sexy Parisian waiter---
even if she doesn't like the French?

Laura has spent most of her adult life avoiding serious relationships, flitting around the world, and keeping her romantic expectations comfortably low. The last thing she wants is to have her globe-trotting ways curtailed by a messy emotional entanglement. As far as she's concerned, chocolate is just as satisfying as true love--and a lot less complicated.
So how, in the name of all that is romantic, has she managed to get involved with a dangerously charming Frenchman named S├ębastien? And only weeks before she's scheduled to leave Paris for good?
Everyone knows that Frenchmen are chain-smoking, manic-depressive, faithless, male chauvinistic, perfectionist snobs. What's worse, they live in France.
The cultural differences alone are enough to kill any relationship, even if Laura wanted one. She's from small-town Georgia. He's a sophisticated Parisian. They go together like grits and escargot.
But S├ębastien isn't just any Frenchman. He's a gorgeous, sweet, sexy, graphic artist who seems to find Laura adorable for reasons she can't begin to comprehend. As the days slip by, she's finding it harder and harder to say adieu.
Unless she comes to her senses soon, she could end up ruining her life with a beautiful romance. . . .


***

Usually, when I dislike a book, I come up with a nice long list of everything I hated about it. But this book? Not even worth the trouble. I kept trying to pick it back up, but I had to give up about 160 pages in because I was bored out of my mind. The characters were not nearly interesting enough to make up for the lack of a plot.

Oh well, I guess I should have expected this from a book that largely consists of date scenes. (Actually, I did sort of expect that. When libraries do not carry a large selection of easily discoverable “New Adult” books, you sometimes have to dig in places where you normally wouldn’t venture.)

Maybe if I were more of a chick-lit reader, I would have appreciated this book, but alas, I wasted far too much time trying to get through it.

Also: Using your protagonist’s name as a pen name for your first-person novel? Tacky as hell.

***

Full list of "New Adult" Project reviews.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"New Adult" Project Review: "The Sound of Blue", by Holly Payne


Goodreads Summary:

Sara Foster has left America for the adventure of a lifetime--teaching English to the sons and daughters of statesmen in Hungary--but her idyllic adventure instead reveals a dark world of pain and redemption when she ends up teaching in a refugee camp. Sara discovers that one of her students is a celebrated composer and soon finds herself crossing the border to his war-torn homeland, determined to exonerate him for the death of his brother.

In a journey that takes her to Dubrovnik, a magnificent stone city on the Croatian Riviera, Sara contemplates her own identity, struggling to understand why the region's ancient and extraordinary beauty belies a history of grief. As Sara unveils the secret of the composer's escape, The Sound of Blue reveals poignant truths about the quests for refuge we all pursue.

***

Like The Secret History, The Sound of Blue falls more into the “literary” end of New Adult. It follows a girl (woman?) named Sara, who, after getting rejected from Harvard Law School, ends up teaching English in a camp full of war refugees. There, she experiences the distance that comes from living alongside people who have suffered in ways she cannot imagine and becomes fascinated by a Serbian violinist named Milan, who experiences seizures and synesthesia and who may or may not have killed his brother.

I knew nothing about the Yugosavian Wars of the 1990s before reading this book, and I appreciated the chance to learn a little bit about that conflict. However, I think a different writer could have handled this book a lot better. It was the prose that bothered me the most. While there were some pretty uses of language (“eyes shaped liked crescent moons”), I mostly found the language emotionally overbearing and chock-full of purple prose. It’s very difficult to relate to the refugees’ pain when the author constantly overemphasizes their suffering.

I would recommend this book to more patient readers who like books about emotional journeys and coming to terms with your past.

***

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Recommendation: "Cracked Up to Be" by Courtney


I don't even know what to say about this book. I read it on Wednesday night, even though I had to wake up at 2:00 AM to catch a bus to the airport. The characters were incredibly complex and multidimensional, to the point where they felt like real people. (You hear that a lot, but never from me.) And just like with real people, there were times when I related to them and times where I wanted to scream at them. I felt things. Like feelings. And I'm one of the most detached readers you will ever meet.

And something I respected? It wasn't just that Parker was one of those "complex and unlikable" characters I've been looking for. It's because the text and the author never forced me to feel a certain way about Parker.

Here is a quote from Courtney Summers' amazing post on unlikable female protagonists:

"That is why reader response fascinates me; being told by people exactly what they think Parker and Regina do and don’t deserve is probably one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in having these books published. I don’t think anyone is wrong in what they feel about either of those girls, whether they hate them or they don’t. But I love when they feel strongly about it and I love when they feel strongly enough about it to tell me.

Finally, do I think readers should like Parker and Regina? As I said, that’s up to the reader and that’s all there is to it. As I said, I have hopes that people will respond to my work whether they like it or hate it (indifference is what terrifies me!), but the last thing I will do is tell someone how they should respond. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to feel about Parker and Regina."

I couldn't say whether or not I "dislike" Parker (as a character, I found her compelling and and very relatable), but there are certain actions she takes that are more than just bitchy--they're downright selfish. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that although the murder was in no way her fault (and that there was no way she could have prevented it), she never told anyone what she knew about the night Jessie disappeared. Think about that from the point of view of Jessie's family, who must have been desperate for any news regarding their daughter--in not saying anything, Parker did a horrible thing. That's not saying she's a bad person--it was a big mistake, though somewhat of an understandable one--but I did appreciate how Parker wasn't given a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card.

I don't know how I've gone this long without reading a Courtney Summers novel, but I'm going to go buy all of her other books. Like, right now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Recommendation: Cinder, by Marissa Meyer



Is Cinder a good book? Honestly, I have no idea. It suffers from mediocre writing, a one-dimensional villain, and a major "big reveal" that anyone who has ever read a book can predict within the first fifty pages. It also suffered from a problem which I like to call "arbitrary discrimination." I was never exactly clear on why cyborgs are treated as second-class citizens in this society. Sure, if you have machines in your brain, I could understand why people would think you're inhuman or incapable of emotion, but what about someone with a robotic limb or vital organ? Even nowadays, nobody discriminates against people with myoelectric arms (geek moment: look up the iLimb hand. Sooo cool!) or pacemakers. So how is it possible that the whole society was okay with the government's project to draft cyborgs for medical experimentation?

But despite all of these problems, I really liked Cinder. The plot was brave and twist-y and I couldn't put it down. I also loved Kai. As other reviewers have pointed out, he was a character first, and a love interest second, something which made the romantic development more than just believable.

The second book in the series, Scarlet, comes out pretty soon, and I can't wait to read it.

***

End of the Year Review Checklist:

Keturah and Lord Death (audio)
Cinder
The Sound of Blue (New Adult)
Shadow and Bone
Blame It on Paris (New Adult) (DNF)
A Game of Thrones/A Clash of Kings
The Spirit Thief

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Origin" and Disabilities


A few months ago, I posted my less than positive review of Jessica Khoury’s Origin. Last night, I experienced some lingering thoughts regarding this novel. And no, these are not the “Wow, I was probably too harsh on this book” kind of thoughts. The opposite, actually--I don’t think I was harsh enough.

I’m not going to repeat what I said about the demonization of scientists or the poor characterization of the love interest. In some ways, these are ‘harmless errors’ in that they don’t deeply offend me. Well, okay, there is something kind of offensive about the way Khoury portrays scientists as sociopaths, but at the end of the day, that’s something I can just laugh off since it’s further evidence that I’m smarter than she is.

But the thing I want to elaborate on, the thing that is truly offensive, is the author’s treatment of cerebral palsy. It is revealed in the story that one character’s motive for working for the “evil scientists” is so that they will cover the cost of her sister’s medical care (or something--it's been a while since I read it.) This sister, as you might have guessed, suffers from cerebral palsy--or so the author claims. To anyone who actually knows a thing or two about cerebral palsy, it’s very obvious that Khoury didn’t do so much as a Wikipedia search on this disease. Origin didn't give much information on the sister's disease, but the impression I got was that she was perfectly healthy until--bam!--cerebral palsy hit, and then it was downhill until death. Some background info on cerebral palsy: It's a disease that originates very early in life, often before or during birth. It's a chronic disease, but not something that worsens over time. Moreover, it is not fatal.

I’ve seen interviews with the author in which she discusses all the research she did for this book--and it shows in the vivid details with which she describes the rainforest. So why couldn’t she even take two minutes to do some research on cerebral palsy?

But that’s not fair. The book is set in the rainforest. The rainforest is at the forefront of this story--but the little sister? She never even shows up on the page.

And that is exactly what bothers me. The little sister with cerebral palsy is not a character; she is a plot device, meant for no purpose other than to motivate the actions of an actual character. Since the specifics of her disease have no bearing on the plot, it’s okay to lump her in with every other person under the “dying and helpless” umbrella.

But what does this imply? Nothing good, obviously. It's like saying that sick and disabled people are not characters in and of themselves. They aren’t worth the time to develop and research because they only exist for the sake of the healthier, stronger, and more ‘ideal’ characters.

I’m not saying that ‘weaker’ characters shouldn’t be used to drive the main character into action. After all, Katniss entered the Hunger Games to save Prim. But Prim got some backstory and an on-screen presence. More importantly, she got a personality. She even got to make decisions!

When you’re compiling your list of characters, think about your minor characters: Do they have personalities? Do they have goals, problems, and values outside of their relationship to the protagonist? Do they get to grow, change, and make active decisions throughout the course of the story?

And along with that, think about what message you’re sending to groups who are already marginalized. People who suffer from illness and disabilities probably wouldn’t be able to beat up a hoard of thugs while simultaneously hacking into a bank vault (oh wait, you probably couldn’t do that either), but they still deserve respect. They are people, after all.
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