deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
Last night, because I needed something to read, I grabbed a copy of Sarah Dooley's Body of Water off the shelf at school. I expected it merely to be an enjoyable time filler, but I was floored by how much I enjoyed it.

Basic plot: Pagan 12-year-old (from a Pagan family) is made homeless when her trailer burns down. Character growth ensues.

I read so much speculative fiction for work that realistic fiction has had an disproportionate ability to impress me lately. Even without that, however, I suspect I would have found beautiful: a lyrical tear-jerker that required about half a box of tissues to get through. The Pagan threads are neither exclusionary and offputting to a non-pagan, nor are they pasted on; they are vital to the story's thematic development.

Ah, I see that Kirkus gave the book a star, which surprises me not at all.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I promised [livejournal.com profile] sanguinity that if I read books based on recommendations from her I would share my opinions of them. Somewhat frustratingly, they keep getting recalled. I guess I am happy about this, because it means somebody else at the university is interested in reading the same topics, but I would have liked to have read more than the introduction to Andrea Smith's Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide before I had to return it.

Because of recalls, I am rushing through all but the first couple of chapters of Vine Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins. So take all of my impressions with a grain of salt; this book needs more time than I am able to give it. Most notably, with the exception of the final chapter, I have skimmed the entire second half of the book. Custer died for your sins )
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I was lucky enough to see an early copy of Kristin Cashore's forthcoming Fire, which takes place in the same universe as her debut Graceling although substantially earlier. There are many things I could talk about when discussing what I love about this book. I could talk about how much I love the protagonist and the plot, which is true. I could talk about how squeeful it makes me for there to be incidentally disabled characters in this world. I could talk about how much I love Fire's unconventional character arc -- so unconventional, in fact, that even knowing Graceling as I did I fully expected a last-minute situational reprieve.

But instead of going to talk about what really fascinates me: how Fire is not a Mary Sue. Generally, that's not such a big deal. Most fictional characters aren't Mary Sues. But Fire ought to be. I just plugged her into one of the Mary Sue Litmus Tests and got a 96. If I hadn't read the book, but had somebody describe it to me, I would have yelled "Mary Sue! Mary Sue!" gleefully. Unusually colored hair? Check. Everyone loves her? Check.

And yet, ultimately, Fire is a fully realized and intensely flawed character, far more than the sum of her identifiably-Sueish traits. If I didn't know better, I'd see her as a reaction to litmus tests, almost as if the author said "these are bogus; I can write a character with all of these traits who is not a Sue at all". (Cue aside about authorial intent and how interesting it is to read her as a reaction to litmus tests even though I know she wasn't written that way.)

One of the things I love about Kristin Cashore's writing is how, while writing firmly within genre, she consistently breaks narrative expectations. Yet my love for Fire as a character who breaks out of Mary Sue tropes is a little bit silly, isn't it? After all, the clearly identified trope of Mary Sue doesn't come from conventional published original fantasy (although it certainly exists there as well). How can I read across genre-boundaries when I say that the text is breaking narrative expectations?

Here, of course, I'm the reader whose expectations have been so satisfyingly broken. I read both girls' fantasy and fan fiction, so I have narrative expectations that cross both genres. But the book itself certainly doesn't have an implied readership of fan fiction readers. Although that's not necessarily true. Given the marketing and demographic realities of current young readers of fantasy, there may well be an extremely large overlap between this book's implied readership and those who are familiar with the tropes of fan fiction, just as there is probably an extremely large overlap between this book's implied readership and those who are familiar with, say, High School Musical. Is that overlap relevant, though? Would Hunger Games be a different book if its implied audience weren't very likely to be familiar with Survivor-like reality shows?

I'm just thinking aloud here; I don't have answers to any of these questions.

Except to say that Fire was totally awesome.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
Following [livejournal.com profile] diceytillerman, I'm listing my best books of 2008. All of these are middle grade or young adult. I've marked them with an asterisk (*) if they are sequels or parts of series. And I've read almost nothing this year I didn't review, so there's so much here that's missed, I'm sure!

Fantasy and science fiction:
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
House of Many Ways* by Diana Wynne Jones
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Flora's Dare* by Ysabeay Wilce
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Realism:
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez
This Full House* by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Porcupine Year* by Louise Erdrich
Antsy Does Time* by Neal Shusterman

Books that weren't as good as I wanted them to be but were still very enjoyable:
Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock: very enjoyable but the well-meaning attempts to deal with body image politics backfired badly.
Rex Zero, King of Nothing* by Tim Wynne-Jones: excellent, like everything he writes. But the Rex Zero books are too nostalgic for my tastes.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin: this book was beautiful, but one of the things I like about Nancy Werlin is how grim she is willing to be. This story tied up all the loose ends more neatly than I wanted it to.
Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin: I really wanted to love this book with its protagonist who unwillingly gender swaps monthly. I got hung up on some really icky race politics that are a tiny part of the book, so it's hard for me to judge the text fairly aside from that.

Books that were way better than I expected them to be
Mousetraps by Pat Schmatz: this looked like a really fun, silly book with a pat message about accepting your gay friends, until it got unexpectedly dark.
Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi: Scalzi decided to write a standalone young adult novel that takes place in the middle of an existing adult science fiction series. It sounded like a train wreck to me -- but the book was great, and worked very well as a standalone. He didn't give me any interest in reading the adult books in the same series, but it did make me want to read more about Zoe from her own point of view.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
A few days before I taught Twilight for the first time, I needed a break, so I came home to finish my overdue ILL book, Drew Hayden Taylor's The Night Wanderer. I didn't have any comparison in mind; it was just the book next on my queue. It certainly didn't occur to me until I was well into The Night Wanderer that both are modern vampire tales with Native paranormal characters (well, counting the Twilight series as a whole). Once I started thinking about it, of course, it was impossible not to compare.

The Twilight series is the better-written set of books, and yes, that's a fairly damning statement of TNW (which I think just needed a better editor). But TNW has a more interesting concept, bringing European vampire legends to a modern Anishinabe reservation in Ontario. Tellingly, the treatment of Native people in Ojibwa Taylor's work is substantially different from that in white Meyer's work. There's no sexy bronze and copper skin in Taylor's book. There's a wise older generation, but they are wise in the ways of Native medicine and tasty pickles, not wise in the way of mysterious tribal legends which will protect all those who are appropriately inscrutable. There's an exotic supernatural creature -- exotically European in origin. And the dangerous paranormal Ashinabe man never turns into a noble savage, violent toward the women and children of his band, but instead consistently reveres life and home.

I have no idea which one is truer to life, though I've read mixed Native reactions to Meyer and overwhelmingly positive Native reactions to Taylor which lead me to believe Taylor is. But they're surely different.

Graceling!

Sep. 2nd, 2008 03:53 pm
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I have weird ethical issues with discussing books in this blog I've reviewed elsewhere. Because I review anonymously (mostly), there's no way to connect my opinions in this blog with opinions that have been published in a review journal; I feel like this is cheating, and gives my opinion double weight. I don't want anyone to think to themselves, "well, I saw two different reviews which thought the plot of Breaking Dawn made perfect sense, and there was nothing Mary-Sueish about Bella in the book's second half at all, so since two different reviewers said it, it's more likely to be true!" (For the record: I did not review Breaking Dawn, and if I had, I wouldn't have said that. But I suppose in the spirit of full disclosure I should add that I did review the other three books in the series.)

Anyway, this all brings me to Kristin Cashore's fabulous debut, Graceling. I keep forgetting that these days there are plenty of reasons I see manuscripts and galleys which have nothing to do with my reviewing the books. I didn't review this book -- in fact, I couldn't have, because the author is a friend of mine. (I know that's not actually considered to be a real ethical dilemma in professional reviewing, but it's an ethical dilemma for me.) But if I had reviewed this book, and I hadn't known Kristin, I would have given it a big fat star*.

I don't think the book is perfect, by any means. There aren't many books I do think are perfect, and offhand I can't think of any. But oh, I got so wrapped up in this heroine, in her choices, in her dilemmas, in this world where there are people and magic powers which aren't just McGuffins. The book is full of BFFs, which is a major pull for me in fiction.

Get, read, love.



* [livejournal.com profile] diceytillerman, I don't think I even realized we still had places in our vocabulary where "fat" could be a positive descriptor!
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
First the blog rec: New YA author Kristin Cashore, author of the forthcoming YA fantasy Graceling, has written a fabulous post on an author's perspective of trying to do right by body image issues while still being true to the characters and stories in her head. How can you go wrong with a blog post which climaxes "AARRGGHHH! AT THIS RATE I WILL NEVER SAVE THE WORLD!!!"? Answer: you can't.

Secondly, a (half-assed) book review: Lisa Fletcher's brand-new Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Tasmania: Ashgate. 2008) First I want to give a major caveat, which is that I read this book in a hurry because it is an overdue ILL book, and even though I'm going to read it again I can't renew it right now. In fact, given that set of circumstances I feel so uncomfortable about writing any of my negative impressions I'm just going to hold off on them right now. When you read a book at this pace, I don't think initial discombobulation should count for anything.

The text's project is to show how performativity (through speech acts and the performance of gender) in historical romance novels, crossing the boundaries from "literary" to "popular" (a boundary Fletcher complicates by pointing out the high sales figures of so-called literary romances such as Possession), reinforces heterosexual norms. In a manner which I admit I didn't quite follow given my hyper-quick reading, she discusses the performance of gender through cross-dressed heroes and heroines and relates it to Judith Butler's performance of gender, paying special attention to Butler's insistence that gender performativity is not a choice that can be turned on or off at will.

One thing I found interesting in an initial misreading I gave to a passage in this text is a dichotomy I thought at first was being constructed: the essential statement of the heterosexual romance is the explicit statement of love, and the essential statement of the homosexual romance is coming out of the closet. That isn't actually what she was saying -- she was leaning towards the heterosexual declaration of love as a possible statement from the closet itself (it's complicated, and I'm going to point back to my quick reading as an excuse for not getting into it here) -- but I think I prefer my initial misreading. It's obviously incredibly flawed; for one thing, it rules out any homosexual romance that doesn't begin in the closet. But I feel like I have something there that I want to run with, and see where it goes.

I can't really say more about it it; with such a brief read I'm not sure if the book had a more overarching takeaway than what I've already stated. But there's definitely food for thought in there.
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
One of the annoying side effects of switching jobs is that I'm going to have to return all my library books -- and several of them have been checked out as research for my current scholarship. When I started taking notes on these books so I would remember which ones I wanted to go back to, it occurred to me that blogging some form of my brief notes wouldn't hurt. So over the next couple of weeks I will be writing short annotations for ... *counts pile* ... 12 books. Don't worry, I'll put them all behind cut tags.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London ;: Philadelphia : UCL Press, 1999. )
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