Friday, November 21, 2014

Karma Girl—Jennifer Estep

No woman would come home to find her boyfriend slipping into a neon pink codpiece. (14)
I read this book as part of my participation in the online book club, Vaginal Fantasy. Most of the participation occurs on the Goodreads forum, but there is also a monthly Hangout hosted by the founders of the book club: Felicia Day, Bonnie Burton, Kiala Kazebee, and Veronica Belmont. Although we do read a lot of what could be considered "romance" books, the real idea is to read books with female protagonists, often in the fantasy/supernatural or scifi genres. We read two themed books each month. Anyway, I low-key love the club. It allows me to be introduced to books that I might not otherwise know about (see: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin)—many of which are quick "fluff" books—and to have thoughtful conversations with other readers about those books and their themes.

This one definitely fell more on the fluffy, campy side of the spectrum. Carmen Cole, a reporter, discovers her fiance shtupping her best friend a half an hour before her wedding. And worse (?), she finds out at the same time that they're actually the town's superhero and ubervillain. In a fit of vengeance, Carmen takes pictures of the fiance and best friend in flagrante, and writes an expose on their real identities. Then she embarks on a mission of revealing the real identities of all of the superheroes and ubervillains. Unfortunately, as most revenge missions do, it ends in tragedy: one of the heroes whose identity she reveals kills himself. Distraught, Carmen gives up on her previous mission, until a trio of ubervillains in Bigtime give her no option, demanding she figure out the identity of the leader of their rival superhero gang or be subject to crazy experiments. Antics ensue.

I have mixed feelings about this book, and vacillated between giving it two or three stars on Goodreads. There were a couple of things that I appreciated. I appreciated that it didn't take itself too seriously. It was very clearly trying to be campy and making fun of superhero/comic tropes, like that all of the characters have alliterative names and the towns have names like Beginnings and Bigtime. The characters were sometimes one-dimensional, but in a typically superhero/villain kind of way, so that made sense.

On the other hand, I guessed all of the major plot points in the first 50 pages, with the exception of how precisely Carmen's power would manifest itself when she finally got one. Sometimes because of the campiness it was difficult to tell when things were intentionally awful and when they were just poorly written. Along those lines, there were some poor writing moments, like when Carmen was asked how she was feeling after a fight, and she responded, "tired and sleepy." Those two words mean the same thing...

I'm also not entirely sure that Estep knows the definition of the word "karma;" she alternately used it to mean something like an aura, a conscience, fate. And Carmen hits us over the head with the karma thing, and then after hitting us over the head, throws us to the ground and stomps on our head with her karma heels. We get it! You believe in karma! You don't seem to really understand what it means, but you're obsessed. Message received.

Another irritating thing was that Estep seemed to think that the readers wouldn't be able to keep track of the real life names in relation to superhero names. Once Carmen discovers the identities of the superheroes, whenever she'd mention them again, she'd say "Sam aka Striker Sloan" or "Fiera aka Fiona Fine." This didn't just happen the first time after we found out their identities; it happened almost every time after that. We know who they are. You made their names alliterative; it's kind of hard to forget. I'm generally not a fan of feeling as though I'm being talked down to by an author.

Beyond those relatively minor frustrations, there were some bigger topics that I know have been discussed before with previous books in the Vaginal Fantasy group. They also tend to be larger issues within books with female protagonists in general, and with romance books in particular. The biggest one is the constant threat of rape. Most often I've found this is used to illustrate the strength of the female protagonist—she was the victim of a rape or a rape attempt and she came out the other side just fine; isn't she resilient? Isn't she strong? I'm admittedly a bit sensitive, even oversensitive, when it comes to this particular issue. But especially when used in that manner, as purely a character-building device rather than a purposeful plot point, I find it unnecessary. It seems as though there could be other methods to demonstrate that. It's a rare occasion that you find men in books threatened with rape as a character-building element, or at all. I also understand that women live daily with the fear of sexual assault. That's a very real thing and I wouldn't want it to be completely absent from the books that I read. But it becomes a bit tiring when I read four books in a row, in different genres no less, that all include the female lead being threatened with rape.

This book even went a step further with some victim blaming towards the end. Carmen has received her powers, and rescues a woman in an alley from the same thugs who attacked Carmen earlier. Carmen then says to the woman, "Call the police and report the men. I bet you're not the first woman they've attacked. And don't walk down the street by yourself at night. This neighborhood is dangerous. You're just asking for trouble when you do that." (345, emphasis mine) Lovely.

I did end up giving it two stars rather than three on Goodreads, but I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it, and I might consider reading another title in this series to see if it irritates me less.

Scarlet—Marissa Meyer

The captivity of Carswell Throne had gotten off to a rocky start, what with the catastrophic soap rebellion and all. (30)

Marissa Meyer was on the same GeekGirlCon panel as Jessica Brody, for women authors writing young adult fiction with female protagonists. Meyer is also a local author—she lives in Tacoma! I've read the first book in the Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder, which I loved. Was it slightly predictable? Sure. Was it a fractured fairy tale with a fresh take, namely with a science fiction bent? Definitely. And I know my fractured fairy tales, because I'm a total sucker for them. (I think for me this probably began with my introduction to the musical Wicked, followed by the voracious reading of its novel and everything else Gregory Maguire.)

This second book picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first one, but introduces a new fairy tale character and her story: Red Riding Hood. Or Scarlet, as she's known in this version. We are introduced to her, and then switch back and forth between Scarlet's point of view, and Cinder's point of view following her imprisonment at the end of the first book, with just a soupcon of chapters from Emperor Kai's viewpoint. It turns out that Scarlet's grandmother, Michelle Benoit, is the Earthen person who hid Cinder (a.k.a. Princess Selene) when she was first brought to Earth after being horrifically injured on Luna. Now Cinder is on her way to France to talk with Michelle about that time of her life that she doesn't remember. In the meantime, Scarlet is looking for her grandmother, who has gone missing and who Scarlet finds out has been kidnapped in an attempt to extract information from her regarding Princess Selene. In Scarlet's search for her grandmother, she encounters Wolf, who she comes to find out is a Lunar operative. He is one of a number of warriors who have essentially had their DNA spliced with wolf DNA in order to make them more brutal. Cinder is traveling with Carswell Thorne, who she accidentally helped escape from prison and whose (already stolen) ship they stole in order to leave Eastern Union space. Newly-minted Emperor Kai is attempting to deal with the Lunars in a way that doesn't leave the entire Earthen population decimated. (Spoiler alert: there is no way.)

I was surprised by the take of a kind of werewolf bent as members of an attack squad from Luna. Really, I was surprised I didn't see it coming, because it absolutely makes sense: in lore, werewolves are controlled by the moon, so for these werewolfian creatures to be agents of the moon was totally in line with that. And to bring in the Wolf from the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story in that way tied it all together nicely.

I love the comedic relief that Thorne provides. Cinder takes herself so seriously, and understandably so, but it's nice to have that bit of humor to take the edge off. Plus, I've already seen that he takes a bigger role in Cress.

Overall, this series is well developed and a point of view on a fairy tale that I haven't seen before. Plus, the books are a quick read, with lots of chapters (a.k.a. stopping points).

I had been waiting to read this one for a while, actually. Like the first in this series, I picked this copy up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. (Side note: I've said it before, and I will say it again: the Scholastic Warehouse Sale is a great opportunity to pick up books, most for half price, and it makes my season every time I get to go to one. Most warehouses usually have sales around the holidays. You can check out warehouse sales near you here
.) In the time that I waited to pick this second book up on sale from Scholastic, a third book has been released, Cress, which I am currently reading. (Thanks again, King County Library System!)

Meyer has a fourth book in the series, Fairest, coming out in late January. Fairest is actually a prequel to the events that occur in the first book. The last book in the series, Winter, is being released in November 2015. If you're local to the area, Meyer also mentioned during her panel that she has book launch parties for each of her books which are open to the public. Not all of the details are available yet, but if you are interested in attending, you can find more information here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Broken Kingdoms—N.K. Jemisin

I was almost certain he was a godling. The "almost" lay in the fact that he had the strangest magic I'd ever heard of. Rising from the dead? Glowing at sunrise? What did that make him, the god of cheerful mornings and macabre surprises? (20)
I read the first in this series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, with the online book club Vaginal Fantasy several months ago and really enjoyed it. In trying to be more cognizant and purposeful about reading diverse books by diverse authors (the author of this book is an African-American woman, which in the fantasy genre is not easy to find) I decided to pick up the other two in this trilogy. Luckily, my local library system has an awesome eBook lending system, and it even sends them straight to my Kindle. (Shout out to the King County Library System!)

In this trilogy, none are direct sequels of the others; rather, they include some of the same gods and godlings but follow a different mortal. Broken Kingdoms is set ten years after the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The protagonist of the story, Oree, is a blind woman who works in a market in what is now called Shadow, the space beneath the Life Tree that Yeine made grow at the end of the first book. She encounters "Shiny," who we come to find out is actually the mortal version of Itempas, one of the original Three gods. Itempas was sentenced to mortality as punishment for his role in the enslavement of the other gods in the first book. Shiny, it seems, although mortal, cannot permanently die—that would defeat the purpose of his punishment. And he can regain his godly powers at certain times, but only in defense of mortals. Oree stumbled upon him in what was essentially a trash heap and brought him home with her, where they've been living platonically together. Suddenly, godlings are being murdered all over the place, which is strange not least because nobody knew that godlings could be killed by anyone other than the Big Three (Itempas, Nahadoth, or Yeine). Turns out, demon blood kills godlings and Oree is a demon; demons are born from a godling and a mortal coupling, and the nature of the blood is the reason that the Big Three went about hunting down and killing demons in the first place. Seems as though they missed a few. Once Oree's demon blood is discovered, she is kidnapped by a secret faction that wants to use her blood to kill all of the godlings. After having her blood used to kill her godling lover Madding in front of her, Oree is feeling hopeless, but then she and Shiny develop a plan of escape: if she can manage to put herself in mortal danger, he can temporarily regain his god powers and save them both. After successfully escaping, they leave Shadow, trying to stay safe from all those who would take advantage of Oree's origins. Shiny goes with her and their relationship develops into a sexual one; unfortunately, the relationship cannot last, as Shiny's banishment was meant to be a punishment. After he leaves, we become privy to one final piece of information from our narrator Oree: Shiny may have left her, but she is pregnant. Dun dun dun.

I really appreciate the diversity in this series, not only with regard to race, but also with regard to sexuality. The three big gods, as with many mythologies, mated with each other to give birth to another generation of godlings. While there are two "male" gods and one "female" god, their genders are actually fluid. In fact, the first two of the gods were male-identified Nahadoth and Itempas, who became lovers. They were alone for many years before Enefa, their sister, was introduced to their life from the Maelstrom. This diversity of sexuality is also true of mortals; near the beginning, our protagonist Oree is working in the market and mentions some other sellers working near her. She tells us, "They and Ru, another of the Row's sellers, were a triple and Vuroy was possessive." Polyamorous relationships are considered something rather commonplace in her world.

It was lovely to get to see more of Itempas in this book, as the experience of him from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is primarily as the villain. Now that he's been made mortal, we get to see more of his humanity, especially in relation to his pain at the loss of his children the godlings. But we also get to see how his nature as a god is not something that he can change. Both Itempas and his god siblings were created by the Maelstrom (essentially the universe) to serve a particular purpose, balancing each other out fairly well. But those natures don't allow for a great deal of flexibility. As we learn more about him, it's easier to understand how the events in the first book came to take place, and easier to empathize with his actions.

Also, the world building in these books is phenomenal. I would definitely consider it a high fantasy series, worthy of its own world map as the best fantasy series are. I'm looking forward to reading more from N.K. Jemisin, and feel lucky that she has quite a few already published books for me to enjoy. No waiting!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Need Diverse Books Indiegogo Campaign

I am taking a short break from my normal fare to write a short post recommending that everyone consider donating to the We Need Diverse Books Indiegogo campaign. There are a million reasons why we need diverse books, most of which are outlined on the campaign page by youth and authors. In fact, I can't think of any argument that someone could have against needing more diversity in books.

In the past five years or so, I have been making a more concerted, conscious effort to examine my own privilege, and to explore points of view that are different from my own. I think it's something that white folks especially can struggle with, because our representation in books and media is the majority. We see ourselves in movies and books all of the time, so it's easy to say, "Oh, great, there's that reflection of me. And there's another one. And another. I'm covered. Moving on." An African-American friend of mine even had white friends in college ask her why there was a need for a network like BET. Her response was that it's questions like that which are exactly the reason.

All that to say, I personally want to see more diverse books because that is the world that I live in. I don't exist in an homogenized land where I hang out with all my white, hetero, cisgender friends and family. I am only able to live my experience in reality, but in books, I can delve into others' experiences. I want to expand my horizons, learn new things, encounter people different from myself. (My thoughts go deeper than that, delving into opinions on the Seattle metro area where I live, its unofficial semi-segregation and lack of diversity, and the disservice that I think that is doing to our community.) I believe that diversity is truly the best thing for society; so many of the conflicts that occur are out of fear or misunderstanding of something different from ourselves.

Also, unlike most crowdfunded projects, donations to We Need Diverse Books are tax-deductible! 

For more information—including the author video about why we need diverse books—visit the Indiegogo campaign page here.