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The ruins of the garden January 26, 2020

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Books making use of Irish mythology and medieval Irish literature are a really hard sell for me: when you have a PhD in the subject, it’s very hard to be objective with stories that merrily disregard the scholarship, or go all in for a romanticised, Celtic Twilight approach. So I approached Mary Watson’s duology, The Wren Hunt, and The Wicker Light — which posit that families of feuding druids survived in secret into the present day, working magic and battling for control of various objects of power — with great trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried: while I did have to switch off the academic corner of my mind when it came to some components of her druid families’ history (and how their magic expressed itself), the actual story she’d built around this mythological scaffolding was incredible.
Cover - The Wren Hunt

This YA series is set in Kilshamble, a fictional small town in an indeterminate Irish location (but within commuting distance of Dublin). Unbenknownst to the town’s residents, their home has been a battleground for centuries for two branches of a secret community of druids: the judges, and the augurs. The Wren Hunt, the first novel, is narrated by Wren Silke, a teenage girl brought up by augurs and sent on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the organisation in charge of their judge enemies. The Wicker Light is told from two viewpoints: David, a judge boy caught up in his family’s political machinations and escalating war with the augurs, and Zara, a girl outside this druidic battleground who stumbles on its secrets.

But what the series is actually about is the painful, visceral horror of growing up with trauma, raised by parents who are at best disappointing, and at worst outright abusive. Both Wren and David have been raised by parents (or parental figures) who view them as weapons to be wielded, keeping secrets from them the better to mould them into perfect, unquestioning, loyal soldiers. Zara’s father is a liar and a cheat, and his actions are destroying his marriage, leaving Zara’s mother emotionally absent and unable to recognise or mitigate her daughter’s deep pain. The druidic magic which permeates every corner of the characters’ lives is violent, cruel, and violating, bound up in an honour culture of brutal loyalty for the sake of the cause, and a tendency among both judges and augurs to view their foot soldiers as expendable. The bitter weight of parental expectation becomes monstrous and frightening.
Cover - The Wicker Light
The solution, in the face of all this cruelty, is kindness, truth, and an active rejection of familial cycles of abuse and violence. The judges’ and augurs’ battle of life and death is played out in rural Irish fields and hedgerows, ruined houses, and the gossipy high streets of small, insular towns, and Watson evokes brilliantly the secretive claustrophobia of living in such a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and the weight of distant historical slights is still felt centuries later. Her teenage narrators must each individually make the choice to move beyond that: to reach out, to think creatively and compassionately, to end the war, and, hardest of all, to think of themselves not as weapons but as people. The result is at once satisfying, hopeful, and healing.

Left me to linkpost/ what’s it doing to me? May 15, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in linkpost.
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Ambelin Kwaymullina talks about diversity in Australian YA literature.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Fear of causing offense becomes a fetish’.

Here’s Daniel José Older on diversity, power and publishing.

Laura Mixon talks about building bridges and healing divisions.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz talks about self-care and ‘staying in touch with the child-self’.

Aidan Moher discusses writing military SF without combat.

Astrid Lindgren’s Second World War diaries have been published in Sweden.

Ana of Things Mean A Lot reviews Pride in the light of the recent UK elections.

I love this review by Electra Pritchett of Stranger and Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith:

If I had to pick a post-apocalyptic YA society in which to live, I’d pick the community of Las Anclas hands down, warts and all: rather than a hierarchical dystopian society where something random is outlawed and the government controls something else crucial to society, Las Anclas represents a kinder, gentler post-apocalypse. It’s not quite a utopia, except in the sense that everywhere in fiction is, but that’s precisely what makes it a believable and desirable place to live: its busybodies and jerks are notable because they’re not the only kind of people in the town, and dealing with them would be a small price to pay in order to live in such a supportive and inclusive place.

The upcoming publishing schedule at The Book Smugglers makes me so happy.

I am really looking forward to the publication of Tell The Wind And Fire, Sarah Rees Brennan’s latest book.

Via Sherwood Smith, listen to the oldest (recorded) song in the world.

Happy Friday, everyone!

On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
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When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.

In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.

A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.

This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.

So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.

This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.

Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).

As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).

I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.

Negative capability March 4, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, internet.
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Typically, it was the whole YA Mafia kerfuffle that tempted me out of my hermit hole. I’ve been kind of absent from most of my online haunts recently, and wondering if I would ever get back into blogging. And then this happened.  For the best summary of events thus far, you should probably check out this roundup on YA Highway. As you can imagine, I have Opinions about the stuff that’s bouncing around.

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first. I’m obviously a book blogger. I maintain this blog, a fanblog for Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, and a Livejournal. I’m also on Twitter and participate in the discussion on various authors’ and publishers’ blogs. I am also an ‘old media’ reviewer. I’ve written reviews for an Australian newspaper (mainly on YA literature) for the past nine years. Although there’s very little overlap between my online and newspaper work (and it’s not exactly a secret in either sphere that I’m reviewing in the other), my online reviews tend to be more about books I like, although I may write from time to time about a ‘phenomenon’ in literary trends with which I’m uneasy or displeased. My newspaper reviews range more widely in tone, since by definition, I have less control over what books I review there, and so I’m likely to come into contact with books I dislike.

My reviewing both online and for the paper has occasionally brought me into contact with authors. There are several with whom I have some sort of relationship (which mainly consists of discussing books and ideas either online or in real life). In both spheres, however, I’m small enough fry that, to be honest, nothing I say is going to have a huge amount of impact or be noticed by that many people.

I am a reader of The Sparkle Project, and I agree with its general point that there is an unsettling trend of misogyny, if not downright romanticising of domestic violence and abuse in some popular YA literature today.*

This is where I’m standing, then, and what follows is the perspective of a person ‘quietly observing standing in my space’, so to speak.

There is a bit of fail on both sides of this debate, but as far as I’m concerned, the biggest fail by far is the problems both sides seem to be having in understanding one another’s grievances. However, most of the failure in this regard is emanating from the authors’ and publishers’ corner, although I accept that Ceilidh_ann on the Sparkle Project was probably not strong enough in shutting down some rather nasty comments on her blog.

Ceilidh_ann herself puts it better than I can in relation to authors Just Not Getting It.

The Mafia thing wasn’t just about that; it was about watching authors tell reviewers and future authors to “be nice” or else they’d risk bad karma and people like Becca Fitzpatrick would take any opportunity to mock you about it and having her author friends congratulate her for supposedly taking the high road (the original entry has since been Flocked on LJ but is available to read on GoodReads.) It was about watching author friends give each other cover quotes when to me it felt like “doing your friends a favour” instead of judging the work based on its merits (hell, I can’t even review the book of an author who I’m friends with on LJ and twitter, it just feels too close for me.) It was about seeing authors brag about their good connections and how they helped them get publishing deals, as was the case with Aprilynne Pike and her friend Stephenie Meyer, who passed her book onto her agent Jodi Reamer. It was about hearing from other bloggers who has also been on the receiving end of bad author behaviour (said people do not want to be named so I hope you respect that, even if you don’t believe me). It was about watching bloggers be accused of something akin to censorship for discussing what they saw as extremely problematic, then twisting their words around to fit their argument better (The Book Smugglers’ review of “Sisters Red” being the prime example here, especially in the wake of the Bitch media mess). It was about watching author after author fawn over a mediocre writer with a documented history of fandom plagiarism solely because she sold well.

In other words, we, as book reviewers, are saying one thing, and authors are hearing another. And what we are saying, over and over again, is, ‘If you in the YA publishing world are not going to be negative about any other YA book (which is totally okay) then we are going to be negative if we think there are grounds for negativity‘. Earth-shattering, I know.

What on earth are book-reviewers for if not to inform the world at large – and potential readers in particular – of their opinions of a particular book? We are not here to provide blurbs so that authors can sell more books (although if we do so – and some of my quotes have been used as blurbs on authors’ books – well, yay for us). We are here to tell people what we thought of a particular book, and why. We are here to help people decide if a particular book is something they’ll enjoy, or something they should flee to the hills in order to avoid. Sometimes, unfortunately, this requires us to be critical. An experienced reviewer is able to be critical without being cruel, to be honest without being rude and to explain his or her problems with a book clearly in a way that makes it obvious that such problems may not be problems for every person.** And if authors ask us to ‘be nice’ (with just a hint of a threat), as Becca Fitzpatrick has done, it is preventing us from doing our job.

As a reviewer, I feel very strongly that if I’m not able to express my dislike of a book, I have failed in my duty to readers.*** I have seen what happens when reviewers fail to express an opinion. The reviews become bland, neutral plot summaries. On the surface, that may appear to be sensible, since it ostensibly allows readers to make up their own minds based on plot alone, but in fact it’s a bit intellectually dishonest. Book reviews need to set the book in a broader context of trends in the field, thematic concerns, why particular elements of the plot failed, how it compares to the author’s other work – and that’s only the bare minimum. Think of the plot of a book you read and dislike, and imagine reading just that bare outline. Would that inform you whether or not you’d enjoy the book? I think not.

Being a reviewer is a balancing act. Rather than affecting neutrality and pretending that your own tastes and preferences are non-existent, embrace them. Think about them, categorise them, work out your own quirky likes and dislikes. Let them shine through in your reviews while at the same time owning and acknowledging them, and recognising that other people’s tastes might be different. All of this needs to come across in a review. And this means that sometimes, you are going to have to be negative.

A bad review is not going to make or break an author’s career. Neither is a single good review going to make an author a success. With all due respect, the single greatest thing that will aid an author’s success is that author writing an absolutely fantastic book.

*’It was about never seeing authors or people in the YA industry discuss some of the anti-feminist attitudes prevailing in an increasingly popular trend, where a character is simply a sexy bad boy for holding a girl down on a bed against her will and saying he wants to kill her. I understand being professional, I really do, but I didn’t think then, and I still don’t, that professionalism included putting your fingers in your ears and ignoring the obvious.’

** I, like all readers, have various idiosyncratic preferences and turn-offs, and sometimes a book will trigger these. If I’m doing my job properly, I’m able to communicate that while such and such a thing doesn’t appeal to me personally, other readers may enjoy it.

*** This is sometimes heartbreaking, especially when it requires me to be critical of an author whose works I adored as a child. But I still do it.

All my dangerous friends June 12, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
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It is the story of the ogre and the little girl, where she loves him because he may kill her, and he accepts her (and doesn’t kill her) because he loves her fear. That’s why they can live happily ever after – as long as she doesn’t recognise the Gothic mansion of his appetite for what it is.

Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’ in the London Review of Books, talking about Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

This quote is about Rebecca, but it could refer to so many other things: Jane Eyre, from which Rebecca is derived, any number of a certain type of romance novel, and, of course, Twilight. One series to which it is definitely not applicable, though, is Sarah Rees Brennan’s young-adult Demon’s Lexicon series. Spoiler for the first two books of the series follow.

Rees Brennan is well-versed in this type of story. She’s a romance aficionado, she loves Austen and the Brontës and she’s familiar with the use of this trope in young-adult literature.

You know what trope I mean: the ‘good woman’ taming (or failing to tame) the wild beast through the healing power of love. The brooding, Byronic hero is barely restrained and barely contained, dangerous to all but the object of his affections – he’s different around her. Or he’s the only one of his kind (vampires, demons, old-school faeries) with some semblance of a moral code, and the power of love makes him try to be better, to be more human. He could kill her, but he doesn’t, and she could fear him, but doesn’t (or she fears him but enjoys it).

Sarah Rees Brennan tricks readers into thinking they’ve got this trope, and then cheerfully, gleefully subverts it.

Her books are about two groups of siblings – two brothers, and a brother and sister – who fight against evil magicians who raise demons to do their bidding. The first book, The Demon’s Lexicon, is told from the point of view of Nick, one of the two brothers, who has a complete inability to feel normal human emotions like empathy. At the end of the book, we discover this is because he isn’t human at all. He’s a demon.

The second book, The Demon’s Covenant is told from the point of view of the sister, Mae, who is an ordinary human girl who got to know Nick and his brother Alan when her brother Jamie got marked by possession by a demon (this happened in The Demon’s Lexicon). Covenant is about the quartet’s ongoing struggles with various groups of magicians, Jamie’s growing magical powers,* Nick’s attempts to come to terms with his identity as a demon – and Mae’s attempts to define herself as a person amid all these supernatural shenanigans.

What makes this series so refreshing is its portrayal of Mae. She’s an oddity among teenage girl characters in that she’s a sexual being extremely comfortable in her own skin and confident of herself as a human being. Rather than angsting constantly about her lack of supernatural abilities (recall, Nick is a demon, Alan has been immersed in the supernatural world all his life, and Jamie has magical powers), Mae is happy to be herself. ‘I want things’, Mae tells Nick when he reminds her that, as a demon, he could make things happen for her, ‘but I want to get them for myself.’ She calmly recognises that as the non-magical person of the group she’s the weak link, and coolly asks Nick to mark her for possession to prevent any other demons from doing so. She’s attracted to Nick, she’s attracted to Alan, she’s attracted to Seb, but she’s honest about her feelings and never descends into soap-operatic love-triangle drama.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the development of the relationship between Mae and Nick could’ve been exactly the kind the quote above describes. But the two of them, dangerously genre-savvy, consciously reject and ridicule it. Rather than Mae’s love of Nick being the thing that keeps him from raging out of control at the end of The Demon’s Lexicon, it is his brother Alan’s love that keeps him earthbound. He wants to learn how to be human not out of love for Mae but because he knows it matters to Alan. And Mae herself is under no illusions that Nick is different or ‘more human’ than ordinary demons. To put it bluntly, he’s no tortured Edward Cullen and she knows it. She doesn’t think he loves her, she doesn’t think he’s a good person, and she doesn’t believe that she can change him.

Covenant ends with Mae recognising her growing feelings for Nick, and him apparently reciprocating, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Rees Brennan ultimately intends for them to end up a couple. I think it’s far more likely that the series will end with both of them in the same messy situation they were in when it began – mutual attraction, confused feelings and nothing resolved. And that’s entirely the point. This series is not about epic, soul-redeeming romantic love. Instead, it’s about the power of family – families that are made, not born – and the fact that human feelings are messy and don’t fit easily into conveniently-labelled boxes. It’s a brave statement, and one that goes against the grain of hundreds of years of romantic fiction, and I applaud Rees Brennan wholeheartedly for it.

*Another commendable thing about this series is the depiction of Jamie. He’s an openly gay character who does not angst in the slightest about his sexual orientation. In fact, when Mae is upset that he didn’t tell her about his magical powers, even though he was perfectly comfortable telling her about his homosexuality, he angrily retorts that being gay doesn’t hurt anybody, but magic does. I wanted to stand up and cheer Rees Brennan for this. What she said (through Jamie’s mouth) shouldn’t need to be said, but the depiction of gay characters in mainstream fiction is appalling. Most depictions still revolve around the ‘coming out story’, as if that’s the only thing that matters to gay people. I’ve read, time and time again, arguments that gay characters, and in particular gay teenage characters, need to be depicted in ordinary, getting-on-with-their-lives stories in the same way that heterosexual characters are, if we’re ever to see a complete change in attitudes towards LGBTQ people in society, and I applaud Rees Brennan for doing so with Jamie. I’m not reducing this to a footnote because I think that it’s less important than the Nick/Mae storyline, and will be blogging about Jamie some time next week.