2010 archive

Happy Holidays from the A Train

Happy Holidays from the A Train

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a subway anecdote, so here’s a bit of holiday hilarious from my errand-running today: on the train home, two sisters (maybe ages seven and eight) were sharing a candy cane — sort of. It was clearly the little sister’s, and she was working hard to suck it into a perfect point. She kept holding it up for her sister and then pulling it away before her sister could actually lick it. Her sister was clearly growing increasingly grumpy about this, but the younger girl found it too hilarious to stop.

Finally, the little sister actually did hand the candy cane over. The older sister took it, gave her a smug look, and bit off that carefully-created point. She handed it back with a smile. (My own sister adds, “See? Little sisters are the worst!”)

On the assumption that I won’t have a chance to update with the rest of my 2010 books, here’s the list:

#49: The Comet’s Curse by Dom Testa. Middle grade scifi about a bunch of kids on a space ship. Totally delightful!

#50: Soulless by Gail Carriger: steampunk urban fantasy. Fun romance, and I liked Alexia a lot (though I didn’t think she was much of a detective). This was also the first time I’ve ever actually gotten the werewolf thing.

#51: All Through the Night: A Troubleshooter’s Christmas by Suzanne Brockmann (reread). One of the most satisfying books I’ve ever read! I spent the other books about Jules and Robin squeeing that they need to get maaaaarried… and they do!

Happy holidays!

#48: On Basilisk Station by David Weber

#48: On Basilisk Station by David Weber

First things first: I bought an e-reader! Specifically, I got B&N’s Nook, original black and white flavor. Technically, I bought it back in November, and Ash was the first book I read on it, but I bring it up now because once I had it, I checked out the Baen Free Library. The library offers some of their books as free e-books, and I noticed On Basilisk Station among them. I decided to give it a try because one of my good friends loves the Honor Harrington series, and hey, it was free.

I let her know I’d downloaded it, and she said, essentially, “Great! Uh, there’s a lot of technobabble in it, FYI.”

And oh boy, was she right.

The thing is, I really wanted to enjoy the book, and there were pieces I really did. As a character, Honor was fine — heck, a determined young leader who’s going to do what’s right no matter how much pressure there is to give in to corruption? Who wins the respect of her crew that way, and turns a rag-tag bunch into an elite force to be reckoned with? Those are all things I love. And make it a space opera? Heck yes!

Unfortunately, all the things I liked about the book were buried. This got a little long, so have a cut: (more…)

Sunday Sequel Reviews

Last week, I listed a bunch of books YA books that I’d read planned to review later. Well, later is now, at least for two of them, lumped together for no other reason than they’re short, and they’re both sequels.

Behemoth by Scott WesterfeldBehemoth by Scott Westerfeld is the sequel to the awesome steampunk Leviathan. In this installment, Deryn and Alek go their separate ways in Istanbul: Deryn’s got a secret mission to help the Darwinist powers hold the Dardanelles out of Clanker hands, while Alek’s looking for allies to help him end the war.

Blue Fire by Janice HardyBlue Fire by Janice Hardy is the sequel to The Shifter. In it, Nya and her friends are still wanted by the Duke for some nefarious purpose — and when her friends are arrested, Nya has to sneak into enemy territory to try to get them back.

Both books are great — and you can read why I thought so in one convenient entry over at Active Voice.

So Many Books! Mini-Reviews, 41-47

So here’s a fun thing about me. Recording all of the books I’ve read this year has led to me, I think, reading a bit more, which is great! Hooray! Except I’m pretty bad at writing timely reviews, which means that now that we’re getting close to the end of the year that means I have a whole glut of books to tell you about. So instead of my usual, kind of lengthy review, here’s a list with some super short reactions (though some of these will get reviewed properly at Active Voice in the next few weeks).

#41: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld — this is YA steampunk, so I’m saving it for AV.

Carter Beats the Devil by David Glen Gold#42: Carter Beats the Devil by David Glen Gold

I loved this! I think by this point it’s pretty clear that I rarely read anything that isn’t either YA/MG or SF/F, so this was a bit of a departure for me. My sister handed it to me as highly recommended, somewhere between historical and literary fiction. It’s (sort of, roughly) about Carter the Great, a Vaudeville magician accused of conspiracy to murder President Harding.

The structure nerd in me loved this. It went back and forth through Carter’s life a lot, in lengthy chunks that painted pictures of his rise to fame and everything leading up to the show before Harding’s death, and then its aftermath. It’s incredibly rich, long enough to sink your teeth into, but with very little drag. I will say that the Mysterioso sub-sub-sub plot felt a little tacked on, but the climax was pretty great. I also wish there had been more women, as only two played major roles in the book (and the first was there for only about a third, and the second for only about half), but those are fairly minor quibbles. Overall, it’s probably one of my favorite reads of the year.

#43: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi — it’s post-apocalyptic YA, so I’m saving this one for AV.

#44: Blue Fire by Janice Hardy — MG fantasy, so I’m saving this one for AV.

#45: Ash by Malinda Lo — YA fantasy, so I’m saving this one for AV. (I’m really, really behind on reviews over there…)

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith#46: Flygirl by Sherri Smith

Another of my favorites from the year, and another historical novel, although this one is YA. It follows Ida Mae Jones, a young, black girl during WWII. Ida is a pilot who hears about the WASP — Women Airforce Service Pilots — and because she’s fairly light skinned, she decides to try to pass as white so she can fly for the army.

This one is really, really good. The voice is really strong, and the way it deals with race is really well done. (For example, a heart wrenching scene where her mother has to come visit to deliver bad news, and she has to pretend her mother is her maid; or her general anxiety when a white man asks her to dance. She wants to, but she knows that she can’t have any kind of relationship with him in the future.)

The book is actually pretty light on plot, but I would happily read hundreds more pages about Ida’s missions during the war and what happened after.

Goblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville#47: Goblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville (reread)

I’ve written pretty extensively about my love of Bruce Coville before. A few weeks ago I found myself in the mood for something spooky (no idea what brought that on) so I grabbed this off my shelf. It is, like all Coville books, pretty much delightful.

I definitely didn’t get the “My name is Ishmael, but don’t call me that,” joke as a kid. (I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t actually fit with the tone very well, even.) And while I love the worldbuilding, there was quite a bit that goes unexplained — not in a plot-not-wrapped-up way, but it feels like part of a much larger folklore. I’d love to read more about Granny Pinchbottom and Igor, and even where William came from, and lots and lots about Fauna — her life before meeting William, what she does after, and so on. (She’s so intriguing, but there’s so little about her!)

As a whole, everything about this is weird and funny and kind of spooky, but still infused with Coville’s usual humor. It practically begs to be read aloud and reread on Halloween.

Boy Band Watch: Big Time Rush

Big Time RushSo here’s the thing. I love boy bands. This shouldn’t come as an enormous surprise, given there’s a whole category to the right somewhere called “this must be pop.” (Which, aside from being about pop, is also an *NSYNC lyric.) So last year when my awesome BFF Jess suggested we should keep some sort of official look out for up-and-coming boy bands, naturally I was all over that. And thus, the Official Tweenage Wasteland Official Boy Band Watch was born!

Aaaand also not a surprise, if you’ve poked around here before (or spoken to me pretty much at all in the last few months), I adore the Nickelodeon show Big Time Rush, which is, of course, about a boy band named Big Time Rush, who have recently put out an album titled (just to be different)… “BTR.” And naturally, Jess and I had to rate it.

So here it is! OTWOBBW: Big Time Rush. (Bonus, we spruced up Tweenage’s layout a bit, so now the text isn’t squished into such a small column. Check it out!)

#40: Meet the Annas by Robert Dunn

#40: Meet the Annas by Robert Dunn

The Brooklyn Book Festival was a couple of months ago. I’ve meant to go every year since I moved to New York, but Brooklyn is far away and things come up and blaahhhh. Anyway, this year I finally did! And, as one does at such things, I bought a lot of books. The first one I tackled was Meet the Annas: A Musical Novel by Robert Dunn.

The book basically plays what-if with a fictional 1960s girl group, the Annas. It’s told from the POV of Dink Stephenson, one of their song writers, looking back at what happened years later. He was in love with the band’s front woman, Anna Dubower, and eventually proposed to her as the girl group era passed and they were desperately trying to manufacture a hit to bring them back. Anna didn’t give him an answer, and weeks later, was mysteriously dead. Now there’s a rights dispute over that last song, Dink has to go to court over it, and running into people from that old life stirs up old memories. At last, he’s determined to figure out what happened to Anna.

I was pretty ambivalent when I first finished this book. In the months since (I am waaaay behind on my reviews) the ending has festered, and now I find it enraging. I’m going to cut here because the book is sort of a mystery. I found it super obvious, but your mileage may vary. (more…)

#37: Wired by Robin Wasserman

Wired by Robin Wasserman

My office is on the 16th floor. This evening, I left work, got in the elevator, and it went down, oh, fifteen and a half floors. Then it went kerTHUNK and stopped. I was stuck there for an hour.

The world of Wired (the third book in Robin Wasserman’s trilogy) is an eerie dystopia where the have-nots die young in cities, get sick from the nuclear fall out, and everything is controlled by mega corporations. Not a great place to live. On the other hand, the handful of wealthy people have technology advanced enough to put human thought patterns into a mechanical body. Presumably, their elevators never, you know, just stop between floors for awhile. So hey, silver lining.

An actual review is over at Active Voice.

Thoughts on the Female Character Flow Chart

Thoughts on the Female Character Flow Chart

Last week, mlawski at Overthinking It posted a graphic titled The Female Character Flow Chart. I saw it, thought, “Huh, interesting,” and that was that. Then a couple of days later one of my friends posted me towards some criticism of it, leading to discussion and more thinking on my part.

I was surprised to see so much commentary on it because it never occurred to me that the chart was aimed at someone like me, who already spends time thinking about the representation of women in the media. I don’t think good intentions (which I assume mlawski had) or intended audience arguments excuse all flaws (more on those in a second), but I definitely read the chart as intended for readers who hadn’t already thought about women in the media. I could certainly see someone running across this who hadn’t noticed those problematic tropes, the lack of dynamic female characters, or that many, many female characters are defined solely by their relationships to men and children could have an eye-opening, “aha!” moment.

Regardless of who it’s aimed at, I don’t think anyone’s wrong for reading it critically. There are two different braches of criticism that I’ve seen (though I haven’t looked around extensively; I haven’t even read the comments on the original post, since I looked at the post when it first went up, ages before the comment count rose). One is about the privilege and lack of nuance in the chart; the other is about the chart as reductionist when it comes to the characters in question.

The first, I can’t put any better than this post from homasse at deadbrowalking:

A wee bit down on this mess of a flowchart, you will find “Useless Girl” with the example being Uhura from Star Trek.

And why is this fail? Because, once again, feminism shows a woeful lack of awareness of race and the impact race plays.

Uhura was “useless” not because of her gender, but because of race–this chart ignores the political and social situation of when the show was made and the decisions made in regards to her character because she was Black: They couldn’t ever put her in charge of the bridge because people in the south specifically would have flipped out at a black woman being in charge (this was why Ensign Chekov was given the bridge and she never was even though she outranked him).

I’d also like to point out bossymarmalade’s post about Yoko Ono, someone who I consider awesome. It sucks to see people buy into the cultural storyline that she broke up the Beatles, when that is just false, and further, when she’s great.1

So yes, I think there are some problems with the chart in that regard, and I’m glad people pointed them out. But I don’t entirely agree with the argument about the chart being reductionist, and diminishing the characters who are on it. Or rather — I do, kind of. The best way to put it was something said by my friend Jess: “Basically, if that one box ending in ‘strong female character’ wasn’t there, I’d like the chart a lot better.”

For me, that sums it up. I think the chart actually branches out into a lot more specifics than I’d use if I made something like it — like, there are multiple slots for women whose motivations come entirely from their kids — but the main problem I have is that any one of these slots/archetypes/clichés/whatever you want to call them can indeed be written well. They can be thorough, three dimensional, story-carrying, awesome characters.

My go-to example is Sarah Connor. Sarah is listed the character representing “Mama Bear.” And when I saw that, I went “a-yup.” TV Tropes has her listed as both a Mama Bear and Action Mom. The first Terminator movie is based on this premise: Sarah Connor must live, because her son saves the world. Not “Sarah Connor must live because she saves the world.” While she’s the awesome character, the series is always about her (at that point unborn) son. When we next see her in T2, she’s had John, and devoted herself to preparing him for his fate — and keeping him safe. When he rescues her, an act that explicitly saves her life, she scolds him for putting himself in danger. She’ll do anything, up to and including sacrificing herself, if it saves John. While Sarah is the protagonist of the first two movies, her motivation — the entire premise of the series — is based on protecting John.

The thing is, though, that Sarah is awesome. In the first movie, she grows from damsel-in-need-of-rescue to bandaging injuries and learning to make bombs. She’s the one who finally destroys the Terminator. She has help along the way, but she’s still a character who learns skills and saves herself. In T2, she’s even more complex. She’s in an institution because people believe she’s insane, but we as viewers know she’s right. But being right doesn’t make her entirely mentally able, though — it’s clear she’s got PTSD or something akin to it (and understandably). She’s amazingly kick-ass (her escape is my favorite sequence in the movie) and morally complex. We know she’d kill someone to save John, but she isn’t able to kill Miles Dyson, though she thinks doing so will keep Skynet from existing — and though she expects herself to be able to do it. And that’s without even getting into the sadly too-short lived TV show.2

Sarah Connor is a great character. She’s three dimensional and dynamic. She’s capable of carrying a story. But as much as I’d be all over a the story about how Sarah Connor must live so she can lead humanity in the battle against Skynet, I don’t know that it would necessarily be a better story than Sarah trying to save her son. Different, yes; certainly unusual. But Sarah Connor is both an Action Mama Bear and a great character. (And further, just because Sarah Connor is great doesn’t mean there aren’t other characters who fall into that slot who aren’t poorly written, or that the Mama Bear archetype is never problematic.)

The way I see it, while there are indeed plenty of archetypes and tropes out there that are problematic simply for existing — racist and sexist stereotypes, for example, which come up all too frequently — once you’re beyond those,3 just because a character (female or otherwise) hits an archetype doesn’t mean the character is poorly drawn.

  1. That said, I do understand why there are some actual, not-at-all fictional people on this chart, Yoko among them. This culture often treats celebrities as characters, and though she in no way deserves to, the Yoko character is indeed an archetypal example of “woman who breaks up the boys’ fun,” and/or “woman who ruins the man’s genius.” Because you know, she totally ruined John Lennon by being awesome and, by doing so, making him happy. HOW DARE SHE. That said, I don’t know enough about Michelle Rodriguez to have any idea what she’s mean to represent.
  2. I need to re-watch that, but the scene that stands out to me is when she sees Cameron, the teenage girl terminator, about to kill a cop who’s questioning her for being somewhere suspicious, and Sarah interjects, pretending to be a pissed-off mother looking for her out-breaking-curfew daughter and gets everyone out of the situation alive. She isn’t just able to blow things up. She’s smart on her feet. My kinda heroine.
  3. Of course, everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to what those are and what’s beyond them.

Sickness, Whininess, Book Reviews

I’m sick. I’ve been sick for about five days, though recovering steadily for the last two. This is better for me. It isn’t better for my roommate, for reasons illustrated in this graph:

Sickness vs. Whininess

There are no units of measurement in this graph. How exactly would I measure whininess, anyway?

In short, as I start to feel better, I become insufferably whiney that I’m not all-the-way better yet. At my sickest, I dope up on cold medication and mostly sleep; as I get better, all I do is complain.

Translation: Whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine. Today, it came as a relief that I had enough energy to do things like wash dishes and run laundry. And I hate washing dishes and running laundry.

Oh, and just barely enough energy to (almost) catch up on book reviews.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins#33: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

See, this is how far backed up I am. I reread Catching Fire the weekend before Mockingjay came out, because I’d devoured it so fast the first time I didn’t actually remember anything that happened, or any of the new characters who’d been introduced. So I reread. This time, the book’s few weaknesses bothered me a little bit more, but overall the story and writing are so compelling that I once again devoured it. Luckily, I didn’t have enough time to forget anything, because Mockingjay came out the next week.

(Wait, you wanted an actual review? Last year, at Active Voice. Of course.)

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins#34: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

What is there to say about Mockingjay that hasn’t been said? I was at the release party and got to see Suzanne Collins read the first chapter; that was awesome. (BTW, did you know Katniss has an Appalachian accent? I didn’t! But it was cool.) I took the next day off work to read (because the awesome thing about being a grown up is that I can do that), and it took me a long, long time to gather my thoughts on the book. There’s so much there.

I’ll sum it up like this: I wanted to like it more than I did. It does justice to the first two books in the series, for sure. It was fairly well put together, definitely. But getting that isn’t the same as liking it. More on this one, too, is over at AV.

Bloom County: The Complete Library (Volume Two)#35: Bloom County: The Complete Library (Volume Two) by Berkeley Breathed

Oh, Bloom County. I grew up reading collections of the strip, over and over, even though I was pretty young when it was canceled. I’ve occasionally joked that everything I know about 80s politics, I learned from Bloom County, but it’s not actually much of an exaggeration. What was really brilliant, though, is that the rhythm and the characters of the strips are so great that even as a kid, not getting about 65% of the jokes, I found it hilarious anyway. So I had not only read a lot of these before, I’d memorized them.

Getting a look at some strips I’d never seen before was great. I also enjoyed Breathed’s commentary. In fact, that was one of the reasons I liked Volume Two better than the first. The first had a lot of annotations about the events of the time, and very little commentary from Breathed; the second had fewer annotations and more commentary. (Don’t get me wrong, having some of the context for stuff that happened when I was a toddler was useful, but a lot of it was also pretty obvious just from reading the strips.)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith#36: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This book, sigh. I’ve mentioned in a few other reviews that I often have issues with classics, because I’m so accustomed to (and more easily engaged by) modern pacing. This is the sort of book that shows just how much that limits me: it took me awhile to get into it, to pick it back up when I put it down, but it would have been a real shame if I had let the pacing put me off. The book is lovely.

It’s the journal of Cassandra, a young woman in the 1930s, living in an English castle (but also living in complete poverty). Her goal is to be a writer, so she strives to record all of her encounters and emotions honestly — to capture the castle in writing, you see. The story of the book also takes you through Cassandra’s first love (and the first time a boy likes her) and her family relationships, in a way that’s so real it’s almost painful. The prose is beautiful, but above all, it’s the emotions that the book gets right.

(Are those all the books I’ve read? No! But is it time for me to go take some more medicine and whine some more? Yes! So that’s it for now.)

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