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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Frenemy of the People by Nora Olsen: Fabulously Flawed Teenage Girls!

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Trigger Warning: This book uses the r-word (ableist slur for people with intellectual disabilities and/or Down syndrome). Details on its use are in the review. 

In many ways, Frenemy of the People reminds me a lot of various books and movies I loved as a kid with the notable difference of the leads in this love story are a lesbian and bisexual girl. As a preteen and teen, I longed for a story featuring to girls in love. I wanted something, books or movies, to mirror the kinds of relationships I was having at the time. This book does that so realistically that at times I was laughing with second hand embarrassment. 

“I’m not sure what transgender is yet, but I found a website that’s going to explain it to me.”

The story is told in 1st person, the narrative switches between Clarissa and Lexie’s POV. This not only provides insight into the characters, but also into how they misunderstand and misjudge each other. Resulting in some of the most authentic and rarely seen teen voices I’ve ever read. 

Clarissa and Lexie are spoiled, entitled, and often not likable at times. They think they know it all, jump to conclusion and make a lot of mistakes, just as we all do when we’re young, and even as adults. While they’re slips ups and stumbles are cringe worthy they are also realistic and true to the kind of teens we rarely see in media. They aren’t quirky, fast talking over-educated avatars for adult nostalgia. They put their are misinformed, inexperienced, and often put their foot in their mouths. These flaws are not trivial or token, but rather are tied to who they are and how they were raised. 

“The word man doesn’t mean human,” I said. “We already have the word human, which means human. This is totally sexist.”

Lexie is self righteous, rude, insensitive and disaffected. She embodies the militant, vegan, punk lesbian cliche, complete with straight edge tattoo and blue hair. If that was all we knew of Lexie that’s all she would be, a stereotype. Luckily, we get to know Lexie, and her home life, and see there is real pain and reasons for what she does. Her parents’ emotional neglect plays a huge part in why Lexie acts out and clings to stark views of right and wrong. The story provides insight both through Lexie’s narrative, and Clarissa’s POV into a sensitive and deeply wounded girl, who wants desperately to be seen as good and worthy of love.

I was disheveled, smelly, and full of hate. They should fear me. 

Clarissa could also be dismissed as a cliche, though a whole different one. She is the spoiled popular girl, complete with a gaggle of friends and trophies for horseback riding. Add onto this her sudden realization, at the beginning of the story, that she is bisexual and Clarissa could be the poster child for the “faux bi girl” stereotype. However, like Lexie, Clarissa proves to be complex, intelligent and surprisingly mature. Part of this maturity stems from growing up with a sister with Down syndrome, but some of it also comes form having flighty, fiscally somewhat parents. Clarissa is compassionate and determined, strengths that are all to often discouraged in girls her age, but here they give her the foundation she needs to weather some sizable adversity that has nothing to do with her sexual orientation. 

“Brains, beauty and pizza.”

Let me take a break to talk about my favorite character, Desi. She is Clarissa’s older sister, and she has Down syndrome. A character like Desi could easily be a token or plot device, Desi is neither. She is a teenage girl with a boyfriend and the same dreams many teenage girls have. Desi is blunt and unapologetic, and doesn’t let her disability or people's ignorance about it stop her from getting whatever she wants. She is very aware of how people treat her differently, and even uses it to her advantage. While I wish there were a few more disabled characters with as much of a presence in the story as she has, she does have several scenes with characters other than her sister and parents where she’s treated as an equal. One of my favorites moments in the book is a scene where she’s playing a game with Lexie and another character, Slobberin’ Rob, where she shows she’s a clever little smartass. Desi is everything I LOVE to see in a female character, and wish I saw more in fiction, it’s even more awesome that she is all this and has Down Syndrome.

Lexie and Clarissa are also refreshing female characters in how they’re allowed to not be perfect, or idealized versions of what adults wish teens were like. They both make mistakes and say the wrong things at the worst possible moments, much like we all do. Despite their imperfections and missteps they grow and learn from each other and their experiences. 

A great demonstration of one of these mistakes is linked to the Trigger Warning. Early on in the story, Lexie uses the r-word in reference to Desi, in a comment about how the concept of a Homecoming queen is a joke. Clarissa immediately calls out Lexie and explains that the word is a slur.

It is a important moment for both girls, and their relationship. Lexie is forced to deal with the consequences of what she says, and that she is not as socially conscious and knowledgable as she believed. She also sees Clarissa in a new light, and is forced to reevaluate her view of a girl she’d written off as shallow and ignorant. 

Other stories would either not even use this word, or would give this huge misstep to a villainous character. By giving it to Lexie it not only allows her to be flawed, but to also demonstrate her capacity to learn, while providing a similar opportunity to unknowable readers. It shows the error doesn’t make her a bad person. In fact, her ability to apologize and grow shows her heart is in the right place. Clarissa has similar moments of growing awareness. Both girls go through significant character growth that is grounded in realistic situations. Part of becoming an adult is realizing their you’re not always right, and neither are your parents. 

Speaking of parents, there is a refreshing abundance of parental figures present and deeply involved in the story. While the girls parents are source of stress and emotional pain, they also are sources of love and support. I loved how the parents felt like real, deeply flawed, people too. They had lives outside of the girls, and very realistic dialogue.

All these layers, and thoughtfully constructed characters come together to weave a profoundly enjoyable and surprising emotional read for me. I was transported back to my own youth, and reflected on my own mistakes and turbulent love life with a forgiving eye. That part strikes me the most. 

Women are rarely allowed to forgive themselves for mistakes, even when they are understandable and a natural part of growing up. We are taught, from a very young age, to judge ourselves and other women harshly. I often seen this judgement extend to fiction depiction of women. Where fictional teenage girls are held to unrealistically high standard. They are judged to be shallow, cliche and unimportant simply for not being an idealize version of what adults think teens should be. That is not only unfair, it’s damaging.

Real teen readers should be able to see a wide range of teenagers and teenage experiences. Fantasy and wish fulfillment are great, but not all teen character have to embody ideals that are often unachievable for real teens. We should have a diverse rage of experiences and characters for readers of all ages and all sexual orientations to identify with, especially teenage girls who often are only give a singular, homogenous image of themselves in media.

Showing teens that they can make mistakes, not be perfect, and of course not be straight and still be good people, who find love is profoundly important to the health and well being of LGBTQ teens. Not liking or relating to Clarissa or Lexie shouldn’t be a value judgment on them, just as it shouldn’t be on any young girl. They are not poster girls for lesbian and bisexual teens, they're just two teenage girls in love.

Frenemy of the People is an honest, earnest view of the messy, imperfection of teenage life and young love. It shows how girls are capable, intellect and worthy of love, but most of all it shows how the experience of young love is a universally uplifting, hilarious and even cringe worth at times. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

DearAuthor, YouTube Sexual Abuse and Rape Culture

Dear Author, a popular book blog, posted an article titled Use and Abuse of Girls that talks about YouTube, and the growing popularity of VidCon, as well as Youtube Sexual Abuse scandal. It draws some interesting parallels to Women’s fiction and talks about the impact on young girls.

Personally, I’ve been wanting to see an article like this for awhile, especially considering how John Green, the "savior of YA," is closely tied to several of the accused sexual abusers. 

However, what could have been a thoughtful and informative post is ruined by the use of a quote from Alex Day, one of the admitted abusers, who points out “the inherent problems in these face-to-face events” like VidCon. I will not copy his quote here, he doesn’t deserve the attention and is last person to be treated as a trusted opinion on this subject.

Why not ask a rapist why rape happens? He'll of course tell you it's the fault of women, tight clothing and a million other things, none of which are the true answer. Plus doing so lends credibility to his opinions, while ignoring how that is a slap in the face to his victims. 

An abuser can only show us how they are able to abuse and not take responsibility for it. Which Day demonstrates succinctly by placing fans as the ones at fault for making themselves vulnerable to abuse by being fans in the first place. In other words, he blames the victims. 

Yes, these events and the inherent power imbalance between fans and celebrities creates an environment where abuse can occur, but it is the active choice of an abuser to use their power and influence as a celebrity to manipulate and abuse their fans. Being a celebrity doesn't magically turn a good person into an abuser, but it can give a sexual predator easy access to their victims and shield them from taking responsibility for their actions. 

I tweeted @DearAuthor to point out this oversight, and I got a surprising and disappointing response.

"Quoting one of those who abused the system doesn't make him sympathetic."
Actually, it does when he is the only voice in the conversation. It gives his word, and by extension him, a platform to be viewed as a valued opinion on the subject and allows him to spread misinformation, further distorting our understanding of how and why abuse really happens.

The way that @DearAuthor phrases their response by saying he "abused the system" is very telling. It erase and ignores the fact that he in fact abused human beings. Real women who are being cut-out of a personally relevant conversation.

Why choose to quote an abuser at all?

Why not seek quotes from two women, Lindsey Williams aka PotterMoosh and Lex aka Lexcanroar, who are notable YouTubers in their own right and have spoken publicly about their abusive experiences with Day. 

The choice to quote an abuser verse his victims sends a very clear message about who has the more valued opinion.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: The Maxx by Sam Keith

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Warning: This story deals with rape. [For more details scroll to the end of the review.]

In 1994, a year after The Maxx was first published, I dropped out of high school and eventually ended up on the streets. It was cold, and smelly, sleeping in service elevators and doorways. I hustled for hand outs on street corners and much worse to get money and food, but even in all this darkness I had bits of light. I had friends, who watched my back, and huddled with me in those doorways. We shared warmth, laughter and what little food we had. And looking back now, I learned a lot about the positive sides of human nature, and my own strength and resilience.

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s the connection to a comic book?” Well, there’s a lot. Especailly when we’re talking about a comic book created by Sam Keith.

Years after I got off the streets and got my life back on track. I sat in my warm, cozy living room, and watched I watched the first episode of a new animated series called The Maxx. The sight of a damp, shadowy cardboard box, and the sound of Maxx’s grizzled voice transported me back to my own dark days. It was a visceral reaction, inspiring tears and a deep need to know more about these characters and their story. After I finished watching the episode I went out and bought the comic book, and my view of what comic books were or should be was forever changed for the better. 

As I sat down a few days ago to read it again, I felt those emotions take hold of me again. The connection I feel with this story goes beyond Maxx’s sad existence on the streets. It’s in his complicated friendship with Julie, the dark world of the story, and the secret at the center of it all. The art is lush and wild, it literally cannot be contained by the page. Likewise the story breaks the boundaries of the traditional narrative. The story is told out of order, from varying POVs which are intercut with seemingly no rhyme or reason, but that’s part of the genius of the storytelling. As a reader, you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s not. Sometimes it seems like it’s all real, and there in lies an important key to the story. Which I will not spoil. I’ll just say that there is always a reason for everything in this story, even the Outback and the Isz.

The Maxx is unlike anything that came before it, and while there were pretenders to the throne after it’s release, no one has come close to capturing the magic and emotional depths of this series. It is defies genre boundaries, straddling fantasy, superhero adventure story and magical realism. At its hear, The Maxx about flawed people trying to find their place and meaning in a dark, ugly reality that looks a lot like our own. But in this world heroes don’t always look the way you think, and neither do villains. 

While Maxx is the title character, and the primary POV, it is Julie Winters story. She sits at the center of this story and this world. She is a powerful figure, even though she doesn’t wear a mask or costume. There’s a truth that the story revels both about the nature of heroism and the nature of recovery that will resonate deeply with all survivors of abuse. 

[Trigger Warning explained here] The narrative deals with rape both in scenes that hint at it, and explicit conversations about it. It is handled with respectful care. In fact, this is one of the most unique and affective portrayals of how traumatic sexual violence can be for victims and those who love them. But even more importantly it shows the power of compassion and forgiveness, especially when turned inward. 

It’s been over twenties years since the first issue of The Maxx appeared on comic store shelves. Yet this story hasn’t lost an ounce of it’s power or resonance. Whether you’re new to comic books or an old school fan, The Maxx should be on your “to be read” list. Even after all this time it is still in the top five of my personal all time favorite comic books list, and I’m willing to bet it would make your list if you gave it a try.

I recommend it to fans of The Crow, Saga, Sin City, V for Vendetta, and HBO’s True Crime. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Attention Whedonites! This book is for you.

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The book seems to be written in a very open manner, meaning it’s aimed at both newcomers and hardcore Whedon fans. I’m an old school fan, from back in the Buffy days (I was even a fan of the movie). I found new, surprising information in these essays. Many gave me fresh perspectives on shows I thought I knew inside and out, and even inspired me to start rewatch.

It’s not perfect, there are times when the essays meander and spend way too much words/time on justifying points, but the section on Buffy the Vampire Slayer alone is worth price of admission. I don’t always agree with everything said, but I appreciate how every single one of these essays made me think. This is a great tool for any academic seeking to understand the phenomena of Joss Whedon’s work and fan following. It is especially fascinating to read as writer, and critical reader. 

This is a must-have for all Whedonites. It will fit perfectly on your shelf next to your Spike action figure, and your model of Serenity. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Channing Tatum Will Play Gambit!

It is official! Channing Tatum will play Gambit in a X-Men spinoff movie. X-Men Producer Lauren Shuler Donner confirms [see video] that Tatum has the part, and explain her reasoning behind the casting.
"Well, you know he's a rogue, Channing. He's a rascal, just like Remy Lebeau. And he can handle the action. We all know that. And he has a really good heart..."
Variety goes into detail about how Tatum has been lobbying hard to play the part, and confirms it will be in a spinoff movie.  [source]

I personally have no stake in this game. Gambit was never a favorite of mine, and I like Channing as a comedic/action actor. I don't know if he's a fit for the character, but I've been on the fence for a lot of Fox's casting choices in the X-men franchise, and been happily proven wrong.

It wasn't too long ago, I was flipping tables when I first heard they'd cast a six foot tall, pretty boy actor from Australia to play Wolverine. Hugh Jackman proved me wrong and went on to propel the franchise to a box office monster. So, I'm interested to see how it plays out onscreen.

If you're curious about Channing's range and upcoming projects. 22 Jump Street, costarring Jonah Hill and Ice Cube, opens Jun 13th, and Jupiter Ascending, a sci fi Wachowski Siblings film costarring Mila Kunis and Sean Bean, opens July 25th.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Rat Queens RULE!

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I was rolling in nostalgia while reading Rat Queens. It reminds me of all the fun I used to have playing table top D&D campaigns with other women. It especially displays the diversity of female characters that can be found in “non-traditional” fantasy, aka boys club classics. While you don’t need to be a fan of D&D or fantasy to enjoy the humor and art, but it certain doesn’t hurt.

Rat Queens is an action packed, fun ride. It's brimming with sarcastic, raunchy humor and places women front and center. The story revolves around a group of female mercenaries of various species and cultural backgrounds. They’re not just adventuring companions, but they’re friends. Betty, Hannah, Dee and Violet are individual and distinct with their own subplots and hopefully future character arcs coming in future issues. 

Betty is the “Hippy Smidgen Thief.” She also appears to be gay and a magnet for trouble. I adore Betty, both for her playful, stoner attitude, and her very earnest heart. Hannah is a “Rockabilly Elven Mage” with her own magical communicator stone, that looks and acts a lot like a cellphone and involves a hilarious “call” from her mother that had me rolling with laughter. She’s got a complicated relationships with Sawyer, the mysterious captain of the town guard. He’s also a black and sexy as hell. They have great snarky banter back and forth, with a strong undercurrent of sincerity that really shows that they care about each other. 

Then there’s Violet the “Hipster Dwarven Fighter,” who has rebelled against Dwarven traditions and that choice is about has come back to bite her in the butt. I can’t go too much into why I like Violet without spoiling stuff, but I’ll just say that if you like female dwarves in Tolkien’s world you’re going to find Violet’s story very interesting. Last, but certainly not least, there is Dee, the “Atheist Human Cleric” who is also black. Dee was raised in a very “interesting” religion. She began to question the faith of her family and left, or at least she thinks she has. 

Sass and Sorcery is a collection of issues 1 through 5, and it’s a great way to kick off this series. I found myself laughing out loud, and falling head over heels for each one of these characters, and the supporting cast. The world both feels familiar, but is new and original. I can’t wait to read more.

I would caution readers who are sensitive to graphic violence. These ladies are fighters and things can get really violent when you’re battling trolls. The humor is also very sexual, and crude, but that’s a plus for me. This is warrior women being bawdy, fearless and in your face. They enjoy sex, drugs and kicking ass. 

Strap on your big girl pants, and get ready to have a great time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Argument in Favor of New Adult That Finally Won Me Over!

I've heard a lot of pro-New Adult arguments from authors in the genre and adults in general, but this is the first time I've heard the argument from the perspective of a reader in the target age group and she really won me over. 

While she obviously doesn't know that there are YA books with sex in them (like Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian), I don't think that invalidates her point at all. In fact, I think this misconception about YA only being for "kids" and how it hides YA books with sex from readers who want to read them, only strengthens the argument in favor of giving these kidns of books their own genre. 

Books that do target older teens and "new" adults don't get as much attention, or effective marketing to get them in the hands of readers who need and want them. With the exception of New Adult romances. While there is nothing wrong with romance, there are so many other fantastic YA novels that fit into that New Adult genre that would benefit from the that targeted marketing.

What do you think? 
How would you define the New Adult genre?
What books, YA or Adult, do you think would fit better in New Adult? 

I'll do a future post with a list of many books I feel should be categorized as NA, and why I think both the books and readers would benefit from it.