Friday, July 31, 2015

Top Five of 2015 (So Far)

Half the summer might be gone, but there's still time for beach/cottage/weekend reading. Here are five of the books published this year (so far) that I've enjoyed the most.

1. The Just City by Jo Walton (Thessaly #1.)
What is presented as a grand experiment involving the goddess Athene to recreate the Just City as described by Plato's Republic, is also a well-constructed narrative about consent as more than how it relates to sex. Walton's passion for the discussion and cast of interesting, relatable characters from throughout history—including Sokrates—make it a satisfying read. While the story does takes a few chapters of alternating viewpoints before it finds its feet, The Just City remains one of the best books I've read this year. ( | Kobo )

2. The Apple Throne by Tessa Gratton (United States of Asgard #3.)
I still feel this is one of the best ends to a YA trilogy that I've read; I'll miss this world Gratton constructed. In The Apple Throne, she weaves together threads from the previous two novels and the three novellas to give us the fate of Soren Bearstar (everyone's BFF) and Astrid Glyn (the Lady of the Apples.) In addition to the conclusion of that love story, and updates on characters we've previously met, there's a new tale about the various kinds of strength young women have. The narrative reinforces Astrid's agency and its importance while valourizing kindness. ( | Kobo)

3. The Awesome by Eva Darrows.
A feminist take on Supernatural, this paranormal focuses on a Mother-Daughter team of monster hunters and celebrates being comfortable in one's own skin. Maggie Cunningham is loud, crude, and kind of a jerk—but she's got a good heart. This is also one of the few YA's that has a young women unapologetically owning her sexuality. There are so many books about boys on quests to lose their virginities, and it was long past time we got one that features a girl doing the same thing. ( | | Kobo)

4. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge.
Hodge's second book finds its inspiration in a mix of Little Red Riding Hood and The Handless Maiden set in an alternative history France (or a second world largely inspired by historic France.) Only Little Red is a member of the king's guards who hunt the wolves while bidding the time before they succumb to being them, and the Handless Maiden is a prince. Both seek to stop a magic dark forest the wolves serve from invading the kingdom. Hodge is one of the best at crafting intricate puzzlebox books; while the structure of this one isn't quite as tight as Cruel Beauty, Crimson Bound's mystery and reveal are expertly executed. ( | | Kobo)

5. The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.
From Harry Potter references to royal residence facts, The Royal We is a love letter to the way we all get swept up sometimes in the doings of Will and Kate. This romance novel tackles and realistically portrays what it would be like to become a princess—the good and the bad of it. With complex characters you'll care deeply about and the Fuggirls's signature celebrity-culture commentary, it's a perfect weekend/cottage/beach read. ( | | Kobo)

This upcoming fall is full of superb YA titles, many of which feature goats, so look for full reviews of what I've been reading early to come soon.

My unpopular opinion about free content.

Earlier this month, I happened to tweet that I had read and enjoyed Patrick Ness's THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE. Mostly this was to get the recommendation out quickly, so that I could take my time to do a more expansive review in the future.

Part of why I enjoy the book is that it discusses not needing to be The Chosen One. It refreshingly features a story about living a good life outside of the spotlight, which resonates a great deal with choices that I've made over the past year.

The tweet started I had a quick exchange with a former colleague who plans to talk up the book at every opportunity, and soon after the author favourited it, because I had tagged his account and he happened to see it.

Then someone I didn't know favourited the tweet. As I tend to do when random strangers come favourite things and it's not immediately clear why they're doing it, I clicked on the username. Found out it was a verified account and thought "a BuzzFeedUK staff writer who does book stuff favourited my tweet about a book." Then I thought how that would probably thrill someone who wasn't me. I mostly found it suspicious.

I find BuzzFeed mostly suspicious in general. I know that's a state of doublethink because it's not like I've never read or shared any of their stories. But when I read them, especially the complied/crowdsourced list ones, I always feel a bit...concerned about how they repurpose posts from other sites. It nudges awake that same instinctive response I have to raise my eyebrows whenever someone says "social media is public domain!"

Yes, what you say on social media is in public view. But too often when people are declaring things public domain, they're actually saying "But why can't I casually exploit people for free content? They put it on the internet!" This is not a new problem, either. Being old as the sun, I remember the early art theft days of DeviantART. It's one thing to share content; it's another to profit off it.

The only way BuzzFeed could thrill me is if they added "get permission and then notify people of use" to their company policy. (And replaced staff writers who wouldn't adhere to it.) That's unlikely, because it means changing a model that their business is built on. A company that made $100 million last year isn't going to fix what it doesn't believe to be broken.

Earlier this week, a follower messages me about being on a list. I click the link thinking she's written something and is letting me know she used my tweet. Nope. It's a BuzzFeedUK article about 35 Brilliant Books to Read This Fall written by the staff writer who had previously favourited my tweet. I'm not the only one; as I scan the the article looking for which of my tweets was used, I see at least ten other users have had their tweets included.

For thirty seconds I blame the writer for the death of ethical journalism before I take a deep breath and remind myself it's not entirely his fault. I think it's unethical to use other people's content without their consent to write your stories, but it happens way more than any of us probably realize. Who knows how many BuzzFeed lists I've had tweets in? It's not like they notified me, and I wouldn't have known about this one had someone else not pointed it out.

Given that Twitter doesn't have the technical capabilities (yet) to allow me to disable external sites from embedding my tweets without my permission, it falls to the writers of these crowdsourced pieces to ensure they have received permission to use the tweets and/or—if they don't believe permission needs to be granted—notified the users their tweet has been featured.

Favouriting my tweet does not grant permission to profit from the use of it on an external site. And he did profit, because he's a paid employee of BuzzFeed whose job is to produce these articles. Not notifying me that my tweet had been featured is additionally frustrating, because the follower who told me then also provides BuzzFeed free labour.

The question I had to ask myself was if telling this writer that I thought he had been a bag of dicks unethical would accomplish anything other than hand-delivering him hate. Given the current state of the internet, I decided if it garnered any response someone else would escalate it into an argument that diluted the actual issue. Yes, I could've emailed him. But he's not the issue; he's an example of the issue.

With respect to the fact he did as much as he felt ethically required to do when he favourited the tweet, I've left his name out of this post. Do me courtesy of not sending this to him or contacting him on my behalf in some mistaken attempt to "help" or because you need your daily hit of conflict.

Anyway. I did what I felt was the kinder thing for both of us, and I deliberately did not take a fight to his door. Instead I quoted the tweet that notified me so I could clarify that it had been done without my consent and I'd recommend reading a different book than the ones on the list.

I don't subtweet people. If I didn't bring someone the fight, it's because we aren't having one. (Also, I know people are just as likely to go look at the list anyway.) I trust you'll make your own decisions about what you read, because you're an autonomous human being. Maybe I make you a recommendation, but you're going to be the one who makes the final decision.

Not everyone is aware of the process involved when a site like BuzzFeed uses your content. My follower was surprised that I hadn't been asked. Also confused as to why I didn't think the writer using my tweet was a bad thing.

I invested several hours in reading the Patrick Ness book. I considered carefully how to phrase the tweet, because I included the author in it and I knew at least one member of the publisher's marketing department would see it. When I write about books, I've got my marketing hat on. I'm bookselling.

Writers—all creative professionals, really—get told that our passion ought to be compensation enough. That we should feel grateful if someone "showcases" what we've done. Some writers are happy to be showcased. Some writers review books with no intention of being showcased.

When I do a review, yes, part of it involves a love of that book. But I also get to practice my critical analysis skills. If it's an early review, I probably received an ARC from the publisher or author. Getting to read the book early is the compensation for helping to market the title. I'm digitally hand-selling it each time I message someone to recommend the book. I'm doing work.

I know how much authors appreciate what I do. I know how much publishers also appreciate it. I used to get paid to do this. Now I do it as a side-project. I'm grateful we all continue to work together. I'm also well-aware of how much work I'm willing to do without financial compensation.

This isn't about how BuzzFeed wanting to market a Patrick Ness book. It's about how I didn't agree to go without compensation for the part I played in it. Between me and the staff writer, only one of us got paid for that story—and it wasn't the person who invested the time into reading the book and then tweeting about it.

When I tweet a review to an author or a publisher, I've given implied consent for it to be used. I didn't tweet to this BuzzFeed staff writer. I wasn't answering his ask for crowdsourced opinions. I didn't use a hashtag he created to collect book reviews.

I don't subscribe to the notion that just because I put content on the internet means you are allowed to profit financially from the use of it without even notifying me you've done so. But there are people who do. There also people who haven't thought about or questioned it, so they don't understand why anyone would have a problem with it.

I guess the TL;DR is if being showcased by BuzzFeed is on your bucket list, good luck and godspeed. However, being exploited by them was never on mine.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What makes a good community manager?

In an interview last week, I was asked what I thought was necessary to being a good community manager.

First: I think you have to be good with people. (And if you're not great with people, you should at least be willing to learn how to be better.) The internet is made of people, and if you aren't good at relating to others or working with them, then you're signing up for a struggle. Because it's people work, done over social media, day in and day out.

Each month we see examples of brands/people misstepping on social media and receiving a giant backlash because of it. Making a mistake when you're the voice of a brand carries a weight that making a mistake as a person doesn't. It's why one of the first things community managers learn (or get taught) is when not to engage. That's more than just knowing how to listen to people and evaluate what's being said, it's understanding which conversations aren't for the brand. There's also a ratio of responding/not responding, and it's not a one-algorithm-suits-all kind of thing. (That's why brands employ people to make those judgement calls.)

However, when brands are tagged into conversations and legitimate concerns are presented... it becomes a brand reputation risk not to engage. Not engaging can be seen as "not caring" or "ignoring" these legitimate concerns. A community manager learns quickly how to acknowledge people and make them feel that their concerns have been heard.

A good community manager puts out fires. Constantly. At the merest whiff of smoke, they're there to evaluate the potential issue. Stop it before it spreads, before the conversation mutates into something that has their brand attached to it but is no longer even really about what may have happened. Sometimes the difference between EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE and an even-toned discussion of how to resolve the concern is beginning a response with "I'm sorry you feel that way." (I am sorry people feel upset or have had a bad experience, because that sucks. Who wants to have a bad day if they don't have to?)

The degree of crisis management involved varies brand to brand, but it's always beneficial to be able to keep calm and remember comments received aren't personal. They're about the brand, and a community manager serves the community in order to preserve the integrity and good reputation of the brand. (Most brands also have commenting policies that help to protect community members—and the brand—from abuse.)

Second: The most important thing in your life is you. Or the best life advice I ever got from a job interview:

• First you take care of yourself.
• Then you take care of your loved ones (partner, family, friends.)
• Your job comes after all of that.

In service roles a large percentage of time is spent expanding energy on the needs of other people. To be generous of spirit, empathic, and professionally courteous, we have to take care of ourselves before we get to work. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Do things that make us happy. Live life.

But that's good advice for any career.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Let's have the talk about fandom and privilege

Earlier this week there was an interview with Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater about dehumanizing authors. There was a point from Stiefvater about how hatred in her fandom isn't an issue of success. It's an issue of fandom. (That's rather paraphrased, so feel free to read the actual interview.)

It's a little horrifying that we don't stop and consider how toxic it is to normalize hating those who are successful. It's a shade of victim-blaming that gets a pass from a lot of individuals under the banner of dismissing anyone who has perceived privilege. Which only works if you subscribe to the belief that oppression is entitlement to dehumanize—and let's be clear, I don't subscribe to that belief. (Perhaps it is my privilege to believe that if one is going to disagree with someone, do it fully aware they are a person.)

For the sake of this discussion, let's posit that it is incorrect to normalize hating those who are successful. It creates a false hierarchy, in which we marginalize ourselves. We give power to successful people and then we hate them for the power we gave them, so we're awful to them as some sort of attempt to re-empower ourselves.

Why would we fall into this self-created trap?

Fandoms are pre-packaged social groups. It's an easy, instant connection over a shared interest. Meaningful connections are difficult to make, time is hard to find, and we are conditioned to accept easy solutions because they take less effort and are therefore less risk. If we identify as socially awkward and/or lonely people, this ease is that much more important. We're starving for the sense of community that fandom promises.

If the fandom we identify with hates an individual, then we also feel pressured to behave in this way. Especially if you've come to that group for acceptance and feel they are the people who best understand you. Risking not behaving as a group member could see you ostracized. When you're lonely, being left is the worst possible outcome. We contort ourselves to avoid it.

A toxic fandom forms from the mindset that authors and creators are Authors and Creators. They exist outside the group; they cease to be considered a group member. When this happens the creator isn't interacting with individuals within a group; the creator is interacting with a group. Unless influential members of that group adopt the requested behaviour, the situation won't change because the person asking for it is viewed as an outsider—a privileged outsider.

I grew up in various fandoms. I've had both personal and professional interactions with them. I've had the experience of being both a creator and an appreciator. Please note that I said experience and not privilege. It was part of my job to interact with the "famous" people of the book world—and it's not a privilege to do your job well. That's what a paycheque is for.

I left that job with suitcases full of scene points—the imaginary currency of status among fans. Whatever they might still be worth is the only reason I'm bothering to post a discussion I was content to have offline with friends. (I am leaving it to their discretion whether or not they wish to join this discussion online.)

If you got lost in the metaphor: I don't think I'm the influential member of the group who needs to say this, but I don't know who they might be. I also don't hear anyone else saying it.

I've worked two Cassie Clare events. I've seen firsthand how well she treats the people who come to her signings. I've also worked with Maggie Stiefvater and seen how giving she is to her readers. She treats us like people. Thus, I react very specifically when I see she is having to ask to be recognized as a person.

There's a distrust of people who are employed in publicity, because we're paid to be professionally enthusiastic. It's difficult, especially in a digital setting, to know if the genuine enthusiasm is being recognized among all the marketing. In a way, it's like when fandom has an edict of unquestioningly supporting anything the creator does. It doesn't build sustainable relationships, because people are going to make mistakes.

The other issue of fandom and publicity/marketing—a discussion unto itself—is that fandom is commonly used as publicity. When possible businesses reward fans (usually referred to as influencers) with perks like early access to items/events or access to creators and other exclusives. It's an acknowledgement of the work being done for the business. (If influencers are paid, then let's consider them marketers to keep the terms clear.) Many fans who aren't influencers—yet still actively promote books/movies/merchandise—exist as unpaid publicity.

While there can be an underlying resentment from some fans, an influencer has a safe kind of status. They're elevated in the perceived hierarchy, but they're still a member of the group. It's a specific kind of privilege where you're often protected from what creators endure, and people often look to you for behavioural cues.

The privilege of my marketing position—or any position like it—was imbued by people who thought the access my job gave me should carry status. So here's the inside of that: It doesn't mean anything more than we make it mean. The fame most authors have is entirely restricted to their fandom. It's a personally meaningful thing to interact with someone who has created something you love. If you're surrounded by people who also love it, then the event appears to carry a greater meaning.

My point: Toxic fandom reinforces among fans the very privilege it punishes creators for. Access to creators and attention from them gives fans status. But if those fans become creators, then they have to fear what will happen if they are perceived to no longer be a fan. I know someone who lost friends after she published because she was then viewed as an Author instead of a person. When I left my job, I feared people would stop being my friends. (Spoiler: They didn't.) Toxic fandom, like all toxic systems, lies to you. It tells you that need it. That you're either part of the group or an outcast.

We as a digital culture are embroiled in some serious and much-needed conversations about privilege. Legitimate conversations about systemic issues in our society. But when we hijack these conversations to use privilege as permission to be awful to people, we are still stuck in the thought-process of these toxic systems.

When a group of people wants to say Cassie Clare was a bully in Harry Potter fandom so she deserves getting bullied by her own fans—that's victim-blaming. Should she have to disclose if she treated people poorly in the past? No, because it's dismissive of the experience she is having now. Let me translate this for you: It doesn't matter what she was wearing or where she was walking or how many guys she smiled at before—she didn't ask for it. The fans who are being abusive have the agency to choose not to be abusive.

Harassment is abuse. I'm tired of hearing people claim that discussions of abuse can only focus on specific systemic issues. We are able to have more than one conversation without it diminishing the importance of the multiple things being discussed.

Of course, that's another problem of toxic fandom: The inability to be more than one thing. Because the group demands your complete attention it fosters this mindset that everything is a zero-sum game. If you're talking about the dehumanizing of Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater, then you aren't talking about spreading false allegations against John Green, and if you're decry the false allegations against John Green then you're ignoring the need for diverse books or the abuse those marginalized authors have each day.

Bullshit. It's a big world. There is room in it for all of these conversations. They don't cease to exist if they fall out of the trending topics. You can participate in all of them. You can participate in some of them. You can participate in none of them. That's the power of individual agency.

I realize the new social norm is to diminish our pain because someone else's suffering is perceived to be greater. But it doesn't logic. Allowing people to use oppression as privilege creates a system based on suffering. A system based on suffering is not a healthy one; it's the same issue of inequality with new wallpaper.

Social media is trembling with the underlying fear of someone saying we are privileged. It is damaging our abilities to make any real progress, because we have people who are using privileged as the new mean. "This person is so privileged, isn't that awful? Let's publicly shame them!" You are not automatically a terrible person because you are privileged, and you are not automatically a wonderful person because you are marginalized. People are more complicated than that.

Look at the social consequences of Rachel Dolezal, who marginalized herself for access to opportunities. Privilege is a nuanced and complicated discussion. It requires critical thinking beyond the simplicity of rigid binary systems. Which we can't do in toxic fandom, because we are so afraid of saying something that cause us to be abandoned by our peers.

Also, much of our social media wasn't built for nuance. It was built to be nimble and highly reactive. Twitter limits how much can be said in a single tweet. Tumblr minimizes the ability for users to directly interact. We classify into groups because it helps give a sense of order to a place that is only beginning to examine how to govern itself. So we punish others for not behaving as we believe the group should behave—without recognizing there are multiple concepts of what the group's good behaviour should be.

Do you see how big this is? I'm sorry, but if you want to be serious about intersectionality and addressing systemic issues then we also need to build better systems in fandom. Social Justice has a fandom, too.

My concept of good group behaviour is that someone I know never has to clarify all she is asking for is to be treated like a human being. My concept is that no one in the group should ever have to ask for that, because it should be basic human behaviour. But I understand that is not the concept shared by everyone. When I say that fandom is why I can't have nice things, this is what I mean.

The answer to this is not pick a side and try to yell the loudest. That doesn't resolve conflicts. It just enables toxic fandom. We also can't expect the creators to fix this for us, because that's still treating them like they god-like abilities.

My answer to this is to continue to interact with people like they are human beings—to talk to them like they are more than a common interest or a thing they created. I also need to critically examine the things I love, pull them apart and put them back together to see what I can learn from them. I don't insist anyone else do that. All I ask is that we respect we each have ways of enjoying stories.

The only agency I have over the world is to govern myself and ask of others what I would like them to do. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a place to start. It's forward instead of this loop that toxic fandom insists is the best we can do.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is a book for a reader who wants—I mean really, really deep in their heart of hearts—to dance a dance they know every step of to a well-played song that they can sing along with immediately.

I recognize the songs Uprooted is singing and I respect the skill with which they are sung. But this book will do best with long-time epic fantasy readers who came to hear their old favourites and not think too hard about why they like them. It's a comfortable story—not in its content—but its tropes and execution of those tropes.

My disappointment comes from being a reader who wants a reply to things, not a reconstruction of them. Because when a text is focused on lovingly recreating something, it doesn't seek to improve it.

Uprooted goes digging for memories of Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, and Peter S. Beagle. But about halfway through, I became aware of something uncomfortable in Uprooted's worldview.

Every woman who performs traditional femininity is either an antagonist, incapable of defending herself, inhuman, transformed into something inhuman, or killed. Women who enjoy nice dresses don't get out of this book unscathed. Women in traditional positions of feminine power—healers or nurses, for example—are also treated antagonistically by the text.

First, to give the text the benefit of the doubt, let's examine Uprooted's comments as being more cultural than gender performative. In a refusal to adopt the clothing customs outside her home, Agnieszka provides a role model who doesn't attempt to pass. She feels pride for her culture, her beliefs, and she rediscovers the power of that culture through the magic of Jaja. A magic that is indecipherable to outsiders like Sarkan and Father Ballo. (It does appear that the narrative's two most vocal of Jaja's doubters are male, but the court wizards as a group disdain the way Agnieszka performs magic. She must first overcome their negative view of her and prove herself a witch. She's never simply accepted by anyone at court on first meeting, but more on this later.)

While at court, Agnieszka finds comfort in the books of magic practitioners from her valley. They are the magic she recognizes, the ones that are most comfortable for her to use. She has a language difficulty in using the court-recognized magic. There are small spells—cantrips—she can use and does, but it's when she adapts them to the valley-method that her spells are their most successful.

Agnieszka's magic is a power that not even Sarkan—who has lived near the valley for decades—fully comprehends by the end of the book. He is able to access and use it via Agnieszka's assistance, but it's never really his. (He cannot access or use it without assistance unless he agrees to convert. It's worded as "setting down roots," but it is written as cultural conversion.) Her magic is what continually saves the day. It's what makes the greatest feats of the story possible.

Towards the end of the novel, Agnieszka has taken Sarkan's place as the one who will instruct those who have the gift of magic. It's implied she'll teach them the magic of the valley versus the magic of the court. She's chosen to help nurture this culture that she loves. She's decided there's nothing of interest for her outside the valley.

Taken at its surface expression, this narrative says "Feel pride for your roots and your culture. It will always serve you best. You're the only one who can use it."

That is an important thing to say to children of immigrants. Many of us come from immigrant families. For example, my family lost the link to my grandparents's language because our first generation born in Canada wasn't interested in learning it.

But here's my concern about professing that "you are the only one who can." Being a marginalized person who won't acknowledge other people could understand their culture is just as dangerous as being a majority who refuses to try to understand other people and their cultures. A majority converting to a minority viewpoint is the same as a minority converting to a majority viewpoint when they are both happening by force.

Cultural narrative aside—and I do think that it's valuable to have a narrative that encourages pride in one's roots—perhaps the textual execution could've relied on something other than the narrator's clothing and appearance versus the clothing and appearances of other women? Maybe it could have been an evil wood-king? (Instead of an evil queen who becomes evil because if you try to marry into other cultures they will inevitably betray you because you're different from them.) Maybe just a few of the women who enjoyed performing femininity in a traditional manner could've not been antagonists, reduced to being someone's mom (did Agnieszka's mother even get a proper name?), or transformed into something inhuman?

I've been actively looking this year for texts that valourize kindness, and Uprooted doesn't. This is not a book about empathy and compassion. It's not a book of equal compromise. It's adversarial. This story validates change from everyone else—waiting for the world to acknowledge you've always been right. It's critical to have stories that encourage us to grow, but how can you grow if your narrative is that your way is the secret best way and it's just been misunderstood by the majority?

Also when your narrative is that you're never wrong, you're excluded from having to obey certain rules. Like consent.

In the midst of Uprooted are two "love" scenes. Both scenes have Agnieszka as the aggressor—she either gets caught up in magic and magically undoes Sarkan's jerkin or she goes into his room and magically makes his trousers vanish. A sexually empowered female character is great. But Sarkan doesn't consent to these actions. In the second scene, he is not asked if he wants her. He is asked if he doesn't want her. He says "no." But in a way that makes it imply consent.

If someone breaks into a room, kisses the occupant awake, straddles them, and then demands a confession under duress from them that they don't want the person to leave... that's non-consensual. It's the casual no really means yes that gets slipped to us all the time in movies and television.

This doesn't cease to be an issue because Agnieszka identifies as a woman. And every relationship—sexual or not—is a combative act in Uprooted. It's about winning someone over or convincing them they were wrong. We can argue this is a fact of being marginalized, but it's not just the a viewpoint of a character who is marginalized, because it is not only Agnieszka who does it. It's the worldview of the text.

Take the friendship that is being praised by most readers. Agnieszka and Kasia only build a real, loving friendship after a magic spell—that summons the truth of the world—reveals how much these two women have secretly hated each other. Why do they hate each other? Because apparently the truth of this world is founded on internalized misogyny.

And that's what is eating the heartwood of Uprooted. A reliance on the adversarial and toxic trope of "I'm not like other girls." On the surface, this concept sounds empowering. But it's not. It undermines its own attempt to say there isn't a correct way to girl by reducing any character who performs traditional femininity to simplistic antagonists only there to thwart the narrator.

There's a section about a countess who "befriends" Agnieszka and then spends three days mocking her while she doesn't understand she's being mocked. At this point we have already been shown that Agnieszka doesn't fit in. That she isn't being accepted. Why does the only person who appears to be kind to her have to turn out to be a secret advisory?

Because the world of Uprooted has a very narrow view of what is acceptable/heroic/worthy behaviour.

Cultures don't die because we forget them. They die because we—the people of that culture—refuse to let them grow and adapt as the world around us changes. That doesn't mean bunkering down in our valleys and feeling confident we alone are the most right people who know the secret best ways to live. It's giant world. It's not possible for everything in it created by someone who isn't us to be useless.

Which might be the character arc someone who isn't the narrator of Uprooted. Maybe Kasia—except it was stated from the beginning that she wasn't going to remain in the valley. It also wasn't the character arc of Solya, because all he learned was that he wasn't going to win over Agnieszka so he should redirect his creeping elsewhere. (Personal boundaries are not a thing well understood by Uprooted's magicians.) It's possible Sarkan learned to accept the validity of other cultures. Or it's possible he's equally trapped by the power of the valley, and is simply less willing to be content about it.

It's a staggering lack of measurable character growth for a book that textually states the importance of growing and changing. Not that the book itself has nothing to say or isn't enjoyable. But I found it ultimately disappointing, because there's a difference between someone growing in power and growing as a person.

Is it possible to read Uprooted without the problematic subtext getting in the way? Yes. Absolutely. Novik has an eye for physical detail and an ability to present a solid-looking world. If you're not a close reader—not everyone is—and you want a book that's comfortably familiar then you will be delighted by this one. But if you were looking for something that wants to further the genre conversation of fantasy, you're listening to the wind through the wrong forest.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Awesome by Eva Darrows

Sometimes you get lucky.

You get to read something special before anyone else, and The Awesome by Eva Darrows is indeed special. I first read it—in a single sitting—years ago, when it was affectionately referred to as a critique partner's "dick joke book."

On the surface, The Awesome is a sassy, crude, hilarious paranormal tale. Maggie Cunningham wants to be a monster hunter, but vampires go bat-shit insane when they smell virgin's blood. So in order to get her license, she has to pop her cherry. Maggie sets out to do so, hijinks ensue and shit happens, romance blossoms, and everyone grows as a character by the end.

But what remains with me long after The Awesome ended is how feminist it is. Oh, it's the perfect book for fans of Supernatural. But it has a thing to say and it says it in a way that would make Janice—Maggie's mom—proud.

Maggie is comfortable in her skin; she's the embodiment of Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass. It is refreshing to read a YA heroine who is. Not to say Maggie never doubts or stumbles, but overall she's confident and she knows what she wants. When you add in her friends Julie and Lauren, you get a look at female friendship and the different ways people can be strong. Not to mention Ian, who is this wonderful and compassionate guy, reinforcing what it looks like to be respectful and caring. (Instead of what Nice Guys think it looks like.)

Stories about young men on quests to lose their V-cards dominant our popular culture. The same can't be said for stories about young women that frankly discuss sex. What I love about The Awesome is how it de-mystifies sex from the female perspective. Losing her virginity is a practical matter impeding Maggie's life; she can't proceed with the career she wants. So she sets out to resolve this in an equally practical way.

To have a heroine who has such power over her body and her choices, and a narrative that supports this agency and choice, is a neon green and pink punk revolution. We need more characters like Maggie Cunningham, and we need more books like The Awesome because of the conversations they begin.

While this won't be for everyone, it's going to knock the socks off readers who have been looking for a story like it. Give it a try. Couldn't you use a little more awesome in your life?

The Awesome is available as an eBook, and a paperback version will be available later this month.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories from The Merry Sisters of Fate

I'm not exactly sure how I missed the Merry Sisters of Fate when it was running; I feel like I saw mention of it, and possibly read a story or two, but missed out on what many other readers experienced. (I think I had a critique partner who followed the group on livejournal.)

Reading The Curiosities, which collects some of the stories, is both a treat for readers and writers. In addition to the fantastic and diverse stories featured the reader also sees notes from the author and her critique partners. If you learn by studying the work of others, as I do, reading this collection is a course in how to write short fiction. The notes about the things the authors enjoy/struggle with in their own writing and what they admire about the work their critique partners do is a fabulous insight into their process (and a reminder of the value of having the right-for-you critique group.)

The stories vary in length, and because they come from a larger body of work some are technically stronger than others. They each do a thing well, but the gems of the anthology do multiple things well.

Included are stories written from the same prompt (King Arthur), showing that three writers will always write three different stories, and a discussion of how the individual authors treat writing prompts. Each story is enjoyable for different reasons and reading them together—as they are presented in the collection—shows how they divert as well as how they echo.

It's also intriguing to see the seeds of novels-since-released planted in the stories and the bones supporting the individual author's body of work in the tropes that appear again and again.

A favourite story from each of the authors:

"Puddles" by Tessa Gratton: A beautifully sinister story where the magic concept is elegantly delivered, and the reveal changes everything without the story exploding into something different. It's our world but if you peel it back it's so very strange underneath. By pivoting it turns what looked abrasive into an act of caring. (But I would read an entire novel of "Thomas All.")

"Rain Maker" by Maggie Stiefvater: Genius behaving badly. Ok, no. It's also how quickly and concisely Stiefvater characterizes everyone in this so that you get sense of who they are even if they never say a word. But mostly, it's the utterly perfect last line. (A single line that shows instead of tells the growth of that character.)

"The Madness of Lancelot" by Brenna Yovanoff: A tightly-structured story that uses a repeating hook to create the cadence of an old ballad. It's emotionally frank, but somehow surreal. (Yovanoff's stories juxtapose beauty in ugly worlds. They are often violent, but I never find them off-putting.)