Sponsored by Sartorias, for the same cause as my Read-a-Thon For Mindfulness, only as a sponsored review at any time rather than as part of the read-a-thon. (If you missed the read-a-thon the first time, it's not too late to sponsor me to do something like this, for the same cause.)

An e-book anthology of reprint and original sf, fantasy, and horror. There are some stories I liked, and at the very very low Kindle price it’s worth checking out, but other stories are weighed down by the over-use of very familiar genre clichés and the failure to do anything new and interesting with them. The best stories also made use of very old plots and tropes – the stranger who comes to town and shakes things up, zombies, quests, mysterious aliens – but either gave a new spin to them, or freshened them up with wit, realistic detail, and good prose.

“The Blessed Days,” by Mike Allen. Inexplicably and universally, people go to sleep and wake up drenched in their own blood. Well-written and with a creepily intriguing concept, but the ending, which employs a standard horror trope, didn’t live up to the rest of the story. This is a bit of a nitpick, but given the level of thought Allen put into the implications of the premise, I wondered why we never learned if everyone was dangerously anemic, or if the blood was somehow replenished, or what.

“Soldier’s Home,” by William Barton. A war-weary soldier encounters aliens and robots. I didn’t get this at all. The story was hard to follow, there was too much description to too little point, the climax was sentimental, and I didn’t care for the moments of sexual violence.

“Segue,” by Keith Brooke. This story hits every “cynical white expat in exotic foreign country” cliché before coming to a conclusion so completely out of left field that I flipped back to see if I’d accidentally skipped a page.

“Dead Man Stalking,” by Alfred D. Byrd. Zombie vs. cephalopods! Exactly what it says on the tin, playfully executed with a hard-ish sf gloss – the cephalopods are aliens and the zombie is a medically altered, clinically (and legally) dead person set to wrangle them. A bit slight, but lots of fun. I liked the resigned, just-doing-my-job zombie narrator.

“Needle and Sword,” by Marian Crane. A warrior woman cursed into an old body meets a young woman who weaves spells into her needlework. An epic fantasy squished into a longish short story; it needed room to grow and breathe. Full of fantasy clichés, but the plot twist near the end has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, the story ends before it has room to fully explore its implications.

“The Human Equations,” by Dave Creek. A young man gets exiled from his space-Mennonite community for breaking a law no one bothered to tell him about; the cop who arrests and escorts him into tragic banishment learns a valuable lesson in humanity and forgiveness. It makes no sense that when people can freely travel from community to community, and breaking the law in another community means permanent exile to hell, it never occurred to the man’s parents to tip him off that in other places, there’s this thing called “stealing,” and it’s not allowed. Readable but cliched, predictable, full of expository lumps, and preachy. Reprinted from Analog.

“Guardian Gargoyles of the Gorge,” by Helen E. Davis. The silly title gave me low expectations for this story, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. Young Ingrid is determined to earn the title of Hero, normally reserved for men, by staying out all night in a supposedly gargoyle-infested gorge. There’s nothing surprising here, but the little details of daily life are well-chosen and evocative, and the story is quite sweet. Though it comes to a satisfying resolution, it also reads a bit like the first chapter of a Tamora Pierce-esque YA.

“Crocodile Rock,” by Linda J. Dunn. Pointlessly cutesy title. This starts out like a children’s story, complete with pee jokes and the space kids picking on the Earth-born kid who’s scared of zero-g. I was certain that the Earth kid was going to save the day and then they’d all be sorry. That’s not exactly where it goes. I liked the twist, but the conclusion feels like it either needed to be longer (and take the character in a new and deeper direction) or shorter (and lose the page of post-climax angst and unnecessary plot wrap-ups.) It’s also odd that a kid who keeps worrying about her family being desperately poor would find something that’s clearly of immense value, and then keep it a secret for months or possibly years because secrets are cool, without ever thinking that she might be able to use it to get some money for her family.

“The Girl Who Was Ugly,” by John Grant. I would not have placed this story next to “Crocodile Rock,” as it’s similar in setup, tone, and theme. Kids spend all their time playing sports very badly and switching from one beautiful body to another. The intro, in which it’s obvious that something is deeply wrong but it’s not clear exactly what, is well done. Then an “ugly” (not perfectly beautiful) girl shows up and shakes up the hero’s world by revealing that he’s in the middle of a hoary sf cliché. In a bit of “cleverness” which made my eyes roll, the hero hears “clones” as “clowns” and “genes” as “jeans,” and relays a page-long expository lump on clowns and jeans. The ending is poignant, but undercut by the barrage of clichés in the middle.

“The New Corinth,” by Roby James. A doctor investigates a child’s mysterious infection with an alien virus. The aliens are the best part of the story, and some nice worldbuilding went into them. The humans utter stilted dialogue, like, “He was not so deeply involved with the campaigns then, and his desire for immortality overcame his obsession for duty long enough for him to impregnate me,” and (as a physical description) “He was racially quite centrist.” The climax is absurdly melodramatic. If you're going to compare a character to Medea, it can be done more subtly than by having her write a note reading "I am become Medea."

“But Loyal To Her Own,” by Leigh Kimmel. The story of a girl kidnapped by mages and accidentally transformed into a dragon, only to find an unexpected new purpose in life. It could have stood to be longer, to more fully explore Sera’s character and the mages’ motivations.

“Earth, Ashes, Dust,” by Catherine Mintz. This seems to be the opening to a novel, not a short story; it stops rather than coming to a conclusion. In what appears to be a lost colony, human villagers must pay a tithe of servants and women to the all-male, genetically altered unmen. As you can probably guess from that, an undercurrent of dark sensuality runs through the story. I would have liked to have seen that played up more. The protagonist, a young girl waiting to be chosen, is a bit of a passive nonentity, but the backstory is interesting and the world has potential.

“The Witch Who Made Adjustments,” by Vera Nazarian. An elegantly stylized comic fable about a witch who comes to town and rearranges everything, metaphorically and literally. Playful and beautifully written, with wit and charm and delectable food descriptions. This story and Elisabeth Waters’ have the most distinctive voices in the anthology.

“Credo,” by Jonathan Shipley. Mildly amusing comedy about a possessed organ (the musical kind.)

“Shadow Chasing,” by Justin Stanchfield. This emotionally intense story of alternate realities would have been even stronger if the unnecessary and tedious technical details of reality traveling had been edited way down, and if the rules had been more straightforward. (At one point a character argues that they should deliver a little girl to certain death because if they don’t, she might die. That moment would have made sense if they thought she was doomed no matter what.) I also would have liked to have known the protagonist’s backstory.

“A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes,” by Elisabeth Waters. A really funny fantasy told in first person from the POV of a rattlesnake with human intelligence. She and her eight sisters were all born to a cursed Goddess (hence the snakiness), and if they don’t break the curse before they go into hibernation, they won’t survive the winter. And we’ve barely had a chance to live at all – we’re less than two months old! Oh noes! Can nine rattlesnake sisters evade cars, nuns (they live at a convent), and security guards with flashlights in time to break the curse? Totally adorable, and just the right length to not overstay its welcome.

Past Future Present 2011, edited by Helen Davis. Only 99 cents on Kindle. I’d say it’s well worth that.
Grand Total: 10 books read and reviewed!

Please make your donations to Rphoenix2@hotmail.com at Paypal. Thank you very much for your support!

1. The Wonderful Flight to the MushroomPlanet, by Eleanor Cameron

2. Voices, by Ursula K. Le Guin

3. Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery

4. Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff

5. Within the Flames, by Marjorie Liu

6. Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, by Ishikawa Masayuki

7. The Truth, by Julia Karr. (This is the sequel to XVI (Sexteen).)

8. The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor

9. The Gilda Stories, by Jewelle Gomez

10. The Folk Keeper, by Franny Billingsley

Nine out of ten by female authors! I didn’t plan that, nor, I assume, did the people making the nominations; that’s just how it naturally shook out. If only it worked that way for the buyers for large chain bookstores, or the average fantasy book buyer, or the average anthology editor…

Hmm. Three children’s books, four YA, one romance, one manga, and one either mainstream literature or adult fantasy. Given the genres, it’s less surprising.
Things Corinna Stonewall likes:

1. Power.

2. Secrets.

3. Rain.

4. Lurking in cold, damp, pitch-black cellars.

Things Corinna Stonewall doesn't like:

1. Sunlight.

2. People.

Corinna is a Folk Keeper, assigned to live in a cellar and feed, ward off, and placate the hungry, spiteful, dangerous Folk, who otherwise will eat the animals and destroy the crops. An orphan, at age eleven she decided that she was sick of doing boring housework, and so cut her hair, disguised herself as a boy, and learned to be a Folk Keeper. She has spent five years lurking in a cellar. Then she gets taken to a new estate overlooking the ocean, where everything changes...

This was GREAT. The language is gorgeous, Corinna's voice and character are prickly and funny and wonderful, the characters are all vivid, and the story is full of twists and cleverly used folklore motifs. I saw the most important surprise coming, but didn't catch about three others.

If you liked Billingsley's Chime, you will almost certainly like this. It has some similar motifs and virtues, but is shorter, simpler, and less dark.

The Folk Keeper
Sponsored by [personal profile] oursin.

An unusual, meditative collection of linked stories about an African-American vampire as she lives through the centuries, starting with her “birth” as an escaped slave in 1850 Louisiana, and concluding in an apocalyptic 2050.

As a young slave, she is taken in by a 500-year-old white vampire, Gilda, who teaches her, bonds with her, and finally passes on her name before swimming out to her much-delayed death. The original Gilda had hoped that the new one would also take on her lover Bird, a Lakota vampire, but the angry and grief-stricken Bird takes off instead. The new Gilda meets other vampires, helps people in need, and watches time go by and history march on. Periodically, vampires from her past return, to reconcile or attempt revenge. As she was taught, she takes only as much blood as she needs to survive, without killing anyone; in exchange, she leaves behind new ideas, new insights, and, most often, hope.

This is known as “the black lesbian vampire book,” but that’s not quite accurate. While Gilda seems to prefer women for romantic relationships, feeding has a distinctly sensual aspect, and she feeds on both men and women. But it’s not a romance, paranormal or otherwise. Nor is it a horror story. It’s mainstream literature, with mainstream conventions, which happens to be about vampires. Even when there’s a lot of action and drama, with Gilda fighting for her life, it has a slow, thoughtful, philosophical, humane tone to it. (It’s in omniscient POV, which is probably a good choice for a story with this much sweep.)

I liked this but found it uneven. The stories have a through-line and continuity but also stand on their own, and some are much stronger than others. (It looks like at least some of them were originally published separately.) The emphasis on daily life, complex emotions, and moral quandaries works very well in some stories, but feels dry or slow in others. The first story is wonderful; the others vary between nearly coming up to that standard, and failing to come up to it.

Gilda doesn’t have anywhere near as much culture shock (“time shock?”) as I expected given the entire premise of the book, and I think that’s a flaw. There's also almost no addressing of historical attitudes toward lesbianism, which I would have liked to have seen. In general, though bad things happen and racism exists, the focus is on resilience, hope, love, and endurance. This works beautifully in some stories, but makes others feel unlikely or slight.

Note that there is an attempted rape right at the beginning, and that the story set in the 1950s is way more graphically violent than anything else in the book. (The cover I’ve linked below is misleading. Most of the book isn’t violent at all, other than some gentle, humane, sensual – albeit often nonconsensual – bloodletting. My copy has a much more representative cover, with a black and white photo of a black woman in a white dress.)

The Gilda Stories
Sponsored by [personal profile] tool_of_satan.

The world has been transformed by magic, science, and war. In a future Niger, West Africa, storms and camels speak with human voices, teenagers type and listen to music on their e-legbas, and some children are born with the ability to fly, call rain, or listen to shadows.

Ejii is a teenage shadow speaker. Her father once ruled her village according to harsh traditions, but he was executed by a woman called Jaa, whose rule is more egalitarian and modern, but who is equally ruthless. Jaa wears a translucent burka and wields an otherworldly living sword; when she speaks, sometimes red flowers fall from the sky. When Jaa hears that the people of another world are planning to invade, she asks Ejii to come with her on her mission to stop them. Ejii's mother forbids it, but after consulting the shadows, Ejii takes off after her anyway, across a magical, dangerous landscape.

The worldbuilding in this is absolutely fantastic. The blend of magic, technology, and magical realism is utterly convincing and really fun to read. Unlike the last 20 or so futuristic YA novels I've read lately, people have cultures and religions and tribes, they speak different languages, the ecology is weird but believable, towns have economies, and the whole world feels real enough to touch.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which sets up the story and then follows Ejii's quest across the desert, is simply plotted but made fresh and new by the strength of the world. The final third has some good moments but is a bit of a mess in plot terms, with too much chaotic action and several crucial moments falling flat. Read more... ).

The prose is plain, occasionally poetic but also occasionally clunky, and the characterization is solid. But one of the main reasons I like sf and fantasy is for the chance to explore new worlds, and this is a great new world. Despite my caveats, I liked it a lot, and I would recommend it. It's more obviously flawed than Zahrah the Windseeker, to which it's loosely related, but its strengths are much stronger and it's overall a better book.

I also love the cover. Nnedi Okorafor's books all seem to have great covers.

The Shadow Speaker
Sponsored by [personal profile] mme_hardy and [personal profile] lab.

This is the sequel to XVI, the infamous Sexteen. I tried to keep an open mind about the sequel. Honest. However, two pages in, I realized that liveblogging it would do a better job of capturing the reading experience than a normal review.

Page 1: Hey! This one actually begins with a concise and clear explanation of the XVI tattoo: Given to girls only at the age of 16, wears off in about sex six years, means that they’re legally available for sex. Does not legally mean that they can be raped with impunity, but in practice it works out for that. Good job. Seriously. Book one never explained it clearly.

Page 5: B.O.S.S. as the acronym for the evil government agency will never not sound like something out of Get Smart.

Page 8: “John’s got an appointment with the big trannie dealership in Evanston, so I have the afternoon free.”

The plot so far: Nina has quit school to work for the Art Institute. She’s dating Sal, who spends most of his time disguised as a homeless person to cover his NonCon (revolutionary) activities. (I can never not read NonCon as “nonconsensual.”) Sal is showing signs of being a creepy, stalkery control freak. Nina and her little sister Dee are living with Pops (her disabled and mentally fading grandfather) and Gran. Her revolutionary father, Alan Oberon, is out there somewhere. B.O.S.S. doesn’t know that Nina killed Ed, the evil B.O.S.S agent who murdered her mother.

The Resistance is sexist and doesn’t let girls do anything dangerous, but there are still girl Resistance members. Wei, Nina’s high-tier friend, will induct Nina into the Sisterhood.

Page 30. Slang of the future: “Skivs! Dee’s been waiting!”

Page 31. Slang of the future, Part II: “Zats! Nina, you look awful!”

Page 42: Slang of the future, Part III: “Welfs” for “welfare recipients” joins “verts” for advertisements and “digi” for digitize in a further demonstration that good invented slang needs to consist of more than just abbreviating words.

Pops has been taken away by evil government ops, and Gran has a heart attack, then is confiscated for an experimental procedure done by the creepy Dr. Silverman. Dee and Nina are evicted, and go to live in Wei’s ultra (cool) home.

94. Wow! A teenage interracial lesbian couple pops up! Good for Karr, seriously. Even if this brief mention is the last we see of them, they are the first lesbians I have spotted in any teen dystopia. More props if they both survive till the end of the book. (If the brown-skinned one dies, a prop will be withdrawn.) They are part of the Sisterhood.

117. Nina gets carried away and almost has sex with Sal. He takes her no for an answer, protesting, “I’m not a sexer.” Despite the idiotic slang, this is the best part of the book so far, as Nina struggles with real and complicated questions about love, sex, and how to tell the difference between her impulse to rebel against society by refusing to have sex, and genuinely not wanting to or not being ready.

149. “Here’s a free hire trannie ticket.”

168. Classic moment of unintentional comedy: Nina’s Dad makes a daring illegal interruption of the constant stream of verts to broadcast subversive propaganda! The content of the subversive propaganda? “Once upon a time, Holiday meant more than a buying frenzy. It was a time for family and friends and compassion for the less fortunate.”

168. A trannie spun out of an alley, nearly knocking me over.

171. There should be a ban on the scene, which I swear I have read about a billion times, in which, hundreds of years in the future, the classic baby boomer musicians are enthusiastically praised by hip future teens as world-changing and superior to modern pap. I love Bob Dylan and Joan Baez too, but come on!

188. The inevitable appearance of the love triangle. Chris, Wei’s brother, treats Nina as an equal, unlike the possessive, over-protective Sal. Nina points out to him that she can take risks just like a boy, and that murder is not gender-specific. I wonder if Karr got criticized for all the victim-blaming in book one? This one has way less of that, and some actual discussion about victim-blaming. Again, seriously, good for her.

This was a big improvement on the first book in the sense of being less politically objectionable, and less hilariously bad. The points Karr seems to be trying to make are more supported by the actual text, so it doesn’t constantly switch back and forth from lectures about the evils of sexism to in-text virgin-whore dichotomies. I was also surprised and pleased that the lesbians survived – even the brown-skinned one!

That being said, The Truth is mediocre. The plot is aimless, many of the supporting characters are blank slates, and I didn’t care what happened to anyone. Sal randomly vanishes about two-thirds of the way through the book, apparently just so that Nina can get some quality time with his rival, and it’s explained in an epilogue that he’d been off on a mission. There are a lot of loose threads, which may be tied up in the presumably forthcoming sequel. I don’t feel moved to seek it out.

The Truth
Sponsored by [personal profile] cyphomandra.

Tadayasu, the young heir to a small-town sake brewery, has the power to see microbes. They look more or less like this. The manga begins on his first day at a Tokyo agricultural university, where his unique ability makes him sought-after by a maniacal professor with dreams of using microbes to terraform new worlds, a dedicated microbiology student whose punk boots hide a colony of athlete's foot fungus, a germ--phobic student, a pair of money-hungry students attempting to use their disgusting dorm room as everything from a sake brewery to a lab cultivating medicinal caterpillar fungus, and everyone on campus who doesn't want to get food poisoning.

In the tradition of many reluctant heroes struggling to balance great power with great responsibility, Tadayasu complains, “What has it ever gotten me? Being fed creepy and disgusting food.”

Moyasimon practically defines oddball, combining gross-out comedy, nostalgic college-days humor, and meticulously presented lessons on microbiology, fermentation, and agriculture. The word-to-image ratio is as dense as Death Note, using cute microbes and funny situations as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine sake-brewing demonstration go down.

I could have done without quite the amount of grossness, but I enjoyed the college hijinks, the science, and the sheer bizarreness of the concept.

I leave you with this representative quote: “You know what they call worms? Dragons of the earth! Respect their power!”

Moyasimon 1: Tales of Agriculture
This was actually the last book I read on Day One, but I didn't have a chance to write a review before the clock ran out. So I'm writing it now that the clock has started up again.

He's a former car thief and current psychic investigator with angst about an abusive childhood, a dead sister, and the pyrokinetic powers he can no longer due to events in an earlier book which I either never read or totally forgot about! She's a half-dragon children's book artist lurking in the subway tunnels with angst about her permanently dragoned left arm, her dead parents, and the pyrokinetic and dragon-shifting powers she can no longer control due to the events surrounding her parents' death! Together, they angst, bond, make out, burst into flames, burst into flames while making out, meet up with characters from previous books, and fight wife beaters and a cabal of blood-drinking witches!

For fans of the Dirk and Steele series, which I like to describe as "The X-Men done as genre romance," I could just say, "This is Eddie's book." For me, that was both the draw and disappointment. It focuses almost exclusively on Eddie's angst, when what I liked about him in previous books was his charm. As a romance novel about the romance between an angsty pyrokinetic and a were-dragon, it's quite satisfying. As a novel about Eddie, it's not quite what I wanted.

The first two-thirds have too much repetitive push-pull between Eddie and Lyssa about "I need to protect you from bloodsucking witches"/"Go away, I trust no one!" The last third, however, brings in some excellent drama, action, and plot surprises. There's also a nice supporting role for the gargoyle and amnesiac from an earlier book. (He's a gargoyle in disguise! She's an amnesiac covered in blood! Together, they battle the Queen of Faerie!)

Within the Flames (Dirk & Steele)
For the benefit of anyone who only started cchecking LJ/DW today, information is below the cut. If you've been following along, there is nothing new under the cut.

Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jan. 9th, 2012 08:53 am)
DAY ONE of the read-a-thon is over! DAY TWO will commence later this week.

I read four books. (I had some interruptions.) Click on the read-a-thon tag to see reviews and discussion.
To quote [personal profile] smillaraaq: "Some wildernessy survival, absolute BUCKETS of Noble Warrior Guys bonding and being Reluctant Honor-bound Noble Frenemies, outnumbered ragtag bands involved in desperate pursuits and hopeless last stands...all that good stuff."

A historical novel set in Britain, as the Roman Empire is beginning to fall apart. Young commander Alexios gives the order to abandon his fort and pull out all his troops when it's attacked; when it turns out to be the wrong decision, he's disgraced and sent off to command the Frontier Wolves, in the icy middle of nowhere, where Roman soldiers rub shoulders with British tribespeople... some of whom become Frontier Wolves themselves.

Alexios feels (and is) completely out of place, but slowly learns the ways of the Wolves, with help from Hilarion, his wry second-in-command, and Cunorix, the son of a British chieftain. Yes, these can certainly be read as slashy, as can his more fraught relationship with Connla, the chieftain's wild second son. Alexios earns his wolfskin cloak and his command, witnesses and partakes in training and rituals, and comes to fit in... only to be once again faced with the same terrible choice that led him to the Wolves in the first place.

This is in the same continuity as Eagle of the Ninth: Alexios has the dolphin ring. These books build on each other, though they can be read in any order, displaying the whole brutal tapestry of history, as colonizers and conquerors march in and take over, only to be conquered and colonized in their own turn. The books are intimate, but the series gives you the wider picture.

Like Sutcliff's other books, it's very well-written and well-characterized, slowly paced (up to a point) but incredibly atmospheric. This one, with its emphasis on learning a new culture, reminded me a bit in theme, pace, and tone of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, though it has no magic. However, while it does have a basically happy ending, it gets darker along the way than the other Sutcliff novels I've read. I liked it a lot, in part because of the darkness, which concerns heroic last stands and tragic matters of honor rather than random grimdarkess.

Finally, standard Sutcliff warning for those sensitive to animal harm: animals are neither inherently doomed nor inherently safe. There is non-gruesome hunting and war-related animal death.

Only $4.90 on Kindle! Frontier Wolf
Sponsored by [personal profile] lnhammer.

I’ve re-read this at least once before, but not for years. I was always more of an Emily girl. So I had totally forgotten that the first three chapters are titled, “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Surprised,” “Marilla Cuthbert Is Surprised,” and “Matthew Cuthbert Is Surprised.” (Later, there is a chapter called “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Properly Horrified.”) I had also forgotten how funny it is – not only in incident, like the “getting Diana drunk” chapter or the “jumping on Aunt Josephine” bit, but in the prose itself. Montgomery has a great, wry sense of humor which especially shines in her descriptions of personalities and of village life, and the contrast of Anne’s romantic imagination with the relentlessly down-to-earth people around her is never not funny.

I had not, however, forgotten the classic meet cute in which Anne’s beau-to-be, Gilbert Blythe, calls her hair “carrots” and she breaks a slate over his head. Still a classic scene! But I did forget the equally classic scene in which Anne is punished by being made to – horrors! – sit next to Gilbert in class. He slips her a candy heart. She heartlessly crushes it underfoot.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it was written in 1908, and is set on the lavishly described, rural Prince Edward Island. Aging siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to adopt a ten-year-old boy so they can have someone to help Matthew with the chores. (I was horrified while reading this at how nobody seems to find the slightest thing wrong with that. But then again, the way we treat non-adopted orphans in contemporary America isn’t much better. Or, in many cases, better at all.) But a miscommunication means that they get sent red-headed Anne Shirley instead, a chatterbox who lives largely in an imagination shaped by romantic novels. With some reluctance, they decide to keep her. She proceeds to make Avonlea a far, far more interesting place. Hijinks galore!

Anne was my introduction to L. M. Montgomery, and I read all the books, though I didn’t care for the last couple. (Bored by the later generation, except for Walter, who I adored. Uh-oh.) I also liked Ilse much, much better than Diana, whom I thought a bit dull. Honestly, don’t you think Anne deserved a friend with a bit more spark to her? I also lost interest in Gilbert once their relationship went from sizzling love-hate to dull love. Emily had so many more shipping possibilities than Anne, and I think I sensed that in my little proto-fangirl’s heart. (For the record: Emily/Ilse.)

Still, there’s a bit in which Marilla finds Anne sobbing hysterically for no apparent reason. It turns out that Anne had been imagining Diana’s future wedding (remember, everyone is still ten at this point), and herself as the bridesmaid, “with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana good-bye-e-e.” Here Anne again bursts into tears.

The scene made me laugh, and yet… I remember, when I was about eight, suddenly bursting into hysterical sobs in the middle of a playdate. Why? Because at the end of the playdate, Angela would have to go back home and leave me! (Until the next playdate.)

Anne of Green Gables is very, very funny, and the characters are vividly sketched. But maybe one reason it’s so enduring is that Montgomery remembered the intensity of friendship between girls of a certain age.

Anne of Green Gables
Sponsored by [personal profile] kore.

The middle book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s loosely connected trilogy “Annals of the Western Shores,” but the last one I read. I liked it the best. It’s better-paced than Powers and has much more vivid characters, and is deeper and way less glum than Gifts. The writing is clear, beautiful, and vivid.

Seventeen-year-old Memer lives in a city once known for its libraries, which has been conquered by people who ban writing for plausible religious reasons. (The word is the breath of God, and it’s blasphemous to trap it on paper.) The invaders destroyed as many books as they could find, but Memer’s house has a secret library. We learn early on that the library has more than cultural significance, but the magical nature of the books – and of Memer – unfolds slowly over the course of the story. Unsurprisingly, given that this is a Le Guin novel, it’s a complicated and many-faceted thing.

In other hands, this story could have easily become a simple and implausible “Books are banned and the government controls writing” dystopia. It’s not, of course. There’s way more going on than books being banned, and the government has motives that go far beyond controlling writing. The interactions of the conquerors and the conquered feel real, and make sense in the context of their convincingly detailed cultures.

Like the other books in the series, this deals with serious political and moral themes, but it does a better job than the other two of also telling a moving human story. Ultimately, it’s not only about the fate of the city or even about Memer growing to accept and claim her own power, but about her relationships with a trio of parent-figures: the Waylord (the keeper of the library and her surrogate father) and two strangers who come to town, a poet and his lion-taming wife. (Orrec and Gry from Gifts, many years later.) Memer both grows up and reclaims relationships she missed out on as a child. I don’t recall ever seeing that particular dynamic play out before in a YA novel, but it’s very moving.

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore)
It's not too late to sponsor me for this read-a-thon! Click on the "read-a-thon" tag for details.

Sponsored by [personal profile] pameladean and [profile] slrose.

A boy named David reads an ad in a newspaper, asking for boys between the ages of eight and eleven to build a spaceship, from materials they happen to have around and without adult help, for an exciting mission to outer space. David and his friend Chuck oblige, and are selected for the mission by the peculiar neighbor Mr. Bass, who explains that he is a mushroom person who grew from a spore and that he senses that his people, on the unknown child-sized planet Basilicum X, are in need of help. He helps them space-proof their ship and suggests that they bring an animal mascot, and off they go.

The mushroom people are indeed in need of help, but luckily (or was it only luck?) one of the items Chuck and David brought with them is exactly what they need. Unlike many children’s fantasies of this time period, the conclusion does not involve a mind-wipe, the suggestion that it was all a dream, or anything of that nature.

This is a children’s classic from 1954. This is my first time reading it, which is too bad. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I would have loved it at age eight or so. It precisely captures a particular type of child’s adventure, when you and your best friend equip a cardboard box with provisions for a journey, and take off for outer space. (Or Fairyland, or Narnia.) The details of the mushroom planet are very much like something a child might imagine, as is the solution to the mushroom people’s problem – a child’s idea given an adult’s scientific gloss.

Amusingly, all the adults are happy to support David and Chuck’s expedition, because (the reader understands) they assume the boys will just be camping out overnight. David doesn’t realize this, and is both pleased and baffled that his mother doesn’t object to his journey into space.

The language is very old-fashioned (“Gee whillikers!”), and so is the whole idea of scattering tons of accurate scientific details amidst the fantasy, clearly with a didactic intent. (In the sense of teaching, not of preaching.) I enjoyed learning new things from books when I was a kid, and I enjoyed reading this book, but I’m surprised that it’s still in print. The whole idea of scattering bits of useful or interesting knowledge into children's books is something that seems to have gone way, way out of fashion.

When I opened my copy, purchased at a used bookshop, I found that one of my SAT students had written her name on the inside cover! It was a coincidence (or was it?) that fit right in with the off-kilter, quirky spirit of the book.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
The Cause: I am holding a two-day read-a-thon to raise $2700 to attend "Japanese Approaches to Mindfulness," a 10-day study abroad in March staying at Shunkoin, a Zen temple in Kyoto, to study Zen, mindfulness, and Japanese concepts of psychology and mental illness. The abbott is active in the local LGBTQ community, and we will be meeting with LGBTQ activists as well as with practicing psychologists. I think this will benefit me professionally, and will also be helpful to my future clients. (I am studying to become a psychotherapist with a focus on survivors of trauma.) I will blog and take photos, for your enjoyment.

How to Participate: Please comment with an offer of an amount of money per book read and reviewed. You may put a cap on the amount. ("I offer $15/book, with a cap of $150.") In two days, I can read 6-10 books. If you sponsor me, you may propose a book for me to read and review. I will do re-reads, but not of books already blogged. (Check tags by author.) You may also make a general proposal, like, "Something by Robert Heinlein/an Old West memoir/one of your childhood favorites."

If a book is too hard to obtain, I will ask for an alternate. Please don't propose anything extremely long or dense.

FYI: I happen to have obtained a copy of the sequel to Sexteen, which I have been saving for a special occasion.

Please consider linking this post, to pull in more participants. If I have more sponsors than books I can read, I will give special consideration to larger donors and/or and/or prior participants whose books didn't get read and/or especially interesting nominations and/or hold a poll.

For possible inspiration, here are photos of my to-read shelves.

ETA: Day One of the read-a-thon will be held on SUNDAY, January 8. Day Two is TBA until I find out more of my schedule, but will be on Wed, Thur, Fri, or Sat of that week.
The Cause: I am holding a two-day read-a-thon to raise $2700 to attend "Japanese Approaches to Mindfulness," a 10-day study abroad in March staying at Shunkoin, a Zen temple in Kyoto, to study Zen, mindfulness, and Japanese concepts of psychology and mental illness. The abbott is active in the local LGBTQ community, and we will be meeting with LGBTQ activists as well as with practicing psychologists. I think this will benefit me professionally, and will also be helpful to my future clients. (I am studying to become a psychotherapist with a focus on survivors of trauma.) I will blog and take photos, for your enjoyment.

How to Participate: Please comment with an offer of an amount of money per book read and blogged. You may put a cap on the amount. ("I offer $15/book, with a cap of $150.") In two days, I can read 6-10 books. If you sponsor me, you may propose a book for me to read. I will do re-reads, but not of books already blogged. (Check tags by author.) You may also make a general proposal, like, "Something by Robert Heinlein/an Old West memoir/one of your childhood favorites."

If a book is too hard to obtain, I will ask for an alternate. Please don't propose anything extremely long or dense.

FYI: I happen to have obtained a copy of the sequel to Sexteen, which I have been saving for a special occasion.

Please consider linking this post, to pull in more participants. If I have more sponsors than books I can read, I will give special consideration to larger donors and/or and/or prior participants whose books didn't get read and/or especially interesting nominations and/or hold a poll.

ETA: Day One of the read-a-thon will be held on SUNDAY, January 8. Day Two is TBA until I find out more of my schedule, but will be on Wed, Thur, Fri, or Sat of that week.

ETA The bookshelf photos are only for possible inspiration! Absolutely no need to limit yourselves to those!

If you need inspiration, here's some photos of my to-read shelves. )
After losing the lottery, I got put back on the waiting list, just in case. And either someone dropped out, or they found more room, because I got in!

This is "Japanese Approaches to Mindfulness," a 10-day study abroad in March (between quarters) staying at, Shunkoin, a Zen temple in Kyoto, to study Zen, mindfulness, and Japanese concepts of psychology and mental illness. The abbott is active in the local LGBTQ community, and we will be meeting with some LGBTQ activists as well as with practicing psychologists.

I am very, very excited, and am going to move my Japanese CDs into my car CD player.

Would anyone be interested in sponsoring me in a read-a-thon to raise money for this? (I am reviewing the horrendous-looking book with the naked woman stomping at a motorcycle first, don't worry, [personal profile] tool_of_satan.) People have gotten tons of entertainment out of those I've done previously. And FYI... I happen to have obtained a copy of the sequel to Sexteen, which I have been saving for a special occasion.
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 31st, 2011 07:50 am)
I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

[…]

Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

[…]

Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

XVI
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 29th, 2011 07:20 pm)
I have finished reading XVI (Sex-teen) and written a review. But in courtesy to the sponsors currently at Wiscon, I will hold off posting until Tuesday. At that time I will comment to all donors with a donation link.

However, if anyone wants to donate early, please do so here. (That link should be fine, but please let me know if there's any problem.) You can tell them Rachel Manija Brown sent you. (Please don't say, "This is for sex-teen!" It could cause some very unfortunate confusion.)
There are some rather interesting discrepancies between the votes in general, and the votes of sponsors who are actually ponying up some cash. In overall totals, we have Bumped (teen pregnancy is bad) in the lead, followed by VI (Sexteen) (teenage girls having sex is bad), and then Divergent (basing society on a personality quiz is bad.)

However, I'm going to prioritize the requests from sponsors, and that breaks down as follows:

Sexteen in the lead, with six sponsors for a total of $ 100 in donations.

Across the Universe follows, with three sponsors and a total of $ 40 in donations.

Only one vote each for Wither ($25) and Bumped ($20).

Right now, it looks like it will be Sexteen. But it's not too late to either vote or comment with sponsorship! Sexteen advocates, sponsor to make sure your book stays in the lead! Advocates of other books, sponsor your favorites! The link below goes to the poll, which is still open.

Bounce: Newspapers have been banned and the government controls sadness.

ETA: [personal profile] movingfinger suggested that Bumped (society encourages teen pregnancy) sounded like the sequel to Wither (everyone drops dead by 25.)

I wrote a little synopsis tying them all together into the ultimate teen dystopia!

There's not enough water to go around. First the government tries to solve this problem by banning love, in the hope that that will cause less sex and so reduce the population, so there'll be more water for the remaining people. But the Resistance resists. Then the government tries confiscating the resulting babies. When that doesn't work either, they all pile into a generation ship.

While the adults are in cold sleep, the teenage girls begin having sex, thus creating the first generation. But as we all know, generation ship societies get weird, and then end up basing society around personality quizzes. Then space radiation mutates everyone, so they all drop dead by 25. Solution? Encourage teen pregnancy!
.

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