Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment (Book Review)

Maximum_Ride1I’m always on the hunt for a new series, particularly a new fantasy series, so I was mildly excited about James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. Of course, James Patterson is famous for cranking them out. I work at a library with a lot of patrons that like Patterson, so we have a lot of his books, and a lot of his books is more than a lot of anyone else’s books. He writes more books per year than most people write in their career. (Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one). I think he has a lot of his stuff ghostwritten these days. Anyway, I went into this one with my expectations tempered. This was probably a good call.

The book wasn’t bad. I’ll state that upfront. It was pretty fun, even if there was nothing mind-blowing about it (it hit most of the typical fantasy things: chosen one narrative, superpowers, hotheaded but selfless hero, mysterious voice/visions that drive plot, etc.). It follows six kids with stupid names—Max, Iggy, Fang, the Gasman, Nudge, and Angel—who were genetically engineered into angels. Well, technically they were mixed with avion genes, so they’re technically part bird, not angel, but that’s a technicality. One of the characters is named Angel. The title has the word angel in it. They’re angels.

jace
Pictured: my favorite angel experiment

The kids—the eldest is fourteen, the youngest six—are staying by themselves because they had escaped from the “School,” where men in lab coats did experiments on them. The bad guys show up to the kids’ home and kidnap Angel to take her back to the School. The rest of the kids follow on an ultimately successful rescue mission. There’s no given explanation for why the baddies suddenly want Angel back. But they’re evil. Motivation enough, apparently. One of my coworkers, who encouraged me to keep going with the series, promises that later on there’s a better explanation for the bad guys’ actions than just ‘they’re evil so they do evil stuff.’ I personally think that that needs to be evident from the book itself.

That’s probably the biggest weakness of the book: the bad guys keep attacking, but there’s no real reason for it, and even though narrator Max keeps telling us that these guys are the worst and so awful and evil etc. etc. there is no real air of menace around them. Maybe it’s because their point man is a seven-year-old boy (albeit a genetically engineered seven-year-old boy). Maybe it’s because Patterson’s crime-thriller writing isn’t well equipped to create an atmosphere. The writing is all geared towards action sequences, not world-building. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do feel that this particular world needed more details to flesh it out. Towards the end of the book, there’s an implication that the bad guys are just attacking Max to train her up for some sort of world-saving in the future, but again… I personally think that the first book in a series should be expected to stand on its own feet at least a little more. I wonder if Patterson could have gotten away with this if he weren’t already a #1 bestselling author. I doubt it. It wasn’t so bad that I hated the book, though.

like other girls
The source for this image is short, but worth the read.

The main thing that I wanted from the book but didn’t get was stronger characterization. The main character, Max, is mostly well realized, but I do have a few issues with her. Namely, she feels too much like a Strong Female Character™. There are a few moments when she says something to the effect of “I would have thought/done so-and-so if I were a traditional girl, but I’m not, so I didn’t.” It irked me.

Fang, the logical one, and arguably the second main character, was not bad. He was pretty consistent and seemed like a person instead of a single attribute made human, which is about all that can be said for the others. Iggy is blind, so his hearing is really good. That’s about all we get about him. The Gasman (which is a terrible name even amongst terrible names) farts a lot, I guess, which is how he got his name. Nudge talks too much and wants to meet her parents. Angel is the baby, has the most special skills, and is “six.” I put her age in quotation marks because Angel is the worst offender in a novel that doesn’t know how kids and ages work (well, she and Avi, the aforementioned evil point man). Angel does not behave like a six-year-old. Yeah, I know that she’s been genetically engineered, but I don’t think that’s a good enough explanation for having multiple characters that are supposedly just past toddler-dom and yet speak and act like preteens at the least. I don’t understand why Patterson didn’t make Max older (if she were seventeen or eighteen nothing would really change), and then age the other characters up accordingly. They’d still be younger. Max would still be responsible for them. The only difference would be that the reader wouldn’t keep having snide thoughts about how Patterson has clearly never met a six-year-old.

Also, there’s an incredibly obvious twist. Obvious twists are okay. Incredibly obvious twists is just too much.

Overall the book wasn’t bad. I did read it all in one day, after all, and if I hated it I couldn’t have done that. I’m not raring to read the sequel, but I probably will someday. The first book of a long series is rarely the best one, and reading these is not nearly enough of a time commitment to be taken entirely off the table. And there is nothing I love more than a good series, so it is definitely in my best interest to try to get invested.

What do you think? Is this series worth my time? If not, does anyone have other suggestions?

Stranger than Fanfiction (Book Review)

stff.jpgI was excited to read Chris Colfer’s Stranger than Fanfiction both for my fandom project and because I’ve liked his other books. I liked the book (it was a one-day read for me), but of course there were a few things that bothered me. Namely, there’s some stiff dialogue occasionally, and an overuse of italics (yes, that is a very minor quibble, but I can be very particular).

This is an interesting book because it comes at fandom from a different direction. All the other books I read have characters that are fans of something and others that aren’t fans. If characters appear that are creators rather than consumers of art, they tend to be on the peripheries rather than major characters. Cash is a major character with more going on in his life than just starring in the show the other characters love.

There are five protagonists, whose stories are more or less equally weighted, which is arguably a few too many for such a short book. There’s Cash Carter, the lead actor of a fictional TV show called Wiz Kids (which is highly reminiscent of Doctor Who—though Doctor Who gets namedropped a few times itself), who struggles with the false life he has to lead to avoid disappointing his fans. There are also four kids who became friends due to their shared love of Cash’s show. Joey is a black, closeted gay guy from an incredibly homophobic religious family. Mo is a Japanese fanfiction writer whose mother died when she was young and whose father is distant. Sam is poor, trans, and living with a flaky single mother. He also has a (reciprocal) crush on Topher—the team leader who has his own plans on a backburner so he can take care of his special needs brother—even though Topher thinks Sam’s a girl for the majority of the novel.

Their friendship is the heart of the story. The four friends are going on a road trip

chris-colfer-darren-criss-glee-2015-billboard-650
Glee, funnily enough

together to celebrate their relationship before they have to split up for college. Afterwards, they’re planning to use the show as a way to keep in contact. I loved this premise for the novel. I thought it was a great way to get a group of characters together in a sort of heightened emotional state. Plus it was pretty emotional for me because my sister and I used a TV show to bridge the distance when she went away to college last year. There’s nothing quite like chatting about fictional characters making idiot decisions to distract yourself from serious stuff like missing an actual person.

Basically the novel is about what happens when the four go on a road trip and invite Cash to go with them (even though they’ve never met him). They don’t actually expect him to come… they’re just grateful that he was the launchpad for their friendship. But then he does come and they start to see him as a real person and not just as the character that they all live.

Stranger than Fanfiction is a good book about fandom, too. It hits the goods and the bads of a passionate group of fans. On one hand, fans are presented as warriors of social change. They’re passionate, organized, critical, and loyal. They use their fandom to forge real friendships across all sorts of lines. On the other hand, some of the fans are nasty. Many of them take shipping way too far. Some of them don’t quite grasp the line between fiction and reality. Not all fans are created equal. Some–like the core four–are awesome. Others… not so much.

I liked all the characters, even if I wished there’d been a bit more page time to develop them a little more (I feel like this is something I complain about a lot; maybe I should just read longer books). I wish there’d been a little less emphasis on drugs and partying, but that’s not so much a critique of the book itself as a recognition of my own personal preferences.

There is one thing about the book that disappointed me. It’s a HUGE spoiler, though, so read on at your own risk:

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Okay. Now that the people who don’t want to be spoiled are gone… that twist. I can’t be the only one who thought that Cash dying of terminal brain cancer was kind of predictable. I wasn’t at all surprised that he was dying, as I’d been expecting it for more than half the book. I can’t totally decide if it is actually obvious (his behavior becomes erratic but only for the past few months; he’s always taking prescription drugs; he is confident that he won’t be in the next season of the show despite contracts– bad behavior wouldn’t be enough to get rid of the star of the most profitable show on the network; etc) or if it is just because I read this while deeply in my fandom book reading, and as weirdly specific as it is “dying star” is a really common thing in them. Seriously. Out of the seven books I read for this, three of them include the death of a major star. That’s pretty near 50%. I have some of my own thoughts on why that might be a thing, but if anyone else has some I’d love to read them.

Overall, I really liked Stranger than Fanfiction. I am really loving reading all these books about fans and fandoms. If anyone knows of any other books with a fan as the protagonist, please let me know in the comments.

I’ve reviewed other fandom books here and here.

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Book Review)

i don't knowI have very little rhyme or reason when it comes to picking what to read. I’ll read pretty much anything, though I do generally like YA the best. Historical fiction isn’t really my thing, but it’s not like I dislike it. Sometimes I’ll pick something up because someone recommended it to me. Sometimes I go by cover (I know, I know; you’re not supposed to do that). Often I’ll grab something because I’ve heard good things about it even if I don’t have an actual source for where the good things come from (“the Internet” is good at recommending books to me, despite not being a single consciousness). Sometimes, it’s the title that draws my attention. That was definitely the case with I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney. I love to write, but I am the absolute worst at actually following through to the end of a project. If there’s a sentiment that speaks to my writing soul, it is without a doubt, “I don’t know how the story ends.”

There are two storylines in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. The main action of the novel is the making of a film: narrator Isobel and her sister Sylvie are talked into helping their step-cousin Ranger (and friend Sam) make a movie. None of them have much of an idea about what they’re making. All they know is that Ranger adores movies and will stop at nothing to make them, and that Sam is willing to get in terrible trouble with his father to steal the camera. They have a lot of passion, but not a lot of direction. Sylvie is enthusiastic about the project, and while Isobel is originally reticent, she eventually warms to it as well. The kids do all sorts of crazy stuff in the hopes that they’ll get some footage worthy of their movie (including but not limited to: Isobel crossdressing to imitate Ranger in a scout parade, running on train tracks, falling off a horse, dropping Sylvie into the ocean, getting their dog to froth at the mouth, and more).

The heart of the novel, though, is Isobel’s father and Isobel’s relationship with him. He’s a medic who enlisted in World War I, and whose correspondence from the front is frustratingly vague. Isobel loves her father, but resents him for the fact that he chose to leave the family to go to war. Everything is tinged by Isobel’s father’s absence; the family is in California because they wanted to leave their gloomy home. Isobel constantly challenges Ranger’s vision for their movie because he keeps wanting to make the father figure a villain, or a noble sacrifice when all Isobel wants is for him to have the triumphant return of a hero.

I enjoyed I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. I’m not a person who usually likes setting, so hollywood-clip-art-lights-camera-action-hollywood-clip-artthis may be the only time anyone ever hears (reads) me say this: the best part of this book was the early-Hollywood setting. I’m not a movie buff by any means (though I do have an embarrassing amount of pointless trivia about specific TV shows, but whatever), but I found the little touches a lot of fun, like how Aunt Buzzy’s neighbors keep passing out petitions and complaints about various movie sets being disruptive, or the way that cowboys and knife fights are terrifyingly new to Isobel but basically just window-dressing for her California relatives. Ranger’s wholehearted adoration for cinema is catching, and the descriptions of Sam cutting the films together were really interesting. I’ve never thought much about how movies are made, much less how they were made in their infancy as an art form.

The balance between the serious elements and the fun bits is very good. At first I thought that it seemed a little too skewed towards the happy Hollywood bits, but the father I got into the book the more I appreciated it. Sam and Isobel’s discussion in the editing room, in which they discuss the moments of their lives they would edit out to do differently if their lives could be manipulated as easily as a movie is probably the best moment of the book. And the last bit of the book, when the focus shifts, is powerful. Getting into it more would be too spoilery, so I’ll just say that the book gets better as it goes (I thought it started a little slow, to be honest).

The only real complaint I have is that there were a few subplots that were a little underdeveloped. Admittedly, 277 pages is pretty short, but I felt that the weird subplot with Charlie Chaplin flirting with Isobel’s mother felt underdone. It seemed like it was going to be a big deal, but then just sort of fizzled out. There was also a little section in which Ranger’s heritage (his mother was Indian) came up and he faced blatant racism. It was a very big deal for about one chapter, but then no one really mentioned it again.

Side note: there’s almost no romance in this book. I like a well-written romance as well as the next person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get excited when romance is pushed so far to the back it’s barely there. Especially in YA. That’s a rare thing.

This next paragraph has spoilers.

downloadI do wish that the end movie had been closer to what we had seen the kids film throughout the novel. I think it would have been more powerful to see the way that all those scenes could have been edited into something very different than what Isobel was expecting. The fact that Ranger needed to film just as many scenes that Isobel wasn’t aware of seemed to undercut it a little. It’s the only place in the book where the balance falters; the film does a good job wrapping up the storyline with Isobel’s father, but I was disappointed in how few of the kids’ original scenes were left. It felt like all of Isobel’s hard work and enthusiasm came to nothing because the vision changed. After being the main character and the emotional checkpoint for the reader the whole time, she becomes a bystander.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick, easy read but it has a more serious heart than I expected.

Life and Death (Book Review)

life and deathI read the genderbent Twilight mostly because I thought it would be ridiculous and because I was feeling kind of tired at the time and didn’t want to think very hard. I thought that genderswapping everyone would be kind of stupid, and I was kind of right but also kind of wrong. Stephenie Meyer explains in the introduction that she wrote this novel to combat the complaints that Bella was a poor female character because she always needed to be rescued and blah blah blah. Meyer says that Bella is a person in distress rather than a damsel in distress, and that transforming her into Beau would prove it. If Life and Death did just that, I think that it could have been effective. Beau actually does work. He is a sensitive, clumsy guy, but he is responsible and takes care of his parents. I guess that is sort of what Bella did, too, but Bella was so grumpy about it that I didn’t really notice that she was helpful. I could actually kind of see what some of the girls saw in Beau, since he did legitimately seem like a good guy. He was a lot like Bella, but not a carbon copy; he lacked the irritating chip on the shoulder that Bella carries with her. If Meyer had left it just with the Bella—>Beau, I think it would have been fine and the experiment would have been a success. However, the other characters did not translate so well.

twilightEdward—now Edythe (stupid spelling)—did not seem like a girl. Despite her large role in the novel, I had to perpetually remind myself that she was a girl. It did not seem at all authentic. Maybe I am buying too far into stereotypical roles, but Edythe was still very much a man. The only times that she behaved like a traditional girl were very shoehorned changes from the original text. Instead of Edward saying he was taking Bella out to dinner, Edythe says that she is going to let Beau take her out to dinner. Instead of carrying Bella, Edythe supports him. Instead of being impressive and handsome, Edythe is impressively delicate. Instead of lending Bella his jacket, Edythe lends Beau a scarf borrowed from Archie (formerly Alice). Instead of adapting Edward a bit to make Edythe a person who happens to be a girl, Meyer made Edythe very boyish with a few giant neon signs reading “HEY LOOK EDWARD IS A GIRL NOW LOOK HOW SMALL LOOK HOW GIRLY LOOK HOW DELICATE.” It just didn’t work. I don’t think reimagining the story as a gay romance with Beau and Edward would have necessarily worked better, necessarily, but femme!Edward needed more work.

Swapping everything just highlighted the world’s gender roles. For example, all the girls now do everything that is typically associated with boys and vice versa. It would have worked better with a combination. It really stood out when only the girls participated in the snowball fights. Maybe I should have noticed the opposite in the original novel before now, but I didn’t. Now I absolutely see it. There is a wide dearth between what the girls and what the boys do. When the groups do what is expected of them, it is not very noticeable (which is a problem, but an issue for another day). It’s good to swap it sometimes to draw attention to the fact, but that’s not what Meyer was doing. She was trying to prove that she didn’t stereotype gender roles, and the swap in this case only proved that she did.

One egregious example was the attack in Port Angeles. Bella was nearly raped. Beau stumbled on a drug deal, was mistaken for a plainclothes policeman, and nearly shot. Rape is seen as a men-on-women crime, but men can get sexually attacked as well. It is kind of remarkable how many more hoops had to be jumped through to put a male Bella in a dangerous situation.

Jeremy (formerly Jessica)’s obsession with McKayla (formerly Mike) seemed stalkerish and a little scary. I guess obsessed men just seem more dangerous than obsessed women. Similarly, Edythe seemed less threatening than Edward despite the similar levels of power.

A lot of the Cullens’ backstories don’t work with the genders swapped. Rosalie’s original story had to do with her rape and the effect being too beautiful had on her life. She doesn’t like being a vampire because she can’t have children. Royal’s story is that… the woman he was engaged to was in love with someone else? Who beat him up? There was absolutely no reason for him to be as bitter as he is because it seemed like he was marrying to be rich. And it’s not to say that men can’t want kids, but there was no indication here that he did. And Jasper was a soldier in the Civil War. Sorry, but there’s no direct equivalent for a female of that time. Meyer didn’t even try to adapt it to make sense.

Even though I didn’t necessarily love the book (it really did feel like rereading Twilight, since–aside from the end–not much changed), I’m really glad I read it. I don’t think the book succeeded in proving that Twilight didn’t have gender stereotyping issues; what it did do was force me to realize the kind of stereotyping that I apparently regularly overlook. Why do I find certain actions less threatening when they’re done by a female? The action hasn’t changed? Why do I notice it when all the guys sit out of an activity but don’t blink when all the girls do? I myself am a female athlete. I’ve taken many gender studies courses. There is no excuse for me not to see this kind of stuff. I love it when fiction makes me think, and Life and Death certainly made me think. I can’t help but wonder now… what else am I missing?

Funny Girl (Book Review)

funny girlMy general impression of Funny Girl by Nick Hornby upon finishing it was that I liked it. When I sat back and thought about what to write in this review, though, I realized that there a lot of things that really frustrated me about the book. I think a lot of it is because of the horrible flashforward that was just… urgh. Honestly, if there hadn’t been an epilogue, I probably would have really liked the novel instead of just mostly liking it.

I think that the main problem with the book was that Hornby was enamored by his leading lady, and let his other more interesting characters and storylines fall by the wayside. That might have been okay if Sophie had been half as witty and charming as she was made out to be. Despite the fact that his writing is generally compelling and tight, Hornby proved absolutely unequal to capturing even a fraction of the magnetism Sophie was purported to have. Sophie moves to London with dreams of becoming a great comic actress. She is picked up almost immediately by a casting agent because she is a knockout beauty. She has about three pages of unsuccessful auditions and then finds herself in a room with the writers of one of her favorite childhood radio shows. Of course, the writers love her immediately because she is so amazing and all that, and when she complains about the script she’s been given, they fall over themselves agreeing with her. They decide to rewrite the script for her and even name it after her, slighting the better-known actor that plays her husband. The show is then a runaway success, naturally. Reviewers trip over themselves to shower her with praise. Yes, her specifically. They like the show; they adore Sophie. Sophie has very few ups and downs. Everything in her life is a straight shot to the top.

Spoilery paragraph:

downloadThe show eventually ends when the writers split, but since Sophie has fallen in love with Dennis the producer/director, she’s pretty much set. And she is. Even though pregnancy keeps her from taking the next job that is just handed to her, the stupid epilogue proves that it doesn’t matter. Despite the fact that most of the episodes of her show were lost to time, she’s apparently still a big star and a producer calls them all up out of the blue and is like ‘what up; let’s revive this old show that no one cares about.’ So they do.

Okay, it’s safe to read again.

I could understand it a little bit if Sophie were actually funny. I think I can be forgiven for expecting the main girl in a book called “funny girl” to be funny. But Sophie’s inhumanly perfect comedic skills are a completely informed trait. The reader is told that she delivers every line in just the right way, but there’s no indication of what that might be; we’re just told repetitively that she interprets everything masterfully. Sophie’s dialogue outside the show, which is supposed to be charming and witty and would probably be the best place to back up the ‘everything Sophie does is amazing’, also falls flat.

There are some interesting things going on elsewhere in the book, and I desperately wish that Hornby had had the good sense to step away from Sophie enough to explore them with the detail that they deserved.

Clive, Sophie’s costar, is a man who believes that he’s better than the lot he has been given. He’s obsessively protective of his reputation, and pathetically afraid that anything his fictional counterpart gets up to will be attributed to him. He gets by far the short end of the stick when it comes to page time from his point of view, which is a shame. He’s slimy, sure, but aside from that there’s not a lot of difference between him and Sophie. He considers himself a leading man and thinks anything else he might do is a complete waste of his time. Sophie considers herself a comedic superstar and thinks anything else she might do is a complete waste of her time. The difference is that the world trips over itself telling Sophie that she’s right, and that she was born to be a star, and that she can do no wrong. Clive isn’t good enough for his dreams. Personally, I’m more interested by a person whose dreams are denied him than someone who gets everything she wants with the barest effort.

And Dennis! Dennis is the producer/director of the show. He’s adorable. He’s shy and sincere, and he’s kind of a pushover. He’s often the butt of jokes. He (SPOILER) marries Sophie at the end (END SPOILER) but other than that he didn’t get enough to do. He’s intensely likable, though, so I wish he’d done more.

The heart of the story, at least for me, was the two writers, Tony and Bill. They’re writing a sitcom about a married couple that are complete opposites, and they think they’re on the same page about it. The longer it goes on, they realize they’re not.

Bill is queer (side note: this book is set in the 60’s when being gay was a crime), and is sick of writing about a happy little nuclear family. It kills him that society deemed that the only path a person can take is to get married and start a family. As the show goes on, Bill resents it more and more, feeling that they are simply covering ground that hundreds of other people have already covered. There’s an implication—but never a confirmation—that Bill is in love with Tony. He is certainly incredulous about Tony’s marriage, and brings it up constantly.

Tony is ambiguously bisexual. He questions his sexuality for the first two thirds of the novel. Towards the end of the book, he decides he’s totally straight, which was a copout. The characterization Hornby had going earlier was far more interesting: Tony picks the path of least resistance in every aspect of his life. He picked women over men because it was easier. He continuously picks a steady job over artistic integrity. He pretty much goes along with anything anyone tells him to do. He is waffly and really only does what is expected of him. He’s afraid to stick his neck out in any way, and since it pays not to, he doesn’t.

The dynamic between Bill and Tony is fascinating. Bill constantly pushes Tony for something new, something dramatic. He wants to do things on television that have never been done before. He wants Tony to admit he isn’t straight. He wants Tony to admit it when their show has gone stale. Tony pushes against it. He won’t admit he’s queer. He won’t move on from Barbara (and Jim) as long as people will pay him to write it. He won’t write anything too subversive unless he’s pushed into it.

Spoilers from here on out.

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When Bill leaves the show to write a book, it’s sad but also inevitable. They’re too different to keep working together without driving each other insane. Since Bill was always the creative one and his book does well, I assumed that Hornby was saying that taking risks and not being afraid to be very personal with your art was the way to go. Tony, after all, immediately discovered that he couldn’t write by himself and was forced to find another writing partner. Hornby seemed to be saying that playing it safe and appealing to the mainstream is fine, but going deeper is better. Well… not so much.

The frustrating thing about the epilogue was that it continued to kiss Sophie’s ass and it continued the most clumsily executed plotline: what happens to a star after she stops being young and beautiful? Hornby tried to answer the question with a cameo by Lucille Ball, who’d gotten facial surgery and basically—according to Sophie—become an embarrassment, and with an old couple who are supposedly embarrassing because they wait for roles that don’t come often. Personally I thought the old couple was charming. Sophie in her old age is just annoying and crotchety. But she still has everything she ever dreamed of. She has the nuclear family that is also attractive and beautiful. Her sweet, loving husband Dennis died… but don’t worry. She can rekindle things with Clive. And her show is coming back, so she basically gets to relive her twenties in her seventies. Tony is also doing well. He still has his lovely family, and selling out made him a huge success. I expected Clive to fail at life since that was always going to be his fate, but it was upsetting to me that Bill failed the hardest. Despite being the clever one, his book tanked despite good reviews. His health is failing. He’s broke. His boyfriend left him. He’s fallen on hard drugs and drinking. Why has this all happened? Well… there’s no explanation, really. There’s no previous characterization that seems to indicate that Bill would slowly kill himself like this. I guess Hornsby just decided that Bill was wrong, and the wife and kids and predictable job route is the only thing to do. Why couldn’t he be a successful writer of subversive books? It’s not like they don’t exist. I guess Sophie just sucked up all the luck that Hornby’s universe had available.

The book wasn’t bad. It just focused on its most boring elements. There were glimpses of some really interesting stuff, and those little glimpses kept me interested until the end. It’s just kind of funny to me that the worst part of a book called Funny Girl is… the funny girl.

Only Ever Yours (Book Review)

only ever yoursOnly Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill is an Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year. That’s pretty much the main reason I picked it up. I’ve found that debut novels tend to be really good–particularly the ones that get recognized–because it is so tough to get published as a newcomer. That’s not to say that there aren’t debut books that make me scratch my head and wonder why they got published, but in general… I was also interested to read this one because it’s Irish because I often fall into the trap of reading too many American and British writers, to the detriment of both me and the other amazing writers in the world.

Warning: It’s about to get depressing up in here.

depressing

Only Ever Yours is  basically a young adult take on The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t really decide whether I liked the book at all. It takes a close look at modern society by creating a dystopia in which there are no more natural born women but rather “eves,” who are designed to be perfect and who are kept in a school where they are taught, essentially, to hate themselves and each other, kill themselves to achieve physical perfection, and learn how to be mindless man-pleasing and man-producing machines.

The main character, freida (the eves’ names are lowercased, naturally), longs to become a “companion.” In other words, she wants to be a wife to a wealthy “Inheritant.” As a companion, she’ll bear sons until she reaches the age of forty, when she’ll be killed because of course aging is the worst. If she doesn’t become a companion, she has two other potential paths: a concubine (a prostitute) or a chastity (a teacher at the school). These are both unimaginable, so freida throws herself into her training. It’s unhealthy, obviously. The girls at the school all have eating disorders (freida also has a sleeping disorder). They can’t read. They’re taught to fat-shame each other horrifically. freida and her best friend isabel drift apart as isabel, previously the most beautiful eve, lets herself go and sets down a path of self-destructive behavior that the other eves simply mock. freida, though worried, can’t worry too much about isabelle since she’s too busy warring with mean girl megan and trying to land Darwin, the prize Inheritant. The whole book is grave and depressing, and unlike most YA books, there’s no happy ending in sight.

The book does a good job of shining a light on a lot of the issues in today’s world, but in my opinion it bites off more than it can chew. It’s not a long book by any means, but it tries to deal with everything. The sexism in the book is obvious. The whole premise of the book, basically, is to force people to think closely about sexism. The whole world is built on the idea that women only exist to pleasure and to produce men. They’re taught never to refuse a man anything, but they’re put in impossible positions: if they have sex before marriage they’re whores; if they reject a man’s desire for sex they’re frigid. But when a man has sex, it’s because he can’t help it. Almost worse, there are many women in the novel who are aggressively sexist as well. The book really zeroes in on the way that sexism is a societal problem, rather than just the problem of a few individuals. The society as a whole dictates the way people view themselves and others; the women, rather than realizing that their lives are determined by a toxic patriarchy and coming together, lash out against each other. There are little crumbs about the way the intense sexism hurts the male characters as well, but only if you really look for it.

The book also tackles racism, but with less success. freida is dark skinned, and is ranked lower for it; the blonde isabel is far and away the most beautiful when at target weight, and it is stated several times that the white/blonde girls are preferred in general to their darker sisters. It’s a little confusing, since if all the girls are supposedly perfect and there’s still racism, why are some of the girls designed with features perceived as flaws? The society is already terrible. Eugenics wouldn’t have been much of a stretch. I don’t know… I guess maybe I was depressed enough by the sexism that I’d hoped that the racism, at least, would have been dialed back. Nope.

There’s a bizarre interlude in which Darwin and freida discuss gay people, which are called “aberrants.” It seems to exist just to say, ‘look, this society is homophobic, too!’ Which, duh. Of course it is. It’s an unnecessarily long segment, considering that it never actually goes anywhere.

There was a lot of ageism, too. Being terminated at forty is seen as a blessing because old people are gross. Upgrading to a younger wife is seen as something totally acceptable for older men, and if they’re not getting a new woman, they’re forcing their wives to get youthening procedures. Invasive ones. And when said procedures go wrong, the women are simply disposed of ahead of schedule. It’s disgusting.

it's not okayAs I mentioned above, there’s also a ton of body shaming. People are ridiculed both for being too fat and for being too skinny… though the guys, of course, get off much better than the girls do. The girls go on horrifically unhealthy diets, are encouraged to be both anorexic and bulimic—there’s a special “vomitorium” for purging—and are fed pills by the ton. Pretty much all the girls are addicted to some drug or another, but don’t care about being healthy. All they care about are how they look and how they rank. It’s horrifying. It really is.

The book has some annoying dystopian conventions, like the inexplicable changing of spellings to make things look more scifi. I guess that’s not a huge deal, but it tends to crop up amongst new writers. It’s a little too gimmicky for me, but it wasn’t so invasive that I had a hard time ignoring it.

My main complaint about the book is that the most interesting character was too sidelined. isabel had more going on than freida did, but you have to really dig to see what’s going on with her. There are a few paragraphs right at the end that explain everything isabel went through, but her journey was more dynamic than freida’s and it would have been compelling to get more of it firsthand.  It was interesting to read from the perspective of someone so thoroughly brainwashed by the society— The Handmaid’s Tale also has this—but since freida was so estranged from isabel, it was hard to get isabel’s full story, and I think that the reader deserved it.

There was a little too much going on in this book, but the bones of it were strong. It certainly did a good job highlighting the flaws in today’s society, and it was difficult to put down. It’s probably not one that I would go around recommending, but it’s still an interesting read.

 

[sources for gifs here and here]

Book Club: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

nick and norah
Pg. #s from this edition

I run a book club, and I spend a considerable amount of time writing discussion questions for it. Since I’m disappointed that there’s never enough time to get to all of the talking points I prepared, I figured I would post them here in the hopes that a) someone will use them in their own book club b) someone will discuss them with me in the comments c) someone will read them and approach a book in a different way than they would otherwise.

These prompts do reference the end of the book, so beware spoilers. Also, if you would like to read a more straightforward (but less thorough and spoilery) review, you can find mine here.

Discussion starters for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

  1. What is the significance of the fact that the novel (and specifically a nonqueer romantic relationship) takes place in a predominantly queer space? Nick is the bassist in a “queercore” band. He and Norah meet in a gay bar. Many, if not most, of the minor characters are queer. Norah questions Nick’s sexuality throughout the book. What is the effect of denying straightness its usual default status? What, if anything, would change without the background queer culture?
  2. Discuss the recurring inside jokes (Salvatore, threesome with ET, no naming kids after fruits or months, etc.) and their use in creating an immediate intimacy between Nick and Norah. What allows the two to make this immediate connection? What do they have in common that allows for the easy creation of these inside jokes? Do you believe the connection that Nick and Norah have?
  3. Both Nick and Norah mention God (and specifically Jesus Christ) regularly, despite the fact that Norah is Jewish and Nick is ambiguously atheist. What do you think of their reflections on religion? Why do you think that they focus so much on a force/being that neither of them explicitly believes in? Consider the fact that Norah considers God to be female: “I hate time and I hate this night and if I truly believed in God outside of that momentary lapse of faith, I’d hate Her too” (85).
  4. Discuss Tris and Tal, the “Evil Exes.” Why are they so disliked? Discuss both Tal and Tris as individuals, and as romantic partners for Norah and Nick, respectively. Do they deserve the negative moniker? Why did each couple break up? Was there really a good guy and a bad guy in either situation? What do you think of Norah’s declaration that “I can’t change. I shouldn’t change [for Tal]” (50)? Which do you think was worse: Tal lying about loving Norah, or Tris refusing to do so for Nick?
  5. Discuss the use of references, particularly to movies and music. How do they enhance the novel? What do they tell the reader about Nick and Norah? Discuss Nick’s songwriting and Norah’s music snobbery. Discuss Norah’s father’s role as a producer. Is he, as Norah claims, a corporate sellout? What do the references tell Nick and Norah about themselves? About each other? About the world? Do you filter your world through the things that you read/watch/listen to? How do your references shape your world? How does your world shape your references? Consider Nick’s observation that “[Tris]’s cinematic and I’m a fucking sitcom” (98).
  6. In his final chapter, Nick sums up his night by saying: “I am in the here, in the now. I am also in the future. I am holding her and wanting and knowing and hoping all at once. We are the ones who take this thing called music and line it up with this thing called time. We are the ticking, we are the pulsing, we are underneath every part of this moment. And by making the moment our own, we are rendering it timeless. There is no audience. There are no instruments. There are only bodies and thoughts and murmurs and looks. It’s the concert rush to end all concert rushes, because this is what matters. When the heart races, this is what it’s racing towards” (174). Discuss Nick’s argument that people are the ones who tie music to time. What does it mean to be timeless? Infinite? Consider the fact that Nick’s band does not have a drummer and therefore “I am the ticking, I am the pulsing, I am underneath every part of this moment” (1).
  7. Discuss the side characters and their relationships to Nick and Norah. What do you think of Norah’s friendship with Caroline? With Tris? With Caroline and Tris?? What do you think about Nick’s relationships with Dev, Thom, and Scot?
  8. Consider Nick and Norah’s discussion of Tikkun olam, the idea that the world has broken into pieces and that it is people’s job to put it back together (143). What do you think of this concept? Do you like Nick’s suggestion that people are the pieces and have to come together to stop the breaking (145)? How does this conversation reflect on the novel as a whole?
  9. What do you think of Nick and Norah’s relationship? Do you think that they are endgame? Should they be in love? Are they? Does it matter? Does the night have different significance depending on how they define their relationship in the future, or can it/should it exist as its own moment?
  10. Norah explains that she prefers not to know her favorite artists: “But something I figured out a few years ago it it’s better not to get to know them. Because if I didn’t get to know them, then I could still enjoy their music, without knowing about their exorbitant demands or careless lifestyles or how much I loved their breakout song until I found out their lead singer was making my dad’s life miserable and was the reason my dad missed my spelling bee or whatever” (151). Do you agree that getting to know someone well often spoils him/her? Contrast this opinion with Norah’s desire to know everything about Nick. Why doesn’t she worry that she will learn something that will ruin him?
  11. Discuss the names in the novel. Consider the fact that Nick’s band regularly changes its own name, the named jacket, the fact that some people (Thom and Norah) have conspicuously added letters to their names, the fact that others (Scot) seem to be missing letters, the fact that some characters have multiple names (Ted is Hunter from Hunter), that some names (Nick and Norah the main characters; Tris and Tal the evil exes) seem to match in pairs, and the repetition of the joke to not name kids after fruits or months. Why is there so much focus on names and naming?
  12. Discuss Nick and Norah’s constand refrain that they are “straight edge.” What do they mean by that? What is the alternative?
  13. Discuss the politics in the novel, particularly the politics of Where’s Fluffy. Considering that this does very little for the direct plot of the novel, why do you think it is included?
  14. While discussing religion, Norah says that being Jewish is “something that is. It’s not something that’s like” (142). Discuss the distinction.
  15. Discuss Norah’s statement that “If I don’t shut down my brain soon, my imagination will take off so far about what could be… that nothing will ever be able to just be” (149).
  16. Do you prefer Nick or Norah as characters? Whose narration style do you prefer? Why?
  17. Discuss Nick and Norah’s journeys. Who are they before they meet? How are they similar or different? How do they change each other? Who are they at the end of the novel?

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Book Review)

nick and norahI read Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for book club. I’m not generally into boy-meets-girl stories, so I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it hadn’t been for that. It’s far from my favorite book, but I enjoyed it. Thinking it from a I-have-to-run-a-discussion-on-this-book viewpoint also improved the experience, because there are a lot of interesting things going on that aren’t necessarily readily apparent. A lot of the people in the book club were initially unimpressed. They started out the discussion tossing out criticisms like “bad writing” and “too much cursing.” As we discussed the book though, and got past the surface level, I think everyone opened up at least enough to admit that the book does have its merits and that it isn’t enough to dismiss thematic elements because you didn’t see them immediately or that your overall impression of the writers is that they aren’t talented enough to have made any larger points.

The book is about two teens who have both recently gotten out of bad relationships who meet by chance and end up spending the night running around New York together. Nick, a bassist and songwriter, asks Norah, a music snob and daughter to a bigwig corporate producer, to pretend to be his girlfriend for a few minutes to avoid an awkward encounter with his ex. Said ex, Tris, happens to be frenemies with Norah. Meanwhile, Norah is fragile because she recently threw away admission to Brown to go on a UN trip to run into Tal, her on and off boyfriend with whom she is currently off. Nick and Norah end up being exactly what the other needs to get over their issues, and their adventures are full of references, music, and maybe falling in love.

n and n movie

Even though the story itself is pretty straightforward, I really liked some of the little things. Nick’s chapters are filled with delightful wordplay. The idea of music being a way to understand life isn’t new, but the way it is is seen as an infinite tied by people to time is interesting (especially considering that Nick’s band doesn’t have a drummer). I also really love that Nick’s supposedly terrible ex is actually a complex character rather than just the typical bitch ex that a lot of poorly written stories rely on. The fact that the story takes place in a predominantly queer space gives the romance elements that aren’t usually present in stories about straight characters. I also really liked the references and repetitions of the inside jokes that Nick and Norah accumulate throughout the night. As a nerdy person myself, bonding through references (even references I don’t personally know) and inside jokes is something I get and it is a great way to create an immediate intimacy between the characters. That immediacy, of course, goes along with what I mentioned above about infinity and time; time doesn’t have to play a huge part because a short time can be an infinity sometimes. (Side note: this makes me think of “some infinities are bigger than other infinities” from John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars, though considering that John Green cowrote with David Levithan once it is perhaps not surprising that the same kinds of themes are important to them both).

The biggest complaint I have with the book (and this complaint was echoed by the other ladies in my book club) is that the chapters are uneven. Nearly every single line that I pulled out as being worthy of discussion came from Nick’s half. Norah’s chapters were not as nuanced, and as a character Norah was simply not as engaging or likable. Her most likable moments and biggest moments of growth all came in Nick’s chapters. To some degree, this sort of made me feel like I was reading one good book and one mediocre one simultaneously, rather than one cohesive whole.

While Nick and Norah isn’t going to go on a list of my all time favorite books, it was quite enjoyable and it actually makes for a pretty good discussion.

Alex and Eliza (Book Review)

alex and eliza
I think this cover is cute. My sister is bothered by the fact that Eliza’s name is straddling the heart.

I read Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz because I was hoping that it would have the same feel as Hamilton. In retrospect, that was kind of a dumb thing to expect, even if de la Cruz has admitted that she was inspired to write her novel by the musical.

boys are backIf you are considering picking this book up because you loved Hamilton, don’t. If you are considering reading it because you’re a history buff or historical fiction fan, don’t. If you want to read it because you like YA romance and the cover is cute, eh. Sure. It’s not long. It’s not terrible. It is a very straightforward little romance. The romantic heroine does all the things you would expect a romantic heroine to do. The romantic hero does all the heroic dashing about and brooding about how he’s not good enough for his true love that all romantic heroes have to do. There are no surprises here.

Alex and Eliza lacks of Hamilton’s brilliance. It isn’t as funny or as clever. It isn’t as engaging or historically accurate. It takes out all the interesting, nuanced bits and turns Hamilton and Eliza’s relationship into a typical teen romance. That doesn’t work for a lot of reasons, first and foremost the fact that anyone who picks up this book is going to have seen the musical and therefore knows that Hamilton eventually cheats on Eliza. Not to mention his possible flirtation with her sister Angelica. Another issue is the fact that Alexander and Eliza’s marriage is a foregone conclusion since it is pretty much the only strict historical accuracy in the novel (admittedly that’s because there’s apparently not much known about the courtship). I know what you’re saying.

YOU, PROBABLY: Audra, romances end with the leads getting married. It’s a foregone conclusion in literally all romances.

I mean, yeah. That’s a fair point. But to some degree anyone who reads a lot can guess more or less how any story will end up. If you’re reading an epic fantasy, the good guys are probably going to defeat the bad guy in the end. If you’re reading a mystery, the criminal is going to get discovered. And, yes, in a romance, the leads are going to wind up together. But there’s something about well-written fiction that makes you forget that at least a little. You know that good has to triumph over evil, but maaaaaybe this time it won’t. You know these two have to get together, but wait a minute… who is that? Alex and Eliza didn’t have any of that. I kept wanting to skip to the end because everything that happened just felt like delaying the inevitable. Again, it’s probably because I spent the whole time comparing the book to Hamilton, but I wanted to fast-forward past the wedding and get to the messy bits. I wanted to see what De la Cruz would do when Alex is no longer just a dashing officer with a crush.

I also expected better because de la Cruz’s other books check out quite well at the library I work at. I assumed that she would be a good writer. Or maybe I’m again just being too hard on her. Alexander Hamilton is noted for his eloquence. I firmly believe that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, and his genius shines through his musical. Compared with those two, most people’s writing would look weak. That being said, it isn’t enough to repeat over and over that a character is a brilliant writer and speaker. It needs to be demonstrated as well.

schuyler sisters
Work, work

The dynamic between the Schuyler sisters was odd, too. Aside from the uncomfortable emphasis on their breasts (please, please stop describing how their busts look in their party dresses), de la Cruz just couldn’t figure out what role she wanted each to play. Hamilton indicated that Angelica was the smart one, and Alex and Eliza initially states that as well, but as it goes on Angelica gets dumber and dumber basically to make Eliza look good.

Historically, Angelica was already married when she met Alexander Hamilton. The musical Hamilton keeps her unmarried for that period to dramatize the flirtatious relationship between Angelica and Alexander. De la Cruz also pushes back the date of Angelica’s marriage, but she removes any possible romantic connection between Angelica and Alexander and as a result there’s really no reason for Angelica not to be married earlier on.

Angelica and Peggy essentially seem like one blob of indistinct characterization, but honestly Eliza is worse. She is so boring. She is so blandly perfect. She is so smart and pretty and patriotic and romantic and loyal and blah blah blah. She is not in the least engaging. Alexander isn’t either. De la Cruz can’t figure out how to make him both a rake and a traditional romantic hero, and she doesn’t try very hard. She just sucks all possible personality out of him and then has everyone talk about how handsome he is. Sorry, but that just doesn’t work on me.

When I was about halfway through the novel, I said, “This book is going to end right after they get married because that’s the easy cop-out ending.” I was right.

eliza
I put too many Hamilton pictures considering this is not a review of Hamilton. Whoops.

It’s never a good idea to pick something up with the hope that it will be exactly like something else. That’s pretty much true even when you stick with the same author or sometimes even the same series. I did not enjoy this book, but it was really my own fault for ignoring all the obvious signs that told me quite clearly that that would be the case.

Shadowhunters Season 2A Review

TMI1Promo_Poster02I love Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. It is probably one of my all time favorites, so I was really excited when it got turned into a TV show. I’ve been watching Shadowhunters on and off since it premiered. I’ve practiced writing episode reviews on it, though unless someone is actively interested I probably won’t post any of the ones I backlogged since they’re pretty out of date by this point. I did post a review comparing season one to the original series here, for anyone interested. I haven’t started watching season 2B yet since I had to wait until it all got unlocked on Freeform. I did watch and review season 2A, though, so in the hopes that 2B gets unlocked soon, here’s a brief, character-based, spoilery review!

Overall, I think that season two was stronger than the pilot season. The acting was a bit shoddy in season one (particularly from Katherine McNamara/Clary and Isaiah Mustafa/Luke) but everyone involved improved for season two. Clary is not noticeably bad anymore (she’s actually quite good now) and Luke benefited from slightly better acting and fewer storylines. It also helped that the characters started getting paired off in different combinations. Mixing up your characters is always an interesting thing to do, but it really helps figure out the strongest combinations. This season helped prop up the least interesting characters (for some reason, I don’t find the adult characters all that compelling) by pairing them with more charismatic/compelling ones (namely, Simon). The effects were also noticeably better: the seraph blades and steles looked a little cartoonish in season one. The werewolves still look kind of crappy, though not so bad that I couldn’t have forgiven  it if they hadn’t showed SO MANY wolf transformations. Honestly, it got to the point that it was just burning screentime. I get it. You can animate bones breaking now. Seen it. Move on.

I think about fiction by character. Even when discussing my favorite books, I’ll rarely mention plot or setting (unless there was something really unusual) except as part of a larger point about character. Shadowhunters is no exception. I figured I would give everyone a brief paragraph about what I thought about them this season. I’m only listing people that I consider to be important characters who, for the most part, actually seem to have their own motivations and storylines that aren’t entirely tied to another character or to the main plot (in other words, I’ve made up an arbitrary rule that means I don’t have to talk about Meliorn–who I think is gross–or Dot–who I find infuriating).

Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara)

clary
I really want her hair. It’s so pretty.

I already mentioned that I think that McNamara’s acting improved. I also found Clary more compelling when she is distanced a little from romance. The love triangle between Clary, Jace, and Simon did not necessarily disappear, but it was certainly less emphasized than it was last season. That allowed Clary to explore richer and more interesting relationships with other characters. Her confusion about having her mother back but being angry with her for all the lies was an excellent source of dramatic tension. Her rapport with Magnus is cute. I love her developing sisterhood with Isabelle. My favorite relationship for Clary, though, is the rocky friendship she has with Alec. Honestly, this might be my favorite relationship on the show, and season two really explored it. Clary and Alec love each other, but they are delightfully disdainful of each other. They have a teasing exchange that is at once snarky and heartwarming, and their relationship was tested with Alec’s demon-possessed murder of Jocelyn. The aftermath of that—Alec’s guilt and Clary’s forgiveness/willingness to reach out—showed that this is truly one of the most multi-dimensional friendships in the show, and I’m glad that the writers/showrunners saw that and ran with it. It’s so much more interesting than watching Clary and Jace drool over each other.

Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood)

jace
Stop brooding!

Welcome to the world, Sassy Jace. One of my biggest complaints about this show in season one was that the Jace from the books was nowhere to be found. In the books, Jace is cocky, sassy, and absolutely drunk on his own merit. He’s so obnoxious about being in love with himself that it somehow becomes endearing. And for some reason, whenever he’s adapted to the screen (the 2013 movie did this as well), the creators apparently come together and say, “Well, everyone loves how conceited and sarcastic Jace is. How about we… cut that character trait completely and make him mopey and broody?” The latter half of season 2A made some strides to fix this. There were only a few glimpses of the Jace I know and love from the books, but based on them I have high hopes going forward. Like everyone else, Jace was improved by close contact with Simon. Simon forced the dormant snark to awaken. Here’s hoping Jace continues complimenting himself and wallowing in his own impressiveness.

Simon Lewis (Alberto Rosende)

simonA round of applause for the season MVP. Simon is hilarious. He teams up well with every single character, and he makes me enjoy even the characters that usually bore me (Luke). Most notably, as I mentioned above, he brings out the best in Jace. I remember that while reading the books I did ship Clary/Simon for a while before jumping ship for Simon/Isabelle. I still way prefer Sizzy, but I’m okay with Climon for a while. They’re cute together, even if it is better as a platonic thing. Aside from boosting everyone else’s storylines as the greatest plotline wingman, Simon dealt with some of his own stuff as well. I didn’t think that is own plotline–namely his attempts to keep that family life separate from the vampires (notably Raphael) who wouldn’t leave him alone–was entirely deserving of him. It felt a little dragged out, particularly since it was resolved with a memory wipe, which is far from the most creative/emotionally compelling possibility. However, Simon is so charming and fun that it’s easy to forgive a plotline which was, while not earthshattering, far from the worst hand dealt to a character this season. Besides, the best thing about Simon is that he can just jump into anyone else’s storyline and make it a lot funnier. That’s the joy of being a secondary character; they don’t get bogged down by the main plot, so they can just stand slightly to the side, laughing at the heroes and delivering quality one-liners.

Alec Lightwood (Matthew Daddario)

alec
Yes, this is from season one. Get over it.

Alec is Shadowhunters’ darling, and I can see why. I love Alec. He’s still my favorite character (even though I gave Simon the nod for Best in Show this season), and it’s because he is arguably the best rounded character (and played by arguably one of the better actors). He’s half of the show’s most popular couple. He has deep emotional connections to everyone in the cast. He’s game both for comedic moments and shouldering some of the darkest, most emotional beats that the show offers. He fits in well with every character and into every situation, so it is no surprise that he gets as much to do as the quote unquote “main characters.” He had a satisfying romantic arc with Magnus. He had the most traumatic emotional storyline as well: he killed Jocelyn while possessed and as a result attempted suicide. He continues to be the number one go-to for Jace and Isabelle for their issues, and for a lot of the time he was the point man in exchanges with Aldertree, as he’s still more responsible than the other good guys even if he’s no longer as staunchly law-abiding as he was at the beginning. I do wish he would stop doing dumb parabatai bond stuff, because aside from being blatant fanservice, it always ends with someone pathetically almost dying.

Isabelle Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia)

isabellePoor Isabelle. She’s my favorite female character, but she was absolutely and appallingly wasted this season. Instead of giving her her own powerful character arc (I would have liked seeing her deal with Aldertree; as much as I love Alec getting a lot of screentime, he had plenty of other balls to juggle), she was tied down with another poorly-conceived relationship with a downworlder. In season one she got mixed up with Gross Meliorn, and it was all about sex. In season two, she got mixed up with Raphael, and it was all about drugs. (Side note: I like Raphael a lot. I thought the drug addiction plotline wasted him as well). Please give Isabelle a break. She’s a powerful woman. Yes, she’s sexy. Yes, she is flirty. That doesn’t mean that that’s all she is. Clary has romantic relationships, but she has storylines that don’t revolve around that. Alec has an important romantic/sexual relationship (with the added screentime devoted to his sexuality), but that doesn’t keep him from contributing to the plot and to other characters. Why is Isabelle the only one who gets totally sidelined by uncharacteristic weakness? Book readers… can you see Book!Isabelle getting completely shattered by drug abuse? Because I can’t.

Magnus Bane (Harry Shum, Jr.)

Magnus floated around and did some magic, but his main role was to be Alec’s boyfriend.male I don’t mind that. There’s nothing wrong with a love interest character being first and foremost a love interest. Between Alec and Magnus, Alec is definitely the more important/central character. Magnus isn’t just a love interest, though, even if that is his primary role. He is also close with Raphael, Simon, and Clary. He gets lots of funny moments and romantic beats, and he gets bonus points for being proudly and openly bisexual without a big deal being made of it.

Jocelyn Fairchild (Maxim Roy)

See Clary’s entry. I have to say, I think killing Jocelyn was the best thing to do with her. She was boring and didn’t really add anything. It’s hard to know what to do with parents in a teen-driven franchise. I do wish there was a way to let the kids take center stage without murdering their mentors, though. But in this case, I felt like Jocelyn just took up narrative space that she didn’t really warrant.

Luke Garroway (Isaiah Mustafa)

Luke was used pretty sparingly this season, which was a good thing since he’s my least favorite of the major characters. I still wish they’d kept him a mousy bookstore owner like he was in the books. Making him a policeman is still just an unfathomable choice to me. I liked the terrifying-pack-leader/unassuming-bookworm juxtaposition that the book had going. That being said… please keep pairing him up with Simon. I loved their scenes together.

Valentine Morgenstern (Alan van Sprang)

valentine
Yeah, nothing about this guy screams “evil.”

He was a little better this season, I guess. I’m consistently disappointed by the way Valentine is adapted. He’s supposed to be incredibly handsome and miraculously charming. He’s supposed to be so damn charming that good people like Luke and Jocelyn basically agreed to genocide. He’s not that charming. He’s not even close. The fact that his plan revolved around a toddler is a little sad, as well, but whatever.

Maia Roberts (Alisha Wainwright)

maiaI wanted to like Maia. I really did. Her actress is charming. When she got good writing she was very winning, and actually a huge improvement from the books. (I was never a fan of Maia in the books, though admittedly that’s probably more because I was overly attached to the established characters and didn’t want them to abandon their pagetime than because of anything she did or didn’t do). The problem was that the writers never really figured her out. Instead of giving her a consistent character, they made her randomly spiral into murderous rage every few episodes before getting talked down and becoming penitent and reasonable. Like with Isabelle, the writers failed to give her a solid storyline of her own and instead made her a little bit of an idiot, repeating the same thing episode after episode. Isabelle twitches and sweats; Maia wolfs out and yells at Luke for not acting in the best interest of the pack. I don’t want to say that the writers did a bad job writing for powerful, interesting women, but… the writers did a bad job writing for powerful, interesting women.

Raphael Santiago (David Castro)

I loved Raphael at the beginning of the season when he was menacing Simon and chilling with Magnus, but as soon as he got washed up in Isabelle’s bad plotline… sigh. I do like that he’s now confirmed asexual, though. Asexuality and/or celibacy gets the short end of the stick in fiction a lot. I’ll never understand why modern adaptations keep trying to give Sherlock Holmes love interests. But I’m getting off topic.

Victor Aldertree (Nick Sagar)

Meh. He was basically a new Lydia since Lydia is nice now. And also because she left. I guess the actress got a gig on a different show or something? Aldertree hooked Isabelle on yin fen, and I really can’t forgive that. Please let them give Isabelle some good plotlines in the upcoming episodes.

Other Characters

Iris Rouse was just disgusting. Madzie was okay. Dot has been redundant for a long time. How many fakeout deaths has she had at this point? Too many. And I’m still not sure why they made her a young warlock instead of an old mundane. Anyway… Meliorn was surprisingly not as gross as he was last season. I like the extended Lightwood family. They’re always good for some drama.

I like that the show uses the source material but updates it. It’s clear from the little shoutouts that the writers are very aware of what goes on both in The Mortal Instruments and in The Infernal Devices. It is fun to see the characters that I love so much in different situations, as long as it doesn’t differ too far from canon. I’m pretty forgiving. For some reason in a TV show format I don’t necessarily want to see a beat for beat recreation of a book that I’ve read (for whatever reason I’m very uptight about strict faithfulness to the source when it comes to movie adaptations, but for TV shows I’m like… “eh”).

Way to go, Shadowhunters. I’m looking forward to 2B.

gena/finn (Book Review)

I think it is really awesome that fans and fangirls are now protagonists in their own stories instead of being weird losers on the outskirts of someone else’s. I’ve been seeking out those books, so please give me recommendations if you have any.

Here, I’ll be reviewing gena/finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson. It is really, really hard to talk about this book because it doesn’t read like one cohesive story. The narrative builds in one direction and then there is a very dramatic, very unexpected event that completely changes everything. There is no way for me to review the book except by halves.

gena:finnI really, really like the first part of the book. I feel like the authors really understand fandom. This blog is really the first time that I myself have been active online, but I’ve lurked in the peripheries of enough fandoms to feel completely at home with the culture and the lingo. The world that Moskowitz and Helgeson create in the first half feels exactly like the real online fandom world. Fans write blogs and fanfiction. They make art. They make glowing remarks that aren’t always totally warranted, maintain a ‘we love it but we hate it’ attitude and sometimes go to war with various factions within the larger fandom. They make friends online and then meet up at them at cons. They know every detail of their favorite show, and they talk about their favorite actors as if they’re close friends. It all feels familiar. Familiar in a good way. Gena and Finn felt like real people, the sort of people that I would like to know.
Side note: Up Below is pretty obviously based on Supernatural, so if you’re a fan of that show the fandom nods are even more fun.

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Before starting the book, I thought that I would be bothered by the format, which is a mix of blog posts, text conversations, instant messages, emails, and more, but it is actually pretty cool. You don’t experience gena/finn the way you do a traditional book, because the story is hidden in all kinds of different forms. Instead of reading about Gena and Finn, you log into their lives. That said, if you’re not familiar with fandom conventions and language, this is not the book for you. You’ll get lost quickly.

The book is definitely for fans (honestly, it’s for hardcore fans), and therefore I think that the way the authors approach the real life/fandom life issue is really interesting. Both protagonists struggle maintaining a healthy balance, and Finn’s boyfriend Charlie (who is a casual fan who doesn’t quite get the intense love Finn and Gena have for their favorite show Up Below) offers an interesting outsider perspective on the phenomenon.

I am not as happy with the second half of the book. Spoilers from here on out.

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The first indication that the book is going to go downhill was when Zack and Toby (the lead actors in Up Below) recognized Gena at a con and it comes out that she had acted with Zack in his old show and had been a child star before a mental break. While I don’t think it is necessarily bad that there is an attempt to draw a more tangible line between the fan and the object of her obsession, I think this line is drawn too thick. Most fans don’t have a close relationship with their favorite actor; the show or book or whatever it is that they that they love touches their life in a less tangible way. Other books on my list, in my opinion, deal with this better, by making the fandom itself meaningful on its own.

I could have let that pass, but I really dislike the last bit. Gena is going to cameo on Up Below, and while she is there there is a gas explosion that kills three people, including Zack Martocchio (Gena’s actor buddy/big brother and quasi crush), and sends Gena and others to the hospital. The last part of the book deals with Gena’s PTSD. She writes a lot of bad poetry and basically mopes around because the deaths are potentially her fault (she saw the smoke and didn’t pull the fire alarm because she’d hallucinated fires in the past and it was what got her kicked off her other show).

Once this happened, it may as well have been a different book. The tone changes drastically, from joyful and a little silly to depressing and deadly serious. The format switches as well. Instead of bouncing from blog to email to text to fanfiction comment section, the narrative sticks almost exclusively to Finn’s diary. And Finn puts a lot of exposition into her diary.

There is also an awkward attempt at a love triangle between Gena, Finn, and Charlie. I didn’t like that because I really enjoyed the strong, intense platonic friendship between Gena and Finn. I didn’t want a romance between them because it sort of makes it seem like intense emotional closeness has to mean romance. That said, I also understand the complaints on goodreads that said that it was bad queerbaiting because it teases the two women falling in love and then pulls back on it (plus the traditional fan denotation of “/” indicating romance is in the title). The plotline just drifts in that awkward middle ground, and I feel like they should have gone big or gone home: make something out of the romantic potential, or remove it since it goes nowhere.

My main problem is that whiplash, though. I wanted to read a celebration of fandom and friendship. I was not expecting doom and gloom, and while unexpected twists are often awesome, in this case it feels more like false advertising than a legitimate surprise.

 

 

Unwholly (Book Review)

unwhollyWarning: There are some spoilers sprinkled throughout this. They’re not too bad, but don’t keep reading if you haven’t read the book and want to go into it with an entirely blank slate.

I requested Unwholly by Neal Shusterman from another library since I liked Unwind so well. The sequel is just as good as the first one, and I will continue reading the series. It’s always super exciting when a sequel absolutely lives up to the series opener. For some reason I always am afraid that the author brought out the big guns in book one and doesn’t have anything left for the rest of the series. When book two is great, you know you’ve found a solid series.

Unwholly picks up roughly where the last book ended. Connor is in charge of the airplane graveyard with all the AWOL unwinds (now called whollies). Risa starts out with

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Here, have another picture.

him, but before long she ends up with a group called the Proactive Citizenry who blackmail her into speaking out in favor of unwinding. She is also forced to be the on-camera escort of Camus Comprix, who is the first being created entirely out of carefully collected parts of almost a hundred unwinds. Lev has the most going on this book: first he talks to at-risk youths as a part of his community service for his almost-terrorism, then he finds himself as an almost religious figure in a group that specializes in rescuing and deprogramming tithes, and then he and a girl called Miracolina encounter Nelson—the juvie cop who got humiliated last book—on their way to warn Connor about the coming juvie cop invasion of the whollie camp.

There’s a lot going in this book. The Cap-17 law has created a shortage of unwind parts and led to a black market. Nelson is running around with a bitter vengeance. The juvie cops apparently know about the Graveyard but are biding their time for some mysterious reason. Risa struggles with her disability before being essentially blackmailed into having her spine replaced. Cam’s introduction forces consideration of the existence of the soul—as does Miracolina’s willingness to be tithed, which is equivalent to suicide. Connor runs into problems with the Anti-Divisional Resistance, which is incredibly unorganized and pretty unhelpful. Aside from that, he eventually discovers that one of his closest confidants is a double agent for the juvie cops. Said double agent is one of my favorite characters, and the existence of a sympathetic character who plays both sides is testament to Shusterman’s tremendous writing. There’s also a stork uprising. Led by a new character—Sharkey, who’s the worst—the children who were storked at birth believe that they are treated as second-class citizens and mount a coup. It’s impossible not to see their point, but it’s also impossible not to resent every douchey, selfish thing that they do.

Shusterman managed to keep me guessing and thinking the whole time. He really does deal deftly with hard topics like religion and death and the soul and prejudice and science and more. Like I said in my review/recap of Unwind, he pulls off a great balancing act of presenting valid arguments from both sides without villianizing anyone too far or candy coating anything to force any particular view.

The only complaint I have with this book was that I wasn’t crazy about the new characters. I love Connor, Risa, and Lev. I have disproportionate love for Hayden, who I think is hilarious and arguably makes the deepest points. But I despised Sharkey passionately (yeah, yeah, I know I wasn’t supposed to like him). I was also really annoyed by Miracolina, who was just a more irritating version of early-Lev. I do really like Cam, though. And Trace was awesome as well. So it wasn’t a total wash for me. I get the impression that Miracolina may have been a one book character, and if that’s the case… good. I’m happy to keep Cam and resigned to the fact that Sharkey will return, but I think Miracolina’s story is over.

Neal Shusterman just keeps impressing me. Challenger Deep is the only one of his books that I haven’t been over the moon about. I think he’s officially made it onto my always-read list. I’m looking forward to finding and reading Unsouled.

Shiver (Book Review)

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I swore off vampire novels about a month ago because of A Discovery of Witches (by Deborah Harkness… it may be the worst book I’ve ever read). I really should have sworn off paranormal romance in general, at least for a while, because unless it is done really, really well it is just the worst. Seriously. The worst. [See: Hush Hush]. Shiver is one such paranormal romance. It is a romance between a girl and a wolf.

 

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I’m Audra, by the way. Hi. And I apologize for the largely uncharacteristic snark in this recap.

No, Audra, you might say. It’s between a girl and a werewolf. To this argument I would reply: eh… sort of.

The premise of Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver is that a girl, Grace, was attacked by wolves when she was eleven, but as the pack was about to eat her, one of the more powerful members of the pack looked at her, thought she was pretty and was like, “dudes, no eating this one. I’m gonna date her in six years.” See, this wolf—Sam—is actually a werewolf that shifts with the weather, so he’ll be human in the summertime and therefore free to romance Grace. Why does he wait six years to approach her? There’s no explicit explanation, but three potential ones: 1) Grace is eleven and Sam is twelve when she gets attacked, and he wants to wait to meet until they can dive right into a romance; 2) he wants to wait until he is about to be stuck in wolf form forever to make for maximum drama; 3) he wants to make sure that Grace falls madly in love with his wolf form—to the point of disinterest in other relationships—to maximize the gross bestiality undertones. Honestly, Grace was so in love with wolf!Sam (and yes, the phrase “in love with” is used when referring to Sam as a wolf, and it is worth noting that Grace is head over heels, doesn’t-want-to-wash-the-hand-she-touched-him-with obsessed with Sam before she has any idea that he is actually a human) that I’m pretty sure their relationship would fall apart once his lycanthropy was cured. I mean, what did they ever discuss during their romance aside from what it means to be a wolf and how sad it will be when he can’t be with her anymore? I’ll answer that excellent question. Nothing. They talked about nothing.

But, Audra! What about Sam’s music? They talked about that.

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Pictured: the pretty cover

Actually, other me, they really didn’t. Yes, Sam composed painfully terrible emo music about Grace, but he really only shared it with Grace’s neglectful mother. And yes, I do think that his one-scene relationship with Mrs. Grace was more interesting than his novel-length “relationship” with Grace.

This novel cemented for me what the problem is with badly written paranormal romances: the characters spend so much time obsessing about how awful it will be when xyz separates them forever that they never establish why they want to be together in the first place. Allow me to provide a summary of Grace and Sam’s romance.

SAM: Wolf buddies, let’s not eat this eleven year old girl. She’s hot.

GRACE: Oh my gosh, not eating me is the most romantic thing ever.

GRACE: Wolves are super sexy.

SAM: I am also super sexy in human form.

GRACE: Yes! You have yellow wolf eyes! I love you so much. What is it like to be a wolf?

SAM: *blah blah blah wolf facts*

GRACE: *swoons*

SAM: Soon I will be wolf only, and never human.

GRACE: No! We must be together forever!

SAM: We are so in love, but I am a wolf!

GRACE: We are so in love, and we must be together forever!

SAM AND GRACE: We are so in love. How will we be together if we cannot be together because I am a wolf?

SAM: *is cured*

As you can see, it is riveting. There is so much sexual and romantic tension. You can tell because Sam is sexy and sometimes they kiss in bed and Grace’s parents don’t know because they are such bad adults that they accidentally locked Grace in a car for several hours when she was a child. If I had cared about Sam and Grace as individuals I might have cared about their relationship. Of course, if Stiefvater were capable of writing multiple interesting characters, this would be a very different book. I did not care at all about either protagonist. I did not care about their relationship, and thus I did not care about Sam turning into a wolf forever. It would have saved me from having to read bad emo poetry, which is always a plus.

To be fair to the book, there was more going on than just the Sam/Grace nomance (that is not a typo). Of course, it was also terrible. Everyone is hunting the wolves because some of them—including, presumably, the totally unnecessary female wolf Shelby who is in love with Sam because reasons—ate a kid from Grace’s school. The kid, Jack, actually turned into a werewolf but everyone thinks that he is dead because werewolves are a Big Secret for Some Reason. Seriously, Sam is always going on about how important it is to keep it a secret, but it seems to me that there is no reason not to tell people. I mean, the wolves are all local people. If people knew that they were human part of the time, they would not hunt them. It would be in the wolves’ best interest. Plus, people would not have to grieve. But let’s pretend that there is some reason that the general population can’t know. There was still no reason for Grace to be such a dick to Jack’s sister Isabel. Isabel’s brother just died. You don’t have to insult her and cast doubt on her sanity just because she is popular and destroyed someone’s reputation once. There was no detail about the reputation-ruining, by the way. It was just tossed out as a reason for Grace to be so horrible to Isabel. Isabel actually seemed like a pretty decent person. The kind who wouldn’t ditch her friends for her boyfriend all the time, for instance. The sort that might notice and/or care if her best friend for many years had been bitten by a werewolf. Unlike some other people. *Cough Grace cough*

The wolf pack rules also make no sense, even past the dumb don’t-reveal-our-existence rule. Take, for instance, the fact that Sam was apparently a very important member of the pack when he was twelve. I don’t remember how old he was when he was turned, but he wasn’t, like, an infant or anything. He hadn’t been a wolf for long, and even if he had been… you don’t promote twelve-year-old boys to the top of an organization that has actual adults in it. Sorry. You just don’t. And what was with the recruiting and biting of new wolves? Sam’s mentor Beck was like ‘we need to preserve the pack blah blah blah’ but… why? If there are no more wolves to protect the pack, then there might not be a pack anymore. And why would that be such a trauma? As far as I can tell, the wolves never do anything to warrant their existence. If the pack disappeared, all the people who would otherwise be wolves would just be human all the time. Of course, in a town of wolf fetishists, maybe that is something to shudder about. I wouldn’t know.

Ugh. This book. It was just so, so bad. Reading goodreads reviews about how terrible it was was very cathartic. People kept saying things like “I recommend this book to: no one. Not even my worst enemy.” They also referred to Grace as a “boring Bella Swan” and compared Sam unfavorably to Edward. I like Twilight, but the general population doesn’t, so this was not Twilight love. This was people saying basically “Shiver is worse that a book that is pretty much universally panned for being the worst example of a paranormal romance.” I agree wholeheartedly. Shiver is absolutely terrible, and the fact that it got published blows my mind almost as much as the fact that it somehow has at least two sequels. The cover is very attractive, though. I’ll give it that.

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love (Book Review)

I’ve been thinking about fandom in fiction. Specifically, what role do nerds play when they themselves appear in a work of fiction? There are sidekick nerds, of course. But they generally tend to stay just to the side of the spotlight. I don’t know if the emergence of nerds, geeks, and fangirls as full blown protagonists is a new thing, but I’ve only started seeking them out and reading them in the last year or so. Let me tell you: it has been a blast.

I’ve been low-key considering writing a full essay comparing the books I’ve found, discussing the way various authors weave fiction and real life together and write to an audience that views fiction more closely, critically, and obsessively than the average person. I may or may not actually get around to doing that, but I do want to share some of my thoughts about the books I’ve found, because as I said above, reading them has been amazing. I have never felt so connected to fictional characters, or as understood by their writers.

I will eventually put up a review of all these books. Most of them I loved. A few of them I didn’t, but anyone interested in how writers portray fans will probably get a kick out of them. (Side note: if anyone knows of any other good ones… please let me know!)

hearteyesAll the Feels by Danika Stone

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

gena/finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Kill the Boyband by Goldy Moldavskyhearteyes

Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here by Anna Breslaw

Stranger than Fanfiction by Chris Colfer

geek's guideIn case you weren’t tipped off by the either the title of this post or the fact that I bolded The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love (in which case, I’m slightly concerned), I’m going to review and recap The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love.

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love is about Graham, a wannabe writer and superfan of the cult comic Chronicles of Althena, and the weekend he attends New York Comic Con with the express purpose of finding the perfect moment to confess his undying love for his longtime best friend Roxana. Things don’t go quite to plan: he fails to get tickets to the panel he really wanted to go to (the Chronicles of Althena creator is appearing in public for the first time in ages), and Roxana meets a hunky british dude at a speed dating event her friend Felicia drags them to.

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The whole book was cute, but the standout is that Graham (spoiler) doesn’t win Roxana over in the end. There’s never any implication that Roxana is a prize to be won or that Graham deserves her love for being such a good friend to her. Roxana is her own person, and if she decides that she’d rather date Devin than Graham… well, it’s her call. It’s a rare thing to find a book, sadly, that presents platonic friendship as something just as important than romance, but this one does. It does an excellent job of sidestepping the upsettingly common rope of depicting attractive females simply as prizes for worthy guys.

FELICIA: “No one can live up to perfection, Graham. Not me. Not Roxana. Seriously, you guys need to stop this nonsense. Maybe if you let yourself see us as we really are—you know, human—you wouldn’t let yourself get so intimidated. You wouldn’t be setting yourself up to fail” (219).

When Roxana turns Graham down, I cheered for her even though I was very sympathetic to Graham. Even better was Roxana’s speech about how their teenage romances might not stick, but their deep friendship was something that would stay for life. It was refreshing.

Another thing Tash did really well was walking the tightrope between real life and fandom with her characters. It’s easy to tip into judgmental territory. Too many people write off fans as idiots who can’t deal with reality. I think Graham sums it up succinctly:

“Fiction is there when real life fails you. But it’s not a substitute” (228).

It’s simple, but it does a good job of saying what fiction and fandom is to a lot of fans: an escape for when real life is too tough. I also appreciated the little tip of the hat to aspiring writers:

“There’s no aspiring about it. If you write, you’re a writer. Maybe getting paid for it is a different can of worms, but being a writer itself? Don’t doubt that’s what you are” (84-85).

Let me tell you, I had a heck of a time finding this book. It was one of the first ones that popped up when I googled “books about fandom” but it was the last one I tracked down. I honestly had given up on it. And then I found it at Barnes and Noble, which was simultaneously exciting and embarrassing because I know I’d looked there before. It was worth the questing, though. It is a great addition to my ever-growing collection of books about fandom. I’m glad I finally tracked it down.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Book Review)

 

bearIt has been a really long time since I read “The Winter’s Tale” but I haven’t forgotten the greatest stage direction in the history of plays: exit, pursued by a bear. It is absolutely hysterical to me. I’m clearly not the only one. It’s actually listed on tvtropes, and there’s a joke about it in an early episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that pretty much cinched my viewership.

The point is, I picked up E.K. Johnston’s book Exit, Pursued by a Bear one hundred percent because of the title. I saw the title and my immediate thought was, “This person shares my weirdness.” I kind of expected the book to be funny in a mildly morbid way, but it wasn’t. That’s not to say I disliked it—I didn’t—but it was not the silly read I expected it to be.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is about Hermione, who is raped at cheerleading camp. The rest of the book is about Hermione’s road to healing. The writing is easy to read, but the subject matter is pretty harsh. Hermione is drugged, raped, and then thrown into a lake. Her assaulter actually impregnated her, and she has an abortion. She breaks up with her boyfriend because he essentially slut-shames and alienates her after the event. The book is also not as heavy as it might have been, because Hermione has an unrealistically good support system. That’s not my commentary. In an afterward, Johnston writes that it was important to her that Hermione has a good support system even though most rape victims don’t. Hermione’s supporters are quite well drawn characters considering the restricting length of the novel which, at only 243 pages, doesn’t have a lot of room for development for anyone but Hermione. The most important side characters are Polly, Hermione’s fearless and occasionally terrifying “superhero” best friend who quietly comes out as lesbian; Mallory, one of Hermione and Polly’s cheer teammates who overcomes her shyness to become a champion for Hermione; Dion, another teammate who supports Hermione and helps her overcome her fear of boys her own age; Leo, the aforementioned terrible boyfriend; Amy, Hermione’s friend from camp and Polly’s eventual girlfriend; and Dr. Hutt, Hermione’s unconventional therapist who helps her with her calculus.

As I said above, it’s been a while since I read the play that this novel’s title comes from. If I’m remembering it correctly, a main event is that a character named Hermione is turned into a statue after her husband offends the gods. At the end of the play, she miraculously walks off the pedestal. Johnston’s Hermione is clearly a callback to Shakespeare’s Hermione; she had to assume her readers would make that connection, even though she only mentions Harry Potter and Greek mythology when remarking on the name. There’s definitely the potential of analysis there: Exit, Pursued by a Bear‘s Hermione is metaphorically frozen when she is raped—something she has to suffer despite the fact that it was a man’s error—but emerges at the end, apparently healed. It’s been too long since I read the play for me to go into it any more than that, but I certainly enjoyed the allusion.

I can’t say that I loved the book, but I did like it. I really liked the positive depiction of religion. I felt a bit like the edges were softened too much overall, though. I’m not saying that the book should have been more traumatic, necessarily, but my overwhelming sense is that the novel dealt with a really horrible, harsh topic but didn’t entirely give it the gravitas it should have had. I liked that Johnston tried to give Hermione’s story a relatively good end and therefore to give Hermione an inner strength, but a lot of it didn’t feel very real. That being said, it was a good book. I thought that the characters were very well done, particularly considering the restrictive shortness of the book, and I did really like that the story focused more on Hermione and her relationships with the people around her than it did with the rapist. I fell into the trap early on of just really, really wanting to know who the rapist was, as if the book were a mystery, and I think Johnston did a good job of keeping the focus on Hermione and saying emphatically ‘this is Hermione’s story; it’s not about the piece of filth who raped her.’ In that sense, it was powerful.