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All posts for the month December, 2013

Happy holidays

Published December 25, 2013 by Shannon

Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate such things. Even if you don’t, it’s a little hard to avoid the whole Christmas season, so I hope you are at least having a good day.

Today I’m going to be on a plane headed back home to Kansas to spend time with my family. I hope to get a lot of reading done on the flight, provided I haven’t culled my TBR pile into complete oblivion.

I hope all of us have joyous celebrations, with lots of love and laughter. Or, failing that, I hope the booze is plentiful.

In closing, let’s have a raucous and celebratory Christmas classic I have heard exactly no time at all on the Christmas radio playlists I’ve been subjected to.

Review: Shifting Plains by Jean Johnson

Published December 23, 2013 by Shannon

I almost don’t want to write this review. There are some books that are hard to review because they’re so good I can’t find the words to describe their awesomeness, and some that are so mediocre that, “Eh, it was fine” is about all I can say. Then there are the books that start off with a bang, only to hit a rut from which they never recover.

Jean Johnson’s Shifting Plains was that sort of book. Johnson has been a reliably good author for me in the past. Given the dirth of good secondary-world fantasy romance out there, her Sons of Destiny series was a much-needed addition to that niche. I read all eight books, and there are few series I’ve managed to do that with. I’ve bought most everything she’s put out since, and am really intrigued by her latest novel, but I wanted to catch up on everything I’d missed, so I began Shifting Plains, which is set centuries before the events in the Sons of Destiny books with high expectations.

Everything starts out well. Tava has tracked down the bandits who killed her father, and even though she’s shocked and grief-stricken, she’s determined to get her revenge. Before she can, the bandits are attacked by a group of Shifterai–as the name suggests, people who can shapeshift. Tava, who can do this as well, is spotted by the warleader of the party, Kodan, who is curious about this strange female shapeshifter. They meet up again in Five Springs, the small backwater Tava is from, where the village leaders are determined to make a servant out of the willful Tava. Kodan strikes a bargain with the villagers. In exchange for killing the bandits, he’ll take Tava and all her worldly goods off the hands of the villagers. Tava’s not happy about the arrangement, but Kodan is quick to point out that, hey, she’s a shapeshifter, she should get to know her own people. At least she should give them a chance. Tava is dubious, because her mother was captured by a group of rogue Shifterai who raped and abused her, and Tava assumes all of them are like that. Kodan wants to prove that’s not true.

The first part of the book is a wonderful fish out of water story, with Tava wary but curious about the Shifterai lifestyle. Her growing attraction to Kodan is slow to build, and the two have a relationship based entirely on mutual respect. I did have a few qualms–like that every other woman in the text was either someone’s mom or a shrew or a slut–but they weren’t enough to throw me out of the story.

Then it happened, the scene that took me right out of my reading trance and straight into the land of Do Not Want. It occurs halfway through the book, so needless to say, skip ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I don’t think I mentioned the fact that Tava is the daughter of the village scribe. In text she is explicitly stated to be a bookworm and to have gotten a good general education. Nonetheless, at one point Kodan decides to teach Tava about how consensual sex (as opposed to the rape her mom went through) is supposed to work. He uses visual aids and everything. (That’s not nearly as awesomely dirty as it could be, sadly.) Of course, Tava never had icky girlie feelings in her no-no place before Kodan showed up, and when she does some experimentation, she can’t even do that without him being on hand to tell her how her own body works.

Ugh. I get that a fantasy for a lot of romance readers is the pure, innocent maiden being defiled by a more worldly hero, but really? With all her boundless curiosity, not once does Tava ever think, “Hmmm, I wonder what these nerves do?” or even, “Why does it feel good when I rub this against something?” I just don’t buy it that for this character as written, it never once occurred to her to even experiment. I mean, being sexual is something you can do all by yourself, and she wasn’t the one with the traumatic past. That was her mother. Plus, as a means of escalating sexual tension, mansplaining about how when a married Shifterai man and woman really love each other, they sometimes touch each other’s no-no parts is pretty much the opposite of erotic.

From there, the momentum was gone. I couldn’t recapture my initial investment in the characters, and when a slutty rival for the heroine, who is, naturally, teh evulz, arrives on the scene, my eyes were rolling consttantly and I started to notice just how much unnecessary detail about geography and the building of tents and Shifterai society was crammed into the story in a way that served no purpose.

I know it’s not fair to grade a book based on the fact that I wish the author had written something different. Nonetheless, the first half of the book was amazing and I wish it had continued to be this awesome. As it was, I was glad to be done with the book, and I’m not sure I’m going to get to the second book in this duology anytime soon.

The first half was in A- to B+ territory. That execorable mansplainy bit brought things down to a D, and though it got better, I’d say the final result is a C+.

Some thoughts on The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Published December 20, 2013 by Shannon

Note: This is a fairly spoiler-free review, but it’s not entirely devoid of spoilers, because there’s one bit of characterization I wanted to talk about that isn’t revealed until the second book. You’ve been warned.

When I was in high school, back in the late 90’s, I fell in with a group of boys who changed my life for the better in ways I was completely oblivious to at the time. They were all friends of the boy I spent all of those years obsessed with in the way of teenaged first love. I don’t remember that we used the word ‘geek’ to describe what we were, but that was us. We played role playing games, we read and wrote science fiction and fantasy stories, we discussed philosophy, we spent hours endlessly dissecting and solving the world’s problems. Because of those boys, I began exploring Paganism, though that was something of a fraught process, since I didn’t have many resources and only the expertise of people my own age who, all of us being teenagers, thought they were wise beyond their years. Needless to say, this was not an optimal learning environment.

We all moved on in due course. That boy and I drifted apart. I still have those memories, though, which is why I’m drawn to young adult fiction. I want to remember those intense feelings, the way that life seemed like an exciting adventure and I was confident and less afraid because I had my people with me. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work; I have no desire to read about snooty girls and their relationships with their frenemies, because even if I believed that was as common an occurrence as books would have you think, the worldviewthat encourages that sort of thinking is way too grim for me.

Paranormal YA rarely works for me, either. I couldn’t enjoy the fantasy of Bella finding her Edward because that particular sparkly vampire was creepy as hell and downright abusive. Plus it bothered me that Bella had no friends outside of him. But that’s another post.

Initially, I dismissed Maggie Stiefvater as yet another YA author cashing in on the paranormal romance YA craze. Sure, her books garnered rave reviews, but all of them seemed to promise all the things I hated: overwrought conflict, stupid love triangles, and bland heroines. I probably would have continued dismissing what turned out to be a huge treat if it hadn’t been for this review of The Raven Boys. Renay doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would go in for excessive schmoop and silly love triangle nonsense. Her review was so passionate and articulate that I knew I had to meet these characters for myself.

Blue has always known her future. If she kisses her true love, he will die. Ergo, the sensible thing to do is not to get involved with anyone, little say the Raven Boys, the sons of the wealthy and elite who attend Aglionby Academy, a prestigious private school in Blue’s hometown of Henrietta, Virginia. So far that’s going well for her, until she accompanies her aunt, who is psychic like the rest of Blue’s family, to perform a ritual on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue’s not psychic herself, but she can amplify a psychic’s abilities. As Blue’s aunt catalogues the spirits of the dead passing during their vigil, Blue hears a voice, and learns a name. The voice belongs to a boy called Gansey, who is one of those aforementioned Aglionby boys. Blue’s aunt informs her that the only way she’d have heard that voice is if she killed him.

A few days later, Gansey shows up at Blue’s home hoping for a psychic reading. It turns out he is obsessed with finding the remains of a Welsh king who is believed to be buried somewhere near Henrietta. He’s brought his friends, scholarship student Adam, brittle Ronan, and taciturn Noah, and Blue soon finds that her life is inextricably tied to the raven boys, all of whom have secrets.

I knew I was going to love The Raven Boys right away. I was introduced to a whole plethora of characters, and Stiefvater expected me to keep up with them. I got the sense that Blue, Gansey and the rest had had full and complete lives before I showed up to read their book, and would go on having their own lives long after I turned the last pages. I loved that Blue’s family was eccentric, but not altogether useless. I felt I’d stepped into an early Charles de Lintnovel, where the magic was slightly sinister but hidden just beneath the surface.

I also got that sense of nostalgia I love when reading a good YA. Granted, none of the boys I remember from my own high school days were rich, and none of us had to deal with all the stuff that gets thrown at the Aglionby boys, but the chemistry between all of them felt authentic and genuine. It was also fantastic to read about a girl’s relationship with boys that was mostly platonic. (Oh, there is a love triangle here, but it’s not framed as why-can’t-she-just-make-up-her-mind? It’s a complicating factor, and I don’t know how it will be resolved, but there are other, more interesting things going on than the romance.)

The Raven Boys starts off relatively slowly, introducing all the characters and letting the reader get to know them. The writing is lovely, and Stiefvater avoids the trap of becoming too much of an info- dump. I had become attached to Blue and her boys, so when one of the first major plot twists happened,about two thirds through the book,causing the plot to shift abruptly into high gear, I was on the edge of my seat. As with most opening volumes of series, the book ends with a lot more questions than answers. It’s not a true cliffhanger, or at least it didn’t feel like a “Gotcha. You need the next book right now!” sort of ending. Nonetheless, I had gotten so wrapped up in the lives of Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah that I didn’t want to let them go, so of course, I bought the next book. The Dream Thieves picks up a few weeks after The Raven Boys ends, and the readers left to keep up with the plot on her own. This time, the story centers around Ronan, who was my least favorite of the boys. He’s the bad boy, the one who has scars that are close to the surface. I normally don’t enjoy those types of heroes, either in adult romance or in YA, because the expectation usually is that once you introduce a bad boy, there’s got to be a love interest who comes along to tame and reform him. In this way, Stiefvater subverts those tropes because that doesn’t actually happen, and it’s a credit to her writing that I fell hard for Ronan despite him embodying a character type I typically hate.

Ronan has the ability to manifest things from his dreams into the waking world. Needless to say, there are people who find that ability useful, people whose intentions are not honorable.

This second volume of the Raven Cycle is much darker than its predecessor. All of the characters have to make difficult choices. All of them have to face the darkest parts of themselves. Yet again, the end brings closure of a sort, but there are still puzzles to be solved. (What is the Grey Man’s role in the larger story? Where did all the people who disappear go?) I’m disappointed that I have to wait a whole other year to find out.

The romance is still an important subplot, but it’s not the important subplot. I love that Stiefvater isn’t teasing us with different possibilities for shipping–the pairing is fairly obvious and seems inevitable–but it’s all dark. After all, how are Blue and Gansey going to have any kind of relationship if when she kisses him, he’ll die?

And can I just say… Gansey is quite swoon worthy. Angie makes a great case in her review for the awesome brokenness that is Adam, but Gansey had my heart from the first. He’s a geek, he’s fascinated with the occult, he has a lot of love, and he tries so hard to fix people, which is convincingly presented in the text as a significant character flaw.
Speaking of romance (and here’s where I get a little spoilery, so look away now and come back in a paragraph) I thought Ronan being gay was handled well. It’s not overt, but the signs are all there. It’s not a very important element to the overall plot, but it explains a lot. I want Ronan to meet a nice boy who is going to return his feelings without necessarily needing to fix him and polish his rough edges. Or I want a polyamorous relationship between all of the characters. Sadly,the latter is probably not in the offing.

I listened to both of these books on audio. The first was through the NationalLibrary Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped audiobook program. The narrator they picked was a cheerful, pleasant-voiced woman of the sort who is often asked to narrate YA books. I expected a similar experience when I got to The Dream Thieves, and was surprised when I bought the commercial version and ran across Will Patton. He has a raspy, three-packs-a-day voice, and did an excellent job bringing the darker aspects of the story to the fore. I’m not sure I’d have come to like Ronan quite so much if it wasn’t for the way Patton read him. But they were totally different reading experiences and I enjoyed them both in different ways.

There’s so much more I want to say about this series. I still find myself thinking about it weeks later–and it’s taken a long time to finish this review. Ultimately, though, the only thing I have to say is that if you like well-constructed, character-driven fantasy and YA, you should read it immediately.

Final Grade for both: An A for The Raven Boys and a B+ for The Dream Thieves.

Tilting at Windmills: The makeup rant

Published December 11, 2013 by Shannon

Note: Trigger warnings for discussion of disability and body image issues.

I was about to post a comment on this thread at Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings, but ended up bloviating at length, so I erased it and decided to write it up over here, where I could go on as long as I needed to. I am working on a book review, so will try to have an on-topic post for later.

I am ambivalent about makeup. I know that most women wear it, because it makes them appear more professional and put-together. I know these are reasons why I, personally, should wear makeup. After all, I am not only visibly disabled, I’m a fat woman. I need all the put-togetherness I can get.

And yet…

When I was a teenager, my mom gently explained that I was pretty enough without makeup. She told me that wearing lots of makeup is actually counterproductive and makes you look prematurely older. I never questioned this. After all, I like being a low-maintenance sort of girl. I roll out of bed 45 minutes before I have to leave for work, which is long enough to get a cup of coffee and some cereal and pack my lunch and brush my teeth. I don’t want to give up valuable sleep time to put something on my face that I can’t reap the benefits of. (I love the smell of perfume. I like the polished feel of acrylics on my fingernails and they keep me from biting them. Makeup, though, at least for me, is for other people.

And yet…

I was eating dinner with some friends earlier this year. Three of the group were blind women, and the topic of cosmetics came up. One of my friends told us that her mother had told her the same thing mine had told me, to which another of the group, who is quite a bit older than I am and an absolute sweetheart, despite how this story is framed, snorted a laugh and said, “Well, yeah. She told you that so she wouldn’t have to actually teach you how to put on makeup.” She then explained how it wasn’t that hard and she did it all the time. I remember feeling so very small in that moment, because it seemed to be confirmation that blind femininity: I was doin’ it wrong. Not only that, but she was right: my mom had done me a disservice, and this was just confirmation of things I already knew: Mom was not a very patient teacher, so of course she wouldn’t have wanted to teach me about makeup because she had no way of knowing how. I found myself wanting to join in my friends’ conversation, to eagerly accept my older friend’s words of wisdom on the topic of makeup. Equally strong was my desire to thumb my nose at her and tell her she could take her patriarchal bullshit and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and no way would my mom lie to me about something like how I ought to present myself to the world. In the end, I said nothing and just sat there feeling miserable and unlovely and confused.

I do want to be pretty. Hell, I want to present as sexy sometimes. I honestly don’t know how to do that. The awesome fat women in my life who offer me what I think are good fashion suggestions are my mom and sister,and you know who I don’t want telling me ways I could look desirable to potential hookups? Someone who shares my genetic material. Plus there’s still that stuff above about my mom and whether or not I can accept or trust her taste.

And yes, I understand that beauty is only skin deep and pretty is as pretty does. And I don’t want to feel pretty and ultra-feminine every day, but once in a while I would like to achieve this effect by myself.

I do know other blind women besides my friend who apply at least foundation. I think it is conceivable that I could learn. I just don’t know if I want to badly enough. A part of me thinks I should, for the intellectual exercise if nothing else. A part of me wants to learn how I can make myself look prettier and more presentable, and even how to look sexy, though of course I have fewer causes to present as sexy than I do to present as professional.. . An insidious other part snarkily wants to know who,exactly, I am hoping to impress, and also noting that nobody expects any better of me because,after all,people are frequently amazed I get out of bed and have a job,so I’m already at least somewhat ahead of the curve there.

Mostly, I’m comfortable with who I am. Mostly, I probably wouldn’t often wear makeup if I ever learned to apply it competently. But the pull between cultural expectations (you’re a professional woman in your thirties who is already fat and disabled, which are two strikes against you) and my rebellious inner feminist (Fuck societal norms. You’re put together enough that no one treats you with obvious contempt, plus, what do you care what judgey people think of you anyway?) is sometimes quite strong, and I haven’t figured out how to navigate these waters.

Note: I just want to make it clear that I am not fishing for compliments. I know I’m not the only blind woman who grapples with this conundrum. (Or the only woman, full stop, who does.) This has been on my mind for weeks, and tonight I finally decided it warranted a post.

What say you, gentle readers? How do you deal with the makeup question? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.

Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

Published December 3, 2013 by Shannon

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Every quarter, the library staff gets together and has a brown bag book club. I’ve been to two since I began my job, and on Thursday, it’s my turn to lead a discussion. Y’all know that I love book clubs, so I’m excited to run one.

I chose The Best Christmas Pageant Ever because it’s a book I remember fondly from my own childhood. It also takes less than an hour to read the whole thing. To refresh myself on the book’s content, I read it over lunch and was shocked at how it made me feel.
For those of you who somehow missed this book in your formative years, the story is quite simple. The Herdmans, a family consisting largely of bullies and “bad kids” somehow learn about the church Christmas pageant and decide to take on the starring roles for themselves, much to the chagrin of everyone else. Things go horribly, hilariously wrong for awhile, but in the end, the Herdmans put a whole new spin on the Christmas story.
When I read TBCPE as a kid, I thought the Herdmans were terrible and I shared in the unnamed narrator’s distaste of and hatred of them as grandstanding bullies. As an adult, I was appalled at how basically normal the Herdmans are. They live in poverty, in a single-parent home, and, sure, they set a building on fire, but no one was hurt and it’s not like they’ve had anyone around them to set reasonable limits and model good behavior. Their mom has six kids to feed, and so works long hours. They’re probably not getting enough regular meals. Read this way, the pageant gives them a chance for positive adult attention they probably really need.
For the first couple of chapters, I was angry on behalf of the herdmans. How dare the unnamed narrator, with her position of privilege, be such a freaking Judgey McJudgerson? After a while, though, I began to realize that wasn’t what Robinson was doing. As the Herdmans begin to question the various points relating to the Christmas story and the narrator realizes she’s never really thought about the darker aspects of the story, the author uses the Herdmans to condemn privilege and complacency. In the end, the titular pageant is, indeed, the best ever. The lesson about the true meaning of Christmas is delivered gently but forcefully, and I left the story with a smile on my face and all the right feels.

I don’t like twee holiday stories in general, but I’m glad I revisited this one.

Final Grade: B