Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive

Title: Captive
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

Spoilers

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Plot Description: Kitty is supposed to continue pretending to be Lila Hart, but her rebelliousness gives Daxton Hart, the Prime Minister, reason to publicly disown her and send her Elsewhere. In Captive, Kitty navigates survival in Elsewhere and continues her efforts to further the Blackcoat Rebellion.

The word Blackcoat is unnecessarily grandiose and superficial, just like everything in this book. I mentioned in my review of Pawn (Book 1 in this series) that the story could easily have been wrapped up by the end of that book. But Carter sacrifices good writing in favour of world building (and the mandatory YA trilogy) and Captive suffers the brunt of that choice.

In a word, Captive is as superficial and redundant as the name Blackcoat (which is what the rebels choose to call themselves). The book opens on a celebration of Lila Hart’s birthday, and talks about how Kitty is a 7 in a room full of 6s, which makes her more powerful than any of them. But as anyone who has read Pawn knows, Kitty isn’t really a 7. Sure, the back of her neck is marked by a 7, but the ridges of her original tattoo still exist – and they show a 3. She talks about how any of the people in that room (a bunch of Ministers) would have her killed if they knew her real identity. This is false – those Ministers couldn’t care less about her. Like Carter, Kitty focuses on the unimportant details, the fancy trimmings (like what rank she’s currently pretending to be) rather than the important details – like the fact that 7 or not, Lila Hart is a powerless puppet – a teenager who can’t make much of a difference in the world. She whines about none of this is actually part of her life, and how “stealing” moments with her real boyfriend is more important to her than celebrating her fake birthday with a fake fiance. And it is profoundly unclear as to why this celebration is important. What are they keeping appearances up for? What is the real cost of not pretending to be Lila, or of not being on her best behaviour? Who cares if Kitty does a less than stellar job in pretending to be Lila?

Kitty whines to Knox about how they had a deal – that she’d play nice for a couple of hours and then be allowed to leave. Knox lectures her about the importance of keeping up appearances – a lecture that Kitty completely ignores in favour of snagging something to eat off of a nearby table. As a result of this conveniently stupid narrative device, both Kitty and the reader are left in the dark as to the potential importance of this celebration.

When Kitty is rude to a Minister who is ogling her chest, Knox pulls her away and tells the Minister that she’s being rude because she had too much to drink. I resent the implication – that a well behaved girl is supposed to put up with the unwanted advances of lecherous men – and I resent the fact that Kitty’s actions here aren’t in any way supported by Knox or by the author. The author seems to use this example to demonstrate the gamut of Kitty’s bad behaviour, rather than to subtly condone her reaction.

Here’s a pathetic attempt to explain the reasons why the plot is the trainwreck that it is:

That was the only reason I’d agreed to stay when Knox had asked me three weeks ago. It had been after an exhausting night and day, when Augusta Hart, Daxton’s mother and the real iron fist around the country, had tried to not only kill me and Lila, but Benjy, too. Instead, I’d put six bullets in her. Now, with Lila seriously injured, it was up to me to pretend to be her until someone took the Prime Minister out of the picture.

Um. Why? Who is going to take the Prime Minister out of the picture? The Prime Minister has no back up – and he’s not even really the Prime Minister. He’s a fraud like Kitty, a 5 who’s been masked to look like a 7. Why is this so difficult?

Kindly suspend your disbelief, the book seems to be saying to the reader. Nobody cares about logic here.

Daxton arranged a pyrotechnical surprise for the fake Lila on her birthday, but the fireworks send her into a PTSD infused gunshot flashback. Once again, Carter manages to take a serious issue (PTSD) and completely trivialize it. It’s normal for someone who shot her fake grandmother only a few weeks ago to react this way. But with Knox already by her side, Kitty ends up looking weak and foolish when Benjy appears in response to her screaming. As with prostitution in Pawn, the PTSD is used as a narrative device here – to introduce the other part of the love triangle onto the scene in defiance of all logic. Neither Kitty nor Benjy seem to care about the fact that their little display might end with their covers being blown in front of all the ministerial folks.

It’s a cringe worthy moment, and one where neither Kitty nor Benjy are at their best. Rather than being mature, responsible adults who are working to overthrow a regime, they show themselves for what they really are – silly teenagers who are in over their heads and who don’t care about anything other than themselves. I’ve accused Carter of being inconsistent in her writing, but her portrayals of Kitty and Benjy continue to be as consistent as it is bad – this is a page right out of the same book that saw Benjy offering to run away with Kitty so they could be together right after she took the test, and to hell with the consequences.

This is precisely what makes the characters of Carter’s book unsympathetic – their defiance of logic, and their utter selfishness.

Nor did I have any ends to justify my means. Killing Augusta hadn’t done me any favors—it had only removed Daxton’s leash completely, leaving all of us in grave danger. And that, I thought, was the worst part of all. I’d saved Benjy’s life in the short term by pulling that trigger, but in the long term, we were both one whim away from death.

Thanks to her fainting spell, Knox refused to allow Kitty to attend the midnight meeting of the rebels. Then he catches Kitty sneaking away to try and attend the meeting anyway:

“Maybe if you stopped acting like I’m an untrained dog and started treating me like a person who’s as much a part of this as you are, I’d stop pulling against your invisible leash,” I said. “I have every right to be there, and you know it. If you keep acting like I’m a liability—”

“I wouldn’t if you stopped being a liability.”

“—then I’ll leave,” I finished, ignoring him. “If I can’t work with the Blackcoats, then I don’t have any reason to be here anymore.”

Knox has begun to act suspiciously in the meantime, appearing to hold back vital information from the rest of the Blackcoats. This leads Kitty to suspect that Knox is secretly working with Daxton.

They could try to out him, but the media is in Daxton’s pocket. Anyone who went to press with the news would be labeled a traitor and executed before sundown. No one should have to make that sacrifice for nothing.”

The other reason why Kitty and her allies haven’t outed the fake Daxton yet is to protect Greyson – who would obviously be targeted by the rebelling masses the minute Daxton’s real identity was revealed.

Knox’s mouth formed a thin line, and he wrapped his arm around my shoulders. Normally it would have been a sweet gesture, but tonight it felt more like a threat. “Do you want to see the masses go after him once the rebellion begins?”

“You mean it hasn’t already?” I said, but he didn’t answer. I bit my lip. Greyson was one of my only friends, and the last thing I wanted was for him to get caught in the crossfire.

We were meters from the bunker when Knox stopped and faced me, his dark eyes bearing into mine. “Listen to me, Kitty,” he said in a low, hurried voice. “Telling the others about Daxton doesn’t outweigh the risks of Celia finding out—and if the other Blackcoat leaders know, she will find out sooner rather than later. And what happens after that is anyone’s guess. Do you understand me?”

Against Knox’s wishes, Kitty goes snooping for information about the Fake Daxton. With the help of a magical high tech lock-pick that Greyson had fashioned for her, she manages to get hold of two files – one on Daxton, and one on herself. Unfortunately, Kitty’s dyslexia and illiteracy helps serve as a literary device to keep both Kitty and the reader in the dark.
Kitty’s sojourn in Elsewhere is as pointless as the rest of this book, except as a world building exercise. She is introduced to a cutthroat population that simultaneously includes children growing up without having known any other sort of life, and punitive executions which require one condemned person to save themselves by fighting another to death in public cages.
Although she’s offered comfortable lodgings at Daxton’s guesthouse by virtue of her status as a 7, Kitty opts to live with the rest of Elsewhere’s population. The mysterious couple who double as her sector’s wardens turn out to be inextricably linked both to the imposter Daxton’s and to Kitty herself.
She also meets a portion of the Blackcoats while in Elsewhere, and attempts to help them with retrieving military codes securely held somewhere on the premises.
Carter’s fondness for senseless plot twists and faked deaths spills over from Pawn to Captive. So too does the inexplicable need to appeal to a readership of ordinary girls while maintaining the trope that a heroine is always special – a secret princess, if you will. While these plot twists make for interesting storytelling by themselves, they don’t do the books a favour when taken together. An invested reader will welcome further information about Kitty’s parentage, for instance, but won’t fail to see that all the twisted storytelling is achieving is plot confusion.

Next Up – Book Review: Sisters Grimm # 4, 5 & 6 by Michael Buckley

Next in this Series: Blackcoat Rebellion #3 – Queen

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Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn

Title: Pawn
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.80
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

SO MANY SPOILERS

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Plot Description: Kitty Doe lives in a world where everyone takes a test at the age of 17 which evaluates their worth in society. She receives a 3, rather than the average 4 on her test. Just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of menial work, she’s whisked off to be a doppelganger for the Prime Minister’s dead niece, Lila Hart. As Lila Hart, Kitty is supposed to help stop a rebellion against the current regime – a rebellion Lila had secretly been fostering.

Disclaimer: I didn’t want to read this book, but it was lying around at home and I was starved for options. Since I was going into this book with no expectations whatsoever, I actually ended up pleasantly surprised at times.

It was only after I started reading YA almost exclusively that I came across the phrase “TSTL” (too stupid to live). And that’s precisely what first comes to mind when we see Kitty Doe stealing an orange and hoping she’ll be shot on sight for theft. The idea gets even more ridiculous when you realize that her boyfriend, Benjy is with her, and she’s putting both of them in danger. The writing is vague and disconnected even here, at the beginning, and this really doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

After escaping from the Shields and relinquishing their orange, Kitty and Benjy discuss her options. With that particular brand of clear thinking apparently omnipresent in sixteen year olds, Benjy proposes to Kitty, because this means they won’t be separated. Thankfully, she has the sense to turn him down, because she’s afraid being married to a 3 will hurt his ranking chances when he takes the test.

Kitty decides to go speak to Tabs, a local prostitute who has been trying to recruit her. Benjy is dead set against this. And while Benjy seems to be speaking purely from prejudice, I agree with him because I don’t think Kitty really understands what it means to be a prostitute. The way she talks about it gives me the impression that she thinks the worst thing about prostitution is having to sleep with strange men. She doesn’t sound like she understands the physical danger involved, or the lack of choice that will end up haunting her with every step she takes. She certainly didn’t know Tabs was recruiting her because Tabs would get a cut of her pay.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said roughly. “I don’t want those pigs touching you.”

Okay, Benjy, I know you’re sixteen, but you can’t build your life around a girl. Like, seriously. Also, possessive much?

Before she leaves, Benjy asks her to sleep with him. I don’t really know what to make of that, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. Kitty tells him that it’s better for her prospects if she’s a virgin, and then he tells her he should be her first.

Why? I know it’s hard for your sixteen year old love-crazed brain to comprehend this, Benjy, but plenty of people who are in love are never each other’s firsts. And you don’t really get to decide who should be someone else’s first. You can want Kitty to be your first, sure. Similarly, she’s the only one who gets to decide who she wants to be her first.

Kitty tells him he’s always going to be her first because sleeping with anyone else won’t count, and she breaks up with him for a month – until he knows what his ranking is going to be.

Prostitution is illegal in Kitty’s country, but since it’s the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, and since many of the highest ranking men in the country frequent these clubs, a blind eye is turned. Since she’s young and still a virgin, her virginity is auctioned off – starting with a thousand gold pieces and ending at thirty thousand. That’s more than she would have made as a sewage worker in ten years, and she’s amazed at the idea that anyone would spend that much for one night with her. Kitty’s naivete is once again starkly obvious, since she doesn’t seem to have understood that what was being bid for wasn’t her – not her as a person, but just the fact of her virginity. She’s very much still a child here, because the idea that prostitution can sometimes dehumanize the people working in that field isn’t something she’s completely recognizing.

This is the point at which I set the book down and momentarily wish that this was what this book was really about – the story of a young girl who begins to gradually understand the world through her life as a sex worker – her journey from innocence and naivete to maturity, if you will. It would definitely have made for a better plot than that of the real Pawn. But I guess that’s not what real YA literature is looking for.

I wished this because even though prostitution is not the subject matter of Carter’s book, she introduced it all the same, and then trivialized it. In another review I read, the reviewer described the prostitution sub-plot as a gun that wasn’t loaded, and I think this gun shouldn’t have been brought into the picture and then portrayed as inconsequential. Kitty leaves the club not realizing the exact nature of the bullet she just dodged, and I think a lot of younger readers would have ended up doing the same. Prostitution and virginity auctions are not, after all, some myth conceived of in Carter’s precious fictional dystopia. They exist in the real world, and have a lot of real world dangers and connotations attached to them. Treating the subject as a convenient plot device and reducing it to prejudicial stereotypes is not okay at all.

Okay, that was intense. And it’s only now that the real plot kicks off.

In short, Kitty is made to stand in for the PM’s dead niece, as a cover up for her death. Lila is a bit of a Princess Diana figure – she’d been going around saying things that were technically treasonous, and had acquired a vast following among the common people through her charisma and charm. A lot of time is devoted to describing Kitty’s eleven days of training to replace Lila, and in this time, the rest of the family is introduced. There’s Celia, Lila’s mother. Augusta, Daxton’s mother and the matriarch of the Hart family. There’s Knox Creed, Lila’s fiance. And Greyson, Daxton’s younger son and sole surviving heir.
This is where Pawn becomes a confused piece of writing, and having read the sequel – Captive – I can tell you it doesn’t get better. Pawn has a lot of things going against it. For one thing, it’s a chip off the old Hunger Games block, and derivative as such. For another, it suffers from less than sympathetic protagonists. With the exception of Knox and Greyson, even the auteurs of the rebellion are motivated by selfishness. Celia is out for power and revenge. Kitty’s heroism is impulsive and inconsistent. She’s as confused about her motivations as can be – oscillating wildly between sympathizing with the downtrodden and helping the autocrats in order to save Benjy’s life.
The confused storylines don’t help Pawn’s case. Plot twist is piled on top of plot twist, and one ends up disliking all the characters on principle. Carter seems to care more about shocking the reader and keeping them guessing than on good writing. As a result, by the time it is revealed that the real Lila Hart is still alive, one gives up.
Pawn was greatly evocative of a Meg Cabot book on similar lines – the Airhead trilogy, where a smart girl’s brain is transplanted into a supermodels body. (Spoiler: Airhead also revealed that the original owner of the body was still alive.) These books seem eager to appeal to the everygirl reader while reaffirming the idea that a heroine needs to be conventionally beautiful. It’s a sad attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too, and undermines the lesson that physical beauty isn’t the be-all and the end-all.
The book ends with an action filled showdown between Kitty and the matriarch – Augusta Hart. Where she was previously unable to assassinate Daxton, Kitty now shows herself capable of killing when Benjy’s life is at stake. With Augusta out of the way and Daxton still in a coma, it seems like the perfect moment for the rebellion to take control. This opportunity is, however, wasted in favour of a set up to a sequel that honestly seems unnecessary.

Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.44
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

SPOILER WARNING

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Plot Description: A young white woman who returns from college to Jackson, Mississippi to find that the black maid who raised her from her childhood onwards is gone. Abileen is a black maid who is currently raising her seventeenth white child. Minny, Abileen’s best friend, also works as a maid, and is one of the best cooks in the area, but her sharp tongue means she loses her job easily. Set in the Segregation-era United States, The Help tells the story of how Skeeter, the white girl, helps the black maids working in and living around her home tell their stories of working for white families.

This is a hard book for me to review, and I might not have attempted it if it weren’t for (a) my obsession with reviewing every single book I’ve ever written, (b) my interest in feminism and intersectionality, (c) the fact that I watched the movie first, loved it, read the book and only then began to wonder whether there were any problems with it.

Here’s the thing. I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not american, and my knowledge of cultural history in the US is limited to what I’ve learned from history books, newspapers, biographies, fiction and popular media. When a friend asked me my opinion of The Help right after I’d finished reading it, I didn’t know what to tell her. I liked it, sure, but I wasn’t sure how much the book mirrored real life. I’d seen a story I liked, but I didn’t know whether it was the truth.

I then read Roxane Gay’s review of The Help in the book Bad Feminist. And it became clear to me that the story I liked wasn’t really the truth – it was a sanitized, child friendly version of the truth.

“I don’t expect writers to always get difference right, but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women, but she doesn’t try hard enough. Her depictions of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting. At one point in the book, Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a cockroach, you know, the most hated insect you can think of. Aibileen says, staring at a cockroach, “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.” That’s simply bad writing, but it’s an even worse way of writing difference. If white writers can’t do better than to compare a cockroach to black skin, perhaps they should leave the writing of difference in more capable hands. In The Help , Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know but actually know nothing about.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

I don’t usually go searching for things in particular, so the things I read and see are the things I come across as zombie around. Which makes me wonder why it took so long for me to come across a review of The Help by a black person.

Before I read this review, I thought The Help was a good story. A little over-the-top, perhaps. Could people in real life be as Mean Girls-esque as the white married woman who were the owners of the homes that maids like Abilene and Minny worked in? Could they be as narrow minded and cliched? Reading the book gave me a growing sense of impending doom that the movie never did. Even though I’d already seen the movie, and could therefore presume that no such thing was about to happen, I read with growing apprehension as I waited for someone to catch Skeeter at Abilene’s house. I’d never even known about the existence of Jim Crow laws.

Reading The Help cleared away a little of my ignorance about the time. A lot of people I speak to tend to confuse the Civil War and the abolition of slavery with the civil rights movement. “Civil Rights Movement”, I say. They respond with “Abraham Lincoln?!” This is because, like me, they are neither black nor white, and nor are they American.

“Watching historical movies about the black experience (or white interpretations of the black experience) have become nearly impossible for the same reason I hope I never read another slave narrative. It’s too much. It’s too painful. Too frustrating and infuriating. The history is too recent and too close. I watch movies like Rosewood or The Help and realize that if I had been born to different parents, at a different time, I too could have been picking cotton or raising a white woman’s babies for less than minimum wage or enduring any number of intolerable circumstances far beyond my control. More than that, though, I am troubled by how little has changed. I am troubled by how complacently we are willing to consume these often revisionist stories of this country’s complex and painful racial history. History is important, but sometimes the past renders me hopeless and helpless.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist.

And this is why The Help and books like it are important to someone like me, who is a veritable outsider to the contents of the book. Because with no other frame of reference, reading The Help forces me to take its contents as the truth. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder whether there’s an alternate version of the truth, or to go looking for it. If I hadn’t already been halfway through Bad Feminist at the time, it might have taken me quite a long time to go searching for a black person’s perspective on this book. On the other hand, I might never have gone searching for it at all, and might have spent my entire life believing that The Help (or Gone With the Wind before it) were realistic representations of black people.

I would try and rate The Help on the basis of its story alone, but I can’t. I’m unable to see past the fact that people with as much right to telling the story of the Segregation era have disagreed with its version so strongly. I want more books out there that receive as much popularity as The Help did, and which give me a better understanding of worlds I’ve never seen, worlds I might not ever see. I want this book to be replaced by books that do a much better job than it did.

 Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn by Aimee Carter

Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Title: Bad Feminist
Author: Roxane Gay
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.88
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

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Plot Description: A non fiction book of essays by Roxane Gay about feminism. While I personally loved this book, I also looked at a couple of critical reviews about it, and I might link or mention them in passing while I’m reviewing this one.

I first started reading Bad Feminist on a friend’s kindle, at random. I had no idea what the topic of the book was. I didn’t even start at the beginning of a chapter. But I was hooked, and I caught hold of the book for myself, and read it cover to cover. It took me a while. Parts of it was overwhelming. I had to take a break in the middle. I now follow Roxane Gay on twitter.

Part of the reason why I found this book so compelling was that it spoke to me before I even knew what it was about. But it’s also because Feminism is an important issue that we speak about these days. Almost everyone has an opinion on it. And everyone is reviled for that opinion, whatever it might be.

Feminism is a bad word. So many people hold up placards which tell us why they don’t need feminism, and put those pictures on the internet. When I see their faces, I think “you poor fool”. It irritates me every time a female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist, but I do feminist-y things from time to time.” Why? Because I’m a feminist, and I’m a feminist because I want gender equality. I want intersectionality to be held up as important. And no, mom, for the hundredth time, I don’t hate men. 

Take another step into this mess, and you’ll see the problems within feminism. The many different people with different ideologies, all crammed together because they all happen to be women who are thinking ‘nobody puts Baby in the corner’. And also, ‘what kind of a name is Baby anyway’. Oh, that’s just me? Well, alright then.

This is why being a ‘bad feminist’ is problematic. If you’re a bad feminist, you lose your right to advocate for the movement. You lose your right to identify with the rest of the women. Feminism is a tough sell, thanks to the patriarchy, so yes, it ends up being an ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ kind of scenario. And that’s a damagingly black and white position to take when it comes the infinite shades of grey that’s humanity. And what is the subject of feminism but humanity?

“In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Gay’s central theme seems to say that one can still be a feminist without eschewing media that is degrading to women, that perhaps one can still be a feminist even if one’s crushing on a cute but misogynistic guy. But she also speaks about intersectionality, about women of colour, queer and transgender women, about body image and eating disorders, about sexual violence and rape.

Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again. This is a hard, painful truth. This is where a lot of people run into resisting feminism, trying to create distance between the movement and where they stand. Believe me, I understand. For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.
But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.

She argues for a pluralistic feminism that allows for co-operation without further division, and it obviously will not do to waste time criticizing each other while institutional patriarchy lets us do its job for it.

Some of the reviews and criticisms I read about Bad Feminist talked about how the book wasted time on narcissism – how Gay indulgently talked about her favourite things in the world, and how a lot of them were degrading to women (like some pop and rap music). This review at Bookslut is one of them, but what it fails to mention is the sheer amount of space devoted to talking about the issues faced by people of colour in general and women of colour in particular. Or the entire chapter devoted to body image and fat shaming, which only merits a passing mention in the Bookslut review as it was the chapter in which Gay first references the time she was sexually assaulted. That review admits that you cannot demand the someone talk about their personal experience, but goes on to say that all the same, those horrifying personal experiences need to be talked about. We all need to remember the violence that does exist in sexual violence, and how can we do that if the people who’ve gone through those things keep shying away from talking about it.

You can’t force someone to talk about their personal experiences. The Bookslut critic’s disclaimer in this regard doesn’t justify the rest of her paragraph, where she expresses her disappointment that Roxane Gay didn’t talk about her personal experience with sexual assault in an explicit enough manner. She’s not writing a novel. It doesn’t need to be gripping.

Intersectionality is talked about in the same breath as feminism these days, and with good reason. It was white feminism’s incredibly narrow agenda that emphasized the importance of intersectionality, after all. For a feminist critic to ignore the essays on intersectionality in her critique of Gay’s book then, seems like a huge problem. And Gay’s voice is at its strongest when she talks about the problems faced by her black students, or the fact that sports and music, and marrying someone who’s in sports and music are held up as the only viable career options for black people on television.

Gay discusses a book about fat camp and her disappointment that the author wasn’t a fat woman. She knows the author’s appearance shouldn’t affect the impact of the book, but she wishes she could read an account of a fat person’s life actually written by a fat person – one that she can relate to. [The book in question is Skinny by Diana Spechler, and it has received some very scathing reviews on Goodreads which reflect Roxane Gay’s views on the matter – that the author was somehow trying to exorcise her own fatphobia through her writing, and that it stereotypes obesity and contributes nothing new to the subject.]

We need to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgment rather than accusation. We need to be able to argue beyond the threat of privilege. We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics because we’ll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference. We should be able to say, “This is my truth,” and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist.

Gay’s statement that multiple truths should be acknowledged and allowed to coexist strikes me as what might be the greatest solution to feminism’s current problems. It is the reason why I can read both Bad Feminist and the Bookslut critique of it; or Diana Spechler’s Skinny and Roxane Gay’s critique of it and allow myself to understand the truths that each of these books and articles state. It’s not a competition, and it’s not a question of who’s right and who’s wrong. They all make points, important points. They’re all putting forward personal experience and opinions, and all those things are each relevant within their own context, and to a certain degree, relevant outside of that context as well.

I get my version of the big picture – my understanding of the truth – by reading all these things at the same time. And Bad Feminist, with the wide range of issues it covers and the deeply personal voice with which it speaks, receives a very important position on the bookshelf of my ideologies.

Next: Book Review – The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm # 1 – 3

Title: The Fairy Tale Detectives; The Unusual Suspects; The Problem Child
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2005; 2005; 2006
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 1, 2 & 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.98; 4.21; 4.26
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 3; 3

Spoilers!

Thefairytaledetectives  theunusualsuspects  theproblemchild

Plot Description: A pair of sisters discover they’re descended from the late, great Grimm brothers when they’re sent to live with their grandmother in a town filled with fairy tale creatures. The fairy tale characters can’t leave the town because of an ancient curse, and along with their grandmother, the sisters Grimm go around solving crimes occurring in the little town.

The Fairy Tale Detectives is a book for children in the same way Percy Jackson is a book for children, or Harry Potter. Despite dealing with similar subject matter, it is also the kind of work that is antithetical to the spirit of the late, great, Enid Blyton, queen of saccharine goodness. And never does it go to the lengths that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events go. (And thank goodness for small mercies).

I may have been impressed by the sisters Grimm if I wasn’t already a die hard Oncer – a fan of the show Once Upon A Time, for the uninitiated. And while they’re hardly the same story, a few themes remain the same, like fairy tale creatures leading normal lives and blending in. It’s always interesting to see how their natures translate into our ordinary occupations and appearances.

The story picks up a year after the disappearance of Henry and Veronica Grimm. The sisters believe (for some reason) that their parents abandoned them, and have since been sent to live in an orphanage kind of right out of a Dickens novel – or Annie. Their social worker, a hard hearted (spinster) sends them off to a slew of foster homes right out of a horror story – like the one where they were chained to the radiator, or that other one where they were forced to play caretakers to a room full of ferrets.

So it’s with a great deal of understandable suspicion and anger that the sisters are on their way to yet another foster home, and this one owned by a grandmother they know for a fact is dead. Sabrina – older and cynical and jaded from trying to protect her sister from the world’s nonsense – is already making up escape plans in her head.

Her suspicions aren’t stemmed even after coming face to face with Granny Grimm – the kindliest old lady a children’s book writer could dream up. Granny Grimm is eccentric as hell – she talks to her house, she cooks food that no one in the world has ever heard of, and she fancies herself a private eye. And not any private eye – the sort of private eye who solves mysteries like ‘The Case of the Farmhouse Squashed Flat by a Giant’s Foot’. Sabrina thinks she’s one lost marble away from the loony bin. Daphne thinks its ALL great fun.

The stories deal with individual mysteries set against the backdrop of a much more sinister long term conspiracy targeting humans. The characters are all realistically drawn, adding quite a bit of dark humour to the storytelling. Sabrina in particular is supposed to be more complex than her sister, as someone harbouring a certain amount of intrinsic bigotry towards the Everafters, and with her natural instincts prompting her towards an addiction to magic (which, if Uncle Jake is anything to go by, runs in the family).

The first book deals with the kidnapping giant, whom I think I have discussed ad nauseam already. While working to figure out who released the giant – and why – the girls run into various residents of Ferryport and begin to figure that the line between good and evil is mucho blurred-o – as Daphne would put it. Characters the fairy tales tell you are good are revealed to be sometimes unpleasant, or downright villainous. Some of the bad guys – like the Big Bad Wolf or the witch from Hansel and Gretel – have either reformed, or were badly misunderstood to begin with. Then there are the Everafters who actively hate the Grimms and are trying to get them killed, and the Everafters who hate them, but opt for gritted teeth and tolerance instead.

The second story, The Unusual Suspects, deals with a couple of murders of human beings at the school Sabrina and Daphne have begun to attend. The Problem Child brings them face to face with previously institutionalized homicidal maniac Red Riding Hood, who, it turns out, has been holding their kidnapped parents and is working for a much greater villain identified only as The Master.

The books engage with gender stereotyping, with the girls calling out various characters on their casual sexism. Puck in particular is a vast treasure trove of idiotic stereotypes:

Puck: “First things first. I want you two to prepare a hearty meal so that I will have plenty of energy to kill the giant.”
Sabrina: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Puck: “The old lady always makes lunch when a mystery is afoot. I know it’s not the most glamorous work, but I think you two are best suited for domestic tasks.”
Daphne: “What does domestic tasks mean?”
Sabrina: “The way he means it is women’s work.”
Daphne snarled at the boy.

Prince Charming is another guy who, when he’s not spending all of his time trying to protect Snow from things she doesn’t want to be protected from (she’s a self defence teacher, for Christ’s sake), comes up with lines like these:

“Well, haven’t you ever snuck out before? This is the perfect opportunity. Your grandmother is distracted. Take the magic detector and go! If she asks for you, I’ll tell her you’re upstairs fussing with your hair or playing dolls.”
“Is that what you think we do with our free time?” Sabrina said, aghast.

The Sisters Grimm series is nine books long, and the first three cover just enough ground to be considered not boring. If finding the children’s parents had taken any longer, it’s possible that the reader would have begun to lose interest. Typically, a happy ending isn’t at hand yet, even though their parents have been found by the end of Book 3. The children must focus on finding a way to get their parents out of the deep magical sleep they’ve fallen into. They also need to find the baby brother they didn’t ever know existed, and who has also been kidnapped by the mysterious Master.

The Sisters Grimm series doesn’t flinch away from darker topics, but somehow leaves me with the feeling that these topics weren’t dealt with correctly. After all, The Unusual Suspects deal with murders committed by juvenile suspects, but the only scene shown from the aftermath is that those suspects are reunited with their birth parents. No mention is made of their victims, nor of the effects committing murder can have on a child. Perhaps this is not the kind of subliminal message that ought to be sent across in a bunch of children’s books.

And yes, both Percy Jackson and Harry Potter involve children fighting and using violence. They both depict children who fight for good as well as evil. But Percy learns in Tartarus that even the most evil of his enemies was allowed to curse him at their moment of death, and he felt the combined burden of their curses. Harry and Draco Malfoy both see the consequences of their actions, and it changes them. The subconsciously uttered message in those books urges good judgment and that even doing ‘good’ comes with consequences, and yet Michael Buckley’s books show children getting away with murder simply because they’re children.

Next: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Next in this Series: The Sisters Grimm # 4 – 6 by Michael Buckley

Book Review: Discworld #2 – The Light Fantastic

Title: The Light Fantastic
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1986
Series: Discworld; Rincewind
#:
2; 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.91
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoilers for A Colour of Magic (Discworld #1)

pratchett-2

Plot Description: I’ll leave it to the official blurb to do the job this time, simply because it’s a remarkable blurb:

In The Light Fantastic only one individual can save the world from a disastrous collision. Unfortunately, the hero happens to be the singularly inept wizard Rincewind, who was last seen falling off the edge of the world…

Ha! Told you! Bet that captured your attention. And now that it has, you can now go about forgetting your dismay at the fact that the second Discworld novel is also all about Rincewind. Or not, if you’re a Rincewind fan, because that’s amazing.

When light encounters a strong magical field it loses ail sense of urgency. It slows right down. And on the Discworld the magic was embarrassingly strong, which meant that the soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached Cori Celesti, the ten mile spire of grey stone and green ice that marked the hub of the Disc and was the home of its gods, it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.
It was a sight to be seen on no other world.
Of course, no other world was carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a giant turtle. His name – or Her name, according to another school of thought – was Great A’Tuin; he – or, as it might be, she – will not take a central role in what follows but it is vital to an understanding of the Disc that he – or she – is there, down below the mines and sea ooze and fake fossil bones put there by a Creator with nothing better to do than upset archeologists and give them silly ideas. 

Isn’t he so funny? I speak, of course, of Terry P., not Great A’Tuin. So evolution is a joke on the Discworld, and Great A’Tuin is headed somewhere that’s possibly going to lead into apocalypse. Magic has become unpredictable, and Rincewind is needed. Not because he’s particularly heroic, but because he once snuck into the most secure room in the library and read one of the Spells in the Octavo (the book left behind by the Creator after he – or she – was done creating. The Creator was rather absent-minded, to be honest.) That Spell took the opportunity to enter his head and absolutely refused to leave, and nobody even knew which spell it was, because obviously no one else was going to go in there read the other seven spells just so they could find out.

This spell is part of the reason why Rincewind is such a failure as a wizard. He can’t remember any other spell because they’re all too scared of the spell in his head, and therefore won’t enter his memory to begin with. The other part of the reason why Rincewind is such a failure is possibly the fact that he hasn’t a drop of magical talent in him.

The spell wasn’t a demanding lodger. It just sat there like an old toad at the bottom of a pond. But whenever Rincewind was feeling really tired or very afraid it tried to get itself said. No-one knew what would happen if one of the Eight Great Spells was said by itself, but the general Agreement was that the best place from which to watch the effects would be the next universe. 

Oh, and all the unpredictable Magic turned the Head Librarian into an Orangutan, which was a particularly fortunate turn of events as far as the Head Librarian was concerned.

Rincewind, who when we last saw him was about to discover what happens when you fall off the Disc, was now hanging upside down from a tree. Something was saving his life, to the great chagrin of Death. Indeed, Death became so tired of trying to predict when Rincewind would actually die that he later forms a little habit of checking in on Rincewind every now and then. In fact, Death might even be said to have become a little fond of Rincewind (and while you might think that’s a strange thing for Death to do, you’ll soon figure out that this actually pretty typical of Death).

He goes on to create a religion for trees (through no fault of his whatsoever).

In fact Rincewind never spoke to this particular tree again, but from that brief conversation it spun the basis of the first tree religion which, in time, swept the forests of the world. Its tenet of faith was this: a tree that was a good tree, and led a clean, decent and upstanding life, could be assured of a future life after death. If it was very good indeed it would eventually be reincarnated as five thousand rolls of lavatory paper.

But I digress; I was speaking of one of the Great Spells, which is stuck in Rincewind’s head. After dragging Death out of a party he was attending (and he left his drink there too), the wizards at the Unseen University figure out that all eight spells must be said together at the moment when the world is supposed to end or whatever… which means they need to find Rincewind.

And now enter the villain, who is… an accountant? Well, sort of. He’s a wizard, really, and he’s a scheming wannabe murderer. This is nothing, because murder is the appropriate and preferred style of promotion amongst wizards, but the wizard Trymon is one of those people who are even worse than murderers.

Besides, there was something disquieting about young  Trymon. He didn’t smoke, only drank boiled water, and Galder had the nasty suspicion that he was clever. He didn’t smile often enough, and he liked figures and the sort of organisation charts that show lots of squares with arrows pointing to other squares. In short, he was the sort of man who could use the word ‘personnel’ and mean it.

That’s right, Trymon is a CEO! Sorry, no, I mean he’s logical, and that’s worse than being evil.

He wasn’t good or evil or cruel or extreme in any way but one, which was that he had elevated greyness to the status of a fine art and cultivated a mind that was as bleak and pitiless and logical as the slopes of Hell.

Trymon intends to reap the benefits of saying all eight spells together at the moment of the Apocalypse, and will destroy anyone who gets in his way. He also has heard of the term “collateral damage” and deeply approves of it.

In the meanwhile, Rincewind runs into a bunch of computing engineer druids whose Stonehenge computers are being thrown off by the impending apocalypse. Two Flower’s delicate foreigner sensibilities mean that he ends up pulling a Passepartout from Around the World, and they are assisted in these endeavours by Cohen the barbarian, an eighty seven year old hero who doesn’t earn royalties for all the sagas being sung about him.

In fact no-one was paying a great deal of attention to him; the druids that hadn’t fled the circle, generally the younger and more muscular ones, had congregated around the old man in order to discuss the whole subject of sacrilege as it pertained to stone circles, but judging by the cackling and sounds of gristle he was carrying the debate.

After all this, the virgin isn’t even happy she wasn’t sacrificed after all, because staying a virgin is a difficult business, and now all of that effort’s gone to waste.

The Light Fantastic is tightly packed with comedy and action sequences, and reminds me a little of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The fantasy genre obviously comes with the occupational hazards of featuring men travelling through the clouds on pieces of rock held up by the power of persuasion, which is why this sort of thing doesn’t feel as disorienting in a Terry P. novel as it does when one is reading Rushdie. Trust me, it’s quite one thing to be reading about an actual rock that’s actually flying, and quite another when you’re told there aren’t any real flying rocks – that that’s just meant to be a metaphor. Because that’s when things begin to get confusing.

Following their escape from the bloodthirsty druids is an astral trip to the domans of Death, where Two Flower teaches the Four Horsemen how to play bridge:

The Death of the Disc was a traditionalist who prided himself on his personal service and spent most of the time being depressed because this was not appreciated. He would point out that no-one feared death itself, just pain and separation and oblivion, and that it was quite unreasonable to take against someone just because he had empty eye-sockets and a quiet pride in his work. He still used a scythe, he’d point out, while the Deaths of other worlds had long ago invested in combined harvesters.

Then they run into cultists who think turning away from magic is the solution the Apocalypse. Death himself remarks on these cultists, telling Rincewind that while he approves of death of the body, which is an ending and which takes away pain, he cannot approve of the death of the mind. Taken by itself, that’s really not the sort of chilling statement of clarity one expects to find in a fun book about inept wizards and the Apocalypse. Once again, Terry P. the philosopher comes out of the woodwork for a moment. And that makes me glad.

The writing style shows a marked improvement from that of The Colour of Magic, and as the series progresses, Mr. Pratchett’s writing gets lighter and more fun, which does nothing but add to the impact of the philosophical musings hidden through his work.

Next: The Sisters Grimm #1, 2 & 3 – The Fairy Tale Detectives, The Unusual Suspects and The Problem Child

Next in this Series: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites (Witches #1)

Next in this Sub-Series: Discworld #5 – Sourcery (Rincewind #3)

Book Review: Discworld #1 – The Colour of Magic

Title: The Colour of Magic
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1983
Series: Discworld; Rincewind
#: 
1; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.94
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Not Spoiler Free

The Colour of Magic

Plot Description: A failed wizard named Rincewind is hired to take a Tourist from the Agatean Empire (situated on the Counterweight Continent) around Ankh Mopork. Unfortunately for Rincewind, who is a certified coward (and proud of it), Two Flower happens to have a knack for getting into adventures and cheerfully facing Death.

Along with Two Flower is The Luggage, a sapient wooden trunk that runs along on hundreds of little legs all by itself. The Luggage has the ability to store everything neat and dry, and also a penchant for eating anybody and anything that seems to threaten its master. The Luggage quickly seems to realize that Rincewind’s lack of prowess in wizardry is beaten by nothing but his ability to get out of dangerous situations unscathed. Lord Vetinary, Patrician of Ankh Mopork, comes to the same conclusion, and poor Rincewind is pressganged into the role of bodyguard as a result.

A long time ago, people used to believe that the world is flat and round, like a disk, and that the sun orbited the Earth. Even longer ago, people believed the world was held up by a turtle, or by four elephants, or by a Titan who was serving a life sentence.

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
See…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and startanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.

This is the Discworld, which is shaped like a disk and orbited by two suns. It is held up by four elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of a mighty turtle called Great A’tuin. Terry P. explains it by saying that in a world of multiverses and parallel universes, the Discworld exists so far away on the probability curve that we can’t really see it – but since the probability curve does go that far, then it probably exists. And since it constantly balances on the point of probability, its existence could easily be wiped out.

It is said that when a wizard is about to die Death himself turns up to claim him (instead of delegating the task to a subordinate, such as Disease or Famine, as is usually the case). Rincewind looked around nervously for a tall figure in black (wizards, even failed wizards, have in addition to rods and cones in their eyeballs the tiny octagons that enable them to see into the far octarine, the basic colour of which all other colours are merely pale shadows impinging on normal four-dimensional space. It is said to be a sort of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple). 

This is why the Discworld works on magic, and this is why Magic is so important to this world. Now that I’ve explained all the secrets of the Discworld, I will let you in on one final secret. There is a colour of magic, and that colour is known as Octarine. It is invisible to the naked eye, but if you could see it, you’d identify it as a sort of fluorescently green-ish yellow purple.

I sound daft, don’t I? The truth is, after weeks of reading nothing but Discworld, I’d be prepared to bet everything that I have that the world I’ve been reading about is far more real than the one I’m living in. Such is the magic of this world, which is like a reflection of ours when seen in a convex mirror. Or perhaps a concave mirror. Or perhaps just a very old mirror that has turned wavy with age. It’s the same and yet it’s not. It’s been coloured in with magic where all the grey bits ought to go in our world. What’s ridiculous to us is perfectly sane to them, and notions of economics and insurance wreak havoc in their world.

Satire is a weapon in the hands of a master, and Terry P. is undoubtedly one of those masters.

“It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows.”

This being one of his earlier novels, Terry P. stands out more as philosopher than comedian, which I believe is one of the reasons why a great many first time readers get put off by this novel. He examines everything as though the secret of the universe lies under it, and in many instances, he’s completely right.

He also takes subversion of tropes very seriously, and this makes for a good combination in the company of caricature. Rincewind is a wizard who has never shown the least bit of magical talent. Two Flower is the typical tourist, completely oblivious to everything going on around him, being taken for a ride, and yet somehow coming unscathed out of each adventure. The Heroes are all brawn and completely dimwitted, the goals of their lives being booze, hidden treasure, slaying whatever is evil, and overcoming insane odds. Oh, and getting the girl. When he reduces tropes to their completely literal essentials, one sees why those tropes were stupid to begin with.

I wouldn’t recommend The Colour of Magic to someone who has never read Terry Pratchett before, but once you’ve read some of his other books, I think you’ll find that The Colour of Magic helps with all those unanswered questions, like “What in the world is ‘hubwards’?” or “What happens if you fall off the edge of the disc?”

If on the other hand, you’re not a Terry P. fan (yet), but love philosophy, magic and fantasy, then this is definitely the book for you.

Next: Discworld #2 – The Light Fantastic