Review: Critiques & criticisms

I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about my form of critique.  I had a friend who mentioned that I’m only blogging about books I enjoyed.  Their actual comment was something along the lines of, “You like everything you read.”

That isn’t true.  I’m reading something right now I’m not enjoying very much. And there is a chance I won’t review it. And not every review I’ve put on this blog has been glowing praise. Lately (the last six months or so) it has been. Some of that has been that I’ve been enjoying most of what I read and when I consider which books I want to share – well, I tend to only share the ones I’ve been enjoying.

I considered doing a more harshly critical take on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when I watched it last week (for the second time). I could. I think the movie is significantly weaker than #1, and it’s ripe for some good riffing and critique.  Buuuuut…. is it worth the effort over something fun like Akata Witch& Akata Warrior getting bragged on?

I even said it in my recent review of Akata Witch & Warrior, I saw the plot points coming because I’ve seen so many young adult novels that follow the same pattern.  Sometimes I don’t know if I should riff on something because I know why the person did it.  It’s like a cook who chooses to salt their water when making pasta. Do I mock them for this time-honored tradition that apparently adds nothing to the making? I know why they do it. Hell, I do it as often as I don’t.

I recently saw a YouTube video on how art & video games are following a similar timeline of modern “art” and then post-modern “commentary art” with the growing trend of post-post-modern in art and how we can expect to see this in gaming. They keep saying how there is nothing new in the world. Well, literature has been saying the same thing for like a hundred years and yet… new books keep getting published!

So what makes a GREAT piece of art – or literature?  Does it have to be making something entirely new? Or can it re-examine something we’ve always assumed is true (vampires hate sunlight because it kills them OR they are actually shiny diamond-people)?  When it follows a trope (love triangle) where everyone knows the outcome is that necessarily wrong?  I would argue maybe.

I want to write a novel where the heroine doesn’t have to choose between “powerful yet brooding and hurt” and then “fun, nerdy, bestest friend” guys.  I want her to choose between powers – change the fate of nations depending on her marriage. One is selfish and she will always be treated as his rival for power but the other is stupid (like literally) and being married to him will be a battle with his advisors- because he can be swayed by a convincing turnip. So she has to choose – will she battle with one man for the power, or with all the people around the man.  Doesn’t that sound like a fun twist on the love triangle?  She doesn’t love them in the traditional sense.  Maybe she finds them both attractive in their own ways, but either way her first love is her people- and for those people she must marry a strong king to protect them.

Anyway, got distracted there.  My point is that just because it’s a trope doesn’t make it 100% “evil” or even “lesser.”  Tropes serve a purpose of the human experience.

So when I write a critique (not a criticism, which is different), I try to think about who the intended audience is.  I re-read Matilda a few years ago and was shocked at how much I read as an adult that was…. well disturbing to put it mildly, that never even seemed odd when I was a child.  So much of that book was written to an audience who needed to hear that sometimes adults don’t care, and sometimes adults are cruel, and adults lie, and adults can be wonderful in the most unexpected times and places.  To almost-thirty-year-old me…. those self-same messages made me cringe. But I also see how eight-year-old-me needed them.  Needed to hear that it was ok to distrust my teachers because they were mean.  It was ok to fear adults that “society” told me I should trust.  Damn those are good things for kids to hear!  Not so good for adults.

So when I write a critique, I am going to try going forward to focus on who I think the intended audience is, who the audience should be (whether it’s everyone or just “young adults”), and who the audience perhaps shouldn’t be (snotty people who can’t get over their own superiority of course).  I have some, but not always deliberately.

And a lot of the time this blog doesn’t see the books I didn’t like because I didn’t finish the series.  I only read the first or second book and I don’t review partial series (generally).  I make two exceptions: When I feel like I need to warn people off from something “popular” (which if I was blogging when Twilight came out I would have!) or when there is something I want to explore (like “this character development really make me think about how I develop this type of character”).  I will never rip apart another author’s work just to sound smart – I will always have a better motive.  That’s my goal in writing a criticism.

 

Musings: Books I want to see on screen

I was looking through this article (here) about 100 books being (maybe) turned into movies.  I found myself rolling my eyes at another remake of 1984.  As much as I’m looking forward to (I hope!) a good movie version of A Wrinkle of Time, there are some titles I think are grossly missing from this list.

#1: Codex of Alera (Jim Butcher)

I reviewed this series here.  There is some seriously fun imagery and ideas in here.  It would probably need to be a TV series.  Tavi would be a tough guy to cast, but I think as long as they managed to find someone who could pull off “small and skinny” and then bulk up (some)…. He wouldn’t need a lot of bulk.  I totally think Kitai should be played by Millie Bobby Brown – she can pull off the “scary but not at the same time” look perfectly.

#2 Alanna (Tamora Pierce)

I have wanted a “Tortall” series since I first read these books in middle school.  If HBO wants their next series…. Tortall would not be a terrible one to tackle.  There might not be enough blood/sex/violence for HBO though.  CW could expand beyond super heroes.

You would only have 3 seasons, because I’m not sure you’d want to try to expand out the last 2 books into 2 separately seasons.  I think they would work best as a single season.

#3 Akata Witch/Warrior (Nnedi Okorafor)

The review  for this book should tell you a lot of why I want to see this book on the large screen.  This would make for an amazing 2 movies.  Or 3.  I could see turning this into something of a trilogy – without giving away anything in the plot… yeah if I were to put my hand to screenwriting this I would make it a trilogy.  Oh the end of that second movie…. would drive you all wild! Cliffhanger!

#4 Tiger Burning Bright (Bradley, Norton, & Lackey)

(Goodreads link) As I was looking at my bookshelves my eyes alighted on this jewel in and lit up. And I have to fight with myself over TBB or The Elvenbane, but I decided this one is less famous and would make a great one-hit-win. I might need to reread and write my review on it to do justice, but this would be a kick-ass movie.  I almost re-ordered my entire list to put this as #1!  If you don’t know these three names by last only, they are Marrion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey.  Anyone who loves 2 out of those three is probably now drooling.  (I may have written four paragraphs of fangirling over these authors and had to edit it out…)

This book follows three women, a mother and her two daughters as they seek to save their kingdom from the hungry powerful empire that is attempting to swallow them up.  With secrets, magic, and each having their own skills and talents they manage to not only save their own lives, but save their people.  OMG. Excuse me while I go get lost in Merina now.

#5 Dark Horse Series

I’ve already reviewed Mary H. Herbert’s series (here) and I have long loved these books.  The fact they haven’t ever gotten picked up just seems dumb to me.  They are perfect movie material.  Literally, casting is the only question in my world.  How they handle the Hunnuli is also vital – they have to do it right. Seriously, don’t try to handle magical awesome horses if you can’t handle magical awesome horses.

I have so many images in my mind of what I think would work well, I would love to see a good director/producer tackle this one and do it right.  With the rise (finally!) of acceptable female-lead movies, I think this books series not only would make AWESOME movies, but might finally be able to be done right.  Not too much focus on the relationships of men + women, but not ignoring them entirely either.

OK Hollywood…

So These are my suggestions.  There are others I could list (hell, a lot of the books I read I might recommend….), but I will let these 5 stand as my recommendations for 2017.  Maybe I’ll do this again NEXT year, see which ones stay on the list and if I change any out….

 

Shopping!

Today is Black Friday in the US.  The ultimate holiday of capitalism.

I will be spending my day hanging out with my family.  We will play board games, cook delicious food, and probably get into a political argument.  It’s like doing Thanksgiving 2 days in a row.

So much better than going out and dealing with strangers who are elbowing each other for the latest “greatest” gadget or toy….

Review: Akata Witch/Warrior (Nnedi Okorafor)

This is Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult books.  I can’t wait to start reading Binti next (I found it on Google Play sale and already have it downloaded… now I just need time).

Akata Witch & Akata Warrior both follow Sunny as she learns her albino curse isn’t a curse but a sign that she is a witch.  In the best of ways.  Americans hear the word “juju” and think New Orleans and voodoo, but Nigerian juju is neither good nor bad itself- it is just the word for magic.

The book starts with a bang and follows some relatively traditional paths as far as plot points.  Both books I knew when I was coming up to the climax not because of rising action (and with ebooks not by how much paper each hand is holding…) but because we’d hit some pretty clear plot-arcs.  That would be my harshest criticism – its plot is awesome but patterned.  Especially the second book. To be honest, when we hit that mid-point of “oh, something is going to go very, very wrong here…” yeah I thought that.

BUT, this a young adult novel so I think that pacing isn’t inappropriate.  I have read hundreds of books – of course I might notice the patterns.  It also doesn’t mean the patterns are bad – they get used for very good reasons – THEY WORK.

Ok, so let’s get into this:

Characters: Sunny, Orlu, Chichi & Sasha are friends & Leopard People – people with magic in Nigeria.  Sunny was born in America, lived here for 9 years, and then her family moved back to Nigeria (where her parents were from).  It creates a character who can think about “this would be weird in America – here’s why” without feeling like exposition or condescension.

World Building: This is one of those things I really liked.  I don’t like a lot of urban fantasy because sometimes it’s hard to see the inter-mixing of the magical & non-magical.  There is either a strict divide (ie Harry Potter) or an underworld.  And although technically Sunny’s magical world could be argued as the latter, it is intermixed in a way I haven’t seen and I like better than the standard.  Especially because “the wilderness” is something I have read of in myth (I even have a story idea where I use it).

Overall: 4/5 it is young adult and though I think anyone who has read Harry Potter will probably enjoy it, there are some elements that closed-minded people might not be able to handle. Like imperfections providing strength.

Manners: Apologies

Apparently, it needs to be covered: How To Make an Apology.

Let’s start with some context. WHEN to apologize.

The answer is “yes.”

1. Whether it’s been 10 minutes or 10 years (or 90 years)- if you need to apologize, do it.  

This is a hard one, but there it is: it is never too late to apologize.  If it’s something you believe you did that was “wrong” – even if you (or maybe especially) if you thought differently at the time.

There are a ton of examples I could pull of my behavior as a teenage that I’m downright embarrassed by today. And some of it is that I was 17 and stupid (I blame lacking a complete prefrontal cortex). Some of it was that I was stupid. Some of it I look back and cringe. I have apologized for things years after they happened because in retrospect I learned they were bad ideas or actions. And as often as not, the person I apologize to appreciates it, even if they have already worked through it and it no longer hurts them. I did a dumb thing. I apologized for the dumb thing.

2. Repentance & Apologies are not the same thing.

This is one of those times my Christian beliefs are going to sing loud & long.  Repentance goes way beyond just saying the words of an apology.

An apology is the words.  Repentance (according to Merriam Webster) is “1 :to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life. 2 :to feel regret or contrition.”

TURN is a key word here. I might apologize for eating the last piece of cake, but frankly if there is cake there tomorrow I’m probably doing the same thing. And every day thereafter…. really, just don’t leave cake around me.

If however, I know that I said something or did something I should never do again I might repent. I don’t repeat the behavior. I apologize and change forever. I might not apologize but still change forever. That change is very important. If you apologize but don’t repent – was it a sincere apology?

I mean obviously, there are things which might repeat – I am somewhat clumsy and end up dropping & breaking something (a plate, a cup, whatever). I apologize. I am super-duper sincere.  Next time I am double-careful, but after a year…. I forgot I ever did it until I break something else because I’m clumsy. I am equally sincere and I temporarily (?) repented, but did I really? Yes, but…. but.

This is also why an apology isn’t always enough.

4. Apologizing don’t fix it

Even if you truly repent (ie you are changed and would never repeat that mistake) – it’s already broken.  I can’t magically wave my wand and fix that plate/cup/trust and fix it.

An apology is a good start. It is not the end of the break in trust (you can make the argument apologies always stem from a break in trust). Whether it’s a broken plate you dropped or a broken heart or just straight-up broken trust – an apology is a start not an end.  An apology isn’t worth the carbon dioxide you release unless it’s sincere.

We all know the person who learned at 3 if they apologize and look cute they think they can repeat the behavior without significant increasing consequences.  Know that old phrase:

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

Life application.  Guy fondles me/smacks my ass. He “apologizes” but the next day DOES IT AGAIN.  Well he can apologize as much as he want – I now know that the initial apology wasn’t sincere. Abusive relationships frequently abuse the “apology contract” where when someone apologizes we’re “supposed to” forgive & forget.  Same with public issues where someone like a politician might apologize – but a year later the press catches him again!

Be aware that just because you can get away with it (for a time) it doesn’t mean you should. And eventually these things tend to catch up with you.

4. They don’t have to forgive you or forget.

Whew, this is always a tough one.  You feel guilty.  You want that freedom to know the person you hurt – and the worse the hurt, the more you want it – forgives you. Man that’s a craving. You put your courage to the wall and manage your apology.

You wait.

They don’t respond.  Or they tell you to go to hell.  Or they say thank you. They apologize for what they did that they’ve carried as their guilt.  Any of these are 100% acceptable responses.

There is no rule that says when someone apologizes you have to forgive them.  The same goes in reverse.  If they tell you to go to hell (or whatever equivalent) you bow your head and say, “Thank you for giving me these few minutes.”  Then you should walk away. The apology is given and they may not be ready to forgive. You have to respect that boundary.

This is the hardest part – but let’s say I am in a car accident and kill the other driver’s child. There is no going back “to the way thing were” (even blissful indifference to each other).  I will forever be the piece of shit who destroyed their world. FOREVER. I can apologize. They can forgive. Our worlds have still be drastically altered. FOREVER.

And what might not have seemed as serious to the apologizer might be traumic.  A man thinks he’s being sexy, so he pushes his date against a wall for a good long “first kiss” (they had been laughing and having a great time all through dinner – let’s take this to the next level!).  She squirms and screams and says no.  He immediately backs off and apologizes – he’s very repentant.  That doesn’t mean she has to forgive him. And she may never forget that he was obtuse enough to not pick up that although she was laughing, she was almost always arms-across-chest/leaning away/not encouraging him. She may never forgive him for even for a heartbeat making her feel unsafe. She may never willingly be alone in a room with him.

5. Trust Broken is never the same.

Go back to my #3 – it’s broke and you can’t fix it.  As the person apologizing, sometimes you also have to allow that you can’t fix it.  Trust once broken might not able to be repaired.  When it can, it might be damn difficult.

Just look at how much people spend on counseling if a partner cheats.  Alone or as a couple – it is damn difficult to repair that.  And then it’s never the same.  You might have a patched-together trust. Your trust in some ways might be deeper and stronger, but it’s because there is a scar there that had to be patched and that scar is there forever.

One of the difficult parts of an apology is that even after the words are spoken: repentance is a thing proven not said.  I might say “I Repent!” but until I’ve proved it (possibly over and over), I can’t expect people to believe me.

Conclusion

Apologies suck. I don’t know anyone who enjoys giving a sincere apology. Humans don’t like being wrong.  We really like being right, or at least feeling right. So we justify our actions so we don’t feel wrong.

And for something traumatic like sexual harassment (and all the hubbub around them at the moment) an apology will never be enough – but damn if it isn’t a good start.  Once you sincerely apologize you get to the repentance-proving grounds. We will see if the men who have come out and said “oh, I’ll go to therapy for a few days – surely that will fix it!” can understand it isn’t going to be such a short journey – there isn’t a quick fix.  But then, most of them haven’t even started with an actual apology.

For an example of “I think he really repented” I’ll point out Michael Vic.  I agree he should never be allowed to own a dog again – but you know what, it’s been a bunch of years and he’s still sounding pretty damn repentant. I think he probably means it.  I think I might believe him.  I also think he’s earned the loss of trust that he will never be allowed a pet again (which sounds like a circle of hell to me).

Review: The Song of the Lioness

Tamora Pierce is one of my favorite authors.  She is on the short list of “oh, I saw one of Tamora’s books I haven’t read. I’ll pick that up and read it.”  I don’t love every book of hers I’ve read, but I’ve loved enough.

And pretty much anything she wrote in Tortall is a win for me.  All of those books stem from this series.  I recently re-read it (for probably the hundredth time), but this time on audiobook.  So I some of those sections I’ve skimmed the last few read throughs came back into focus.

So first off – this book is a 10/10.  I think everyone (male, female, young, old) should read this series.  It isn’t long or arduous or painful.  Each book is an awesome ~150 pages of really solid writing.  I know I’m pretty much drooling over it, but if anything listening to it and honing in on those sections I’ve skipped a few times reminded me why I loved it when I first read it and let me recapture that joy.

It is a coming of age story.  It’s following Alanna of Trebond as she tries to become a lady knight. So in the first book she’s 10-14, the second 14-18, the third is just one year and the fourth is probably a little less than a year.  The first two are longer year-lengths because she’s learning.  Once they set up her class schedule, Pierce can jump forward to the important moments and bits.  The second book probably has the most pacing struggle because of this – there are several important moments and Pierce has to jump in for a few days, jump back for weeks, then jump back in when the action needs attention.

That’s probably my harshest criticism for the series.  Part of the reason I say everyone – one of the feminists “complaints” I’ve seen is that men don’t read stories about women. This is a perfect introduction. In the first book when Alanna is struggling with “but I’m a girl just pretending” and feeling all the doubts of whether she can make it – honestly, who hasn’t felt like an impostor? The boys do too and could relate to her struggle. They might not understand it to the level, but we’ve all felt like an outsider and impostor.  Perfect book for them (a) to experience relating to a female (b) seeing that we all have those feelings – even someone who is amazing and (c) it’s got some of the best relationships between men and women I’ve ever read.

So the one thing that I want to warn people about – especially because this is a “young adult” novel is that Alanna has sex. With more than one person. But you know what – these books saved me from some truly terrible relationships. I’m not exaggerating either. In college, I dated someone (shortly) who was abusive and controlling. I re-read these books over the summer and the questions Alanna asked in her relationship (which was helluva lot better than the one I was playing with) made me take a huge step back and think “shit. Firstly, I deserve better and secondly. Shit.”  The reasons she gets into relationships are human – sometimes imperfect and full of problems; but you know what? She keeps asking the question of what she wants her relationship to look like – and figuring it out.

I will (someday) have my kids read these books. When they begin dating we will talk about the relationships Alanna has and why they work or don’t work.  We will talk about how she figured it out and when it was ok to have sex and when it wouldn’t be. We will talk about using protection and why it’s so powerful for women (’cause fantasy of course has what’s essentially birth control). Sons as well as daughters need to think about these things and answer questions about their relationships.

Seriously – if you haven’t picked up this book yet, you might get a few days off over Thanksgiving or Christmas – use them to read this series.  None of them should take very long and after you read these you can move on to Wild Magic (the next series in Tortall – and the audio version of that one is a full cast, let’s just say I want to BUY that audio series).

Life Memories: Systemic Sexism

So this entire post comes with history. A LOT of history.  There are stories within stories here and I can’t fully explore them in a single post.  So, I’ll skip some bits here and jump straight into the pieces you need (well, I’ll try, it’s hard to unpack all the inter-tangled pieces). All the best stories are complicated.

I started playing tabletop RPGs around end-of-middle-school when my older brother wanted to try this new book GURPS.  Yes, I learned on GURPS.  It has made me a weird gamer ever since because I don’t particularly like D&D or Pathfinder… classes frustrate me.  When I was in high school I started gaming with his guy-friends (most of them in college) with a Wheel of Time game.  When my brother “disappeared” into the military, I kept going.

We met every first Saturday of the month about noon and gamed until 5-7pm, went to dinner and hung out.  So from the time I was 16/17 until about 29, I saw these guys at least once a month for hours. Some of them had known me before gaming. Some of them I ended up working at jobs with. They were family.

Sometime in college we started the weirdest, goofiest, craziest Star Wars campaign (we totally broke West End games yo!).  We probably played that campaign close to 7-8 years.  We had multiple stories and each of us ended up with 2 characters so we could run multiple plots simultaneously (I did use the word broken, right?).  It was so much fun and I was loyal – I made that Saturday my guys’ day.

Then we let a new guys join the group.  He wasn’t new-new.  He’d been on the fringes of my awareness for years  -gamers always tend to circle the same people.  We’ll call him “Ted” for this story.  So Ted had met my friends in college, hadn’t ever really gotten into gaming ’cause you know Georgia Tech is hard and family business and he had a life.  But now he wanted in, so we made room at the “table” and he built up a pair of characters (now a requirement).  Now, Ted was vegetarian (by religion) and this made our after-game dinner choices change.  Whereas BBQ and burger joints had been common – they had to get nix’ed pretty much entirely.  Whatever, I am not actually that picky an eater.

I do however have a food sensitivity.  I can’t eat peppers.  They make me rather violently ill.  Anything stronger than a jalepeano generally makes me vomit.  Much like someone lactos intolerant, you don’t want me around when I try to eat even bell peppers. So places like Mexican restaurants are -at best- risky.

Well Ted thought Mexican was the best choice for the group. Constantly. No matter how many months in a row I reminded the group that this would not work for me. And it hurt. At the time I couldn’t explain entirely why it hurt so much.  I mean, obviously Ted is an asshole who can’t think beyond his OWN needs. That was actually a pretty well acknowledged truth. You combine this with a few other sexist remarks and painful moments and this group I loved & cherished was becoming more and more difficult to convince myself to be around every month.

Then came the catalyst weekend.  It had been a fairly emotionally charged game and I had felt like every time I spoke up, my character’s ideas (ie mine) were being shot down.  I was emotionally tired. The dinner conversation came up and immediately Ted suggested Mexican. I brought up my allergy and suggested Olive Garden (pasta is perfectly safe for a vegetarian). He said he didn’t want pasta or salad. And suggested a different Mexican place.

I wish I could say I had tossed out BBQ and when Ted complained I lashed into him (as I fully believe he deserved) that if he couldn’t respect my allergy I didn’t have to respect his choice.  I didn’t.  I was tired and after a little more round-robin I caved.

I ordered as carefully as I could, but it was a Saturday night. I’m sure the restaurant had pans of pepper-dishes next to pans of non-peppery dishes and cross-contamination is a thing.  I spent half the night in my bathroom wishing I had just skipped dinner entirely.  I spent half the night wishing I never would have to see Ted again. I spent days emotionally recovering from…. I couldn’t even say what.

It took me longer than it should have, but I wrote an email to the defacto “leader” (the GM) of the group.  I explained I was frustrated and hurt.  It wasn’t perfect – hell, I was a bit emotional – but I was blunt and said “I won’t put myself into a situation again where I will be sick. ”

I walked away from the game. I walked away feeling like “the bad guy.”  I walked away feeling guilty because I know I hurt my friend’s feelings when I explained this truth: my friends didn’t stand up to Ted and left me to stand against him alone. Over and over. Their silence; their complicity in his sexism…. hurt.

The food thing was actually a pretty minor confrontation between myself and Ted. We had already had one where he literally had told me to sit down, shut up, and let “the men” play their game.  And I mean that literally as literally not figuratively.  And that time one of the guys did stand up to Ted and tell him he was in the wrong. But they never noticed how many times he talked over me. How many times he dismissed my ideas.  The tiny pricks over and over and again and again. Subtle and constant but each one individually small enough to dismiss.

But this is systemic sexism I wanted to get to in this post:

When I (the sole woman of the group) brought up a medical concern it was treated as equally valid as a life choice (of a man) when it came to food decisions.

Say that to yourself three times.  His choice (albeit religious) was given equality with my getting violently ill.  Granted, my illness isn’t something flashy like peanuts or fish cause. Still… mull this over in your mind.

And the guys didn’t fully understand.  More than one used the word “sensitive” when they asked and I explained that it was “him or me” in the group. Not even my brother (who totally supported my decision – had been listening to me for months complain as we carpooled) entirely understood it. Oh, he understood it in theory and he did/does support it – but he didn’t understand why it hurt as much as it did. I doubt he’s ever experienced it, and never over and over and over.

And yet, every woman I’ve told this to nods and shares her “Ted” experience.  That hashtag about women telling their stories…. yeah, this is one of mine.

This still hurts.  It’s been more than 2 years and I have teared up writing about this.  I have stopped twice, walked away, and came back to writing; because it still is painful to remember this decision to walk away from a group of 15 years.  Friends who I might talk to at a Christmas party or the like now, but I don’t get to see every month.

I have tried to hang out with them once; they planned a random board-game day.  And after about 2 hours of dealing with underhanded barbs from Ted (seriously, the man does not even realize how much he (A) interrupts me and (B) constantly puts down women in general) I was sick of it. Ted makes my skin crawl with the heeby-jeebies and I barely trust him not to cross the line when other men are around to hold him in check. It’s exhausting (and far from “fun”) to be in that kind of tension for very long.

Now, when they plan board game days I just ignore the email chain. Well, I just don’t respond. I always read them.