Thursday, October 8, 2015

Take It As A Compliment by Maria Stoian

There have been a lot of books coming out over the last couple years that deal with sexual harassment and rape. On the one hand, I'm very happy that people are speaking out against such a serious issue. On the other hand, it really underscores just how big a problem rape is in our society even despite various advances in how we view gender constructs and sexuality, and that is troubling.

TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT is a series of short stories, all illustrated, from men and women sharing their stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. Their stories are heartbreaking. I could feel my emotions catching in my chest as each narrator shared their story in devastatingly simple and hard-hitting terms.

One man was raped during a blind date. A woman had (unwanted) anal sex forced upon her by a boyfriend. One woman was taking the bus at night and had a man follow her all the way down the street. The stories range from mild to severe, but all of them are equally disturbing, and all of them have done harm.

TAKE IT AS A COMPLIMENT is an important book because it illustrates the importance of consent and respect in any kind of relationship. People should be able to feel safe when they walk down the street at night, and they should be able to trust that friends, family, and significant others won't take advantage of their trust when things don't go their way. Our bodies are our own, and to take away that ownership of someone, to rob them of agency and autonomy, is sick and depraved. What makes this book even more tragic is how young some of the victims were. One girl was only nine.

As I was reading this, I found myself thinking about some of the unpleasant situations I've found myself in over the years. One stood out among the rest.

When I was in high school, I would walk home from school. I lived in a desert climate. In June, it started to get very hot, often over 100 degrees. I was wearing an ankle-length skirt in my favorite color and a tank top. About halfway, these men started following me in a car at a slow pace. They were Latino, and quite a bit older than I was, and they were all calling horrible things to me in Spanish. I understood every word and it was terrifying, what they were saying. For the first time in my young life, I found myself wondering if I was going to make it home safely.

I ignored them. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? Because engaging people is the same as encouraging them? So I ignored the things they were saying, even as my squared shoulders stiffened and I found myself flushing with mortification and terror, and I quickly came up with a plan. If they stopped and came after me, I was going to run up to the first house I saw that had a car parked in a driveway. I was already fingering my cell phone, ready to call 911.

And then...what? What if I didn't make it? What if they were faster than me?

What if they didn't care?

Luckily, I didn't have to find out. The men got tired of me ignoring them and, laughing, drove away. I walked home looking over my shoulder the whole way, feeling scared and sick. When my mom got home, I cried when I told her. I never wore my favorite skirt again.

I was seventeen.

5 out of 5 stars.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Evil cheerleaders is not exactly a novel concept; in fact, it's one of the go-to stereotypes in YA and NA. But none of them have ever done it quite like this. Few stories manage to capture the cunning cruelty with which teenage girls orchestrate their lives. There is a brilliant mastery to it; it's like social chess. The best ones play one piece at a time, laying the groundwork until the trap is ready to spring shut.

Beth and Addy are best friends. They have an intense, frenetic relationship marked by manic highs and psychotic lows. There are times when I know Addy hates Beth, times when Addy fears Beth, and times when the relationship between them verges on something pretty damn close to love. But what an ugly, twisted love it is.

Both girls are cheerleaders. And in some ways, it's exactly like the movies. People watch them. Boys want to fuck date them, and girls want to be them. But at the same time, there's a sense of isolation there, too. Squad rules. Cheerleading makes up the bulk of their lives and their relationship, and that cinches them all tight.

When a new coach walks on the scene--who is young, and beautiful, and just as mean and hungry as they are--friendships are tested and the entire social structure of the cheerleading hierarchy is overthrown. There are studies in monkeys where researchers inject males with testosterone to create a new alpha. The coach does that with her girls, fucking with them just because she can, to teach them a lesson. And it's a lesson that they will never forget. Doesn't that sound corny and cliche?

Previously, the only other book by Megan Abbott that I've read was THE FEVER, which was an interesting book that's hard to explain, but that also deals with intense friendships between girls. Girlhood is some scary shit, man. She has an interesting writing style that tries to be poetic and doesn't always succeed, but results in some evocative and even insightful lines sometimes. I feel like Abbott is still hammering out her style, and this is the Big Practice before the Big Game.

DARE ME was good, but there were still a lot of flaws in the storytelling and the writing that I had difficulty overcoming. Her inconsistent style for one, and also some of the tropes that came into play in this book, especially towards the end. DARE ME is definitely a good book about girls being mean to each other, though, and it has a rather compelling mystery at its heart.

3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Jem and the Holograms: Showtime by Kelly Thompson

I swear to you, the 80s are coming back. Earlier this week, I reviewed a Saved by the Bell graphic-novel, and now I've found myself with JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS. I figured they must be releasing this graphic-novel to coincide with something, so I looked it up and, lo! and behold: there's a movie coming out on October 23, 2015, with the graphic novel itself slated to come out just a week after. I'm such a clever girl.

I didn't watch the original TV series so I can't really say how this compares. I did research it a bit before writing my review, and like most cartoons from the 1980s pre-reboot, it seems like it's a bit edgier than its modern incarnation. JEM the original had a lot of derring-do to appeal to a broader audience.

JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS is a fluffy, feel-good story about four sisters living together who want to be a band. A popular punk rock band called the Misfits put out a contest looking for a band to compete against in a battle of the bands, but Jerrica is too performance shy to make a proper video. Then one day a hologram appears in her father's audience, calling herself Synergy. He intended to give this technology to Jerrica to use, and ends up bequeathing it to her posthumously.

Jerrica activates the hologram with a pair of starburst earrings, which she uses to transform herself into Jem and get over her stagefright. Around this part is where it starts to deviate from the TV show. Most of the focus of JEM is about relationships. The creators made an executive decision to include a lesbian character, Kimber, and she ends up starting a relationship with a girl from the Misfit band that is actually really adorable. I have to say that it is very refreshing to see an LGBT relationship in a book geared towards young girls, so this is a change that was quite nice.

Another thing I liked, which wasn't necessarily part of the story, is that all of the girls from both bands have a wide variety of body types, ranging from svelte to curvy to heavy. And all of them have body confidence, and there is never any weight-shaming (at least none that I remember).

The storyline itself wasn't anything to write home about; it's a classic case of two sets of female rivals trying to outdo each other in increasingly escalated situations, some verging on the dangerous. If you're at all familiar with shoujo manga, you've seen this before. And even if you aren't, you've seen the Disney channel, right? Actually, now that I've watched the trailer for the new Jem movie, I have to say that it looks like it's taking the Hannah Montana route, except with four girls instead of one. Maybe with a dash of Josie and the Pussycats (2001) (a movie that I quite like).

JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS is a much better reboot than SAVED BY THE BELL. The changes made here actually make sense, and I really liked what the creators were trying to do. I also liked that these changes were relatively subtle, and that I was not beaten over the head with them. It made the changes feel more natural. The book does end on a wicked cliffhanger, though. Something to keep in mind, maybe?

3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How to Talk About Videogames by Ian Bogost

Videogames are becoming an integral part of pop culture, which is funny because they used to be a part of the counterculture. But isn't that what happens? When the counterculture becomes popular enough, it's assimilated into our pop cultural "Borg", and just like that the underdog becomes the spoiled lapdog we all take for granted.

I, for one, was terribly excited to see HOW TO TALK ABOUT VIDEOGAMES on Netgalley because I'm somewhat of a pop culture junkie. I like learning about how the various media and technology we take for granted now came to be, and the paths the founders took that brought them to success (or failure).

HOW TO TALK ABOUT VIDEOGAMES isn't a linear history so much as a collection of essays that talk about various facets of game culture and why they are relevant. He talks about app games at length, which was welcome because app games are often overlooked or ignored by snobby purists who prefer to focus solely on console games. Bully and Grandtheft Auto are mentioned, and so are artsy games like Proteus and Flower, bizarre games like Goat Simulator, classics like Tetris, and popular games like Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid.

I found most of the essays engaging. My eyes glazed over a bit on the essay about sports games and Madden and EA, because I don't really care about sports, but he did make some interesting points about how sports games being treated with respect benefits both the sports games and the sports they are playing homage to, in some sort of Gestalt logic coup about their being a part of pop culture (or something like that--like I said, eyes were glazing over, and I only got the basic argument of what he was saying). He brings up an interesting account of a possible racist moment in Scribblenauts (which you can probably look up. Just add the word "sambo" to your search and see what happens).

HOW TO TALK ABOUT VIDEOGAMES would have gotten a much higher rating from me if not for the last essay and the epilogue that followed it. The essay in question was a criticism of Going Home, an exploration game developed by some of the same people who helped create Bioshock. His main criticism is one that I actually agree with in principle: stories should not get "brownie points" for what they are trying to achieve; the medium in which they tell these stories is what ought to count. The controversy in question comes from the fact that Going Home has a lesbian protagonist and a huge part of the game storyline is her coming out and figuring out her sexuality. Bogost takes issue with the apparently unequivocal praise this book has received, claiming that embracing the book for being LGBT cheapens the game industry and story-telling in general.

Here's where he lost me. He compares this cheap storytelling to young adult books and graphic novels. His argument seems to be that graphic novels and young adult books are low-brow works that aren't as mature as other, more sophisticated forms of storytelling, and their emergence in pop culture has damaged storytelling or, as he puts it so charmingly:

the modest, subtle pleasures of the literary arts [are] melting under Iron Man's turbines, impaled by Katniss Everdeen's arrow (195).

Are comic books and young adult books high literature? No. But that doesn't mean that they are without merit, nor does it mean that they are causing "the literary arts" to suffer. However, Bogost seems to have an idea that many gamers are illiterate bumpkins, because he makes a rather snide and nasty comment that Bioshock players almost certainly wouldn't know who Jeanette Winterson is.

The epilogue left an even worse taste in my mouth. As he wraps up this videogame manifesto, he starts making comments comparing gaming and the purchase of videogames to what he calls "unseemly" enterprises: liquor stores and sex shops. First off, what the actual fuck. Sex shops and liquor stores are not unseemly in and of themselves. In fact, some of them are quite nice. Second off, why is gaming unseemly? Why are we using puritanical moral compasses to gauge said unseemliness? Why are you trying to make playing videogames out to be a bad thing after spending almost 200 pages writing out a fairly balanced edict that weighs both the pros and the cons?

Videogames in a bookstore are different from video games [sic] in a videogame store. In a bookstore--even a mall store of questionable cultural virtue--they become on kind of media alongside others...[t]he bookstore cuts the lewdness of games just as the pub cuts the decadence of drinking (197).

Apparently buying videogames in a bookstore makes you a better person.

Then there's this whiny comment he makes, about knowing that this book wasn't going to sell a lot of copies because nobody wants to read about video games (because all gamers are illiterate bumpkins?) and that books about video games aren't marketable. He finishes with this thought:

you can't sell a trade book on games like you can sell one on social media or even on Star Wars, because games are considered to have no audience (200).



Games are considered to have no audience. Fucking really? If you've ever been on Tumblr or Twitter or any social media site of any kind, you would know that this is simply not true. There is a HUGE audience for games and gaming, and a lot of those gamers are interconnected. Many of them are quite intelligent and very literate, and I can think of a number of them who would happily purchase a book about gaming and game culture and the history of video games just because of the sheer novelty reading about their subculture would provide. In fact, there's a number of books about games that have achieved modest success. Exhibits (a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f), (g), etc.

Maybe the reason gamers aren't buying your books in droves isn't because there's no market or interest in it. Maybe it's because they've read your articles elsewhere and have decided that you're kind of a pedantic asshat who enjoys insulting them a little too much. That's certainly the impression that I've gotten from reading this book in full. Now I've got to wash out the bad taste in my mouth...

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman

I've gotten a quarter the way through this book, and I cannot take any more. I'm marking this as DNF because it is nigh intolerable.

People have been hyping this book up like nobody's business, and I guess I can sort of see why. Two popular YA authors teaming up to write a book? It seems like a no-brainer. Let's throw money at it.

ILLUMINAE is one of those artsy books that's all about the formatting. It's like HOUSE OF LEAVES or WORLD WAR Z: people are going to try and tell you that the merit of the story lies in the way it's told, not necessarily how it's told.

Guess what, though? I rated both of those books 1*'s.

Here's the thing--and, incidentally, this is what makes people angriest about my reviews--I don't rate on literary or artistic merit. I rate on how much I, personally, liked the book. I don't care how artsy you are, how popular you are, or what your intentions were for writing the book. If I didn't enjoy reading it, it gets a one star.

Ain't I a stinker?

I received my copy from Netgalley so it doesn't come with any of the illustrations that the final editions have. I was left with the raw story, and as a standalone book, it really doesn't work. The interviews are dry and have uneven pacing. Kady and Ezra try way too hard to be witty little snarks, and just sound like douchebag middle school kids talking back to teacher. I found the world-building hard to follow, and wasn't engaged enough to make the leap. By contrast, Brandon Sanderson's MISTBORN series was also incredibly convoluted, but the immersion was engaging and gradual enough that I was able to figure things out and still enjoy myself. It is possible.

I really don't think the mixed media format works for this book. It didn't really contribute anything and seemed to be included for the sole purpose of being artsy and possibly adding to the page count. I quickly found myself skimming over Kady and Ezra's interviews, journal entries, and, eventually, anything with actual words on it. Why? Because I just didn't care. Their conspiracy theories didn't interest me. The fact that Kady was piloting a broken ship didn't interest me or cause me to worry for her plight. The fact that Kady and Ezra are ex-boy and girlfriend pitted together once more by fate made me roll my eyes. Seriously, does everything need a romantic subplot these days? Ugh.

ILLUMINAE is probably one of the hyped-up books of 2015, and as with half of the other books on that list, I found it to be incredibly disappointing.

1 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Craved by Lola Smirnova

TWISTED was a really shocking book. It was about three sisters living in the Ukraine who turn to prostituting themselves in Eastern Europe for quick cash. But there are hidden costs in everything, and Julia discovers several of them as she immerses herself in this dark world, battered by readily available drugs, addiction, sexual abuse, and clients who are interested in the darkest spectrum of sex.

I was really impressed by the quality of the writing and story-telling in TWISTED. It's good for indie. Very good. When I found out that there was going to be a sequel to that book, I was excited for that as well. For the first time, I understood people's excitement when they read a trashy book; for me, TWISTED was incredibly "trashy" but good enough that I didn't feel the need to justify myself. The writing and story spoke for themselves.

In CRAVED, the sequel, Julia ends up in sex work yet again, this time in South Africa, working as a stripper. CRAVED is quite similar to TWISTED in terms of the unraveling of the plot: Julia goes in expecting easy money and finds out that the work is not as easy as she expected. She deals with the racism and culture shock of her new home on a daily basis. Clients do not understand (or pretend not to understand) the rules of the premises, forcing her to get a bouncer or the club owner to intervene. Her appearance is subject to ruthless scrutiny, and for the first time, she considers making permanent modifications to her body.

I feel like this book delved deeper into the lives of Julia's family. We find out more about her mother and father, and her sisters, Natalia and Lena. Many of the things we find out about them are unpleasant, and I really did not like Natalia and Lena by the time the story was over. Even Julia, who I rooted for in the previous book, lost favor with me. She seemed so cold and mercenary in this book, whereas I kind of liked her plucky sarcasm in book one. I'm not sure if this was intentional on the author's part: if her coldness is a result of her hardening from working in the sex industry, and her psychological coping mechanism for dealing with the rape and abuse she experienced before.

Oh, and if you are one of the people who was put off by the graphic sex and violence in book one, book two is much more toned down by comparison. The most disturbing things in this book are some drug use, attempted rape, and a pedophile. Which is still more disturbing than you may like, but I was able to stomach this relatively easily, whereas book one actually had me walking away several times.

Overall, CRAVED was an okay book. There were more odd phrases in this book than the first one, and some of them were clunky enough to draw me out of the story. I also feel like the plot mirrored the first book too closely, and didn't really engage me as much as the first. Possibly because stripping just isn't as interesting as prostitution and clients with weird/disgusting fetishes. CRAVED certainly wasn't terrible, but it wasn't the sequel I was hoping for either. Definitely a case of middle book syndrome. Hopefully book three will be better.

3 out of 5 stars.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

I played flute for ten years. I was good. I did flute choirs, orchestra pit, and marching band. I had private lessons. I got to play solos in our formal concerts. Most of my teachers pressured me to play professionally--and I always said no.

I love music. I love the way it makes me feel, both when I listen and when I play, but when I played competitively, that took a lot of the fun out of it for me. I didn't want to always be looking over my shoulder, wondering if the third or fourth chair flutists were going to be challenging me for my spot. I didn't like having my performances scrutinized and then torn to shreds by judges. I could feel myself approaching a wall, and I knew that when I hit that wall, I was going to have to make a choice: continue playing, or give it up. And I gave it up.

There aren't a lot of YA books that deal with classical musicians. When I found out that IF I STAY was about a concert cellist, I was excited. Jessica Martinez's VIRTUOSITY was about a violin prodigy and it was excellent. But IF I STAY fell flat for me, and that's because music is actually a secondary tier in this novel. At its core, IF I STAY is another LOVELY BONES knock-off exploring the whisper-thin boundary between life and death, and what it means to be caught in between, and how our lives can be offset by a choice.

I can love books like that. I have loved books like that. In fact, that is precisely what my all-the-lovely-bones shelf is for on Goodreads. But IF I STAY just didn't work. Part of the problem is that the narrator, Mia Hall, just isn't a very sympathetic protagonist. There were several moments I knew where I was supposed to cry in the book, but I didn't. Because I just didn't care about Mia. She didn't sound like a teenager. She suffers from John Green syndrome: everything she says makes her sound like a forty-year-old proselytizing about what they think being a teenager is actually like, courtesy of rose-colored glasses and old reruns of the Disney channel. She doesn't sound convincing.

I also felt like this book just wasn't realistic. The stunts that Adam pulled to see Mia in the hospital. The things the doctors said. The flashbacks. Mia's own parents. I felt like I was reading a fairytale masquerading as reality. The result of this was that everyone seemed very two-dimensional, more like cardboard cutouts than actual flesh and blood, and as a result, the entire story suffered. Plus, I don't understand why, in books like these where the characters have some sort of talent, the characters always have to be the best at something, like you have to somehow rationalize giving these characters a hobby. Why does a character always have to be a prodigy or heading to Julliard if they're going into music? Why can't a character be good at something, or even average at something? Would her life mean less if she weren't a heroine whose contributions to the world were being tragically cut short?

That's kind of a shitty moral.

The plot of this book is pretty interesting too. Mia gets into an accident one day and "wakes up" to see herself being taken to the ICU. As the aftermath of the accident becomes clear, Mia realizes that her entire life has changed--for the worst--and that she has to make a decision that will end up hurting either way: should she stay, or should she go?

If this book had actual emotional depth, I think this could have been a devastating read. But I didn't really buy Mia's relationships with her boyfriend or family. She actually struck me as quite cold, and despite the copious use of flashbacks to shed light on these relationships, I remained unconvinced. I'm honestly puzzled by how many people claimed that this book made them cry. LOVELY BONES is much better, and so are half a dozen other books in this genre. For whatever reason, IF I STAY just seems to be the most famous. I blame the movie for that.

I bought IF I STAY and its sequel, WHERE SHE WENT, for $2. I was originally excited to read both, but now I am significantly less so. The sheer scale of emotional manipulation in this book has left me feeling rather annoyed. Especially that piece of shit ending. Why does everything always have to revolve around a boy? Is there no other reason for living? Love is wonderful, but it is, by no means, the be-all and end-all of life. I really wish YA authors would stop trying to tell us otherwise.

2 out of 5 stars.