red rising

Friday, March 24, 2017 | | 1 comments
Talk about being late to the game! Look Ma, by the time I read book one in this series, the trilogy was already completed! (i didn't plan to read this book, tbh)(then my book club picked it!)(and i thought: YA SFF? worth a look) SoRed Rising by Pierce Brown: has a massive following and more than a passing likeness to favorites The Hunger Games and Ender's Game. It also kept me up all night reading. And then I stayed up even later to get all of my thoughts down on paper. Because this book is addictively readable and rage-inducing in equal measure. 

red rising by pierce brown cover
"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."

"I live for you," I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

The life of a lowly Red mining deep beneath the surface of Mars is harsh. Darrow holds a prestigious position in his community (and finds purpose in his work for the future of humanity), but that isn't enough to feed his family when access to resources is rigged by the higher status Colors. When Darrow is offered a chance to upset the status quo and avenge his loved ones, he takes it - and encounters a ruthlessness and a world his people cannot imagine.

What was it about Red Rising that will draw the reader in and keep them reading through the night? Brown is a talented wordsmith, and he knows his genre. He built a world and a hero’s quest on an epic fantasy scale, with high stakes. The action and dynamism of the text will keep your blood pumping and your mind engaged. There’s also a sense of generational kinship between the target readership and the main character: they have been fed lies, told that adulthood means one thing, and then find out that it means another and the rules of the game have changed completely.

Unfortunately, that readability is paired with a lack of originality and straight-up erasure. Neither are a good look in science fiction. Let’s dive in.

Ender’s Game. The Hunger Games. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. These books are mentioned as readalikes for Red Rising, in part because Brown has replicated some of their plot points wholesale. While it’s not plagiarism, it’s heavy inspiration, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll see similarities ahead of every twist and around all corners. That lack of originality extends from the plot into the values system of Mars as well (and through the many different Color cultures on it). Honor, ritual, and sexism rule the Reds. For the privileged Golds, vanity and partying degrade their advanced humanity. Nowhere is there room for art for art’s sake. The closest you get are Red protest songs and dances, or Violet body “carving” for money and influence. One possible area of originality, the Color-coded hierarchy, is not examined at any length.

Of course, this hetero-masculine worldbuilding is nothing new, but that is THE POINT. There is nothing new. What we have instead is gratuitous, lethal violence that starts out sickening, but the reader must quickly become inured to it or put the book down. Sexual violence and attendant man-pain drive the male characters (yawn). Brown sets his epic on a distant planet, but brings the worst of the patriarchy with him into the future. CONSENT needs to file a missing persons report, because no one in this society cares that it’s not there, and that is not unpacked on the page.

Darrow at the start of Red Rising is a young man in love with no strategy except to stay under his oppressors’ radar. After losing his love, he pivots at 100 mph to a hardcore schemer and undercover fighter who catches up on a lifetime of another caste’s lived history in a matter of months. Though he supposedly goes through a set of lessons to help him “learn,” the reader doesn’t see much actual evolution on that front. Darrow had so much “natural genius” (which we know is a sexist idea, because men are overwhelmingly the ones who are labeled as natural talents/geniuses, not women) that when he makes mistakes (are they mistakes if they only grow his reputation?), he has a handy girl to help him out and recover. I firmly believe that the stereotype of a gifted boy-hero who outsmarts women or uses them only as useful arm candy or tools can be damaging to boys. It certainly doesn’t do anything to break down the story that they’re getting from contemporary society. To see this replicated 100% in a world supposedly hundreds of years in the future is decidedly depressing.

Let’s move on to erasure, and then I promise I’ll be done. Darrow is a Red, yes? Each mention of Reds is evocative of Scots-Irish miners/“Irish slave” in America myth, or of the folks who settled the Appalachian belt. Not only are the Reds literally redheaded, but they have a strong honor culture, they mine, they are poor, family is everything, they have a terrorist arm that “blow things up,” and song and dance are their escape from hunger. If you’re not seeing parallels there I recommend reading this or this.

While the Reds are “practically slaves” there is NO MENTION of African slavery (even as a historical anecdote) in Red Rising. NONE. This book describes a hierarchical society built by slave labor, but erases real Earth slavery (unless you count the Greek/Roman naming conventions as an allusion to Roman slavery). But really, the African slave trade lasted hundreds of years and enslaved nearly 13 million people. It was one of the biggest slavery systems in recorded human history. Convenient that it is missing and “Irish slavery” is not, eh? And if you’re going to come back with the excuse that there’s no room for it with the scope of the worldbuilding… why would students of the Institute be able to quote Plato and Cicero on demand, but not have had any reference to the African slave trade? The Golds might have rewritten history, but if a character can flippantly mention American presidents as an example of bad governance, it stands to reason that slavery would have been included in the curriculum. Rage = induced.

So, here’s where I’m at: friends who have read the whole series say that Brown addresses many of my issues in books 2 & 3. And I am quite curious about what happens next, but not enough to put in the hours to read those books. I don’t want to download two more books’ worth of violence into my brain if it isn’t going to make me a better person in some way or show me something new. And the first book didn’t hit enough originality points. It didn’t unpack a lot of things I thought worth unpacking. Pierce Brown has plenty of readers. While I can admire some things about his writing, I didn’t love it, and on a deeper look I found enough holes to sink the ship.

In the end, Red Rising is a flawed book that will appeal to casual fans of science fiction who want a quick, engaging read. I couldn’t like it, but I do recognize the genius of its compulsive readability.

Recommended for: occasional readers who liked The Hunger Games or Ender's Game, and fans of YA sci-fi who can't stand to leave one of the most popular books in the genre unread.

what does feminism mean to me?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | | 3 comments
For a lot of my life, feminism was a bad word. I grew up in a conservative religious home, was homeschooled from 3rd grade until I went to a private (religious) high school, and then I went to a conservative religious college for undergrad. You see the theme, right? I know now that there are people of faith who engage with feminism, but I didn’t know that growing up. I was a living stereotype.

So, feminism. A lot of voices in my life insisted that feminism was bad, and that it didn’t honor women. BUT I had (have!) a strong mother and grandmother. They were deeply committed to my education. They encouraged me to go abroad. They encouraged me to go to grad school. They encouraged me to read whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. When I look back, I see how much that meant, and how much their support opened the world for me, and how it eventually led me to give feminism a chance (in spite of their intentions, possibly).

Giving feminism a chance meant listening to voices I wanted to dismiss out of hand. It meant reading books, meeting people from all over the world, and learning how to think critically. It meant unpacking my assumptions about how society worked, and examining my faith in a new light. I saw too often a lack of fairness, justice, and empathy from those who continued to insist that feminism was bad.

What feminism means to me now: I’ll admit that I don’t always have the words to describe my views. So I’ll steal a bit from Maya Angelou and say that I think being a feminist means embodying “qualities including strength, commitment,… and a profound understanding of gender equality.” It means understanding that inequality is a many-layered thing, and acknowledging my privilege. Feminism, for me, means that I have an obligation to fight for all people to have the right to be equally human, just as I believe that we’re all made in the image of God.

I wrote this post in conjunction with #HereWeAre. In honor of Women's History Month and in light of the ongoing need to continue talking about equality, #HereWeAre seeks to highlight the power of talking about feminism: what it means for us individually, what it means for us collectively, and why it's one of the most powerful and life-changing parties around.

star scouts

Monday, March 6, 2017 | | 1 comments
Middle grade science fiction graphic novel. Those six words = auto-read in my world. I love middle grade books, I love science fiction and fantasy, and when you put them together, in a graphic novel format? I am here for it. Add in a diverse girl as the main character, and Mike Lawrence’s solo graphic novel debut Star Scouts became a #1 priority in my to-be-read (TBR) pile.

star scouts by mike lawrence book cover
Avani is the new kid in town, and she’s not happy about it. Everyone in school thinks she’s weird, especially the girls in her Flower Scouts troop. Is it so weird to think scouting should be about fun and adventure, not about makeovers and boys, boys, boys?

But everything changes when Avani is “accidentally” abducted by a spunky alien named Mabel. Mabel is a scout too—a Star Scout. Collecting alien specimens (like Avani) goes with the territory, along with teleportation and jetpack racing. Avani might be weird, but in the Star Scouts she fits right in. If she can just survive Camp Andromeda, and keep her dad from discovering that she’s left planet Earth, she’s in for the adventure of a lifetime. 

Avani is struggling to fit in at her Flower Scouts troup and new school when she’s accidentally teleported to alien Mabel’s spaceship as part of a Star Scouts (the intergalactic version of scouting!) homework assignment. Soon, Avani has made new friends, each with different strengths and talents, including flying and advanced robotics engineering. When Avani makes it to Camp Andromeda (real space camp) with her new Star Scouts troup, the adventures get even more intense. Will she prove that humans belong at space camp? It’ll take teamwork, friendship, and a little inventiveness to stay with her new friends and win the day.

Star Scouts is sci-fi fun from page one. For most readers, it’ll remain just that. I think there are things to love about this book, but there are also areas for improvement. Let’s dive in.

First, things I liked: it’s a book featuring a diverse main character – Avani is a rodeo-loving, Hindi-speaking adventure-seeker. Avani can be abrasive and impatient at times, but her sense of wonder and fairness balance that. And it’s just plain awesome to see a person of color as the honorary human at space camp! Following on that… space camp! Lawrence sets the scene with lots of futuristic bells and whistles (and a sci-fi take on typical camp activities). I also appreciated that the camp challenges relied not only on intelligence and training, but teamwork. Another bright spot is Avani’s new alien best friend Mabel. Mabel is a bit of a klutz and not so great at the badge challenges, but her heart and loyalty are portrayed as important as talent, and that’s a great message for readers.

And I haven’t even covered the fun and inventive art yet! Yikes! Illustration is where Lawrence really shines. The colorful page spreads are full to the brim, and yet the sense of action and movement is palpable. I might not understand the rules of physics at Camp Andromeda, but I believed them!

On to the things that struck me as problematic: first, there’s an implication within the first few pages that a group of Earth girls together would only be interested in makeup and boys, and that these interests mean that girls are vapid/stupid/not worthy of friendship. Granted, this is Avani’s view and she ignores the one person reaching out to her, but her perspective/judgment is not challenged in the course of the story. Secondly, once at Camp Andromeda, most of the action focuses on a girl vs. (alien) girl grudge match. Seeing both of those scenarios in the same story gave the book an anti-girl feel that wasn’t completely mitigated by awesome alien bff Mabel or the new Earth friend Avani made at the very end.

There’s also a running fart joke (ah, middle grade lit!) at Camp Andromeda that is essentially identity-based name-calling. I get that it is included for humor’s sake, but the taunts are not addressed by those in authority or significantly challenged in the course of the story. So… yeahhhhh.

Finally, an editing preference: there were many characters/creatures/robots included in the story – too many to focus on with any depth. These, combined with constant action and new challenges, resulted in a confusing smorgasbord. Star Scouts is a visually appealing read, but a crowded one.

In all, Star Scouts is a beautifully illustrated space romp featuring a diverse main character. There’s some room for improvement in the empowering (all kinds of) girls department, but it should appeal to anyone who daydreams about adventure while stuck in the everyday.

Recommended for: fans of Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series, and anyone who likes middle grade lit, science fiction, and graphic novels (especially in combination).

Star Scouts will be released by First Second (Macmillan) on March 21, 2017.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this review.

a study in charlotte

Do you like clever YA books? You'll like A Study in Charlotte, then. It's gender-swapped teenlock (teenlock = stories about Sherlock Holmes in his teen years...that's something I learned from fandom!), and an adventure and a half. I’ve been making my way through the BBC show Sherlock verrrrry slowly, and I’ve read and watched several other Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years too. Brittany Cavallaro’s take on Sherlock Holmes is familiar in that it is smart and full of mystery and murder, but it has enough details turned sideways to make for a fresh, fun take on the world’s favorite detective. 

a study in charlotte by brittany cavallaro book cover
The last thing Jamie Watson wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who has inherited not only Sherlock’s genius but also his volatile temperament. From everything Jamie has heard about Charlotte, it seems safer to admire her from afar.

From the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else. But when a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Jamie and Charlotte are being framed for murder, and only Charlotte can clear their names. But danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

When the descendents of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet at posh boarding school Sherringford in New England, it's a recipe for drama. But anger-prone Jamie Watson and mysterious Charlotte Holmes didn't expect a murder investigation to bring them together. Or did they? Their term at Sherringford will be one of late night rendezvous, alibis and danger as the modern heirs of the original Watson and Holmes are drawn to each other and into a web of deception.

Things I liked about this book: first, although Jamie is predisposed to like his Holmes counterpart, he doesn’t (in my reading) fall prey to instalove, which was a nice surprise. Instead, he gets to know Charlotte, and it’s clear that he considers and accepts everything about her – flaws and failings included – when he insists on being her friend. Second, I really appreciated Cavallaro’s thoughtful framing of consent or lack thereof in sexual situations. This, paired with characters’ conflicting responses to the sex they (or others) are having (running the gamut from slut-shaming to assigning importance where there was none to casual acceptance and so on) made for a school culture that felt authentic.

On that note, I think one of the things Cavallaro excelled at was not only writing a book that people wouldn’t be able to put down (probably goal #1 for any book, tbh), but also in making it very of-the-moment, and genuinely young adultA Study in Charlotte is a Sherlock Holmes mystery updated for both the modern world and its audience. Jamie’s obsession with a person he has never met in person mirrored the truth of my own teen experience. Charlotte's self-destructive choices and eventual emotional growth make total sense in context for a high school kid. The gender-swapped characters paid homage to the Sherlock Holmes of the past but were clearly their own. The result? A fun riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation that will appeal to those familiar with Holmes AND those who are not.

In all: A Study in Charlotte is a quick, fun read, and a marvelous distraction. I can’t wait to see what’s next in the sequel The Last of August (out next week!).

Recommended for: anyone who has enjoyed BBC’s Sherlock (even the non-readers!), and for fans of clever contemporary YA.
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