Not too many books this month, between my holiday, having a lot of admin work (thanks, taxes), and being in the middle of two longer books. Mainly I was looking for my comfort genre, fun YA fantasy.
1. The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Read it in one sitting on the plane to Hong Kong. SO much fun and I can’t wait for the sequel!
2. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. I was lucky enough to be sent an ARC of this and it was so lovely. Literary fiction set in a circus that plays with gender and sexuality, in a Waterworld type of setting. Definitely recommended.
3. Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd. I really enjoyed The Madman’s Daughter when I read it a few years ago, so it was nice to come back for the sequel. Really well plotted and good fun.
4. Blythewood by Carol Goodman. This is set in a boarding school, with fae, bell magic, a mysterious shadow man, and family histories. I did enjoy it but it felt like there was a lot to put in one book, and perhaps some things could have been pared down, but I’ll probably read the sequels.
I also read about a book’s worth of essays, articles, and short stories for my Masters, as well as some judging for the Bisexual Book Award.
Thanks to grad school, I read a lot in October! Mini-reviews as usual because I have All the Words to write for NaNoWriMo.
1. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë. I read this as a teen so it was fun to revisit it a decade later. Though I seriously side-eyed Rochester’s attempts at wooing. Maybe DON’T dress up as a gypsy to try and trick your crush into revealing her feelings about you. Or maybe don’t pretend to love someone else to see if your crush gets jealous. Also, maybe don’t have a hidden wife in the attic. I wrote a 2,500 word essay on fairy tale illusions in the book as well.
2. The House of Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also read for uni. The only other book by Hawthorne I’ve read was The Scarlet Letter. I enjoyed this well enough, but a lot of the characters were a little flat for me.
4. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James. Another university read. I enjoyed it mightily at the start, thinking Isabel was lively and good fun. Then it got rather depressing as her light went out. Still well-written, but man, so long.
5. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer – Kelleher & Kelleher. Research for Brainfreeze Book. Fascinating and chilling. Serial killers are separated by type with case studies for each major type: poisoning, angel of death, crime or profit, sexual violence, team killers, etc.
6. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn. Finally got around to reading this, just before going to see the film. Had some issues with it, but overall it was a compelling read.
7. Dirty Work – Chris Farnell. A short story anthology Chris asked me to read, which I really enjoyed.
8. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf. Also for university. My first stream of consciousness novel. I enjoyed it, and it made me want to re-watch The Hours, as I feel I’d get all the references I missed.
1. Learning from the Voices in my Head – Eleanor Longden. A short memoir about suffering from schizophrenia and coming back from it. Yet she did not get rid of her voices; rather, she learned to get along with them.
2. Daughter of the Forest – Juliet Marillier. Wonderful fantasy. Why haven’t I read her before?! Will continue with the series.
3. The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer. I enjoyed it – light regency romance.
4. The Red Necklace – Sally Gardner. I listened to the audiobook of this, which was narrated by Tom Hiddleston. It was a book meant for me – French Revolution, a magician, some magical realism, romance, lush language. Enjoyed it a lot.
5. Natural Causes – James Oswald. A member of #TeamMushens. James is the nicest guy, which is quite a disconnect when you read his very gory crime! I enjoyed this a lot and plan to pick up the rest of the series.
6. The Girl who Would be King – Kelly Thompson. I found this book while researching successful Kickstaters and picked it up. I’m glad I did, and even gladder to discover it’s recently been optioned for film! I also love, love, love this cover.
Total books this year: 42. If I’m to make my 80 book goal, I need to hustle. I’m 4 books behind schedule.
Didn’t read that much this month – I had to edit my own work quite a bit and it took up most of my reading energy.
1. Golden Boy – Abigail Tarttelin. A contemporary novel about an intersex teen named Max. Excellently written and tugs at the heart strings. Very recommended (thanks Orion for the copy!)
2. Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb. MUAHAHA I GOT TO READ THIS BEFORE IT’S OUT. But now I have to wait until 2015 to find out what happens next. Noooo! This is a continuation of my favourite series by my favourite author. The last new Fitz & Fool book was released in 2003 (and I read it in 2004). It was surreal going back to these characters after so long. The last time I read them for the first time, I was a teenager and I’d just met my now-husband. I lived in California instead of Scotland. Fitz is older, but I’m older, too. I loved this book so much I can’t quite articulate it. I can’t wait to read it again. (thank you to HarperVoyager for the proof).
3. The Boy with the Porcelain Blade – Den Patrick. A member of Team Mushens and an excellent debut, out from Gollancz. It’s an intricate, atmospheric book set in a castle, slightly reminiscent of Gormenghast. There are houses, and the Orfano, people who are all slightly different in some way. It follows the story of Lucien, and time-jumps between his younger and older years. Recommended!
April is LGBT Month, and throughout the month, Pantomime & Shadowplay have been discussed out and about on the web.
LGBT Month is hosted by Laura @ Laura Plus Booksand Cayce @ Fighting Dreamer. It runs throughout the month of April and it’s here to celebrate LGBT+ readers, LGBT+ authors and of course LGBT+ books.
Cayce of Fighting Dreamer put up a great review of both Pantomime & Shadowplay: “I really loved how these books escape what’s common for most ya fantasy [. . .] and instead give us something truly unique and captivating. Pantomime & Shadowplay is so… unlike any (ya) fantasy I’ve read/heard of – I’m really glad I gave this series a chance.”
Clover at Fluttering Butterflies has a post on Bisexual Characters for LGBT April, and Pantomime & Shadowplay are also mentioned there as well.
Over on the Diversity in YA tumblr, Pantomime is featured as part of a Diverse Dozen.
While trying to round up all my recent guest posts, I found this lovely review at Books and Beautiful: “Lam’s depiction of Gene/Micah’s personal story is lovely, thought-provoking, and one that I have become wholly invested in emotionally. The questions about self-identity that go through the character’s mind throughout the course of the story, the struggle to accept and understand… It felt real to me, and really got me in the heart.”
Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn says of Shadowplay: “[ . . .] it is still in my top five YA series going at this point. The next book can’t come fast enough, I doubt I will ever tire of Micah and can’t wait to finally get some answers.”
A few days ago, Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom wrote a lovely feature about Pantomime & Shadowplay for Kirkus.com.
“[Pantomime] stars Micah Grey, an immediately likable and somewhat naive runaway who has some completely understandable trust issues. It’s a very personal story . . . at the same time, it’s also a HUGE story . . . Seriously, the worldbuilding is so excellent: rich and sprawling, but not overpowering . . . I very much enjoyed spending time in Ellada again, and I especially loved being behind the scenes of a magic show and a fake seance or two . . . So if you haven’t read Pantomime yet, DO. Go out and read it, and then read Shadowplay.” – Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus.com
In other news, I’m back in California and it’s lovely so far to see friends and family again. It’s so bright and warm and sunny…why did I leave again?! Last night I had a reunion with a bunch of folk from my youth group as a teen. It’s so strange to see us all grown up now – some of them have children, and it’s interesting to see which fields and jobs people have fallen into. I’m also looking forward to my two California events:
I watched Sucker Punch recently as part of a film club. I was a little hesitant – I didn’t enjoy Watchmen and…I’ve just realised that’s the only film of his I’ve seen. None of the others grabbed my attention or had pretty terrible reviews so didn’t seem worth the price of the cinema ticket.
Back in 2011 I remember reading a few articles about how Sucker Punch was sexist, and so I stayed away. But watching it, Sucker Punch was a whole other level of misogynist bullshit than I expected. I clenched my teeth at certain points, and was made so uncomfortable by various aspects. Combined with the fact that Snyder obviously patted himself on the back, thinking this was an empowering film because girls are fighting, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Zack Snyder states that Sucker Punch mirrors The Wizard of Oz (he wishes) in that “the fantasy world serves as a metaphor for what’s going on in the real world” He goes into further detail on why he thinks it’s “more than just the girls looking sexy and kicking ass” (source for all quotes from this io9 article):
Everything in the movie is about a show within a show within a show. Someone asked me, “Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?” And I said, “Well, think about it for a second. I didn’t dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls.” And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.
But my hope was that they would take those things back, just like my girls hopefully get confidence, they get strength through each other, that those become power icons. They start out as cliches of feminine sexuality as made physical by what culture creates. I think that part of it was really specific, whether it’s French maid or nurse or Joan Arc to a lesser extent [laughs], or schoolgirl. Our hope is we were able to modify them and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited. But certainly that’s where they come from, the journey is asking, “What do you want to see? Well, be careful what you want to see.
Let’s rip that to shreds, shall we?
So, Zack, pushing the responsibility away is bullshit. You put them in those costumes and wrote it in. Yeah, people filled the cinema tickets, but it was still yours and the costume designer’s choice. It is rare for a girl character in Sucker Punch to be fully clothed. In the first scene, the protagonist Baby Doll is wearing pyjamas, and then her clothes get smaller depending on how far down the rabbit hole we go.
They’re deliberately provocative costume choices: Baby Doll’s schoolgirl outfit is reminiscent of Sailor Moon and the standard “naughty schoolgirl” fantasy. They make sure to state that Baby Doll is 20 (she’s of age, people!) but she’s wearing blonde pigtails and a headband and looks much younger. In the brothel world, the girls are wearing lingerie, and then in the steampunk Nazi fantasy world they’re all wearing cutesy soldier outfits that are impractical for fighting. But their hats are jaunty!
Now, I’m not a prude by any means. Women can wear whatever they want, and objectively, a lot of those outfits are rather cute. I would wear some of them. What I have a problem with is that 100% of the men are sensibly clothed 100% of the time. Even zombie steampunk men may have limbs rotting away, but none are topless! The constant lingering camera angles on the girls’ asses and crotches is also wearying. Yes, it’s a fantasy and so theoretically they could wear whatever they want when killing dragons and mecha-Samurai and robots and what have you, but by the same token you can still have them wearing more practical clothing for fighting and still looking sexy, if that’s the aim. Kill Bill did a better job at that (even though that film was very much not my cup of tea, either).
Snyder states that “Our hope is we were able to modify them and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited.” But the issue is, they’re not power icons. Over and over, the women are exposed to pervasive, sexualised violence: it begins with an implied, threatened rape against Baby Doll and her sister. It’s suggested that because what happens in the fantasy world happens in another way in the level before it, that a lot of the girls in the mental asylum might be sexually preyed upon. All of the girls in the brothel are sex workers against their will, plus Rocket is nearly raped by the chef. There’s not as much threatened sexual violence in the third fantasy world, but Baby Doll even straddles a baby dragon in a weirdly sexual way when she cuts open its throat. It’s as relentless as the rather boring action scenes (which are all filmed like video games, but since you’re not invested in the avatars fighting, it quickly becomes so much mediocre CGI).
I watched the extended version, which has the scene with Jon Hamm as the high roller who has purchased Baby Doll’s virginity but was cut from the cinematic release (so that it could remain 12A/PG-13). Emily Browning, who plays Baby Doll, was upset by it, stating: “I think that it’s great for this young girl to actually take control of her own sexuality. Well, the MPAA doesn’t like that. They don’t think a girl should ever be in control of her own sexuality because they’re from the Stone Age” (source). But the thing is, that whole scene has a long speech from the High Roller saying how he doesn’t just want her body, he wants to possess her mind too and wants a “true moment.” So he asks her to have consentual sex with him and then he’ll offer her freedom (though he never states how this will happen or what he means by freedom). She makes the best of a bad situation and goes with him willingly. But that is not complete free consent, in my opinion. She’s not free to say “no” and walk away – he won’t let her because he paid a small fortune for her virginity and he’s going to collect. Also, after that, she’s knocked back to the real world to be lobotomised.
For though Snyder might think it’s about female empowerment, the power only comes in dreams and nightmares, and that power is systematically taken away. The women in the film are imprisoned in a mental asylum and abused, locked in a brothel and abused, one by one Baby Doll’s comrades Blondie, Amber and Rocket are murdered for daring to fight back. Baby Doll is left comatose, and a very traumatised Sweet Pea is allowed to survive, but only if she’s wearing a sedate white, non-revealing dress and is at the last moment saved by a man again (the bus driver, who was also the mentor in the Nazi-dragon-robot world and gave the girls their orders). Sweet Pea survived because she transitioned from Whore to Madonna.
As a final point, while Sucker Punch is unfair to women, it’s also pretty unfair to men. All the men (except for maybe Wise Man Scott Glen) are despicable rapists, would-be rapists, murderers, and a fair amount also have poor hygiene. They can’t control themselves when Baby Doll does her sexy dance and stare vacantly. So, basically, Sucker Punch had no characters I liked or rooted for, with the possible exception of the poor baby dragon who had its throat slit and its mother, who was stabbed in the head.
A few months ago, Pantomime was reviewed by the American Library Association’s Booklist online, which I missed. A nice review: “At around page 90 in Lam’s impressive debut fantasy novel, there’s a reveal so stunning that it makes it difficult to discuss without spoilers. Still, difficult hardly means impossible, especially as Lam’s memorable characters and rich world building stand tall in their own rights. Using a flashback structure to show both why noble-born Iphigenia Laurus runs away and joins the circus and how she changes her identity to become trapeze-artist Micah Grey, Pantomime does feature standard YA elements such as parental estrangement and problematic romance—yet marvelously transfigures them.”
And lastly, Pantomime had another lovely review on the site Fantasy Faction: “Micah is one of the most sympathetic, well-realised and bravest characters I’ve read about in a long time. . . Well-written and intelligent fantasy with characters I loved and a wonderful protagonist, in a fascinating world. I really enjoyed Pantomime and I can’t wait to re-enter Ellada and continue to unravel its secrets.”
The 3rd-6th of May was the LGBT Read-a-thon, hosted by Faye @ Daydreamer’s Thoughts. I joined though I couldn’t quite participate in everything as I was swamped with schoolwork. I read one book for the readathon, which was I am J by Cris Beam.
J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was; a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a “real boy” and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible – from his family, from his friends…from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he’s done hiding – it’s time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.
An inspiring story of self-discovery, of choosing to stand up for yourself, and of finding your own path – readers will recognize a part of themselves in J’s struggle to love his true self.
Transgender teens are some of the most underrepresented groups in YA fiction (Gay YA is about 1% of books published, with trangender teens about 4% of that 1%). It was a great book. J had a young, authentic voice, and he was full of so much confusion and rage. He did typical, stupid teenage things, but he grew quite a bit throughout the book. I read it in a day and definitely recommend it.
I also participated in the Twitter chat that happened Sunday evening. If you missed it, check out #LGBTread on Twitter. I answered some questions about Pantomime as well.
Faye is also hosting a LGBT Giveaway at her blog, which you can read more about here.
I hope there’s another one, as I had a lot of fun, and there’s still plenty of LGBT reads for me to get through!
“With its cast of runaways, freaks and bullies, “Pantomime” blends Victorian circus glamour with grittier YA themes like identity, body image and independence. Entertaining and thought-provoking by turns, this is an assured debut by an exciting new fantasy author – Laura Lam is a name to watch!” – Anne Lyle, author of The Alchemist of Souls
“Ancient myths, vintage tech and living wonders abound in the riotous carnival of fancy which is Pantomime. Lam paints her world with greasepaint and stardust while exploring the notion of the circus ‘freak’ with subtle brilliance. A spectacular and brave debut!” – Kim Lakin-Smith, author of Cyber Circus
And some more of the reviews that have been trickling in the last few weeks:
Leo Elijah Cristea: “Pantomime is the kind of book I thought I’d never read because nobody would ever write it. It is a story about acceptance and belonging and about figuring out just who you are, who you can be, and just who you might be if you were only brave enough to take the first step . . . A complete and stellar success, effortlessly achieving all it set out to accomplish, Pantomime is the YA fantasy novel that will set the standard for all that follows in 2013, getting the year off to an excellent beginning. There is so much to say, so many observations and commentaries that should arise from reading Pantomime that it should be considered as most of the most important YA commentaries on identity and belonging written within the genre. It’s a bold statement, I suppose, but I hold to it: Pantomime is a work of art, a psychological adventure into exploring the self, and a damn fun read to boot.” (this review gets bonus points for making me cry!)
Elloise Hopkins for the The British Fantasy Society: “This is a well-crafted tale of secrets and dreams, written with a satisfyingly rhythmic prose that lends itself perfectly to the slow beauty and tragedy of the story, and is certainly the most in-depth character based fantasy to have been seen in a long while.”
Daphne @ Winged Reviews: “Pantomime at its heart is all about acceptance and making your own place in the world. My heart ached through the issues explored in this book, which Lam handled with finesse and respect. It really is a beautiful book to read and has set the bar very high for 2013 debuts indeed.”
Leanne @ Magic of Reading: “[Lam] hasn’t just written a book, she has a created a magical world, fascinating characters and broached subjects in this book that few have dared and she totally nailed it. Brilliant.”
Kaylie @ YA Bluewater: “It’s not often I get pulled into a world as completely as I did with the world of Ellada.”
Lucy @ The Library for Delinquents: “If any book could make you want to run away and join the circus, this one would be it . . . In Micah, the author has created a protagonist like none other I have come across in YA fiction. It really is the perfect escapism.”
Pablo @ The Eloquent Page: ” Once again I find myself more than pleasantly surprised by a young adult title from a debut author. In all honestly, I think everyone should be reading this. I’m a firm believer the best fiction is that which is thought provoking without even appearing to try. Laura Lam has not only achieved this most difficult of tasks, she has managed to make it look effortless. Even now, days after finishing the book I’m still think about it.”
I might have missed some, but I think that’s most of the reviews. Feel free to link to any I missed in the comments!