YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

How Disney Devours our Daughters

This review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Today’s Girlie-girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein appeared in rabble.ca on May 5, 2011.

A brand-new father told me that the (Toronto) hospital nurse wrapped his baby with a blanket which was blue on one side and pink on the other. She swaddled with the blue side out, then realized the newborn was a girl and re-swaddled with the pink side out. All this, about five minutes after birth.

How much of a little girl’s affinity for pink, princesses, and primping in front of a mirror is innate, and how much is cued by others, starting at infancy? Peggy Orenstein, a New York Times writer and expert on girl behaviour, argues that inborn gender biases (if any) are now hugely amplified, even distorted, by today’s culture which informs little girls that their happiness is predicated upon a hyper-feminized appearance.

Marketers now routinely target very young girls with objects of desire that emphasize traditional gender roles and the importance of looking good, even overtly sexualized, all in the name of empowerment. According to cosmetics company Bonne Bell, lip gloss use begins at seven. You may have read about the clothing company Abercrombie launching a padded push-up bikini for seven-year-old girls (they subsequently withdrew it after complaints). These aren’t isolated instances of marketing genius, but the logical extension of a campaign that starts very early. Disney’s Princess line begins at diapers, and features 26,000 items for girls of all ages; sales in 2009 amounted to four billion dollars. And that’s just Disney; when you take into account Mattel (Barbie), Nickelodeon, and all the other companies telling parents that their products encourage girls to explore their femininity, and telling girls that the acquisition of clothes and accessories will enable them land a  husband and be happy, things begin to look…scary. Almost conspiracy-like.

When most people see a conspiracy, they also see crap. Orenstein’s super-power is to unpack the conspiracy theory into episodes that persuade rather bludgeon, and she has two mighty weapons at hand. First is a chatty, intimate, humorous tone, where all readers are Orenstein’s BFFs; the book is engineered less as manifesto than the musings of a very smart (but non-threatening) mom looking out for her daughter. She constantly cites studies that show that the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness increase girls’ chances of falling prey to eating disorders, risky sexual behaviour, depression and more, and yet, Cinderella… is a fun read, seemingly driven by concern rather than fear.

Orenstein’s second weapon is a rather noble insistence on exploring every side of every issue; it never appears as though the author has an agenda to push, other than making sure that her daughter grows up happy (now, argue with that). Princess stands for entitlement, passivity, and prescriptive consumerism, but as Orenstein muses, it’s also shorthand for special, and which parent doesn’t believe her daughter is special? While attending a beauty pageant for five-year-olds, Orenstein finds that she “could sympathize with the [parents’] pride”; upon learning that one of the participants had a sibling with severe physical and mental disabilities, she notes that the parents might view the pageant as an affirmation of the young girl’s normalcy. And when Orenstein’s six-year-old daughter finally rejects Disney Princesses, saying they’re all about “I’m so pretty, Handsome Prince, won’t you rescue me?”, Orenstein rejoices, but typically, also faces self-doubt and guilt: has she brainwashed her child?

Many rabble readers may feel Orenstein over-argues the obvious; heck, I doubt any will disagree that Canada should emulate Sweden and ban advertising to children under twelve. This book will not fortify the sort of parents who’ve cut cable, buy no-logo clothing, and who worry about the potential social ostracism of their boat-rocking offspring. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is targeted towards middle-of-the-consumer-spectrum parents who feel an unarticulated but gradually escalating discomfort with present-day cultural constructions of girlhood. And here lies the value and appeal of this book. It has the statistics to prove Disney apologists wrong, enough intellectual horsepower to show how companies make mugs of moms plunking down $110 for an American Girl doll, and the wit to never frame its argument in a judgemental tone. Gift this one to the picket fence-sitters for Mother’s Day.