Book Report: Recent Reads

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

If social media is anything to judge by, zombies are everyone’s least favorite supernatural menace. I happen to adore iZombie‘s brain-eating clairvoyant detective Liv Moore and Discworld‘s Dead Rights activist-cum-Night Watch constable Reg Shoe (because honestly, why wouldn’t you love a zombie who sports a “Glad to be Gray” badge?), but it seems that in general, zombies try our collective patience, since we tend to think of them as the mindless, murderous hordes that populate the land on The Walking Dead. They’re not clever or calculating. They don’t have poisonous ambitions for world conquest. And Warm Bodies notwithstanding, they don’t work well as potential love interests or sexy seducers. There just isn’t much one can expect from them.

But if general zombie behavior can be a bit on the predictable side, they can have a sizable impact on history. Let us say, for instance, that during the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, the dead rose from their graves to attack the living, whereupon the war came to an abrupt end as both sides came together to fight the common enemy. The living have been trying to hold off the advancing undead ever since. It’s the 1870s, and two distinct philosophies have arisen to answer the question of why the dead awakened. One claims this “shambler” apocalypse is a punishment for the evil of slavery, and Americans must build a better, more just society. The other insists that the shamblers are a punishment for the war itself, in which brother fought brother, and the pre-war social structure which placed African-Americans at the very bottom must be preserved. Those who hold the latter view are keen to use African-Americans as shambler fodder to keep whites safe, for such is the duty of slaves, after all.

This is the context in which Justina Ireland’s YA fantasy adventure novel Dread Nation is set. We see this world through the eyes of Jane McKeene, who believes herself to be the daughter of a plantation mistress and a black man, and who is studying, along with a number of other African-American girls, to be an “Attendant” — a shambler-slaying protector and companion to a white lady. When it comes to killing shamblers, Jane is second to none, but in the course of the novel, she’s confronted by some painful and horrifying truths about the system in which she is caught.

Jane is the novel’s chief selling point, a smart, brave, resourceful heroine who takes no BS from anyone. When others try to strip her of her power and indeed her very personhood, she fights back with all her will and holds tight to her belief in herself. When she makes mistakes, she learns from them, and when she faces heartache, she keeps moving forward. Ireland uses first-person POV to bring her to life, and while many a first-person narrator in YA fiction may come across as shallow and generic, Jane’s voice is richly distinct. Hers is a unique and individual mindset, brash and acerbic yet ever keen to see justice done.

Another point in the novel’s favor is its prioritizing of friendship over romance. We do get glimpses of Jane’s attraction to a rakish acquaintance, but she’s too busy battling shamblers and the corrupt leaders of a Western settlement to lose herself in love. Her most important relationship is with Katherine, a fellow academy student who, when we first meet her, has all the earmarks of an archetypal Mean Girl. Because Katherine is Jane’s pet aversion, we’re inclined to judge her harshly at first. Yet it turns out that underestimating and undervaluing her beautiful acquaintance is Jane’s biggest mistake. Slowly but surely, step by step, a bond forms between the two girls, and by the end they’re in the adventure together, trusting and supporting one another. I look forward to seeing how their relationship progresses in the next book.

This novel, along with Children of Blood and Bone, has me excited about the future of YA fantasy fiction.






What’s Making Me Angry: September/October 2018

I will post again, before long, about the things that are making me happy despite all the world’s bad news. This is not that post. I’m angry, and I’m going to say it.

I’m angry because convicted rapist Brock Turner, despite being let off with a wrist-slap, still believes he’s being unfairly persecuted and is appealing his conviction. Evidence against him is overwhelming, he hasn’t been punished nearly as harshly as he deserves to be, yet somehow he feels victimized — no doubt a by-product of being raised by a father who refers to the rape as “twenty minutes of action” that shouldn’t spoil his son’s bright future.

I’m angry because even though two football players in Steubenville, OH filmed their sexual assault on an intoxicated girl and posted their video on social media — pretty damning evidence, nay? — people in their community still found a way to blame their victim, i.e. if she hadn’t been so drunk, the boys would never have given in to the temptation to assault her (an assault that included urinating on her!). I’m angry because when news outlets reported on the boys’ sentencing, they expressed far more sympathy for the rapists than for the victim.

I’m angry because after serial rapist Bill Cosby’s conviction and sentencing, his publicist has the almighty nerve to call his infamous client the victim of a “sex war” and even to compare him to Jesus Christ.

I’m angry because TV writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s article in the Hollywood Reporter, describing accused sexual harasser Les Moonves’ vendetta against her, offers an illustration of the power of predatory men to silence women’s creative voices. A similar article by Cassandra Smolcic in Variety details how her “dream job” at Pixar Studios quickly turned into a nightmare when she realized head honcho John Lasseter was apparently incapable of treating female colleagues and employees with respect and unwilling to let them make any real creative contribution.

And finally, I’m angry because I’ve learned that something called the “Renate Alumni” existed once at Georgetown Prep. This may not serve as conclusive evidence that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is guilty of rape — some family members are fully convinced the allegations against him are false — but this and other yearbook references do offer some strong evidence of Charlie-Sheening. Charlie-Sheening may not be against the law, yet I would argue it is an evil in itself, malum in se, because at its root lies the idea that girls and women aren’t people whose thoughts and feelings matter. Instead, they’re things, life-sized dolls who exist for the benefit and the pleasure of boys and men.

And there it is — the blindness at the heart of all that’s making me angry. All these stories together add up to one thing: girls and women don’t matter. They’re not important. Their value is less than the hopes and dreams of a Brock Turner or a pair of Steubenville, OH football players. It’s gotten so bad that some have even started suggesting that boys, particularly of high school age, are natural sexual predators, that when a boy snaps a girl’s bra while she’s putting her books away in her locker he’s just “being a boy” and it’s pointless to expect better behavior from him. The onus isn’t on boys to shape up; it’s on girls to smile and put up with them.

But are we really prepared to accept that treating girls like objects is “normal” behavior for boys? Honestly, what does that say about boys, and by extension the men they become? That they’re naturally beyond the reach of common decency once hormones get involved? If I were a man I’d be outraged by these assumptions. I’ve known many gentlemen of honor in my life. One raised me. Another married me. I’ve been friends with many of them. I know what good men are like. They’re comfortable enough in their own skin to resist any and all pressure to prove themselves “manly.” They don’t feel the need to make themselves strong by rendering someone else weak. They keep their expectations high, both of themselves and others.

If we expect less and less of each other,that’s just what we’ll get.

And that’s why I’m angry. It’s why a lot of people are angry.

But now comes the question: what are we going to do about it? Anger can be the most useful feeling in the world if it leads us in constructive, not destructive, directions. But if we let it fester and turn inward, we’re lost.

If we want things to change, if we don’t accept that How Things Are Now is the natural order,  first we need to figure out where the problem comes from. In this case, I’m very much afraid there is no quick fix. It’s not simply a matter of changing a law here or there, but of changing, over time, the way we think and perceive each other. Attitudes may be so ingrained that today could be a lost cause. Tomorrow is all we have. We need to think about what we want our tomorrow to look like.

A future where men and women like each other, respect each other, work well together and value each other’s contributions, and see each other as distinct individuals rather than as part of a monolithic, incomprehensible Plural, is good for everyone. Male, female, nonbinary, straight, queer, cis, trans, white, black, brown, theist, atheist, liberal, conservative — everyone. To achieve that highly desirable end, we need to build up future generations’ capacity for empathy, and one of the ways we develop empathy is to practice looking at the world through the eyes of people who are “not like us.” The clearest and most obvious way to gain that experience is to read. The link between reading imaginative literature and developing empathy once moved Percy Byssche Shelley to name poets (and by extension, all writers of imaginative literature) “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A Defence of Poetry).

Our hopes for future generations, then, ride on whether, and what, they grow up reading.

Acclaimed fantasy author Shannon Hale recently Tweeted that when she gave a reading from one of her Princess in Black books, she was asked, in all seriousness, “When are you going to write books for boys?” — the implication being that because most of her work features female protagonists, boys couldn’t or wouldn’t enjoy it. (My husband read Hale’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World- a novelization of SG’s origin story before I did, and laughed long and hard as he followed the adventures of superheroine Doreen Green. Trust me. I was there.) There it is again, the same sad song: “stories about boys are for everyone, but stories about girls are for girls only.” This supposed truism has always bothered me, and I’ve railed against it in previous blog posts. But recently, since I’ve been angry, I’ve seen even more clearly how much is riding on our willingness to move beyond that idea.

When we read from the perspective of a character in a well-written short story or novel, as we share that character’s experience, we come to know and understand that character as a person with a mind and heart. Even if we dislike that character and/or disagree with their actions, for a little while we’ve felt what it’s like to be them. If boys routinely avoid all fiction that asks them to share a girl’s perspective, wouldn’t this compromise their learning to perceive girls as people with stories and journeys that matter?

Every time a parent tells a librarian or bookseller, “He won’t read books about girls,” or “He won’t like it if it has a girl on the cover,” the likelihood goes up that Charlie-Sheening, or worse, Brock-Turnering, will be a big part of life in years to come.

Stories affect how we see the world, how we see ourselves and others, and how we interact with others. The power of stories just might be what saves us.