Review: The Penelopiad

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The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood

★★★☆☆

2005 • 224 pages • Canongate

Margaret Atwood, especially in her later years, has a very specific and peculiar gift as a writer. Reading her prose, you hear not only the voice of a fully developed character, but Atwood’s as well. I’m tempted to say that her female protagonists have some similarities, but I haven’t read enough of her bibliography to feel comfortable saying that. All I can say is that Penelope and Offred are two different women related by a common mother. Atwood’s voice never intrudes, but you would never confuse her books for anyone else’s.

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Review: The Jewel

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The Jewel
by Amy Ewing

★★★★☆

2014 • 368 pages • Harper Teen

I enjoy a good referential pitch as much as anyone else. I myself constantly convince people to watch Plunkett and Macleane by describing it as “A Knight’s Tale Gothy, romantic older sister,” only for them to rage about how hard it is to get ahold of. (It is one hundred percent worth it.) But seeing The Jewel marketed as The Selection meets A Handmaid’s Tale gave me pause. It’s not the latter title, as everybody should read A Handmaid’s Tale, especially teenage girls, but the former. It just ties in so neatly to the young adult juggernaut narrative, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games to Divergent to the current interregnum. The Selection itself was marketed as a riff on The Hunger Games. Obviously, there’s very good marketing sense to invite comparisons to The Hunger Games, but I have mixed feelings about the young adult juggernaut narrative.

But in this case, I’m fine with it, because if it gets more teens reading The Jewel, the better.

The Jewel’s premise is, as promised, along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the Lone City, the royalty is so inbred that they cannot produce live births. Fortunately for them, a rare genetic mutation found, for some reason, in the lower classes gives girls the ability to do limited and hardwon magic—magic useful for fixing royal fetuses, once implanted. The surrogate system, where girls are taken from their families for training after they manifest their powers, trades luxury for freedom and bodily autonomy. Violet Lasting is Lot #197 for the upcoming auction. Already ambivalent about her role, her purchase by the cold and mercurial Duchess of the Lakes whisks her into a world of privilege, servitude, deceit, and danger. As she comes face to face with the fact that she will be impregnated against her will, she discovers a way out—a way out that will compromise her budding but secret relationship with a male companion. Continue reading

Review: The Royal Diaries — Elizabeth I

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The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor
by Kathryn Lasky

★★★½☆

1999 • 240 pages • Scholastic Press

When I’m cherry-picking nostalgia bombs with other bookish people my age, Scholastic Press’ Dear America inevitably comes up when you’re talking book series of the late nineties and early aughts. (I literally just had this conversation last week, while visiting a college friend in Texas.) First published between 1996 and 2004, the series featured diaries written from the perspectives of young women at critical moments in American history. It was so popular that it’s not only been recently relaunched (as of 2010, with both new titles in the series and just reissues of the original), but spun off three other series. My Name is America was Dear America’s staff counterpart, while My America was aimed at younger children. But The Royal Diaries, which took the formula and reapplied it to young royal women throughout human history, was, in my young eyes, clearly superior.

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Review: Just Ella

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Just Ella
by Margaret Peterson Haddix

★★★½☆

1999 • 240 pages • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

As a kid who liked books and organizational supplies (in that specific order), Scholastic Book Fair was like manna from heaven. (And equally unexpected, given my total obliviousness to things like calendars and recurring events as a child.) There’s a post making the rounds on tumblr celebrating Scholastic Book Fairs in a typically bombastic and curse-laden way. It hits very close to home, from the unexpected nature of the fair to catalog browsing to all the little totchkes. The pop-up bookstore clearly works, as this model shows us, and whoever can adapt it for an adult market will… have a traveling independent bookstore on their hands, but at least it’ll be interesting.

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Review: Long Hidden

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Long Hidden
edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older 

★★★½☆

2014 • 370 pages • Crossed Genres Publications

There are a lot of tired arguments against diversifying media that I hate, but anything that incorporates the words “forced” or “shoe-horned” are in my top three stupidest arguments against diverse media. As if defaulting to cisgendered straight white men was somehow natural and not a product of the fact that most of the people involved in creating mainstream media fit into those demographics. As if stories have to go out of their way to incorporate any other perspective.

As if these stories might not be more poignant in someone else’s shoes.

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Review: Otherbound

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Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

★★★★☆

2014 • 400 pages • Amulet Books

When it comes to fantasy, I usually don’t like my secondary worlds squirreled away within our own. (Careful Internetting tells me that this is called portal fantasy, which is an incredibly handy phrase.) As a kid, I was just burned too many times where the real setting isn’t integrated carefully and a real part of the story. At best, I’ve seen easily bruised worldbuilding (Harry Potter); at worst, I’ve seen hideous emotional trauma swept under the rug (The Chronicles of Narnia). I fully realize and know that it can be done well—I’ve seen it done well, such as in The Magicians, an incredibly brutal deconstruction of both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia—but I’ve developed an aversion to it.

(This probably accounts for my reluctance when it comes to urban fantasy, come to think of it.)

So Otherbound’s central conceit, that a teenager in our world experiences the life of a servant in a more traditional fantasy setting whenever he closes his eyes, didn’t appeal to me. What did appeal to me was Ana’s review at the Book Smugglers, which revealed that Otherbound was diverse young adult fiction, a rare enough quantity in and of itself, let alone diverse young adult fantasy. I decided to suck it up and give it a go.

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Review: Landline

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Landline
by Rainbow Rowell

★★★½☆

2014 • 320 pages • St. Martin’s Press

When it comes to brass tacks, the difference between young adult and adult fiction is an issue of intended audience, not of genre. What gets them designated as young adult (and therefore placed into the hands of actual young adults) is what the literary gatekeepers of our society (publishers, booksellers, librarians, parents) think young adults want to read. Whenever I bring this up, I always point out that Malinda Lo’s graceful Ash, a queer retelling of Cinderella, was originally pitched as an adult novel but was published as a young adult novel. And, last fall, I shelved The Hobbit and Ender’s Game downstairs in young adult fiction and upstairs in speculative fiction at the bookstore. (I mean, we still do, but we don’t have an upstairs anymore.)

However, there’s no denying that there’s enough similarities in style, form, and content in the aggressive tidal wave of young adult fiction of the last two decades to make the argument that there is a genre being generated within that age range. The conflation of those two—the audience and the emerging genre, which has no handy moniker beyond “young adult fiction”—is the reason new adult fiction, despite differing from the emergent genre in that its characters are slightly older. I don’t think the genre is cohesive enough, but Rainbow Rowell’s novels are an argument for it as a cohesive, coherent genre that spans audiences.

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Review: Fledgling

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Fledgling
by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

When I propose books for my book club, I try to pick books that will open up a conversation beyond the book itself. (We are a ladies’ speculative fiction book club, so we invariably end up talking about how much we hate Steven Moffat, but I can’t rely on that! He goes quiet sometimes!) I also try to propose as much diverse sf as I can. In proposing Fledgling to the group, I was hoping that we could talk about race in speculative fiction, vampires, and, of course, Octavia E. Butler, who I had never read before. And that wasn’t for lack of recommendations. But I thought I’d managed my expectations very well, starting out with her last novel before moving onto the novels on my list.

(What if I read her canon back to front? I have no idea what that would yield critically, but because it’s something I’ve never done before, I think it’s worth a shot.)

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Review: Women of Marvel — Volume One

womenofmarvel01Women of Marvel: Volume One
by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Linda Fite, Tom DeFalco, Carol Seuling, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Jim Shooter and David Michelinie

★★★★½

For the last three years, the amazing Jess Plummer has been noting what free promotional materials Marvel and DC have sent along to Wiscon, the world’s oldest feminist sf convention. After last year’s pretty decent showing, she was disappointed that Marvel’s offerings this year featured no ladies at all. After all, Marvel has so many interesting female characters and female-led titles these days, from Ms. Marvel to She-Hulk (featuring Kevin Wada’s deliriously delightful covers and Javier Pulido’s willfully and wonderfully grotesque art) to X-Men, which boasts an entire team of lady mutants without bothering to change the title. Why not celebrate that?

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Review: Dark Metropolis

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Dark Metropolis
by Jaclyn Dolamore

★★★☆☆

Dark Metropolis is the second novel I’ve read this month that takes place during the Jazz Age, after Genevieve Valentine’s phenomenal The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Except that Dark Metropolis isn’t explicitly set in the Jazz Age. The world of this novel boasts several cultural signifiers that remind the reader of nothing so much as interwar Berlin—it’s still reeling from a massive war that upset the social order, young women crop their hair and wear lipstick in defiance of their mothers, and the city is filled with the increasingly loud murmurs of revolution. But the details are never nailed down, allowing Jaclyn Dolamore to elaborate and improvise as she sees fit.

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