by Lisi Harrison
2011 (originally published 2005) • 272 pages • Poppy
Have I mentioned how much I love Monster High? Because I love Monster High. I have a passing but passionate interest in fashion dolls; I keep a lazy eye on collector grade Barbies, used to buy issues of Haute Doll, and I even went through a brief period in high school where I tried to save up six hundred dollars to buy my very own ball-jointed doll. When Monster High, a line of dolls meant to be the children of old-school horror monsters, debuted, I was delighted to find a technicolor parade of little monster girls in the toy department at Target whose flaws weren’t “being clumsy” but “actively trying not to suck anyone’s blood.”
What I like about Monster High, besides its nostalgic-to-me sugar horror/baby goth/alternative kid aesthetic and its commitment to truly, truly atrocious puns, is that it’s about teen girl friendship. (Surprise!) And not just in the vague sense that I recall from my own childhood Barbies. Monster High is not just a line of dolls—it’s a franchise, with music, a Flash animated web series, CGI-animated direct-to-DVD television specials, a movie musical that will supposedly come to pass, and, as we can see from today’s selection, a line of young adult books. I watch the web series and CGI specials from time to time, and I’m always impressed by how they emphasize the girls’ friendships over anything else. In one web series episode, Frankie (as in Frankie Stein) feels like she’s falling behind because she, unlike some of her friends, doesn’t have a boyfriend. She, naturally, creates a fake one in her dad’s lab and brings him to school, where her friends are quick to reassure her that she doesn’t need to date someone to fit in with them. (And then she chucks him in the garbage, which is when we discover she actually gave him sentience. Whoops.) Even the mean girl, Cleo de Nile, evolves over the course of the web series, from a stereotypical mean girl to someone who appreciates her friends and defends them.
So it’s incredibly infuriating that the first Monster High book (as of this writing, there have been two series: this one by Lisi Harrison and a younger-skewing Ghoulfriends series by Gitty Daneshvari) ends with two girls shaking hands over, essentially, a declaration of war over a boy. Barf.
by Genevieve Valentine
2015 • 307 pages • Saga Press
The best part of awards season is sometimes not the awards themselves at all. (I mean, we can’t have Matthew McCaughney take us to church every year.) What I get most excited for are Genevieve Valentine’s Red Carpet Rundowns. It’s not just the snark, the battle between the Stylists’ Guild and the Necklace Makers, or the incredibly elaborate sci-fi plots. It’s Valentine’s eye for the way fashion, makeup, and styling is used as a mechanism (or weapon, if you want to be combative) to construct a star image in the constant war for visibility, glamour, and prestige that is modern Hollywood. (Man, it was easier during the studio era, when studios just told you who was classy.) Much like Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip Anne Helen Petersen, Valentine understands both the mechanics and cultural implications of celebrity—in short, the story it can tell and what that story can do. As she says, “the red carpet goes beyond a fashion event to become coded messages about the careers of the people who walk it.”
Persona is all about those coded messages, centering it by having the International Assembly of the near future composed entirely of Faces who represent their countries. International diplomacy (and, of course, espionage) is now conducted in the language of celebrity. Everything, from press coverage (conducted along the lines of the studio era of Hollywood, with the paparazzi considered TMZ at best and politically dangerous at worst) to supposedly wild nights out to relationships, are coordinated by the Faces’ teams of handlers and stylists to send all the right messages about the country.
Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday
When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)
But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.
by Stephanie Hemphill
2013 • 320 pages • Balzer + Bray
Oh, Mary Shelley. Daughter of fundamental English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, inventor of science fiction, and all around literary—dare I say it—monster. I only grow fonder of her the more I learn about her. I even might be biased towards The Bride of Frankenstein not for the Bride herself, but for the film opening with Elsa Lanchester’s Mary Shelley primly accepting Lord Byron’s stilted praise in one of the most stunning gowns of early Hollywood. (Even if it’s mostly to underline that there’s a moral point to the proceedings to free it from guilt.) I note the century-spanning gap of eighty-one years between that depiction of Shelley and the forthcoming dueling 2016 biopics A Storm in the Stars and Mary Shelley’s Monster with the most cutting of side eyes.
So Stephanie Hemphill’s young adult novel about Shelley, Hideous Love, with its near pre-Raphaelite cover of a redheaded young woman bent in a pose that recalls both Atlas and Prometheus, was catnip to me. I was always happy when the economies of space allowed me to face it out in the young adult nook back at the Tattered Cover. But, as ever, I dragged my feet about actually reading the darn thing. Although “drag my feet” is a poor metaphor for my reading habits—“got distracted by other books like a concussed magpie” is more like it. It’s a useful, if disorganized, methodology, because it lets me come to books fresh.
So fresh, in fact, that I had no idea that Hideous Love is a verse novel.
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
2012 • 313 pages • Dutton Books
The thing about my incredibly long lead time on most media (imposed on me by both library wait lists and my own reticence to do as I am told) is that I get to see both the thing itself and the response to it. When The Fault in Our Stars dropped in 2012, it was hot. White hot. So white hot, in fact, that even while I was working at the Tattered Cover a year later, we could barely keep the damn thing on the shelves. (To be fair, the post-humously constructed Esther Earl memoir This Star Won’t Go Out had just been released, boosting sales.) I still have the occasional waking nightmare of the rickety overstock stacks I had to make over the John Green section in the young adult nook. Tumbling, bright blue, entirely hardcover overstock stacks.
But, to quote The Dark Knight, The Fault in Our Stars has lived long enough to become the villain. Specifically, John Green has. Where he was once recommended to me, he’s, of late, been side-eyed. Some of it is his own behavior—Green’s misjudged breathless declaration that the kiss in the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars is the first lady-initiated kiss in ALL OF CINEMATIC TEEN ROMANCE, anyone?—but a lot of it is how the work of a cisgendered straight white dude is being used by the mainstream to legitimize young adult fiction. (Which is not his fault, obviously, but is still something to take into account.) This backlash eventually came to his books, especially The Fault in Our Stars. After the film hit, I saw many a tumblrina rolling her eyes at “metaphors,” although I had no idea what they were talking about.
So when I finally got around to reading the darn thing, I was prepared for the worst. After all, I did not care for Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his collaboration with David Levithan, whose work I otherwise enjoy. And fifty pages into it, I may have immediately texted a known Green unfan of my acquaintance that Augustus Waters was a total turd.
Throne of the Crescent Moon
2012 • 288 pages • DAW Books
Where is the God in fantasy?
There are speculative fiction novels that deal with faith and spirituality—while I haven’t read it yet, I am told that Mary Russell’s The Sparrow touches on it. But I don’t mean faith and spirituality as a core theme of a text; I mean faith and spirituality as both worldbuilding and character building. In my experience, fantasy worldbuilding is often predicated on the existence of gods or goddesses. There is no question that the gods exist. Their decisions make be questioned or influenced or what have you, but they made the world, they exist, and that is that. Depictions of faith and religious practice tends to be dramatically diverse—the dwarves worship their god, and the elves theirs—
It’s something I’ve never really thought about. My only religious training as a kid was pointedly not being actively Catholic with no viable option presented, so religion as a whole was never on my radar. (My mother once panicked before a family funeral and tried to make me learn the Lord’s Prayer. I was what, eighteen? Nineteen? It did not take.) Since organized religion has never played a role in my life, I’ve never wondered what kind of role it can play in secondary worldbuilding.
The Locusts Have No King
by Dawn Powell
1998 (originally published 1948) • 303 pages • Steerforth Press
I was introduced to Dawn Powell through her journal entries included in Teresa Carpenter’s sublime The New York Diaries. In those entries, she gives off the impression of being a hard-working woman leaning into the wind, a little in the vein of Dorothy Parker. She makes strong decisions about her next novel (always, given her prodigious output, on the horizon); she paints quick caricatures of character she meets; and she swoons over New York, bolstered by her dreams of the city during her early life in Ohio.
It’s that last one that gives Powell her power as sharp observer of life in New York City. Her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King does technically have a plot, in the reversal of fortune between Mrs. Lyle Gaynor, the famous and successful playwright, and her lover Frederick, an intellectual but ignored writer whose latest book finds success. But Powell is far more interested in the nooks and crannies of New York than the internal lives of her much-mocked characters. She roams far and wide, dispensing the little details that make her New York come alive—roommates squabbling over the phone, foul weather friendships, and, as always, those damn hipsters taking away the real New York.
Publish and Perish
by James Hynes
1998 (originally published 1997) • 338 pages • Picador
The more I read about the peculiar, insular world of higher academia, the more I think of it as a horror show. It’s an obviously biased perspective, especially since I respond to my mother’s repeated queries about the possibility of grad school by braying “NOOOO” at the top of my lungs. I mean, I have friends from college who are attending graduate school with the elegance, grace, and ferocity I expect out of my fellow Valkyries (look, your college wasn’t as cool as mine, it’s okay, we can move on together). They seem to be managing just fine! But reading about why Our Lady of Gossip Anne Helen Petersen left academia for BuzzFeed last December sent me leaping from article to article about both the poor employment prospects facing would-be academics and the poor treatment those academics receive if they do get hired.
With that atmosphere firmly planted in my headspace, out of the depths of my reading list emerged Publish and Perish, a trilogy of three horror novellas set in academia. Long time readers may remember that the unnameable behemoth that is my reading list was birthed in 2009 out of a copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust in my high school library. Publish and Perish is, if I recall correctly, one of the first recommendations in Book Lust (or More Book Lust, which I also heartily raided). I bring this up because Publish and Perish feels like a blast from the past—both my personal past, when I gobbled up recommendations essentially sight unseen (…like, way more than I do now) and the past of 1997, when Publish and Perish was published.
by Holly Black
2013 • 256 pages • Margaret K. McElderry Books
After adoring her The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Ana’s amazing review of Holly Black’s Doll Bones made the next logical step for exploring Black’s back catalog obvious. I always had books at the bookstore that I would shelve and whisper “soon” to (oh, like you don’t talk to yourself in public), and Doll Bones was one.
I am kind of tempted to point you to Ana’s review and hand you off, because she, as ever, gets to the marrow of the matter. Doll Bones is the story of three friends who have played, essentially, a homemade version of Dungeons and Dragons since they were little—Alice, Zach, and their game master, Poppy. Now in middle school, Zach is starting to feel self-conscious about his best friends being girls and playing pretend so much. When his dad throws out his figurines, he, although enraged, takes it as the easy way out of the game. But Poppy is not to be deterred, and she demands that all three go on a quest to bury the creepy, antique doll that represents the Queen in their game world because it’s supposedly haunting her. As Ana beautifully writes, it’s about growing up into a strict gender binary being enforced by the various adults around them and how all three negotiate that. While Zach, a basketball player, and Alice, a theater kid, have access to prefabricated narratives that supposedly mesh with their interests, Poppy, who describes herself as the actually weird one, doesn’t.
So instead of retreading the ground that Ana covered first (and better), I wanted to focus on Poppy. Continue reading
The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith
2004 (originally 1952) • 292 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
I’ve decided that this is the year that I’m actually going to start tracking how diverse my reading is.
Over the course of the last five years (!), I haven’t really made a specific effort to read diversely. As a queer fannish lady type, I’ve sort of assumed that my reading will be more diverse than the average bear. But that assumption obviously doesn’t make up for my blind spots as a middle-class white girl who most people read as straight. I felt kind of sheepish about it last year, but there’s nothing to be gained by feeling awkward about it, so it’s time to fix that. Plus my newfound (okay, it’s been like two years, but it still feels new) love for nonfiction means that there are a lot more straight white dudes on my reading list as I seek out “canonical” texts about media and media history.
So I tackled my behemoth of a reading list recently and updated it to reflect the gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of the authors. And… well, there’s a lot more straight white dudes than anticipated. Which is exactly why I needed to start doing this. I’ve decided to start out by focusing on women writers for the first six months of 2015 (specifically, one book by a woman for every book by a man at the least) and then taking stock in the summer to see what I’ve learned about balancing my reading list and applying it to the other categories.