Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Early in her junior spring semester at an elite, idealistic boarding school, Alex is date raped. At first, all she wants is to hide, to wash it away and pretend it never happened. She doesn’t want her parents to know, she knows that there’s very little the police can do1, and her school administration is convinced that anyone smart and driven enough to go to their school is honorable and perfect, and therefore said administration is basically useless. What her school does have is the Mockingbirds, a volunteer group of students who establish and maintain a code of conduct, putting students on trial when they break the code, and enforcing nonviolent, off the record punishment to the perpetrators. Encouraged and supported by her best friend and older sister, Alex turns to the Mockingbird and seeks justice.

Written by a date rape survivor, The Mockingbirds is painful and powerful. It’s extremely well written and forthright, dealing candidly with the gamut of emotions experienced by survivors: anger, illogical coping mechanisms, denial, guilt, confusion, fear. It gets into the way rape can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life; Alex is no longer comfortable walking around the school grounds or eating in the cafeteria, certain classes are difficult, whether because of her rapist or because of his friends, and even music, her primary interest and love, has been tainted by what happened. Though the plot revolves around the process of her case with the Mockingbirds, the emotional core and character development is in her slowly and haltingly reclaiming her life, her body, her sexuality, and her mind, from her trauma and post-traumatic stress. Alex’s friends and sister are amazing but realistic; they are angry on her behalf and they know what they want her to do, but they know they need to support her in what she wants to do and can handle doing, and not push her. Her assailant is also, unfortunately, realistic, oblivious to consent issues and never thinking of his actions as rape. The one false note was a series of connected English assignments; the assignment is reasonable, the extent to which the teacher takes it does not feel reasonable, and the teachers actions are hard to explain except as malicious—but the teacher is given no motivation or reason for malicious behavior. It’s a relatively small lapse in a book that is otherwise brilliant, dealing with a difficult issue with both honesty and sensitivity, and without leaving any doubt that the absence of a yes must always be assumed to be a no.

November 2010

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1As with most date rapes, especially those involving alcohol (or drugs) there’s no physical evidence worth a damn. Even if she hadn’t showered and washed away all the evidence, all it would show is that the sex happened, not whether or not it was consensual.

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The Mockingbirds ~ Daisy Whitney’s Blog

Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

Will Grayson Will Grayson David Levithan John GreenCaustic, insecure Will Grayson (CIWG) has two rules: don’t care and shut up. His best friend, the very large and very gay Tiny Cooper, cares about many things and never shuts up. Currently, aside from falling in and out of love, Tiny is trying to hook Will up with a young lady and to produce, direct, write, and star in, a FABULOUS high school musical about his life. Meanwhile, morbidly depressed Will Grayson (MDWG) is constantly at war with his best friend, Goth girl Maura, barely exchanging two words with his stressed, worried mom, and finding his only solace in his internet boyfriend, Isaac. A coincidental meeting between the two Will Graysons acts as a catalyst, sparking change in friendships and relationships.

It’s hilarious. CIWG, written by John Green, is defensive, harsh, at times a terrible person, and an incredibly funny narrator. Even MDWG, written by David Levithan, sends many deeply funny statements out from the depths of his despair. (griping about internet slang: “or <3. you think that looks like a heart? if you do, that’s only because you’ve never seen a scrotum.”1). It’s also heartbreaking: both Will Graysons are in pain most of the time, and the writing expresses their depression, self-loathing, and need flawlessly. The girls are a bit underdeveloped and underrespected, existing almost as foils for the boys, but other things the book just nails. For instance:

gideon: yeah, and, i don’t know, when i realized that I was gay, it really sucked that nobody was like, ‘way to go’ so i just wanted to come over and say…
me: way to go?2

When I came out in high school, one of my classmates did say way to go. And that was really, really awesome of her. And this is a book that understands why that was important, and celebrates it, without losing the awkwardness inherent in just about every conversation ever held in a high school hallway or cafeteria.

It does get rather over the top, notably Tiny’s musical and, even more notably, the ending. It’s too neat, too perfect, too sentimental. And yet… I don’t cry over books. I certainly don’t cry over books while walking down the street in Brooklyn and I certainly don’t cry over unrealistically perfect sentimental bullshit endings. And yet… for this one, I did.

April 2010. I got an ARC from my mother, who works at a bookstore.

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1p. 2
2p. 181
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Will Grayson, Will Grayson ~ John Green ~ John Green’s Blog ~ David Levithan

lament faerie queens deception maggie stiefvaterDeirdre is a high-achieving high schooler, on a path toward a conservatory and a professional career as a harpist, with an implied specialization in Irish tunes. Especially reels, she’s very partial to reels. She’s much less partial to puking before every gig, but she does it anyway. Faints, too. Thus, it is unsurprising that the afternoon of a large student competition finds her in a bathroom, puking her guts out. It should be a surprise when a startlingly handsome young man whom she has only seen before in a dream is standing there holding her hair and making sure she doesn’t faint, but Deirdre seems incapable of being surprised by anything done by this mysterious and handsome young man. His name, we learn, is Luke, and he plays a mean flute. Suddenly instead of a solo, Deirdre is signed up to play a duet in the competition (No, that’s not a euphemism. Not entirely, anyway), and with Luke she plays better than she ever has, with mad improvisation skills she hadn’t thought she possessed. Oh, and she starts being stalked by faeries and four-leaf clovers. Which do not exactly bring good luck.

Stiefvater’s faerie lore is well-crafted and believable, with both enough beauty and enough cruelty to be compelling and interesting. I would have loved to see it more fleshed-out, especially as it relates to her family; the women of the family have a very bad history with faeries, but we don’t get enough details of the past two generations to really understand the backstory. Deirdre’s coming into her own magical abilities is also well-done, with the stage of disbelief lasting long enough to be believable but ending before it can become annoying. The resolution is quite clever, with an unexpected but fitting twist.

Much of the focus is on the romance, starting with Deirdre’s immediate trust for a rather suspicious man, moving through a lightning-quick flirtation, and on to a snogging/mad love that changes everything phase that takes up most of the book. It’s all taken a bit too much for granted; of course she trusts him instantly, of course he loves her. The lack of mystery makes it less exciting than I generally expect from a book that revolves so much around the romance.

And then there’s the age gap; he’s 1,348 years old (or possibly 1,348 plus 18 or so, it’s unclear).¹ She is 16. This is perfectly clear. As John Green said, “The reason it’s wrong for old people to have sexual relationships with children is not because we old people LOOK old. It’s because we ARE old.” He’s right. What happened to the rule of (age/2)+7? The youngest Luke should be dating is 674.² Add in his far, far greater knowledge of all this faerie-stuff and Deirdre’s aforementioned placid trust in him, and the result is a lurking uneven power dynamic.

Still, the writing is strong and the book is enjoyable, peppered with surprising moments of humor and clarity. It’s clearly a first novel and Stiefvater improved with Shiver, her werewolf romance novel. Lament now has a sequel, Ballad, and Shiver‘s sequel, Linger, is upcoming; I very much hope her upward trend continues.

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¹P. 75.
²I’m willing to concede that when supernatural ages are involved, this rule may cease to be valid. That said, I’m pretty sure that both people need to be supernaturally aged, or there had better be a pretty compelling explanation for why it’s okay anyway. Lament does not have such an explanation.

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Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

Fire Kristin Cashore Prequel to GracelingIn the Dells live monsters, animals of all types in brilliant colors – magenta, chartreuse, blues and purples rarely found in nature (wrong climate for tree frogs. Which is probably a good thing, as I’m not sure how they’d differentiate between normal and monster tree frogs.) The monsters are so beautiful that they impair peoples’ ability to think; people can become so mesmerized that they don’t defend themselves against a monster raptor, or against monster mosquitoes, for that matter.

Fire is the last human monster. Monster beauty and human intelligence combine such that she can read and influence minds that aren’t defended by a lot of willpower. It also means that people throw themselves at her a lot – wanting to profess their undying love, wanting to rape her, wanting to kill her out of jealousy, or wanting to kill her to prevent her from becoming like her father: a monster who controlled a weak king, used his power to rape and murder for sport, and left the kingdom ripe for civil war when both he and the weak king died. Fire has lived her life in a remote village, but eventually finds herself drawn into the lives of the royal family and the war they are fighting.

Fire‘s being billed as a prequel to Graceling, and it does provide an origin story for King Leck, but both it and Graceling work very well as stand-alones. I actually think the Leck parts of Fire are the weakest parts and not really necessary to the story, though there’s certainly enough seeds to see where it’ll be important come the third book, the planned Bitterblue.

The rest of Fire, on the other hand, is very strong. The writing is gripping and both the characters and the relationships are complex and satisfying. There’s Fire, of course, who has to deal with what she could be with her abilities, what she doesn’t want to do with them, the constant danger she’s in, and the knowledge of what her father did with his abilities. The other characters are nearly as impressive, wrestling with conflicting desires and knowledge, secrets, guilt, and, especially, the complicated connections between love, jealousy, sex, and trust. Family issues are also potent; Fire isn’t the only character who must wrestle with what her parent(s) did, and whether or not she will follow the same path, and the rather complicated family trees raise issues of kinship and the definition of family.

All that in a good, enjoyable book.

October 2009

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My review of Graceling

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Fire ~ Kristin Cashore

impossible nancy werlinHave you ever really listened to the lyrics of Scarborough Fair? Even in the Simon and Garfunkel version, they’re a little bit creepy – asking a woman to do a series of impossible tasks to become a man’s true love. The version Werlin uses (one she crafted for the novel, though there are some recorded versions that are much closer to hers than to S&G) is much creepier – the woman has rejected the man (elfin knight) and must perform these three impossible tasks to avoid becoming his, and her daughters after her. And it’s a curse and a lesson for the Scarborough women, passed from mother to daughter as each gets pregnant at seventeen and goes insane just after her daughter is born. And so it has gone for hundreds of years, dozens of women, and now Lucy finds herself pregnant after being raped at the prom.

I spent most of the book wanting to hug her family – her foster parents and her childhood best friend. They did everything right. They hugged her when she needed hugs, they presented her options – including abortion – and offered their advice, but accepted it when Lucy disagreed. They took an unreal situation and developed a very real plan to solve it, simply because that’s what Lucy needed them to do. The Elfin Knight himself is seriously overdone, but he actually gets fairly little page-time, and otherwise the medieval curse and its resolution are woven seamlessly into Lucy’s twenty-first century issues as she struggles to deal with the rape, her pregnancy, school, etc, etc. The solutions she and her family find are creative but make sense. In the places it really matters, it’s really good.

So the Elfin Prince is over the top. So there are a few passages of ridiculous sap and profundity syndrome. [minor spoiler] So I wanted there to be a Scarborough woman born free of the curse, and am not satisfied to see the name die with the curse [/minor spoiler]. So I can’t not nitpick a little. But it dealt with rape and teen pregnancy well, with a remarkable family. Perhaps most importantly, it presented Lucy’s story as Lucy: it doesn’t moralize and say that the decisions she makes would be right for anyone else, just that they’re the right decisions for her.

It’s a book that makes it worth having Scarborough Fair stuck in your head for three days. And trust me, you will.

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Impossible ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Extraordinary

Johnny’s mostly punk, with some goth folded in for good measure (and eyeliner). He’s also an alcoholic at seventeen. After a very bad night at the club followed by a very bad morning in the hospital, he gets shipped off to rehab and then to his uncle in South Carolina.

I picked this one up because I’m a sucker for YA books with queer themes, and Johnny doesn’t just think Debbie Harry (lead singer of the 80s rock band Blondie) is hot and a great singer, he kind of wants to be her. He wants to be beautiful and confident, just like her. Like Boy2Girl, Debbie Harry Sings in French looks at teenage confusion and angst over gender and identity issues without trying to force it too much into neatly defined boxes – or at least, that’s what the publicist who wrote the book blurb wants us to think. While Boy2Girl does raise some interesting questions about gender stereotypes, Debbie Harry Sings in French is actually much more about identity in general, and about how we try to understand people. Johnny dresses up as Debbie Harry not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a symbol of beauty, confidence, and strength. If he’d heard David Bowie for the first time at the crucial moment in rehab, he’d’ve been wearing tight pleather pants and oddly-colored hair instead of a dress and a blond wig, and it would have filled exactly the same role. Well, it might have confused his family less. And it might be about adjectives other than “beauty” and “strength,” though I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. But the effect on Johnny would have been much the same. We take our liberation where we can get it.

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Debbie Harry Sings in French