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

Five years ago, Josh was twelve and sleeping with his history teacher, Mrs. Sherman, a fact which came to light following a disastrous spin-the-bottle game with his best friend, Rachel. Now he’s a senior in high school, the teacher has been released from jail, and when he bumps into Rachel after years of avoidance, he learns that she’s not mad at him for the reasons he thought she was mad at him. And she doesn’t want to stay mad at him; she wants to pick up where they left off. And he’s waiting to hear from his Holy Trinity of colleges while trying to keep up both his straight-A streak and his remarkable batting average.

It’s absorbing, powerful, and really well-written. Josh is an interesting but likable first-person narrator, his pain and issues omnipresent but not melodramatic or maudlin. The lengthy sections in which he goes through his relationship with Mrs. Sherman and its immediate aftermath are particularly stellar, and particularly creepy; the author doesn’t spare us the details of Josh’s first sexual experiences, though he does for some reason shy away from the vaginal intercourse and actions that focused on her body, rather than his. Throughout it all, we can see her manipulations as she carefully works Josh around so that he thinks the guilt lies with him.

In the present-day sections, we can still see the remnants of those manipulations, even after years of therapy and being told that it wasn’t his fault. He is still obsessed with what happened, so much so that he doesn’t realize that while people in his small town know and remember, that it’s not all they think about. He realizes that his best guy friend, Zik, is doing his best by always being there for Josh and never asking about it, but he never, for five years, thought about what that does to Zik and Zik’s friendship with Rachel. And when he does, we see how painful it is for him, how he sees yet another reason for him to apologize.

The major flaw in the modern-day sections is Rachel. She knows what she wants—Josh—and she’s determined to get it. Whether he wants her or not. Their conversations are sometimes painfully reminiscent of Josh with Mrs. Sherman; him demurring, her instructing. Yes, they are the same age and neither is in a formal position of power, but the massive guilt he feels toward her does put her at an advantage over him—and she uses it. She does not respect Josh’s sexual agency—his right to not say yes—and she is emotionally manipulative, using, perhaps unknowingly, some of the same strategies that Mrs. Sherman used. She is presented as a heroic figure putting herself on the line to rescue her friend from his issues, but her actions are reprehensible. Boy Toy took pains to remind us that boys can be raped and taken advantage off; unfortunately, it forgot that men can be raped and taken advantage of, too. Absence of a yes is a no, regardless of gender, and a yes must be freely given, not the result of manipulation or abuse.

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Boy Toy ~ Barry Lyga ~ Barry Lyga’s Blog

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powerless codyDaniel, a Sherlock Holmes devotee but otherwise a normal twelve year old, just moved to a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Not only is he the new kid, but he’s pretty sure the kids—even the ones who seem to like him—are keeping some sort of weird secret. This is awkward, but temporary; eventually he learns that the kids in town have superpowers—flight, invisibility, releasing a nasty-smelling gas, that sort of thing. The only catch is that on each kid’s birthday, he or she will wake up with no power and no memory of ever having had a superpower. With several thirteenth birthdays coming up, powerless Daniel is recruited to look into the matter. His investigation leads him to Golden Age comic books, a cranky old man, and his own family history.

It’s a solid, entertaining, uncomplicated read. The powers and their limitations are thoroughly conceived and the characters, though not particularly deep, are believable and consistent, complete with badly-suppressed anxieties and early-adolescent awkwardness between friends of different genders. The writing dips into the sentimental at times, but it’s self-aware enough to shrug off its saccharine tendencies: “‘But, you know, that’s what being a hero is all about, right? Overcoming your fears and failures to help other people, like Johnny noble did.’ Eric smiled. ‘I know you cringe when I talk like that but it’s true.'”1 We cringe, too—but it’s okay, the book acknowledges it and gives us permission. A healthy dose of younger brother-related snark running through the book helps, too. The family history bit is somewhat overdone—think Snape and Lily Deathly Hallows revelations—but the idea that history is important and that current events were seeded seventy years before are welcome and the plot is satisfying. Generally, an enjoyable book.

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1Pp. 172-173

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Powerless

Leviathan Scott WesterfeldIn a Steampunk Austria-Hungary, Prince Aleksander sets off across Europe in a mechanical walker with his tutor, murderous countrymen on his heals. Meanwhile, in a Darwinpunk England, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service and fly in a living airship—whale meets zeppelin. World War One ensues.

The world is well-developed and creative, especially the Darwinist living technology and the ways the two technology streams have clearly influenced one another. Seriously: it’s half Darwinpunk. That’s just awesome.

The main characters are unsurprising but believable and sympathetic, even if Alek is a bit daft sometimes. The minor characters are entertaining, particularly a lady scientist who is exactly the kind of character we’re programmed to like. And we do, mostly—but it’s no surprise that other characters find her incredibly annoying. The plot moves along briskly, without major twists but with plenty of small surprises and clever details to keep it interesting.

It’s the first in a series and doesn’t try to properly conclude, but it comes to a sensible stopping point; it’s generally a satisfying book, and Westerfeld has seeded plenty of fertile ground to explore in the next one.

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Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld

Frankie wants in. Now a sophomore at the elite New England boarding school whence her sister and father graduated, now dating one of the most popular guys in the senior class, she’s sick of her dad’s dropped hints about the secret society at the school and she doesn’t like her boyfriend dropping her every thirty seconds when his best friend, another alpha-male senior, calls. She’s started noticing all the little thing people say or do that lessen women, put us in our place, degrade us, etc. She’s starting to get interested in civil disobedience.

She wants in, and all it implies: she wants her boyfriend to recognize her worth, her intelligence. To not be just adorable. To be on equal standing with his best friend. To be delible¹ to her boyfriend as his friends, not someone who ceases to exist when he isn’t around.

Frankie’s an excellent, full-fledged character, intelligent, gutsy, and ambitious. The book – which won a Printz honor when I was 30 pages in – is quite well written. It does make the reader extra-conscious of the little things people say and do which keep girls and young women on a more juvenile social level than their contemporaries – you can’t walk on you’re own but a boy can, everyone’s glad you have a nice boy to take care of you, your legitimate concerns are dismissed as your being sensitive, your arguments are dismissed as your being adorable. It’s infuriating, and it’s everywhere – not just in the book.

Of course, when a book’s gotten me primed to notice the subtle manifestations of sexism, I’m not particularly inclined to ignore them – even when they show up in that very book.

Yep, Lockhart slips up, damn her.

Passage A, straight from Frankie’s mouth:

Once you say women are one way, and men are another, and say that’s how it is in other species so that’s how it is in people, then even if it’s somewhat true—even if it’s quite a good amount true—you’re setting yourself up to make all kinds of assumptions that actually really suck. Like, women tend to cooperate with each other and therefore don’t have enough competitive drive to run major companies or lead army squadrons.²

She’s on a good track, though I’m on the “in all things moderation (including moderation)” side here – it’s not that we can’t draw conclusions about tendencies, it’s that we need to respect and recognize variations and let people find ways to use their traits to find success in their own ways.

But that’s actually not the point I’m trying to make. I want to show you Passage B:

If she were not a strategist, Frankie would have reacted like most girls do in the same situation: with tears, with anger, with pouting and sulking and petulant responses like “What is it that’s so much more important than hanging out with me, huh?”³

What? What? For one thing, she ranted a hundred pages earlier about people doing exactly what she’s doing now. For another thing… no. Just no. We do not all react to a boyfriend (or girlfriend) canceling a date at the last minute with tears, with anger, etc. Some women do; some men do. We react as individuals, not as monolith gendered blocks.

That’s not all:

It just seems so funny to dress up your boobs. Like when no one is going to see them. Or even if someone is. It seems so undignified to deck out your private bits in flashy bits of lace you’d never where outside of your clothes in a million years.

And then she thought: Boobs.

Boobs are just inherently undignified.4

Let’s go through this one offensive passage at a time, shall we?

Yes, it might seem funny to dress up one’s boobs, but that doesn’t make it bad. Wearing sexy bras, or pretty bras, or brightly-colored silly bras, can have an effect on a woman’s day: it can make her feel sexy, or pretty, or fun, or confident, or all of the above. Even if no one is going to see them. Especially if no one is going to see them.

Underclothes and outerclothes have different purposes; it’s okay to have a bra you wouldn’t wear on the outside, or a scratchy sweater you wouldn’t wear right against your skin. And some of us find excuses to wear corsetry in public, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Moving on…

Very few things are inherently undignified; dignity is in how something is used or treated. Boobs in ill-fitting, ugly, or unflattering clothing can be undignified, certainly, though some women can pull it off; it’s in the confidence. Boobs in flattering lingerie or clothing can be dignified, certainly, though some women can’t pull it off; it’s in the confidence. Naked boobs? It’s all in the confidence. Boobs are inherently boobs. That’s about it.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and it has many good things to say. The more I think about it, however, the more pissed I become at the undermining of its overall feminist message. If you’re going to stereotype women, assume that we’re all desperate for men (“On what planet would a girl in her position refuse to go to a golf course party with Matthew Livingston?”5 Mine.), and insult our bodies, don’t try to pass it off as a feminist treatise.

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¹ The opposite of indelible. Also known as the neglected positive, or so The Disreputable History tells me.
² Page 162
³ Page 277
4 Pages 227-228
5 Page 70

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
E. Lockhart’s Blog

A major terrorist attack has hit San Francisco. Marcus and his friends, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are picked up by Homeland Security for a few grueling days. When they return home, they – and particularly Marcus – are horrified by the loss of privacy and civil rights perpetrated by Homeland Security in the name of safety. A computer nerd, Marcus starts to fight back, with computers, cryptography, and the idealistic youth of San Francisco as his weapons. As more and more people become involved in his clandestine XNet, his creation slips more and more out of his control.

The major problem with Little Brother is that it’s trying to serve two masters. People who are attracted to it are likely to be interested in computers and cryptography, and therefore to come to the novel with some preexisting knowledge of the subject. Of course, it cannot be safely assumed that all of its readers have such knowledge. So it has to do a fair bit of teaching. I believe it generally succeeds at imparting the necessary information, but it does not succeed in making the lessons interesting. The novel is narrated in the first person; Doctorow simply has the narrator offer straightforward descriptions of cryptography, binary, Linux, and the like.

This would be boring even if one has not already read Neil Stephenson, but for someone who has all of this material taught in Stepheson’s brilliantly creative narrative digressions, it’s rather interminable.¹ I’m not asking for Doctorow to try to be Stephenson² – few things are worse than a novelist who doesn’t trust his own voice – but I think it’s valid to ask that teaching in a novel be delivered via a more interesting medium than a visit from the Exposition Fairy.

This frequent mini-lectures also have the unfortunate effect of increasing
the didacticism of an already didactic book.

Little Brother is largely an expression of Doctorow’s dissatisfaction with the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, much as William Sleator used Test to express his dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind. In both cases, I generally agree with both authors’ liberal biases, but I wish both had expressed their points of view with a touch more subtlety. Little Brother is a much better book than Test, but it is ultimately dissatisfying; while a major point of the book is “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” – after 25, ways of thinking are too set and one is too invested in the status quo – it seems 37-year-old Doctorow doesn’t trust his teenage readers to see the flaws in the system without his help.

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¹ For instance, in The Diamond Age, he teaches binary using a clockwork castle.

² Or other authors who need to present a lot of facts in their narratives. Another example would be Junot Diaz’s use of humor footnotes to impart large chunks of Dominican Republic history in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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Little Brother ~ Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com

Peter’s mad at his dad. Kate’s annoyed that she has to spend part of her weekend with Peter, but she wants to show off, so she has her dad take the two of them to his laboratory to look at Nifty Science Machines. An accident happens, and off they are whisked to 1769. There, they are unusually bad at resisting the time-traveler’s urge to talk about the future, meet some amazingly kind and generous people, and, of course, meet a few villains.

It lost points early on for improper description of the effects of a Van de Graaf generator. And even if one ignores the bad science – and I have a problem doing that – it just never rises above being an okay book. While it’s purportedly about Peter and Kate, Kate really falls to the background, and it’s not just because eighteenth century skirts make it hard to chase highwaymen and the like. In many small ways, I felt that gender stereotypes were being reinforced – girls cry easily, have weak stomachs, and are closer to anything emotional/spiritual/metaphysical. Kate expresses frustration about her skirts and about Peter’s thoughtlessness when he doesn’t question eighteenth-century gender roles, but the smaller, more insidious things slip frustratingly past.

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Gideon the Cutpurse

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an almost brutally honest portrayal of life as a smart, nerdy, awkward, disabled boy from the Rez – specifically the Spokane Indian Reservation – and the year he decides to go to the decent high school in the nearby white town. The white kids hate him. The Indian kids hate him. Things get better for Junior and things get worse, but the sense of being slung between worlds never quite goes away. There’s humor, there’s clever cartoons, there’s, well, honesty. There’s also periodic Profundity Syndrome (that pernicious malaise which makes authors tell us point-blank why what we’re reading/just read is Terribly Important and Deeply Profound). It starts about once every 50 pages – an acceptable rate – but it just keeps accelerating till the end. To a certain extent this is fair; it’s first person and the narrator deserves his epiphanies. Still, that creeping Profundity Syndrome keeps it from being a great book. As it stands, it’s a very good book.