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Category: Young Adult

Girl Mans Up Book Launch Party

A few years ago, I used to be part of a writing organization based just east of Toronto called the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. I let my membership lapse a while ago, but when I was still an active member, I met M-E Girard.

M-E is a pediatric nurse, which is pretty cool. But what’s even cooler is that she’s just released her debut novel, Girl Mans Up with HarperCollins! Here’s the cover copy:

All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.

But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.

The book officially gets released tomorrow, but I was lucky enough to attend its Toronto launch last Thursday. So here are some awesome pictures of the whole affair!

It was so good to see M-E again after not having met her in person for nearly 2 years. It’s amazing to know that she’s got an agent, a publisher, and a book, and it felt so special to see her updates throughout the publication process. Plus, her agent even flew in from New York to celebrate with her!

So, yeah, get a copy of Girl Mans Up! Support a friend! If you’re still not convinced, it’s already been getting some great reviews:

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

midnight_robber_coverTitle: Midnight Robber
Author: Nalo Hopkinson
Publisher: Warner Books
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I found it at a used book store

Content warning: This review discusses rape and incest that occurs in this book.

Tan-Tan lives a charmed life on the planet of Toussaint. She’s doted upon by her father Antonio, the mayor of Cockpit County. She’s cossetted by her mother, Ione, and her nursemaid. Even her eshu, the bio-interfaced AI connected to the omnipresent computer network Granny Nanny, heeds her every wish. But just because this little girl has led a happy existence up until now doesn’t mean things won’t change. When Ione has an affair behind Antonio’s back, he challenges the interloper to a duel.

However, Antonio doesn’t play fair and is sentenced to exile on the headblind planet (that is, one that lacks an overarching AI network) of New Half-Way Tree for inadvertently killing his rival. Tan-Tan, who always felt closer to her father anyways, sneaks away with him on the interdimensional ship that leads to exile.

Life on New Half-Way Tree is harsh: in a world without eshus and Granny Nanny, you have to rely on your own body to do all the work. There are strange creatures in the bush, and a planet full of exiled prisoners isn’t usually known for its civility. But what’s even worse is that Antonio takes his frustration over his exile out on his daughter, abusing her both physically and sexually.

The night before Tan-Tan’s sixteenth birthday, when she will legally become an adult, Antonio flies into a rage when he finds out about her plans to run away with her childhood sweetheart, and rapes her. Panicking, she murders him with the birthday gift she got from her stepmother: a hunting knife. But in her village, the penalty for murder is execution, so she runs away into the bush to avoid capture, eventually learning how to survive in the wild and becoming the Robber Queen, a Robin-Hood-like do-gooder who punishes the wicked for their transgressions.

As Midnight Robber progresses, stories about Tan-Tan’s real life meld with the fantastical myths that are embroidered with her name. Only at the end do we realize who the audience for this narrative is: Tan-Tan’s unborn son, the product of her rape. Midnight Robber ends with his birth, and her acceptance that she’s his mother, even if he’s the result of incest.

Midnight Robber is a book I’ve had a conflicted history with. I first read it in high school, where I received an autographed copy for taking part in some sort of extra curricular activity I can’t remember.

I read it and disliked it. The incest? The rape? These were experiences far outside of my sheltered suburban life, and I found them too troubling to engage with. Ultimately, I fobbed the copy off on my high school friend LaToya — she had been suggesting I read Brown Girl in the Ring for a while, and I figured that since I disliked Midnight Robber so much, she might as well have it and enjoy it. The book left such a strong, unpalatable taste in my mouth that I still haven’t read Brown Girl in the Ring over a decade later, even though I know that rationally it’s worth a shot.

The fact that I reacted this way to Midnight Robber is something I’ve felt bad about for a long time. In fact, let’s face it: my reaction was racist, because I rationalized my decision to give it to LaToya by thinking not only well, she’s already read Nalo Hopkinson but also well, she’s black, so she’ll probably like it.

Yeah: Teenage Me was a real shithead.

So when I recently saw a copy of Midnight Robber for sale on a used bookstore shelf — right smack dab in the middle of Black History Month, when I was looking for more black authors to read — I thought okay, I can rectify this. The more remarkable thing is that the copy I found was the same edition I read in high school and had Hopkinson’s autograph in the front, just like the one I gave away. It felt appropriate.

Reading it as an adult, I’m amazed by how much of this novel I missed as a high school student. The Granny Nanny system of Toussaint is similar to the internet as it currently exists — but I originally read it about 15 years ago, when Geocities and Angelfire were the cutting edge.

However, rereading it also felt like a slap: I knew the sexual abuse would happen, and Antonio’s attempts to groom Tan-Tan were stomach-churning because I knew what they’d lead to. But the groundwork for the awfulness of Antonio’s character is laid from the beginning — he’s manipulative, greedy, and self-serving, and it’s hinted at that he was abusive towards Tan-Tan’s mother back on Toussaint. As an adult reader, I can recognize a lot of the red flags that Hopkinson is waving regarding Antonio’s character, even if Tan-Tan herself is too young and trusting to identify them.

Most importantly, while Midnight Robber was written using Caribbean English, I didn’t understand back then how integral this cultural background was to creating the tone of the book. Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree were settled hundreds of years ago by people travelling on generational ships, but the contrast is that this time, these were ships of their inhabitants’ own consent and design, rather than the slave ships of long ago. Toussaint’s inhabitants celebrate this every year with a massive carnival where there are duels and music and revelry. The Midnight Robbers who stalk the carnival crowds, chanting impromptu songs to earn coins from passers-by, sound like rappers and slam poets.

I think now that my original reaction to the presence of rape and incest in the book was really a smokescreen for something deeper that I didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss back then: Midnight Robber is wonderfully, unrepentantly non-Eurocentric. From the dialogue to the worldbuilding to the mythical urban legends springing up around Tan-Tan — and especially the interplay between the original non-human inhabitants of New Half-Way Tree and the human exiles — this is a book explicitly centred from a black perspective.

In an adolescence that had been shaped by the compulsory school reading of Shakespeare and Harper Lee, and also by the fantasy works of Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Garth Nix, this was an unspoken shock. I don’t think I had ever encountered a book before Midnight Robber that wasn’t “meant for” me.

It took over a decade and a half, a Bachelor’s degree, and years of reading smarter, more critical people on Twitter for me to be able to identify that feeling of shock. And I think I need to make up for lost time by reading more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work.

Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest: A Stunning Self-Published Novel

pen_pal_coverTitle: Pen Pal
Author: Francesca Forrest
Publisher: Self-published
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Bakka Phoneix in Toronto based on the repeated recommendations of Leah Bobet. The woman’s got good taste, y’all.

Sometimes, a book comes along that satisfies you completely — its characters make your heart happy, its themes make your soul happy, and its prose makes your head happy.

These books are rare. Pen Pal is one of them.

The central conceit is simple: Em is a young girl living in Mermaid’s Hands, a squatter’s community on the Gulf Coast, who sets a message in a bottle adrift hoping to find a pen pal. But Em’s bottle ends up in the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable: Kaya, an imprisoned political activist in Southeast Asia.

Kaya is a member of an oppressed minority on the island of W— off the coast of Indonesia. Worship of one of her community’s central religious figures, the Lady of the Ruby Lake, has been suppressed in an attempt to “modernize the natives” and “bring progress to the region.” When Kaya tries to resurrect a banned celebration on the Lady’s behalf, she gets thrown into prison. What’s more, her prison is built as a mockery of her religious practices: the government forces her to inhabit an ersatz temple built over the Ruby Lake itself, which is really the lava lake of an active volcano.

Em’s sweet, wistful letter brings a spark of hope to Kaya’s life, and the two correspond, with Kaya using her tamed crow Sumi as a link to the outside world. Gradually, it becomes clear that Em’s and Kaya’s situations are similar. Both of them are part of communities who are actively ignored or denigrated by the dominant culture surrounding them. Both of them believe in deities who represent forces of nature; Kaya has the Lady of the Ruby Lake, while Em has the Seafather. Both of them dream of their respective religious figures. And both of them are strong — strong like volcanoes, strong like hurricanes.

Pen Pal is written in a mostly epistolary format, with Kaya and Em writing letters to each other, letters to their respective families, and journals to themselves. There are also messages written by secondary characters to each other providing additional context on various plots and subplots.

One such subplot is that Em’s older brother Jiminy is in jail, and that her family refuses to visit him out of shame. Jiminy’s actions just serve as proof to the outside world that the folks of Mermaid’s Hands aren’t to be trusted, aren’t worth helping. But if Kaya’s in jail for standing up for her beliefs, and Em likes writing to her, does that mean she’s a bad sister if she doesn’t write to Jiminy? If Kaya’s in jail for doing something good, what does that say about her brother, who was just in a bad place at a bad time, and loyal to the wrong people?

Em’s guilt over losing contact with Jiminy spurs her to try and run away to meet him. At one point, Em tries to sneak onto a truck to cross state lines, but she’s discovered by Cody, a fellow resident of Mermaid’s Hands. Here, her keen sense of morals over how she should support her family clashes with society’s perception of who she is and what she’s allowed to do. Cody attempts to defuse this situation by making it look as if it’s really Em’s younger, more socially accepted sister Tammy who wants to run away:

“You making mischief again?” he said, smiling, like the two of them had a secret joke. Tammy looked confused. She never makes mischief. Her lips were trembling: I could tell she was about to say No it wasn’t me, but—Cody’s smile. It was begging a return smile from her.

“I apologize for all this, sir,” said Cody, “but I’m sure my little neighbor here just got some wild idea in her head about exploring, and then the bigger two went along with it. Nobody can say no to that face!”

To Tammy he said, “You planning a stowaway adventure? Think how worried your parents would be! And Mr. Coca-Cola here would’ve had a heart attack next time he opened up the doors of his truck.”

Tammy looked at him in wonder. She’s used to being delicate Tammy, and Tammy-who-needs-to-rest, and remember-to-wait-for-Tammy, and sometimes Tammy-the-mermaid, but Cody was giving her a whole different kind of story. Small Bill’s mouth was quirking upward at the thought of Tammy the mastermind. Even the delivery man was smiling a little.

That Cody’s pretty smart. Once he got Mr. Coca-Cola looking at tiny, cute Tammy, with her good hair and big eyes and freckles, how could the man stay mad? Cody talked to him a few more minutes, asking about where he was from and if he had any kids, and got him telling stories about his four-year-old son, and by the end him and Cody were practically best buddies.

Cody’s name is apropos: he’s a master of code-switching. And here is where perceptive readers will pick up on other scattered clues throughout the novel and realize that Em’s family faces not only class oppression (for having their own off-the-grid, ad-hoc community) but race oppression as well. Unlike Em, Tammy is welcomed by the side of the family that lives normal suburban lives on dry land. Unlike Em, Tammy has “good hair and big eyes and freckles.”

In other words, unlike Em, Tammy can pass.

What makes Pen Pal such a strong and moving experience is Em’s journey — she’s the emotional centre of the novel to me. She’s stronger than she knows, and she’s facing powerful intersecting forces of class and race that she can feel, but can’t articulate. Her voice is sweet and innocent, both knowing and unknowing, without sounding overly twee or cutesy. You really get the sense that this is a real 12-year-old talking. It’s amazing to see Francesca Forrest tread such a fine balance between the innocence of Em’s voice and the brutal social truths that underlie her observations.

Kaya’s situation is a bit more straightforward — it’s hard to find much nuance in a government that would imprison its political dissidents within a volcano. But her correspondence with Em allows her to learn more about Em’s community, and Kaya takes advantage of a key public announcement to show her solidarity with her friend. In doing so, she attracts the attention of an Amnesty-International-like group, and it’s this political contact that allows the plot to reach its fullest resolution as Em and Kaya save each other from the outside forces that seek to silence each of them.

I mentioned at the top of the review that this is a self-published novel, and that I bought it upon the recommendation of Toronto-area author (and personal acquaintance) Leah Bobet. Leah works at Bakka Phoenix, one of the best independent bookstores in the city, and she’s done a lot of work to raise the profile of this book. When I first heard her talk about Pen Pal, she said one of the reasons she liked it so much was that you could read it as a work of fantasy or as a completely non-fantastic piece of literary fiction. Are the Lady of the Ruby Lake and the Seafather figments of the protagonists’ imaginations or are they real figures with their own forms of agency? You could make a compelling argument either way — which is another one of the book’s many strengths.

You can order a copy of Pen Pal and learn more about the ideas that inform it here.

Clariel by Garth Nix: An Old Kingdom Prequel

clariel_coverTitle: Clariel
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher: HarperCollins
Format: Print
Rating: 2 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library.

Note: This review will contain massive, anger-filled spoilers.

Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. And in Belisaere she is forced to follow the plans, plots and demands of everyone, from her parents to her maid, to the sinister Guildmaster Kilp. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. It seems too that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.

With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source. But the help comes at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her – and it is herself she must question most of all.

I’ve loved the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix ever since I was twelve. I remember browsing in a bookstore as a child, looking for a birthday gift for a friend and for some reason, Sabriel leapt off the shelf at me. Intrigued by the cover, I read the book even before I gave it to my friend, and then bought a copy for myself a few years later when I was in high school.

By this point, my dad was dead, so I identified strongly with Sabriel’s quest to rescue her father, the Abhorsen, and their bittersweet reunion — although she rescues him, his time is numbered, and he uses it to delay the novel’s antagonist. I bought the second and third books in the series, Lirael and Abhorsen, when I entered university. It’s those books that introduce us to Clariel — or rather, to Chlorr of the Mask, a Greater Dead entity with necromantic powers.

See, it’s hinted at in the original trilogy that Chlorr was originally an Abhorsen, one of a long line of people tasked with banishing the Dead back to the realm of Death. The idea of an Abhorsen, well, abhoring their birthright and becoming a necromancer instead, throwing their lot in with the enemy? That was interesting. There was a story there. And so I awaited the publication of Clariel with bated breath for years.

I say all this to show my deep love of the series as a whole. Having said that, it pains me to say this: Clariel was a disappointment. A grave, grave disappointment.

I was expecting a rich, compelling story about the birth of a villain, a character that falls from grace and perverts all of their original promise. Instead, I got something that pulled its punches. Sure, it’s interesting that Clariel is an aromantic asexual, especially since this book falls into the YA demographic. But aside from her lack of interest in relationships either platonic or romantic, she comes off as one-note and annoying — that one note being pretty much “I hate it here in the big city and no one understands me.”

Since loneliness was a major concept behind the characterization of Lirael, the protagonist of the second book, it felt like Garth Nix was returning to the same well. This is especially true when you consider that both characters have absent mothers; Lirael’s physically, and Clariel’s emotionally. Part of her mother’s emotional distance stems from the fact that both of them have a deep reservoir of rage within them. It’s a magical kind of rage, actually — the berserker instinct has strong connections to Free Magic, which necromancers use.

Another parent who fails to live up to the emotionally nurturing test is King Orrikan. His heir, Princess Tathiel, has run away and he’s desperate for her to return; as a result, he’s weary of the crown and refuses to rule the kingdom like he should. This was a plot thread that I wish Nix had pulled on a bit more. There’s a really interesting theme in the book about what happens when people abdicate their responsibility — Belisaere’s political unrest stems from King Orrikan’s apathy. On top of that, the current Abhorsen, who is also Clariel’s grandfather, spends all his time hunting instead of patrolling the kingdom for Dead creatures and Free Magic spirits.

This power vacuum is as much magical as it is political. Guildmaster Kilp capitalizes on the the weakening grip of the king and the kingdom’s general disdain for magic by attempting to install Clariel as a regent since she’s also the king’s distant cousin. But Kilp’s attempt at a coup ends in chaos, with Clariel’s parents dead.

So, Clariel has constantly felt like a pawn in her own life, has a bottomless well of rage that can be used for evil purposes, and lives in political conditions that her are perfect for her to wreak some havoc. And what do we get instead of a satisfying descent into darkness? We get Clariel moping about, thinking about how much she hates living in the big city. We get her being forced into a private school with monied twits, and her having to deal with catty classmates getting jealous because the most attractive classmate is flirting with her (which Clariel hates, by the way).

On top of that, by the time things actually do go to hell and Clariel takes matters into her own hands, she doesn’t go full evil. She’s got Free Magic ability, and she uses two freed spirits to ride to the castle and get revenge for her parents. She even starts to wear the mask that Chlorr of the Mask is known for. As she continues to do so, she feels her connection to the Charter (the lawful magic of the kingdom) fade. She seriously has the opportunity to go down the dark path…. but she doesn’t. Instead, someone else rides in at the last minute (a newer, better Abhorsen) and manages to put the kingdom to rights.

(Oh, and by the way, Princess Tathiel comes back after the slaughter to reclaim the throne! It turns out that she was hiding out with the Clayr, a group of prophetic women. Considering the Clayr were the ones who told King Orrikan in the first place that his daughter would return, but neglected to state when, doesn’t it seem kind of remiss of them to, you know, not mention that she was staying with them all along? Plot holes, plot holes….)

After the hubbub dies down, the new Abhorsen tells Clariel that he’s found a way to restore her connection to the Charter and prevent her from accessing her Free Magic abilities. Hooray, she hasn’t been corrupted after all! Oh, and by the way, she gets to keep the mask that she wore! Everything’s fucking hunky dory!

At the end of the book, Nix has the gall to write this in his author’s note:

“Clariel is of course Chlorr of the Mask, who appears at the beginning of Lirael, having been drawn south by the reawakened powers of Orannis. As to what she did in the intervening years between the events of this book and Lirael, who can say?”

Nix, in essence, is telling his devoted readers this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Seriously? This is the equivalent to George Lucas making the entire prequel trilogy without any Darth Vader at all, just Jake Lloyd as a kid. I honestly wasn’t expecting this book to out-Lucas Lucas, but it does. Oh lord.

Double Review: A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett and Mini-Habits by Stephen Guise

Alright, so my plan to read and and get book reviews ready to go for 2016 kinda fell with a thud when I didn’t post anything last Tuesday. However, I have read two books, so let’s do a capsule review for both.

But! I also want to mention that last week I was interviewed by Jonah Sutton-Morse of the Cabbages and Kings podcast about my book reviewing habits and my reading goals for 2016. Wanna hear me talk about diversity, SFF, and Watership Down? Have a listen!

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

a_hat_full_of_sky_coverI came to Pratchett very late in his career — the first book of his I read was Good Omens about a decade ago, but I didn’t start delving into Discworld until about three years ago. Since then, I’ve read only a few Discworld books, but I loved The Wee Free Men when I read it last year. My husband, who is very wise, bought me the last three Tiffany Aching books for Christmas, so I decided to prepare by reading A Hat Full of Sky.

A Hat Full of Sky happens about two years after The Wee Free Men, when Tiffany Aching rescued her brother from the Queen of Fairyland. Now, she’s been officially apprenticed as a witch to Miss Level, a caring but eccentric older witch. But when Tiffany uses a particular magical skill without understanding its rarity or its full import, her body gets taken over by a ravenous collective consciousness called a “hiver”. Tiffany, trapped within her own body, must find a way to regain control. Luckily, the Nac Mac Feegle and Granny Weatherwax are there to help.

I found the climax of A Hat Full of Sky to be very similar to its predecessor — Tiffany overcomes the antagonist of each book by tapping in to her witchy powers and “opening her eyes” twice to figure out its true weaknesses and desires. Both books also had a very cosmic quality to them — in The Wee Free Men, she became an incarnation of her homeland in order to cast an invader out to the alternate world where they came from, while in A Hat Full of Sky, she gave the hiver the ability to die by opening a doorway into the realm of death, something it didn’t know how to access on its own. In both instances, Tiffany ends the book by feeling empowered but also more aware of just how much of her power resides in her sense of empathy and humanity.

One thing I’m hoping that the remaining Tiffany Aching books will expand upon is Tiffany’s tendency towards egotism, and how that tendency could get exacerbated as she goes through adolescence. The hiver is a creature of untrammelled id, and its possession of Tiffany is a way for Pratchett to look at things like peer pressure, but I think there’s a lot more territory to explore here.

Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise

mini_habits_coverAh, and now we come to the obligatory It’s-New-Years-Which-Means-It’s-Time-To-Read-A-Self-Help-Book book. I found out about Mini Habits through a podcast by Ed Gandia, a popular online coach and mentor for freelancers. One of his podcast episodes talked about how it’s often productive for freelancers (like me) to switch from making goals to building habits. One of the resources he recommended towards making this shift was this very book.

I will agree that the premise of Guise’s book is sound: that to create long-term, durable habits, you need to start small. I also appreciate that the book contains several references to both current and past neurological research regarding willpower and habit formation.

However, like many self-help books, Guise’s prose is so full of hyperbole that I had a hard time finishing the darned thing. It doesn’t help that he spends a full chapter of Mini Habits talking about how depending on “willpower” and “motivation” to achieve goals will result in failure but he fails to define what he means by those two terms. To someone like me who doesn’t keep track of the latest neuroscience research, “willpower” and “motivation” sound synonymous, but Guise makes it clear that he considers these two concepts to be at odds with each other. A quick paragraph on what his personal definitions of those words are would have been helpful. This book could have easily been improved by shortening it even further from its already-short count of 127 pages.

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