Houston, Can I Talk To The MAN In Charge?

So, I’ve heard of the famous sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr. before, but I’d never read any of her stuff. I say her because, if you don’t know, she was actually a woman using a male pseudonym to write under so that she didn’t have to take any crap from male critics.  So someone left this book in my Little Free Library the other day and I thought, hey, this is short, I’ll try it out. OMG, it blew my mind. I can not believe she got away with this! Well, she did because she wasn’t writing as a she.


The story is told by science officer Orren Lorimer, flashing back and forth in time. In real time, he’s in some kind of spacecraft, but something seems odd because he seems high, and there are young people floating around him who seem to be in pajamas.  I won’t be spoiling much to say that the reader finds out soon enough that his spacecraft had some kind of disaster and was basically rescued by this current spacecraft.  The tag line on the cover–“The astronauts had the ‘right stuff’ to deal with. . . almost anything” is a great teaser, because that could be anything, right? Aliens? Black Holes? Time travel? (Incidentally, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and this was published in 1976, so this must have been a reprint with a new cover to play off that title.)

Ok, I do have to do SPOILERS to talk about the rest of this. So there’s your warning. So, what is it these fine specimens of mankind have to deal with that they just can’t handle? Why, women, of course! The astronauts in the other spacecraft are females! And Dave, the commander of the manly ship, actually refuses to talk to them until it’s almost too late for them to be rescued once he finds out the voices he keeps hearing on his comm are not just any females, but female astronauts whose ship has basically replaced Houston and NASA. He just can’t fathom it.  He finally comes around but he’s still suspicious. Lorimer, on the other hand, is basically just curious. He craves the approval of his two shipmates, but he doesn’t seem as devastated as Dave or as crass as Bud, who keeps calling them “chicks.”  

The shocking part of the story is that Tiptree doesn’t hold back, but goes ahead and writes an attempted rape scene, basically playing out the worst fears of the reader, given the characters and the set-up. I can hardly express how refreshing this was, as weird as that sounds. I’ve just read so many classic science fiction novels in the last couple of years that have women characters who serve only as empty-headed sex toys, or they have no women characters at all.  Finally, I felt like this story showed all that misogyny in its true ugly glory. 

I don’t know which character is more arrogant: Bud with his sexual violence, or Dave with his God-ego. Oh, did I mention Dave’s response to an all-female crew is to try and take over their ship? See, he knows that women are incapable and so they obviously need his guidance. But does he offer his advice? No. Again with the violent approach. He threatens them with a gun and tries to lock them out of the ship’s controls. It also bothers him that they have no religion, and considers it blasphemy when they explain that they have faith in themselves. When Lorimer comments to Dave that “they seem to be doing all right,” Dave lumps Lorimer in with the women, telling him he’s not a real man. 

There’s just so much to think about here.  I haven’t revealed all the surprises in the story, either. I highly recommend reading this, especially if you grew up in the seventies or earlier and will recognize these attitudes.  If you’re younger, I’m afraid you won’t believe men could really be like that. Which is a good thing, I guess, it shows how much progress we’ve made. I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear what a younger reader could get out of this. 

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Braidy Punch, Draculola and Scream Soda: How To Roller Derby for Girls

In this graphic novel for children, Victoria Jamieson tell the story of Astrid, who loses her best friend but gains roller derby. It wasn’t a trade-off she chose, but sometimes it happens like that. Fifth grade can be one of those turning points when you and your BFF suddenly have different interests, and can’t seem to get along anymore, no matter how you try.

  
When Astrid and Nicolle, who’ve been best friends since first grade, go with Astrid’s mom on an “evening of cultural enlightenment” to women’s roller derby, you can see the writing on the wall. Astrid is energized, while Nicolle is freaked out. Astrid wants to do junior roller derby camp together, but Nicolle doesn’t tell Astrid she’s doing ballet camp instead until the last minute, so Astrid lies to her mother about carpooling with Nicolle.

Astrid quickly finds out how demanding roller derby is, that it requires not only a tough spirit, but physical endurance and skill. She’s never even skated before, unlike the rest of the girls, and she’s one of the youngest girls, so she feels doubly disadvantaged. But with encouragement from the other girls and her roller derby hero, Rainbow Bite, she keeps at it.

I knew nothing about roller derby before reading this book, so it was fun to learn about how it works. The skating skill required reminds me of hockey, while the theatrics bring WWF wrestling to mind. There are legal hits and illegal hits and a penalty box, like in hockey. Players get to choose their own derby names, and they are usually a bit tongue-in-cheek: Braidy Punch, Draculola, Blondilocks, and Scream Soda, to name a few. The author’s bio on the back flap shows a photo of her in full roller derby regalia: Her derby name is Winnie the Pow.

Jamieson obviously speaks with authority on the subject of roller derby, but she is also convincing in her portrayal of this early coming of age story, and the loneliness of losing your best friend and realizing how much you were defined by that friendship. Astrid has to make new friends while somehow making peace with Nicolle, as well as explaining to her mother what is going on when mom finds out she’s been lying. 

Jamieson’s drawing style is realistic and expressive, while the color palette is bright and fun. Younger readers will enjoy Astrid’s bulldog persistence and feistiness; older readers will appreciate Astrid’s growing confidence in herself; moms like me will savor the bonus of Astrid’s pride in becoming a role model for younger girls.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison

I’m warning you now, spoilers. There are spoilers in this post. Instead of a typical review, this is more of a book discussion, because this book really messed with my head and it doesn’t feel like enough to just talk about the plot and move merrily on. 

    

 
   

Here’s the setup: Harriet,78, has just received a gift from her husband Bernard: two tickets he won at auction to go on an Alaskan cruise. Thing is, Bernard died last year, after more than a year of Harriet nursing him through Alzheimer’s. Harriet’s only just found out about the tickets (Bernard bid on them quite a while ago)as they are due to expire soon if she doesn’t use them.  Harriet decides to go, and asks her best friend of many years, Mildred, to accompany her.  At the last minute, Mildred pulls out but won’t explain why, and sends Harriet a letter not to be opened until she is on the cruise ship.

Guess what’s in the letter? Four out of five people I told about this book guessed correctly just from that setup–that Mildred had an affair with Bernard. Did you guess? Please tell me in the comments if you guessed right or not, because I’m really wondering how obvious it is. I sort of guessed as I was reading the book but I was hoping I was wrong. Alas. 

First of all, Mildred, you absolute beast! How could you do that to your best friend? Obviously, telling Harriet wasn’t for Harriet’s benefit, although Mildred has deluded herself into thinking that it was. Really, it’s her own guilt she wants to assuage, and she wants to share the burden of knowing the truth. Selfish, selfish, selfish. As we learn through flashbacks, Mildred was having an affair with Bernard before she ever met Harriet, and seems to have  purposely become friends with Harriet out of a sense of guilt for the affair. So the value, the truth of that whole friendship, is thrown into question for Harriet with this letter.  

Evison’s chapters mostly switch back and forth between the linear narrative of now (preparing for the cruise, being on the cruise, etc.) told in third-person, and flashbacks to significant moments (especially several with a creepy uncle who wasn’t really an uncle) in Harriet’s life, told in a confronting second person, addressing Harriet. These second-person chapters use the  frame of having a narrator choose what she reminisces about, not unlike in the old game show “This is Your Life.” But this atypical second-person narrator is not just a gimmick: it argues for a higher power in charge of shaping the meaning of Harriet’s life.  

The chapters in which Bernard’s afterlife so far is a kind of limbo where he is breaking the rules (again) by appearing to Harriet to try to help her get through this difficult time more obviously frame the story in terms of a higher power in charge. The irony is that in trying to help, Bernard is risking being able to meet up with Harriet in the afterlife; although it’s not super clear where he’s headed (thumbs up or thumbs down), his handler makes it clear that he still has something to lose.  This in itself is a fascinating idea, that we would still have free will in the waiting room directing us to heaven or hell, and be able to make choices that would change where we were bound, and moreover, that people would still make choices they knew would send them to hell. 

It’s hard to know what to make of Bernard. Is he just a fuck-up? His visits to Harriet are backfiring, making their grown children question Harriet’s sanity when they catch her seemingly talking to herself, but he doesn’t seem to care. Is his behavior motivated by love for Harriet, or, like Mildred, by guilt? Of course there is no explanation that will justify Bernard’s affair, but his conversations with Harriet are brief and unilluminating. 

Even though Evison seems to set up the reader to believe in a higher power shaping Harriet’s life, his tone works against taking any of it seriously, especially in his game-show host persona: “Yes, yes, we’re all over the place again, pinballing across the decades, slinging and bumping our way through the days of your life, seemingly at random.” He seems to tease her that there is “a method to the madness,” but never delivers. Does Evison feel obligated to play to the jadedness of the prevailing culture? His game-show narrator is so wittily unsympathetic to Harriet’s tradgedies and disappointments, that I wonder if he is, in fact, malevolent. When Harriet dies at the end, the novel feels unresolved. She never gets to confront either Bernard or Mildred. Not that confronting them would have resolved everything. But allowing her only the confines of her own mind in which to battle it out with them seemed cruel.

If This is Your Life, Harriet Chance embodies the new vision of our overseers from above, I’ll stick with the voiceovers in  It’s A Wonderful Life, thanks. If you read this book, I’d be really eager to hear what you thought of it! It depressed me for weeks! Thanks.

Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg

This is a fabulous book. My 8-year-old daughter read it to herself after we started it with her, which told me two things: 1)It wasn’t boring, like a lot of books about growing up that put the reader to sleep with chapters on things like Personal Hygeine, and 2)it wasn’t TMI, because she didn’t freak out over it or stop reading it because it made her uncomfortable.

  
There’s a great intro page that explains what this book isn’t about: how babies are made, or sexual intercourse, which the writers, Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, see as better dealt with in other books. This book deals a lot with the language around sex and what it means, and more especially, the feelings you might have. The only sexual activity it discusses is masturbation, which seems age-appropriate to me. I don’t want to scare my daughter about sex.  I want her to feel good about her body, first and foremost, and this book is great for that.

As you can see from the cover, it’s very colorful, and it depicts diversity in not only bodies but also gender.  These four characters are with the reader throughout the book, and when they are introduced in the beginning, they are not identified by gender, only by age, likes and dislikes. Each character responds differently to different topics.  This is one of my favorite layouts:

  
Zai is not specifically a boy or a girl, and they don’t know how they feel about it yet. (Notice this is not an issue until an adult uses this distinction to divide children up for some activity!) I really appreciate that the book normalizes contemporary discussions of gender, by doing such simple things as making this chapter called “Boys, Girls, All of Us.”

Another thing this book does consistently well is ask the reader questions, instead of handing them answers. The writers really encourage the reader to think about their own experiences and how they feel, and validate all those feelings. 

There is a good discussion of “Secret Touch” in the  chapter “Touch,” which makes a really sophisticated point that secret touch might feel good or bad, or make  you feel a lot of different ways, but what makes it wrong is that the other person wants you to keep it a secret. I also enjoyed the bit about maybe showing those annoying grabby relatives that you care about them without having to endure their touch. I remember one of my father’s friends always snaring me and my sister whenever he visited, saying “Give us a kiss, give us a kiss now!” Ew. So repulsive. 

I know my daughter thinks this book is no big deal, but as a parent, I think it’s a massive deal! And I know  her thinking it’s no big deal is a really good thing.  I’m glad Silverberg and Smyth felt there was a need to address sex at this stage, sort of after kids know how babies happen, but before kids want to talk about sex acts.  I don’t remember there being any books for this stage when I was kid, and it would have been nice to be encouraged to just get comfortable with my own body first, before I had to think about having sex with some other person.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Brandon Mull – Series Addiction

So this time I made sure there more in the series before I started on book one of Fablehaven by Brandon Mull.  There are five in the series, all published, and I just finished book three, Grip of the Shadow Plague. Needless to say, I love them! These might be good reading for someone who loved Harry Potter, because although there is no school for wizards, the two protagonists, brother Seth and older sister Kendra, are immersed in magic up to their necks when they visit their grandparents at what turns out to not be a ranch but a magical preserve, sort of like a wlidlife preserve but for magical creatures.  Their grandparents are the caretakers, and hope to pass on the job to Seth and Kendra.  And so begins their training. 

   
Ok, I just went down the rabbit hole looking for images of the covers, and there is a lot of wonderful fan art, including sculptures, of the different characters in the books, like the lovable golem, Hugo, who is made of earth and twigs and rocks, is about ten feet tall, and can easily carry Seth and Kendra comfortably in his huge palms while running away from baddies to the sanctuary of their grandparents’ house.

So, yes, there are naughty magical creatures as well as friendly ones. But they have just as much right to be there as the benign creatures, and there is a pact at Fablehaven that does not allow any creature to kill another, so that keeps mayhem in check. Sometimes.  Of course there are loopholes, and there is a rival organization to the caretakers of such places as Fablehaven, The Society of the Evening Star, who want to do away with all magical preserves and release the power of some really nasty demons upon the world.  

Seth and Kendra find themselves battling for the survival of Fablehaven, learning skills from different magical tutors, and gaining special powers as a result of some of these battles.  Their parents have no clue what’s really going on, as they are not receptive to the idea of the existence of magic.  Too bad! So the kids find themselves forming new bonds with not only their grandparents, but with their tutors, and even with some of the magical creatures.  Some of the tutors will turn out to be traitors, but some will be loyal to the death.

This is an engaging, exciting series full of magic, but also down-to-earth enough to include sibling rivalry between Seth and Kendra, and each kid deals with their own age-appropriate challenges that every kid reading this can relate to.  Seth is always looking for adventure, so he has a habit of breaking the rules, which gets them all into serious trouble at times.  Kendra is book-smart but doesn’t feel brave enough to deal with some of the unexpected challenges thrown at her.  She sometimes wonders if it would be better never to have known about Fablehaven and her grandparents’ secret.

  
Oh, did I mention Mull has written several other series’ as well?  When I couldn’t wait for my hold on the next book in the Fablehaven series to come in to the library, I grabbed this one: The Candy Shop War. I mean, how can you resist that title? I couldn’t. If you’re not into fairies, satyrs, and naiads, check out this action, that happens right in town. When a new candy shop opens, pals Nate, Summer, Trevor and Pigeon stop in on their walk home from school.  The proprietor, Mrs. White, offers them some free candy if they’ll help out around the store. They willingly agree. At first, she just wants to them give white fudge to all their families and friends, but warns them not to eat it themselves.  This seems a little odd, but they do as they are asked, and pretty soon they notice everyone eating the fudge is oblivious to what’s going on around them. Then Mrs. White starts asking them to steal things, artifacts that will assist her in some kind of treasure hunt.

With each new task, the group gets new magical candy to try out, which is fun, but they start to question whether or not they are doing the wrong thing, and whether they should trust this woman. Then along comes another magician, someone they all thought they knew, and the kids have to decide who to trust. It’s not an easy decision, and probably one a lot of children can relate to (minus the magic), trying to figure out which adults in their lives are trustworthy and which are just using them for their own gain.

There are two books in this series, and it’s very different from Fablehaven, although just as entertaining!

Ack! What Have I Done?!

Oh no! How did I get myself into this  mess?  You’ve probably done the same at one time or another–thought you were safe, just picked a title off the shelf with no prior knowledge of it, right?  So you start reading this randomly chosen book, and you find it’s really good, you’re completely engaged, when suddenly you realize–it’s the first in a series, and the second one hasn’t been published yet!

  

I hate it when I do this to myself.  Oh well. The book in question is called The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. I’ve read Black’s Doll Bones and vowed to read more of her work, when this popped up on the shelf in front of me.  

The basic story is that there’s a magic school (the Magisterium, also the series title) that kids with special talents are going to, and Callum really doesn’t want to go.  All the other children treat their selection as a special honor, but not Callum.  He tries to fail his entrance test, but they choose him anyway. From as far back as he can remember, Call’s father Alistair has told him that the Magisterium is evil, that it uses children, that the teachers don’t care about the children, and that magic is nothing but trouble. But now that Call is stuck attending the Magisterium (you can’t refuse to go), he finds that he’s enjoying himself.  Yes, it’s unpleasant to be underground all the time (think boarding school in caves), and the teachers can be demanding, but the food is really good, and for once he doesn’t stick out as the weird kid (he’s got a permanent limp from a childhood accident). He’s got a talent for using magic, and for the first time ever, he’s making real friends who care about him.  This is confusing, and makes him feel disloyal to Alistair, who is still adamantly opposed to the school and trying to find a way to get Callum home.

A Prologue hints at why Alistair is so bitterly opposed to the use of magic: as a young mage, Alistair was the one to discover that the Enemy had tricked the Magisterium and its army, so that while their greatest warrior mage waited on the battlefield, the Enemy slaughtered the women and children in the Magisterium’s hideout. The only one left alive was Alistair’s infant son, Callum, and if his wife’s dying message was to be trusted–“kill the child”–he should have died as well.

I really enjoyed the complexity of this story, how the sides of good and evil are unclear, and even though it’s about magic, that experience of trying to figure out who to trust in the adult world when you’re a kid is all too familiar.  That transition period that you go through when you realize you can’t just rely on your parent(s) to figure out the world for you, it’s an important time.  Lucky for Call he’s got real friends now to help him.  I look forward to reading the next in the series, which is supposed to be out in the Fall, so I shouldn’t complain, I don’t have to suffer too long, and I’m already on the library’s waiting list for it. 

Snow White and The Seven Robots: A Graphic Novel by Louise Simonson

Now here’s a Snow White we feminists can get behind! There is not one mention of Snow White’s beauty in this entire “Far Out Fairy Tale,” a new series of children’s graphic novels from Stone Arch Books, a Capstone Publishing imprint.  Instead, this girl’s threat to the queen is her intelligence. On a planet called Techworld, scientists create a future successor to their queen, only the selfish queen messes with their potions, which makes the child’s skin a pale white–did I mention that everyone’s skin is green on Techworld?  Snow White is born.

  
As Snow White grows up, she turns out to be a quick study and soon becomes smarter than the queen, at which point the queen banishes her to live in Lowtown and apprentice to the trash robot. Snow makes friends with another human, Doc, and while he tends to people, she uses her intelligence to learn to fix robots. She also builds a rocketship with spare parts that she uses to save herself during one of the queen’s attempts on her life. 

The seven robots of the title are a motley assortment who finish each other’s sentences, but we never know their names and they are important in the story only as far as they are the ones who send out a plea for help after Snow is poisoned. With less time spent on the robots, there’s more space for Snow’s character development and adventures. Kindness and friendship are the main themes, and it’s a fun adventure in an attractive format for kids.

Is there anything missing in this retelling?  Oh yes, no prince. Prince absent. Prince, in a word, unnecessary. 

Next in the “Far Out Fairy Tales” series that we’ll be reading: Ninjarella. Bring it.