Sunday, February 12, 2017

#queer52 Review 1 - Unicorn Tracks

Goodreads Summary: After a savage attack drives her from her home, sixteen-year-old Mnemba finds a place in her cousin Tumelo’s successful safari business, where she quickly excels as a guide. Surrounding herself with nature and the mystical animals inhabiting the savannah not only allows Mnemba’s tracking skills to shine, it helps her to hide from the terrible memories that haunt her.

Mnemba is employed to guide Mr. Harving and his daughter, Kara, through the wilderness as they study unicorns. The young women are drawn to each other, despite that fact that Kara is betrothed. During their research, they discover a conspiracy by a group of poachers to capture the Unicorns and exploit their supernatural strength to build a railway. Together, they must find a way to protect the creatures Kara adores while resisting the love they know they can never indulge.

Goodreads Link

Content warnings: Sexual assault, animal cruelty

Rating: ***

My Thoughts:

This was the first book I picked up, back at the start of January, for YA Interrobang's #Queer52 Reading Challenge. I did so because (a) Ember's upcoming novel The Seafarer's Kiss sounds fantastic and I wanted to try her writing, and (b) I loved the premise. And I meant to review it back at the start of January too, but I had such trouble parsing my feelings about it that I didn't. There were aspects of it I really appreciated, and others I found deeply frustrating.

I continue to love the premise: two young women -- one working as a wildlife tracker & the other as a scientific researcher -- track unicorns on the savannah, fight poachers, save the day, and fall in love with each other while they're at it. I mean… yes? As a basic storyline this is deeply difficult for me to argue with.

I also loved Mnemba, the main character, from the getgo. As a wildlife conservation student I've had a little (only a little) education in tracking, and find it a completely fascinating pastime, so I might be a little biased to like any character who makes that kind of stuff her life's work. Though she's working with fantastical creatures instead of real ones, her tracking skills ring true as far as my limited knowledge goes, as do her moments of I-am-100%-done-with-rich-white-city-people (those moments where the tourists she guides think that the wildlife is there entirely for their entertainment are all too believable). She's also bi, which is awesome given the lack of bisexual MCs in YA relative to lesbian and gay MCs. She is courageous, intelligent, and pragmatic, but not so pragmatic that she won’t take completely ridiculous risks for the girl she's in love with.

And that's where I start running into problems, because… hm. Kara, Mnemba's love interest, is an interesting character. Her passion for animals, her dedication to research, and her courage are sympathetic. However, she frequently comes off as condescending and self-centered when it comes to interactions with other people, particularly Mnemba, even when she thinks she's being friendly. There's an early scene, for example, where she informs Mnemba of the real name (i.e. the scientific name) of the species of unicorn they're studying, as if what a bunch of scientists from another continent have decided to call a creature of course overrides anything the people who actually live and work around that creature have to say about it. She does that kind of thing a fair bit and is never really called on it.

Then there's Mnemba's own discomfort with intimacy, and how Kara -- and the narrative -- handle it. Mnemba is haunted by a brutal sexual assault that someone committed against her over a year ago, and is understandably hesitant about being physical with anyone. She's attracted to Kara, but her feelings are mixed up with memories of what happened to her.

So. There's a scene where they've been both kind of dancing around their attraction to each other for a bit, and Mnemba, in a bold moment, kisses Kara. Kara reciprocates, and in short order they're both pulling their shirts off -- and Kara sees the scars Mnemba bears from when she was attacked. Mnemba freezes up and tells Kara to stop.

Kara instead begins to kiss all of her scars and tell her they're beautiful and not to be ashamed of them, and they have this big Sweet Happy Romantic Moment, and I almost threw my Kindle across the room. Like, hi, Mnemba was assaulted, PTSD is a thing, there might be more than shame going on here, and it is not remotely romantic to keep making out with someone who has asked you to stop because you think you know what's going on in her head better than she does. And Kara continues to have subtle but persistent issues with boundaries, more than once pressuring Mnemba for intimacy and failing to pick up hints when this is unwelcome.

The thing is, they're all small moments in the larger story, to the extent that I kept asking myself if I was overreacting. For me, though, those moments added up. I think if the story had been longer and more room had been devoted to acknowledging the potential problems between Mnemba and Kara and working through them, it could have worked. As it was, I had serious questions about how quickly their relationship fell together and where it was going once the poacher-thwarting, unicorn-saving adrenaline rush wore off.

As for the wider plot, it was interesting, but -- much like the romance -- it got none of the depth or detail it deserved. There was some pretty heavy subject material going on, and 180 pages just wasn't room to deal with it all thoughtfully.Had the book had another hundred pages or so it might have had a chance, but in the space it was given it felt rushed and shallow, with many things that happened, and many actions the characters took, feeling contrived to move the story along. 

For all my ranting about Mnemba and Kara's relationship, I can understand why a lot of people liked Unicorn Tracks. I would be delighted to read more about Mnemba, I'd be almost as delighted to read more about Kara if the narrative came with a slightly healthier dose of self-awareness about her character flaws, and while the plot wasn't well-developed it had the seeds of a good old-fashioned over-the-top fantasy adventure. For me I couldn't quite get past the problems I had with it, but there was enough potential there that I suspect I'll still be picking up Seafarer's Kiss when it comes out.

Up next from my #queer52 reading list: Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos. Review to come soon.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Diverse-A-Thon Wrapup

Whew! Today is the last day of Diverse-A-Thon, and I finished the third and final book on my planned reading list last night. Rather than pick a fourth bonus book to dive into and try to read cover-to-cover in one day, I wanted to spend some time today reflecting on the books I did read. This is not a review post so much as a collection of various things each book led me to ponder.

I started off with CB Lee's Not Your Sidekick, and it got me thinking about #ownvoices a lot. The main character, Jess, is of Vietnamese and Chinese heritage; how she relates to that heritage, as an Asian-American in a post-apocalyptic setting where neither Vietnam nor China still exists as such, is not a major focus of the story but clearly plays a part in her character. It really made me stop to consider how much trickier a subject like that would likely be for a white author writing an Asian-American character in a similar setting. I've seen a lot of people dismiss -- or at least overlook -- the importance of #ownvoices in SFF, specifically, with words to the effect of, "but it's speculative, you can make stuff up." This completely disregards and disrespects the extent to which creating an imaginary world requires drawing on one's personal experience and knowledge -- which is one of those things I knew on a surface level, but I hadn't really stopped and thought about it before.

At the same time, I really want to give this book a shoutout for one of the side characters, for whom the story is not #ownvoices, but who is nonetheless wonderful: Bells. 💙💚💜 Bells is awesome, and Bells is a trans boy, and Dear Cis Writers: This is how you do it. The respectful, smart, sensitive way in which his character is written gives me -- as a trans reader and writer -- a lot of hope for the future of trans representation in YA lit.

Also, while reading Not Your Sidekick, it really hit home for me just how much power there is in seeing underrepresented characters written well in starring roles. I've got to be honest, the book's plot was predictable and kinda cliché and verged on cheesy at times, and I just didn't even care because I loved it so much. Was it a story I'd heard or seen or read before? Yes, in a lot of ways. But not starring LGBT characters (I mentioned Bells already, but Jess is openly and unstereotypically bi with a female love interest), and that made a big difference. 💖

I moved on to Daniel José Older's Shadowshaper next, which kept me continuing along similar lines of thought. In terms of its very general plot it's not earthshatteringly new: teenage girl meets mysterious cute boy, develops secret-society-related superpowers, runs around NYC fighting baddies and trading sharp, snappy, funny dialogue with her friends, while also dealing with family tensions at home. My brain's frame of reference tends to liken it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if Buffy were a black Puerto Rican girl who channeled ghosts into paintings instead of staking vampires. But of course Buffy wasn't, and the characters and culture and language make the story at least as much as that loose skeleton of a plot does, and those aspects here are rich and vivid and thoroughly worth spending time with.

Also, the dialogue really is wonderful. I laughed a lot more than I was expecting to.

EDIT: Seeing some recent comments and discussion on Twitter, I've realized I largely missed the undertones of how Sierra's whole battle is a fight against white gentrification and racism, which... now that I've seen it pointed out, duh, and yes, that very much makes the book its own thing as well. All I can really say on that is mea culpa -- very white rural kid here -- and that my own oversight & ignorance underscore the importance of getting diverse & #ownvoices books to diverse & #ownvoices reviewers. who will almost certainly see things in it that someone less connected to the book's context may miss.

Reading Not Your Sidekick and Shadowshaper prompted me take a long, careful look at my Kindle library, upon which I realized that although I've read a lot of SFF books starring characters of color, the vast majority of those books have been by white authors. Changing that is one of my major reading goals for the year ahead.

Lastly, changing gears to contemporary, I read Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson. This one was definitely the out-of-my-comfort-zone read of the three, and also dealt with the heaviest real-world subject matter: racial disparities in the US justice system; the treatment of children and teens in that system; the generally abysmal state of mental health care in this country; abusive families; reproductive justice and parental rights. It's a fast, gripping, if sometimes stomach-turning read -- I finished it in a day -- but it left me with a lot to think about and I suspect it'll be a lot longer before I've actually sorted out how I feel about it all, if I ever do. 

It's a book with a lot of important things to say. In particular, for me, it made me realize that I know very little about how much education teens in the system are likely to have access to, and the additional barriers they face to any level of academic success. As I've very recently taken a fulltime job in academic support at my local community college, this is something I should learn more about, and I'm really glad I read this book just for how clearly it highlighted my own ignorance for me.

It's also -- and here's where a lot of my more complicated thoughts come in -- a book that I think could easily be read as problematic in terms of the way its mentally ill characters are portrayed, and in terms of the casual and usually unchecked bigotry (sexism, racism, ableism, fatphobia) spouted by multiple characters, the narrator included. I've got to be honest, had this stuff appeared in a story about a lighter subject matter, I probably would have DNFed it. Here -- as I read it -- it came across to me as a conscious choice by the author, painting a picture of a group of teenagers who are every inch the product of a system that has utterly failed them. As such, I think it felt to me like those aspects of the book were one more tacit indictment of that system. But it's something I'm still thinking about, and I could certainly see others reading it differently, and as such I'd be cautious about who I recommended it to. In those aspects and many others, it's a book that puts a lot of weight back on the reader when it comes to making moral judgments, and it's not at all a light read.

And that's that. This was my first time taking part in Diverse-A-Thon, and I'm really glad I did. I didn't join in the Twitter chats as much as I would have liked to -- partly because of work, partly because I'm just very slow at putting together coherent responses to things, and slow doesn't work too well on Twitter -- but I managed to speak up some, which I was proud of myself for, and the chats were great to read even when I couldn't contribute. This week has also been valuable for me in proving to myself that I[m in a place where I can carve out time to read things I think are important, and to be mindful and deliberate about that reading, even when I have a lot of other things going on.

Big thanks to Christina Marie, Joce, Monica, and Simon for hosting the event. I had a great time this week and I look forward to the next one. 😊

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Diverse-A-Thon Reading List

OH RIGHT so Diverse-A-Thon starts today. I was thinking it was tomorrow. Whoops! This is a week-long event centered around reading and discussing diverse books. So here is my very-slightly-past-the-last-minute reading list for the next week:

1. Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

This one's an overlap with my #queer52 reading. It's a superhero-genre YA novel about LGBT (T actually included, apparently, YAY) teens interning for a supervillain, which is about all I know about it, but which is entirely enough for me to believe that it's delightful.

2. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

So… Daniel José Older is one of those authors who I semi-regularly see quoted or retweeted or so on, to which my response is usually a nod of respect/admiration/agreement and a thought of "gosh, I've got to get around to reading his work sometime."

And then I never do.

Partly in an effort to change that, and partly because that cover is gorgeous, I bought Shadowshaper some time back. Unfortunately I also bought some other books around the same time and then got sidetracked and never got around to reading that one and then bought more books and… I suspect you know how it goes. It's been sitting on my Kindle for months and it is well past time for me to read the damn book, is the point.

It's an urban fantasy starring an Afro-Latina MC and involving street art, and is the first in an upcoming series.

3. Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Allegedly is the author's debut novel, about a young black girl who was accused and convicted of killing a white infant when she was nine, and is now in her teens, pregnant, and fighting to clear her record so the state will allow her to keep her child.

Been hearing a lot of anticipation for this one on Twitter recently. It sounds uncomfortable and potentially tough to read, but really good. When I realized it was coming out during Diverse-A-Thon -- it comes out on Tuesday -- I preordered the Kindle version. 

And those are my reading goals for the week. What are yours?

#queer52 Master Post

So! I was really excited at the start of the year to see the #Queer52 Reading Challenge organized by YA Interrobang and The Gay YA. The idea is that you set out to read 12, 26, or 52 LGBTQ YA novels over the course of 2017. They handily provide a list of 52 recommendations, but invite you to count any LGBTQ YA novels that you read that aren't on the list, as well.

As I am trying to get this blog started, my added challenge to myself is to write a review of each book I read for #queer52 -- which means I'm not sure I'll hit the 52 book mark. I am a fast reader, but not a fast writer.

Here is my copy of the challenge list! Books with the bubble filled in are ones I've read since the challenge started; books crossed out are ones I'd read previously (and sometimes reread, and reread... hi, Ask the Passengers.) As I get my reviews written I will link them below.

Read For Challenge:

1. Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember - *** - review soon

2. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson - ***** - review soon - I love this book so much I can't even

3. As I Descended by Robin Talley - * - review soon

Read Prior to Challenge:

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Far From You by Tess Sharpe
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst
Proxy by Alex London
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow