October Reading Round-up

Checking my Goodreads account, it looks like I did not finish many books this month, probably because I have been mired in a long nonfiction read and a long audiobook. I look forward to telling you all about them next month!

Shadow Rising, by Dianne Sylvan

This is book seven in a series. They are some of my favorite pleasure reads, full of nerdy vampires, angst, and sexy fun times in Austin, TX. As the books go on, a group of anti-vampire zealots make themselves known, prophecies are fulfilled, and a goddess of vampires even makes an appearance. As the penultimate book of the series, you might expect this to end on a cliffhanger, but it does not. Things are wrapped up, if not neatly, at least sufficiently for me to wait patiently for the final installment. I highly recommend picking up the first in the series (Queen of Shadows), for a bit of fun reading.

An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

This is a book for our times, a contemporary fantasy about overthrowing a corrupt system bent on maintaining power for those who already have it. I would classify this as hopepunk – the situation may be dire, the opposition terrifying, but a small group of idealists are taking action anyway. This is a wonderfully socially aware book. It’s also a delight to read. The narrative flits between several points of view, but always comes back to rest on Sydney, a glorious main character. I hesitate to call her strong, because The Strong Female Character has become such a ubiquitous phrase that it really doesn’t mean anything any more. But she is strong – literally, her magic is immensely powerful, but also in the more important sense: she is richly characterized, with clear motivations, nuance, and all the shading you would expect of a real person.

That’s it for me this month. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Advertisements

“Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett

Sometimes, I am not very good at keeping up with my podcasts. Thus I have only now listened to “Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett, published on Cast of Wonders. And that is a damn shame, because this story deconstructs one of my favorite tropes: the manic pixie dream girl.

Tamsin is a 20-something with an unpublished web comic and an inferiority complex. Her good friend, Diya, is a glitter-loving girl with a loud personality and louder fashion sense. The action of the story follows their falling out and reconciliation, and along the way, Tamsin learns an important lesson about valuing herself.

The question, suggested by the text and posed outright by the host, is whether Diya a manic pixie dream girl. I think the answer is a clear no.

Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term manic pixie dream girl to describe an exciting, quirky girl who livened up a male main characters boring life and has no goals or purpose of her own. Now the term is used to disparage a certain personality type – the silly, the girly, the flamboyant, the irresponsible, and the whimsical. It’s not fair. And it’s not fair to Diya. Yes, her role in the story is to help Tamsin learn something about herself. But when you read the story, you’ll see that she’s not bringing in something her friend lacks, but suggesting that her friend is just fine as she is.

I love this story because I think it is a somewhat deliberate take down of the misuse of the manic pixie dream girl label. Diya is genuinely hurt when Tamsin accuses her of playing the role of “Princess Whimsy Pants,” accusing her of having a deliberately crafted persona, instead of just being herself. She is who she is, not for someone else, but for herself. It’s not an act, and it’s not for anyone else’s benefit.

The original intent of the label was to criticize lazy story-telling and the creation of one-dimensional female characters. It was never meant to skewer an entire personality type, or to lump all quirky women (and yes, I’ve seen this term applied to real, living women) into one category and dump them in the trash. Thus, Diya isn’t a manic pixie dream girl – she’s a simply a girl.

Rant aside, this is a great story and one that I highly recommend for your listening pleasure!

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is quite simply one of the most fun books I have had the pleasure to read. I’ve waited a week to write this review, to decide whether the initial infatuation would last (I’ll admit to sometimes being a tad hyperbolic about books I’ve just finished), but that first flush of joy has blossomed into an enduring admiration. This book is a winner, not just because it brings some much needed diversity to the world of superheroes, but because it is effortlessly fun and light. This is prime vacation reading, people!

The premise of the book is delightful. Some years ago, demons tried to invade San Francisco. It didn’t work, but the event gave low-level superpowers to a thousand or so locals. The invaders haven’t been back, but portals continue to open, and decidedly less menacing demons (referred to at one point as “puppy dog demons”) show up on a regular basis. Aveda Jupiter (real name: Annie) is the world’s first superhero, protecting San Francisco from these low-level demonic hordes, not with her own superpower, but through a lot of physical training and fight practice. She is aided by her childhood best friend, Evie, who hates the spotlight and fears her own superpower. The cast is rounded out by Lucy, Avedra’s bodyguard/personal trainer, plus Evie’s little sister, a cute demonologist, a nosy blogger, and the blogger’s sycophantic best friend.

The very first scene features a swarm of demons who have taken the form of cupcakes (their portal formed in a fancy bakery, and they imprinted on the first baked food they saw). This is featured on the cover, in all of it’s sharp-toothed, pink-frosting-ed glory. The style is over-the-top and a tad cartoonish, but that is clearly a deliberate choice. This book is a classic superhero cartoon, not a gritty urban fantasy. If you’re looking for something more grounded, then this book is likely to feel silly and cliched. That’s not how I experienced it, but I can understand how some people might feel that way.

The pacing is divine. The plot moves forward with gusto, never making us wait too long for what we know is coming. Then, with masterful strokes, Kuhn introduces something else for us to anticipate, and before too long, we get that, too. Repeat until the end of book. It’s a delightful change from real life, where patience is so frequently required from us. The plot doesn’t feel rushed – every battle, social media incident, and interpersonal conflict is given exactly as much time as it requires, but not a sentence more.

The world needs more women of color in the role of superheroes, which is why Chinese Aveda and half-Japanese Evie are so important. The author, Sarah Kuhn, is Asian herself, so we can trust that she has handled this from a place of knowledge and experience. This sort of #ownvoices writing is extra important as Hollywood keeps casting white women to play Asian characters.

It does my heart good to see a superhero story with so many strong friendships between women. It’s the most realistic part of the book, the backbone that makes the frosted-demons believable. Aveda and Evie have been best friends since they were six years old, and while they have some serious baggage, all twenty years of their friendship sing through the page. Evie and Lucy (the bodyguard and personal trainer) have known each other for far less time, but have an easy camraderie that feels no less authentic. There’s not a ton of character background and history, but they feel authentic to me.

My favorite part of this book? Knowing that the sequel, Heroine Worship, is coming out in July!