Tuesday Reads: Salvage by Alexandra Duncan

EDIT: I somehow originally never said in this review that the cover is whitewashed. It’s clearly stated in the book that Ava has dark skin (in fact, the bulk of the main characters are dark-skinned), but the girl on the cover is super white. I can’t believe this escaped me when I grabbed the cover for this review. The rest of the review still stands.

“They threw you out,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you’re worthless. It only means they didn’t see your worth.”

salvageI am basically always going to be obsessed with YA that predominately features interesting, diverse female characters, and holy crap you guys. Salvage by Alexandra Duncan is a home run in that regard. It’s super feminist and I’m not actually sure any of the main characters are white.

Ava has lived her entire life on a highly patriarchal spaceship. Women don’t fix things, they don’t read or know even basic math, and they’re locked in their quarters every night. Ava – a natural mechanic that taught herself addition and subtraction – has questions about the way of life on her conservative ship, but has never stepped too far out of line. Instead, she fits in best she can, which is sometimes difficult since she has darker skin than anyone else on her ship and sometimes people still whisper about her black hair being a curse.

When Ava does step out of line, she does it in a major way, and has to run away to Earth to find her aunt in Mumbai or face certain death. She ends up on the ship of a single mother and abuse survivor. Perpétue captains her own ship, has no problem taking care of herself, and has taught her daughter, Miyole, to be independent and smart. They are everything that Ava thought a woman could never be.

And she struggles with it! She’s been raised in this very strict world, so it’s natural that she would be confused and would struggle with anyone going outside what she was taught. She is not automatically a strong feminist. She has to watch and learn and make the choices that lead her down that path, until she can stick up for herself and feels confident going after what she truly wants.

Too often, we’re shown a female protagonist who is maybe academically smart and dresses in an understated, practical way, and to drive home the point that she’s Good, we’re giving a woman of her opposite – someone who doesn’t do well in school and is super feminine – and she is made out to be Bad, like there’s only one way to be a woman in the world of that book or movie.

Salvage thinks that’s bullshit, and so do I. Ava loves fixing machines and math, but she finds that she hates formal academics. Miyole, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to go to school and study as much as she can and do brilliant things. Ava doesn’t really care much about clothes one way or the other, but her aunt and Miyole love clothes shopping and being feminine. And they all just are who they are. Ava isn’t better than Miyole because she wants to learn a practical trade and dress practically. Miyole isn’t better than Ava because she wants to wear pretty clothes and study. They find their own way.

This post is totally mostly about how awesome the characters and feminism and diversity of the book are, but I should note that the plot and the world? Also really gorgeous and interesting. I loved basically every part of this, and I bet you guys would, too. SO GO READ IT.

Medium: Kindle
Stars: 5/5

On Beauty and Body Diversity in YA

Yesterday, writer Taylor Breslin made a great post on Tumblr about some of her big frustrations in young adult fiction. The big topic? Stupid beauty standards and female confidence. It’s a great post, and you should go read it. It got me thinking and I want to expand on this a little and also connect it to my continued desire to see more body diversity in YA.

…what I don’t see in a lot of young adult fiction is characters being physically attracted to each other in a normal way. It’s all “he/she was the most insanely gorgeous and perfect person I have ever laid eyes on.” So many female protagonists gain their love interests and even their male friends because the guys meet them and are instantly paralyzed by their beauty. Not by any aspects of their personality. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t give normal teenage girl readers much to identify with (nor is it a good example of how to build relationships with people).

Of course, it’s not only the girls who are insanely beautiful – the boys are, too. The boys are always superhuman gorgeous (even when they’re not superhuman). I get that there’s some wish fulfillment there, but it’s everywhere, and there’s a key difference between the beautiful female protagonists and their beautiful male counterparts. The boys are allowed confidence. That usually makes them sexier. Most of the super hot guys in YA novels are entirely aware of how gorgeous they are, of the affect they have on women, and often aren’t afraid to use it to to their advantage.

Our girls don’t get that. As Breslin points out, the girls talk about all of their physical traits in a negative light – they’re too tall, too skinny, with eyes that are too big. The attempt to make these teenage girls somehow relatable always ends up with them being skinny and awkward. Or they’re a clumsy heroine, which often seems to be used to bring too-strong-willed female protagonists down a peg. The girls who are confident in their appearance are often villains, whether it be that popular girl in school or the sexy lady vampire trying to kill the protagonist.

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I understand that everyone has insecurities about his or her appearance, but it would be good every once in while to have a character have some self-confidence in that department. Better that it be a NORMAL LOOKING character who can be confident in herself instead of some kind of preternatural model goddess.

It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenage girl without insecurities, especially considering all of the shit that’s thrown at women every day. Be skinny, but not too skinny, because men don’t want a sack of bones. But don’t be too fat, either, god, they don’t want whales. Look like you’re not wearing makeup, but don’t look too natural. Who can get bombarded by that for most of their lives without breaking a little?

That’s even more of a reason to have some confident, normal-looking girls in YA. Give teenage girls someone who really looks like them and who is completely fine with – hell, who even LOVES – her appearance. And let those character discover their beauty on their own, or to already have it when the book begins. Don’t give them half a dozen guys to fawn over them and then have them still wringing their hands saying, “But I just don’t understand why!”

For me, even better would be a fat character with confidence. Not someone who’s euphemistically curvy or ‘a little plump’, but fat. An actual fat girl with casual confidence in herself and her own beauty, who doesn’t need a romantic interest to make her see it, and who doesn’t lose half her body weight and suddenly ‘match her inner beauty’. (Anything that involves fat people losing weight to match their inner beauty makes me want to put that bullshit gif on loop forever.)

We need some normal-looking characters. Check out Breslin’s post for a good list of authors who do that, but also as she points out, most of those are in contemporary YA. In fantasy or scifi YA, it’s almost impossible to find. We need diversity in YA bodies, and we need them to love themselves. Maybe then our teenagers could learn to love themselves a little sooner.

Tuesday Reads: Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Democracy, at its root, is based on the faith that our representatives have our best interests at heart. If we as a nation no longer believe that they do, that may be even more disturbing than the idea that aliens are among us.

I’m really into disaster scenarios. Bonus points if they’re kind of weird, and big bonus points if we then get to see normal people pushed entirely out of not only their comfort zones but just their entire realm of experience. That’s what happens to Reese and David, two of our main characters in Adaptation by Malinda Lo. I was sold on this book from the first paragraph of the Amazon summary:

Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

AdaptationARC_cover_webReese and David are two of those stranded travelers. They’re in Arizona, and they’re forced to drive home to San Francisco. But on a deserted highway, a bird flies straight into their headlights. They swerve, flip over, crash. They wake up in a military hospital, miraculously healed, and they’re…different. They can’t exactly understand what’s different, but something is off.

They eventually get home to San Francisco, and return to their lives. Reese meets Amber, this beautiful, interesting girl that flirts with her and makes her feel wonderful.

But of course, it can’t all be sunshine and roses. Reese continues to monitor her rapid healing. She can’t shake the feeling that someone is following her. Her best friend talks about government conspiracies and aliens – and Reese starts to think that maybe that’s not as crazy as it sounds. Maybe he’s onto something.

I’ll admit – I’m not super into the alien government conspiracies, but Adaptation kept me on the edge of my seat and I enjoyed it. The aliens weren’t entirely my style, either, but I like the classic scifi feel to both them and their ship (but I won’t spoil all that).

Adaptation is also an awesome example of diversity in YA (which I’ve talked about before) and which makes sense, considering that Malinda Lo’s other books (Ash and Huntress) feature queer and POC characters and, oh yeah, she’s one of the founders of Diversity in YA.

While this whole crazy conspiracy plot is going on, Reese is struggling a bit. She has this huge crush on David, but then she meets Amber and wow kissing her is pretty great. The truly great part here isn’t that she’s kissing a girl – it’s that she has feelings for and chemistry with both a guy and a girl.

Here’s the thing. Erasure of bisexuals is pretty big in popular media. “Oh, he can’t like that girl, he has a boyfriend. She can’t like that girl, she has a boyfriend.” People are either gay or straight. When there is a bisexual character, they’re generally portrayed as being slutty (which we’re also told is bad) or indecisive. Just this past week, Glee’s awesome lesbian Santana complained that she only ever dates experimental college girls and bisexuals (both groups, of course, will always leave her for a guy), and that dating a Real Lesbian was intimidating. Said Real Lesbian told Santana that she deserves a “full Sapphic goddess”.

Because bisexuals just don’t count, right?

Of course, the sad thing is that these are just backing up real opinions that people have about bisexuals.

When it comes down to it in Adaptation, it’s not that Reese is struggling to figure out if she’s gay or straight. Yeah, she gets confused a bit because she’s only ever thought she’s straight, but in the end that’s not what matters. What matters is that she has feelings for both David and Amber, and there’s a whole lot of drama with both of them. She’s not choosing between gay or straight. She’s choosing between two people that she cares about.

Normalized bisexual representation and a giant government conspiracy? I don’t know about you, but count me in for the rest of this series.

Medium: Kindle
Stars: 4/5

Tuesday Reads Double Feature: Gay in YA

If you haven’t noticed, I’m really passionate about diversity in YA. I’ve talked about the need for other body types and why sex negativity is a big problem. There’s so much more to talk about – we need protagonists of color, disabled protagonists, characters all across the spectrums of sex, gender, sexual preference, and level of sexual activity (wouldn’t some asexuals be awesome?).

Today, for a very special episode of Tuesday Reads, I’m doing a double feature of YA books with lesbian protagonists. They’re both the kind of stories about gay characters that I’d love to see more of. These stories are not entirely about the protagonist being gay. It’s a big part of them, sure, but it’s not the central story. I think these books do a great job of normalizing gay characters.

starting from hereLet’s kick things off with Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow. It’s about Colby, a high school girl that basically everyone knows is a lesbian and while she’s had some bullying, it hasn’t been bad. The thing is, she’s never told her dad, and that can be kind of stressful. Oh, and her not-quite-girlfriend dumped her…for a guy. And now there’s a really cute girl flirting with her, and basically Colby is just freaking out.

The last thing I needed was for my heart to get broken again by another girl who’d dump me the second the right guy made his move. I’d rather stick to my lonely-girl-and-her-dog existence.

What I truly love about this book in terms of YA diversity is that it’s not about her sexuality. It’s not about her questioning that she’s into girls. When we meet her, she already knows this about herself. She hasn’t fully come out, but she’s not really ashamed of it or anything, just scared. The story isn’t about a lesbian. It’s a story with a lesbian main character. It’s about her being herself and discovering her own strengths and working out her problems in ways largely unrelated to the coming-out aspect of the book, and that’s awesome.

Starting From Here is funny and painfully real, and will make you feel that high school angst in the way good YA often does – whether or not your high school experience involved coming out of the closet.

Rating: 4/5

I enjoyed the second book in today’s triple threat for a similar reason. Next up: Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin.

And even though that other girl was the girl I’d been for years, being her now was like acting a part in a play.

Actually, I thought, it was always like acting a part in a play. I just didn’t realize it.

Silhouette-of-a-SparrowGarnet is sent off to spend the summer of 1926 with relatives and is expected to return and make a good marriage and be a good girl. As like most female protagonists in similar books, Garnet’s not entirely excited about her prospects – so she’s going to make the most of her summer. She gets a job as a shop girl and starts an illicit friendship with a flapper from the local dance hall named Isabella.  In fact, she never identifies as such. We only know that she loves Isabella and that’s enough. The story is far more coming-of-age than it is coming out. It’s about Garnet and Isabella having a relationship and having young love – not about them being lesbians.

I admit that I initially bought Silhouette of a Sparrow for its intriguing title and lovely cover. I was won over entirely by the depth of the characters and the beauty of the prose.

Rating: 5/5

I should clarify: I love books that are about the trials and tribulations of coming out as LGBT. It’s something that can be, at best, stressful, and at worst…well, life-threatening. We need books that tell these stories. Right now I’m just really on the look out for books that go the next step and normalize the sexualities. Books with LGBT characters, not about their LGBT…ness.

For more books that have something other than the usual white cisgender straight characters, check out Diversity in YA. Seriously. It’s a great source for dialogue about diversity and for books to add to your “to-read” list.

March Awesomeness

titanic slothI wrote 6145 words in March. Man, I need to step it up. How about I start by giving you links to ten awesome things I found while obviously not writing in March? (In my defense, I totally read 15 books in March.)

This baby goat that seems to have a butt filled with helium.

This Tumblr dedicated to diversity in YA fiction.

This adorable Cthulhu.

This Lord of the Rings pun.

This hashtag fighting rape culture.

This adorable hippo before it becomes a vicious territorial killer hello I am Sarah and I am scared of hippos but man this is cute.

This totally accurate comic about what it’s like to be a writer of genre fiction.

This little girl’s awesome discovery.

This knitted knitting octopus.

This brilliant pizza box witchcraft.

Oh, and as a bonus, my gorgeous nephew turned one on March 28th.

What about you guys? Anything awesome happen in March? Did you write more than I did? Hit up the comments below.