Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

I received TORN AWAY by Jennifer Brown through the Early Review program, the Hachette Bonus Batch.

I’m not really into tragic teen stories. I like adventure and faerie tales, so this wasn’t the perfect book for me at first blush. However, within a half an hour of picking it up, I was over 60 pages into the book. It’s a very easy, well-paced read. The tragedy seems a bit lightly treated at times – the main character, Jersey, seems to make great leaps and strides in healing awfully quickly – however, I was delighted, by the end, to feel like the title had a new and deeper meaning. I don’t think the title refers to her home or family being torn away, ultimately. I think the title refers to illusion and lies being torn away.

The process of both her life as she knew it and the lies that created it being torn away is started by the tornado tearing away her mother and sister, yes, but Jersey continues to find bits and pieces of her life being slowly torn away and I was surprised to feel like that was a *good* thing. While I by no means think the tragic deaths of a mother and sister are good things, the aftermath was *incredibly good* for Jersey.

I do wish there had been a little more resolution in the book. Jersey ends up in a lot of bad, difficult situations and they don’t really resolve … they just end. And then she picks up and moves on. I feel like we missed some *vital* moments of her making peace with those bad situations before we saw her happier and healthier when the book ended.

But, as I said, I did enjoy feeling like the context of the book dramatically changed by the end and I would be interested to re-read the book with this new context. I will likely pick it up again!

B+ (layered meanings, well-paced writing; light treatment of tragedy, lack of resolution)

[><] & [::]

Fissure Free by Shari J. Ryan

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program. As a note, in September I received the sequel to this book as one of my Early Review books, so I suspect that I will be revisiting this review in that post (which will post in mid-October).

I’m afraid I just could not get into this book. I did read the first book in preparation and the writing is better in this book, but it still suffers from a lack of character.

This is not to say there are no characters, but that the book feels bland, to me. I need characters I can connect with – even in the midst of deep fantasy, I *need* characters who feel real. The two main characters, Alex and Chloe feel flat. They’re two characters wrapped and created around one another, which ends up feeling very empty, since neither really have substance outside the other. And since both of them are hollow without each other, they’re barely substantial together.

I also vehemently object to ending a book on a big reveal (the first book did) and then acting as if the reveal hadn’t happened at the beginning of the next book. The pacing was just odd.

Also, the way the series treats mental illness as the result of some fairy tale escape rather than as a serious condition really rankles me, as I deal every day with the reality of mental health issues. There is no escape and it is most certainly not escaping that makes me happy – it’s facing the mental health problems head on. The only character who does that is painted as the secondary villain.

I hesitate to pass final judgement because there is one more book in the series and I feel I was a bit rushed in my reading of the material. So, I give it a hesitant three stars for an interesting premise and improvement from the first book – because there was improvement – but I may change my mind after a more careful study.

[><] & [::]

What I’m Backing: Happy Dragons! by Nina Bolen

A note: This was supposed to post on Tuesday, but was delayed for the write-up on a project that a) was ending sooner and b) I felt more strongly about. If you see any references that seem out of continuity, that’s why. Thanks for being patient with me.

Hey there, it’s Wednesday, best day of the week! The timing’s great because, I’m not going to lie, this project makes me irrationally happy. This will be the last “What I’m Backing” post for a couple weeks, and while I might not have saved the best for last, I sure did save the CUTEST!

Today’s feature is Happy Dragons! Whimsical Dragon Sculptures by Nina Bolen. Basic stats* below:

  • Goal: $1,000
  • Funding Status: fully funded; all ten stretch goals hit
  • Total Backers: 120+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: YES!
  • When Did I Jump In: About halfway through, well after funding.

Okay, I feel awful about this, but the reason I’m backing this can be boiled down to one word:

DRAGONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It’s really that simple.

No. Really.

Really really.

Okay, I’ll stop now.**

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey, Jane Yolen, The Jewel Kingdom books, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, and more. I wrote dragon stories. Then I read as many as I could of the amazing books with dragons in them as an adult. I was, am, and will be a dragon freak. I could talk about the adorable concept art. I could talk about the birthstone dragons stretch goal (and how I am SO SAD I am not a March baby and how I desperately hope July’s pose is as cute). I could talk about the stretch goal we’ve yet to reach being full of more squee-causing cuteness and fun features. I could talk about I could talk about the mock-ups looking so good. I could go on at length about how this rings all my nerdy bells and how it’s my first time backing an art project.

But really, mentioning them is enough because, while these are all really good parts of the campaign, the reason I threw money at this campaign was because it was DRAGONS. I am an unabashed dragon lover. To the point that, when it looked like our original cake topper was destroyed (thankfully not, as it is a family heirloom), my fiancé and I looked at several custom dragon bride and groom sculpture options. Dragons are AWESOME and I cannot WAIT to get my Happy Dragon.

*As of posting 9/24 at 12:00 Mountain Time.

**THERE WERE SO MANY MORE, TOO.

[><] & [::]

What I’m Backing: MisSpelled by Lindsey McDowell (et all)

Okay, so there were only supposed to be two of these this week, and then a project in its last legs was brought to my attention and oh my gosh, this needs to happen. Yesterday.

MisSpelled: A Fantastical Witchy Web Series already has four episodes (plus a prologue) and a lot of bonus content from the creators and actors on their channel. But, now they need funding for the rest of season one. It’s a webseries about five new witches who just got their powers, who don’t know what to do, and who are just trying to figure life out, much less this whole magic thing. All of them are women, of varying shapes, sizes and temperments, and ALL of these women are women of color.

Let me tell you why that’s important to me: because I want to imagine my world more complexly.

So often, especially in fantasy, we see a white-washed world in our entertainment. We see a pseudo-medieval white dude world that isn’t actually an historically accurate reflection of anything (and what’s with historical accuracy in fantasy/fiction in general anyway), and that has bled into modern fantasy. It’s pervasive and poisonous. Women have always been there, at home and in combat, and so have peoples of many colors.

And I’m tired of my media making these people invisible.

So, I’ve made a conscious decision to seek out the media that popular media ISN’T showing me. And MisSpelled is a start. I love web-series, I love the platform, I love how the narrative is differently shaped. I’ve supported them in the past and will do so again. This is what I want to be watching, not just because it’s a world that reflects the true complexity of the world I live in, but also because it’s the kind of media I like. (I’m also SUPER hoping there are characters that aren’t straight in this narrative because THAT WOULD BE AMAZING. And because I bet they could do it.)

The prologue and the first four episodes show several different types, personalities, and shapes of women. I love that. I love seeing more than the sassy best friend or the love-lorn girl or the ditz or the book worm as the ONLY. FEMALE. CHARACTER. Heck, I love it because, while some of the characters have SHADES of those tropes, they aren’t trope-tastic. These women are reluctant and eager, funny and boring, shy and assertive. They are MORE than their femaleness or their coloredness or their magicness. And so help me, THIS is the standard I want ALL my entertainment to achieve: to imagine a world wherein people are people and the window dressing that makes the person up CONTRIBUTES but does not DEFINE so utterly that the person gets lost.

This project is awesome.

But there’s a problem: It’s nowhere near funding. Here’s where we get to the stats*, and it’s a bit depressing:

  • Goal: $75,000
  • Funding Status: partially funded; ~12%
  • Total Backers: 360+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: None announced.
  • When Did I Jump In: About six days before closing.

As many of you know, I am VERY proud of the fact that I have never backed a project that has failed to fund. It’s not because I’m risk averse. I’m just very lucky. I mentioned in one of my write-ups last week, that streak may come to an end. This project ends sooner and, let me tell you, I would be honored if this project is the one that broke my perfect streak. I hope it does not, but this project is SO WORTH the effort to me, even if the effort ends up being in vain.

MisSpelled is an awesome step in the right direction. It helps me imagine my world more complexly**, which is vital to creating more complex art of my own, as well as treating people better in my day to day life. It’s entertainment that breaks down damaging assumptions and stereotypes. It is fantasy that actively promotes a better reality.

I dearly hope it comes to life – if not now, soon. Because the world needs stories like this. Now.

*As of posting, 9/23 at 12:00 Mountain Time

**Thank you to the Vlogbrothers for this phrase. It’s become a short-hand reminder for myself to do better at a LOT of things.

[><] & [::]

The Obelisk Trap by Margaret Pearce

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review program. It is truly the first book I read from there that I wholly and completely could not enjoy. It was very disappointing. So, be warned, this exceptionally long review is about addressing the issues in the text.

Warning: here there be spoilers. I try very hard not to spoil books in my reviews, but in order to thoroughly address the pervasive racism and sexism in this manuscript, I need to back it up with examples from the text. These examples do give away important plot points. If you do not wish to be spoiled, this paragraph is sufficient. I rated the book so poorly because of persistent sexism and racism. I truly believe that to read a book to a child with those issues is to pour poison into their minds. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

A note regarding intentions: I actually believe this author did not try to be sexist or racist. Many of the problems in this manuscript are the background sexist and racist tropes that I myself have had to train out of my brain after a lifetime of society feeding me and teaching me to believe this crap. Regardless of intention, it is still wrong and should NOT be allowed to survive uncontested, or survive period.

Should you still be hanging around, I would like to say that I wanted to like this book. It was the first middle grade book I had seen in the Early Review batches that sounded interesting to me. I think part of my visceral anger while reading was the fact that these expectations were so greatly disappointed. I’ve waited to review until I could speak calmly, or as calmly as I am able.

Basic plot: Charlie is trapped in a magical place called The Place of No Name with his sister, Billie, and Uncle William. They must escape before Billie is discovered to be a girl, as all young girls are killed immediately upon arrival.

Now that that’s out of the way, the text was appalling. Racism and sexism abounded and it was completely unacceptable.

The sexism was especially hurtful because the author dedicated the book to her daughter, “the daughter who could do anything better than most of the boys in the district and still can.” From the dedication, I got the feeling her daughter had been teased about being a tomboy, so I appreciate that the author tried to write an inspiring narrative wherein the female was a hero.

She failed.

Billie, the sister of the narrator, is first described as bossy; ugly for a girl, but alright for a boy; and embarrassingly sporty. All of these are common insults thrown at girls to shut them up and shut them down. Had they come from her brother and he later said he was wrong, they would have been barely acceptable, but instead, the narrative continues to say that Billie – who is is outspoken, but never bossy – is too smart for her own good. I think my least favorite descriptor was, “She has an intellect so sharp she’s going to cut herself one day.” Not one other character is told being intelligent is dangerous.

Billie is forced to pass as male to survive. I don’t appreciate the implication that sporty, tomboy-ish girls would be better served to be boys. I would much rather imply, or outright state, that a diversity in what is socially acceptably masculine and feminine would be the far better solution.

Eventually, Billie does manage to be the hero, but it’s not because of her intelligence or athletic skills or anything that she has any control over. She is established as smart, but isn’t allowed to use them to save the day. It is the two “scientist” males who figure out the solution and then choose to mind rape her (at best) and potentially sacrifice her life WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT. And all of this would be SLIGHTLY okay if what made Billie special had anything to do with a special talent or skill she had required. But no. Billie manages to be the hero because she’s – wait for it – a girl. Something in her specifically female biology doesn’t allow the alien parasite to live. She literally saves the day because of girl cooties. And can I note: scientifically, any parasite that can survive in the human biosex male body can survive in the biosex female body. Perhaps they can BETTER survive in one sex or the other (if testosterone or estrogen are significant factors in the survival of the parasite), perhaps, but this is laughably bad science AND plot. Making her “girlness” the saving factor is sexist. Women are not innately magic – they are human beings with skills and abilities. To WASTE an intelligent, problem-solving female character like this is practically criminal.

Also, out of a predominately male cast, the secondary villain is the only other named female character. And she’s the villain because she’s trying to protect a man, not for personal reasons. There is a primary villain, but his villainy is framed as a instinctual desire for survival, as something understandable, if not acceptable.

Now, for the racism. As another reviewer noted, the native inhabitants of the village are referred to collectively as “the blacks.” This is not okay. There are plenty of other descriptors for the villagers that aren’t race-based. Also, black is used as an unnecessary descriptor. There is only one doctor in the whole of The Place of No Name, but rather than being referred to as “the doctor,” he is referred to as “the black doctor.” Him being black makes literally NO DIFFERENCE to his skills as a doctor, it had already been established that he was black, and there was no other doctor from which to differentiate him. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.

The native population is described as having “fine features” that are so atypical for black people that a TRAINED SCIENTIST says “They look almost Caucasian except for their colour.” This is RIDICULOUS. And to have it come out of the mouth a scientist is especially offensive. The diversity of the human species, both in feature and in color, not only allows for fine-featured black people, but demands that they MUST exist. There are naturally blonde black people, and naturally broad-featured white people. It seems this author has never really looked at a black person, but rather dismissed them all as a group fitting into a narrow visual and cultural stereotype.

Speaking of cultural stereotypes, the native population is distinctly less advanced than the city built by the white people who have been trapped in The Place of No Name (I bet you anything it has a name in the native language, more on that in a moment) for a significantly lesser time period. The natives bring coal they have mined to the white people in exchange for food that should be freely available and goods that are utterly impractical in a place where survival is key. It smacks of slavery and white dominance.

The native peoples have learned English, but the English speaking white population has never – in hundreds of years – bothered to learn the natives’ language because “it’s just too hard.” This is a common tactic used to force non-English speaking peoples to learn English in American society today, I can’t speak for Australian society. And yet society still characterizes people who don’t speak English as stupid or lazy, as if society is not guilty of those crimes ten times over.

The Traveler, the ruler of The Place of No Name, is white. Remember, The Traveler is an alien parasite that chooses a host body, wears it out, and then travels into a new one. He sits as king over the villagers – he’s apparently been terrorizing them for centuries. And yet, he himself is not black. It seems that as soon as white people began stumbling into The Place of No Name, The Traveler deemed them more fit hosts and has slowly been picking off the best and healthiest of the white population, despite the fact that the native populations have shown themselves to be more resourceful and adaptable.

Billie is a white savior. That trope should be banned for all time.

A little note: the doctor who lives among the natives is the ONE black person I can find in the manuscript who traveled from our world to the The Place of No Name. It is heavily implied that he is the one who taught the natives everything they know (I call BS). This is Western Supremacy/Colonialism in action. The fact that the doctor is not white does not change that colonialism is based in racism and this counts as a racist stereotype.

There was more. This is a sampling of things I found deeply disturbing. More disturbing is that so many harmful stereotypes and actively poisonous attitudes made it past an editor and beta readers. I would hope that someone along the line might have noticed and said something, but if they did, they were not heeded. The writing is grammatically passable and not entirely uninteresting, but that cannot save a manuscript steeped in thoroughly toxic attitudes.

F (rampant sexism, racism, and poor plot devices)

[><] & [::]

Reaching First by Mindy Klasky

I decided to review one more book in Klasky’s Diamond Brides series. I won’t be reviewing any more (as there are plenty more books to review and this series will be nine books long), but as the first three are being released as a companion set, it felt like a good stopping point.

Damn if Mindy Klasky doesn’t write the most fun niche genres that seem tailored to me. I love this lady, I do. Baseball + Romance + Teaching to Read = Joie bait. MMMMMMMMMMMM. This is my favorite, thus far, of the Diamond Brides series and I eagerly await the next installment. Give me my sexy, sexy infield.

And hallelujah for resolved narrative issues! 😀 In the first two books, as much as I enjoyed them, there were some moments when the characters were too understanding – where conflict SHOULD have been there was none OR the conflict got resolved by a sudden burst of “I understand your motivations and all is forgiven” rather than a discussion. The discussion in this book didn’t occur between the two main characters (Tyler and Emily), but it did occur. Tyler struggled and sought perspective. I really appreciate problems that need to be resolved.

We did go back to rushed romance in this narrative (seriously, I’m LDS (Mormon) and I’m not used to people falling in love and getting engaged so fast), but I appreciate that this time, there was a reason it happened this fast: these characters spent HOURS upon HOURS together, alone. They had more time to bond.

There were some really healthy discussions of virginity and of learning disabilities and how our culture deals (poorly) with both. I love that Klasky is so sex and person positive. I also really appreciate how she presented the main heroine’s religion’s role in her decisions about sex without demonizing it. It was a fact of the character and it wasn’t blind faith. Seriously, she writes a utopia that I would really love to live in. Healthy attitudes about sex for EVERYONE! Healthy depictions of differing opinions for ALL! Healthy treatment of differently abled persons ALL THE TIME!

I also note that I finally caught that she’s gently introducing the couples for the next book each book. It’s so gently done that it took me three books to catch on and I really like that.

So, ultimately, I think this series is going better places and even if it just maintained its quality from here on out, I would be VERY happy.

A (solid writing, improvement in each book, better depiction of conflict resolution, healthy attitudes about personal choices and problems; rushed romance development)

[><] & [::]

What I’m Backing: 5Pax – Fast Dice Games by Galliant Games

Okay, this is a party I’m hoping a LOT more people will join. I’ve backed one other project by Galliant Games and was really excited when they announced they were going to do another project: 5Pax – Fast Dice Games. It’s very sad, to me, that its just NOT getting the support their last project did (even though it’s a Staff Pick), as I think this has the potential to be a lot more universally appealing than Scrapyard Empire, which is a Steampunk niche sort of game. I think that may be the problem actually: this doesn’t appeal to a niche audience. General audience games tend to have a harder time funding.

Stats*:

  • Goal: $9,500
  • Funding Status: partially funded; ~20%
  • Total Backers: 80+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: None.
  • When Did I Jump In: The first day. I was told about it about a week in advance, so I was waiting for it.

And, of course, now I talk about why I’m backing.

I love filler games. I back a lot of games, but most of them take an extended period of time to play, which is JUST FINE. If I’m feeling like a game night. Quick games that people can play while they’re waiting on friends or if they just want a simple, one-round game before bed or if they don’t have enough players for a game yet are great and I don’t have a lot of those. My family plays a lot of card games and those fill the need, but you can only play Spite & Malice or Gin Rummy so many times without wanting a little variety. But . . . good filler games are hard to find. What I like about 5Pax is that the intention is to be EXACTLY that: several good filler games for a couple-few people.

Another thing I really like is the fact that these games were made to travel. They come in a small box that can fit in a backpack or purse. LOVE travel-ability. That makes games so much more fun.

Also: not a wallet buster. Ten games for 25 bucks is fantastic. But, if that’s still a bit much for you, print and play is available for 5 dollars (you provide the dice) or you can get one game sent to you as a postcard for 3 dollars. There are also some deluxe and multi-pack options, which I always like.

Probably what sold me on this project was the company. Like I said, I’ve backed with them before. Now, that project hasn’t been seen through to completion, but it has thus far been very well handled. This company had proven that they wanted to make a good product that people could enjoy and were willing to communicate with the audience about a whole ton of different things. That trust enabled me to get excited about this project. Now, we just need to get more people excited, dang it!

*As of posting 9/18 at 12:00 Mountain Time

[><] & [::]