Book Review: I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X is incredibly riveting and clever, although it loses a lot of its narrative daring about two-thirds of the way through. This would be a bigger problem if not for the fact that you can read the whole book in just a few hours – it’s short and fast-moving. So by the time you get to the more conventional style you are almost done with the book anyway.

Libby and May became best friends when they were both nine, and they started writing a series of comics and stories about Princess X. May wrote the stories and Libby drew the pictures. A few years later, Libby and her mom died in a car accident. But a few years after the accident, May starts seeing “I Am Princess X” stickers everywhere and she discovers a webcomic that clearly refers to her and Libby. Is Libby alive?

The book combines the format of a novel and the comic format, as May reads the comic for clues. Eventually the comic format is largely dropped – which is unfortunate, because the parts of the story told in comic format are incredibly effective and scary. The book suffers when it becomes less of a mystery and more a straight forward catch the bad guy story.

There are some missteps in the book in addition to the change in style. One odd thing about the book is its insistence on explaining pretty basic terms. Honestly, this book is aimed at teens. Are there any teens who don’t know what “Dropbox” is? Also, May finds an ally who is a hacker. He is in trouble because he was, frankly, a criminal douchebag to his ex-girlfriend. I never liked this character but I felt like I was supposed to like him even though he expresses no remorse and no acknowledgement of how harmful his actions towards his ex would have been had he not gotten caught. A reformed jerk has to, you know, reform. They have to take responsibility for their past actions, not just try to clean up with new ones. His character was so weirdly drawn that I felt like there was a subplot involving him being a villain that was dropped.

Still, the book is well-worth checking out just for the first two-thirds of the book, which is inventive, mysterious, horrifying, exciting, and moving. I had literal chills as certain clues were revealed and I was just desperate to figure out what was going on. If there’s a sequel, I’ll read it. As much as I love to read romance, I was thrilled that this YA does NOT include a romance. It keeps the focus on the friendship between Libby and May.

Summer TV – Mini Reviews to Get You Through the Dog Days

Are you ready to do some serious binge watching? Guest reviewer Heather Thayer has you covered!  Here’s her mini-reviews of new TV this summer.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I can summarize everything wrong with this show in one word: summer. The dark, brooding mood of the show and the heavy, gloomy Victorian settings are unappealing on a bright sunny day when it is light until late at night. I did watch two episodes and they were quite well done. The actor playing Mr. Norrell is perfect. The Man with the Thistledown Hair is frightening and ominous. I wonder whether someone who has not read the books will find the show easy to follow, but the source material is so great that I would hope that people new to the story could pick it up. DVR this show and wait for a storm (or winter) to watch it. I trust it will be excellent in the right weather.

Dark Matter

The concept of this show is intriguing – six people come out of stasis on a space ship with no memory of who they are, where they are, or what they are doing. They start to realize that they have skill memories, and there is an android who can handle the basics of operating the ship and everything else, so that’s helpful. After a few episodes I am still curious about the mystery, although the show can’t seem to steer clear of tropes – for example, one character is sullenly offensive and consistently resorts to conflict and violence. So tiresome. Another character is a manic pixie dream girl who dreams other people’s dreams. Hello, River Tam. The premise is interesting and they occasionally manage to avoid cliché, but it is turning into an “only if there isn’t something better to do” show.

Killjoys

Oh, how this show wants to be the new Firefly. Oh, how it isn’t. The premise is bounty hunters in outer space. Fine, great. I like that the lead character is a kickass woman and I like that the two initial main characters (a straight man and woman) have been business partners for six years but aren’t romantic partners and it is no big deal. I like the feel of the show (which does feel like Firefly) and the world building (which also feels like Firefly). But it is missing the wit of Firefly, the characters aren’t very interesting, and the writing is formulaic. Watch this one if you are sick and you don’t want anything challenging to hit your eyeballs.

Mr. Robot

Full disclosure – I am a lawyer who works with banks on consumer lending issues. I am going to have an issue with a show that has as a ridiculous premise “we’ll hack the banks and everyone’s loans will go pffft, and it will be wonderful for everyone!” But I love this show, even with that nonsense going on. The main character is fascinating. The show has a bleak outlook and is heavy-handed with its depressing message. It is terrific. It is slow-moving and complicated and spends most of its time looking at computer screens. It is riveting. Deliberate, lecturing, absorbing, mesmeric, thrilling. Impossible to explain or categorize. Best show on television right now.

True Detective

First episode. Meh.

First fifty-nine and a half minutes of the second episode. Meh.

Last thirty seconds of the second episode. WTF!!! WTF!!!!!! WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Guest Post: Magical Indians That Aren’t Magical Indians: Faith Hunter and Patricia Briggs get it right

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post, Jessica MacDonald talks about how to write Native American characters without resorting to stereotypes.

In April, news broke about a new Netflix-based movie by Adam Sandler where he and his producers showed extreme disrespect for indigenous people. It served as a reminder that in 2015, Natives are still fighting to be seen as part of the world, not as historically inaccurate stereotypes. Reading books, watching movies—it’s like playing Are You Kidding Me bingo. Magical Indian here, Noble Savage there, Red Devil over here. Tropes so ingrained that most viewers or readers don’t even realize how off base they really are.

Which is why it’s refreshing to come across series that put in the legwork to not only craft multi-dimensional Native characters, but also ground their mythology in actual Native legends. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series both nail it.

Let’s start with Mercy Thompson. She’s a mixed-race protagonist, another rarity—Blackfeet and white. She’s a mechanic who owns her own garage in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state, and she’s also a skinwalker: she can change into a coyote. A distinction is drawn in the series between werewolves, who are beholden to the moon and must preserve mass (so a 200lb man becomes a 200lb wolf), but Mercy can shift at will, and becomes a true coyote, small size and all. More of her story and power is revealed through the series, tying her ability not to her status as an indigenous person, but more because of her specific backstory. This point matters: In many Magical Indian portrayals, no explanation is given for the character’s abilities other than her Native status. This form of positive stereotyping is othering; it confers that Natives are magical, connected to the earth, control the elements, whatever, simply by being Native. As if we are not human. But with Mercy’s story, there are specific reasons related to the Blackfeet legend of Napi that explain her powers. Hers is a hero’s story, where she is indeed special, but with reason and depth.

Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee vampire hunter, and also a shapeshifter. Her mythology is a little different: the animal spirit, “Beast” as she calls it, is a consciousness living inside her. They share one body but are two entities. Where Briggs keeps the Blackfeet legends at the edges of her world, Hunter brings Cherokee myth front and center, both as an explanation for Jane’s powers and as part of her overall world-building. It’s a nice break from European-centric mythos, even as both authors do a great job of blending European monsters with Native myths. There’s a specific scene in the first Jane Yellowrock novel with a tribal elder that’s offering some information that Jane needs. This elder is not dressed in buckskins and a headdress; she is modern, speaks proper English (as opposed to Tonto-ese), and lays the foundation for revelations about Jane that come later in the story. This flushes out both Jane and the mythos; it’s not a hack job pulling a few Native legends in for flavor, but a well-developed, rich world that remains respectful of the Cherokee origins that inspired it.

Briggs and Hunter do exactly what we’re asking for when we say we want representation. They give us dynamic, multi-dimensional indigenous characters that are not defined solely by their Native-ness. It can seem like a fine line to white authors—how do you bring in Native stories without stereotyping characters as Magical Indians, Indian Princesses, or Noble Savages?

The answer is fairly simple: Create real human beings. Research the experience of indigenous people, maybe even meet with a tribal government and interview them. Ground characters’ powers in a rich backstory rather than in what amounts to “because Indian.” Be respectful of the mythologies. Your Native characters can be magical, badass, savage, noble, murderous, heroic, powerful, weak—but make them real, the way Briggs and Hunter have. Our race is part of who we are, but it is not all we are. Your characters should be the same.

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Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for RF Digital, where real life magic happens. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter at @coloradojess or on her website at http://www.madewithwords.net.

Book Review: Sci-Fi Chronicles, edited by Guy Haley

Welcome to what is possibly the shortest review ever posted on this blog – my review of sci-fi chronicles: a visual history of the galaxy’s greatest science fiction.

Here’s the review:

This book is really fun and a great reference guide, but if you share a bathroom with your husband and daughter don’t leave it in there because people will read it in the bathroom and forget to come out while you do the bathroom dance of “I need to pee but someone is in the bathroom reading that damn book again.”

To elaborate:

This book has an entry for most major science fiction works from 1818 (Frankenstein) to 2009 (Avatar). It includes a chart of spaceships (oooooooooh) and a vast chronology and a glossary of genre definitions. Something like Frankenstein  gets multiple pages, that include information about the original work and further adaptations.

I mean be honest, isn’t that just beautiful? Some works have a two-page spread of color photos, other have a single entry. The entries include books, movies, TV shows, and comics. It’s very well-organized and a lot of fun to browse through, which is why keeping it in the bathroom is both obvious and disastrous.

The entries are not neutral in tone. They are, essentially, a series of reviews, although they are all careful to note the legacies of the works. The real fun of the book is in how meticulously it shows the connections between works and the scope of science fiction. The index alone is a work of art. I highly recommend this book. Just be careful where you put it.

Between the Lines Book Club: A Short Bio and Discussion of Richard Powers

between the lines book club logoThis month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Orfeo by Richard Powers. If you live in or near Sacramento, California, please join us in person for coffee, pastries, and discussion at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library on July 25. Otherwise, leave your comments below!

Richard Powers is the author of eleven novels to date. He’s famous for cerebral novels, that frequently involve science and the ways science influences the human experience. His novel The Echo Maker won the National Book Award.

Powers was born in Illinois and spent several years in Thailand as a child. He moved back to Illinois as a teen and studies English Literature. His first job was as a computer programmer. Powers’ first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, won him so much publicity that he moved to The Netherlands to avoid it.

Critics tend to praise Powers for his ideas and criticize him for his characters. While Powers is concerned with deep thoughts, he doesn’t neglect plot. As Margot Atwood said of him:

On the other hand, there are books you read once and there are other books you read more than once because they are so flavorful, and then there are yet other books that you have to read more than once. Powers is in the third category: the second time through is necessary to pick up all the hidden treasure-hunt clues you might have missed on your first gallop through the plot. You do gallop, because Powers can plot. Of some books you don’t ask How will it all turn out? since that isn’t the point. It’s certainly part of the point with Powers. Only part, however.

If you’ve been reading Orfeo, what do you think? Did the science overwhelm the humanity of the characters, or vice versa, or is there balance? Were you swept up in the plot or caught up in the ideas? Every Powers book is a balancing act and opinions vary widely with each book on how well the act is accomplished. All critics seem to agree that every Powers book is worth the readers’ time, because of the discussions of science, art, and emotion.