Book Review: The Guinevere Trilogy, by Lavinia Collins

cover of Day of DestinyI have a love/hate relationship with Lavinia Collins’ Guinevere series.   I loved that I couldn’t put it down and I loved the fact that Guinevere is a whole, complicated, pretty messed up person.  I also hated it the fact that Guinevere is a pretty messed up person, because I was so frustrated with her, although I enjoyed seeing Kay call her out on it.  I like that she is able to love more than one man fully and the critique of forced monogamy.  If any problem could be solved easily, it would be Guinevere’s, given that she would thrive in an openly polyandrous marriage.  I also hated it that Guinevere is so so selfish and frankly so, so dumb on so many occasions.  She is so drunk with love and fueled by frustration at her limited role that she careens around wreaking havoc while everyone says to her, “Hey Guinevere, you want to tone it down a bit?”

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  This series has covers that initially I regarded as simply dreadful and now regard as thought-provoking (except Book 2, which simply dull).  The first book, The Warrior Queen, features a naked Guinevere (I assume) leaning on, or possibly emerging from, a tree.  On the Amazon page, her bosom is artfully covered by strategically placed type.  Other versions don’t include the type, which can be a bit startling.  Behold:

cover of Warrior Queen

Why?  Why is she hanging out in the woods semi-nude?  Is she actually emerging from the tree, like a woodland faerie, or is she just tired?  It’s not that I object to hanging out in the woods semi-nude (although I have to say – BUG SPRAY, people!)  it’s just that it doesn’t connect in any way to the story.  Guinevere has lots and lots of sex in this trilogy but I don’t recall her hanging out in the woods shirtless.  I don’t think the cover matches the content, but I did think that this post by author Lavinia Collins, about the double-standards regarding nudity, is thoughtful and interesting.  She points out that Amazon insisted on the “modesty panel” for the shirtless female, but had no problems with this shirtless male on the cover of the second book, A Champion’s Duty.  I have the same problem here on WordPress – I have to show the Amazon version cover to remain PG-13 as a blog but I can show off Lancelot’s naked torso with impunity.  Here it is:

cover of A Champion's duty

This is your basic, bland, erotic cover of a guy who looks sort of angry and sort of stoned and very wet.  While the first cover is weird and gratuitous, at least it’s creative, interesting art.  I prefer it to the bland quality of A Champion’s Duty.

I actually love the cover of the third book, The Day of Destiny, but again I don’t think it relates much to the book.  Here you go:

cover of Day of Destiny

Those of us in science fiction, fantasy, and romance know all too well that the cover of a book does not necessarily reflect the quality of the book, and this trilogy is far better than the covers suggest.  It has enough explicit sex to qualify as erotica but it also has plenty of plot.  Guinevere is forced to marry Arthur when he conquers her father’s lands as part of his early days of kingship.  Arthur is a loving husband and Guinevere returns that love.  Initially Arthur welcomes her into his war councils and as a soldier in battle.  When she is wounded in battle, Arthur concludes that he can’t bear to have to worry about her and against her protests he sends her home.  This marks a rift between them and sparks a deep frustration and resentment on her part that never heals despite their reconciliation after the battles end.

While Guinevere’s love for Arthur is warm (they have very comforting sex), her love for Lancelot is blindingly passionate.  It’s fueled by lust and also by Guinevere’s need to rebel, to take some kind of control over her own life.  She is told by an unreliable source that Arthur sleeps with other women while away at war and she believes it because no one expects a king to be monogamous.  Being banned from war, she refuses to be banned from sex with whoever the heck she wants to sleep with.

This aspect of Guinevere was the one I related too.  She’s bored and she’s trapped and she’s lonely and she’s all, “Fuck it, I’ll sleep with this hot guy because it’s my life, yo”.  She wants to be a warrior queen, and for a while she’s allowed to be just that, and then she’s banished to being a piece of furniture.  No wonder she wants some autonomy.

What bugged me is that she’s so freaking self-centered.  She can’t seem to grasp that there is an entire kingdom which will be totally ruined if she can’t control her libido.  She pressures Lancelot when he says no (I did enjoy the gender reversal, in which she is the initiator of a sexual relationship).  She’s callous towards others, including her lovers.  She can’t see or doesn’t care that all these acts of personal rebellion don’t get her any further towards self-determination but they do hurt a ton of people.

I’m confused about why this series is marked as a romance series.  A romance novel carries with it the promise of a happy ending – and not just a happy ending but one in which the primary couple will end up together.  If you know your King Arthur lore, and most of us do, it’s not a spoiler to say that Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot do not end up practicing open love in Avalon while dining on cake.  It’s a tragic romance series, it’s an erotic series, and it’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance” series and it drives me crazy that it’s marketed as such.

Overall, I enjoyed this series – certainly I read it avidly, although that was partly because I was trying to figure out how the author would pull a happy ending out of this particular hat.  I was frustrated by Guinevere but I also enjoyed having a main female character who is neither passive nor perfect, and I loved that the author was sufficiently aware of Guinevere’s flaws to have Sir Kay point them out frequently (I adored Sir Kay).  I’d grade this series as a B- with a strong mileage may vary component.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Banning of the Grapes of Wrath

between the lines book club logoWelcome to another Friday with Between the Lines Book Club!  We’re discussing The Grapes of Wrath this month.  Please join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864, at 2PM on September 28, 2014 for our in-person book club meeting, and leave comments here so we can have on-line discussion as well!

The Grapes of Wrath was the number one seller in the year it was published, selling 430,000 copies by the winter of 1940.  It received immediate and future critical acclaim.  but not everyone likes it – it was banned and burned in the year it was released and it continues to be banned or opposed in school and libraries as recently as 1993.

The Grapes of Wrath ends in Kern County, California.  Residents of Kern County were outraged that their county was portrayed in a negative light.  The county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to ban the book from libraries and schools.  The board was lobbied intensively by the Associated Farmers, a group of large-scale landowning farmers.  Bill Camp, head of the Associated Farmers, made one of his workers, Cluell Pruitt, to burn the book, as depicted in the photo below.

3ae8ccdaa80b6cd53833d264ae79ca24-orig

 

As stated in an NPR article about the burning of the book in Kern County:

Meanwhile, local librarian Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, she stood up to the county supervisors and wrote a letter asking them to reverse their decision.

“It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote. “Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”

Cover of "Obscene in the Extreme"

 

Kern County was not the only place that banned or attempted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

You can find a more complete list of all the time The Grapes of Wrath was banned or challenged at The American Library Association page “Frequently Challenged Books”.  It’s been challenged for its political and social views, its language, sexual content, and use of profanity.  It’s been banned in Ireland (in 1953) and Turkey (1973).  It was burned by the East St. Louis Illinois Public Library in 1939 and challenged as required reading in Tennessee in 1993.

Partly because of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck was held under suspicion of being a communist by the FBI.  According to Steinbeck’s son, the FBI could find no reason to legally prosecute Steinbeck so instead they ordered that his taxes be audited every year “just to be politically annoying” (Thomas Steinbeck, in an article for Huffington Post).  Incidentally, one of the books strongest advocates was Eleanor Roosevelt.  She visited migrant camps in 1940 and maintained that contrary to accusations, she did not find that the conditions of the camps had been exaggerated in The Grapes of Wrath.

My sources for this entry were two great articles:  “Banned Books Awareness: The Grapes of Wrath” and “Grapes of Wrath and the Politics of Book Burning” from NPR.

 

An Interview With Sarah Chorn, of Bookwork Blues and SF Signal

bookreadingSarah Chorn uses her blog, Bookworm Blues, and her column, “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” at SF Signal to bring attention to authors with disabilities and characters in speculative fiction with disabilities.  She interviews and hosts guest blogs with people who experience mental and physical challenges and explores how people with disabilities are represented in genre fiction.  I’m so happy that she was able to do this interview!

On both Bookworm Blues and SF Signal, you feature guest posts and interview by authors with disabilities and/or authors who feature characters with disabilities.  What led you to focus on this aspect of writing and representation?

A few things, really. Two of my brothers introduced me to fantasy when I was a teenager, and my brother Rob really kept me involved in the genre for quite a while after that. We’d always trade books and talk about what we read. My brother Rob is disabled. He was born with part of his brain missing. He has seizures and now he is paralyzed as well. A few years ago Rob had a horrible seizure that really ripped his mind apart, and rocked his body into temperatures of 107 degrees for five days. It was terrifying. As a result of that, he can’t read anymore, but we still talk about books a lot and he still loves the genre despite the fact that he can’t really participate in it the way he used to. A few years ago I was talking to him about one thing or another and he said, “I really wish that someone would talk about how people like me can be important in books, too.” That sentence is where the whole idea for my column sprang from. I did some research after that, and I realized that there are lots of people talking about gender, and race in the genre, religion and other aspects of diversity, but I really couldn’t find anyone talking about disabilities in the genre, and how people like my brother Rob can be important, too.

I decided to change that.

And I’m beyond thrilled that so many authors and bloggers and readers are willing to help out.

Can you talk about one particular post that really got your attention – something that made you see things in a different way or have a new idea?

It’s hard for me to pick a few that stand out because they all move me so profoundly. This is an incredibly complex topic, and the more people write about it, the more I learn. However, if I had to choose one piece that really sticks out to me the most is an interview I did last November with my brother Rob. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/11/special-needs-in-strange-worlds-a-conversation-with-my-brother/It was neat to be able to talk to him, to see why reading is so important to him, and how he uses books as a way to inform and educate others, as well as to get out of his own skin. Reading isn’t just about escape, for my brother it is a lifeline, and it really took me having that candid discussion with him to grasp that.

Jim C. Hines wrote a piece recently about writing with depression. That also really touched me because he was so open about his struggles, but he also candidly talked about how he was trying to integrate it all into his writing. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/05/guest-post-special-needs-strange-worlds-jim-c-hines-writing-depression/ Struggles aren’t just physical, and Hines really did a great job at delving honestly into some mental and emotional issues, but also showing readers how, despite his battles, there is always hope. It was really touching, and quite empowering.

Contributors to Special Needs in Strange Worlds (on SF Signal) talk about a huge range of disabilities.  Are there any common threads you observed?

I am truly amazed at the strength of the human spirit. Each article that someone writes absolutely astounds me by how strong, how positive, how hopeful that person is, whether they are disabled, or know someone who is. People in general are amazing. It truly humbles me to see how many people are willing to participate in my column, and support my effort to keep a dialogue going. A lot of people open up about a lot of personal, emotional, deeply touching details when they write for Special Needs in Strange Worlds. That takes very real strength, and it takes a kind of courage that really boggles my mind.

That’s probably what has stood out to me the most while my column has run. People are so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. I find myself constantly inspired and enlightened by the email I get, the articles that have been written and are being written, and the subjects people talk about. You are all so amazing and so strong. Every last person involved in Special Needs in Strange Worlds has touched me profoundly, and inspired me.

In your experience, is SFF more or less open (or about the same) as other genres of fiction when it comes to talking about people with disabilities in a sensitive way?

I think it’s a work in progress. In general I tend to think that speculative fiction is a progressive genre. The whole purpose of it is to play pretend, to explore things that might not be, and see how life would change if those things existed. What if we had magic, or space ships, or governments that spanned species and planets, or could shape shift? It’s a progressive genre, but I think that we have our issues just like anyone. If we didn’t, there would be no reason to have people fighting for diversity, or equal representation.

That being said, I do think that things are getting better. It’s the natural flow of progress. I see fewer authors inserting the token disabled person in the books they write. Fewer are fixing (or curing) disabilities unnecessarily. It seems like more authors are realizing that it’s okay for their character to suffer from depression – that’s realistic. It’s okay if their protagonist has asthma – it doesn’t need to be fixed. It also doesn’t need to negatively impact what those characters are capable of achieving. Someone with asthma can be important, too. Someone in a wheelchair, as Stephen King proves in his Dark Tower series, can be just as badass as anyone else.

We read for a number of reasons, and we write for a number of reasons. We like to see bits of ourselves in the books we read, but we also like to get out of our own skin and live someone else’s life for a time, face different challenges, see the world through different eyes. I am loving this trend of authors really embracing that, and realizing that the world (ours or a secondary one) isn’t homogenous. Diversity is beautiful, and vibrant, and oh-so-important. Diversity makes a book real. It’s important to insert that in the books we read and write and I’m thrilled that so many people realize that.

Though as a genre, there is room to grow. That’s part of what I love about speculative fiction. There is always room to grow, room to improve, and room to change. Speculative fiction is always changing. That’s why it’s such a fantastic, exciting genre to be part of.

However, I do get disappointed by how frequently disabilities get overlooked and underrepresented in important genre discussions on diversity and equality. I’m not sure how to fix that, and I guess that’s a big reason why I started my column. I want to get the discussion going. I want people to realize that diversity is so important, and so is equality, and there is a huge group of people who really almost never get a seat at the table, or a voice in the conversation when these discussions are raging. These are people like my brother who just wants the world to realize that he might be paralyzed, but he can be important, too. It breaks my heart. It’s about tolerance and understanding, about realizing that limitations don’t necessarily mean that the person is limited and incapable, and certainly not helpless. We need to see that in the books we read, just like we need to understand that in real life. It isn’t about glorifying anyone. It’s about realizing that the world isn’t homogenous, and everyone can be important. Everyone is important. We are all the protagonists in our own novels.

People keep meticulous track of how many books written by women they read each year, and while I truly and honestly applaud that (never stop!), I look forward to the day when people pay as much attention to the representation of disabilities in the genre. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say, “At (insert convention here) there was a diversity panel and (insert author here) talked about disabilities” – I don’t hear it often enough. Change happens slowly, and I really hope that eventually disabilities will get as much attention and discussion as anything else.

Can you tell us some more about your other projects in the writing and blogging world?

There isn’t much to say, really. I wish there was, but there isn’t. I’m pretty boring. I continue to write reviews on Bookworm Blues, and my column Special Needs in Strange Worlds will push forward on SF Signal until people run out of things to say. I hope that never happens. I’m currently working with Shaun Duke (Of The Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast) on a Special Needs in Strange Worlds anthology where all proceeds will go to charity. Occasionally someone will ask me to podcast, which I always welcome. I have a few writing projects in the fire, but until I have a set publication date and all that, I’m keeping my lips sealed rather tight. Other than that, I’m anxious to start participating in conventions, and whatever else comes my way.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake

This may be the most personally exciting History’s Hidden Heroes installment ever.  Why is the story of Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd not a series on BBC?  Can I make it one?  Can David Tennant be involved somehow?  Seriously, how is this not a movie?

Sophia Jex-Blake was born to traditional parents who refused to allow her to attend college.  Once she overcame their objections, she attended Queens College, alongside future education reform leader Dorotha Beale.  Sophia befriended leading feminists and suffragette.  She decided to pursue becoming a doctor, but had to go to the University of Edinburgh because British medical schools did not allow women to attend.  Sophia was one of the Edinburgh Seven – the first seven female students at the University.  The seven women faced great opposition including being barred from the gates and attacked by a mob.

Once Sophia passed her exams, she was forbidden to practice medicine in Britain because of her gender. In 1877, Russell Gurney convinced parliament to pass a law that empowered medical school to issue degrees to both male and female students.  Sophia became a practicing doctor in 1877 and opened a clinic that served low-income women.

Margaret Todd became a student at the newly opened Edinburgh School for Women in 1886.  while she was studying, she was also writing a novel: Mona Maclean, Medical Student.  She graduated from medical school in 1894, and Mona was published under the name Graham Travers in the same year.  Margaret was a friend of chemist Frederick Soddy and she provided him with a word that is vital to discussion of radioactive particles today:  “isotope”

Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd

Margaret and Sophia were romantic partners until Sophia’s death in 1912.  Margaret died shortly after publishing a biography of Sophia.

For a great article including political cartoons of the time and some excerpts from Margaret’s book, go to Women in Science.  I cannot wait to read Mona Maclean, Medical Student!  I also used the site Celtic Life International, which pointed out the injustice in the fact that Margaret Todd, medical practitioner for years and author of six novels and a biography, is only remembered for a word she suggested to a male friend.

Between the Lines Book Club: John Steinbeck

between the lines book club logo

This month on Between the Lines we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Leave comments here, or better yet join us at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA at 2PM on September 28, 2014.

John Steinbeck’s life and writings are deeply tied to California.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902.  He attended Stanford University on and off for six years before officially dropping out.  After trying to earn a living as a freelance writer in New York City, he came back to California, married Carol Henning, and became a caretaker at Lake Tahoe.  During the Great Depression, he moved to Pacific Grove, where he fished and crabbed and wrote with paper and money provided by his parents.

Steinbeck family home

The home in which Steinbeck was raised is now a museum and restaurant.

Steinbeck’s first hit was his fifth book, Tortilla Flat.  This book concerns a group of friends who live in an impoverished  neighborhood on the outskirts of Monterey.  Although the book was a commercial success, Steinbeck felt it was misunderstood, claiming that he did not mean to belittle or patronize his characters.  Steinbeck’s next three novels, In Dubious BattleOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath directly addressed the Great Depression.  His next book, Cannery Row, was a fictionalized description of life in Monterey.  The character “Mary Talbot”, the depressed wife of a struggling writer, is based on Steinbeck’s wife, Carol.  The character “Doc” is based on Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts.

Carol and John

Carol and John

Steinbeck was a war correspondent in WWII.  He travelled through Europe, North Africa, and Italy, writing human interest pieces about the lives of soldiers.You can read more about his service in WWII in this article from San Jose University.  Steinbeck also covered the war in Vietnam.  Despite his life-long leftist leanings, Steinbeck was in favor of the Vietnam War, which two of his sons fought in.

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Steinbeck died at the age of 66 in 1968, of heart failure.  He had written 29 books as well as plays and screenplays.  He cited William Faulker and Ernest Hemingway as the authors he most admired.  He is buried at Salinas, California, home of the John Steinbeck Museum.

You can see a short video about Steinbeck’s life on biography.com

Science With Julia Child

WednesdayVideoThis is sweet, funny, and thought-provoking.  Julia Child teams up with Phil Morrison to teach us something important about Carbon.  This was for his six part miniseries, “The Ring of Truth:  An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know”, which he produced and wrote for PBS.

Morrison was a physics professor who worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a prominent speaker against nuclear proliferation.  As a child he has polio, and he wore a leg brace until the later part of his life, when he used a wheelchair.  As an astrophysicist, he pioneered gamma ray astronomy.

One hopes Julia Child needs no introduction!  Here’s Julia and Phil: