Sweet (on) Polly Oliver

So I just read the book Bloody Jack for no other reason than that it was on my to-read list and I wanted something short and sweet. It ticked of a lot of boxes of what I like to read about, primarily pirates and girls disguising themselves as boys to become pirates/sailors. It was a good book, written in a dialect but done well so that it drew you in instead of disengaging you.

However, it did bring to mind exactly what disappoints me about these narratives so often (these narratives being: girl disguises self as boy to accomplish goals). It’s that every. single. time. her disguise is blown when she falls in love with a boy/a boy falls in love with her and she “has” to reveal herself to prevent serious awkwardness on his part.

Number one, it’s heteronormative and usually comes with the implicit assumption that if the girl doesn’t reveal her “true” gender, and instead lets her love interest believe he’s interested in a guy, she’s the guilty party. If you’re wondering about the name for this post, it’s actually the name of this trope. Find out more here.

Number two, it places potential embarrassment on the part of the boy above an often life-threatening situation for the girl. Who’s the protagonist here, again?

Number three, it messes with her objectives–suddenly keeping her secret is no longer her prime directive, it’s shacking up with the guy. Her goals, which were so important that she disguised herself for (potentially) years, fall by the wayside in a way that breaks my suspension of disbelieve every time.

I’m not wringing Bloody Jack out here specifically–it’s a good book. But it happened to catalyze a lot of my frustration around girl-disguised-as-boy narratives. There’s so many interesting ways to take a plot like that, but inevitably they all end the same. It’s one of my goals to write one of those more interesting ones at some point.

If you know any books that take this trope in more interesting ways, please send them my way in the comments! I’d love to hear them (and, better yet, read them).


Book Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Just last week I posted my 2018 Reading Resolutions, and here I am, one down already! In a stroke of luck my university library had The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie, which immediately drew me to it with promises of lesbian pirates raising sea monsters. On all three of those counts, I was not disappointed.

To get right into the plot, protagonist Cas was raised into the industry of Reckoner training: sea monsters that protect ships in a post-apocalyptic world where pirates target cargo crossing the NeoPacific Ccean. On her first solo mission, Cas’ reckoner is killed and she is taken hostage in order to raise a Reckoner pup which the pirate captain Santa Elena has mysteriously secured. Over the subsequent months, Cas must come to terms with the facts that she is falling for her watchdog/pirate-captain-in-training Swift, raising a true monster to kill those she once worked to protect, and perhaps becoming something of a monster herself.

Cas’ slow acceptance of what she creates–a man-eater–and what she becomes–a killer–is one of the best parts of this book. There are several moments in which Cas, astride Bao, her killer Reckoner, realizes she and her monster are the most dangerous things in the ocean…and she loves it. In a different book this would scare Cas into stronger moral (re)action, but in this case, she embraces it.

It’s not just that Cas comes to realize there’s a gray area between what she has always seen as good/evil. She does this. But there is also a distinct awareness on her part that piracy is nevertheless horrific, and what she is doing is horrific, and with that realization in mind she continues on instead of backing away. This, more than anything, is what sets this book apart in my eyes.

That said, she doesn’t try very hard to cling on to her previous worldview or life, and this disrupted the narrative for me a bit. Cas doesn’t seem to have any ties to her family and past life on land. They seem to have no bearing on her conscience beyond lip service. I would have been more convinced if there was a little more agonizing over the morality of her actions, or at least something in her background to explain the ease with which she accepts her about-face into piratic murder.

While this ambiguity did push me away from the story at some points, little details brought me back in. Descriptions of Cas training Bao were rich and immersive, perhaps the most so in the book. Cas’ and Swift’s relationship, which was shallo at first, quickly endeared me to it. The element I most appreciated and loved was their constant, mutual agreement of “equal footing”. Neither pursued a romantic relationship while Cas was still Swift’s captive charge, though both acknowledged romantic feelings. Fantastically done and touching.

In all, The Abyss Surrounds Us promised monsters, pirates, and romance, and delivered all three, along with an intriguing descent into gray morality. My eyes will be open for the sequel.

(P.S. from HQ: on my tumblr I am doing a giveaway of awesome swag I got at YALLFest, so if you’re interested check it out here!)

2018 Reading Resolutions

Last year I completed 3/5 of my 2017 Writing Resolutions, which I think is pretty impressive, and 4/5 of my 2017 to-read list. All in all, I’m calling it a success, considering the overall apocalyptic nature of 2017 (good riddance). Without further ado, here are the five books I am DETERMINED to read in 2018! If you can spot the theme of this year’s list and mention it in the comments, you get a prize (hint: it’s not subtle).

  1. Release by Patrick Ness

According to Patrick Ness, by whom I was seriously impacted at YALLFest, this book is a combination of Mrs. Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever. For that reason, this reading resolution is actually 3 books in 1, because I will be reading those two to before I read Release. I am very excited for them all.



2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I actually have this book, and it was recommended to me by one of my favorite people in the world, a very incredible religious studies professor who enjoys, like me, religion and science fiction in any and all combinations. It looks like a great story with a great cast.




3. Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

I NEED TO READ THIS BOOK SO BADLY. I see it all over tumblr, and have since it came out–it’s been on my “to read asap” list since before it was published. This is the year it happens.





4. The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

Pacific-Rim-type monsters? Pirate queens?? Monster raising??? All of the above but queer???? Count me in.





5. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera


So, confession, this is the one from last year’s list that I didn’t manage to read–none of my libraries had it. But I already ordered it and should have it read by the end of the month. I swear! (This time for real!)


YALLFest Notes: Wrap-Up

This is my last of three posts reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest a few weeks ago. I’m sure I could go on for the foreseeable future, but I’m going to stop at three. I’m not focusing on one or two authors here, but overall takeaways from the weekend.

  1. YALLFest was a really radical place to be. I somehow managed to forget that last year, YALLFest proved to be a verbally acknowledged space for mourning and hope post-election. This year, every panel was on top of social issues, every author that spoke talked about changing the world through literature, and Libba Bray kicked off the end party by singing “Born this Way” with a rainbow flag cape. That pervasive sense of hope and, yes, activism and revolution through YA, was tangible and amazing. It made me think, yes, this is where I need to be, what I need to strive for.
  2.  Strong characters make strong stories, and weak characters break stories.
  3. From Soman Chainani: You have to be in love with your story. IN LOVE. That will hold it together when things get messy. Write with love and the honesty of your on experience of being.
  4. From Patrick Ness: Write the books you should have had. Write the books that you needed.
  5. From Cassandra Clare: extreme pain in a book can clear the way for great happiness.
  6. I can’t wait for YALLFest 2018.

YALLFest Notes: Angie Thomas

This is the second installment in my reflections on YALLFest, this time feat. Angie Thomas, who I got to hear speak twice–once in a panel called “The Here and Now”, focused on bringing contemporary issues into ya fiction, and again in the closing keynote with Cassandra Clare. Angie Thomas is not just a hell of a writer, but brilliant and insightful. She said a lot about what writing can do that really resonated with me and made me consider why I write.

The Here and Now Panel consisted of Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Patrick ness, Zac Brewer, and Kekla Magoon moderating, a frankly astounding array of people. That much awesomeness in one room is practically revolutionary.

“Through fiction we build empathy.” Thomas said this early on during the panel, and it turned into the theme for the hour. Reading a book makes alterity personal. It’s probably the closest you can come to actually living someone else’s life. You have no choice but to walk away from a book with some understanding of the perspective you were immersed in for the duration. This is something that I have long believed to be the prime directive of reading, and why diverse reading is so important, especially for young children.

Thomas also spoke about hope: how hope is not always found in happy endings. Hope can be found in the narrative itself, hope in the fact that change will happen because of this book, hope in someone seeing themselves where they didn’t before. Personally, unhappy endings make me feel like a pillbug caught in the sunlight. But I take her point.

Near the end of the panel, the question was posed: if writing is creating change, then are you [the authors] activists?” The answers that everyone gave were poignant and resonated with me, as this is exactly what I have been struggling with: bridging the gap between activist and author to author as activist.

The response of Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was incredible. Activism, she said, is about agitation: it has always been incendiary. Her writing is deliberately inflammatory–she wants people to be uncomfortable reading it. That’s activism: change through uncomfortable confrontation with reality. The discomfort is necessary. Had it been appropriate, I would have been applauding in the theater.

As I was trying to focus and scribble down as many notes as possible, I was also critically examining my own writing. ] What is its purpose? If someone asked me if I was an activist, I would say “I’m trying to be.” If someone asked whether my writing was activism, I honestly don’t know what I’d say. I would want nothing more than to say “yes: I wrote this book to provoke change in the minds of those who read it”. But I don’t know if I’ve earned that through my narrative. And I want to earn it.

*This is the second post in a series reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest, author by author. Stay tuned for next week.*

Report from a Literature Symposium

What a day! I spent 9 am to 3 pm at a Children’s Literature Symposium held at my university! In attendance were Heather Bouwman, stupendous author of A Crack in the Sea, Allan Wolf, poet extraordinaire, Alan Gratz, author of The League of Seven, and Donna Washington, world-travelling storyteller. I spent the day absorbing some sweet, sweet knowledge from some amazing teachers. Here are some take-aways from each person:

Heather Bouwman: the heart of a novel is in the story, not the plot. The story is character growth, emotion, and connection to the reader. When you draft, draft the story, not the plot. The way we teach fantasy is not the way we read it–so draft with the reading experience in mind, not analysis and themes. Fantasy allows a temporary escape from which we return stronger and smarter.

Allan Wolf: the importance of interaction with a story, as regards to education (the conference was geared towards educators), and thinking about hard questions through fiction. There are so many ways to engage with fiction.

Alan Gratz: poetry isn’t about reading or writing poetry but rather about seeing the world through a poet’s eyes. See the world as if seeing it for the first time. Once you realize the ordinary is extraordinary, the whole world cracks open for you. Don’t let someone else write your story. And you have to boil a lot of sap to get a little maple syrup.

Donna Washington: story-telling is visual. It is about emotion, expression, voices, and audience participation. To be honest I’m having a hard time putting what I learned from her in words, because I haven’t processed it all yet–it was such a spectacular experience to hear her tell stories.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I have never experienced a story told as amazingly as Donna Washinton told them (she told us three), nor poems recited so enthusiastically as Allan Wolf. It was a privilege to meet H. M. Bouwman, whose book is indescribably beautiful, and I discovered I really need to read Alan Gratz’s books…

The whole day made me more and more excited for the rapidly-approaching Yallfest!

Review: The Ship of the Dead

So on October 3rd I was walking through the bookstore, minding my own business, checking out the new arrivals, when I see Magnus Chase number 3, The Ship of the Dead, staring at me. My whole body went into low-level shock. My hand started shaking. I walked numbly to the cashier with a copy cradled in my arms. I knew it came out in October, but I most certainly did NOT know it came out that very day, October 3rd.

It’s the last book in the Magnus Chase trilogy, which is interesting because it did not feel like a conclusion. For one thing, it’s much shorter than the first two bricks. For another, it lack the energy of the rest of the series. The first two books literally had me glued to my seat, non-stop excitement, and The Ship of the Dead just didn’t have that.

It’s a much more character-driven book than the others as well, but, oddly, it’s not Magnus‘ character. The stars of this book are the side characters: Mallory Keen, Thomas Jefferson Junior, Halfborn Gundeson, Samirah al-Abbas, and Alex Fierro. Magnus is more the vehicle through which we appreciate their development. Plot threads that I thought would play a critical role in the finale, such as Hearthstone’s final return to his brother’s grave or Samirah’s struggle to overcome her father’s influence, felt more like episodic moments.

That said, Alex and Magnus’ relationship had me almost in tears. Perfection. Riordan’s nearly-effortless inclusion of queer characters and relationships while still providing thoughtful and poignant analysis via Magnus is inspiring. For that matter, his handling of all the diversity in Magnus Chase provides a standard we should all aspire to. And he doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Where he could have shied away from highlighting the diversity in this series, he instead embraced it. He didn’t take the easy way out and include romantic moments only when Alex identifies as a girl. There is constant positive discussion of Islam and Samirah’s practice, casual inclusion of nonbinary characters, frequent description of specific ASL signs, lipreading, and interpretation, and pertinent discussion of discrimination throughout the book.

While the conclusion to Magnus Case may not have been as non-stop and downright exceptional as the first two, it was still a hell of a book, if nothing else than for the wonderfully characterized, effortlessly diverse cast, and Riordan’s unflinching engagement with those characters’ identities.