I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson


Meet my new favorite novel.

I was a huge fan of Jandy Nelson’s first book, The Sky is Everywhere, but for some reason, I was really slow to pick up her second book after it was finally released last year. On the bright side, this means I got the emotional-rollercoaster-esque pleasure of reading it now, at just the time I needed it.

I’ll Give You The Sun is the story of two twins who grow apart, before and after a tragedy. The “before” story belongs to thirteen year old Noah, an aspiring artist and outsider who sketches constantly and dreams of going to art school. He used to be inseparable from his twin sister Jude, but recently she’s turned into a popular surfing daredevil, scornful of his “weirdness” and jealous of his talent and closeness with their mom. When the charismatic stargazer Brian moves next door, Noah instantly falls in love, but does Brian feel the same way?

The “after” belongs to the sixteen year old Jude, a superstitious, closed-off sculptor who’s failing out of art school and has barely spoken to her more-popular brother in years. When she decides that she needs to create a stone sculpture to send a message to her dead mother, she sets out to convince a local unpredictable artist to mentor her. In the process, she meets Oscar, a blatant “don’t go near him, he’s trouble” guy who tests her self-imposed boy boycott.

As the back of the book says, Jude and Noah each only have half of the story. They know half of what happened to their family, half of what happened to their mom, half of what happened to their relationship with one another. They moved seemingly irreparably apart, but they need to move past their guilt and resentment and talk to one another in order to piece the truth together.

I’ll admit, when I read the first page, my main thought was, “I can’t read this.” Nelson’s writing is very metaphorical and poetic, and it takes a couple of pages to get used to it. But once I did, the writing style felt emotional but natural, and made perfect sense in the context of melodramatic tortured-artist-soul Noah and closed-off, guilt ridden Jude. It’s very artsy, but the whole book is about the emotional power of art, so somehow, it works.

And when I say it works, I mean it really, really works. This book is beautiful and emotionally devastating and revealing and uplifting and generally wonderful.

It’s not flawless, of course. I had some issues with the romance, in particular — not with how they’re written, as it’s very easy to get swept up with both stories, but in an objective, “seriously, Jude, this guy may be charismatic but he’s also 19 and this is not a good idea” way. But beyond a little frustration in the moment, this didn’t really affect my feelings on the book.

I’ll Give You The Sun absolutely captivated me. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, flaws and all. I’m completely in love.

Please read it.

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Jessica Jones vs Supergirl


Jessica Jones is not what all female superhero stories have to be.

Since both Supergirl and Jessica Jones were announced for release this fall, people have been desperate to compare them. The two series have nothing in common, beyond the general superhero setup and the fact that they have female protagonists, and yet people have almost treated them as competing adaptations of the story, and rushed to decide which one was the best.

The winner, almost inevitably, seemed to be Jessica JonesJessica Jones, after all, is dark. It’s gritty. She’s a “brawling, whisky-chugging, self-destructive mess,” dealing with the darker side of Marvel’s superpowered world, a serious character in a serious story for serious and intelligent viewers. Contrast with the cheery, optimistic, rom-com esque world of Supergirl, with cutesy superhero costumes and an earnest desire to do and see good in the world, and it’s obvious why a world enamored with grimdark stories like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead might prefer Marvel’s take, or at least declare it a higher caliber of storytelling.

But moving from “Jessica Jones is good” or “Jessica Jones is the sort of superhero story I want to see” to “Jessica Jones is the only right way to do female superhero stories” or “other female superheroes aren’t Jessica Jones and therefore they suck” is based on the false assumption that a female superhero can only exist in one single way, or that we can only have one female superhero at a time. The assumption isn’t surprising, even if it is subconscious — most ensemble superhero movies only have one main female superhero, while most single-hero titles only have one (non heroic) female character at all. Of course the “only one!!” perspective has settled into our psyche. But it’s not true. Just as male superheroes can range from the dark grittiness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman to the lighthearted fun of the recent Antman to Spiderman‘s teen angst and quippiness, female superhero stories can be pretty much whatever they want to be. We don’t have to be tricked into believing that we have to choose one single female superhero to represent all female viewers in the world.

Yes, it’s great that we’re getting a female superhero who fits in with that trendy “darkness and nihilism and everybody dies” vibe. Gritty realism isn’t just for male characters, with female love interests merely existing to be threatened or killed and create a motive for revenge. It’s great that Jessica Jones is a complex and morally interesting protagonist, and is neither the clutzy aspiring journalist who’s unlucky in love or the femme fatale spy/assassin that we’re used to seeing.

But Jessica Jones is not a show for me. Not right now. I am completely burned out on grimdark stories, and just reading a description of the series’ backstory made me feel sick.

If I wanted to watch a female-led superhero story, or any superhero story, I’d want one like Supergirl. Something that skewed slightly younger perhaps. Something optimistic and fun. And if I was going to see myself in one of these protagonists, Kara Danvers would come a lot closer than Jessica Jones

And that’s fine, because we don’t have to be restricted to one type of story. Viewers can watch the “girlier” Supergirl. They can watch Jessica Jones stare darkness in the face and deal with incredibly difficult issues. They can step back to the 1940s for the perfect-lipstick world of Peggy Carter or grab a copy of Ms Marvel for some identity-searching teenage heroics. They can enjoy all of them, or some of them, or none at all. We can have optimistic heroines and pessimistic heroics, anti-hero heroines and Lawful Good heroines, reluctant heroines and heroines who throw themselves into their heroics headfirst. We don’t have to pick which version of “female superhero” we like best and have it represent all women forevermore. We can have as much variety as we see in male-led stories.

But only if we insist on it. So enough with the Supergirl OR Jessica Jones. It should be Supergirl AND Jessica Jones, and many more to come.

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Do choices matter in Telltale games?



Yesterday, the final episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones game finally hit Steam. The game had a lot of expectations to meet — it promises, during every moment of gameplay, that your decisions will affect the story. After five episodes of strategy, manipulation and hard choices, players really wanted to see how they personally had affected the fate of House Forrester.

But did the decisions make any difference? Players familiar with other Telltale games won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is no. Players experienced a slightly different path depending on one major choice from episode five, and events happen slightly differently depending on what strategy you choose in this episode. But otherwise, no. It doesn’t make a difference. House Forrester meets the same fate. The same characters live or die, with one exception, and that one is only affected by a single decision in this episode, and not by anything that came before.

It’s incredibly frustrating, considering how much the game emphasized that your choices matter.

Coincidentally, I also just finished the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a game that affected me so much I took a week-long break between episodes four and five due to despair over what was happening, and cried all the way through the credits and beyond. But here’s the thing. Choices don’t really change things in The Walking Dead either. The plot progresses almost exactly the same, no matter what. Yet while Game of Thrones‘ false free will frustrated me, The Walking Dead still managed to feel emotionally resonant, and the choices still felt meaningful.

The difference lies in the kind of choices that the games offer, and in where their difficulty lies. In Game of Thrones, we’re focussed on the potential result of our choices, while in The Walking Dead, it’s the choosing in itself that matters.

(Note: the post contains mild spoilers for both The Walking Dead S1 and Game of Thrones)


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We Are the Capitol: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Theme Park


A couple of weeks ago, Lionsgate announced that they would be opening several Hunger Games theme parks — one in Atlanta, one in Macau, China and one in Dubai. According to the Guardian:

Guests will be greeted by actors dressed as District 12’s downtrodden inhabitants and get the chance to visit locations such as the Hob black market and Peeta Mellark’s bakery. Other rides will include a “lavish” rollercoaster, built to imitate the train in which Katniss and Peeta make the journey to the Capitol and their meeting with almost certain death.

Sounds… fun?

The media discussion on these theme parks is slightly unclear, but it seems like this won’t be a “Hunger Games Land,” so much as part of a larger Lionsgate-themed entertainment park, including other franchises like Twilight. Even so, the decision to make the dystopian world of The Hunger Games into an interactive visitors’ attraction, like Harry Potter World or Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld, is troubling to say the least, if also rather unsurprising.

But this theme park is simply one more piece in an extended marketing campaign that conveys the book’s dystopian message far more clearly than any book series could do in isolation. The whole point of dystopian fiction is to hold a magnifying glass to the darker parts of our society, and the media reaction to The Hunger Games feels like our society jumping under that magnifying glass, waving its arms and shouting “look at me!” The Hunger Games mirrors the perversions of our own media, and our media responds to the Hunger Games by acting out those perversions even more intensely. At this point, the media around The Hunger Games feels like particularly depressing performance art, with us all playing the role of the Capitol.


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Supergirl: She’s a Girl, but that’s OK!


Supergirl is obsessed with the fact that its “girl-ness.”

Perhaps it needs to be. It’s the first female-led superhero story in the recent adaptation boom, and before it even got out of the gate, it faced a barrage of criticism for being “too girly,” both from feminists who found the teaser to be distastefully like a rom-com, and from people who hated the idea of girliness tainting their comic book obsession.

But the result is a show that tries really, really hard to justify its existence, while also claiming it’s totally feminist and doesn’t need to justify anything, creating a narrative that’s far too self-conscious and self-congratulatory for its own good.


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Why You Should Play Undertale


OK, I’m cheating here. There isn’t much to say about Undertale from a “feminist fiction” perspective. At least, not without spoiling the game, which I really don’t want to do.

But Undertale is an absolutely amazing game, and I simply had to write about it. Don’t let that simple pixel-y look deceive you. Undertale is funny, fun, surprising and emotional. It’ll probably make you cry, and it will definitely cause you to get far too invested in a bunch of little 8-bit monsters.

In Undertale, you play a gender-neutral human child who has fallen into the underground realm of monsters. You must pass safely through this world to find the barrier between the realms and return safely home. As you go, like in most RPGs, you encounter monsters and bosses to fight. You can get items and armor to make you stronger, and you can bring down everyone you meet.

But you can also choose not to fight. All enemies have a reason for attacking you, and if you can convince them to stop, you can spare their lives and continue on your way. Put in the effort, and you might even make friends. You might even end up on a date with a skeleton.

But this isn’t a simple choice of “killer path” or “peaceful path.” Pacifism is difficult. The game always gives you a hint about how to resolve things peacefully, usually through character dialogue, but they’re not always easy to figure out. And if you never kill anyone, you never gain XP, meaning you face stronger and stronger monsters with the same health, attack and defence as when you began. When an enemy has killed you for the tenth time, it can get tempting to just hit back.

And of course, there’s the question of whether you want to be a pacifist all of the time. Sure, it’s easy to spare the cute fluffy dog or the nice woman who baked you pie, but if the enemy has done awful things, do you want to spare them? Is it even safe to do so? Character actions have consequences, and although the game starts with a sense of “tra la la, love and kindness,” it gets far more complicated along the way.

But killing enemies has consequences too. If you start marching through the world of monsters killing everyone you encounter, characters will react to that. The whole story will change. You are, after all, a rampaging murderer to these creatures. It’s a horror story, and you’re the monster.

If players play either of these two extremes, they’ll experience almost entirely different stories, even if the basic steps are the same. But there are also many paths in middle, where you befriend one person but kill another, do this but don’t do that, that also reshape the story.

And multiple runs are encouraged. Things might not all go as you’ve intended, and the game doesn’t completely reset when you restart it. Some memories linger in the characters, and more of the story is revealed. I was told this by a friend on my first playthrough, but although I was enjoying the game, I couldn’t imagine wanting to replay it — I’d just get it right the first time. Then I actually got to the end, and immediately started the game again.

That said, the game I’m recommending is the peaceful game — the game I assume most people try to play at first, if only because that’s that game’s selling gimmick. Undertale‘s greatest strength is its characters — how much personality they have, how quickly you grow attached to them, how you might suddenly find yourself crying a not-so-digital tear when you learn more about who they are. Having finished two runs of the game, killing any of them seems too emotionally gruelling to attempt. Even watching a Let’s Play of that path on Youtube was difficult, to say the least.

After two runs and some videos, I’m sure I still haven’t seen all the possibilities in the game. It starts off deceptively light and simple, but there’s a lot hiding underneath, and something about its simplicity makes it particularly emotionally compelling.

And don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan of RPG turn-based combat. Undertale makes it far more interesting, first by having you figure out what peaceful approach is best for each enemy, and second by having a mini-game for each enemy’s attack — if you can dodge them, you don’t take any damage. And the enemies not only all have unique attacks to dodge, but attacks that change depending on what you do. An angry or distressed enemy will attack faster. An uninterested or sad enemy might not really try to hit you at all.

Overall, Undertale is a game that starts out cute and funny, but quickly sucks you in. It only takes six or seven hours to initially play, but it will stick with you for much longer than that.

I have so much I could say about this game, the cleverness of the writing, the world-building and the characters and the directions it takes. But I also don’t want to spoil a thing. Go into this one blind. Give it a try, and see where it takes you. I promise it’ll be worth it.

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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton


The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a strange, strange book.

I suppose that’s given away in the title, really. It’s strange, and it’s sad, and it is, at times, beautiful. And although I didn’t love it as much as the rest of the world seemed to, it is definitely worth a read.

Ava Lavender is a very literary novel — probably the most “literary fiction”-esque YA novel I’ve ever read. I originally wanted to write that it has a detached omniscient narrator, but I just checked, and it’s written in first person. The fact that I thought it was in third person omniscient should tell you how detached it is. Ava Lavender tells us her experiences, but she also tells other people’s stories, describing events she didn’t witness, telling us stories of things before she was born with details she couldn’t possibly know. The story isn’t grounded in Ava like you might expect a first person narrative to be — and in fact, it doesn’t really feel like her story, not completely. It’s the story of three generations of her family, all of whom are “unlucky” in love — for “unlucky,” read tragic in an almost magical way — and Ava is only one piece of it.

We start with Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, who moves with her family from France to New York and watches all of her siblings suffer and die for love in very dramatic, fairy tale ways. One sibling feels so invisible she turns into a bird. Another rips out her own heart in the agony of heartbreak. And so on it goes.

When Emilienne moves to Washington, we get a side glimpse of the legendary girl who used to live in Ava’s house, and again, it’s a fairy tale like Brothers Grimm, or perhaps a horror story, depending on your perspective.

And this sense of magic is continued with our three main characters. Emilienne sees omens in everything. Her daughter can smell things like emotion and danger. And her granddaughter Ava is born with wings. The story follows them through the years, as they struggle to figure out life and love.

But don’t be tricked by the fairy tale feeling of it — or perhaps do, but accept it for what it really is. This is a dark, dark story. The tagline on the front of the UK version is “Love makes us such fools,” but that’s far more whimsical and bittersweet sounding than the story’s actual message. Although that seems more fitting at the beginning of the book, I should repeat that Emilienne’s sister rips out her own heart before the end of chapter two. And while the book retains its sad-but-beautiful, whimsical tone, the deeper we get into the story, the darker “love” and its effects become.

Sadly, I think all the marketing and packaging for this book is quite misleading. The blurb tells us that “on the night of the summer solstice, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air and Ava’s fate is revealed,” and that has a far more positive and magical tone than the actual tale. This book is very dark and violent, and some readers may find it disturbing.

Also note the “fate is revealed” part of the description — it’s all very passive on Ava’s part. This is the story of three generations of women who struggle against the travails of love and lust and rejection, not the story of a girl with wings who finds herself, and Ava’s decisions and agency count for very little in the end. Her mother and grandmother are far more important figures in the story.

This passivity and detachment is, I think, one of the reasons I didn’t love this book as much as everyone else in the world seemed to. The other reason is simply that I don’t enjoy “literary”-style writing as much as I probably should. I can appreciate the beauty of it, but it doesn’t pull me into the story as I would like.

That said, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is definitely a book worth investigating, especially if you like your novels, as the title says, “strange, sad and beautiful.” Just be prepared for some violence too.

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Windows vs Mirrors

There’s been a lot of talk recently about author Meg Rosoff’s comments that good literature “does not have the ‘job’ of being a mirror.” Rosoff argued that there are already “thousands” of books for marginalized youth, and people shouldn’t put in any effort to feature diverse protagonists, because good literature is about expanding your mind, and should speak to many people.

In the terms most commonly used online, she’s arguing that books should be windows, not mirrors — they should let readers see and experience new things, and not just allow them to be exist in a comfortable space where they see themselves.

Her arguments have been disputed many times at this point by people far more eloquent than me, so I won’t get into it here, except to ask “a mirror for whom?” “Good literature” typically features straight, white protagonists, providing a mirror to all straight white readers out there. Are people really arguing that other readers should be happy to read those books as a window into another perspective, but that straight white readers shouldn’t be expected to do the same?

Stories cannot be separated into “windows” and “mirrors,” where some show readers new worlds, and some just show them what they already know. Every reader has different experiences and perspectives, so a “mirror” for one is a “window” for another, and no book is 100% window or mirror for anyone. No book character is identical to the reader, and no book character is so completely different to the reader that they cannot see themselves or empathize with them at all.

“Window” implies a barrier between the reader and the character — the reader is watching the character, but there’s total separation. Yet reading is an interactive experience. Yes, a lot of fiction is about exploring things the reader will never see or experience themselves, but the heart of fiction is more often than not about exploring things that readers do experience — hope, determination, heartbreak, fear. Human nature and all its strengths and pitfalls. Even the most fantastical fantasy or science fiction novel is grounded in the strengths, flaws, quirks and emotions that we see in the people around us, and see in ourself.

Similarly, no book is 100% a mirror. There will always be differences, and those differences can open the reader up to new possibilities, and help them to see things about themselves. Rosoff argued that books are “to teach kids about the world, about being different or being brave,” and the books that do this best are the books that provide at least some form of mirror for the reader. These books don’t just provide the comfort of seeing a character who is like the reader, but also the inspiration of seeing what a person like that can do. It’s fortifying and inspiring to see a character like yourself be brave and conquer their problems and fight literal demons and save the world… or at least survive high school and figure out their lives.

And let’s be honest — most books are that kind of “window” for straight, white readers, especially straight, white, cis male readers. Some people may just see those characters as the “default,” but they provide constant mirrors, and constant windows into potential and opportunity, for these particular readers. Why, then, is it so controversial and anti-literature to change up the formula, so that “marginalized youth,” as Rosoff said, can experience this too? Every book is a different mix of window and mirror for every single reader, and every single reader deserves books that challenge their own perspectives and their sense of normal, but also books that reassures them about themselves and show them what they could be.

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The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood


Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is a YA attempt at The Handmaid’s Tale… with magic.

The series is set in an oppressive version of 1890s New England, where society is run by the Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists who insist that all women either marry at 18 or join their nun equivalent, the Sisterhood. Once, New England was run by witches, but they were almost all killed in a religious uprising, and now any woman suspected of “impropriety,” or accused of witchcraft, is sent to work on a prison ship, locked up in the infamous Harwood Asylum, or simply disappears without a trace.

Cate Cahill and her two younger sisters are all witches. They practice magic in secret, but as their mother died when they were young, they know very little about their powers or magic’s past. Cate has sworn to protect her younger sisters from the Brotherhood, but her eighteenth birthday approaches, when she must either find someone to propose to her, or be married off at the Brotherhood’s behest — and they don’t like quiet, strange girls like Cate at all.

Religious oppression runs deep in this book, and it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but, as I said, this is very much a YA version of that theme, both in the sense that it has romance that’s central to the story, and in the sense that it has hope. Things get pretty grim, but they’re never hopelessly grim, in part because magic is real, the girls do have power, and we always get the sense that they’ll be able to do something about their oppression in the end. It’s that YA dystopian “the world sucks, but teenagers might be able to fix it” thing, and it helps the book feel far more fun than it otherwise could have been.

The initial plot set-up is very marriage-plot-esque — Cate must declare her intention to marry in a few months time, or her husband will be chosen for her. And this does play a significant role in the story. But this plotline is quickly overtaken by Cate’s discovery that her mother didn’t tell her everything about her magic, and that protecting her sisters may not be as simple as she once hoped.

At its heart, The Cahill Witch Chronicles is about the relationship between these three sisters. Although it has a couple of love interests and a dead-mother trope, it’s full of vibrant female characters and their many complicated relationships with one another. It’s also a very diverse book, embracing the idea that if this alternate history can have actual witches, it can definitely have people who aren’t white. So the richest and most influential people in the town are the Ishida family, with Brother Ishida as a major antagonist and his daughter Sachi playing an important role in Cate’s story. This basic principle of “if you can have magic, you can have diversity” is found throughout all three books, and it’s a refreshing change.

Also, lesbian witches!

This is a great book series for fans of Libba Bray, Robin LeFevers, or any “Victorian magic!” style fiction. I devoured all three books in about two days, and I can’t wait to see what this author writes next.

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A Twilight Genderbend Could Never Work


On Tuesday, Stephenie Meyer announced that she had released a genderbent version of Twilight. The tenth anniversary edition contained a retelling of the novel where every single character (minus Bella’s parents Charlie and Renee) had their genders switched. According to Meyer, she started the project to challenge the idea that Twilight is sexist because Bella is a damsel in distress. She is a human in distress, and this retelling was intended to prove that.

Before you get excited, or overly horrified, this isn’t a new story. This isn’t, as I originally thought, a case of Meyer wondering what the story would have been like if Bella were a guy and Edward were a girl and writing it. The vast majority of this retelling is a find-and-replace job, switching out the names and leaving the context intact, with a few bigger changes when necessary — most notably the ending, where Beau is turned into a vampire, avoiding all that messy “love triangle, half-vampire baby” stuff from the sequels.

Initially, I intended to read the new book, and maybe do a side-by-side comparison of the changes. But as I mused on it, I realized that such criticism is an exercise in pointlessness. No matter how Meyer has rewritten Twilight, no matter what she changed or left the same, the result is going to have incredibly troubling implications about gender and about relationships. The relationships and gender dynamics in Twilight are so flawed that Meyer’s experiment was doomed from the beginning.


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