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(1) Women being smart and loyal and heroic and AWESOME.

(2) Women being best friends with each other.

(3) Books that are superbly well written, intricately plotted, meticulously researched, with fantastic voices, and some parts that are very funny in the midst of terribly stuff happening, and some parts that are terribly harrowing and emotionally raw.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein is precisely at the intersection of that Venn Diagram.

Queenie is Scottish and from a rich family, and having gone to school in Switzerland and being fluent in French and German she has the necessary connections to start working in intelligence. Maddie's grandparents immigrated from Russia, and her family owns a motorbike shop, which has given her the chance to learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine -- and a chance accident years before the war gives her the chance to learn to be a pilot, which is how she ends up ferrying planes from one place to another under cover of night for the RAF. When they meet, they develop a friendship that is tender and beautifully drawn.

And then, something happens to the pilot who was supposed to fly Queenie to France, and it's Maddie who ends up taking over. But the plane gets shot at and becomes unlandable. Queenie parachutes out, but -- she looks the wrong way when crossing the street ant the Nazis detain her as a spy. After being tortured, she agrees to give her captors information (and though there's nothing too graphic about the depiction of this, you can't help but sympathize with the decision.) What she writes is the life of her friend, Maddie, up to the point where the plane goes down.

That is about as much as I can say without spoiling the plot, which has a few remarkable revelations towards the end.

There are so few books like this, in the way the friendship between the two girls is so vital to the book. It's truly a love story, though a platonic one, and one of the most beautiful I've read recently. They never fall in love with the same boy and get jealous of each other, which if you read YA books is about the only thing that can happen to girls who are friends. They just care deeply for each other and they make a fantastic team.

The other piece of this is -- one of the reasons I don't often read things set in WWII, or the American Revolutionary War, is that so often they make an appeal to a kind of patriotism I just can't believe in, an assumption that the US is the Best Freeest Country God Ever Put On The Earth. Code Name Verity has courage and heroism in spades but it never feels like it's justified in terms of airy idealism. Queenie is good at being a spy and she likes it; Maddie is good at flying a plane and she loves it; and this puts them into some terribly dangerous places and watches how they react. That's all. It made me feel -- which I have never felt before -- "Yeah, if I was in that situation, I can see how I could end up fighting in a war."

I don't know that I will sign up for Yuletide this year just to ask for Code Name Verity fic, but I sure hope that someone does!
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I am doing a lot -- a LOT -- of committee reading.

Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a lot of fun for someone who once went to a great deal of trouble to track down all eighteen volumes of a certain angel-and-demon-fall-in-love manga. I didn't mind the cracktastic theology in that one, but I'm glad that Smoke and Bone finds a way to effectively sidestep those questions. I'm pretty disillusioned with Extruded Paranormal Product these days, but Taylor is a genuinely great writer and finds a way to effectively balance the EPICness with witty banter -- in that respect, and the Doomed Angsty Love respect, I think Buffy fans should give it a try.

Martha Brooks is one of my favorite writers, someone who can infuse very quiet situations with a humanity and tenderness that are more compelling than a plot with a lot of shiny moving parts. The Queen of Hearts is her newest one, set at a TB sanatorium in southern Manitoba during World War II, and if any writer could make it interesting to hang out at a TB sanatorium on the Canadian prairies, it's Martha Brooks. It is a very Canadian book. I am pondering the possibilities of vegetarian tourtiere (it's a traditional French-Canadian mincemeat pie. Needless to say it has been a while.) I think this will become one of my favorite books about friendship; the characters are so human, and so flawed, and the book treats their relationship as both hard and genuinely important.
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Apropos of something, I've been thinking about children's and YA novels written from a standpoint of Well-Meaning Privilege. Remember when all the books about black people were about how awful slavery was? And all the books about Jewish people were about how awful the Holocaust was?

It seems to me that there's a genre of books where
1) The assumed audience is a generically privileged reader;
2) The purpose of the book is to educate readers about the lives and experiences of a marginalized group;
3) The most relevant emotion for a privileged reader to feel, when confronted with the experience of a marginalized group, is pity.

1 and 2 are problematic in themselves -- 1 for the way it assumes that people of that marginalized group aren't even readers, 2 for the ways it can slip into a viewpoint that's othering/exoticizing/ethnographic and for the way they tend to reduce every character to some kind of iconic emblem of their own culture. But it's the pity that's really toxic.

Read more... )
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-I finished The Female Man, which is quite possibly the oddest novel I have ever read. I've become more and more disenchanted with the dictum, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union" -- by the way, are we ever going to update that? Is the next generation going to know what a Western Union is?

As story, it's not traditionally structured, the points of view are often slippery, it's hard to find a clear through-line to the plot -- but as philosophy, it's tremendous, and it does a lot of things it wouldn't have been able to do as nonfiction or polemical lecture.

There's no such thing as story in a vacuum, story with no moral center. It's just that there are some stories where the viewpoint seems so self-evident and natural to the reading audience that it slips down without any argument. Which is why the classic feminist SF novels are called anvilicious and the classic SF novels that just barely have speaking parts for women aren't.

-Needless to say, I am rolling my eyes at this article in the Wall Street Journal on "dark" YA books.

Any article that conflates the action-adventure violence of The Hunger Games, the realistic darkness of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and the melodrama sensationalism of melodrama-sensationalistic problem novels is profoundly uninterested in what teens are actually reading, not to mention the hows and whys of their reading.

Mostly, I'm not interested in homeopathic bibliotherapy: you are sad about X, so here is a book about X. I think the books that come out of that kind of philosophy are often bad books. But I am with Nisi Shawl. The books that you want to read are the books that are going to nourish you, often in ways you don't fully understand. And to fence off any topic or theme as not appropriate for young adults, I think, gets in the way of that.


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