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Today, I have five - count 'em - five short reviews for your delight and delectation. Talking cats, giant grasshoppers, emotionally fragile superheroes - Lady Business is a broad church today!



"Cat Girl’s Day Off" – Kimberly Pauley

White book cover for Cat Girl's Day Off shows Asian girl with cute, pink streaked short hair, and a pink cat


High school caper, "Cat Girl’s Day Off" is set in a magical world where many people have some kind of SFF extra ability. Natalie Ng comes from a whole family of these ‘Talented’ people, and possesses her own Talent. She can talk to cats.

I know that sounds cool, but Natalie doesn’t agree. As part of a driven, smart family, Natalie often ends up comparing herself unfavourably to those around her; particularly her two sisters. Viv, the eldest, is an intern with a government bureau that rivals S.H.I.E.L.D, and Natalie’s younger sister Emmy is a twelve year old high school senior. Both have prestigious Talents, and Natalie feels like her ability to talk to their dopey cat doesn’t quite compete.

While everyone knows the Talented exist, Natalie has largely kept the nature of her Talent secret. She doesn’t want to suffer the same social shaming as her classmate ‘Frog Boy’. Luckily, Natalie some great friends who know about her Talent. Oscar is a celebrity addicted dreamer who ‘lucked out in the Asian lottery’ according to Natalie - she is less than impressed with her own small height. And Melly, an aspiring actress, completes their trio.

Since his last boyfriend ‘burned him bad’, Oscar only has eyes for stars like Ty Mckenzie, and Melly is desperate to be discovered. When they find out that Ty and co-star Victoria Welling will be shooting scenes at their high school Natalie is dragged into celeb spotting and auditions.

And that’s how her trouble begins. While watching a viral video of celebrity blogger, Easton West, Natalie hears Easton’s cat claiming that he has been kidnapped by an impostor. The three friends set out to discover the truth, and launch themselves into all kinds of bizarre situations along the way.

"Cat Girl’s Day Off" is a light, fun piece of SFF. Is it just me, or has there been a dearth of fun SFF novels lately? Sometimes I want laughs with my explosions. Anyway, "Cat Girl’s Day Off" merges contemporary teen lit and SFF weirdness into a concoction perfect for summer reading. If you’re in the mood for sarcastic cats, lovable heroines and loads of action I urge you to pick up a copy. The plot gets a little silly at times, and there are plenty of improbable coincidences, but the set pieces are funny and Natalie’s voice is charmingly snarky. There are also some seriously sweet romantic moments as Natalie and Oscar find love with nice guys Ian and Garrett.

The one flaw in this novel was the casual sexism the main characters aimed at women like Easton and Victoria. While Natalie and Melly are friends, and Natalie sometimes complains when men make sexist comments about women, she’s also quick to make sexist assumptions about women she doesn’t rate. Natalie internalises and reflects the sexist culture she’s part of. And while the narrative sometimes attempts to counter her comments there are far too many jibes which go unremarked. The novel doesn’t balance comments and comebacks evenly enough to provide a substantial criticism of sexism.

Otherwise, "Cat Girl’s Day Off" was a delight – recommended.



"Grasshopper Jungle" – Andrew Smith

Neon green book cover of Grasshopper Jungle is bare except for the title and an illustration of a pair of black, insect antennae


"Grasshopper Jungle" is the most experimental piece of YA SFF I’ve read this year. There is a lot going on within the minimalist, neon green covers of this book.

"Grasshopper Jungle" is built around a contemporary story of love and friendship in a small town. While the novel’s narrator, Austin, tries to understand how he can be in love with both of his best friends, Robbie and Shannon, he and Robbie accidentally bring about the destruction of their town, and the world, by creating a plague of giant man eating insects. "Grasshopper Jungle" also builds in a line of historical investigation, as Austin walks the reader through generations of his Polish family history and tries to chronicle exactly how the world was destroyed.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on. "Grasshopper Jungle" is dedicated to filling the reading experience with weird, and I know several readers who might appreciate the sheer bizarre blow out it offers. Jeanne, Maree this could be another contender for your reading lists.

I think the style of "Grasshopper Jungle" is going to be the deciding factor for many readers – whether they like Austin’s voice and his way of recording history. Austin’s voice is deadpan, and he builds up a picture of mundane detail as he attempts to accurately chronicle events. This can be a little trying after a while, and sometimes Austin’s attention to minuscule detail overshoots a deliberately styled authorial choice and tips into dullsville.

However, it’s likely that if you find yourself tiring of Austin picking over life, some man eating insect wills show up, or Austin will switch topic and start talking about his Polish forefather’s extraordinary history. And then it’s easy to forget that a moment ago you felt like the book was droning on a bit. If you’re into kind, funny, heartfelt male friendship, and sweet but confusing romances, then maybe you’ll find enough substance in Robbie and Austin’s relationship to forgive Austin’s sometimes mercilessly attentive style of recording history. "Grasshopper Jungle" does not stint on quiet, lovely male interaction.

I really want to know what other people think of the ending though, because I wasn’t exactly a fan. I could get on with the idea that Austin was generally confused; the kind of jerk we can all be when we’re in love. So, the unsatisfactory nature of the poly relationship Robbie and Shannon find themselves in made narrative sense. However, Shannon’s convenient pregnancy, and the way the ending made Robbie and Austin feel closer than Shannon and Austin, was a bit too much to bear. It seems unfair for her to be trapped in that bunker playing mother for all eternity while the guys go on wild, mystical adventures. Thoughts?



"Rivals in the City" – Y. S. Lee

Green book cover of Rivals in the City shows a silhouetted woman walking in front of a museum


I feel broadly the same way about "Rivals in the City" as I did about the previous books in "The Agency" series. I still love Mary. I am very pro Mary and James, so I was pleased to see they are still in love and have entered into a professional partnership. I liked learning about a historical period from an expert. And I still found that Y. S Lee sometimes explained the fascinating background behind the historical details she chose to include a little too blatantly, slowing the narrative flow of her novels.

The only really new item of interest to add is that this book brought me round to shipping Felicity Frame and Anne Treleaven, the founders of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy. In this novel the two have parted company and now run separate spy agencies. Anne is sticking with the original Agency format of employing women people don’t notice, but Felicity has decided to involve men in her operation and has taken on more government work. In Rivals in the City, the two women compete for business, but are eventually reconciled. The descriptions of their past build up a picture of an intense relationship and, although the book doesn’t make it explicit that the women were ever involved, I firmly believe there’s some history there.

If you want to read more of my opinions about "The Agency" series, I wrote reviews about all the previous books: "A Spy in the House", "The Body in the Tower" (this post provides more of a general overview of why I like this series than a specific review) and "The Traitor in the Tunnel".



"Happy Families" – Tanita S. Davis

White book cover of Happy Families shows a pink personified gender symbol indicating female overlaid with a blue personified symbol indicating men - the overlay has the effect of creating a third purple person symbol


"Happy Families" follows twins Ysabel and Justin, as they try to come to terms with finding out that their dad wants to live as a woman. Their dad, who is now asking to be called Christine, moves out of the family home. A year later their parents decide its time for the family to try to reconnect, so the twin’s mother arranges for them to stay at their dad’s new house during summer vacation.

I haven’t read much fiction about teens and transgender parents, and I can’t offer much analysis of the way this novel presents Ysabel, Justin and their family as they deal with Christine coming out. I can only say that it seemed to broadly match non-fiction I’ve read about issues and concerns teens might have when told a parent is transgender. One quick point - even though the twins have questions and serious concerns, the family environment in which Christine comes out is largely supportive (her wife stands by her all the way through the novel). I thought this was probably designed as a fictional counter balance to other stories where trans people are of abandoned.

I particularly liked that "Happy Families" gave Ysabel & Justin distinct interests, and gave the whole family a rich background. Ysabel is passionate about making glass jewellery. Until he finds out about his father, Justin is a confident and driven member of the debate team. Stacey, the twin’s mother, is a business woman who runs her own catering company. The whole family are practising Christians, and importantly their religion isn’t just included so the novel can talk about potential conflicts between the church and trans people; it’s an important part of their character background. Sometimes books that deal with contemporary issues can flatten their characters to make them more widely relatable. I liked that "Happy Families" avoided this and made everyone specific and individual.

I also enjoyed seeing Ysabel and Justin interact with other teens when they spend time with a TransParent group. Rock solid support groups founded in necessity are one of my favourite friendship tropes. Beth, Connor and Marco quickly form a protective ring around Ysabel and Justin, and by helping the twins to adjust to their new reality the three established group members get to see how far they’ve come after difficult first days. The three also get the chance to make new friends, which might be hard for them in their regular lives.

By meeting Beth, Connor and Marco, Ysabel and Justin get to see that their relationship with their dad can be re-established, as well as getting support from teens with vital, lived experience. Beth, Connor and Marco offer Justin and Ysabel a safe chance to talk without worrying that they’ll be judged or accidentally hurt by clumsy questions. The twins also get to test boundaries - before they found out Christine was trans, Ysabel and Justin had no experience of trans people. They need to learn the basics just as anyone from their old friendship groups would if the twins introduced them to Christine. By talking to the other teens, the twins work out what it’s OK to say, and start to develop a way of talking about their dad being trans.

I would love a trilogy about the Nicholas family. I haven’t heard of many contemporary YA books about trans characters, and the ones I know about all seem to deal with coming out. As with gay, lesbian and bisexual YA, it would be great to have books that go beyond that initial stage, and I think the lives of the Nicholas family could provide more stories. I’d like to see if Christine can go home to her community and what happens if she returns. I’d also like a novel about the twins getting on with their lives where they hang out with Beth, Connor and Marco. I’d like to see their parents spending time with Christine’s trans friends, swapping stories and building friendships. Mostly, I want to transport some of the friendship and parental bonding that characterises Dante and Gabrielle Discover the Secrets of the Universe to this imaginary book I’m dreaming up :P



Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life As a Weapon and "Hawkeye, Vol.2: Little Hits" – David Aja & Matt Fraction

Book cover for My Life As a Weapon


Before we get into my growing love for this series, I’ve got to deal with the title of the first collected volume. "My Life As A Weapon" - what a ridiculous and wonderful choice!

The use of ‘My’ is crucial. David Fraction and David Aja may have created this title, but by including ‘My’ they frame it as though Clint Barton/Hawkeye has chosen it to describe his life. The phrase "My Life As A Weapon" immediately signals that Hawkeye considers his work his life, but his choice of the word ‘Weapon’ adds some extra context to that phrase.

A weapon is not a person with a consciousness. It is typically an inanimate tool. Hawkeye’s decision to call himself a ‘weapon’ implies that he sees himself more as an object than a part of humanity. The idea of Hawkeye as a weapon, rather than a person, leads readers to associate an apartness and a detachment with his character. And once you take those word associations into account, this superhero’s dedication to his work is transformed into an inhuman lack of connection; a lonely singularity and an unenviable, enforced focus. It’s amazing what one little word can do.

After you become acquainted with this collection’s conception of Clint Barton, it’s hard not to feel like ‘Weapon’ is a very deliberate choice; a word selected for its ability to evoke heroism, sure, but also for its ability to call forth pity. A word Barton has chosen to warn people away from him. Yep, we’ve hit emo city – population Clint Barton. He and Batman should start a support group.

"My Life As a Weapon" and "Little Hits" provide a master class in how to write heroic man-pain without tiring out a reader’s emotions. They’re a lesson in how to make a hero emotionally unavailable without putting up barriers which stop a reader from feeling emotional about your hero’s story. Everyone who plans to write a man-pain narrative in the near future should take note; Aja and Fraction have written a classic which manages to feel fresh and new; inspiring affection rather than the deep annoyance I tend to feel at tales of manly woe.

Despite being a super proficient marksman and Avenger, Clint Barton is an emotional screw up. He feels that character flaw acutely, but appears to be incapable of doing anything to fix his emotional ineptitude. Bro, I feel you bro.

Barton avoids being an unadulterated jerk because even though he’s terrible at emotions, specifically when dealing with women, in many other ways he’s legitimately the most decent guy around. "In My Life As A Weapon", Clint uses his wealth to buy his whole apartment building and save the tenants from eviction. Of course he does – that’s just Hawkeye for you!

Unfortunately, this very decency brings him into conflict with dangerous new enemies. And the ordinary people around him are often in danger, because He cares about them. He just cares too damn much and he hurts people with his love!!! >.> Typically, Clint takes responsibility for all the danger and the pain his enemies inflict on those around him. He recognises his many emotional failures and the hurt he causes the women around him. This affirms that he is just as bad as he believes, and he fails to understand how much love he inspires. So, here you have a typical man-pain set up. It’s a tired man-pain trope - thoroughly decent guy makes mistakes and beats himself up for the consequences whether he’s responsible or not - but in these comics it feels lovely rather than laughable.

Still, man-pain narratives are ten a penny – what makes this one stand out?

Aja and Fraction’s work is so readable partly because they are very, very good at creating an interesting and diverse background to Barton’s emotions. They avoid what I tend to think of as the Batman technique1: ‘Woe, I am Batman, I have pain in my heart. Everything around me is darkness. And, y’know, close shot, creative violence - that’s important too.’ Building an appropriate emotional atmosphere often requires using obvious techniques that prompt the reader to make particular associations, but come on! Dark locations = you are sad, Batman. Build a bridge and get over it.

In contrast, Fraction and Aja constantly change up the way they deliver their comic’s emotional hits. All of these different emotional beats add up to push the reader to feel a particular way about Clint Barton, but the approach is a little more subtle than Like Batman’s sad = dark theme. There are a range of different punch in the gut set=ups. The classic ‘Lady fix this dog’ moment where a dripping and disheveled Hawkeye looms over an injured stray as rain hammers down outside. Clint Barton talking to Tony Stark about how ‘You gotta make your own stuff work out’ at Christmas. A shadowed scene of Barton getting beaten. And then there’s this.

Comics pane shows Clint Barton standing in front of his building preparing to defend it while snow falls around him


I can’t even talk about how much I worship the emotional manipulation of this pane. Class emotional direction from Aja and Fraction here. The two creators are constantly placing subtext in their artwork, showing Barton in heroic but beaten up positions. This reminds the reader that even though Barton may screw up, even though he gets beaten up, he’s the guy who carries on trying to saving people. You’re my hero, Clint Barton!

Then there’s the artistic creation of each pane. The choice of colour, composition and detailing is sweet, smart and makes Barton’s story feel individual despite the fact that his character and direction is based on an old standard. Good guy with emotional problems; nothing new to see, and yet the specifics of Aja and Fraction’s approach make this story sing. If creators are using a done to death narrative as the base for their new story then their approach has to be stylish, and it needs to demonstrate an understanding of what makes ordinary human beings fascinating. Aja and Fraction’s Hawkeye series nails it.

It’s also nice to see some creators who aren’t afraid to experiment. One comic is entirely told from the point of view of Barton’s (non talking) dog. This obscures much of the direct meaning of scenes and pushes readers to examine panes closely in order to work out the story. One uses fake romance comic covers to separate different parts of the story and tell the tale of one of the characters. Throughout the collection, comics back track on stories that previous issues have told, and provide multiple perspectives which help the reader to understand the story further.

There were still things I really didn’t get about these stories, like the Russian gang. Maybe the reason these villains came off as generic funny henchmen, rather than particularly Russian, is because they’re outside my cultural context. Or maybe they just aren’t an especially distinct gang. And it took reading The Young Avengers excerpt included at the end of "My Life As A Weapon" to really get what Kate Bishop was all about – Hawkeye relies on a reasonable amount of previous comics knowledge as you’d expect.

My full on love began when I started the second volume. "My Life As A Weapon" felt fragmented, while "Little Hits" has much more continuity after the first comic. And I was always going to be a total sucker for "Six Days in the Life Of" aka "The Saddest Christmas Ever". Looking forward to seeing what happens in Vol 3. Hopefully all the action will include the return of Kate.

Notes

1 I've picked this up from watching Batman films, and am not basing this on wider comics knowledge.

Date: 2014-08-09 06:29 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Peta here. I had never really considered getting into Hawkeye (not sure why..)but you have me sold. Although I must get around to reading Saga first....

Date: 2014-08-09 06:31 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I've only read part of Hawkeye but I can definitely endorse Saga. :D

Had a whoops...

Date: 2014-08-11 06:21 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
...and bought all the books. Looking forward to a productive week off :)

Date: 2014-08-10 01:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
YAY HAWKEYE AAAA I LOVE IT SO MUCH. The most recent issue was the long long LONG-awaited issue in ASL, and as expected it was terrific. I love Aja and Fraction -- Fraction's a wonderful writer, of course, but there's something in the alchemy of that writer and that artist working together that I just can't get enough of.

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