Category Archives: Books

Favorite Stories Starring Women: Agent 355

In a world where 99.999% of the population is female, the comics are still about a man.

I have a hard time writing about Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. The last time I did it (scroll down, I put the article in the chum section), it was this same character and I published the post the day the final issue came out. I’ve never been the same. That last issue was so perfectly final that I’ve never felt the need to come back to the series. I have closure and very little left to say.

The one exception is Agent 355. When it comes to comics about women there is no one else who comes close to what she means to me. It’s not just that she’s a Knitter (and is shown knitting realistically in the beautiful Pia Gurerra art) and yet, it’s also entirely that she’s a Knitter.

There’s one line that sums up my feelings about Agent 355 and it’s one she says while giving Yorik the scarf she’s knitted throughout the series, “I f%&%ed up a lot and had to start over a bunch of times.”  355 is a highly trained and skilled agent; she kicks all kinds of ass. Heck, she even stabs a pirate with her knitting needles, but she still makes mistakes, she lets her emotions get in the way, and she doesn’t realize what she wants out of life until it is tragically, painfully too late.

Through it all, Agent 355 knits that scarf. She makes progress slowly, over the five years covered by the main plot of Y: The Last Man. The scarf is supposed “to keep [her] hands busy,” but, for 355 it’s more than that. The scarf is a connection to a family she lost long before the men were wiped out. Her grandmother taught her to knit and her father made clothes for a living. They were all makers, they all created things. If you ask me, that’s the central message of Y: creativity is the most important thing.

When the fighting is over and 355 has delivered her charge to his destination (and long-lost girlfriend), she makes a choice. 355 chooses creation over destruction. She trades her gun to a tailor for a beautiful dress.

For the world of Y: The Last Man to survive (spoiler alert: it does), the people needed to embrace the choice 355 makes. They need to create new human beings, they need to find new ways of governing,  they need to choose to create a new world, rather than destroy the old one.

Of all the wildly creative people in Y, it’s 355 who speaks to me. It’s not the wacky escape artist or the brilliant biologist, it’s neither the rebel nor the mother, it’s the Knitter. The one who puts one stitch in front of the other, who f%&%s up and starts over, who perseveres through everything to create something new.

Thanks to the Women Write About Comics blog carnival for giving me the excuse to blather on about one of my favorite characters for 500 words. You should go check out the other entries!

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Filed under Books, Comics, Feminism, knitting

The Idea That Lives in my Bathroom

I talked about this on Twitter the other night, but it deserves it’s own post. You see, I have this book idea living in my bathroom. There’s all kinds of visual cues running from that specific location to this idea, and I have no hope of breaking them unless I move and/or change my grooming habits significantly.

The thing is, it’s a good idea. Really, really good. Like, every time I’m reminded it exists (which is every time I walk into the bathroom) I want to work on it. Working on it presents a problem though, because it’s Urban Fantasy and it’s the third or fourth Urban Fantasy idea I’ve had and they keep worming their way into the list, ahead of my other ideas. I never really thought of myself as a person who writes Urban Fantasy. I like the genre, but I always thought I would grow up into an Epic Fantasy writer. I’ve barely lived in cities (3 and a half months in New York in 2008), but I grew up on a farm. I have limited knowledge of the workings of adults in cities, but I am eminently experienced in the plucky courage of farm children. I don’t much care for the things that make up the minutia of modern life, but I can discuss or translate Homer, Arthur, or Tolkien off the top of my head.

Epic fantasy is a part of how I think of myself, but I haven’t really written any. Not since my aborted first NaNoWriMo novel in 2005. I can excuse it to some extent, citing NaNoWriMo’s silly insistence that discovery writing is the only way to fly, saying that Steamstress was a purposeful diversion, and I had to write A Thousand Years of Nightmares because I’d already pitched it. Those are all excuses, and they don’t mean much when I tally up my mental list of what I should do next. Looking at the at that list (the sidebar is woefully behind) and then looking at the rest of my life, I can’t help thinking that I’m not just avoiding Epic Fantasy in my writing.

I’ll read just about any Urban Fantasy that sparks my interest, but I still haven’t made time for In the Name of the Wind. I’ve  binge read my way though at least ten UF series (ranging from two to eleven books in length) in the last year while the second Codex Alera book has been on my shelf for 15 months. I dropped everything to read the last Soul Screamers book when it arrived on my Kindle from the library while Lies of Locke Lamora has sat there for three weeks and expired, twice. I left wondering if I may not be the reader or writer I always thought I was.

And I’m not really sure what to do with that.

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Best Worst Writing Retreat Ever!

Last week I didn’t write any blog posts, on purpose! You see every once in a while my Mom and I pack all our writing supplies and head off to a cabin Casino in the woods and write for a few days. It’s cool because the rooms are dirt cheap mid-week in the dead of winter, there’s free soda all the time, there are shiny things to distract us when we’ve been sitting at our computers for too many hours, I have a pool to jump into when I’m fed up with everything, we don’t have to argue about eating because there’s a buffet or three, and generally all kinds of good things.

This time we headed up to Black Bear, which is a beautiful building with really decent food located in one of my favorite places on earth (Lake Superior, specifically about 25 minutes outside Duluth, MN). If the people there had been a little more welcoming I would have been in hog heaven, but they were all a bit… unfriendly and it was an issue.

I can’t write in places where I feel unwelcome. It’s why I stick to coffee shops and libraries and my apartment for writing times. I pay to be in those places, whether through rent or taxes or by buying overpriced tea, so I have every right to be there. On the other hand, I can’t write at my parents’ house or Maddy’s family farm because I am a guest there, no matter that I’m family. The Erins that  are guests in other people’s homes are not the Erins who do the writing. Maybe they will be someday, but the Erins who write are still pretty sensitive artistic types and fear rejection from friends and family. That feeling of unwelcome made me less-than-disposed to write on my writing retreat, so I did what any good writer would: I started reading.

I read my own novel-in-progress, Steamstress, which was sometimes awful, sometimes good and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Then the next day I went for breakfast with the plan of reading Tim Buckley’s Great Games Bowl novella* after which I was exiled from the room by housekeeping so I wandered the resort, looking unsuccessfully for a place to work. In the end I wound up in the lobby, reading the Steampunk! anthlogy on my Kindle and pretending it was work (I’m writing steampunk, it kind of was) then I was sucked into it and then the third Soul Screamers* book came in at the library (oh Kindle library lending, how I do love thee, how I do love thy ability to deliver books to my Kindle anywhere) and then… I read the next three books in the series, plus the two novellas. Then my Kindle died, just as I was tweeting the completion of my sixth book of the day. I got a bit done the next day, but obviously not the glorious burst through the finish line bout of writing I’d been expecting on the outset.

So, was it a waste? Should I have stayed home?

No. Because as I was falling into bed last night I was thinking about the things that bugged me in the protagonists of the last two YA series I’ve inhaled (Soul Screamers and Jessica), namely that they proved competent time and again, but would revert to hiding behind their boyfriends until it became necessary to be competent again. That’s overstating it a bit for Soul Screamers, Jessica hangs a lantern on the problem and both resolve it in a way that I find acceptable, but I realized I’d done the same thing in my book, unintentionally. That’s not the story I want to tell and that sure as hell is not my grumpy protagonist (I love my grumpy protagonist).

In the midst of this epiphany/breakdown last night I realized (and affirmed said realization as not crazy with two sources) that I would have to excise large tracts of delightful gooey romance from the book. It not only allowed Grumpy Protagonist to learn things without earning that knowledge, because the Honorable Love Interest would tell her, but also was way too easy on the Honorable Love Interest. Things happened more or less according to his plan and as we all know, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, especially when the enemy is Grumpy Protagonist (also, I, as a writer, am morally obligated to make things as hard as possible for my favorite character, especially when he’s the Honorable Love Interest, those are my achilles heel) . So, that’s a lot of editing to do and some major changes to make, including new characters to add (Grumpy Protagonist gets a BFF whether she wants it or not! BFF is awesome and comes with Polar Bears!) all of which will make the novel much stronger because I no longer have an improbable romance dragging down my character progress.

It’s a major improvement to the novel, and I would never have spotted it if I hadn’t spent my writing retreat reading.

*This is the third comic I’ve seen branch into prose fiction in the last few years and I must say that it holds its own against the Fables and Girl Genius novels.

**Loved the series, entertaining as hell, fun, really great take on the paranormal YA thing. I was describing it to a 15-year-old boy and he wanted to try them out. I think the covers might scare him, but I may find a copy of the first book, “give” it to his sister and tell him to check it out.

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WIR (huh) What is it good for?

(A surprising number of things, actually)

There’s this Women Write About Comics Carnival and as I am a woman who has been known to write about comics from time to (all the) time I really want to contribute. The thing is, they’ve got a theme and it’s Women in Refridgerators, 13 years later.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of Women In Refridgerators, it’s the brain child of that champion of women in comics, Gail Simone. As the story goes, one day Gail noticed a pattern, whenever things got too good to be true for our doughty (super) Hero something terrible would happen to heighten the drama and spur him into action. Frequently “something would happen” meant the violent beating, rape, or death of a female member of his supporting cast. A mother, an aunt, or, as in the most famous example from Green Lantern (vol. 3) #54, a girlfriend. The list of characters is long and it’s scary and it’s one instance where my particular brand of “how I got into comics” works against me.

You see, I’m very much a Jenny-come-lately as far as comics goes. I bought my first X-Men comic in 2006 and I’ve read a lot since then, but since I’ve missed so much, I’ll probably use something like Wikipedia or UncannyXmen.Net to catch up on the backstory of anyone I don’t recognize. Which means I get spoiled for everything, which in turnt gives me a layer of distance from those traumatic events. I know they happen before the more visceral experience of reading the books. It’s a necessary thing, but it means that I can think of precious few examples of seeing this trope in action where it actually affected me.

So, I have no huge dramatic story about how I read The Adventures of Suchandsuch #Number and the death of female protagonist seared my young soul to the bone. I do, however have my usual level of righteous indignation over the way women in comics (both characters and creators) are treated.

Because Women In Refridgerators is only a part of the problem. So’s cheesecake and every single thing that fails the Bechdel test. You see, there’s this faulty assumption in not just comics, but the larger nerdy community that there just aren’t that many women to offend, so it doesn’t matter if you do. This is blatantly wrong, of course, but being blatantly wrong has never stopped a perception from damaging anything.

I came to my decision back when the furor over Starfire went down. It came from an exchange I had with my buddy Tim on Twitter. It went like this:

We had it right. It’s not enough for us to be indignant and to speak out. It’s not enough to confront the writers and editors over this online, in the letter pages, and at cons. The only way to change the comics industry is to become the comics industry.

I accidentally reread part of Mira Grant’s Feed last night and one part stood out at me in the context of this situation:

You could tell the ones who were genuinely young from the ones who’d had all the plastic surgery and regenerative treatments money could buy, because the young ones were the ones looking nauseated by all the human contact around them. They hadn’t grown up in this political culture. They just had to live with it until they became the old men at the top of the hill.

~Mira Grant, Feed p. 483

I genuinely hope that this is true of us in the comics industry. That nerdy women are coming into our own and as our generation rises to the top of the heap we’ll be able to shed the nauseating focus on violence towards and sexualization of women. I hope that this happens, but hoping isn’t going to get us anywhere.

So I shifted a few projects around on my “to write” queue. I’m not as ready as I’d like to be and everything’s in a very early stage, but I’m talking with collaborators. We’re working on it. Because I can’t just sit around and hope anymore. I’ve gotta work towards change.

That was the end of post, but if you’ve still got an earworm from my terrible pun in the title, here’s what I’ve been hearing for the last hour while I wrote this:

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Filed under Books, Comics, Feminism, Ponderings, Writing

Adrenaline-Fueled Super Powers

I may have mentioned once or twice that I read pretty fast. This is true, partially because I genuinely read pretty fast and partially because I read obsessively. I don’t stop, I forget to eat, every part of me that is not reading pretty much shuts down. I try to savor books, to appreciate the finer details on the first read, but I can’t. I cannot stop myself and the out-of-control train that is my brain when I’m reading a book. It only stops when it runs out of track, either because I have to interact with the world or I run out of book. You can see the obsessive nature in my audiobook listening, that’s a regulated speed, but I still get through books much faster than the average person or even the average reader. I can’t help myself.

And then there’s books I’m excited about.

There’s a handfull of them, past and present: Wheel of Time, obviously, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, any Brandon Sanderson book, Seanan McGuire books. Those books are the ones where I obsess, count down to the release date and clear my schedule in order to read all the more speedily. Something more happens to me when I read them. I get this rush from finally having the book in my hands and then…. the book’s over. In far less time than should have been possible. I don’t know how it happens, maybe I was bitten by an irradiated book at one of the Harry Potter release parties.

Today my powers kicked in good and strong. Why?

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 1 (Avatar: The Last Airbender Book Four) came out today (in comic book stores, it’ll hit bookstores February 7). I’m hearing about sell outs all over. Which means that hardly any of my friends have read it while I read it twice before 1pm. And that sucks.

It sucks because the book continues Aang’s story after the end of the TV series and it’s perfect and wonderful and everything I could possibly hope it could be (except long enough).

Since no one seems to have read a copy of this except me, I’m gonna say what I can without going  into spoilers. I believed every word coming out of the characters’ mouths. They sounded actually, perfectly right. The new characters, jokes, and  antagonists feel like a logical extension of the world as we know it. The art (as you’d expect from Gurihiru) is gorgeous and translates the characters from animation to comics wonderfully. Appa and Momo appear and are important. We get the rest of that Zuko “Where is my mother?” scene.

The book was good. Very good. So good that I’m ready to call it best comic book adaptation of a TV show, ever. Better than the Buffy, Firefly, or Dr. Horrible comics (which are some damn good comics). Miles better than the Heroes comics. Better even than the All Robins issue of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold comic (an issue that was in last year’s top 10). The Promise Vol. 1 was everything I loved about Avatar: The Last Airbender brought to life by people who seem to love it as much as I do. They expanded and grew the world in a way that made sense and kept me turning pages with that freakish speed I only experience on the rare occasions when anticipation meets quality.

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A Tale of Two Series

I haven’t written about what an amazing experience it was to be a supporting member of Renovation last year, to vote in my first Hugos and to get a chance to experience my first Hugo voter’s packet. Honestly, I’m still reading through it, but I made it though enough of four of the novels to be sure about my decision. Which then lost, as did my second choice. Looking back, though, I wish I could have told past!me that I want people to read our second choice book more than I do our first.

Let’s rewind the clock back six months, to late July when I was pondering my choices for the Best Novel Hugo. This one means the most to me and I had narrowed my final choice down to two exceptional novels: Feed by Mira Grant (Bloggers fight corruption, disease, and zombies in pursuit of the truth) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemesin (A princess from the far flung edges of an empire is suddenly in the running for empress, with all the God-controlling powers that come with it). I absolutely loved both of these books, I was lucky enough to get my hands on copies on the sequels of both, both of which were actually better than the first entries in the series. I thought all of the books were innovative and welcome additions to the genre, but I could only give my first place vote* to one book and in the end my vote went to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because it read to me like fanfiction. I mean that not in derision, but because it took attitudes I kinda hate in the fanfic context, like “Oh everyone totally sleeps with everyone else all the time and we’re all okay with that,” gave them an in-world reason for working, and made me enjoy the hell out of it. On top of that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is diverse and well written without trying too hard. I love it, but a big part of that love, for me, comes from a place of being in Fandom and I talk to people about books who, well, aren’t. This is a specifically me thing, but it means that I won’t be hounding people to read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms unless I think they fit in that narrow Fandom slice of my life.

And then there’s Feed. What can I say about Feed?

Feed is flawless.
I hear Feed’s virology is insured for $10,000
I hear Feed does car commercials… in Alaska.
Feed’s favorite move is Dawn of the Dead.
One time Feed met Publisher’s Weekly on a plane…
–and it told Feed it was “gripping, thrilling and brutal.”
One time Feed punched me in the heartstrings with a rusty hacksaw. It was awesome.

Yeah, I liked Feed. A lot. So why didn’t I vote for it back then? Well I had some reserations about the writing during my first read. I thought it came off as preachy. However, I have since discovered that preachiness comes partially from the narrator, not from the author or the world. It’s an important distinction, because Georgia, the main character, is a little preachy about the importance of honest journalism and I love that about her character. If it was bias on the authorial level other narrators would participate in that preachiness, but they don’t. It’s something you don’t notice at first because Georgia narrates the bulk of Feed with only short interludes from others. The other reason took some research to track down. Reading backstory on Feed (because I am a nerd, I love to read author blogs,and Seanan McGuire’s** blog is really good) I found out she started working on it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That makes a world of difference, because the blog was the be all and end all of communicating with the world back then. Nowadays I get 75 hits on my blog on the best days and over 1,000 people see every one of my tweets. Technology outstripped the publishing process and that’s okay. Resolving those two things really killed off my reservations about Feed, leaving behind only a desire to make everyone I know read it.

In my second impassioned plea in as many days, I now ask you all to please go read Feed and then come back here and squee about it with me. I need to squee about Feed like I get to do about comic books or Doctor Who or Sherlock or musicals or the million other things I squee about on a regular basis.

*Hugo voting is a little confusing, but here’s basically how it works. You rank the nominated books in your order of preference, then the votes are counted. If no work has a clear majority the book with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and its votes are redistributed to the next eligible book on the voter’s ballot. This continues until one book has a majority. It’s cool because your second and third and fourth choice matters. You want to have read as much of the material as possible, so you can make an informed choice.

**Mira Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire, who writes other, excellent, books under her own name. I like pen names, especially how they’re used by genre authors skipping around genres. I will probably tell you about the Seanan/Mira thing if you get me talking about Feed. No Twitter Nat teases me about it.

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Willful Suspension of Disbelief Only Goes So Far

Warning: Contains Feminism.

Second Warning: I am not an accomplished feminist scholar, a fault I lay at the highly successful feet of the women who have gone before me.  I don’t always recognize when I’m being marginalized, because it is a bit of a foreign concept to me.

So… I finished A Game of Thrones. It took me three tries over about nine months, but I bested the beast. As expected, I was not overly fond of it. I’m currently reading the second book and I’ll read the rest of the series, because I am invested in a few of the characters, not all of them, but a few.

I was surprised when I didn’t really struggle with the content of the books, but rather a lack of desire to keep reading.  It killed my second attempt at Game of Thrones when I left the book at my parents’ house right around the halfway point and never bestirred myself to go get it so I could finish. My parents live 10 minutes away and I’m over there a few times a week, all of which is to say it wasn’t lack of opportunity, it was lack of desire. A Game of Thrones is at least the fourth book I’ve put down for such an extended period in recent months and that is so unusual for me that I’ve mulled it over for a few days trying to puzzle out why it happened.

Today, however, I had a breakthrough. I was in the shower (a magical place for thinking) and I decided to take the Bechdel Test to a few books that were on my mind. This led to me doing something you’re not supposed to do with the Bechdel Test: use it to classify the overall feminism of a work.   Some books, including A Game of Thrones passed with flying colors, others, including what I’ve read of A Clash of Kings (the second book in the series), made me rack my brain to come up with an example.  When it comes down to passing the test versus passing it well most of the books I’d struggled to finish fell in the latter category. After a lot of thinking and trying on different definitions I have an explanation for what they share and why it is so frustrating.

I like to call this the isolated female protagonist or the isolated female.  Look at your shelf of fantasy novels and think about how many of the female protagonists in those novels interact with other women of their own free will. I’m not suggesting that the female protagonist needs to be sent to the kitchens or anything, just that they have a frustrating tendency to be set apart from other women in a way male protagonists are not set apart from other men. Sometimes this is because comparatively normal women don’t exist or aren’t present in the books, but more often the female protagonists tend to  throw off traditional roles in a way that isolates them.

The worst part is that I completely understand one part of why the isolated female happens, especially in a work trying for historical accuracy. Men hit harder than women, so the big army you’ll use to fight the epic battle is going to be made of men and your research is going to focus on depicting those men. If you’re good you’ll research not just the stuff your heroes are doing but how the cavalry, infantry and archers work, maybe even delve into what kind of men they might be when they aren’t fighting.  This in turn leaves you with little to no time to even think about the half of the population not in your big army, so you ignore them, not out of spite, but because they aren’t as necessary to your writing as a whole.  This means that when you write one of your female characters in a down moment you can either surround her with well-researched men or poorly researched women. It’s hard to fault the choice there.

The whole situation, both the isolated females and the lack of common women in proportion to common men is so jarring for me, personally. I know exactly what I would be doing in any other historical era.  If you doubt me on this, try to find a museum without a single spindle. The idea that I and my skills wouldn’t have a useful place in a fantasy world is is a major turn off for me.  It’s not really something I think about consciously, but I react positively when books show all kinds of women making things or doing things, that includes having laundresses and cooks, nurses and seamstresses.  It’s a fault in a lot of books, including some by authors I love (cough Mistborn cough).

I have more thoughts on this, I’ve got examples that I’d pull out if I didn’t have work in the morning, hell, I’ve got half a mind to coalesce, gather references and look into publishing, but I mostly wanted to start a conversation so have at it! I’ll see you all on the other side of MiniCon!

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